Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Poetry Session on Jan 7, 2011

The next session will be to read from the novel Nectar in a Sieve by Kamala Markandaya on Feb 4, 2011.

This was the first session of the year, and even more provocative than usual. Perhaps we were all in capital form after year-end celebrations. Milton caused the most uproar. But here we are at the end, as smiling and happy a crowd as ever, brimming with poetry:

KumKum, Amita, Indira, Talitha, Mrs Sheila Cherian, Zakia, Minu, & Joe kneeling

 A record of sorts was established in our poetry appreciation. We have commented at greater length on a poet than ever before; Milton was responsible for an outpouring of 2,646 words in the proceedings! The discussion continued online much beyond the date of our reading.

We were happy to welcome Mrs Sheila Cherian, Talitha's mom, who was holidaying in Fort Kochi with her daughter. She normally resides in cool Coonoor.

The international roster of poets recited was not unusual – 3 from England (Milton, Larkin, and Farjeon), 1 from Nigeria (Okara), 1 from China (Li Bai), 1 from India (Seth), 2 from USA (Dickinson, Pound), and 1 from Guyana (Nichols), though she is domiciled in England.

Mrs Cherian,, KumKum, Amita, Indira, & Talitha back to camera

You may read here a full account of the proceedings with all the discussions and the text of the poems. Or you may read it below

Kochi Reading Group Poetry session on Jan 21, 2010

Attending: Talitha, Amita, KumKum, Joe, Indira, Minu, Zakia
Absent: Bobby (busy in Chennai), Thommo (wedding in Kottayam), Priya was to come, Soma excused herself

The next session for reading the novel Nectar in a Sieve by Kamala Markandaya will be on Friday Feb 4, 2011, at the Cochin Yacht Club library.

Joe used the occasion to read some poems of Vikram Seth, who now becomes the most often recited poet in our group. He said:
The encounter with Vikram Seth at the Thiruvananthapuram literary festival impels me to recite his poems again. A year ago Priya recited a few poems, including the often-quoted All you who sleep tonight. In Oct 2007 Amita recited a poem of Seth's (The Wind), and at the same session I recited four  sonnets from The Golden Gate (TGG), his novel in verse written in the sonnet form invented by Pushkin to write his narrative poem Eugene Onegin. Seth repeated at the festival that he would not be standing before us except that on a random morning after an all-night session with the mainframe computer that was churning his Chinese demographics data for a PhD dissertation in economics, he walked into the Stanford U book-store and picked up Eugene Onegin in translation. He was so fascinated by the form that he became obsessed with the idea of a novel in the same sonnet form, quite distinct from other standard forms. That's how he polished off the 590 sonnets comprising TGG in a little more than a year, surely a phenomenal rate of sonnet production.

For us, the most awaited gift at the festival was to hear some unpublished poems. He said there is always poetry in his head, while prose and novels are not the everyday companions of his life in the same measure. We also learned that he is apprenticing himself to other arts, e.g., sculpture, and has done animals in various materials. He let on that music is the supreme art, for the happiness and the intensity it can bring to one's soul. He finds the pleasure of music may be found in a variety of forms, provided one one cares enough to explore.

I came to know at the conference that he has written a Villanelle, which ends
I must, I simply must get out of bed
And press that reset button in my head.

I cannot convey how happy I felt to hear Vikram Seth talking, and then reciting a few unpublished poems. One that he recited on the second day reflected on the loss of love, of being 'dispossessed', in a poem called Caged. It was emitted from his lips with the soft eloquence of his plain verse, words chosen with exceeding care so that there is no hint of it being poetry, only of lifting the discourse from mere words in the ear, to a tightening around the heart. That's genius. I am sure a lightness pervaded my being momentarily.

Vikram Seth has an amazing memory. He can quote sonnets from The Golden Gate at random, and snatches of prose from A Suitable Boy. In conversation he could conjure up at will and recite a sonnet from among the 590 that constitute the The Golden Gate. Or quote the doggerel that peppers A Suitable Boy and makes for hilarity in the conversation of the Bengali couple, the Chatterji's.

Let me quote from Sonnet 5.1 from The Golden Gate (in which the author interjects himself, and 'Seth' is unashamedly rhymed with 'Great'). At Stanford U, he was working on his first novel, and moonlighting from his Economics thesis. He goes to a party and bumps into one of those important people who can get you published. Hence this sonnet:
1. Sonnet 5.1 from TGG

Vikram Seth was the highest point of my festival experience.  He recited an unpublished poem written entirely in monosyllables, and then I requested him to read another one I knew written the same way. He immediately reached for his Collected Poems and went to page 172 to recite this poem he donated to the book AIDS Sutra, to benefit an AIDS project:
2. The poem Soon
This is a beautiful poem of loss; the patient of a wasting disease speaks with great truth about his own condition, and avoiding self-pity, asks but one thing in the end: ‘Love me when I am dead.’ He will somehow bear the pain, the state of living without any hope of living much longer. It is all the more surprising when Seth admitted in an interview that he had never known a patient of AIDS at the time this was written.

To conclude let me recite whatever I caught from Seth's elocution on Nov 12, 2010 at The Week Hay festival in TVM of an unpublished poem titled Caged which speaks of a love that has lapsed.
3. Read Caged "

This  last poem recalled to Indira Auden's Lay your sleeping head, my love:

Lay your sleeping head, my love,
Human on my faithless arm;
Time and fevers burn away
Individual beauty from
Thoughtful children, and the grave
Proves the child ephemeral:
Certainty, fidelity
On the stroke of midnight pass
Like vibrations of a bell,


Zakia chose to read from Emily Dickinson and contributed the following excerpt of her bio from poemhunter.com:
“Today, Dickinson is regarded as one of America's greatest poets, but when she died at the age of fifty-six after devoting most of her life to writing poetry, her nearly 2,000 poems--only a dozen of which were published anonymously during her lifetime--were unknown except to a small numbers of friends and relatives. Dickinson was not recognized as a major poet until the twentieth century, when modern readers ranked her as a major new voice whose literary innovations were unmatched by any other nineteenth-century poet in the United States.  … Though her materials were conventional, her treatment of them was innovative, because she was willing to break whatever poetic conventions stood in the way of the intensity of her thought and images. Her conciseness, brevity, and wit are tightly packed. “

In the chosen poem, Hope is the thing with feathers, hope is compared to a bird which cannot be defeated even by a storm and continues to keep the soul warm. Her diction is simple but her thoughts can be deep and, her images unsettling. We have recited Dickinson before, in Oct 2008. It was the perfect poem in hymn meter, the preferred meter of Dickinson,which begins:
Because I could not stop for Death,
He kindly stopped for me;

Gabriel Okara's is an artless kind of poetry. In the poem he is reminding the next generation of Africans in his native Nigeria of the past when people were natural and had not learned the sophistication and attendant artificialities of life, lived according to Western protocols. Minu chose the poem Once Upon a Time to display the African-ness of Okara. The poet wants to 'unlearn all muting things' and go back to laughing, mouth open and wide, the way he was used to.

No doubt the African-ness consists in this harking back to old times before colonialism clamped down on the free-spirited African and 'muted' him. However, this is also a universal sentiment, said Joe, for non-conformists in all societies find that the genteel conventions of society inhibit natural exchanges. Talitha suggested the African-ness perhaps consists in the use of the 'face' epithets: 'homeface', 'officeface', 'hostface', etc. to describe the masks that people of 'advanced' civilisations don at various moments of the day to accommodate the feelings of others. However, Joe found little in the diction, the subject-matter, or the treatment, to mark this poem as having a distinctive African voice.

Later, Minu told us in a message: “Joe pointed out the lack of African-ness in the poem Once upon a Time. I guess that is exactly the pain the poet felt in expressing his African thought and language in the other’s language.”

So the African-ness consists in the fact the poet feels the pain of subjecting his African thoughts to conform to a foreigner's language and social conventions. And by attempting a translation of the first three lines of the poem into Malayalam, Minu concluded that the poem would have had a lot more masala if expressed in a Nigerian language (there are 521 to choose from, beginning with Hausa, Yoruba, etc.):
Orukaalathu ende magane
Avaru hridayam potti chirikuarunnu…
Adhae, kannu niranju chirikkuarannu
at which suggestion we too may burst into laughter to demonstrate our emotional distance from England, and our being grounded in indigenous mores!

Okara was born in 1921 in Nigeria, the son of a bookbinder. He was prolific in essays and folklore. He would translate vernacular expressions literally. For a while he gave up writing in English. In the poem chosen Minu found three layers: 1) in the first he is worried about African identity. 2) in the second he has forgotten his culture and adopted European manners. 3) in the third he finds society changing rapidly.


Milton lived at the time of the civil war in England and saw the execution of Charles I.

Talitha chose Milton with some trepidation since he is little read today. The twelve books of Paradise Lost constitute a massive work, but you have to force yourself to plod on to read it. In the beginning the poet speaks. Then Satan responds. Milton's purpose, stated in Book I, is to "justify the ways of God to men." 

He undertook the work as a challenge to himself to write an epic on the scale of epics such as those of Homer. English, he felt, did not yet have any epic to compare. The story of the Fall from grace of Adam, the first man, would be fitting for an epic, and Milton was sure he could massage the theme of the Fall to extract the greatest elevation of thought, and put on display the grand Latinate vocabulary he possessed, not to speak of his intimate grasp of Greek and Roman mythology. Indeed, Talitha said the influence of his Latin learning was profound on his diction, with the normal Subject-Verb-Object (SVO) word order in English being often set aside for OSV in his poetry, e.g., “Him the Almighty Power / Hurld.” As in German you have to hold your breath and read on to the end of a sentence to find the action. Perhaps, Milton had a stint in Germany too. Confirmatory evidence for this theory by Joe is Milton's capitalising a great many nouns in his text. Readers have to decide, provided they can follow his argument through twelve books, whether Milton succeeded in justifying God's ways to men.

Milton was fascinated by rebellious Satan, said Talitha. “Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven,” is a sentiment that can be glorified. Milton imitated the ancient epics in beginning, not at the beginning, but in the middle of things, which since this is Milton must be rendered, in medias res. In other matters too Milton wanted to paint himself as an impressively classical epic-writer by making up long Homeric similes; and not to be outdone in the matter of length he sometimes extends a simile over pages, where old Homer might have stopped at a paragraph or two.

Indira commented on the rhetoric of Milton. His grandiloquence. Talitha drew attention to the words in her text that she had boldfaced:
          Him the Almighty Power             
Hurled headlong flaming from the ethereal sky
With hideous ruin and combustion, down
To bottomless perdition, there to dwell
In adamantine chains and penal fire,
Who durst defy the Omnipotent to arms.

She called these words explosive. Some biographical details of Milton were given by Talitha He was deep in scholarship. Milton will have everyone notice it in his poetry – of all the places to show off your learning! He was Latin secretary to Cromwell, and got into the habit of replying to missives in Latin from continental Europeans with Latin of a superior Miltonian kind. He was argumentative and was 'sent down' from  Cambridge University on that account. He did write tracts in favour of divorce, arguing divorce was better, when to remain wed would result in a greater evil. Talitha mentioned this tract, and I think it is a most enlightening discourse called The Doctrine & Discipline of Divorce and is available online. While this was not discussed in the reading session, to give the flavour of the work, here is a quotation from it:
"If Solomons advice be not overfrolick, Live joyfully, saith he, with the wife whom thou lovest, all thy dayes, for that is thy portion. How then, where we find it impossible to rejoyce or to love, can we obey this precept? how miserably do we defraud our selves of that comfortable portion which God gives us, by striving vainly to glue an error together which God and nature will not joyne; adding but more vexation and violence to that blisfull society by our importunate superstition, that will not heark'n to St. Paul, I Cor. 7. who speaking of mariage and divorce, determines plain anough in generall, that God therein hath call'd us to peace and not to bondage."

Talitha said Milton lost his eyesight during the composition of Paradise Lost. He did not cease his labours and dictated the rest to his daughter. After his wife died he wrote the sequel, Paradise Regained.
Joe ventured the opinion that Milton is “all bombast” in his poetry. He took as example the boldfaced verses of Talitha and asked: isn't this all about the fire into which Satan was cast? Yet 'flaming',  'combustion' and 'penal fire' is all Milton can come up with to describe it. There is in Joe's opinion absolutely no imagery of burning. Joe vented his frustration with Milton's significant lack of visual imagery, a defect which is over-compensated by his constant exercise of polysyllabic words, much like a bodybuilder toying with barbells, and crowing as he does yet another hefty benchpress.

For this blog, though not discussed at the session, Joe would like to advance some significant comments T.S. Eliot as critic made in an essay called Milton I in 1936, reprinted in his collection On Poetry and Poets. Eliot begins his essay by admitting Milton is a “very great poet”, but can't make up his mind in what his greatness consists. He calls Milton a bad influence on the language, calling Milton's a kind of dead language. He notes that blindness had a greater effect on Milton for his “sensuousness, such as it was, had been withered early by book-learning, and whose gifts were naturally aural.” [emphasis mine] Milton's images, Eliot points out (contrasting with Shakespeare's) “do not give this sense of particularity … His language is, if one may use the term without disparagement, artificial and conventional.”  [emphasis mine again] Eliot takes examples from L'Allegro and Il Penseroso and notes the imagery is all general. “It is not a particular ploughman, milkmaid, and shepherd that Milton sees [as Wordsworth might well see them].”

Eliot takes all the examples he adduces to conclude, “Thus it is not so unfair, as it might at first appear, to say that Milton writes English like a dead language.” Eliot notes in Paradise Lost that the “dark angel is not thinking or conversing, but making a speech carefully prepared for him;... A straightforward utterance, as of a Homeric or Dantesque character, would make the speaker very much more real to us.” Eliot notes how strong is the auditory imagination in Milton, and the defect of every other sensuous perception, so that “The result with Milton is, in one sense of the word, rhetoric.”And I recall Indira used that word to describe the effect of Milton's poetry. Eliot confesses, “Indeed, I find in reading Paradise Lost, that I am happiest where there is least to visualise.”

In a second essay on Milton (Milton II) in 1946 Eliot quotes Samuel Johnson to get to the heart of his discomfort with Milton:
“Throughout all his greater works there prevails an uniform peculiarity of diction, a mode and cast of expression which bears little resemblance to that of any former writer; and which is so far removed from common use, that an unlearned reader, when he first opens the book, finds himself surprised by a new language. … One source of his peculiarity was his familiarity with the Tuscan poets; the disposition of his words is, I think, frequently Italian; perhaps sometimes combined with other languages. Of him at last, may be said what [Ben] Jonson said of Spenser, that he wrote no language , but has formed .. a Babylonish dialect, in itself harsh and barbaric.”

But Eliot lauds Milton for his mastery over large units of verse, unrhymed and declamatory, not visual, for, as Eliot says, “I do not think we should attempt to see very clearly any scene Milton depicts: it should be accepted as a shifting phantasmagory.” [ emphasis mine] Milton, says Eliot, “had little interest in , or understanding of, individual human beings. In Paradise Lost he was not called upon for any of that understanding which comes from affectionate observation of men and women.”

Eliot notes what the  achievement of Milton consists in: ”... it is his ability to give a perfect and unique pattern to every paragraph, such that the full beauty of the line is found in its context, and his ability to work in larger musical units than any other poet that is to me the most conclusive evidence of Milton's supreme mastery.” [emphasis mine]

So there we rest our discussion of Milton with a series of phrases: Babylonish dialect, shifting phantasmagory, generality not particularity of poetic focus, auditory not visual imagination, and supreme mastery of larger musical units in verse   and NOT to be imitated!

Further notes on Milton, courtesy of Talitha, in response to Joe's volley of critical remarks above about Milton:

Too severe!!!
"As not everyone in our group has dipped into Milton, I fear that Joe's severity might discourage them from exploring at the very outset! I did think that perhaps your remarks at the Yacht Club were meant to stir up a discussion - but I maintain that even the two passages I read show something of Milton's range and flexibility - to give only one instance, can you get more colloquial and direct than "Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven?" The epithet, "bombastic" is probably a reaction to Milton's "high style" - he did indeed intend to deal with an elevated subject in a lofty style. It is certainly a far cry from Vikram Seth. Our discussion would read very strangely indeed to an outsider, if we were thought to be praising a contemporary poet like Vikram Seth to the skies and denigrating Milton.

What is poetry appreciation?
Poetry appreciation surely focuses on what you find in a poet, not so much on what you don't? For instance, would it make sense to pick holes in Vikram Seth, saying that he shows no mastery of the epic style or that he is outdated, harking back to artificial, tightly rhymed sonnets, in a day when vers libre has given poetry a new freedom? Or would you come to Emily Dickinson deploring her inability to write an ode or a ballad? Similarly, how can you pass judgment on Milton for an alleged lack of visual imagery before sampling his entire oeuvre, and enjoying the sweep of his imagination and the sound of his verse - which is clearly, like Homer, meant to be heard ? How many of us have read the whole of "Paradise Lost", to say nothing of Milton's other poetry?

Imagery - a must?
An incidental point - all poetry is not rich in imagery in the sense of descriptive - visual - imagery, is it? John Donne is a case in point. His conceits are intellectual, often far-fetched, difficult to visualise, yet they have argumentative power, making his poetry tough and muscular. What is termed "objective poetry" is generally not characterised by visual imagery. Narrative poetry also need not be laden with imagery for that might impede the pace of the poem. Ballads are often rich in dialogue but poor in imagery. Milton is meant to be read aloud, to get the full flavour of his aural imagery.

Imagery in the "adamantine chains" passage
But by the way, the "adamantine chains" passage does not set out to describe fire - it evokes the force and humiliation of the fall of Satan and his minions - hurled ignominiously into hell with hideous ruin and combustion and the chaining of an angelic spirit in bottomless perdition. Judge Milton by what he set out to do. He thought, rightly or wrongly, that he had to emulate the earlier epics, and the Homeric or extended simile is the vehicle of much of the comparison and imagery in PL.

Imagery and rhetoric in Milton
If the reader is intent on giving the poet marks only for lyrical imagery, I remember off-hand, "Now came still evening on and twilight grey..." as the start of a beautiful passage in Milton and there are many such. The passages featuring Satan are both poignant and stirring, full of Miltonic force and power. When I read PL first, I felt the agony of the fallen archangel, hurled out of heaven and shut out for ever from everlasting bliss. Satan's words did not seem like set speeches to me, and they broke on the literary world of the day like a clap of thunder. No one had visualised Satan in that way before. The lost archangel speaks the language of rebellion and defiance. Is Milton's language dead ? Read and judge for yourself, dear reader, uninfluenced by me, Joe, T.S.Eliot, or any other critic.

Milton's mighty line
C.S.Lewis, writing in his autobiography, "Surprised by Joy" quotes a single line from Milton. Referring to a teacher at his (Lewis's) school, Wyvern, he writes: "He was honey-tongued. Every verse he read turned into music on his lips: something midway between speech and song. It is not the only good way of reading verse, but it is the way to enchant boys; more dramatic and less rhythmical ways can be learnt later. He first taught me the right sensuality of poetry, how it should be savoured and mouthed in solitude. Of Milton's "Thrones, Dominations, Virtues, Princedoms, Powers," he said, "That line made me happy for a week."' Surely this says something - a teacher able to move an ordinary schoolboy with the rhythm and power of Milton.

T.S. Eliot on Milton
In response to T.S.Eliot's reaction to Milton, I would like to emphasise the words that you quoted, in the hope that some reader may be inspired to look for evidences of "Milton's supreme mastery." - Eliot notes what the achievement of Milton consists in: ”... it is his ability to give a perfect and unique pattern to every paragraph, such that the full beauty of the line is found in its context, and his ability to work in larger musical units than any other poet — that is to me the most conclusive evidence of Milton's supreme mastery.”(emphases mine)

Scholarship on display - Eliot and Milton
And talking of Eliot, he puts all his scholarship on display in "The Wasteland', a poem so full of allusion, classical references and scraps of quotations from a medley of European languages and even from Sanskrit, that it is impossible to understand without notes on practically every other line. Is this permissible in Eliot but forbidden to Milton?

Additional references
My point about the additional references was that since I have chosen to read Milton, I would definitely have far more material than I can present at KRG - time being only one constraint. Another point to think of is - how literary/academic do we want to get? For instance, I would like to quote Bradley and Wilson Knight when dealing with Shakespeare, but wouldn't that be over the top? Since it is the text which must speak, I thought we could focus on the text and subsequent discussion. But of course Joe is free to write as the spirit moves him - it's his blog.

Justifying the ways of Milton!!!
I end apologising for my own vehemence in response to Joe's comments, for after all I need not justify "the ways of Milton to men!"

My point is, give yourself a chance to appreciate Milton. If you don't, the loss is yours. English is the language of Shakespeare and Milton and the Bible. If you love English, you will explore its roots. And you may hate him or admire him, but you will not be able to ignore Milton.

Mrs. Sheila Cherian

Mrs Cherian read a sweet poem about Mrs. Malone who took care of all the helpless animals on earth and then approaches the Gates of Heaven on her death and is recognised by the creatures for the good deeds she did; she
Whose havings were few
And whose holding was small
And whose heart was so big
It had room for us all.'

The poet, Farjeon, was an English author of children's stories who won many literary awards. Her family's rural life in Sussex inspired many of her stories. She had a wide circle few friends among the literati in London. Eleanor never married but had close friendships with two men. A society of book publishers makes an award annually in her name.


Larkin was recited before by Bobby at a session in Oct 2008. KumKum introduced her chosen poet for this reading with these words:
“I chose a few poems of Philip Larkin to read today. I note from the KRG archive that Bobby read two of his poems at the poetry session in Oct 2008, namely, 'I have started to say'  and 'Heads in the Women's Ward.'
Philip Larkin lived from 1922 to 1985. He is one of the well-admired, most-often quoted, and widely-read English poets of the twentieth century.. His poetic output was meager, considering the four decades of his working life. He published five thin volumes of verse at long intervals. He wrote two novels of no great significance; a number of essays and copious personal letters to his mother, lovers, friends, and acquaintances. These letters are an important part of the Philip Larkin archive, for, they provide clues to the life of this enigmatic artist.

Philip Larkin’s poems have an appealing beauty that lingers beyond the reading. His subjects are simple, what all poets write about, such as: nature, death, love, the end of love, separation, the joy of living, etc.  Larkin's poems are accessible to ordinary people. He wrote about everyday subjects using simple words, but exquisitely chosen.

Larkin’s personal life was unorthodox and complex. He was known as a recluse. But, that did not interfere with his work as Head Librarian at Hull University, where he headed a group that established one of the finest University libraries in UK.

Larkin never married, though he could not function without the stimulation and inspiration of women. He had many serious affairs. One lasted almost his entire adult life, and the others mostly just happened. No doubt, Larkin cherished love, physical love, that is; but being faithful did not suit him at all. Hence, one tends to doubt the sincerity of his emotional involvement with any of the women.

This was the human side of Philip Larkin, but his poems over-ride the shortcomings of his personal life.”

It is the home with all its inhabitants and furnishings and personal objects not the house that the poet is nostalgic about in Home is So Sad. Joe raised the point about the word 'theft', rhymed with 'bereft', makes little sense. So too KumKum found it hard to make sense of 'lash forests' in the poem Love, We Must Part Now :
Never were hearts more eager to be free,
To kick down worlds, lash forests;

Probably means: to destroy the world the lovers knew, who are now parting. So here you have the second poem of parting in this session, after Vikram Seth's Caged, being the first. 'moonlight' in the third line stands for romance, which has fled:
                                                      In the past
There has been too much moonlight and self-pity:
Let us have done with it: for now at last
Never has sun more boldly paced the sky,

The image of ships passing each other 'wet with light' and waving as they 'drop from sight' is beautiful, but somehow it does not fit the human actors. Indira said there is much 'kitchen sink stuff' in the poem, meaning I suppose, that it is the debris you want to get rid off.


Amita read from a Guyanese poet, settled in UK by the name of Grace Nichols. She feels at home in both cultures and the poem she wrote is about a hurricane that struck England in 1987 that had the unusual force of winds in her native Caribbean; this event united the two countries in her mind. Indira who was in England at the time recounted that it was so fierce that “all the trees were flattened.”

The poem is prescribed for the GCSE students in UK; is it a coincidence that Amita, also a teacher, chooses many of her poems to recite from that collection? Amita gave a brief account of the poet. Nichols has several collections of poetry and children's stories. Amita handed out a brief bio of the poet taken from http://www.contemporarywriters.com/authors/?p=auth79
“Grace Nichols was born in Georgetown, Guyana, in 1950 and grew up in a small country village on the Guyanese coast. She moved to the city with her family when she was eight, an experience central to her first novel, Whole of a Morning Sky (1986), set in 1960s Guyana in the middle of the country's struggle for independence.

She worked as a teacher and journalist and, as part of a Diploma in Communications at the University of Guyana, spent time in some of the most remote areas of Guyana, a period that influenced her writings and initiated a strong interest in Guyanese folk tales, Amerindian myths and the South American civilisations of the Aztec and Inca. She has lived in the UK since 1977.

Her first poetry collection, I is a Long-Memoried Woman, was published in 1983. The book won the Commonwealth Poetry Prize and a subsequent film adaptation of the book was awarded a gold medal at the International Film and Television Festival of New York. The book was also dramatised for radio by the BBC. Subsequent poetry collections include The Fat Black Woman's Poems (1984), Lazy Thoughts of a Lazy Woman (1989), and Sunris (1996). She also writes books for children, inspired predominantly by Guyanese folklore and Amerindian legends, including Come on into My Tropical Garden (1988) and Give Yourself a Hug (1994).  Everybody Got A Gift (2005) includes new and selected poems, and her collection, Startling the Flying Fish (2006), contains poems which tell the story of the Caribbean.

Her latest books are Picasso, I Want My Face Back (2009); and I Have Crossed an Ocean: Selected Poems (2010). Grace Nichols lives in England with her partner, the poet John Agard.”

You'll see the poem and some explanations to consult at:

Oya and Shango are storm gods in West African mythology, and those tales were brought to the Caribbean with the slave trade. The use of the present continuous tense was detected by Indira, similar to its use in Indian languages:
Tropical Oya of the Weather,
I am aligning myself to you,
I am following the movement of your winds,
I am riding the mystery of your storm.

'Njan vannukundu irikunnu,' as we would say it in Malayalam for 'I just left the house.'


This poem by Li Bai expresses tenderness for a wife, only 16 years old. The first version of the Chinese poem by Li Bai (I am using the modern spelling, not the older 'Li Po') is a translation by Ezra Pound, who Indira says is not considered a great poet himself. However, Pound will be known for all time as the mentor of T.S. Eliot, and ruthless editor of his poem, The Wasteland; he made the poetry shine by slashing it. He brought many poets to notice, getting them published in various magazines. His own poetry is 'esoteric', said Indira. But T.S. Eliot dedicated The Wasteland to him in these words "For Ezra Pound: il miglior fabbro" (that is, the better craftsman).

How he came to Chinese poetry translation is a story.  The widow of a scholar of Chinese literature, Ernest Fenollosa, placed in Pound's hands the notes of her late husband who had been working on translations of Chinese poets. Pound took these, and without any knowledge of  Mandarin, converted the notes into poems, which some say do convey uncannily the feeling of the originals. Thus came out Pound's volume, Cathay in 1913, in which you will find the poem The River-Merchant's Wife: A Letter, which Indira chose to read.

For some reason after starting on Li Bai's poem the discussion veered to haiku, the well-known 17-syllable form in Japanese that you have to construct out of a bolt of satori, that is to say a spiritual awakening, much sought in Zen Buddhism, that often comes suddenly. Thus a haiku by the great master Matsuo Basho (1644-94), the most famous poet of his time in Japan:
A fallen flower
returning to the branch?
It was a butterfly.
If a cultured Japanese person stops midstream in some activity and becomes focused of a sudden on seemingly nothing at all, be sure you are attending at the creation of yet another of the million or so haikus that exist. 

To return to Li Bai, for contrast Indira provided the translation of the same poem by Amy Lowell. Lowell reworked literal translations of the works of ancient Chinese poets, notably Li Bai, and brought these out in her book Fir-Flower Poets.

How mistaken it would be to translate from any language without an intimate personal knowledge of the source language is evident from the criticism that has been leveled at Pound for Cathay . Thus, Vikram Seth who took great pains to learn Manadrin and came out with a collection of translations called Three Chinese Poets [Wang Wei (701-762), Li Bai (701-761) and Da Fu ((712-770)] has this to say:
The famous translations of Ezra Pound, compounded as they are of ignorance of Chinese and valiant self-indulgence, have remained before me as a warning of what to shun.

He is alluding to the freedom Pound took to 'transcreate' and make poems of his own that were quite unfaithful to the original. He classes Pound among these:
There is a school of translation that believes that one can safely ignore many of the actual words of a poem once one has drunk deeply of its spirit.

To turn now to the second poem Indira displayed or recited; it is called In a Station of the Metro. Pound was issuing from the Paris Metro when he saw a crowd of people getting out. This inspired a 30-line poem. Pound worked on whittling and distilling the essence (he was as we know the founder of the Imagism movement) of that poem until he arrived at this two-liner:
The apparition of these faces in the crowd:
Petals, on a wet, black bough.

And then he wrote a two-pager to explicate the poem for the unlettered among his reading public, which now includes ourselves. He arrived, he says, at the precise instant in the distillation, or shall we call it sublimation, in which the Objective becomes the Subjective! This is what Indira said.

No, no, exclaimed Joe, – it was the Subjective that became the Objective, for the Subjective was Pound's mental image of beautiful disembodied women, and their floating faces; that metamorphosed into fourteen precise words, that being words, will remain forever cast in black-on-white Objective impressed symbols on paper in the libraries of the world. Joe concluded that whenever the opposite of a true statement can also be true, it is either Quantum Mechanics you are talking about, or just hocus-pocus.

That said, please read the poem. Some background on Li Bai from Vikram Seth's Three Chinese Poets, which I quote:
“Li Bai was born in Chinese Turkestan in 701 and moved to Sichuan around the age of five. He travelled a great deal throughout China, never sat the imperial examinations or held a post for long, and rarely mentioned specific contemporary events in his poetry. As a result not a great deal is known about his life or his exact movements.

He is known to have been married several times, to have had children, and to have made a great impression on his contemporaries as a paradigm of the intoxicated and impulsive poet with his flashing eyes and great iconoclastic energy. He was interested in alchemy and in Taoism.

In his early forties he was presented to the emperor in Changan and given a position in the Imperial Academy, but this did not last long; he was unseated in a court intrigue. When the An Lushan rebellion broke out he was in his mid-fifties. He left for the south and entered the service of Prince Yong, but the prince was himself later killed by the emperor, who feared that he might usurp his throne. Li Bai too was implicated in the plot and exiled to the south-west. Before he got there, however, he was pardoned, and so continued his wanderings. He died in 761 while visiting a relative, a famous calligrapher.

The vigour and flamboyance of much of Li Bai's poetry hides a deep core of loneliness. He achieved great fame in his lifetime, and seems to have known want; for the most part those who met him felt honoured to provide him with generous hospitality. But he saw himself as a man in heroic and romantic opposition to the universe and was torn by nostalgia. He never settled down, and the restless energy of his life found its counterpart both in the speed with which he set down his compositions and in their propulsive sweep. His longer poems in irregular metres are particularly heady and daring, and provide a sense of escape into a height beyond the dross and boredom of daily life. Some of his nature poetry — for example, "The Road to Shu" — is tumultuous, almost at times bizarre, in its dramatic detail.”

The Poems
3 poems by Vikram Seth:

I shall die soon, I know.
This thing is in my blood.
It will not let me go.
It saps my cells for food.
   It soaks my nights in sweat
   And breaks my days in pain.
   No hand or drug can treat
   These limbs for love or gain.
Love was the strange first cause
That bred grief in its seed,
And gain knew its own laws –
To fix its place and breed.
   He whom I love, thank God,
   Won’t speak of hope or cure.
   It would not do me good,
   He sees that I am sure.
He knows what I have read
And will not bring me lies.
He sees that I am dead.
I red it in his eyes.
   How am I to go on –
   How will I bear this taste,
   My throat encased in spawn –
   These hands that shake and waste?
Stay by my steel ward bed
And hold me where I lie.
Love me when I am dead
And do not let me die.

Sonnet 5.1 from The Golden Gate
A week ago, when I had finished
Writing the chapter you've just read
And with avidity undiminished
Was charting out the course ahead,
An editor — at a plush party
(well-wined, provisioned, speechy, hearty)
Hosted by (long live!) Thomas Cook
Where my Tibetan travel book
Was honored — seized my arm: "Dear fellow,
What's your next work?" "A novel    " "Great!
We hope that you, dear Mr. Seth — "
"   In verse," I added. He turned yellow.
"How marvellously quaint,"he said,
And subsequently cut me dead.
Caged (unpublished, recited by the poet at The Week Hay Festival in Thiruvnanthapuram on Nov 12, 2010)
I lie awake at night
Too tired to sleep
Too fearful you should wake
Too sad to wake you.
I hear you breathe
I do not touch your face
How did we get like this
Caged in one space?
   We two  have lost each other
   You and I
   Why could this not wait
   Till our love could die?
Poor, pointless, relic
Bent on staggering on
When courtesy and passion
Both are gone.
   And all our energy
   Enhanced when paired
   And happiness once multiplied
   When shared.
Light seeps out from the blind;
What will it bring
This day that could
But will not change a thing?
   The litanies that beat
   The heart before
   It understands
   That it can be no more
The wizened (?) toll
That taints our every speech
The faults that we attribute
Each to each.
   As if we were not friends
   But manacled foes
   As if one sorrow
   Were two private woes.
What grew with time
Took time to disappear
But now we see
That there is very little here
   We are ourselves
   How much could we amend
   Of our hard beings
   To appease a friend.
We cannot lose our ways
And cannot choose
To lose what then
We piece to lose.
   May love be ground away
   Like all the rest
   From those who are
   Already dispossessed.
                             Vikram Seth

"Hope" is the thing with feathers
"Hope" is the thing with feathers—
That perches in the soul—
And sings the tune without the words—
And never stops—at all—

And sweetest—in the Gale—is heard—
And sore must be the storm—
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm—

I've heard it in the chillest land—
And on the strangest Sea—
Yet, never, in Extremity,
It asked a crumb—of Me.
                             Emily Dickinson

Once Upon a Time
This poem is a good example of his theme about African culture meets European.

"Once upon a time, son,
they used to laugh with their hearts
and laugh with their eyes;
but now they only laugh with their teeth,
while their ice-block-cold eyes
search behind my shadow.

There was a time indeed
they used to shake hands with their hearts;
but that's gone, son.
Now they shake hands without hearts
while their left hands search
my empty pockets.

'Feel at home'! 'Come again';
they say, and when I come
again and feel
at home, once, twice,
there will be no thrice -
for then I find doors shut on me.

So I have learned many things, son.
I have learned to wear many faces
like dresses - homeface,
officeface, streetface, hostface,
cocktailface, with all their conforming smiles
like a fixed portrait smile.

And I have learned, too,
to laugh with only my teeth
and shake hands without my heart.
I have also learned to say, 'Goodbye',
when I mean 'Good-riddance';
to say 'Glad to meet you',
without being glad; and to say 'It's been
nice talking to you', after being bored.

But believe me, son.
I want to be what I used to be
when I was like you. I want
to unlearn all these muting things.
Most off all, I want to relearn
how to laugh, for my laugh in the mirror
shows only my teeth like a snake's bare fangs!

So show me, son,
how to laugh; show me how
I used to laugh and smile
once upon a time when I was like you."
                             Gabriel Okara

Paradise Lost: The First Book
OF MAN’S first disobedience, and the fruit
Of that forbidden tree whose mortal taste
Brought death into the World, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden, till one greater Man
Restore us, and regain the blissful Seat,      
Sing, Heavenly Muse, that, on the secret top
Of Oreb, or of Sinai, didst inspire
That Shepherd who first taught the chosen seed
In the beginning how the heavens and earth
Rose out of Chaos: or, if Sion hill      
Delight thee more, and Siloa’s brook that flowed
Fast by the oracle of God, I thence
Invoke thy aid to my adventrous song,
That with no middle flight intends to soar
Above the Aonian mount, while it pursues    
Things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme.
And chiefly Thou, O Spirit, that dost prefer
Before all temples the upright heart and pure,
Instruct me, for Thou know’st; Thou from the first
Wast present, and, with mighty wings outspread,       
Dove-like sat’st brooding on the vast Abyss,
And mad’st it pregnant: what in me is dark
Illumine, what is low raise and support;
That, to the highth of this great argument,
I may assert Eternal Providence,   
And justify the ways of God to men.
  Say first—for Heaven hides nothing from thy view,
Nor the deep tract of Hell—say first what cause
Moved our grand Parents, in that happy state,
Favoured of Heaven so highly, to fall off       
From their Creator, and transgress his will
For one restraint, lords of the World besides.
Who first seduced them to that foul revolt?
  The infernal Serpent; he it was whose guile,
Stirred up with envy and revenge, deceived    
The mother of mankind, what time his pride
Had cast him out from Heaven, with all his host
Of rebel Angels, by whose aid, aspiring
To set himself in glory above his peers,
He trusted to have equalled the Most High,       
If he opposed, and, with ambitious aim
Against the throne and monarchy of God,
Raised impious war in Heaven and battle proud,
With vain attempt. Him the Almighty Power
Hurled headlong flaming from the ethereal sky,       
With hideous ruin and combustion, down
To bottomless perdition, there to dwell
In adamantine chains and penal fire,
Who durst defy the Omnipotent to arms. [boldface, Talitha's]
“Is this the region, this the soil, the clime,”
Said then the lost Archangel, “this the seat
That we must change for Heaven?—this mournful gloom
For that celestial light? Be it so, since He      
Who now is sovran can dispose and bid
What shall be right: fardest from Him is best,
Whom reason hath equalled, force hath made supreme
Above his equals. Farewell, happy fields,
Where joy forever dwells! Hail, horrors! hail,      
Infernal World! and thou, profoundest Hell,
Receive thy new possessor—one who brings
A mind not to be changed by place or time.
The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.       
What matter where, if I be still the same,
And what I should be, all but less than he
Whom thunder hath made greater? Here at least
We shall be free; the Almighty hath not built
Here for his envy, will not drive us hence:       
Here we may reign secure; and, in my choice,
To reign is worth ambition, though in Hell:
Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.
But wherefore let we then our faithful friends,
The associates and co-partners of our loss,       
Lie thus astonished on the oblivious pool,
And call them not to share with us their part
In this unhappy mansion, or once more
With rallied arms to try what may be yet
Regained in Heaven, or what more lost in Hell?”    
                             John Milton

Mrs. Sheila Cherian
Mrs Malone
Mrs. Malone
Lived hard by a wood
All on her lonesome
As nobody should. With her crust on a plate
And her pot on the coal
And none but herself
To converse with, poor soul.
In a shawl and a hood She got sticks out-o’-door,
On a bit of old sacking
She slept on the floor,
And nobody, nobody
Asked how she fared Or knew how she managed,
For nobody cared.
     Why make a pother
     About an old crone?
     What for should they bother
     With Mrs. Malone?

One Monday in winter
With snow on the ground
So thick that a footstep
Fell without sound,
She heard a faint frostbitten
Peck on the pane
And went to the window
To listen again.
There sat a ****-sparrow
Bedraggled and weak,
With half-open eyelid
And ice on his beak.
She threw up the sash
And she took the bird in,
And numbled and fumbled it
Under her chin.
     'Ye’re all of a smother,
     Ye’re fair overblown!
     I’ve room fer another,'
     Said Mrs. Malone.

Come Tuesday while eating
Her dry morning slice
With the sparrow a-picking
('Ain’t company nice!')
She heard on her doorpost
A curious scratch,
And there was a cat
With its claw on the latch.
It was hungry and thirsty
And thin as a lath,
It mewed and it mowed
On the slithery path.
She threw the door open
And warmed up some pap,
And huddled and cuddled it
In her old lap.
     'There, there, little brother,
     Ye poor skin-an’-bone,
     There’s room fer another,'
     Said Mrs. Malone.

Come Wednesday while all of them
Crouched on the mat
With a crumb for the sparrow,
A sip for the cat,
There was wailing and whining
Outside in the wood,
And there sat a vixen
With six of her brood.
She was haggard and ragged
And worn to shred,
And her half-dozen babies
Were only half-fed,
But Mrs. Malone, crying
'My! ain’t they sweet!'
Happed them and lapped them
And gave them to eat.
     'You warm yerself, mother,
     Ye’re cold as a stone!
     There’s room fer another,'
     Said Mrs. Malone.

Come Thursday a donkey
Stepped in off the road
With sores on his withers
From bearing a load.
Come Friday when icicles
Pierced the white air
Down from the mountainside
Lumbered a bear.
For each she had something,
If little, to give—
'Lord knows, the poor critters
Must all of ’em live.'
She gave them her sacking,
Her hood and her shawl,
Her loaf and her teapot—
She gave them her all.
     'What with one thing and t’other
     Me fambily’s grown,
     And there’s room fer another,'
     Said Mrs. Malone.

Come Saturday evening
When time was to sup
Mrs. Malone
Had forgot to sit up.
The cat said meeow,
And the sparrow said peep,
The vixen, she’s sleeping,
The bear, let her sleep.
On the back of the donkey
They bore her away,
Through trees and up mountains
Beyond night and day,
Till come Sunday morning
They brought her in state
Through the last cloudbank
As far as the Gate.
     'Who is it,' asked Peter,
     'You have with you there?'
     And donkey and sparrow,
     Cat, vixen and bear

Exclaimed, 'Do you tell us
Up here she’s unknown?
It’s our mother, God bless us!
It’s Mrs. Malone
Whose havings were few
And whose holding was small
And whose heart was so big
It had room for us all.'
Then Mrs. Malone
Of a sudden awoke,
She rubbed her two eyeballs
And anxiously spoke:
'Where am I, to goodness,
And what do I see?
My dears, let’s turn back,
This ain’t no place fer me!'
     But Peter said, 'Mother
     Go in to the Throne.
     There’s room for another
     One, Mrs. Malone.'
                         Eleanor Farjeon

Poems of Philip Larkin
The Trees
The trees are coming into leaf
Like something almost being said;
The recent buds relax and spread,
Their greenness is a kind of grief.
Is it that they are born again
And we grow old? No, they die too,
Their yearly trick of looking new
Is written down in rings of grain.
Yet still the unresting castles thresh
In fullgrown thickness every May.
Last year is dead, they seem to say,
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.

Home Is So Sad
Home is so sad. It stays as it was left,
Shaped in the comfort of the last to go
As if to win them back. Instead, bereft
Of anyone to please, it withers so,
Having no heart to put aside the theft.
And turn again to what it started as,
A joyous shot at how things ought to be,
Long fallen wide. You can see how it was:
Look at the pictures and the cutlery.
The music in the piano stool. That vase.

When First We Faced, And Touching Showed
When first we faced, and touching showed
How well we knew the early moves,
Behind the moonlight and the frost,
The excitement and the gratitude,
There stood how much our meeting owed
To other meetings, other loves.
The decades of a different life
That opened past your inch-close eyes
Belonged to others, lavished, lost;
Nor could I hold you hard enough
To call my years of hunger-strife
Back for your mouth to colonise.
Admitted: and the pain is real.
But when did love not try to change
The world back to itself--no cost,
No past, no people else at all--
Only what meeting made us feel,
So new, and gentle-sharp, and strange?

Love, We Must Part Now
Love, we must part now: do not let it be
Calamitious and bitter. In the past
There has been too much moonlight and self-pity:
Let us have done with it: for now at last
Never has sun more boldly paced the sky,
Never were hearts more eager to be free,
To kick down worlds, lash forests; you and I
No longer hold them; we are husks, that see
The grain going forward to a different use.
There is regret. Always, there is regret.
But it is better that our lives unloose,
As two tall ships, wind-mastered, wet with light,
Break from an estuary with their courses set,
And waving part, and waving drop from sight.

Hurricane Hits England
It took a hurricane, to bring her closer
To the landscape
Half the night she lay awake,
The howling ship of the wind
Its gathering rage,
Like some dark ancestral spectre,
Fearful and reassuring:
Talk to me Huracan
Talk to me Oya
Talk to me Shango
And Hattie,
My sweeping, back-home cousin.
Tell me why you visit.
An English coast?
What is the meaning
Of old tongues
Reaping havoc
In new places?
The blinding illumination,
Even as you short-Circuit us
Into further darkness?
What is the meaning of trees
Falling heavy as whales
Their crusted roots
Their cratered graves?
O Why is my heart unchained?
Tropical Oya of the Weather,
I am aligning myself to you,
I am following the movement of your winds,
I am riding the mystery of your storm.
Ah, sweet mystery;
Come to break the frozen lake in me,
Shaking the foundations of the very trees within me,
That the earth is the earth is the earth.
                              Grace Nichols

The River-Merchant's Wife: A Letter
While my hair was still cut straight across my forehead
I played about the front gate, pulling flowers.
You came by on bamboo stilts, playing horse,
You walked about my seat, playing with blue plums.
And we went on living in the village of Chokan:
Two small people, without dislike or suspicion.

At fourteen I married My Lord you.
I never laughed, being bashful.
Lowering my head, I looked at the wall.
Called to, a thousand times, I never looked back

At fifteen I stopped scowling,
I desired my dust to be mingled with yours
Forever and forever and forever.
Why should I climb the lookout?

At sixteen you departed,
You went into far Ku-to-en, by the river of swirling eddies,
And you have been gone five months.
The monkeys make sorrowful noise overhead.

You dragged your feet when you went out.
By the gate now, the moss is grown, the different mosses,
Too deep to clear them away!
The leaves fall early this autumn, in wind.
The paired butterflies are already yellow with August
Over the grass in the West garden;
They hurt me. I grow older.
If you are coming down through the narrows of the river Kiang,
Please let me know beforehand,
And I will come out to meet you
As far as Cho-fo-Sa.
                           Li Bai (translated by Ezra Pound)
Ch’ang Kan
from Fir-Flower Tablets (1921)
When the hair of your Unworthy One first began to cover her forehead,
She picked flowers and played in front of the door.
Then you, my Lover, came riding a bamboo horse.
We ran round and round the bed, and tossed about the sweetmeats of green plums.
We both lived in the village of Ch’ang Kan.
We were both very young, and knew neither jealousy nor suspicion.
At fourteen, I became the wife of my Lord.
I could not yet lay aside my face of shame;
I hung my head, facing the dark wall;
You might call me a thousand times, not once would I turn round.
At fifteen, I stopped frowning.
I wanted to be with you, as dust with its ashes.
I often thought that you were the faithful man who clung to the bridge-post,
That I should never be obliged to ascend to the Looking-for-Husband Ledge.
When I was sixteen, my Lord went far away,
To the Ch’ü T’ang Chasm and the Whirling Water Rock of the Yü River
Which, during the Fifth Month, must not be collided with;
Where the wailing of the gibbons seems to come from the sky.
                           Li Bai (same poem translated by Amy Lowell)

In a Station of the Metro
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough
                             Ezra Pound


Anonymous said...

was just browsing thru some kochi based sites and stumbled onto this. This sounds like so much fun and yet so enriching.

paul said...

I missed the poetry session but from Talitha's mail, understand there was a debate on the importance of imagery in poetry.
Talitha's praise of Milton has persuaded me that I msut read and study him.

Imagery is important but may not be the overriding criterion for poetry. Many times have I mentioned Thomas Dylan's " sound of the meaning" .
But yes the poem becomes unforgettable when there is also imagery. Images linger in the mind.
I mentioned how Flaubert's prose is thought to be poetry and Nabokov's prose which IS poetry!
"A wagtail stopped as if remembering something and hen walked on enacting its name".

paul said...

Talitha said "My point is, give yourself a chance to appreciate Milton. If you don't, the loss is yours. English is the language of Shakespeare and Milton and the Bible. If you love English, you will explore its roots. And you may hate him or admire him, but you will not be able to ignore Milton."

This year I will study Milton. Talitha's words above in the blog
have persuaded me.

Management - Learning from Experiences by Reflection said...

Re: Milton
In an essay, "The Music of Poetry", T.S. Eliot says:
"Milton handled blank verse in a way which no one has ever approached or ever will approach ...Indeed, Milton almost made blank verse impossible for any purpose for a couple of generations."