Sunday, October 2, 2011

Postponed Poetry Session held on Sep 29, 2011

The attendance at this session was scanty, although it had been postponed once for the same reason. However, the session was extraordinarily intimate. Two English poets, an American and a Spanish poet were recited; three were men, and one a woman.

KumKum, Talitha, and Thommo

We are resolved to get a few more committed readers in order to enjoy the customary liveliness the sessions have always had. The next will be on Oct 28, 2011 to read Animal Farm by George Orwell.

The question of art and science, and whether a scientist may have the same refined appreciation of nature and poetry as an artist came under discussion. Eugenics too was a subject of debate. Here are the foursome at the end:

KumKum, Talitha, Thommo, and Joe

In order to read the complete account click below ...

Kochi Reading Group Record of the Poetry session on Sep 29, 2011

Attending: Thommo, Talitha, KumKum, Joe

Absent: Priya, called away at the last moment on work. Soma, no transport. Zakia, son having exam. Minu, no reason. Bobby, away from Kochi. Sivaram, mistook the day.
This session made a woeful record: the smallest attendance ever!
The next session to read Animal Farm by George Orwell will be on Friday Oct 28, 2011, at the library of the Yacht Club.
The novel after that has been selected by Thommo; it’s Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis. No e-book is available. sells it for Rs 254/- at:

We have hit a low point in the number attending. To get 10 readers participating in a session we need at least 12 active interested members, who are willing and able to attend, except for overriding reasons. We lost two of our faithful readers when Indira dropped out, and Amita left for Chennai.

We welcome your trying to get a couple of more members; they need to self-select after reading the Charter on our blogsite closely. The only requirements are a genuine interest in English literature, and a full commitment to attending the KRG sessions. 


Christina Rossetti (1830-1894)

I selected a couple of poems from the fairly large oeuvre of Christina Georgina Rossetti.

Rossetti was born on Dec 5, 1830 and died on Dec 29, 1894. Her father, Gabriele Rossetti, was a poet and a political exile from Italy. Frances Polidori, her mother, was a teacher; she educated Christina at home. Christina had two brothers and a sister; all the siblings showed a passion for writing. Her brother, Dante, was an artist as well, and Christina sat as a model for many of his paintings; even sitting for the Blessed Virgin Mary in a painting.

Growing up in this multi-talented, intellectual family obviously helped Christina’s grooming as a poet. She read extensively in English and Italian. Christina was also a devout Christian. She was interested in the Anglo-Catholic movement within the Church of England.
Christina Rossetti never married, though she had three serious suitors in her youth. She eventually rejected them, as none shared her religious convictions.

Christina’s poems are simple and intimate. It is evident that she experimented with several forms. Love and Spiritual thoughts are the two dominant themes of her poems. Nature is the another subject, as it is of most poets. Biblical themes abound in her poems, and one on the Prodigal Son I shall have to send to Joe, as he is interested in that parable.

Christina suffered from depression and other serious ailments during her life. Ultimately she died of cancer.

Christina Rossetti’s work may not compare with the work of Elizabeth Barrett Browning or Emily Dickinson, yet, she remains a major female poet in English in the 19th century. In her lifetime she received ample recognition, and she is still remembered.

With Rossetti I have covered the three major English-language women poets of 19th century in our KRG sessions.”

Talitha pointed out that the following two lines are missing at the end from the text handed out of the first poem KumKum read, “When I am dead, my dearest.”
Haply I may remember, /And haply may forget.

These lines have been added in the record. Thommo mentioned that he had compiled a book of hymns and a complete order of service for his church that are in similar need of amending since the Internet has brought many more and better readings to light. But one has to really double-check because the Internet is full of misreadings too.


Walt Whitman, ca. 1887 (1819-1892)

Biography of Walt Whitman
Walt Whitman was born on May 31, 1819, on the West Hills of Long Island, New York. His mother, Louisa Van Velsor, of Dutch descent and Quaker faith, whom he adored, was barely literate. She never read his poetry, but gave him unconditional love. His father of English lineage, was a carpenter and builder of houses, and a stern disciplinarian. His main claim to fame was his friendship with Tom Paine, whose pamphlet Common Sense (1776), urging the colonists to throw off English domination was in his sparse library. It is doubtful that his father read any of his son's poetry, or would have understood it if he had. The senior Walt was too burdened with the struggle to support his ever-growing family of nine children, four of whom were handicapped.
Young Walt, the second of nine, was withdrawn from public school at the age of eleven to help support the family. At the age of twelve he started to learn the printer's trade, and fell in love with the written and printed word. He was mainly self-taught. He read voraciously, and became acquainted with Homer, Dante, Shakespeare and Scott early in life. He knew the Bible thoroughly, and as a God-intoxicated poet, desired to inaugurate a religion uniting all of humanity in bonds of friendship.

In 1836, at the age of 17, he began his career as an innovative teacher in the one-room school houses of Long Island. He permitted his students to call him by his first name, and devised learning games for them in arithmetic and spelling. He continued to teach school until 1841, when he turned to journalism as a full-time career. He soon became editor for a number of Brooklyn and New York papers. From 1846 to 1847 Whitman was the editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. Whitman went to New Orleans in 1848, where he was editor for a brief time of the "New Orleans Crescent". In that city he had become fascinated with the French language. Many of his poems contain words of French derivation. It was in New Orleans that he experienced at first hand the viciousness of slavery in the slave markets of that city.

On his return to Brooklyn in the fall of 1848, he founded a "free soil" newspaper, the "Brooklyn Freeman". Between 1848 and 1855 he developed the style of poetry that so astonished Ralph Waldo Emerson. When the poet's Leaves Of Grass reached him as a gift in July, 1855, the Dean of American Letters thanked him for "the wonderful gift" and said that he rubbed his eyes a little "to see if the sunbeam was no illusion." Walt Whitman had been unknown to Emerson prior to that occasion. The "sunbeam" that illuminated a great deal of Whitman's poetry was Music. It was one of the major sources of his inspiration. Many of his four hundred poems contain musical terms, names of instruments, and names of composers. He insisted that music was "greater than wealth, greater than buildings, ships, religions, paintings." In his final essay written one year before his death in 1891, he sums up his struggles of thirty years to write Leaves of Grass. The opening paragraph of his self-evaluation "A Backward Glance O'er Travel'd Road," begins with his reminiscences of "the best of songs heard." His concluding comments again return to thoughts about music, saying that "the strongest and sweetest songs remain yet to be sung."

"When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed" and "O Captain! My Captain!" (1866) are two of his more famous poems. A poet who was ardently singing on life and himself, Whitman is today claimed as one of the few truly great American men of letters.

Poem "When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer"
Whitman's "When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer" dramatizes the difference between a scientific knowledge of the cosmos and a direct human experience of the stars. Whitman's persona is noticing an essential difference between intellectual knowledge of a subject and the sensory/emotive experience of it. The first way of knowing (represented by the astronomer) excludes emotion, the second (embodied in the speaker) invites it. The intellectualized experience of life marks and organizes life into proofs, figures, columns, charts, diagrams that allow the thinker to make use of them, expressed here in quantitative terms of addition, division and measurement. This kind of knowing is popular, socially acceptable, and reputations can be built on it. Yet our speaker is rendered unaccountable. Something is lost. Something cannot be counted here. And it affects the speaker somatically: he is sick and tired of it. Sneaking away, he wanders off, away from the crowd, isolated as an individual consciousness confronting the object of the astronomer's lecture. Without the mediation of the intellect, he experiences, "in the mystical moist night-air," a kind of existential peace beyond words, beholding the firmament in a "perfect silence," No mediation, no understanding is needed beyond the direct apparition through the senses of the wonder of it.

There are times when practicing the art of criticism that we feel as if we are picking apart the remains of literature as in a morbid autopsy. We may feel more like the pedantic learn'd astronomer than the Walt Whitman persona. At those times, it is prudent to remind ourselves that despite all the analysis and fancy interpretations, reading literature should always return to that fundamental experience of the text, the play of language upon us, something analogous to Whitman's direct observation of the night sky.

Talitha mentioned that typography was an important point for Whitman. In first four lines of the “Learn'd Astronomer” there is an ascending progression in length. Talitha said there are two methods of acquiring knowledge, one by direct sensory perception, and the other by ratiocination (see above). The second may take away from the esthetic appreciation that artists gain by using the former method. Joe, however cited Feynman, the celebrated physicist and teacher,

He says: “ there all all kinds of interesting questions that a science knowledge only adds to the excitement, the mystery, and the aura of a flower (or a rainbow); it only adds, I don't see how it subtracts.” Feynman, who worked under Oppenheimer at Los Alamos, in an aside that was so influential as to be expanded into a book, declared that he could see beauty in a rainbow or a flower and that this appreciation was not diminished by his ability, using physics, chemistry and biology to explain how each came to be, but rather it added to his appreciation.

Obviously, the astronomer who expounded the cosmos in a lecture that Whitman heard was nothing like the late Carl Sagan who could fire lay people with enthusiasm to learn about the “billions and billions” of stars:

2. Poem “
O Captain, my Captain!”
When President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated on April 14, 1865, a war-weary nation was plunged into shock. The last great battles of the Civil War were still a recent memory, and the murder of the president seemed to be a bloody, pointless coda to four years of conflict and instability. There was a great outpouring of grief across the country, and poems and songs were written mourning the nation’s loss.

One American who grieved for the fallen president was the poet Walt Whitman. Whitman had lived in Washington for most of the war and was a great admirer of Lincoln, whom he felt embodied the American virtues of plain-spokenness, courage, and "horse-sense." He often saw the president riding around town on horseback, and the two men sometimes exchanged cordial bows.
Lincoln’s death inspired Whitman to write one of his most memorable works—a simple, three-stanza poem of sorrow that bore little resemblance to his other, more experimental writings. "O Captain! My Captain!" was published in New York’s Saturday Press in November of 1865, and was met with immediate acclaim. The poem’s evocation of triumph overshadowed by despair spoke to readers throughout the shattered nation, and it was widely reprinted and published in anthologies. "O Captain! My Captain!" became the most popular poem Whitman would ever write, and helped secure for him a position as one of the greatest American poets of the 19th century.

Walt Whitman (1819-1892) 'O Captain! My Captain!' Proof sheet with corrections in ink, 1888 from the Library of Congress.

Whitman was very particular about the appearance of his poems and paid careful attention to every detail of spelling and punctuation. When Whitman noticed several errors in one edition of "O Captain! My Captain!" he tore the page out and mailed it to the publishers with his corrections marked in ink. As you read this version of the poem, look at Whitman’s notes and ask yourself how his changes contributed to the poem’s impact.

Talitha mentioned she would like to show an example of Whitman's impatience with those who garbled this poem. His corrections on a page of the proof are available in the Library of Congress which houses over 20,000 items of Whitman manuscripts:

“Restlessly creative, Whitman was still revising "O Captain! My Captain!" decades after its creation. Pictured here is a proof sheet of the poem, with his corrections, which was readied for publication in 1888. The editors apparently had erred by picking up earlier versions of punctuation and whole lines that had appeared in the poem prior to Whitman's 1871 revision. On the back is written:

Dear Sirs
Thank you for the little books, No. 32 "Riverside Literature Series" --Somehow you have got a couple of bad perversions in "O Captain," & I send you a corrected sheet--
Walt Whitman “

The beat of the poem reminds one of Casabianca, said Talitha. There are internal rhymes:The port is near, the bells I hear, …
From fearful trip the victor ship …

There is a tight rhythm and a strong beat. It may sound a bit mawkish, but it is rescued by how heartfelt it is. It became a a poem recognised and recited throughout America after it was published in a magazine.

The fact that Whitman was second of nine children, some of whom died young, prompted some deliberation about families with several children. Thommo cited an email making the rounds:

If you knew a woman who was pregnant, and she had 8 kids already, three who were deaf, two who were blind, one mentally retarded, and she had syphilis; would you recommend that she have an abortion?
If you said yes, you just killed Beethoven.”

This has numerous inaccuracies; see

Thommo mentioned that China with its rapidly aging population is paying for the excesses of its one-child policy. Hitler was another one practised eugenics at the national level by policy. KumKum is sore about the girl children being killed by selective gender-based abortion; and killed by suffocation after birth in parts of India. It is a disgrace. Haryanvi men are now forced to buy women from Bangladesh for matrimony. Education is needed, said Joe. Talitha retorted that education alone is not enough, for many of these abortions are taking place among well-educated families. People have lost their sense of right and wrong.


Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer (1836-1870), painted by his brother, Valeriano.

On our recent travels in Spain we came across the statue of a poet to whom I had been introduced a long time ago by a fellow student – Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer, a romantic poet of the 1850s who was born in Sevilla, and worked there and in Madrid.

His famous work is Rimas y Leyendas, poems and short stories, which were collected after he died young by a friend of his in order to provide some money for his widow and three young children. There are but 76 poems amounting to 1200 or so lines. The most famous is No. 53 which has been set to music. I will make an effort in the translation by Kate Flores, and when reciting it in the original, to convey the anguish of a lover who has plainly been rebuffed (as Bécquer was in real life, not once but twice).

His father was an artist of some renown, and he and Valeriano, one of his brothers inherited the talent of painting and skilled draughtmanship. Indeed the best surviving likeness of Bécquer is by his brother, and we saw that painting in a museum next day. It is a very striking portrait of a handsome man. Why with such divine looks, coupled with his gift for the graphic arts and poetry, any woman would reject him, can be explained by the fact that he was poor and died of the poor poet’s disease, consumption.

He married and had three children. His dying wish was that his children be looked after, just as he had been looked after by his godmother and uncle when orphaned at age five. They financed his studies.

Bécquer studied art and painting, in addition to writing. His earnings were meager and haphazard and he never held a job very long in his short life. We are indebted to a friend of his, Correa, for the posthumous publication of Rimas y Leyendas, collected laboriously by him from people who had memorised his poems. If it were left to Bécquer the world would not be enjoying his legacy.

KumKum added some details about how Joe found the place in Sevilla in the Maria Luisa park where Bécquer's statue is on display, sadly with the branches of a tree almost enveloping his face. 

 Bécquer's statue in Maria Luisa Park, Sevilla

Thommo told about events when he landed in Sevilla and had difficulty finding the way to his hotel until some kind gent who spoke a little English called the hotel where Thommo was to stay, and then relayed directions precisely. It was nearby, as it turned out. KumKum mentioned that many people who should be familiar with their immediate surroundings, can mislead you, and gave the example of a bicycle renter in the Maria Luisa Park who made us travel three sides of a rectangle to reach the statue of Bécquer, instead of pointing us down the fourth side at whose corner the cycle-man had his booth.


G.K. Chesterton(1874-1936)

Chesterton was a prolific writer: 4,000 essays, 80+ books and so on. He was a Catholic apologist, a historian, a playwright, a novelist and a writer of detective fiction (Father Brown series). Joe mentioned he was a polemicist and public debater, and delighted in aphorisms. Thommo gave many examples of the latter:
Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly
Art, like morality, consists of drawing the line somewhere
The artistic temperament is a disease that afflicts amateurs
If there were no God, there would be no atheists
You cannot grow a beard in a moment of passion
I believe in getting into hot water; it keeps you clean.
Dogma does not mean the absence of thought, but the end of thought
Without a gentle contempt for education no man's education is complete

The reference in the last two lines of the poem, “The Donkey”, is to the Palm Sunday procession when Christ was welcomed to Jerusalem by the crowds only a week before he was put to death.
The second poem Thommo chose was unrelated to Chesterton; it is a daughter's day poem for Mar 23, a date which was recorded in his mobile. Thommo could not give any details about the author of the poem he recited, Kyle Underwood. Thommo had not read poems for decades since he left college, but ever since joining KRG he has come to appreciate it more and more. KumKum said she always loved poetry. Her BA was in Geography, and then she did an MA in Bengali in Kolkata, then an MA in Education in USA, and again a third MA in the Teaching of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL). She is sorry that Geography has been forgotten as a subject, and subsumed with Social Studies in India and USA. She wanted Joe to get her the geography text by L. Dudley Stamp which she read.

Thommo narrated an aside about when he was in line to get a US visa in Chennai. The guy in front got a hard time from the American interviewer and was refused a visa. Thommo went forward apprehensively; but when he answered 'Geography' when asked what subject his sister at George Washington U was teaching, the whole process became as easy as falling off a log, for the interviewer too was a geography guy. Thommo's sister is Elizabeth Chacko, unmarried and Case Professor of Geography at GWU:

From there the discussion veered (via Geography) to the ruins of the Vijayanagar kingdom in Hampi, northern Karnataka. The entire wooden structures have vanished, burnt down by Muslim invaders, although the structures of stone remain and the Archaeological Survey of India is at pains to excavate more ruins and display the amazing heritage place covering a wider area than anything Joe has seen anywhere in the world.

Thommo said Luís de Camões the Portuguese poet, had written about the glory of Hampi.

The Poems

Poems of Christina Rossetti (
1830 - 1894)
1. When I am dead, my dearest
When I am dead, my dearest,
Sing no sad songs for me;
Plant thou no roses at my head,
Nor shady cypress tree:
Be the green grass above me
With showers and dewdrops wet;
And if thou wilt, remember,
And if thou wilt, forget.

I shall not see the shadows,
I shall not feel the rain;
I shall not hear the nightingale
Sing on, as if in pain:
And dreaming through the twilight
That doth not rise nor set,
Haply I may remember,
And haply may forget.

2. The Key Note

Where are the songs I used to know,
Where are the notes I used to sing?
I have forgotten everything
I used to know so long ago;
Summer has followed after Spring;
Now Autumn is so shrunk and sere,
I scarcely think a sadder thing
Can be the Winter of my year.

Yet Robin sings through Winter's rest,
When bushes put their berries on;
While they their ruddy jewels don,
He sings out of a ruddy breast;
The hips and haws and ruddy breast
Make one spot warm where snowflakes lie
They break and cheer the unlovely rest
Of Winter's pause--and why not I?

 3. No, thank you, John
 I never said I loved you, John:
Why will you tease me, day by day,
And wax a weariness to think upon
With always "do" and "pray"?

You know I never loved you, John;
No fault of mine made me your toast:
Why will you haunt me with a face as wan
As shows an hour-old ghost?

I dare say Meg or Moll would take
Pity upon you, if you'd ask:
And pray don't remain single for my sake
Who can't perform that task.

I have no heart?--Perhaps I have not;
But then you're mad to take offence
That I don't give you what I have not got:
Use your own common sense.

Poems of Walt Whitman (1819-1892)
When I heard the Learn’d Astronomer
WHEN I heard the learn’d astronomer;
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me;
When I was shown the charts and the diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them;
When I, sitting, heard the astronomer, where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick;
Till rising and gliding out, I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

2. "O Captain! My Captain!"
O Captain my Captain! our fearful trip is done,
The ship has weathered every rack, the prize we sought is won,
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring;
But O heart! heart! heart!
O the bleeding drops of red,
Where on the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.

O Captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the bells;
Rise up--for you the flag is flung for you the bugle trills,
For you bouquets and ribboned wreaths for you the shores a-crowding,
For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning;
Here Captain! dear father!
This arm beneath your head!
It is some dream that on the deck,
You've fallen cold and dead.

My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still;
My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will;
The ship is anchored safe and sound, its voyage closed and done;
From fearful trip the victor ship comes in with object won;
Exult O shores, and ring O bells!
But I, with mournful tread,
Walk the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.

Poems of Gustavo Adolfo Becquer (1836 – 1870)
Volverán las oscuras golondrinas
En tu balcon sus nidos á colgar,
Y, otra vez, con el ala á sus cristales
Jugando llamarán.

Pero aquellas que el vuelo refrenaban
Tu hermosura y mi dicha á contemplar,
Aquellas que aprendieron nuestros nombres.
Esas... ¡no volverán!

Volverán las tupidas madreselvas
De tu jardin las tapias á escalar,
Y otra vez á la tarde, aun más hermosas,
Sus flores se abrirán;

Pero aquellas, cuajadas de rocío,
Cuyas gotas mirábamos temblar
Y caer, como lágrimas del día.
Esas... ¡no volverán!

Volverán del amor en tus oídos
Las palabras ardientes á sonar;
Tu corazón de su profundo sueño
Tal vez despertará;

Pero mudo y absorto y de rodillas,
Como se adora á Dios ante su altar,
Como yo te he querido. desengáñate,
Asi no te querrán!

      The darkling swallows will come again
Upon your balcony to hang their nests
And once more their wings brush your windows
As they playfully call;

   But those that lingered in their flight
Your beauty and my gladness to behold,
The ones that learned our names:
    Those will come back no more!

   The entwining honeysuckle will come again
Upon the walls of your garden to climb
And once more at evening, lovelier still,
    Their buds will open;

  But those that hung with studded dew,
Whose drops we watched tremble
And fall, like the tears of the day:
    Those will comeback no more!

   Upon your ears there will fall again
The sound of burning words of love;
Your heart then from its slumber deep,
    Perhaps will wake;

   But mute, enraptured, kneeling,
As God before His altar is adored,
As I loved you … be not deceived:
    You will be loved no more!
(translated by Kate Flores)

2. Rima LXVII
¡Qué hermoso es ver el día
coronado de fuego levantarse,
y a su beso de lumbre
brillar las olas y encenderse el aire!

¡Qué hermoso es tras la lluvia
del triste otoño en la azulada tarde,
de las húmedas flores
el perfume beber hasta saciarse!

¡Qué hermoso es cuando en copos
la blanca nieve silenciosa cae,
de las inquietas llamas
ver las rojizas lenguas agitarse!

¡Qué hermoso es cuando hay sueño
dormir bien… y roncar como un sochantre…
y comer… y engordar… y qué desgracia
que esto solo no baste!

How beautiful to see the day.
Arise and be crowned with fire

And by its radiant kiss

Dazzle the waves and ignite the air!

After a dank autumnal rain
How lovely blooms the azure,

And how the scent of flowers

The breath of your lungs overpowers!

How beautiful the flakes of snow
As they descend in silence,

And to see the red tongues stirring

From flames, surging and tossing!

How beautiful to soundly sleep
When drowsy, and snore like a sexton,

To eat and grow fat – and how unfortunate,

That alone is not enough!
(translated by Joe Cleetus)

Los suspiros son aire, y van al aire.
Las lágrimas son agua, y van al mar.
Dime, mujer: cuando el amor se olvida,
¿Sabes tú adónde va?

The breath is air and there it blows.
The tears are water, to the sea they go.
But tell me, woman, where it goes
When love is what you forego?
(translated by Joe Cleetus)

The Donkey
G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936)
When fishes flew and forests walked
And figs grew upon thorn,
Some moment when the moon was blood
Then surely I was born;

With monstrous head and sickening cry
And ears like errant wings,
The devil's walking parody
On all four-footed things.

The tattered outlaw of the earth,
Of ancient crooked will;
Starve, scourge, deride me: I am dumb,
I keep my secret still.

Fools! For I also had my hour;
One far fierce hour and sweet:
There was a shout about my ears,
And palms before my feet.

2. Who Is She?
By Kyle J. Underwood
She's a soft cool rain on a hot summer’s day.
She makes me laugh with the funny things she has to say.

She's the beat of my heart, and the air that I breathe.
She's the sun and the wind, and autumn’s golden leaves.

She's the pride that I feel when I know she's done what’s right.
She's that warm feeling I get, when I remember tucking her in at night.

She is homework and sports, and a busy social life.
She has this beautiful smile that could light the darkest night.

She is the scared feeling I have when she stays out late.
Or the feeling that I am losing her, when she wants to date.

She's the mixed emotions I have, as I watch her mature and grow.
I tell myself she will never leave, but, I know in my heart that someday she will go.

I hope the man that steals her heart, will treat her like a queen.
Because she deserves so much more, than a man that treats her mean.

I will always cherish the wonderful times we have had.
The best part of my life was being her dad.

So now you know who she is, she's my little girl.
I love her with all my heart and I always will.

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