Category Archives: Poets and their poems

Haikus for explaneedfuls

monk-tea

Some people (I call them explaneedfuls) need an explanation for everything and often an explanation of the explanation as well. A long time ago I met one of them. I was asked to go to a TV studio in Italy to assist the host of a programme covering the Oscar awards ceremony. I thought I was going to be there to interpret, which is what I usually do, but it turned out that the core of my job was to make sure the Italian host understood the jokes people made during the ceremony.

Jokes are definitely one of the hardest things to translate but in this case the real problem was that the person was devoid  of any sense of humour and the more one took the pieces of the witticisms apart and described how they were supposed to interact the more bewilderment descended on his features. I began to wonder whether he was actually an alien from a race with no jokes who had infiltrated our society to spy on us. They had managed to copy all our bodily components perfectly but they had no idea on how to instil humour into a fake human.

I’m sure you’ve met at least one explaneedful person. I sometimes think about them when I read haikus.

For example,

Don’t worry, spiders,
I keep house
casually.

(Issa)

Read more…

L’Infinito by Giacomo Leopardi (Infinity)

infinito manoscritto

Giacomo Leopardi is generally described as the greatest Italian lyric poet but you don’t really need to know anything about him to appreciate his poem L’Infinito. I see the title often translated as The Infinite, but I am not sure that means anything in English, so I am going to opt for Infinity. Here then is my attempt at rendering some of its sound and meaning in English.








Infinity

I always have felt fondness for this lonely hill
and for this hedge which screens off
such a large part of the furthermost horizon.
But as I sit and gaze, in my thoughts I envisage,
beyond it, boundless space and utter silence
and deepest still, so that it almost makes
my heart take fright. And as I hear
the rustling of the wind among these plants,
I start comparing that unending silence
with this noise and I am reminded of
eternity, and seasons gone and dead and
of the season now alive and of its sounds. And so
in this immensity my thoughts sink and drown
and shipwreck feels sweet in this ocean.

(Translation by Phillip Hill)

(Listen to the translation)



And here is the Italian original –

Read more…

The Poetry of Google Translate

And the long road ahead, I go to bed
And the long road ahead, I go to bed
 

Google Translate is amazing when it works. Unfortunately, it only works about half of the time. Even more unfortunately, unless you already know the languages you are trying to translate, there is no way of knowing when it is accurate and when it is serving you up something non-sensical, inaccurate or downright offensive.

On the other hand, it is a wonderful machine for playing Chinese Whispers. I have already translated a Turkish menu into English, with what I think are fascinating results. Now, the time has come to see how well Google Translate can generate its own poetry.

Read more…

Aloud – John Skelton – To Mistress Margaret Hussey

Pourbus_lady_pomander (1)

Lady with pomander

Whenever I open an anthology of English poetry this is always one of the first poems I turn to. I love its rhythms. I also think that, although we know nothing about Mistress Margaret Hussey, thousands of people down the centuries after having read this poem have thought they would have liked to meet her.




(listen to the poem here)



Merry Margaret,
As midsummer flower:
Gentle as falcon
Or hawk of the tower:
Read more…

The Sting in Heine’s Tail

Here’s a literal translation of a very short poem by Heinrich Heine followed by the German original. The first two verses are predictable enough but …

I don’t believe in Heaven,
of which the little priest speaks;
I only believe in your eyes,
they are my heavenly light.

I don’t believe in the Lord God,
of whom the little priest speaks;
I only believe in your heart,
I have no other god.

I don’t believe in the Evil One,
in Hell and the torments of Hell;
I only believe in your eyes,
and in your evil heart Read more…

My life is the gardener of my body – Yehuda Amichai

One day I walked into a bookshop, asked for the poetry section and pulled out a book because I liked the colour of it or its title, Open Closed Open. I don’t remember. On the back cover was a sentence by Octavio Paz, one of my favourite poets, which said “Once one has read (Amichai’s) poems, one can never forget them – there can be so much life and truth in sixteen lines.”

That would have convinced me in itself. But then I opened the book and I read this, the first section of a longer poem called “I Wasn’t One of the Six Million: And What is My Life Span? Open Closed Open” :

My life is the gardener of my body. The brain – a hothouse closed tight
with its flowers and plants, alien and odd
in their sensitivity, their terror of becoming extinct.
The face –  a formal French garden of symmetrical contours
and circular paths of marble with statues and places to rest,
places to touch and smell, to look out from, to lose yourself
in a green maze, and Keep Off and Don’t Pick the Flowers.
The upper body above the navel – an English park
pretending to be free, no angles, no paving stones, naturelike,
humanlike, in our image, after our likeness,
its arms linking up with the big night all around.
And my lower body, beneath the navel – sometimes a nature preserve,
wild, frightening, amazing, an unpreserved preserve,
and sometimes a Japanese garden, concentrated, full of
forethought. And the penis and testes are smooth
polished stones with dark vegetation between them,
precise paths fraught with meaning
and calm reflection. And the teachings of my father
and the commandments of my mother
are birds of chirp and song. And the woman I love
is seasons and changing weather, and the children at play
are my children. And the life my life.

If you are interested in learning more about Yehuda Amichai’s poetry, here is an excellent article.  

(Open Closed Open by Yehuda Amichai, Harvest Books, translated from the Hebrew by Chana Bloch and Chana Kronfeld).

Smiles in my pockets

Very often I find stuff in my pockets. Usually it’s receipts or old tickets. Sometimes I extract a crumpled piece of paper I can no longer decipher but which I know is a now unidentifiable idea which I tried to jot down while tripping over a dog or avoiding a motorcycle.

There are pockets in my  mind as well. Mostly I find junk there too, but every now and then I come across something which makes me smile mysteriously while I am waiting to cross the road or just as they announce that my flight has been delayed again.

For example there are three or four haikus by Kobayashi Issa which I keep on coming across again and again:

Pissing in the snow

outside my door–

it makes a very straight hole.


The holes in the wall

play the flute

this autumn evening.



In a dream

my daughter lifts a melon

to her soft cheek

 


Visiting the graves

the old dog

leads the way

I first encountered Issa’s poems while reading an anthology of Haiku  edited by Robert Hass (The Essential Haiku), so when I noticed a clip of him reading some of his translations of Issa I thought I would share it with you. Perhaps some of them will end up in your minds’ pockets too.


(here’s a link to the video in case you can’t see the embedded version.)

If you want to read more Issa, there is a website with all of his poems http://haikuguy.com/issa/

The Heart of Chinese Poetry

Quatrain_on_Heavenly_Mountain I remember clearly the first time I managed to understand a poem in classical Chinese. It was like seeing someone perform an unexpected conjuring trick, shaking out a piece of rope and then tossing it up into the air to make it stand stiffly like a stick . Then back again.

There was certainly some kind of alternation between states which I couldn’t quite understand. How could twenty simple syllables also produce some kind of shimmering complexity. Where was this chemical reaction taking place?

Another way I think of these poems is as of  magic seeds. Hold them in your hands and you see a whole tree, press them tight and they are simple seeds again.
Read more…

More Ko Un

6a00e5502c099d883400e55031cac48834-800wi

Today I showed some poems by the Korean poet Ko Un to a friend, who agreed that he is a genius. Therefore I am resuming my personal campaign to get him the Nobel Prize for Literature. If things keep up I estimate that I should be able to get this done around the year 2520. Here are some more poems:

The Ox

As the ox of one of our neighbors,
the family of Yu t’ae and Pong t’ae
plods along
pulling their oxcart full to overflowing,
if it feels like a shit
in front of some respectable house,
a spot where it doesn’t know it should act respectfully,
it lifts its tail and lets go, splish, splash,
all the time hauling its load.
The farm-help with the withered hand
that lives all the time with that ox,
drunk on cheap hooch
and feeling groggy,
calls out:
“Let’s rest here a while.”
He stops the ox
and pours a stream of piss
into the roadside grass,
no matter if girls are around,
or women,
or old folks, or anyone.
High in the air
swallows about to migrate are warming up.
Man, the sky’s so blue, it makes you crazy.

Read more…

Rhyme’s Reason – The Repetitions Build the Villanelle- Villanelles by Auden and Bishop

John Hollander – Rhyme’s Reason: A Guide to English Verse (Yale Nota Bene)

I love poetry but I have never found it easy to get excited about spondees, trochees and anapests. It would probably be of great benefit to me if I could, however there is something about books that discuss metre and prosody that clamps down on my brain. Perhaps I have never got used to the idea that verses can have feet, but more likely I find it depressing that people can write about the most exciting and adventurous way of writing – poetry – in prose which is pinch-faced with lumbago. There are exceptions to everything and one of the most pleasant I have found is John Hollander’s book Rhyme’s Reason. The secret in the book is not just that Hollander is a poet and is interested in what poetry does and not just the rules which try to govern it, but that he uses his own verse examples to explain metre and form. He uses tercets to describe tercets, quatrains to describe quatrains. Various kinds  of sonnets tell us how the various kinds of sonnets work. Here he tells us how couplets and caesura work and then illustrates the difference between end-stopped lines and enjambment:

In couplets, one line often makes a point
Which hinges on its bending, like a joint;
The sentence makes that line break into two.
Here’s a caesura: see what it can do.
(And here’s a gentler one, whose pause, more slight,
Waves its two hands, and makes what’s left sound right.)

A line can be end-stopped, just like this one,
Or it can show enjambment, just like this
One, where the sense straddles two lines: you feel
As if from shore you’d stepped into a boat;

Read more…