Category Archives: Poets and their poems

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.
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More Ko Un


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.

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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;

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Ounce Dice Trice

For some time now New York Review Books has been re-publishing books which have been out of print for a while. This seems to me to be an excellent idea. In fact, it might be good to have a one week moratorium on new books once a year, call it Reprint Week, and dedicate it solely to old books which have been needlessly forgotten.

A while ago they brought out a book I had been waiting for. It is OUNCE DICE TRICE by Alastair Reid and Ben Shahn (first edition 1958). It is a book for children and word-lovers. It is only fifty-seven pages long but the words are meant to be read aloud, one at a time, and they are so unpredictable and interact so well with the drawings that if you belong to one of the two categories above, you will find you go back to it again and again.  On the back cover Marianne Moore is quoted as having written when the book first appeared: “Reading Ounce Dice Trice aloud is the best way of separating the bores from
their airs and the squares from their snores
.”) Read more…

Leopardi’s 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.


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 –

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Eyes in the City – Kurt Tucholsky

augen-in-der-groszstadtIn Edgar Reitz’s Second Heimat there is a scene where one of the main characters, Clarissa (Salome Kammer), is singing a song at the piano inside a villa which is full of people milling around. I kept on going back to the scene to watch it again and finally found that the text was a poem by Kurt Tucholsky. The song should be on the Heimat Soundtrack CD but now you can hear it because it has been posted on Youtube.

Here is a translation of this beautiful poem into English, followed by the German original. I have taken the translation from this page, which will lead you to lots more information about Tucholsky.

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Two glimpses of Icarus


This painting is Brueghel’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus. You will probably need to click on the picture to enlarge it in order to see Icarus clearly. If you were visiting the Royal Museums of Fine Arts in Brussels in a bit of a hurry and didn’t know the painting’s title, you might even walk by without even noticing that Icarus is in the painting at all. This, according to two very great poets who wrote about this painting, is the whole point.

The human mind has a few very unuseful questions it seems to be tugged back to by some kind of primeval mental gravity whenever it can’t think of anything better. One of them is Whose is it? – which has probably caused more trouble than any other question we are capable of framing. Not  far behind is Which do you prefer? We love splitting into teams, especially if we can reduce ourselves to just two of them which are bitterly opposed over something totally unsubstantial, as in the case of the Blues and Greens in Byzantium,  Catholics and Protestants or the Big Enders and Little Enders who Gulliver ran into.

So while I will try very briefly to  make a comparison between the approaches taken by W.H. Auden and William Carlos Williams to this painting, I want to stress out of hand that, although they get there by different routes, they are in my opinion both as good as one can get. Read more…

İlhan Berk – Jet-Black

I wanted to post this at The Poemarium, which is dedicated to poems I find and like, in no special order. But since I always include the original for the poems there and so far have not been able to find the text of this poem as it was written in Turkish, I’ll put up the translation (by Önder Otçu ) here:

Jet- Black

One should describe you starting from your mouth
Youngster, your mouth is silk from China, conflagrations, a jet-black amber

Your mouth, a spring of ice-cold water, a general strike
A foolish sea throwing itself from one place to another

Your mouth is that kid who sells dark blue-winged birds in the Grand Bazaar
It’s a periodical titled Cornfield

These small, unpretentious rivers of ours are what your mouth is
Coming downhill along a narrow street every day into a little square

Your mouth is “Time in Bursa City,” shyly roofed flea markets
Night as written in the old Arabic

Kids, birds, summer times are all that your mouth is
Your mouth is a silken touch in my mind

(İlhan Berk, Manisa, 18 November 1918 – 28 August 2008)

(From EDA:An Anthology of Contemporary Turkish PoetryMurat Nemet-Nejat -edited by  Talisman House Publishers)

(See also: Selected Poems by Ilhan Berk

The favourite sloth

Some ideas are just so good that they should be built on and expanded indefinitely. In 1997 the then American poet laureate founded the Favorite Poem Project asking people in the US to submit their favourite poems. 18,000 people from ages 5 to 97 wrote in and from those submissions an anthology and a video collection were prepared. Have a look at to see some of the videos. My favourite “favorite poem” so far is “The Sloth”  by Theodore Roethke read by a young lady who was a 5th grader at the time and gives a rousing performance and also gives a number of good reasons to like poetry.
As I said, some ideas should be expanded indefinitely: I would like to see this project become a universal one with favourite poems recited in Hausa and Farsi and from inhabitants of Papua New Guinea, Mongolia, Mars and Venus. Or also why not “Favourite Tree”, “Favourite Music”, “Favourite Saying” or “Favourite Insect.
Here is Katherine Mechling’s rendition of the Sloth, followed by the text fo the poem:


In moving-slow he has no Peer.

You ask him something in his Ear,

He thinks about it for a Year;

And, then, before he says a Word

There, upside down (unlike a Bird),

He will assume that you have Heard –

A most Ex-as-per-at-ing Lug.

But should you call his manner Smug,

Hell sigh and give his Branch a Hug;

Then off again to Sleep he goes,

Still swaying gently by his Toes,

And you just know he knows he knows.

Ho Xuan Huong

While I was looking for information for my post about Huong Thanh, I came across a dozen other references to things I didn’t know about Vietnam. One of these was to a woman named Ho Xuan Huong (Hồ Xuân Hương) who was probably born in the period from 1775 to 1780 and lived till 1822. Ho Xuan Huong was married twice. In her second marriage, she was a vo le, a wife of second rank (“like the maid, but without the pay”, she complained). However her second husband died after only six months and after that she lived alone in Hanoi, making a living by teaching and receiving visitors, including poets, for Ho Xuan Huong was an outstanding poet herself, in fact, if she had written in one of the world languages, I think she would be on  T-shirts everywhere.

Many of her poems contain sexual double-entendres, like this one:

Weaving at Night

Lampwick turned up, the room glows white.

The loom moves easily all night long

as feet work and push below.

Nimbly the shuttle flies in and out,

wide or narrow, big or small, sliding in snug.

Long or short, it glides out smoothly.

Girls who do it right, let it soak.

This is from Spring Essence, a book of her poetry turned brightly into English by John Balaban. 

Here she is writing a different kind of poem, which I find very beautiful:

        Country Scene

        The waterfall plunges in mist

        Who can describe this desolate scene:

        the long white river sliding through

        the emerald shadows of the ancient canopy

        ... a shepherd’s horn echoing in the valley,

        fishnets stretched to dry on sandy flats.

        A bell is tolling, fading, fading, fading

        just like love. Only poetry lasts.

I have only just begun to find out about her so all I can do is point those who are interested in her general direction:

a page with the New York Times review of Spring Essence

John Balaban’s page and an interview with him about Ho Xuan Huong for the NPR programme Fresh Air

Stalin’s socks and Goethe’s thistles

6a00e5502c099d883400e553a9ed798833-800wi(NOTE – The International Year of the Potato was in 2008)

I know several people who are constantly being reminded that this year we are all supposed to be celebrating  the International Year of the Potato (Peru’s gift to the world). The Colorado Potato Beetle (Colorado’s gift to the world), the most serious insect potato pest, is also celebrating.

Very few people, however,  are aware that this is Global Artichoke Week (because it isn’t) and in view of this I have decided to post Pablo Neruda’s Ode to the Artichoke.

This poem is one of his Elementary Odes. He wrote three books of Elementary Odes, which number almost 180 in total, covering such themes as the birds of Chile, conger eel soup, thread, numbers, laziness, a watch in the night, barbed wire, his socks, the liver, soap, the smell of firewood, bicycles, a large tuna in the market,   a ship in a bottle,  a village cinema, the colour green, the migration of birds, clouds, stones, scissors and tomatoes, maize, lemons and lots of other plants and foods.  My favourite of his vegetable odes is actually the Ode to the Onion, from which I recite every time I chop one:

y al cortarte
el cuchillo en la cocina
sube la única lágrima
sin pena.
Nos hiciste llorar sin afligirnos

(And when we cut you/with our knifes in the kitchen/it prompts the only tear/devoid of sorrow/You made us cry without distressing us)

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