Friday, April 27, 2007

Ode to a Lemon by Pablo Neruda

Pablo Neruda is well known for his odes to everything from socks to a large tuna. His work exemplifies how poetry can be used to celebrate beauty. Note how the poem is structured: as with most lyric poems, instead of moving forward through time or telling a story, Ode to a Lemon orbits a central idea/image.

Out of lemon flowers
on the moonlight, love's
lashed and insatiable
sodden with fragrance,
the lemon tree's yellow
the lemons
move down
from the tree's planetarium

Delicate merchandise!
the harbors are big with it-
for the light and the
barbarous gold.
We open
the halves
of a miracle,
and a clotting of acids
into the starry
original juices,
irreducible, changeless,
so the freshness lives on
in a lemon,
in the sweet-smelling house of the rind,
the proportions, arcane and acerb.

Cutting the lemon
the knife
leaves a little cathedral:
alcoves unguessed by the eye
that open acidulous glass
to the light; topazes
riding the droplets,
aromatic facades.
So, while the hand
holds the cut of the lemon,
half a world
on a trencher,
the gold of the universe
to your touch:
a cup yellow
with miracles,
a breast and a nipple
perfuming the earth;
a flashing made fruitage,
the diminutive fire of a planet.

Born Ricardo Eliecer Neftalí Reyes, the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda led a life charged with poetic and political activity. In 1923 he sold all of his possessions to finance the publication of his first book, Crepusculario ("Twilight"). He published the volume under the pseudonym "Pablo Neruda" to avoid conflict with his family, who disapproved of his occupation. The following year, he found a publisher for Veinte poemas de amor y una cancion desesperada ("Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair"). The book made a celebrity of Neruda, who gave up his studies at the age of twenty to devote himself to his craft. He died in 1973.

Friday, April 20, 2007

A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London

Never until the mankind making
Bird beast and flower
Fathering and all humbling darkness
Tells with silence the last light breaking
And the still hour
Is come of the sea tumbling in harness

And I must enter again the round
Zion of the water bead
And the synagogue of the ear of corn
Shall I let pray the shadow of a sound
Or sow my salt seed
In the least valley of sackcloth to mourn

The majesty and burning of the child's death.
I shall not murder
The mankind of her going with a grave truth
Nor blaspheme down the stations of the breath
With any further
Elegy of innocence and youth.

Deep with the first dead lies London's daughter,
Robed in the long friends,
The grains beyond age, the dark veins of her mother,
Secret by the unmourning water
Of the riding Thames.
After the first death, there is no other.

Dylan Thomas was born in Wales in 1914. Fascinated by language, he excelled in English and reading, but neglected other subjects and dropped out of school at sixteen. His reading tours of the United States, which did much to popularize the poetry reading as new medium for the art, are famous and notorious, for Thomas was the archetypal Romantic poet of the popular American imagination: he was flamboyantly theatrical, a heavy drinker, engaged in roaring disputes in public, and read his work aloud with tremendous depth of feeling. He became a legendary figure, both for his work and the boisterousness of his life.

Friday, April 13, 2007

An Untitled Poem by Rumi

This Rumi poem, translated by Stephen Mitchell, puts forward a philosophy on perceiving the world. You might think about the effect of presenting that philosophy in this form. Why a poem?

When grapes turn
To wine, they long for our ability to change.

When stars wheel
Around the North Pole,
They are longing for our growing consciousness.

Wine got drunk with us,
Not the other way.
The body developed out of us, not we from it.

We are bees,
And our body is a honeycomb.
We made
The body, cell by cell we made it.

Rumi (Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi) was a 13th century Persian muslim poet, jurist, and theologian. His name literally means "Majesty of Religion". He was born in Balkh (now part of Afghanistan) and died in present-day Turkey. His works are widely read in Iran, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and are in translation in Turkey, Azerbaijan, the U.S., and South Asia. He lived most of his life in, and produced his works under, the Seljuk Empire. Rumi's importance is considered to transcend national and ethnic borders.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Lapis Lazuli by William Butler Yeats

Yeats has a grand style that can trip up new readers, but if you work to understand his poems, they reward your attention. Yeats wrote Lapis Lazuli in 1936, with World War II looming. In it, he addresses whether the happiness born from art is appropriate in such dark times. To put things in perspective, the cost of war in Europe had been, and would be, staggering: casualties in World War I (1914-1918) had numbered more than 9 million, and casualties in World War II (worldwide) would surpass 60 million.

In the first stanza, Yeats brings up the question of the appropriateness of happiness through the attitudes of “hysterical women” (please try to get past the sexism—though I don’t blame you if you can’t). In the second stanza, he begins his defense, which you should discover for yourself.

As with so many great poems, Lapis Lazuli not only presents an idea/argument, but tries to spark a feeling in the reader that augments the poem’s argument.

Lapis Lazuli

I have heard that hysterical women say
They are sick of the palette and fiddle-bow.
Of poets that are always gay,
For everybody knows or else should know
That if nothing drastic is done
Aeroplane and Zeppelin will come out.
Pitch like King Billy bomb-balls in
Until the town lie beaten flat.

All perform their tragic play,
There struts Hamlet, there is Lear,
That's Ophelia, that Cordelia;
Yet they, should the last scene be there,
The great stage curtain about to drop,
If worthy their prominent part in the play,
Do not break up their lines to weep.
They know that Hamlet and Lear are gay;
Gaiety transfiguring all that dread.
All men have aimed at, found and lost;
Black out; Heaven blazing into the head:
Tragedy wrought to its uttermost.
Though Hamlet rambles and Lear rages,
And all the drop-scenes drop at once
Upon a hundred thousand stages,
It cannot grow by an inch or an ounce.

On their own feet they came, or On shipboard,
Camel-back; horse-back, ass-back, mule-back,
Old civilisations put to the sword.
Then they and their wisdom went to rack:
No handiwork of Callimachus,
Who handled marble as if it were bronze,
Made draperies that seemed to rise
When sea-wind swept the corner, stands;
His long lamp-chimney shaped like the stem
Of a slender palm, stood but a day;
All things fall and are built again,
And those that build them again are gay.

Two Chinamen, behind them a third,
Are carved in Lapis Lazuli,
Over them flies a long-legged bird,
A symbol of longevity;
The third, doubtless a serving-man,
Carries a musical instrument.

Every discoloration of the stone,
Every accidental crack or dent,
Seems a water-course or an avalanche,
Or lofty slope where it still snows
Though doubtless plum or cherry-branch
Sweetens the little half-way house
Those Chinamen climb towards, and I
Delight to imagine them seated there;
There, on the mountain and the sky,
On all the tragic scene they stare.

One asks for mournful melodies;
Accomplished fingers begin to play.
Their eyes mid many wrinkles, their eyes,
Their ancient, glittering eyes, are gay.

William Butler Yeats was born in Dublin, Ireland, in 1865. He is remembered as an important cultural leader, as a major playwright (he was one of the founders of the famous Abbey Theatre in Dublin), and as one of the very greatest poets—in any language—of the century. W. B. Yeats was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1923 and died in 1939 at the age of 73.