Monday, May 13, 2013

Poetry Session ‒ May 10, 2013

With only four readers on hand, KRG had its lowest ever attendance at a session. Thommo offered a selection of mainly French poets, and Anaïs Nin, who is known for her diaries. KumKum read some poems from Robert Graves.

 Kavita read the poem Invictus, now, as before, a school children’s elocution favourite because of its stirring lines. Joe presented poems of the 1996 Nobel Laureate, Wisława Szymborska. Here are the readers at the end

 Thommo, KumKum, Kavita, Joe

To read more click below …

Full Account and Record of the Poetry Session May 10, 2013

Present: Kavita, KumKum, Thommo,  Joe
Absent: Priya (out of station), Bobby (out of sorts excuse), Mathew (out of station), Sunil (delayed by daughter & traffic), Zakia (out of station), Sivaram (Ayurveda excuse), Gopa (out of station), Talitha (out of station)

June 14 is the date set for reading Zorba The Greek by Nikos Kazantzakis (selection of Gopa and Sivaram). July 12 is Poetry and P.G. Wodehouse will be on Aug 9.

This was the lowest ever attendance at a KRG session. Please send the word around we need four more members who are reliable in attendance and subscribe to the Charter on our website. Thommo will try to get Liz Thomas (related to Kavita) to join. She did librarianship professionally and her being in Yacht Club Enclave should help.

Thommo read short poems by four poets of the early twentieth century, chiefly French: Alain Bosquet (1919-1998), Robert Desnos (1900-1945), Paul Éluard (1895-1952), and Anaïs Nin (1903-1977).

 Alain Bosquet

Alain Bosquet was a French poet who came from a diverse background. His father was Ukrainian, and translated Rainer Maria Rilke's poetry into Russian. His mother was German-Jewish from Alsace. He fought in the war (WWII) and was evacuated to England. In 1942 he came to New York and helped to edit a magazine of the Free French forces. There he met a galaxy of writers and artists from around the world. After the war he joined Albert Camus in editing the magazine, Combat. He began contributing reviews and essays to well-known literary magazines. He also taught at American universities. He wrote scores of books on poetry and won all the major awards in France, including the Prix Goncourt. He had the good fortune through his friendships to have his poetry translated into English by men like Samuel Beckett and Lawrence Durrell. His complete poems were published in a 900-page volume in 1995.

 Robert Desnos

Robert Desnos, born 1900 in Paris, started publishing poems in 1917, and published a book of surrealist aphorisms in 1922. He tried his hand at ‘automatic writing.’ He was part of a group of surrealist writers that included André Breton and Paul Éluard. See Breton’s manifesto of surrealism:

He got to know several American authors who went to Paris in the 1930s: Hemingway and Dos Passos. During the war Desnos became a fighter in the Résistance. He was captured and imprisoned in concentration camps where he died of typhoid within weeks of the camp’s liberation.

 Paul Éluard, circa 1930

Paul Éluard was a surrealist poet too. He suffered from TB at an early age and met his first wife, Gala, in a Swiss sanatorium. He was introduced to several poets of France at the age of 23, becoming known to André Breton, Jean Paulhan, and others. Gala left him for the surrealist painter, Salvador Dali. But he found another wife who died prematurely of TB and inspired many poems. He died of a heart attack in 1952, leaving a legacy of hundreds of poems which have been translated into multiple languages.

Anaïs Nin

Anaïs Nin was a feminist, known for her erotica, written as a commission from an American collector, for whom Henry Miller also wrote stuff. Her diary is her famous work. She was born in France of mixed parentage, part Cuban, part Danish. She married a rich banker who let her pursue her artistic aims. She wrote critiques (the first of D.H. Lawrence). She underwent therapy with a psychoanalyst, Otto Rank, and describes it as a turning point: “As he talked, I thought of my difficulties with writing, my struggles to articulate feelings not easily expressed. Of my struggles to find a language for intuition, feeling, instincts which are, in themselves, elusive, subtle, and wordless.”

During the war she left France with her husband for New York city. In the late forties she began a dual life with an actor-turned-forest-ranger (Rupert Pole) on the West coast and her husband, Guiler, on the East coast. Her enduring work is her diary published unexpurgated (with all the references to famous people, authors, artists, and psychoanalysts, and to her husband) after her death in 1977 by Pole. You can read all about it at:

About Bosquet’s poem No Need, simple in conception and quirky in execution, KumKum thought the last word was ’explain.’ Joe whose left eye acts as a magnifying glass easily read it as ‘understand’ in very tiny print.

The second poem, a curse by Robert Desnos, is aimed, surrealist fashion, at somebody in the universe; just who, is the question. Joe related a joke of cricket sledging: as Ian Botham took guard in an Ashes match, the bowler Marsh welcomed him to the wicket with the immortal words: "So how's your wife and my kids?" Botham replied:" The wife's fine, but the kids are a bit retarded." Thommo was inspired to relate the joke of Lady Astor and Winston Churchill. Astor said: "Winston, if you were my husband, I'd put poison in your coffee." Churchill replied: "Nancy, if you were my wife, I'd drink it."

The third poem by Paul Éluard lays out an elaborate excuse for shagging. For there was nothing else to do, under the circumstances!

The last poem Thommo chose, by Anaïs Nin, is more of an aphorism than a poem; it is constructed with wonderful insight and only the line divisions signify it is intended as verse rather than a one-liner in prose. KumKum called it ‘very nice!’ Joe was mistaken to think of Anaïs Nin as lesbian. Not at all, she had a strong heterosexual drive and was always on the lookout for a lover. KumKum also recalled she was a fashion person who didn’t shrink from wearing turbans.

 Anaïs Nin with Rupert Pole, her West coast husband

KumKum read from the poems of Robert Graves (1895-1985)
Robert Graves was born on July 24, 1895, in Wimbledon, England.
As a young man he was interested in mountain climbing and boxing. He got a scholarship to study at St. John's College, Oxford. He joined the army and served till 1918. All through his youth and continuing he composed poems. During his time in the Service, his first book of poems, Over The Brazier, was published.

 Robert Graves

In 1918 Robert Graves married Nancy Nicholson and took up a teaching position at St. John's College, Oxford. His poems up to this time were about nature, bucolic pleasures and WWI of which he had firsthand experience. He had already established himself as a poet.

In 1926 Graves met Laura Riding, an American poet and critic. It was an event that changed his life in many ways. Ms. Riding critiqued his writing, pointing out their flaws: digressiveness, philosophising, and a general rambling on about things.

How far Robert Graves changed his style of writing under Laura Riding's influence is not of great importance; what is important is that it changed their personal lives. In 1927 Graves separated from his first wife. He published his autobiographical book, Goodbye to All That, in 1929 and it continues to be in print, a classic. In the same year Graves went to live in Majorca with Laura Riding. He published more collections of poems and volumes of criticism. Some of these essays were co-authored with Laura Riding. During his time in Majorca, Graves tried his hand at writing novels. He said it was to earn money. His historical novel, I, Claudius, and its sequels came out at that time. BBC later produced a popular television series based on Graves' novel by the same name.

During the Spanish civil war Robert Graves and Laura Riding fled to America. There both found new lovers. After the WWII Graves and his new partner returned to Majorca. He continued to write, compose poems, and translate. During his lifetime Graves earned a fair share of fame and success. In 1961-65 Robert Graves returned to occupy the prestigious chair of Professor of Poetry at the University of Oxford. The last decade of his life was sad on account of declining health and failing mental faculties. He died in Majorca in 1985 at the age of 90 from heart failure, having over 140 works to his credit.

Majorca is famous for pearls. About the first poem, A Pinch of Salt, KumKum noted that in America in winter they leave salt out for birds. Thommo spoke of elephants in plantation regions expecting to lick salt and getting unruly if the salt is not put out. Their bodies need the salt. The second poem, Counting the Beats, has words ringing to the beats the poet talks about. It is a lovely unison of sense and rhythm. At the third poem, Dew-drop and Diamond, Joe stopped to discover the sense of comparing the shine of a dew-drop  to a diamond's glitter. It’s obvious the girl being compared to a dew-drop comes off better than the girl compared to a diamond, but precisely why, the poet leaves the reader to intuit. Artificiality? Hardness? Ability to cut and splinter? Is Graves comparing Nancy Nicholson, his first wife, to Laura Riding, his second? Or is it the third partner whom he never married?

Kavita read the often-cited poem by William Ernest Henley (1849-1903) called Invictus (‘Undefeated’ in Latin). It is technically perfect. The poem claims the author to be morally superior for having withstood the blows of fate. It is his resilience following a limb amputation that is on display.

 William Ernest Henley

Another poem of his proclaims the virtue of fighting for God and country; it is called Pro Rege Nostro. It has the following lines repeated in a refrain:
What have I done for you, England, my England?
What is there I would not do, England my own?

Joe thought of Invictus as pompous. How can a guy set himself up as a model of heroic virtue? It is not the immodesty of it, but the fact the poet immediately loses the sympathy of the reader. Here’s what the poet and critic John Ciardi says: “One feels that Henley is not really reacting from his own profoundest depths but that he is making some over-dramatic speech about pessimism. There is a failure of character in the tone he has assumed. The poet has presented himself as unflinchingly valiant. The reader cannot help but find him merely inflated and self-dramatizing.”

Nevertheless the words
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

shall live on, and inspire those who do not want to kowtow to others in life.

Joe  read three of the four poems he had selected by Wisława Szymborska (1923-2012).

 Wisława Szymborska in 1996

Wisława Szymborska was born in 1923 and lived right into the 21st century, She died last year and was composing poems until the end. She lived her entire adult life in her native Krakow in Poland. Although she experienced the catastrophes of the WWII, and then the authoritarian rule of a Communist state, she seems to have escaped the worst. She started writing poems quite early and when someone asked her soon after she won the Nobel for Lit in 1996, why her work was so sparse (about 350 poems) she replied tartly it was because she kept a waste-basket by her desk.

Initially, she was a sympathiser of Communist rule and even wrote some poems to celebrate Lenin et al. It does not matter in her case, for like Arundhati Roy she mainly celebrates the small things, and occasionally where the small things intersect with the big things. Apolitical and non-religious, sceptical and ironic – all these adjectives would fit her. She writes herself out of her poems, and therefore it has a quality of universality.  Being from central Europe she was fortunate to escape the disease of unintelligibility that afflicted post-modernism in the West. If you pay attention, she keeps it quite simple and you won’t have to re-read if you read it slowly to get at what she is saying. I think you will like her words, as I did.

She won the highest honour of Poland in 1985, but while she was a widely read poet in her own land, recognition worldwide came later. She published sixteen poems in The New Yorker between 1992 and 2006. Her translator of this volume (View with a Grain of Sand, a culling from several of her earlier volumes which has sold over 100,000 copies in America) is very good; he is Stanislaw Baranczak, himself a poet, aided by Clare Cavanagh. I have selected 4 poems and shall read as many as time permits.


At the end the company exchanged some stories about cricket, e.g., Ravi Shastri winning an Audi in Australia in 1985 and driving round the ground in a lap of honour. Thommo’s mom would watch if India was playing, and once when being carried away after a fall at home, wanted to know the score. Thommo himself was fed up once when he got a ticket to Eden Gardens to watch India play England in a Test Match with endless defensive tak-tak strokes. Everyone recalled Pearson Surita, the best among the radio commentators, and Vizzy (the Maharajkumar of Vizianagaram), who was a player and organiser of cricket before he became a commentator.

From there the readers digressed to people falling asleep at long sermons in church. This originated from a discussion of Bertie Wooster’s wager on who will give the longest sermon; see

Joe gave his version of Father Fernandes of Santa Cruz Basilica in Fort Kochi taking off from the words of the Gospel ‘I am the vine and you are the branches’ to talking about the merits of wines in general, the process of  winemaking by pressing grapes with the feet in Italy (he himself had participated), and then to California where he visited the vineyards of Napa Valley, and thence to the vineyards of N India as he said (turned out to be Nashik). It took a good 25 mins before the wine tour ended and he could come back to the meaning of Christ’s words.

Of course, the reverse of Nashik being in N India is that everyone from the South used to be labelled a ‘Madrassi’ in Calcutta. Joe would close his eyes and shift his mental attention once the sermon began; that’s okay, but  Thommo’s friend would nod off in Thoburn Methodist church in Dharamtollah right in front of the priest, as Rev Morgan was speaking from the pulpit.

The Poems

Thommo four poems
No Need by Alain Bosquet
The elephant's trunk
is for picking up pistachios:
no need to bend over.
The giraffe's neck
is for grazing on stars:
no need to fly.
The chameleon's skin,
green, blue, lavender, white,
as it wishes,
is for hiding from ravenous animals:
no need to flee.
The turtle's shell,
is for sleeping inside,
even in winter:
no need for a house.
The poet's poem,
is for saying all of that
and a thousand thousand thousand other things:
no need to understand.

translated by F.J. Bergmann

Dove in the Arch by Robert Desnos
Dove in the Arch

be the father of the bride
of the blacksmith who forged the iron for the axe
with which the woodsman hacked down the oak
from which the bed was carved
in which was conceived the great-grandfather
of the man who was driving the carriage
in which your mother met your father.

Curfew by Paul Éluard
What else could we do, for the doors were guarded,
What else could we do, for they had imprisoned us,
What else could we do, for the streets were forbidden us,
What else could we do, for the town was asleep?
What else could we do, for she hungered and thirsted,
What else could we do, for we were defenceless,
What else could we do, for night had descended,
What else could we do, for we were in love?

Risk by Anaïs Nin
And when the day came
when the risk
to remain tight
in a bud
was more painful
than the risk
it took
to Blossom

KumKum  poems by Robert Graves
A Pinch of Salt
When a dream is born in you
With a sudden clamorous pain,
When you know the dream is true
And lovely, with no flaw nor stain,
O then, be careful, or with sudden clutch
You'll hurt the delicate thing you prize so much.
Dreams are like a bird that mocks,
Flirting the feathers of his tail.
When you seize at the salt-box,
Over the hedge you'll see him sail.
Old birds are neither caught with salt nor chaff:
They watch you from the apple bough and laugh.
Poet, never chase the dream.
Laugh yourself, and turn away.
Mask your hunger; let it seem
Small matter if he come or stay;
But when he nestles in your hand at last,
Close up your fingers tight and hold him fast.

Counting the Beats
You, love, and I,
(He whispers) you and I,
And if no more than only you and I
What care you or I ?

Counting the beats,
Counting the slow heart beats,
The bleeding to death of time in slow heart beats,
Wakeful they lie.
Cloudless day,
Night, and a cloudless day,
Yet the huge storm will burst upon their heads one day
From a bitter sky.
Where shall we be,
(She whispers) where shall we be,
When death strikes home, O where then shall we be
Who were you and I ?
Not there but here,
(He whispers) only here,
As we are, here, together, now and here,
Always you and I.
Counting the beats,
Counting the slow heart beats,
The bleeding to death of time in slow heart beats,
Wakeful they lie.

Dew-drop and Diamond
The difference between you and her
(whom I to you did once prefer)
Is clear enough to settle:
She like a diamond shone, but you
Shine like an early drop of dew
Poised on a red rose petal.

The dew-drop carries in its eye
Mountain and forest, sea and sky,
With every change of weather;
Contrariwise, a diamond splits
The prospect into idle bits
That none can piece together.

Lost Love
His eyes are quickened so with grief,
He can watch a grass or leaf
Every instant grow; he can
Clearly through a flint wall see,
Or watch the startled spirit flee
From the throat of a dead man.
Across two counties he can hear
And catch your words before you speak.
The woodlouse or the maggot's weak
Clamour rings in his sad ear,
And noise so slight it would surpass
Credence--drinking sound of grass,
Worm talk, clashing jaws of moth
Chumbling holes in cloth;
The groan of ants who undertake
Gigantic loads for honour's sake
(Their sinews creak, their breath comes thin);
Whir of spiders when they spin,
And minute whispering, mumbling, sighs
Of idle grubs and flies.
This man is quickened so with grief,
He wanders god-like or like thief
Inside and out, below, above,
Without relief seeking lost love.

Kavita  poem by Wiliam Ernest Henley
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

Joe  Four poems by Wisława Szymborska translated by Stanislaw Baranczak, & Clare Cavanagh
The Joy of Writing
Why does this written doe bound through these written woods?
For a drink of written water from a spring
whose surface will image her soft muzzle?
Why does she lift her head; does she hear something?
Perched on four slim legs borrowed from the truth,
she pricks up her ears beneath my fingertips.
Silence this word also rustles across the page
and parts the boughs
that have sprouted from the word "woods."
Lying in wait, set to pounce on the blank page,
are letters up to no good,
clutches of clauses so subordinate
they'll never let her get away.

Each drop of ink contains a fair supply
of hunters, equipped with squinting eyes behind their sights,
prepared to swarm the sloping pen at any moment,
surround the doe, and slowly aim their guns.

They forget that what's here isn't life.
Other laws, black on white, obtain.
The twinkling of an eye will take as long as I say,
and will, if I wish, divide into tiny eternities,
full of bullets stopped in mid-flight.
Not a thing will ever happen unless I say so.
Without my blessing, not a leaf will fall,
not a blade of grass will bend beneath that little hoof's full stop.

Is there then a world
where I rule absolutely on fate?
A time I bind with chains of signs?
An existence become endless at my bidding?

The joy of writing.
The power of preserving.
Revenge of a mortal hand.

Oh, the leaky boundaries of man-made states!
How many clouds float past them with impunity;
how much desert sand shifts from one land to another;
how many mountain pebbles tumble onto foreign soil
in provocative hops!

Need I mention every single bird that flies in the face of frontiers
or alights on the roadblock at the border?
A humble robin still, its tail resides abroad
while its beak stays home. If that weren't enough, it won't stop

Among innumerable insects, I'll single out only the ant
between the border guard's left and right boots
blithely ignoring the questions "Where from?" and "Where to?"

Oh, to register in detail, at a glance, the chaos
prevailing on every continent!
Isn't that a privet on the far bank
smuggling its hundred-thousandth leaf across the river?
And who but the octopus, with impudent long arms,
would disrupt the sacred bounds of territorial waters?

And how can we talk of order overall
when the very placement of the stars
leaves us doubting just what shines for whom?

Not to speak of the fog's reprehensible drifting!
And dust blowing all over the steppes
as if they hadn't been partitioned!
And the voices coasting on obliging airwaves,
that conspiratorial squeaking, those indecipherable mutters!

Only what is human can truly be foreign.
The rest is mixed vegetation, subversive moles, and wind.

I should have begun with this: the sky.
A window minus sill, frame, and panes.
An aperture, nothing more,
but wide open.

I don't have to wait for a starry night,
I don't have to crane my neck
to get a look at it.
I've got the sky behind my back, at hand, and on my eyelids.
The sky binds me tight
and sweeps me off my feet.

Even the highest mountains
are no closer to the sky
than the deepest valleys.
There's no more of it in one place
than another.
A mole is no less in seventh heaven
than the owl spreading her wings.
The object that falls in an abyss
falls from sky to sky.

Grainy, gritty, liquid,
inflamed, or volatile
patches of sky, specks of sky,
gusts and heaps of sky.
The sky is everywhere,
even in the dark beneath your skin.
I eat the sky, I excrete the sky.
I'm a trap within a trap,
an inhabited inhabitant,
an embrace embraced,
a question answering a question.

Division into sky and earth —
it's not the proper way
to contemplate this wholeness.
It simply lets me go on living
at a more exact address
where I can be reached promptly
if I'm sought.
My identifying features
are rapture and despair.

See how efficient it still is,
how it keeps itself in shape—
our century's hatred.
How easily it vaults the tallest obstacles.
How rapidly it pounces, tracks us down.

It's not like other feelings.
At once both older and younger.
It gives birth itself to the reasons
that give it life.
When it sleeps, it's never eternal rest.
And sleeplessness won't sap its strength; it feeds it.

One religion or another
whatever gets it ready, in position.
One fatherland or another
whatever helps it get a running start.
Justice also works well at the outset
until hate gets its own momentum going.
Hatred. Hatred.
Its face twisted in a grimace
of erotic ecstasy.

Oh these other feelings,
listless weaklings.
Since when does brotherhood
draw crowds?
Has compassion
ever finished first?
Does doubt ever really rouse the rabble?
Only hatred has just what it takes.

Gifted, diligent, hard-working.
Need we mention all the songs it has composed?
All the pages it has added to our history books?
All the human carpets it has spread
over countless city squares and football fields?

Let's face it:
it knows how to make beauty.
The splendid fire-glow in midnight skies.
Magnificent bursting bombs in rosy dawns.
You can't deny the inspiring pathos of ruins
and a certain bawdy humor to be found
in the sturdy column jutting from their midst.

Hatred is a master of contrast-
between explosions and dead quiet,
red blood and white snow.
Above all, it never tires
of its leitmotif - the impeccable executioner
towering over its soiled victim.

It's always ready for new challenges.
If it has to wait awhile, it will.
They say it's blind. Blind?
It has a sniper's keen sight
and gazes unflinchingly at the future
as only it can.

1 comment:

Shipra said...

Though attended by only four members of KRG, it was no less enjoyable than the well-attended sessions we have usually. There was as much variety in the selection of poets and poems.

But, we did miss our friends who could not attend the session. Hope, there will be 100% attendence for the next session, when we will discuss Nikos Kazantzakis's book "Zorba The Greek".