Sunday, October 4, 2015

Poetry Session – Oct 1, 2015

Talitha, Shoba, Pamela

It is rare that two readers select the same poet, and another reader repeats the same poet and same poem, unknowingly. Both unusual events took place as seven readers met to perform their chosen poems.

KumKum, Zakia, Sunil

Two anniversaries were marked by the selection of poets. Dante Alighieri, born 1265, had his 750th birth anniversary celebrated this year in June. In a New Yorker article John Kleiner attempts to explain why he occupies so high a place in Italy, and in world literature:

Dante Alighieri (1265 – 1321)

The other anniversary was the 150th year after publication of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in 1865

The Mad Hatter's Tea Party

You can see the obvious enjoyment on our faces at the end of the session which a few could not attend who had confirmed:

Sunil, Zakia, Pamela, KumKum, Talitha, Shoba, Joe

Full Account of the KRG Poetry Reading on Oct 1, 2015
Present: Talitha, Zakia, Sunil, KumKum, Shoba, Pamela, Joe

Sylvia Plath and her two children, Frieda and Nicholas

Pamela selected the poem Wintering by Sylvia Plath to recite. The poem reflects the wintry feeling in climates where the long stretch of cold weather confines one indoors, and shortens the hours of daylight, and leads to depressed feelings in normal individuals. In the case of Sylvia Plath who suffered life-long from clinical depression, it must have been even more pronounced. Many women identify her with death, suicide and depression. See

Sunil thought the initial part of the poem was about her feeling depressed, comparing her state of mind to the greyness of winter. Shoba too thought winter as a time when it is hard to escape depression. Pamela saw a stillness described in the poem, an ominous feeling of dropping dead. KumKum mentioned the mounds of snow that would pile up and how early the darkness would cover the earth (in the higher latitudes it may be dark by 4pm in winter).

The last stanza:
Will the hive survive will the gladiolas
Succeed in banking their fires

ends on a hopeful note. Will she survive, is the unspoken question. Pamela inquired if there was anything racial in the black (bees) and white (snow) images of the verse
Now they ball in a mass,
Mind against all that white

Sunil didn't think so; it was just her state of mind. Talitha imagined the 'midwife's extractor' in the second line of the poem as representing an abortion!

Karen Ford affords us a well-considered interpretation of the poem at

She shares the experience of wintering with her bees, and she will learn a great deal from them. Like them, she has put up her winter stores: "I have my honey, / Six jars of it, / Six cat’s eyes in the wine cellar." These jars of honey are clearly more than just pantry supplies, however. It is as though she has gathered that overwhelming "sweetness" of the earlier poems and stored it where it is available, but also contained. In fact, the number of jars supports the notion that they serve a symbolic purpose: Plath was married for six years, and they may represent that period of memories and emotions that now must be put away. Moreover, "cat’s-eye" is the name of a semiprecious gem distinctive for its band of reflected light that shifts position as the stone is turned. Thus the jars contain treasures that have great value to her and great beauty. And finally, in their similarity to actual cats’ eyes, the jars suggest the power of their vision, especially the ability to see in the darkness she is facing

Please read the full piece for it brings out the alliteration at points in the poem, and considers how the speaker in the poem learns from the bees that spring will follow upon this time of introspection and stillness, of uniting resources and waiting.

For a further gloss on the poem, and its child-bearing meaning see the comments at

For a good biography of Sylvia Plath see

She was born in 1932. Her father died when she was eight and this reduced their financial circumstances. She exorcised her father in the cruel poem, Daddy in these words:
You stand at the blackboard, daddy,
In the picture I have of you,
A cleft in your chin instead of your foot
But no less a devil for that, no not
Any less the black man who

Bit my pretty red heart in two.

Her mother taught typing, and she went to the prestigious women's college, Smith. A bright student, she won awards and published stories and poetry in magazines. However, she suffered from bipolar disorder, being excitedly elated some of the time, and quite depressed at others. Her experiences of the recovery from an attempted suicide at age nineteen allowed her to write her only novel, The Bell Jar.
Sylvia Plath with Ted Hughes

Her momentous turn in life was going to Cambridge University on a Fulbright grant and meeting the poet Ted Hughes, who even then had a considerable reputation. Diary entries show she knew it would be the death of her. You can read about how she bit his cheek until it bled on their first meeting:

There is an erotic poem she wrote immediately after meeting Ted Hughes called Pursuit in which she depicts him as a panther stalking her (who stalked whom has always been a moot point in their relationship): 
There is a panther stalks me down:
One day I’ll have my death of him;

Plath committed suicide in 1963 after six years of marriage to Hughes and one year of separation, by turning on the gas, but saved her two children by Hughes, Frieda and Nicholas, then three and one year old respectively.

It was a few years before that she published Colossus. The second volume of poetry, Ariel, was to become famous posthumously. Allegedly the immediate trigger for the suicide was her discovery of an affair Hughes was having with Assia Wevill, the beautiful wife of a friend of his. Assia in turn gassed herself six years later, but took her child, Shura, by Hughes with her, when she realised Hughes would not marry her

Assia Wevill

Adding to the sorrowful legacy was Nicholas, the son of Hughes and Plath, when he committed suicide in Alaska, where he worked as a fish biologist at the university.

Michael Ondaatje

Michael Ondaatje is known worldwide as a fiction writer of the first rank. His novel The English Patient got the Booker Prize in 1992. The movie adaptation of the book was also a runaway success and won nine Oscars in 1997, including that for Best Picture. In Sep 2008, we read Ondaatje's novel, Anil's Ghost at KRG; Joe & Talitha will remember that strange novel set in Sri Lanka.

He has written many novels and published several collections of his poems. Ondaatje excels in both prose and poetry as we will see. Even in his novels, reviewers comment on the lyrical quality of the prose. He has been feted with many national and international awards for both forms of literary expression. Ondaatje's success as a fiction writer has somewhat obscured his identity as a poet.
Michael Ondaatje has also been an inspiring teacher of English Literature; he has taught in several Universities in Canada. He was born in Ceylon in 1943. He spent part of his childhood in England, and finally emigrated to Canada in 1962. He now lives in Toronto. You can read a good biography of him at the Poetry Foundation site

He is a burgher, of mixed Dutch and Sinhala parentage, said Talitha, who also instructed us how to pronounce the name. It's vocalised here at

Talitha added that Michael Ondaatje has endowed an annual prize intended to encourage English writing by Sri Lankans; it is named after his mother, Doris Gratiaen. The Trust’s prize of Rs 2 Lakh is not enormous but its impact matters in terms of visibility and credibility. The process is highly competitive and brings the author into the company of previous winners, many of whom have a large following. Read more at

The first poem was about a scar accidentally cut into a girl by the speaker when young. Now he's married and settled and when the thought of the accidental scar he inflicted long ago comes to mind, he wonders whether the girl hides it now, or wears it proudly. It ends with a wistful desire that instead of an accident, it should have been a cut filled with love! Poets make up poems about nothing events, said Joe; this was in response to Talitha who said the scar was not important. KumKum added that however trivial the subject matter, the writing had to be elevated to aspire to being a poem.

The second poem, Bearhug, paints a scene of a child waiting in bed for one last hug, from the dad.
How long was he standing there
like that before I came?

Sunil said some children wait for a hug that never comes. Pamela mentioned her mother, who when she was bed-ridden would ask for a hug at night, and she being busy would go about her work, and forget to give that hug. KumKum said, it's not children alone, but all of us, who wait for a hug.

The third poem is a bit enigmatic. 'Go tablets' are amphetamine pills used to keep one awake on long labours. There's a triangle here according to Sunil:
In the midst of love for you
my wife's suffering
anger in every direction

The speaker of the poem is not sure anything promising can come out of this
all the wise blood
poured from little cuts
down into the sink

What does this mean, asked KumKum? Is it a forgotten pain in the mind, as Pamela suggested? Joe thinks it may signify all those useless quarrels triggered with the speaker's wife. He liked the final lines,
this hour is not
your body I want
but your quiet company

But why is it free of punctuation? And even if the poet left it like that, wasn't it the editor's job to sprinkle those little marks of intelligibility and precision, wondered Joe. Perhaps it's the influence of Gertrude Stein who said once, “Punctuation is necessary only for the feeble-minded.” Ouch. Here is David Crystal enumerating the authors who were rather put off by the chores of punctuation – Wordsworth, Gray, Byron included:

Quite instructive and humorous are these remarks on punctuation

especially the notion of pausing to catch your breath, “you get a glimpse of a semicolon coming, a few lines farther on, and it is like climbing a steep path through woods and seeing a wooden bench just at a bend in the road ahead, a place where you can expect to sit for a moment, catching your breath.”

Shoba offered two poems by Irish poets that are on this Web page:

Leanne O'Sullivan

However she dealt only with Leanne O'Sullivan, a young Irish poet who in a short time has published several collections of poetry and made a name for herself. Leanne O’Sullivan, born in 1983, was raised on the Beara Peninsula, County Cork. She claims she was not academically gifted but had an interest in writing from an early age, and started writing poetry at age twelve. She was one of seven children. She learnt through storytelling at home. She was admitted to study at the University College, Cork, through a special program because the evaluation took into account other things besides her academic grades. She studied English and Philosophy at the University which was a place of revelation for her and she developed with the encouragement and inspiration of her professors. At the age of 17 or 18 she became determined to write as effectively as possible. The poems she wrote at the university ended up on the Anglo-Irish poetry course there. She published her first collection of poems at age 21, Waiting for My Clothes, while she was studying at the university. She has published two more collections with Bloodaxe:

She was awarded the 2009 Ireland Chair of Poetry bursary and won the 2010 Rooney Prize for Irish Literature. Her work has been widely anthologised, in Best Irish Poetry 2010 (Southword), The New Irish Poets (Bloodaxe, 2004) and Billy Collins's Poetry 180: A Turning Back to Poetry (Random House, 2003). Her third collection, The Mining Road, was published by Bloodaxe in 2013. It finds inspiration in the disused copper mines that haunt the rugged terrain around Allihies, near her home at Beara, in West Cork.

In a video on Youtube at
Leanne O'Sullivan is interviewed by a person from the Alumni and Development Office, University College of Cork. The occasion was her being honoured as the Alumnus Achievement Award 2012 Recipient for the College of Arts, Celtic Studies & Social Sciences. The video is remarkable in giving an insight into a young woman stepping out and gaining recognition as a Poet, from modest beginnings.

There is another video at  filmed in Apr 2012 where she recites several poems and gives the background for the poem, Love Stories. It begins with her introducing the grandfather she never met at 8m 59s into the video. He was mischievous. Her grandmother had more of the strong-willed Cailleach woman in her than anyone else O'Sullivan knew. She was curious about what the love between her grandfather and grandmother had been like. He would play tricks on her which she didn’t like at all. They were coming home one day and he saw swans on a lake and told her, “You would make a beautiful swan.” She didn’t like that one bit. In the video from 9:50 to 10:57 she then launches into the poem Love Stories, her recreation of an incident from their relationship.

Sunil saw the poem building up into a full-blown fight after a series of skirmishes. The satirical remark
...'Would you prefer a hammer?'

provokes a 3-day war, turning the world upside down and frightening the very birds nesting in the eaves. It's quite a scene O'Sullivan paints!

Shoba, for some reason, introduced the non-sequitur of Irish nuns in some convent slapping girl students, while they themselves went red in the face. Sunil chimed in with his tales of rough penalisation in schools in Bangalore, where some HongKong Sindhis (all very rich) had come to study when the fate of HongKong was in the balance in the 90s. They used to be punished and sent to run around the school playing field. Talitha had her own stories of the reverse – indiscipline by students in England. As soon as the teacher entered the class she would be pelted with paper pellets. Indian school children were angels by comparison. Sunil continuing with his stories mentioned the son, Prabhu Ganesan, of Shivaji Ganesan, the superstar Chennai film actor of olden days. Prabhu was also subjected to severe discipline at school. Joe mentioned the out-of-wedlock daughter, glamorous Rekha, but she was the issue of the other Ganesan, Gemini Ganesan, who thrived at the same time, said Sunil.


Forgetting she had read The Walrus and the Carpenter only a little while back, Talitha again chose the same nonsense verse by Lewis Carroll. It was, she said, a consequence of the head-shaking she got recently in Coonoor when she was thrown against a wall during a surly altercation between her golden retriever, Biggles, and an Alsatian unchained.

She chose to play the poem from a recording she made in her smartphone, for she feared she would suffer from a sore throat on the day. You can find the text and an expressive audio at this site

Carroll's biography is also at the Poetry Foundation

Lewis Carroll, born 1832, the pen name of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, came from a family of High Church Anglicans. He had a miserable schooling at Rugby school, but was excellent in academics and made it to Christ Church college Oxford, standing first-class first in Math Honours and going on to a Mathematical Lectureship in 1855. There he stayed until his death at age 65, writing treatises in Algebra and Mathematical Logic, preparing students, writing his stories, making friends with the daughters of other dons, and exhibiting great charm in entertaining and telling stories. He was skilled at making logic puzzles. Photography was a hobby of his and thousands of slides exist of his work, primarily targeting little female elves.

The poem is taken from Through the Looking Glass, a sequel to The Adventures of Alice in Wonderland. Tweedledum and Tweedledee recite it to Alice. Talitha warned us not to analyse it too much. It is logic in illogical form, or rather, a series of illogical events followed by the logical questions they give rise to, all rendered in immaculate rhyme.

Some have seen in the oysters innocent and credulous children being led astray and despoiled by pedophiles. Why bring up this outlandish interpretation? It is because in recent times the pictures of young nude girls taken by Lewis Carroll have been disclosed and discussed openly. Photography was a major interest of his and he sought permission from parents to photograph their young female children (never males). BBC investigated whether Lewis Carroll was a 'repressed paedophile' after the nude photos discovery, see:

Vanessa Tait is the great-granddaughter of Alice Liddell for whom Lewis Carroll wrote the famous book after telling the story to the three Liddell sisters on an outing. She says Lewis Carroll “was in love with Alice, but he was so repressed that he never would have transgressed any boundaries.”

Alice's Adventures Underground - original MS at the British Museum

Joe made an amazing discovery in 2006 when he came across the original illuminated manuscript of Lewis Carroll, with illustrations, displayed by the British Museum for browsing:

This is what Lewis Carroll wrote down for Alice Liddell! What a gift! The story, which began life as ‘Alice’s Adventures Under Ground’, was first told to Alice and her sisters, Lorina and Edith, on a trip down the river on 4 July 1862. The children enjoyed the story so much that Alice asked Dodgson to write it down for her. Written in sepia-coloured ink and including 37 pen and ink illustrations (and a coloured title page) the manuscript was presented to Alice as an early Christmas present on 26 November 1864. Dodgson was not an artist and had some difficulties with the illustrations; he pasted a photograph of Alice (he was a keen photographer) over a drawing of her that he had included. The original drawing would not be seen again until it was uncovered in 1977. The photograph is now attached to a paper flap, enabling readers to see the illustration underneath. You can read this and more at the Web site above.

Edith, Lorina and Alice Liddell in a photo taken by Charles Dodgson

Here is a Walt Disney cartoon version of the Walrus and the Carpenter:

and a National Geographic world map version:

As it turns out, this is the 150th anniversary of the publication of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and a website dedicated to the celebrations worldwide is here:

For good measure, Talitha gave us another poem taken from a detective yarn she was reading by Dorothy Sayers, in which a snippet of a sonnet appeared; having come upon it she thought a bit of it would fit. It is a sonnet jointly composed by the first person and another called, Peter. And the metaphor of a top is used to describe the octave and the sestet into which the 14 lines are divided.

In the story the first person is accused of murdering her lover. A lawyer gets her off, and there is a marriage proposal made which she rejects. At the Web site below two people have offered opinions of the significance of the sonnet:

Janet says, “I think the sestet means that you can only have an ALIVE kind of stillness as long as you're spinning. If you stop spinning, the top falls over, and then you're merely dead. Love is what motivates us to keep spinning (love of a person, passion for a cause, etc); hence it whips. Paradoxically, you can only find and hold your real still center if you are in motion, living and acting in the world, rather than by sitting very still.”

Another person, Marylea, offers the view, “In the first portion, home is idealized as the place where the spinning of the world does not affect them; home is the safe harbor; the sun shines directly overhead, there are no shadows; work does not trifle and there is no need to unfurl our "wings". I'm not sure what the sense of the rose-leaf curled is in this context, though.

In the second portion, a contrasting view is provided, that love and life are not lived in the absence of troubles, and that those challenges actually help us remain constant and alert; not lazy and sleepy; lulled to a quiet, but rather ready and awake. If we do not have some adversity, some differences in our home, in our close relationships, we may grow bored, and that would be a worse end.”

Incidentally (since Joe would recite from Dante later) Dorothy Sayers considered her best work to be a translation she did of the Divine Comedy, managing to do it in the terza rima structure of the original. In case people are interested, here is Canto 1 of the Inferno by her:

Here are the opening three tercets of Sayers' translation, demonstrating the intertwined rhyme scheme of terza rima
ABA BCB CDC, etc ad infinitum:

Midway this way of life we're bound upon,
I woke to find myself in a dark wood,
Where the right road was wholly lost and gone.

Ay me! how hard to speak of it - that rude
And rough and stubborn forest! the mere breath
Of memory stirs the old fear in the blood;

It is so bitter, it goes nigh to death;
Yet there I gained such good, that, to convey
The tale, I'll write what else I found therewith.

Benjamin Zephaniah stares like a Rastafarian

The wonderful, animated, Rastafarian, dreadlock-wearing, Benjamin Zephaniah was the poet Sunil chose – once before Amita Palat had recited him.

Zephaniah was born in 1958 and raised in Birmingham, which he has called the "Jamaican capital of Europe." He is the son of a Barbadian postman and a Jamaican nurse. He left school aged thirteen, unable to read or write as he was dyslexic.

His poetry is strongly influenced by the music and poetry of Jamaica. By the age of fifteen, his poetry was already known among the Afro-Caribbean and Asian communities in the Handsworth neighbourhood of Birmingham. He headed to London at the age of twenty-two to expand his audience and became actively involved in a workers co-operative there, which led to the publication of his first book of poetry, Pen Rhythm (Page One Books, 1980). Three editions were published. Zephaniah has said that his mission is "take poetry everywhere" to people who do not read books; therefore, he turned poetry readings into concert-like performances.

His second collection of poetry, The Dread Affair: Collected Poems (1985), contained a number of poems attacking the British legal system. Rasta Time in Palestine (1990) was an account of a visit to the Palestinian occupied territories; it was poetry combined with travelogue.

His 1982 album, Rasta, featured The Wailers' first recording since the death of Bob Marley as well as a tribute to Nelson Mandela; it gained him international prestige, and in 1996, Mandela requested that Zephaniah host the president's Two Nations Concert at the Royal Albert Hall, London. His collection of poetry Too Black, Too Strong (2001), and We Are Britain! (2002) celebrate cultural diversity in Britain.

Zephaniah's first book of poetry for children, called Talking Turkeys, was reprinted after six weeks. In 1999 he wrote a novel for teenagers, Face, the first of four novels to date.

He was married for twelve years to Amina, a theatre administrator, whom he divorced in 2001. In 2011, Zephaniah accepted a year-long position as poet in residence at Keats House in Hampstead, London.

He says on his website that he is a poet, writer, lyricist, musician and trouble maker:

Not a bad pentagram of qualities! He is a great favourite of children in Britain as he goes around schools bringing the performance art of poetry to inspire children, courtesy of the British Council. However he is an anti-establishment republican with no dislike for the queen, but a thorough dislike for royalty and all it implies for democratic values. He is famous for refusing an OBE, offered in a letter from No 10 Downing Street:

I noticed a letter from the prime minister's office. It said: 'The prime minister has asked me to inform you, in strict confidence, that he has in mind, on the occasion of the forthcoming list of New Year's honours to submit your name to the Queen with a recommendation that Her Majesty may be graciously pleased to approve that you be appointed an officer of the Order of the British Empire.'

Me? I thought, OBE me? Up yours, I thought. I get angry when I hear that word "empire"; it reminds me of slavery, it reminds of thousands of years of brutality, it reminds me of how my foremothers were raped and my forefathers brutalised. It is because of this concept of empire that my British education led me to believe that the history of black people started with slavery and that we were born slaves, and should therefore be grateful that we were given freedom by our caring white masters. It is because of this idea of empire that black people like myself don't even know our true names or our true historical culture. I am not one of those who are obsessed with their roots, and I'm certainly not suffering from a crisis of identity; my obsession is about the future and the political rights of all people. Benjamin Zephaniah OBE - no way Mr Blair, no way Mrs Queen. I am profoundly anti-empire.

What continues to be my biggest deal with the establishment must be my work with the British Council, of which, ironically, the Queen is patron. I have no problem with this. It has never told me what to say, or what not to say. I have always been free to criticise the government and even the British Council itself. This is what being a poet is about. Most importantly, through my work with the Council I am able to show the world what Britain is really about in terms of our arts, and I am able to partake in the type of political and cultural intercourse which is not possible in the mainstream political arena.”

In a Youtube video Benjamin Zephaniah speaks about the monarchy and turning down an OBE

He says on account of its composition from Angles, Jutes, Saxons, Picts, Vikings, Normans and so forth, “Britain was multi-cultural long before it was multi-racial.” And this leads into the thoughts of the lovely poem Sunil recited, The British, which may be regarded as a cooking recipe for making the melting pot which is today's Britain. After thirty odd nationalities are added, the poet declares
Leave the ingredients to simmer.

As they mix and blend allow their languages to flourish
Binding them together with English.

Allow time to be cool.

The Death of Joy Gardner, (a woman who was killed by immigration officers in 1993 during an attempted deportation) is an activist's protest at the lax investigation and glossing over of the death. Here are Benjamin Zephaniah's words:
Poems like Joy Gardner come out of this tradition where we had to go around the community centres to tell these stories, because they weren’t represented in the mainstream media. Sometimes the government would quietly pass immigration bills, for example, and our parents – whom it really affected – wouldn’t know about it. So we would have to go and perform in a Caribbean centre for the elderly or whatever because otherwise they wouldn’t know about it. So we were what I call ‘alternative newscasters’”

The truth is that the political class and the police – the establishment – are a law unto themselves. You see them literally stealing money and getting away with it; you see them literally doing crimes and you see them murdering people and getting away with it. We see them on video sometimes beating up people and it goes to court and somehow they get off! And you think how can that be?! Sometimes it just blows me away. It’s like magic…”

When someone brings up the recent revelations about MI5’s complicity in torture and rendition, he points out that this is not an entirely new phenomenon: “I can honestly say that I have been tortured in Britain. I’ve been tortured in a police station where they’ve put cigarettes out on me naked until I talked. When I was fifteen or sixteen they put me in a police station and made me stand in a corridor and every time a copper came past, they just stamped on my feet. I’ll never forget this policewoman coming past who just smiled at me and I thought oh, she’s ok – and she took her high heels and just went bang! into my feet. That’s torture.”

What about the police in Britain today – have things improved at all? “Well, now there are more questions asked, so what they do in the intelligence service is that they privatise it, they ship it out…” he says, in obvious reference to rendition. “And the way that the police stop and search black and Asian people is pretty much the same, but it’s not the SUS law now; they do it under the Anti-terrorism Act.”

He explains how he saw an Asian man being stopped on his way back from a club recently. The police told him he was being searched under section 44 of the Anti-Terrorism Act. “The guy was just so shocked! He said ‘Wha? Do I look like a terrorist or something?!’ And the policeman comes up to him, right up close, and says: 'not only do you look like a terrorist, but you smell like one.' And that whole attitude of the cop was something I was very familiar with when I was a kid.”

The poem is a cry of grief that such things could happen in a democratic country,
So many poets crying
And so many poets trying
To articulate the grief,

Benjamin Zephaniah manages to articulate the grief of a community, bringing the eloquence and power of his verses to serve the needs of justice.

Pamela mentioned that the British pledge of allegiance contains the phrase 'manifest destiny to rule the world.' One can't say that any more, can one? But Joe on exploring the pledge on the Web found this

and it says nowhere about ruling the world, or even ruling UK.

Dante meets Beatrice in the streets of Florence for the second time

Dante's 750th birthday (born 1265, died in 1321) was this past June. He was a Florentine by birth and early education, but later in life the strife between two warring political parties in Florence caused him to be exiled.

Rather than take up Dante's famous work, the Divine Comedy, written in his maturity, Joe tackled the first flower of his youthful genius, the Vita Nuova. It is the story of how Dante was struck fatally by Love at age nine by a girl who was about a year younger than him, named Beatrice. It was only a glimpse in the street, but left such a mark on his soul, that he became besotted, as boys do, not with girls, but with the idea of being in love with a girl. He did not see her again until nine years later. How did he bear the long arid patch? This time a word of greeting passes between them. Because of her, the personification of love — the same "Lady Love" that all the love poets of the time wrote about — comes to dwell in his heart.

Beatrice Portinari was the daughter of a nobleman – not that Dante lacked in standing, but he was by comparison of common birth. She got married to someone else, and by that time it did not trouble Dante who had so wrapped her in an ideal of courtly love to be praised and adored without requital, that he no longer needed her physical presence to inspire him. His solution was to write hymns of praise about her, that required no response. He circulated some of these poems among his friends, the chief of them being Guido Cavalcanti, a mentor, whom he learnt from and then surpassed. Indeed, Beatrice plays a kind of role that no woman in the annals of love has played in a man's life: she becomes his means to salvation; for, we meet her in the Divine Comedy (which Dante called just the Comedy). In that long poem where Virgil conducts Dante through Hell and Purgatory, but cannot show him Paradise (as he, Virgil, was born before the Saviour could save him), Beatrice comes down from Paradise to guide Dante.

Dante too got married, to a lady called Gemma Donati, to whom he was promised in a child-marriage at age twelve. He had three children by her when the marriage was consummated much later, after he saw Beatrice for the second time.

Vita Nuova was probably written in Dante's youth from age eighteen onwards as a set of 31 poems. There are 25 sonnets, five canzones (a canzone is a longer lyric from adapted from the Provençal canso, consisting of 5 to 7 stanzas rhymed and set to music, having 11 syllables per line), and one innovative ballad. Much after he began writing the poems, when it came to publishing them he provided a narrative framework in prose into which he embedded the poems; it is divided into 42 chapters in one standard reckoning. So VN is a prose-plus-poetry book and fairly unique in that way. He is remembered in Italy as the founder of the Italian language, choosing his Tuscan vernacular rather than the educated person's Latin for his chief literary works.

Dante was the highest expression of Christian civilization, in T.S. Eliot's view, and Yeats called him “the chief imagination of Christendom.”

Joe read from the prose that opens the poem, all the way up to the first sonnet, skipping portions. There is a scene when Dante falls asleep and has a dream. In the dream he sees a mighty figure which says "Ego dominus tuus" (I am your Lord). Beatrice is asleep in this figure’s arms. She brings in her arms what is recognizable as a heart and murmurs the words "Vide cor tuum" (Here’s your heart) while eating part of the heart. Talitha after taking in this gruesome scene felt repelled. She asked how Joe could swallow Dante, and not appreciate the statuesque Milton? This was in reference to some criticism Joe offered once, resulting a terrific exchange between Joe & Talitha, which you have to read:

Joe answered a question: how young can one fall in love? With a poet there is no lower limit, and it's not puppy love, perhaps not eros either, but a strong attachment, a feeling of being drawn to someone irresistibly and having to serve that person for one's own development. In Dante's case the love was not fed by continuing contact, but by such an urge that took hold of his mind that he could live without the contact, and not cease to derive a strong inspiration for his poetical feelings. Beatrice became a Muse, not a lover, during his earthly existence. Perhaps in Paradise they are re-united as lovers, who knows?

KumKum said Joe had a puppy love phase at age six or so, and struggled to find the name of the object, thinking it was Ragini, the youngest of the Travancore sisters who was a little older than him and studied in the same school, San Thome convent in Madras. No, no, it wasn't Ragini.

Sylvia Plath as a student at Smith College

Zakia also selected Sylvia Plath to recite, quite a coincidence – or is it the fascination women have for this poète maudit? The pith of Plath was ever in her poems; she was the person she seemed to write about all the time. Zakia labelled it confessional poetry. She seeks to transform herself while writing. So she does in the poem, Ariel, in which she recalls riding the horse she owned as a girl in Massachusetts,
How one we grow,
Pivot of heels and knees! — The furrow

Splits and passes, sister to
The brown arc
Of the neck I cannot catch,

A good rider and her horse are indeed one as Plath describes:
Am the arrow,

Suicidal, at one with the drive
Into the red

Eye, the cauldron of morning.

Her line division might be arbitrary, but the horse association can't be missed (and not Jerusalem, not The Tempestthis is bolstered by the notes of Ted Hughes). The Ariel collection was published posthumously two years after her death, Colossus being the only volume of poetry she published during her lifetime, in 1960. More slender volumes like Winter Trees, were published by Ted Hughes from what was left over. Pamela said she would not have understood the horse riding association had Zakia not explained.

To hear Plath reading her poem, Lady Lazarus, go to this site:
and press the button, and listen to the foreboding words:
Is an art, like everything else.
I do it exceptionally well.

I do it so it feels like hell.
I do it so it feels real.
I guess you could say I’ve a call.

Plath had an extensive love life before she married Ted Hughes and that story is told in a bio by Andrew Wilson

The Poems

Sylvia Plath
 Sylvia Plath (1932 - 1963) and Ted Hughes (1930 - 1998)

This is the easy time, there is nothing doing.
I have whirled the midwife's extractor,
I have my honey,
Six jars of it,
Six cat's eyes in the wine cellar,

Wintering in a dark without window
At the heart of the house
Next to the last tenant's rancid jam
and the bottles of empty glitters ----
Sir So-and-so's gin.

This is the room I have never been in
This is the room I could never breathe in.
The black bunched in there like a bat,
No light
But the torch and its faint

Chinese yellow on appalling objects ----
Black asininity. Decay.
It is they who own me.
Neither cruel nor indifferent,

Only ignorant.
This is the time of hanging on for the bees--the bees
So slow I hardly know them,
Filing like soldiers
To the syrup tin

To make up for the honey I've taken.
Tate and Lyle keeps them going,
The refined snow.
It is Tate and Lyle they live on, instead of flowers.
They take it. The cold sets in.

Now they ball in a mass,
Mind against all that white.
The smile of the snow is white.
It spreads itself out, a mile-long body of Meissen,

Into which, on warm days,
They can only carry their dead.
The bees are all women,
Maids and the long royal lady.
They have got rid of the men,

The blunt, clumsy stumblers, the boors.
Winter is for women ----
The woman, still at her knitting,
At the cradle of Spanis walnut,
Her body a bulb in the cold and too dumb to think.

Will the hive survive, will the gladiolas
Succeed in banking their fires
To enter another year?
What will they taste of, the Christmas roses?
The bees are flying. They taste the spring.

Michael Ondaatje
Michael Ondaatje (1943 - 

The Time Around Scars
A girl whom I've not spoken to
or shared coffee with for several years
writes of an old scar.

On her wrist it sleeps, smooth and white,
the size of a leech.

I gave it to her
brandishing a new Italian penknife.

Look, I said turning,
and blood spat onto her shirt.

My wife has scars like spread raindrops
on knees and ankles,
she talks of broken greenhouse panes
and yet, apart from imagining red feet,
(a nymph out of Chagall)
I bring little to that scene.

We remember the time around scars,
they freeze irrelevant emotions
and divide us from present friends.

I remember this girl's face,
the widening rise of surprise.

And would she
moving with lover or husband
conceal or flaunt it,
or keep it at her wrist
a mysterious watch.

And this scar I then remember
is a medallion of no emotion.

I would meet you now
and I would wish this scar
to have been given with
all the love
that never occurred between us.

Griffin calls to come and kiss him goodnight
I yell ok.
Finish something I'm doing,
then something else, walk slowly round
the corner to my son's room.

He is standing arms outstretched
waiting for a bearhug.

Why do I give my emotion an animal's name,
give it that dark squeeze of death?
This is the hug which collects
all his small bones and his warm neck against me.
The thin tough body under the pyjamas
locks to me like a magnet of blood.

How long was he standing there
like that, before I came?

Speaking To You
Speaking to you
this hour
these days when
I have lost the feather of poetry
and the rains
of separation
surround us tock
tock like Go tablets

Everyone has learned
to move carefully

'Dancing' 'laughing' 'bad taste'
is a memory
a tableau behind trees of law

In the midst of love for you
my wife's suffering
anger in every direction
and the children wise
as tough shrubs
but they are not tough
­­so I fear
how anything can grow from this

all the wise blood
poured from little cuts
down into the sink

this hour it is not
your body I want
but your quiet company

Leanne O'Sullivan
Leanne O'Sullivan (1983 - 

Love Stories
And when they fought, my father said,
in those day-lit, lamp-lit rooms, him bowed
into the ceremonies of the newspapers,
the sound would be of her slamming
closed the cupboard doors, the front door,
cups and plates smashed into the deep sink
like a sudden downpour of hailstones.
He would turn the pages very slowly,
so as not to disturb her, mindful of knives
where buttery spuds still plumed on the blade.
And once peering over the rim of the page
he calmly offered, 'Would you prefer a hammer?'
so that the whole thing started up again.
For three days and nights hinges turned over
the world, soft mortar crumbled somewhere
down behind the dresser, and from the eaves
the nesting starlings darted and sprung in fright,
and raised the weathered roof like a sparking flare.

Anne Carson
A Moment
A shad fly drags its shadow along the picnic table, fades into a knot
in the wood.
Faint morning breezes fasten wings, whisper memory to stilled
antennae. My heart skips, my legs twitch.
The pen travels the page
to the end.

Lewis Carroll
Lewis Carroll (1832 - 1898)

The Walrus and the Carpenter
"The sun was shining on the sea,
Shining with all his might:
He did his very best to make
The billows smooth and bright —
And this was odd, because it was
The middle of the night.

The moon was shining sulkily,
Because she thought the sun
Had got no business to be there
After the day was done —
"It's very rude of him," she said,
"To come and spoil the fun."

The sea was wet as wet could be,
The sands were dry as dry.
You could not see a cloud, because
No cloud was in the sky:
No birds were flying overhead —
There were no birds to fly.

The Walrus and the Carpenter
Were walking close at hand;
They wept like anything to see
Such quantities of sand:
If this were only cleared away,'
They said, it would be grand!'

If seven maids with seven mops
Swept it for half a year,
Do you suppose,' the Walrus said,
That they could get it clear?'
I doubt it,' said the Carpenter,
And shed a bitter tear.

O Oysters, come and walk with us!'
The Walrus did beseech.
A pleasant walk, a pleasant talk,
Along the briny beach:
We cannot do with more than four,
To give a hand to each.'

The eldest Oyster looked at him,
But never a word he said:
The eldest Oyster winked his eye,
And shook his heavy head —
Meaning to say he did not choose
To leave the oyster-bed.

But four young Oysters hurried up,
All eager for the treat:
Their coats were brushed, their faces washed,
Their shoes were clean and neat —
And this was odd, because, you know,
They hadn't any feet.

Four other Oysters followed them,
And yet another four;
And thick and fast they came at last,
And more, and more, and more —
All hopping through the frothy waves,
And scrambling to the shore.

The Walrus and the Carpenter
Walked on a mile or so,
And then they rested on a rock
Conveniently low:
And all the little Oysters stood
And waited in a row.

The time has come,' the Walrus said,
To talk of many things:
Of shoes — and ships — and sealing-wax —
Of cabbages — and kings —
And why the sea is boiling hot —
And whether pigs have wings.'

But wait a bit,' the Oysters cried,
Before we have our chat;
For some of us are out of breath,
And all of us are fat!'
No hurry!' said the Carpenter.
They thanked him much for that.

A loaf of bread,' the Walrus said,
Is what we chiefly need:
Pepper and vinegar besides
Are very good indeed —
Now if you're ready, Oysters dear,
We can begin to feed.'

But not on us!' the Oysters cried,
Turning a little blue.
After such kindness, that would be
A dismal thing to do!'
The night is fine,' the Walrus said.
Do you admire the view?

It was so kind of you to come!
And you are very nice!'
The Carpenter said nothing but
Cut us another slice:
I wish you were not quite so deaf —
I've had to ask you twice!'

It seems a shame,' the Walrus said,
To play them such a trick,
After we've brought them out so far,
And made them trot so quick!'
The Carpenter said nothing but
The butter's spread too thick!'

I weep for you,' the Walrus said:
I deeply sympathize.'
With sobs and tears he sorted out
Those of the largest size,
Holding his pocket-handkerchief
Before his streaming eyes.

O Oysters,' said the Carpenter,
You've had a pleasant run!
Shall we be trotting home again?'
But answer came there none —
And this was scarcely odd, because
They'd eaten every one."

Dorothy Sayers — Sonnet from the detective novel, Gaudy Night
But here it was: and in the interval it had taken to itself a sestet and stood, looking a little unbalanced, with her own sprawling hand above and Peter's deceptively neat script below, like a large top on a small spindle.

Here then at home, by no more storms distrest,
Folding laborious hands we sit, wings furled;
Here in close perfume lies the rose-leaf curled,
Here the sun stands and knows not east nor west,
Here no tide runs; we have come, last and best,
From the wide zone in dizzying circles hurled
To that still centre where the spinning world
Sleeps on its axis, to the heart of rest.

Lay on thy whips, O Love, that me upright,
Poised on the perilous point, in no laxbed
May sleep, as tension at the verberant core
Of music sleeps; for, if thou spare to smite,
Staggering, we stoop, stooping, fall dumb and dead,
And, dying so, sleep our sweet sleep no more.

Having achieved this, the poet appeared to have lost countenance for he had added the comment:
'A very conceited, metaphysical conclusion!'
So. So there was the turn she had vainly sought for the sestet! Her beautiful, big, peaceful humming-top turned to a whip-top, and sleeping, as it were, upon compulsion. (And, damn him! how dared he picked up her word 'sleep' and use it four times in as many lines, and each time in a different foot, as though juggling with the accent-shift were child's play? And drag out the last half-line with those great, heavy, drugged, drowsy mono-syllables, contradicting the sense so as to deny their own contradiction? It was not one of the world's great sestets, but it was considerably better than her own octave: which was monstrous of it.)

Benjamin Zephaniah
 Benjamin Zephaniah (1958 -           

The Death of Joy Gardner
They put a leather belt around her
13 feet of tape and bound her
Handcuffs to secure her
And only God knows what else,
She’s illegal, so deport her
Said the Empire that brought her
She died,
Nobody killed her
And she never killed herself.
It is our job to make her
Return to Jamaica
Said the Alien Deporters
Who deports people like me,
It was said she had a warning
That the officers were calling
On that deadly July morning
As her young son watched TV.

An officer unplugged the phone
Mother and child were now alone
When all they wanted was a home
A child watch Mummy die,
No matter what the law may say
A mother should not die this way
Let human rights come into play
And to everyone apply.
I know not of a perfect race
I know not of a perfect place
I know this is not a simple case
Of Yardies on the move,
We must talk some Race Relations
With the folks from immigration
About this kind of deportation
If things are to improve.

Let it go down in history
The word is that officially
She died democratically
In 13 feet of tape,
That Christian was over here
Because pirates were over there
The Bible sent us everywhere
To make Great Britain great.
Here lies the extradition squad
And we should all now pray to God
That as they go about their job
They make not one mistake,
For I fear as I walk the streets
That one day I just may meet
Officials who may tie my feet
And how would I escape.

I see my people demonstrating
And educated folks debating
The way they’re separating
The elder from the youth,
When all they are demanding
Is a little overstanding
They too have family planning
Now their children want the truth.
As I move around I am eyeing
So many poets crying
And so many poets trying
To articulate the grief,
I cannot help but wonder
How the alien deporters
(As they said to press reporters)
Can feel absolute relief.

The British
Take some Picts, Celts and Silures
And let them settle,
Then overrun them with Roman conquerors.

Remove the Romans after approximately 400 years
Add lots of Norman French to some
Angles, Saxons, Jutes and Vikings, then stir vigorously.

Mix some hot Chileans, cool Jamaicans, Dominicans,
Trinidadians and Bajans with some Ethiopians, Chinese,
Vietnamese and Sudanese.

Then take a blend of Somalians, Sri Lankans, Nigerians
And Pakistanis,
Combine with some Guyanese
And turn up the heat.

Sprinkle some fresh Indians, Malaysians, Bosnians,
Iraqis and Bangladeshis together with some
Afghans, Spanish, Turkish, Kurdish, Japanese
And Palestinians
Then add to the melting pot.

Leave the ingredients to simmer.

As they mix and blend allow their languages to flourish
Binding them together with English.

Allow time to be cool.

Add some unity, understanding, and respect for the future,
Serve with justice
And enjoy.

Note: All the ingredients are equally important. Treating one ingredient better than another will leave a bitter unpleasant taste.

Warning: An unequal spread of justice will damage the people and cause pain. Give justice and equality to all.

Dante Alighieri 

Dante Alighieri (1265 - 1321), portrait by Sandro Botticelli

Vita Nova Chapter 1, ending in a sonnet (Translated by Andrew Frisardi, see

IN THE book of my memory—the part of it before which not much is legible—there is the heading Incipit vita nova. Under this heading I find the words which I intend to copy down in this little book; if not all of them, at least their essential meaning.
Nine times, the heaven of the light had returned to where it was at my birth, almost to the very same point of its orbit, when the glorious lady of my mind first appeared before my eyes—she whom many called Beatrice without even knowing that was her name. She had already been in this life long enough for the heaven of the fixed stars to have moved toward the east a twelfth of a degree since she was born, so that she was at the beginning of her ninth year when she appeared to me, and I saw her when I was almost at the end of my ninth. She appeared, dressed in a very stately color, a subdued and dignified crimson, girdled and adorned in a manner that was fitting for her young age.
At that time, truly, I say, the vital spirit, which dwells in the innermost chamber of the heart, started to tremble so powerfully that its disturbance reached all the way to the slightest of my pulses. And trembling it spoke these words: “Ecce deus fortior me, qui veniens dominabitur mihi.”* At that time the animal spirit, which dwells in the high chamber to which all the spirits of sensation carry their perceptions, began to marvel, and speaking especially to the spirits of vision it said: “Apparuit iam beatitudo vestra."# At that time the natural spirit, which dwells where our food is digested, started to cry, and crying it spoke these words: “Heu miser, quia frequenter impeditus ero deinceps!"¶
*"Here is a god stronger than I, who comes to rule me."
#"Your beatitude [or bliss] has now appeared."
¶ "What misery, since from now on I will often be blocked in my digestion!"

From then on, I swear that Love dominated my soul, which was wedded to him so early, and began to rule me with such confidence and power, by means of the force my imagination lent him, there was no choice but for me to do whatever he wanted. Time after time he ordered me to search for where I might glimpse this youthful angel; so that in my boyhood I went searching for her often, and observed that her bearing was so dignified and praiseworthy that it can truly be said of her as Homer wrote: “She did not seem the daughter of a mortal man, but rather of a god.” And even though her image, which was constantly with me, was the means by which Love ruled me, it was so dignified in its power that it never allowed Love to govern me without the faithful counsel of reason, in those matters where such guidance was helpful.
Since dwelling on the passions and actions of one so young is like telling a tall tale, I will leave that behind; and passing over many things that could be copied from the same source, I come to words written in my memory under larger paragraphs.

After so many days had passed that it was exactly nine years since the above-named apparition of this most gracious of women, on the last of these days that marvelous lady appeared to me dressed in pure white, between two gracious women, both of whom were older than she. And passing along a street, she turned her eyes in the direction of where I stood gripped by fear, and thanks to her ineffable benevolence and grace, which now is rewarded in eternal life, she greeted me with such power that then and there I seemed to see to the farthest reaches of beatitude.

It was exactly the ninth hour of that day when her intoxicatingly lovely greeting came to me. And since it was the first time her words had reached my ears, I felt such bliss that I withdrew from people as if I were drunk, away to the solitude of my room, and settled down to think about this most graceful of women. And thinking about her, a sweet sleep came over me, in which appeared a tremendous vision.

I seemed to see a fiery cloud in my room, inside which I discerned a figure of a lordly man, frightening to behold. And it was marvelous how utterly full of joy he seemed. And among the words that he spoke, I understood only a few, including: “Ego dominus tuus."§ In his arms I thought I saw a sleeping person, naked but for a crimson silken cloth that seemed to be draped about her, who, when I looked closely, I realized
§ "I am your lord."

was the lady of the saving gesture, she who earlier that day had deigned to salute me. And in one of his hands it seemed that he held something consumed by fame, and I thought I heard him say these words: “Vide cor tuum."* And when he had been there a while, it seemed that he awakened the sleeping lady, and he was doing all he could to get her to eat the thing burning in his hands, which she anxiously ate. Then his happiness turned into the bitterest tears, and as he cried he picked up this woman in his arms, and he seemed to go off toward the sky. At which point I felt more anguish than my light sleep could sustain, and I woke.

And immediately I started to think, realizing that the hour in which this vision appeared to me had been the fourth hour of that night, in other words the first of the last nine hours of night. Thinking over what had happened to me, I decided to narrate it to several of the well-known poets of that time, and since I already had some experience in the art of writing verse, I decided to compose a sonnet in which I would greet all of Love's faithful. And asking them to interpret my vision, I wrote to them about what I had seen in my sleep. And then I started the sonnet “To all besotted souls.”

To all besotted souls, my counterparts,
to whom these verses come with a petition
to write me what you think of my rendition:
greetings in Love, the lord of open hearts.
Already nearly over by a third
were all those hours lit up by stars till morning,
when Love appeared before me without warning.
I shudder thinking what his presence stirred.
It seemed that he was overjoyed in keeping
my heart in hand, his arms a gentle bed
for someone draped in silk—my lady sleeping.
He woke her. And, respectfully, he fed
that burning heart to her, who shook with dread.
Then, as he turned to leave, I saw him weeping.

This sonnet is divided into two parts. In the first part I offer my greetings and ask for a response; in the second part I indicate what ought to be responded to. The second part begins with, “Already nearly."
* “Behold your heart."

Sylvia Plath (1932 - 1963)

Stasis in darkness.
Then the substanceless blue
Pour of tor and distances.

God’s lioness,
How one we grow,
Pivot of heels and knees! — The furrow

Splits and passes, sister to
The brown arc
Of the neck I cannot catch,

Berries cast dark
Hooks —-

Black sweet blood mouthfuls,
Something else

Hauls me through air —-
Thighs, hair;
Flakes from my heels.

Godiva, I unpeel —-
Dead hands, dead stringencies.

And now I
Foam to wheat, a glitter of seas.
The child’s cry

Melts in the wall.
And I
Am the arrow,

The dew that flies,
Suicidal, at one with the drive
Into the red

Eye, the cauldron of morning.

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