Zakia, Shoba, Preeti, Priya by the CYC Christmas tree
The very last session of 2017 commanded a good attendance. Many of the poems recited were in the spirit of the Christmas festival. Though some of the poets selected were performed before in the years of poetry celebration by our group, the poems chosen were different.
Shoba, Thommo, Zakia, Pamela reading, Hemjit back to camera
Joe and KumKum were still abroad but keen to participate, and left voice files in the dropbox that were played at the session for the readers.
Priya who orchestrated the session brought in Christmas plum cake for the readers, and Santa Claus caps for them to wear while reading. A Christmassy spirit of peace and harmony descended over the assembled readers.
Preeti, coming late, made a surprise entry toward the end of the session, but contributed a humorous and expressive reading of a children’s poem called Chocolate Cake by Michael Rosen. You can hear a snippet of her delightful enactment of the poem in an embedded voice file further down.
Salutations and greetings to all our readers who have contributed this past year in making our sessions memorable and pleasurable! We look forward to 2018 with relish. Here are the readers at the end of the session.
Zakia, Preeti, Priya, Thommo, Shoba, Hemjit seated
(Pamela had to leave early)
(Pamela had to leave early)
Full Account and Record of the Poetry Session
Dec 19, 2017
Present: Priya, Zakia, Thommo, Hemjit, Pamela, Preeti, Shoba
Present Virtually: Joe & KumKum (with voice reading and comments)
Absent: Saras, Kavita, Ankush
The session began by playing Joe’s recorded voice file. Joe read the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa. The reading was thoroughly enjoyed. Zakia liked Pessoa’s characterisation as ‘The Man Who Never Was.’
Priya found the poem of Pessoa’s heteronym, Alvaro De Campos, much to her liking, Ah, The Freshness In The Face Of Leaving A Task Undone. Everyone stressed the fact that Joe enhances the joy of listening to poetry by his sonorous rendition.
Later, when Preeti read her poetry selection Thommo commented that she matched Joe and could give him a run for his money!
Pamela had to rush for choir practice and wished to read her piece ahead of others. She chose the Arab-American poet Naomi Shihab Nye, and some of her poems written after Sep 11, 2001 atrocity. Fundamentalism and Kindness are the titles. Nye is an activist and writes strongly about the root causes of terrorism. Her poems are popular as performance poems for the vigor and strength of their language and ideas.
Nye believes that poetry asks its readers to pause and reflect. Pamela quoted Nye’s words to contemporary poets: “I have always loved the gaps between things as much as things themselves.”
Zakia chose to read Pakistani poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz, who has been read and enjoyed by the group earlier. He is as popular in India as in Pakistan. The celebrated Urdu poet was a leftist and founded the Progressive Writer’s Movement. Zakia read two of his evocative poems (in translation) and played on her iPad a rendition by Faiz from his hospital bed when he was recovering from an affliction.
KumKum chose the modern American poet Max Ritvo, who died of cancer in his twenties. She regretted the fact that she had chosen rather melancholic poems at this cheery time of Christmas. The poems were sad indeed but the members enjoyed the poet’s felicity of language – blending commonplace imagery with a depth of emotion; this thought was expressed by Hemjit.
Thommo chose the American poet and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson. He said that Emerson is known more as a public speaker and one of his famous speeches is The American Scholar (1837). It is recognised as America's “Intellectual Declaration of Independence.” In it Emerson steered America away from its dependence on Europe for cultural values. He discussed the influence of nature , the influence of the past and books, and the influence of action on the education of the thinking man. He became famous for his interest in non-Western philosophy and he elaborated the concept of the ‘transcendent’ from Eastern philosophies.
In Emerson’s poem Brahma, there occur these lines
If the red slayer think he slays,
Or if the slain think he is slain,
Who is the slayer? - asked Zakia and Thommo. Priya ventured it might be one of the Hindu gods or goddesses, perhaps Durga, who kills the demon Mahisasura. It could be any from the Hindu pantheon. The cycle of the slayed and the slayer, is the cycle of life and death that ends with moksha in Hinduism.
Everyone was very happy that Shoba made it to the poetry evening, as she had just recovered from dengue fever. She chose to read a short and simple poem by Derek Walcott and said she liked its briefness and that “it was neat.” Though short and simple it makes the point that when you have wandered, searching high and low for love from others, one day on returning home you will meet yourself in the mirror, and discern who it was you were refusing to recognise as your first lover: yourself! Learning to love others begins with learning to love ourselves, as some Zen teachers say.
Hemjit read Bengali poet Toru Dutt, who has been read before by our faithful member Mathew from old times before he was transferred to Mumbai. You will find there a more discursive treatment of her life and work. Hemjit said he found her poems, “simply beautiful and beautifully simple,” and ventured to explain them at length.
In keeping with Christmas spirit Hemjit chose a poem of Toru Dutt called Christmas. The other poem, The Lotus, a sonnet, Hemjit said was fit to be recited by a child at a poetry reading competition. The sonnet is a conceit in which the rose and the lily compete for honours as the loveliest flower, but the title goes to the lotus in the end for combining the best features of both. It has a Petrarchan rhyme scheme.
Priya wanted to read T.S. Eliot’s The Journey of The Magi, a poem that fit in with the theme of Christmas. Eliot is one of her favourite poets. However, on reflection she found it was a serious poem that required study, as it was rich in allusions and imagery. Therefore she chose two lighter poems conveying Christmas cheer.
The first was Christmas at Sea, by Robert Louis Stevenson. Exquisite poet and essayist though he was, his fame is more associated with the novels Treasure Island, and Kidnapped, Priya said. The second poem was the popular A Visit from St Nicholas by Clement Clarke Moore, which everyone enjoyed. Moore is not remembered any longer but the single poem, anonymously published at first, became a much-quoted, much-loved, favourite in America at the time.
Priya tried to make the session Christmassy and brought a plum cake and three Santa Claus caps for members. A cake she chose at Bismi Supermarket turned out to be very tasty, the members agreed.
But just as the session was coming to a close – the members concluding it was a fair session as far as spirits went – there breezed in Preeti, like Santa Claus, to lift our hearts and minds. She came prepared to read a delightful poem called Chocolate Cake by Michael Rosen, a poet of fun and laughter, writing and performing primarily for children. She communicated all the tomfoolery of a child slurping and eating chocolate cake and getting it all over the body. What an apt selection to end our Christmas session!
Fernando Pessoa (Portugal, 1888–1935)
(Here is the audio of Joe’s reading that was captured in Arlington, MA, and shared with the readers when Priya played it on her computer.)
Looking around for a poet to read from for our next session at KRG I chanced upon Fernando Pessoa who was new to me. A poet from Portugal, he had a part of his education in English in Durban, but the remarkable poems are those in his own language. I found a translation of a selection of them by Richard Zenith and requested it from the local library.
Reading it I felt as if I was in the presence of a spirit devoted to poetry of a very modern kind — not the incomprehensible stuff that wears the name of poetry, but simple words that had a deep resonance of feeling.
Pessoa has been called ‘The Man Who Never Was’. He sacrificed a normal life for his literary projects.He wrote in several different personas and styles, which is quite strange, so much so they say Pessoa is four of the greatest poets of modern times, the others being Alberto Caeiro, Ricardo Reis and Álvaro de Campos, whom Pessoa called heteronyms of himself with distinct styles and belief systems.
Their fragmented universe constituted his work. He had almost no biography of his own and wrote himself out of his work, and the few poems of Pessoa as Pessoa only gives few facts: he smoked a lot, drank more than was good for his health, traveled Lisbon in tram-cars, and often sat by his window looking out on life in a reclusive manner. He never married, but worked in commercial translation, just enough to finance his literary projects. He became fairly well-known in Europe through translations, but was little read in the English-speaking world until recent translations.
Prof David Jackson, a Yale university professor, and authority on literature in Portuguese, says Pessoa is Portugal’s greatest poet and a signal figure in European modernism.
Pessoa published relatively little in his lifetime, but left 25,000 sheets of literary manuscripts in a wooden trunk, now housed in the National Library of Portugal — written often on scraps of paper. Teams of researchers are going through it to decide how to order it, and where it all belongs. What he wrote and what it meant is still a subject of active discovery. He wanted to be a universal writer. In fact he wrote an entire literature, working through his heteronyms in a vast range of forms and styles. The depth of his imagination, and the deep significance of the many different ways in which he wrote is remarkable. He also wrote a play, The Mariner.
He wrote 325 quatrains in the last two years of his short life (too short alas!) in a typical Portuguese style and they were translated cleverly by Philip Krummrich of Morehead State University in a bilingual edition. The subjects are as diverse and varied as one can expect from a multi-faceted person like Pessoa.
TORU DUTT – 1856 to 1877
Toru Dutt (R) with her sister Aru
An enigmatic poet who died at the young age of 21 due to Tuberculosis, Toru Dutt a Bengali spent part of her childhood in England and France before returning to her country. A born linguist fascinated by languages she mastered Sanskrit too besides Bengali, English and French during her short span on earth. She is acclaimed as the first Indian woman writer to write a novel in English and the first Indian to write a novel in French. She also left behind great poetry in English and French that evoked her beautiful memories of childhood etc. They instill pathos, beauty and a yearning for the innocence of childhood.
(Here is the audio of KumKum’s reading that was captured in Arlington, MA, and shared with the readers when Priya played it on her computer.)
Max Ritvo. (1990 – 2016) Max Ritvo was an modern American poet. This was my first introduction to his poems. It was by sheer chance I came upon his book of collected poems titled Four Reincarnations, while browsing at the local library in Arlington. I have been reading his poems, of which there not there too many, on account of his short life. He was born on December 19, 1990 and died on August 23, 2016.
Ritvo’s poems are beautiful. They are melancholy in mood, perhaps because he struggled with cancer (a deadly childhood bone cancer called Ewing’s sarcoma) almost all his adult life. Ritvo's life, full of promise, was cut short, too soon. Most of his poems reflects the mood of being in the presence of divinity.
Here is a quote from a tribute offered by Max Ritvo's teacher at Columbia University:
This is what it felt like to be Max’s teacher. I was the supervisor on roller skates. I believe his imagination must have been born fully formed, before he had a language for his gifts. I think he was an infant scholar, a child genius, a Brother from Another Planet. For him, all of the synapses and fantasies, the humanity and spirit, were there just for the plucking. For me, as his mentor, all I needed to learn in order to teach him was to stay one roller glide ahead of him, to oversee the geometries and the effulgences of his imagination, to help beckon and tease each right wire into each right plug.
Ralph Waldo Emerson 1803–1882
Most of the biographical information below is taken from the Poetry Foundation note on Emerson. Ralph Waldo Emerson , born in Boston in 1803, was an influential writer and thinker of the nineteenth century. He was an essayist, lecturer, poet, and philosopher, rolled into one. He opened up America to Asian thinking, and mythologys.
Boston being a port he came into contact with non-Western merchandise and ideas. His father, William Emerson, was a Unitarian minister and a member of the Massachusetts Historical Society. He edited reviews a periodical that dealt with South Asian thinking. Sir William Jones’s translation of Kalidasa’s play Sakuntala, or the Fatal Ring, was printed in the United States in a journal he edited.
Emerson entered Harvard College at age 14. Since the curriculum focused on Greek and Roman writers, he got little opportunity to indulge his interest in Eastern thought. Early in life Emerson began to keep a journal about about Eastern life and letters. .
Emerson read extensively treatises, travelogues, religious, and poetic texts from India. Emerson also read selections of Eastern poetry. He came into contact with the famous Persian poets, Saadi and Hafiz, whom he studied deeply.
Emerson composed a poem called Indian Superstition for Harvard College’s graduation ceremonies in 1822. Emerson was misled as to the extent of fanatic adherence to creeds, and also represented Brahmins as a caste that crushed the yearning of lower-caste Indians to rise in social status. Emerson said India could rise by throwing off British imperialism and religious superstition.
After graduating he wanted to become a Unitarian minister. and began to lose interest in Indian literature. In the early 1830s, a comparative history of philosophical systems by Joseph-Marie de Gérando convinced Emerson that Hindu, Chinese, and Persian schools of thought were as valuable as their Hebrew, Greek, and Christian counterparts. The Mahabharata played a major role in this. Emerson began to read the Hindu scriptures like the Gita as an argument for the fundamental identity of all things.
In 1831 Emerson’s wife died of tuberculosis, an event that galvanized a series of personal and professional changes in his life. He gave up the Unitarian faith. He travelled to Europe, meeting William Wordsworth and Thomas Carlyle, and returned to his home in Concord, Massachusetts. In 1836 Emerson published Nature, a mature philosophical work. He married again and it was a happy union. Emerson is grouped with the New England Transcendentalists, a group of reformers that included Margaret Fuller, Bronson Alcott, Theodore Parker, and Henry David Thoreau. The movement was a form of philosophical and spiritual idealism that valued intuition over the senses.
As Emerson continued his interest in the East he moved further away from the Western religion. He shared his library of Indian, Persian, and Chinese texts with his Transcendentalist friends. Emerson excerpted key passages from notable Asian and Middle Eastern works, and published a regular column. Emerson also read the Shanameh or the Book of Kings, a compendium of Persian poetry seven times longer than the Iliad. He began an interest in Sufism, regarded as the pantheism branch of Islam.
With the publication of his Essays in 1841 and Essays: Second Series in 1844, Emerson emerged as a trans-Atlantic literary celebrity.
Emerson’s engagement with Eastern cultural sources is also evident in his poetry from the 1840s. His verse became inspired by his readings of Persian and Sanskrit verse. For example, Emerson wrote Saadi in 1842, a portrait of a man of the people who resists materialism. Similarly Hamatreya published in 1846, is another poem based on a passage from the Vishnu Purana .
Emerson had India as the exemplar when he spoke about Asia. In 1856 Emerson composed a lyric poem published in the Atlantic in 1857 under the title, Brahma. The poem seizes on the idea that the material world is essentially an illusory mask of the divine spirit that dwells in all beings. The speaker enumerates the ways in which Brahma acts. It opens:
If the red slayer think he slays,
Or if the slain think he is slain,
They know not well the subtle ways
I keep, and pass, and turn again.
The poem summaries Emerson’s understanding of Hindu scriptures from his reading. Perhaps the “red slayer” is Siva the Destroyer. Though Siva is a destroyer, Brahman is without end, so everything that emanates from Brahman is also deathless
In 1858 Emerson published a long essay, in which Emerson included his own English translations of the poets Hafiz, Saadi, Khayyam. In 1872 Emerson sailed for England and then Egypt with his daughter, Ellen. Ten years later, on 27 April 1882, Emerson died in Concord, leaving an enduring legacy as the seminal figure of modern American Orientalism.
Concord Hymn immortalises the beginning of the American revolution with the Minutemen who ‘fired the shot heard round the world.’ The monument which gave rise to the poem is only a ten miles from where Joe is currently staying with his daughter in Arlington, Massachusetts.
In Rhodora Emerson takes up a lyrical defense of a species of rhododendron, saying Beauty is its own excuse for being. Fruitless to ask why such beautiful flora appear from nowhere, seemingly to waste their charm on the earth and sky. Better to wonder at the good fortune that enables the human eye to rejoice at these accidental beauties of nature.
Priya said she wished to read TS Eliot’s The Journey of The Magi as it was Christmas time, but found that it was a serious poem that required study as it was rich in allusions and imagery. Eliot she said is one of her favourites. Instead she chose to read two light-hearted poems with Christmas cheer.
Robert Louis Stevenson
She read R.L. Stevenson’s Christmas at Sea. Robert Louis Stevenson (1850 – 1894) was a Scottish novelist, poet, essayist, traveller and travel writer. Stevenson is best known for his novels, Treasure Island and Kidnapped, and the amazing horror story, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. He spent his final days in the South Pacific, in Samoa. What he wrote about in the poem, he likely experienced on board ship. The heavy going of the ship in wintry weather contrasts with the fireside Christmas of magazines in England. Stevenson conveys the feel of the sails frozen hard with images. He chooses a regular metre which seems to reflect the ship’s heaving to and fro without making progress. The poet nimbly weaves dialect and nautical terms to show he is at home in conveying a sea-faring drama believably. Stevenson was an elegant writer of prose, but also a real craftsman when it came to verse. You can read more about this poem in Carol Rumen’s Poem of the Week.
Clement Clarke Moore
The other poem Priya chose was the popular A Visit from St Nicholas by Clement Clarke Moore (1779–1863). Everyone enjoyed this. Moore was born in New York City, schooled at home, and graduated in 1798 at the head of his class in Columbia University. He married and had nine children. He was professor of Eastern and Greek literature from 1823 until he retired in 1850.
He wrote books on esoteric subjects, but also wrote poetry throughout his career. A Visit from St. Nicholas was first published anonymously, but its authorship was acknowledged in Moore’s collection Poems in 1844. Moore died in 1863 at a house he bought after retirement in Newport, Rhode Island.
Pamela read poems of Naomi Shihab Nye, a Palestinian-American poet born in 1952. The biographical information below is taken from the Poetry Foundation page on the poet. Naomi Shihab Nye was born 1952 in St. Louis, Missouri. Her father was a Palestinian refugee and her mother an American of German and Swiss descent. Growing up in Jerusalem and Texas she experienced different cultures which influenced her work. Nye says, “the primary source of poetry has always been local life, random characters met on the streets, our own ancestry sifting down to us through small essential daily tasks.”
Paul Christensen noted that Nye “is building a reputation…as the voice of childhood in America.” In her work, according to Jane Tanner in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, “Nye observes the business of living and the continuity among all the world’s inhabitants…She is international in scope and internal in focus.” Nye is a leading woman poet of the American Southwest. Nye got her BA in San Antonio, Texas and continues to live and work in the city. “My poems and stories often begin with the voices of our neighbors, mostly Mexican American, always inventive and surprising,” Nye wrote for Four Winds Press. Nye’s first two chapbooks, published in the 1970s were Tattooed Feet (1977)and Eye-to-Eye (1978). They are written in free verse and structured around the theme of a journey or quest. Her first full-length collection, Different Ways to Pray came out in 1980 exploring cultures from California to Texas, from South America to Mexico.
Hugging the Jukebox (1982), a full-length collection won the Voertman Poetry Prize. In it Nye continues to focus on the ordinary, on connections between diverse peoples, and on the perspectives of those in other lands. Although the action is often mundane Nye manages to extract satisfying poetry by distilling it.
The poems in a further collection Yellow Glove (1986) present a more mature perspective tempered by tragedy and sorrow. In Red Suitcase (1994), Nye continues to explore the effect of on-going violence on everyday life in the Middle East. She deals with the search for peace in Palestine. Her vocabulary is unadorned and direct.
Fuel (1998) is perhaps Nye’s most acclaimed volume. Like her mentor, William Stafford, Nye again and again manifests her belief in giving witness to everyday life, and conveying the moral concerns behind them.
After the World Trade Center attacks in 2001, Nye became an active voice for Arab-Americans, speaking out against both terrorism and prejudice. She brought out a collection which dealt with the Middle East and her experiences as an Arab-American into one volume, 19 Varieties of Gazelle: Poems of the Middle East (2002). Nye’s next book, You and Yours (2005), continues to explore the Middle East and a poet’s response.
In addition to her poetry collections, Nye has produced fiction for children, poetry and song recordings, and poetry translations. She edited several anthologies, including the award-winning This Same Sky (1992), which represents 129 poets from sixty-eight countries.
As a children’s writer, Nye is acclaimed for her sensitivity and cultural awareness. In 1997 Nye published Habibi, her first young-adult novel. Readers meet Liyana Abboud, an Arab-American teen who moves with her family to her Palestinian father’s native country during the 1970s, only to discover that the violence in Jerusalem has not yet abated. The novel magnifies through the lens of adolescence “the joys and anxieties of growing up.”
Nye told Contemporary Authors: “I have always loved the gaps, the spaces between things, as much as the things … Poetry calls us to pause. There is so much we overlook, while the abundance around us continues to shimmer, on its own.”
Faiz Ahmed Faiz (1911 — 1984)
Zakia chose to read Pakistani poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz, who has been recited once before by Pamela and enjoyed by the group. Faiz Ahmed Faiz was born on February 13, 1911, in Sialkot, now part of Pakistan. He is a celebrated Urdu poet and was leftist in his views. He founded the Progressive Writer’s Movement. He lived later in self-exile in Beirut. He was born into privilege. His father was a prominent lawyer and a member of an elite literary circle which included Allama Iqbal, the national poet of Pakistan.
Faiz was later admitted to the Scotch Mission High School (now Murray College) where he studied Urdu, Persian, and Arabic. He received a Bachelor’s degree in Arabic, followed by a master’s degree in English, from the Government College in Lahore in 1932, and later received another master’s degree in Arabic from the Oriental College in Lahore. After graduating in 1935, Faiz began a teaching career at M.A.O. College in Amritsar and then at Hailey College of Commerce in Lahore.
Faiz’s early poems were conventional, but in Lahore he began to expand into politics. It was also during this period that he married Alys George, a British expatriate and convert to Islam, with whom he had two daughters. In 1942, he gave up teaching to join the British Indian Army, for which he received a British Empire Medal for his service during World War II. After the partition of India in 1947, Faiz resigned from the army and became the editor of The Pakistan Times, a socialist English-language newspaper.
On March 9, 1951, Faiz was arrested with a group of army officers for conspiring against the nation and sentenced to death. He spent four years in prison before being released. Two of his poetry collections deal with life in prison. Faiz was appointed to the National Council of the Arts by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s government, and his poems, which had previously been translated into Russian, earned him the Lenin Peace Prize in 1963.
In 1964, Faiz settled in Karachi and was appointed principal of Abdullah Haroon College, while also working as an editor and writer for several distinguished magazines and newspapers. He worked in the Department of Information during the 1965 war between India and Pakistan, and wrote despairingly over the bloodshed between Pakistan, India, and what later became Bangladesh. However, when Bhutto was overthrown by Zia-ul-Haq, Faiz was forced into exile in Beirut. There he edited the magazine Lotus, and continued to write poems in Urdu. He remained in exile until 1982. He died in Lahore in 1984, shortly after receiving a nomination for the Nobel Prize.
Throughout his tumultuous life, Faiz continually wrote and published, becoming the best-selling modern Urdu poet in both India and Pakistan. While his work is written in fairly strict formal diction, his poems maintain a casual, conversational tone in the tradition of Mirza Ghalib, the renowned 19th century Urdu poet. Faiz is especially celebrated for his poems in traditional Urdu forms, such as the ghazal, and his remarkable ability to expand the conventional thematic expectations to include political and social issues.
Derek Walcott (1930 — 2017) was Shoba’s choice. He was recited by KumKum in Mar 2011. Derek Walcott was born in 1930 in the Caribbean island of Saint Lucia. The experience of growing up isolated in an ex-British colony, had a strong influence on Walcott's life and work. He is the descendant of slaves via his grandmothers. His father, a a water-color painter, died when Derek was only a few years old. His mother ran the town's Methodist school. After studying at St. Mary's College in his native island and at the University of the West Indies in Jamaica, Walcott moved in 1953 to Trinidad, where he worked as a theatre and art critic. At the age of 18, he made his debut with 25 Poems, but his breakthrough came with the collection of poems, In a Green Night (1962). In 1959, he founded the Trinidad Theatre Workshop which produced many of his early plays.
Though Walcott felt himself deeply-rooted in Caribbean society with its cultural fusion of African, Asiatic and European elements, he travelled extensively. For many years, he divided his time between Trinidad, where he made his home as a writer, and Boston University, where he taught literature and creative writing.
He received the 1992 Nobel Prize in Literature. The Homeric epic poem Omeros, which Walcott wrote in 1990, is viewed as his major achievement. Walcott received many literary awards over the course of his career, including a MacArthur Foundation "genius" award, a Royal Society of Literature Award, and the Queen's Medal for Poetry. In 2011 he won the T. S. Eliot Prize for his book of poetry White Egrets.
One controversy that dogged his career was in 2009, when Walcott was a leading candidate for the position of Oxford Professor of Poetry. But he had to withdraw his candidacy after reports of the accusations against him of sexual harassment from 1981 (in Harvard) and 1996 (at Boston University) surfaced — apparently originated by Ruth Padel, the other contestant for the position. She had to resign in a furore after being elected as Oxford Professor of Poetry, the only woman so honoured.
Michael Rosen b. 1946
This bio is taken mostly from the Poetry Foundation site. Michael Rosen is a children’s book author and broadcaster who lives in London. He studied Medicine for a year before transferring to Oxford University where he studied English. Rosen’s first book of children’s poetry was in 1974, titled Mind Your Own Business; it was illustrated by Quentin Blake, the well-known illustrator of books for children, that have won numerous prizes and awards, including the Whitbread Award, the Kate Greenaway Medal. Through Michael Rosen’s writing and teaching and as an editor of anthologies, he has helped to make poetry accessible to children.
Rosen’s books include You Can’t Catch Me (1982), winner of the Signal Poetry Award, and We’re Going on a Bear Hunt (1989), illustrated by Helen Oxenbury, which received a number of prestigious awards: the School Library Journal Best Book of the Year; a Boston Globe–Horn Book Honor Award; Nestlé Children’s Book Prize; and Outstanding Picture Book from Abroad Award by the Japanese newspaper, Mainichi Shimbun.
Rosen most often writes in a humorous vein, even addressing bereavement in Sad Book (2004), winner of the Exceptional Award for the Best Children’s Illustrated Books of 2004 (4 to 11 range), and in the prose poem collection Carrying the Elephant: A Memoir of Love and Loss (2002) about his son’s death from meningitis.
Rosen regularly visits schools to read his poetry and has taught children’s literature at the university level. He has written over 220 books for children. He has his own website at
For a more informal biography by the children’s author himself see:
Poems — all translations by Richard Zenith, except as noted for the quatrains
My gaze is as clear as a sun-flower.
It is my custom to walk along roads
Looking right and left,
And sometimes looking behind me,
And what I see at each moment
Is what I never saw before,
And I’m very good at noticing things.
I’m capable of having that sheer wonder
That a new-born child would have
If he realized he’d just been born.
I always feel I’ve just been born
Into an endlessly new world.
I believe in the world as in a daisy,
Because I see it. But I don’t think about it,
Because to think is not to understand.
The world wasn’t made for us to think about it
(To think is to have eyes that aren’t well)
But to look at it and to be in agreement.
I have no philosophy: I have senses.
If I speak of Nature it is not because I know what it is,
But because I love it, and for that very reason,
Because those who love never know what they love,
Nor why they love, or what love is.
To love is eternal innocence,
And the only innocence is not to think.
I’m a keeper of sheep.
The sheep are my thoughts
And each thought a sensation.
I think with my eyes and my ears
And with my hands and feet
And with my nose and mouth.
To think a flower is to see it and smell it,
And to eat a fruit is to know it’s meaning.
That is why on a hot day
When I enjoy it so much I feel sad,
And I lie down in the grass
And close my warm eyes,
Then I feel my whole body lying down in reality,
I know the truth, and I’m happy.
LET THE GODS
Let the gods
Take from me
By their high and secretly wrought will
All glory, love and wealth.
All I ask
Is that they leave
My lucid and solemn consciousness
Of beings and of things.
Love and glory
Don't matter to me.
Wealth is a metal, glory an echo,
And love a shadow.
To the forms and properties of objects
Is a sure refuge.
Are all the world,
Its love is the placid Universe,
Its wealth is life.
Its glory is
The supreme certainty
Of solemnly and clearly possessing
The forms of objects.
Other things pass
And fear death,
But the clear and useless vision of the Universe
Fears and suffers nothing.
COUNTLESS LIVES INHABIT US
Countless lives inhabit us.
I don't know, when I think or feel.
Who it is that thinks or feels.
I am merely the place
Where things are thought or felt.
I have more than just one soul.
There are more I's than I myself.
I exist, nevertheless,
Indifferent to them all.
I silence them: I speak.
The crossing urges of what
I feel or do not feel
Struggle in who I am, but I
Ignore them. They dictate nothing
Το The I I know: Ι wτite.
13 NOVEMBER 1935
Alvaro de Campos
AH, THE FRESHNESS IN THE FACE OF LEAVING A TASK UNDONE
Ah, the freshness in the face of leaving a task undone!
To be remiss is to be positively out in the country!
What a refuge it is to be completely unreliable!
I can breathe easier now that the appointments are behind me.
I missed them all, through deliberate negligence,
Having waited for the urge to go, which I knew wouldn't come.
I’m free and against organized, clothed society.
I'm naked and plunge into the water of my imagination.
It’s too late to be at either of the two meetings where I should have
been at the same time,
Deliberately at the same time . . .
No matter, I'll stay here dreaming verses and smiling in italics.
This spectator aspect of life is so amusing!
I can't even light the next cigarette . . . If it's an action,
It can wait for me, along with the others, in the nonmeeting called
17 JUNE 1929
I’M BEGINNING TO KNOW ΜYSELF. I DΟΝ’T EXIST
I’m beginning to know myself. I don't exist.
I’m the gap between what I’d like to be and what others have made me,
Or half of this gap, since there's also life . . .
That's me. Period.
Turn of the light, shut the door, and get rid of the slipper noise in the hallway.
Leave me alone in my room with the vast peace of myself.
It's a shoddy universe.
I don’t know how many souls I have.
I’ve changed at every moment.
I always feel like a stranger.
I’ve never seen or found myself.
From being so much, I have only soul.
A man who has soul has no calm.
A man who sees is just what he sees.
A man who feels is not who he is.
Attentive to what I am and see,
I become them and stop being I.
Each of my dreams and each desire
Belongs to whoever had it, not me.
I am my own landscape,
I watch myself journey -
Various, mobile, and alone.
Here where I am I can’t feel myself.
That’s why I read, as a stranger,
My being as if it were pages.
Not knowing what will come
And forgetting what has passed,
I note in the margin of my reading
What I thought I felt.
Rereading, I wonder: “Was that me?”
God knows, because he wrote it.
Quatrains (just a few of the 325, translated by Phillip Krummrich)
Your tenderness, put on, gives me
this solace at the end:
at least you haven’t quite forgot
the right way to pretend.
O head of softly dimming gold
with eyes blue as the sky
who taught you the bewitchment that
makes me no longer I?
My feelings are the ash
Of my imagination,
And I’ll deposit that ash
in the ashtray of ratiocination.
The sky is dark, the snow descends:
Ring, bells, ring out your merriest chime!
Jesus is born; the Virgin bends
Above him. Oh, the happy time!
No curtains bright-festooned are hung,
To shield the Infant from the cold;
The spider-webs alone are slung
Upon the rafters bare and old.
On fresh straw lies the little One,
Not in a palace, but a farm,
And kindly oxen breathe upon
His manger-bed to keep it warm.
White wreaths of snow the roofs attire,
And o'er them stars the blue adorn,
And hark! In white the angel-quire
Sings to the Shepherds, 'Christ is born.'
Love came to Flora asking for a flower
That would of flowers be undisputed queen,
The lily and the rose, long, long had been
Rivals for that high honour. Bards of power
Had sung their claims. "The rose can never tower
Like the pale lily with her Juno mien"--
"But is the lily lovelier?" Thus between
Flower-factions rang the strife in Psyche's bower.
"Give me a flower delicious as the rose
And stately as the lily in her pride"—
"But of what colour?"--"Rose-red," Love first chose,
Then prayed,—"No, lily-white,— or, both provide;"
And Flora gave the lotus, "rose-red" dyed,
And "lily-white,"— the queenliest flower that blows.
When I was about to die
my body lit up
like when I leave my house
without my wallet.
What am I missing? I ask
patting my chest
and I am missing everything living
that won’t come with me
into this sunny afternoon
—my body lights up for life
like all the wishes being granted in a fountain
at the same instant—
all the coins burning the fountain dry—
and I give my breath
to a small bird-shaped pipe.
In the distance, behind several voices
haggling, I hear a sound like heads
clicking together. Like a game of pool,
played with people by machines.
Leisure-Loving Man Suffers Untimely Death
You ask why the dinner table has been so quiet.
I’ve felt, for a month, like the table:
holding strange things in my head
when there are voices present.
And when the voices die,
a cool cloth and some sparkling spray.
I’m on painkillers around the clock,
and I fear it’s always been
just the pain talking to you.
The last vision was of the pain leaving—
it looked just like me as it came out
of my mouth, but it was holding a spatula.
It was me if I had learned to cook.
The pain drifted to the kitchen.
He hitched himself to the oven, was a centaur
completed by bread, great black loaves
bursting from the oven,
and then the vision vanished.
I followed, and stood where he had stood.
The knives rustled in the block,
the pans clacked overhead.
I’m sterile from chemo,
and thought of that.
Sure, I wish my imagination well,
wherever it is. But now
I have sleep to fill. Every night
I dream I have a bucket
and move clear water from a hole
to a clear ocean. A robot’s voice barks
This is sleep. This is sleep.
I’d drink the water, but I’m worried the next
night I’d regret it.
I might need every last drop. Nobody will tell me.
If the red slayer think he slays,
Or if the slain think he is slain,
They know not well the subtle ways
I keep, and pass, and turn again.
Far or forgot to me is near;
Shadow and sunlight are the same;
The vanished gods to me appear;
And one to me are shame and fame.
They reckon ill who leave me out;
When me they fly, I am the wings;
I am the doubter and the doubt,
I am the hymn the Brahmin sings.
The strong gods pine for my abode,
And pine in vain the sacred Seven;
But thou, meek lover of the good!
Find me, and turn thy back on heaven.
Sung at the Completion of the Battle Monument, July 4, 1837
Minuteman Statue stands at the Old North Bridge in Concord, Massachusetts. On its base is the first verse of Emerson’s poem ‘Concord Hymn.’ Statue is by Daniel Chester French
By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood
And fired the shot heard round the world.
The foe long since in silence slept;
Alike the conqueror silent sleeps;
And Time the ruined bridge has swept
Down the dark stream which seaward creeps.
On this green bank, by this soft stream,
We set today a votive stone;
That memory may their deed redeem,
When, like our sires, our sons are gone.
Spirit, that made those heroes dare
To die, and leave their children free,
Bid Time and Nature gently spare
The shaft we raise to them and thee.
Rhodora, the purple Rhododendron canadense
On Being Asked Whence Is the Flower
In May, when sea-winds pierced our solitudes,
I found the fresh Rhodora in the woods,
Spreading its leafless blooms in a damp nook,
To please the desert and the sluggish brook.
The purple petals, fallen in the pool,
Made the black water with their beauty gay;
Here might the red-bird come his plumes to cool,
And court the flower that cheapens his array.
Rhodora! if the sages ask thee why
This charm is wasted on the earth and sky,
Tell them, dear, that if eyes were made for seeing,
Then Beauty is its own excuse for being:
Why thou wert there, O rival of the rose!
I never thought to ask, I never knew:
But, in my simple ignorance, suppose
The self-same Power that brought me there brought you.
Christmas at Sea
The sheets were frozen hard, and they cut the naked hand;
(Clement Clarke Moore)
Kindness by Naomi Shihab Nye, 1952
Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.
Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to gaze at bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.
From Words Under the Words: Selected Poems. Copyright © 1995 by Naomi Shihab Nye. Reprinted with the permission of the author.
BY NAOMI SHIHAB NYE
Because the eye has a short shadow or
it is hard to see over heads in the crowd?
If everyone else seems smarter
but you need your own secret?
If mystery was never your friend?
If one way could satisfy
the infinite heart of the heavens?
If you liked the king on his golden throne
more than the villagers carrying baskets of lemons?
If you wanted to be sure
his guards would admit you to the party?
The boy with the broken pencil
scrapes his little knife against the lead
turning and turning it as a point
emerges from the wood again
If he would believe his life is like that
he would not follow his father into war
Naomi Shihab Nye, “Fundamentalism” from Fuel. Copyright © 1998 by Naomi Shihab Nye. Used by the permission of BOA Editions Ltd., www.boaeditions.org
Love After Love by Derek Walcott
The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other's welcome,
and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you
all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,
the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.
Here is a video snippet of her recitation that was captured and shared by Priya.
Chocolate Cake - Poem by Michael Rosen
I love chocolate cake.
I love it even more.
Sometimes we used to have it for tea
and mum used to say,
"If there's any left over
you can have it to take to school
tomorrow to have at playtime."
And the next day I would take it to school
wrapped up in tin foil
open it up at playtime and sit in the
corner of the playground
you know how the icing on top
is all shiny and it cracks as you
bite into it
and there's that other kind of icing in
and it sticks to your hands and you
can lick your fingers
and lick your lips
oh it's lovely.
once we had this chocolate cake for tea
and later I went to bed
but while I was in bed
I found myself waking up
licking my lips
I woke up proper.
“The chocolate cake”
It was the first thing
I thought of.
I could almost see it
so I thought,
what if I go dowstairs
and have a little nibble, yeah ?
it was all dark
everyone was in bed
so it must have been really late
but I got out of bed,
crept out of the door
there's always a creaky floorboard, isn't there ?
Past Mum and Dad's room,
careful not to tread on bits of broken toys
or bits of Lego
with your bare feet,
into the kitchen
open the cupboard
and there it is
So I take it out of the cupboard
put it on the table
and I see that
there's a few crumbs lying about on the plate,
so I lick my finger and run my finger all over the crumbs
scooping them up
and put them into my mouth.
I look again
and on one side where it's been
it's all crumbly.
So I take a knife
I think, I'll just tidy that up a
cut off the crumbly bits
scoop them all up
and into the mouth
Look at the cake again.
That looks a bit funny now,
one side doesn't match the other
I'll just even it up a bit, eh ?
Take the knife
This time the knife makes a little cracky noise
as it goes through that hard icing on top.
A whole slice this time,
into the mouth.
Oh the icing on top
and the icing in the middle
ohhhhhh oooo mmmmmmmm.
I can't stop myself.
I just take any old slice at it
and I've got this great big
and I'm cramming it in
what a greedy pig
but it's so nice,
and there's another
and another and I'm squealing and I'm smacking my lips
and I'm stuffing myself with it
before I know
I've eaten the lot.
The whole lot.
I look at the plate.
It's all gone.
They're bound to notice, aren't they ,
a whole chocolate cake doesn't just disappear
does it ?
What shall I do ?
I know. I'll wash the plate up,
and the knife
and put them away and maybe no one
will notice, eh ?
So I do that
and creep creep
back to bed
licking my lips
with a lovely feeling in my belly.
In the morning I get up,
Have you got your dinner money ?
and I say,
And don't forget to take some chocolate cake with you.
I stopped breathing.
What's the matter ?, she says,
you normally jump at chocolate cake ?
I'm still not breathing,
and she's looking at me very closely now.
She's looking at me just below my mouth.
What's that ? she says.
What's what ? I say.
What's that there ?
There, she says, pointing at my chin.
I don't know, I say.
It looks like chocolate, she says
It's not chocolate cake is it ?
Is it ?
I don't know.
She goes to the cupboard
looks in, up, top, middle, bottom,
turns back to me.
You haven't eaten it, have you ?
I don't know.
you don't know ? you don't know if you've eaten a whole
chocolate cake or not ?
When ? When did you eat it ?
So I told her,
and she said
well what could she say ?
That's the last time I give you any cake to take
Now go. Get out
I went upstairs
looked in the mirror
and there it was,
just below my mouth,
a chocolate smudge.
Maybe she'll forget about it by next week.
You can hear the poet reciting this here:
Michael Rosen has his own channel on Youtube at