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How to be a poet

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For the most part, I want my blog posts to be my own words – my own thoughts and ideas. But every now and then, as happens, you come across something written by someone else, and in the overwhelming, satiated silence that follows you think, What else is there to say? Wendell Berry’s poem ‘How to be a Poet’ is one such piece of writing. So I’m going to make an exception and have his poem – his own brilliant words – be the predominant feature in this month’s blog post.

I will add only two things. Firstly, I have thought at length about this poem. I have read it, re-read it, and read it again. I hope you will, too. It’s worth doing. Secondly, if I could share one other thought about how to be a poet (yes, in all my vast wisdom), I would say, Learn how to wrestle. To write poetry, for me, means to wrestle with words, to wrestle with the truth, to wrestle with laziness, to wrestle with failure, and to wrestle with the fear that everyone will think what you’re writing is laughable and pathetic. Those are my two cents. Here are Wendell’s:

How to be a Poet
By Wendell Berry

(to remind myself)

i.
Make a place to sit down.
Sit down. Be quiet.
You must depend upon
affection, reading, knowledge,
skill—more of each
than you have—inspiration,
work, growing older, patience,
for patience joins time
to eternity. Any readers
who like your poems,
doubt their judgment.
ii.
Breathe with unconditional breath
the unconditioned air.
Shun electric wire.
Communicate slowly. Live
a three-dimensioned life;
stay away from screens.
Stay away from anything
that obscures the place it is in.
There are no unsacred places;
there are only sacred places
and desecrated places.
iii.
Accept what comes from silence.
Make the best you can of it.
Of the little words that come
out of the silence, like prayers
prayed back to the one who prays,
make a poem that does not disturb
the silence from which it came.
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Italy: an exercise in co-writing (and co-translating) poetry

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“And where’s your Fiscal Code?” the lady at the bank barked at me irately in Italian. Fiscal Code? What the Dickens is a Fiscal Code? I thought. Embarrassed, I sheepishly replied,  ”Sorry madam, a Fiscal Code?” I pulled out my passport hoping that it would help. “No, no,” she waved it back to me, dismissing the document altogether. Incredulous, “You don’t have a Fiscal Code?” I don’t. “Sorry. Next!” And repeatedly, in such a manner, my first couple months as a year abroad student in Italy unfolded: tumultuous question after tumultuous question, fired at me with rifle speed. Questions I could barely understand, my mind working overtime to translate, desperately trying to glean any significance I could. Disoriented and dejected, I would return to my residence of six weeks – the youth hostel, go to my room, which I shared with a carousel of always under or over-deodorized travellers, sit on my bed and start asking some pretty serious questions myself: What are you actually doing here? When are you going to get out of this greivous and malodorant youth hostel? Why did you even bother choosing Italian in the first place?

Italy, everything –  it was a quandary of questions.

My fortunes changed when Paolo, a friend of a friend of an acquaintance, who I had hardly met, took pity on me. He was dorming in one of the university accommodations. He said his room-mate had never turned up and that I could come share with him, if I wanted. Well, I think that’s what he said. Anyway, I wanted. Very much so. Anything but this purgatory of a youth hostel where privacy, quite frankly, was non-existent. I moved in shortly afterward.

Paolo had quite the pensive disposition, and although he was studying economics, he was a very literary type; he loved to read novels, comics, and poetry. And having a room-mate who also enjoyed reading made life a lot less awkward, especially when at first, due predominantly to my linguistic ineptitude, we didn’t have much to say to each other. It meant the silences didn’t have to be so uncomfortable; we could just hang out and read, filling our minds – instead of our mouths – with words. After a while, though, and as my Italian improved, the parameters and shape of our friendship grew. We conversed more. I was able to answer his questions, and he mine. Then one evening, as I was coming to the end of a binge on American literature: Ray Bradbury, Edgar Allan Poe, and finally Herman Melville, Paolo introduced me to another Paul, a Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda. He quietly left the book on my bed, turned around and walked out the room. As he was half way out the door, he called back, “E’ interessante, vecchio.” It’s interesting, old friend. Curious I picked it up and read the front cover. Libro delle Domande. I translated: The Book of Questions.

Inside were seventy-odd short poems, each line a question. On one page was the original in Spanish, on the opposite page was the translation in Italian. Many were challenging to understand, but I dusted off my dictionary and worked diligently that evening to translate them. One of my favorites is still poem III:

Tell me, is the rose naked
or is that her only dress?

Why do trees conceal
the splendour of their roots?

Who hears the regrets
of the getaway car?

Is there anything in the world sadder
than a train standing in the rain?

I quickly became enamoured with the book, and the poems became a source of frequent discussion between Paolo and I. And so it happened one evening that we decided to go out for a drink together. The bar was poorly lit and the beer cheap. Its walls and ceilings were completely plastered with prints of famous pieces of art, a modern-day Sistine Chapel of sorts (minus the religious reverence, plus some raucous revelry). At one point during a lull in our conversation Paolo jumped up and went to the bar, and instead of ordering another beer, asked for a pen a paper. He sat back down, wrote something and pushed it towards me. I read it:

Perché il marmo ha scelto lo stesso colore del latte?
E’ possible forse annegare nei suoi pavimenti?

“What does marmo mean?” I asked him. Marble. “And annegare?” To drown. I translated:

Why did marble choose to be the same colour as milk?
Is it possible, then, to drown in its tiles?

And thus began a little experiment in writing poetry together, Neruda style. He’d write a poem in Italian, I’d translate it into English, or vice versa:

What is it about the sea that makes me so sad?
Is it because in its vastness it still seems so alone?

And is the sand not tired of the indecisive tide:
Coming, going, stealing and giving back?

Cosa nel mare mi rende triste?
E’ perché nella sua vastità sembra ancora così solo?

E la sabbia non è ancora stanca dell’indecisione delle maree?
Di questo venire e andare, rubare e restituire?

Then sometimes he’d start a poem and I’d finish it. We’d put it together and translate accordingly:

E perché il vento fa tanta strada per venire a giocare
con un sacchetto di plastica davanti a me?

E da chi andrà dopo?
E con cosa giocherà?
E si sentirà solo dopo avermi lasciato?

And why does the wind blow through so many streets
just to come and play with a plastic bag in front of me?

And to whom will it go next?
And with what will it play?
And will it feel lonely when I walk away?

As far as writing goes, it was a very unique, creative experience. My memories of that period are bright and fond. I admired Paolo’s boldness. It’s not every day you’re sitting in a bar when your friend starts writing poetry for you. I also admired Paolo’s boldness in inviting me to share a dorm with him. In many ways, he saved my bacon.

When I arrived in Italy, I was harangued by the cacophony and headache of  numberless voices and their unintelligible questions, but I found an antidote in friendship and poetry – the euphony and balm of our very own unanswerable questions.

Ars Poetica

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If you’ve ever studied poetry or creative writing, you’ve most likely come across the phrase Ars Poetica.  And if you’re anything like me, the very whiff of Latin, its archaism and stuffy classroom memories of monotonous rote learning (porto, portas, portat…), will have the tendency to impose one of the following effects on you: sleepiness, frustration, or disinterest all together.  But let us be brave and broach this subject – if only briefly.  Follow me, if you will.

Ars Poetica, strictly translated, could read as ‘the technique/method of the poet’, though is more widely understood and referred to as ‘the art of poetry’.  Coined back in the good old years (circa 20BC)  by folks like Horace et. al, and resurfacing with unalloyed obsession by Renaissance humanists, it came to be the subject matter: what is ‘good poetry’.  But of course, it didn’t end with the Renaissance; the dialogue continued with the Romantics and through the Victorian era, each with their own dos and don’ts, and pretty well stumbled, exhausted, into the 20th century, falling at the feet of the giant, Post-modernism.  If you want to see an excellent illustration of what Post-modernism did to the notion of Ars Poetica, watch the memorable scene from Dead Poets Society, when that delightful preface, ‘Understanding Poetry’, written by a certain Dr. J. Evans Pritchard (Ph.D.), gets blissfully torn to shreds.  I must say, I hold somewhat reserved sentiments towards the whole idea of Post-modernism (whatever it really is); however, that aside, one of the better things, I think, that Post-modernism has achieved (if we can even say that), is that there no longer exists a collective conscience that rigidly defines what is or isn’t a good poem, as the scene from Dead Poets Society so aptly proclaims.

And so now Ars Poetica has come to mean something quite different – and far more agreeable, too.  Owing to the fact that Horace’s Ars Poetica was a treatise concerning the nature of poetry, that is, a piece of writing about writing, it has come to categorize poetry written about poetry.  Rather like, in part, the poem from my previous blog entry.  And here is another example I penned a couple of years ago, entitled
‘Poetical Enlightenment’:

Gripped in winter’s restlessness
for onward passage,
impatient with anticipation,
like a lover
waiting for a train.

The relief of arrival;
the penning of a pending poem.

Writing Summer

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‘I’m not as happy
as you think I am
but I’m as happy
as I’ve ever been’
I begin to write,

as an adolescent summer
shuffles
through my window with so much
promise
and growth
and pain ahead.

Beginner’s quintet: haiku

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I. Honeymoon (for G.)

Lonely Iron Goats
Return to be together
Happiness is us

II. Thank you (for J.&E.)

Cold night in London
Sharing lentils and the past
Warmth is with the Birds

III. Facebook Comment (for G.)

Silver sparkle morn
Bright hearts like glowing pancakes
First breakfast married

IV. Illinois (for J.&E.)

Dizzy and breathless
Over the snow-swept city
Above the Great Lake

V. S.A.M. (for G.)

Perusing beauty
Hung luminously on walls
Your heart shines brighter