Saturday, September 05, 2009

Poetry Class! World Poetry

Our book today - as it has been in the past and no doubt will be in the future - is 1998's magnificent World Poetry, one of the truly indispensable poetry anthologies on any library's shelves. It didn't take many re-readings for this book to move into my inner sanctum, the thousand books I keep in the little room where I sleep and work and yell at my basset hound.

I periodically take it down from its place on my shelf and find new gems in its 1300 pages. Here's a recent trio.

First, the 18th century Chinese poet Yuan Mei, in a translation by Arthur Waley that's typical of the man: creaky but serviceable (a dear old Chinese friend of mine, reading Waley's work, said, "but it reads like a television repair manual!" - to which I could only weakly reply, "well, at least it's clear"):

Growing Old (I)

Now that I am old I get up very early
And feel like God creating a new world.
I come and go, meeting no one on the way;
Wherever I look, no kitchen-smoke rises.
I want to wash, but the water has not been heated;
I want to drink, but no tea has been made.
My boys and girls are behind closed doors;
My man-servants and maid-servants are all fast asleep.
At first I am cross and feel inclined to shout;
But all of a sudden remember by young days -
How I too in those early morning hours
Lay snoring, and hated to leave my bed.

The next is from the 20th century Italian poet, fiercely enthusiastic auto-didact and Nobel laureate Eugenio Montale:

The Lemon Trees

Listen: the laureled poets
stroll only among shrubs
with learned names: ligustrum, acanthus, box,
What I like are streets that end in grassy
ditches where boys snatch
a few famished eels from dying puddles:
paths that struggle along the banks,
then dip among the tufted canes,
into the orchards, among the lemon trees.

Better, if the gay palaver of the birds
is stilled, swallowed by the blue:
more clearly now, you hear the whisper
of genial branches in that air barely astir,
the sense of that smell
inseparable from earth,
that rains its restless sweetness in the heart.
Here, by some miracle, the war
of conflicted passions is stilled,
here even we the poor share the riches of the world -
the smell of the lemon trees.

See, in theses silences when things
let themselves go and seem almost
to reveal their final secret,
we sometimes expect
to discover a flaw in Nature,
the world's dead point, the link that doesn't hold,
the thread that, disentangled, might at last lead us
to the center of a truth.
The eye rummages,
the mind pokes about, unifies, disjoins
in the fragrance that grows
as the day closes, languishing.
These are the silences where we see
in each departing human shade
some disturbed Divinity.

But the illusion dies, time returns us
to noisy cities, where the sky is only
patches of blue, high up, between the cornices.
Rain wearies the ground; over the buildings
winter's tedium thickens.
Light grows niggardly, the soul bitter.
And, one day, through a gate ajar,
among the trees in a courtyard,
we see the yellow of the lemon trees;
and the heart's ice thaws,
and songs pelt
into the breast
and trumpets of gold pour forth
epiphanies of light!

And our last selection today (but not forever - it won't be long before I take this beloved book down again, to consult the news that stays news), the Egyptian-born Lebanese poet Andree Chedid:

Who Remains Standing?

erase your name,
unravel your years,
destroy your surroundings,
uproot what you seem,
and who remains standing?
rewrite your name,
restore your age,
rebuild your house,
pursue your path,
and then,
start over, all over again.

No comments: