Sunday, March 24, 2013

Literary Passports

I guess that I should clarify my earlier post about not being too keen on poetry.  I should have said that I don’t really care for American poetry.  Because the course I’m currently taking is an “American Literature” one, I sometimes forget that there is a whole world of stories, poems, and essays available to me.

And in the case of world literature, there are actually a number of poets that I adore.

Maybe you’re sitting there and asking “What’s the difference?”   Well, I’m getting to that; however, before I do, let’s look my numero uno when it comes to poetry apart from the United States: Pablo Neruda.

{About the Author} 

In addition to being a splendid poet, Neruda had a riveting life away from the writing desk.  Born and raised in Chile, Neruda began contributing articles to his local paper at just thirteen years old.  In 1924, my favorite of his collections - Veinte Poemas de Amor y una Cancion Desesperada {English translation: Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair} – was published.  He later became a politician, traveling to places like Burma {now Myanmar}, Singapore, and Barcelona.  Eventually, Neruda was given assignment in France, where he penned a socially- and politically-minded collection of poetry called España en el Corazón {English translation: Spain in the Heart}.  Upon returning to Chile, Neruda became an activist protesting against Chile’s President González Videla.  He was forced to live and work underground for two years.  Neruda’s writing continued to inspire and enlighten.  His accomplishments were most notably recognized in 1971 when he was awarded a Nobel Prize

{The Selections for Today’s Discussion}

I’ve chosen two pieces from Neruda. 

The first is Poema XX from Veinte poemas de amor y una cancion desesperada.  This collection is well-known by many as erotic and dramatic.  Neruda was only nineteen at the time it was published, but the poems certainly seem more mature. 

The second is entitled Soneto LXXIX from Neruda’s collection Cien sonetos de amor {English translation: One-hundred Love Sonnets}.  Despite being thirty-six years older than when Veinte poemas... was published, Neruda still manages to capture the sensuality and intimacy of love.

I think they’re best when read in Neruda’s native language of Spanish, but I fully realize that not everyone can read Spanish.  As such, I’m including them in both languages.  Not that the poems need any help in the romance department, but trust me when I tell you that they are the most delicious in Spanish.  But I digress – English will suffice!  {Can’t read Spanish, but wonder what they sound like?  Make a trip to YouTube.  You can find both of these recited in Spanish there!}

{En español}

Poema XX

Puedo escribir los versos más tristes esta noche.
Escribir, por ejemplo: "La noche está estrellada, y tiritan, azules, los astros, a lo lejos".
El viento de la noche gira en el cielo y canta.

Puedo escribir los versos más tristes esta noche.
Yo la quise, y a veces ella también me quiso.

En las noches como ésta la tuve entre mis brazos.
La besé tantas veces bajo el cielo infinito.

Ella me quiso, a veces yo también la quería.
Cómo no haber amado sus grandes ojos fijos.

Puedo escribir los versos más tristes esta noche.
Pensar que no la tengo. Sentir que la he perdido.

Oir la noche inmensa, más inmensa sin ella.
Y el verso cae al alma como al pasto el rocío.

Qué importa que mi amor no pudiera guardarla.
La noche está estrellada y ella no está conmigo.

Eso es todo. A lo lejos alguien canta. A lo lejos.
Mi alma no se contenta con haberla perdido.

Como para acercarla mi mirada la busca.
Mi corazón la busca, y ella no está conmigo.

La misma noche que hace blanquear los mismos árboles.
Nosotros, los de entonces, ya no somos los mismos.

Ya no la quiero, es cierto, pero cuánto la quise.
Mi voz buscaba el viento para tocar su oído.

De otro. Será de otro. Como antes de mis besos.
Su voz, su cuerpo claro. Sus ojos infinitos.

Ya no la quiero, es cierto, pero tal vez la quiero.
Es tan corto el amor, y es tan largo el olvido.

Porque en noches como ésta la tuve entre mis brazos, mi alma no se contenta con haberla perdido.
Aunque éste sea el último dolor que ella me causa, y éstos sean los últimos versos que yo le escribo.

{In English}

Poem 20 

I can write the saddest lines tonight.
Write, for instance: "The night is full of stars, and the stars, blue, shiver, in the distance."
The night wind whirls in the sky and sings.

I can write the saddest lines tonight.
I loved her, and sometimes she loved me too.

On nights like this, I held her in my arms.
I kissed her so many times under the infinite sky.

She loved me, sometimes I loved her.
How could I not have loved her large, still eyes?

I can write the saddest lines tonight.
To think that I don't have her. To feel that I have lost her.

To hear the immense night, more immense without her.
And the poem falls on the soul as the dew on the grass.

So what if my love couldn't keep her.
The night is full of stars, and she is not with me.

That's all. In the distance, someone sings. In the distance.
My soul is troubled after having lost her.

As if to bring her near, my eyes search for her.
My heart searches for her, and she is not with me.

The same night that whitens the same trees.
We, we who were, we are the same no longer.

I no longer love her, true, but how much I did loved her.
My voice searched the wind to touch her ear.

Someone else's. She will be someone else's. As it was before my kisses.
Her voice, her white body. Her infinite eyes.

I no longer love her, true, but perhaps I do love her.
Love is so short and oblivion so long.

Because on nights like this I held her in my arms,
my soul is troubled after having lost her.

Although this may be the last ache she causes me,
and this, the last poem I write for her.


{En español}

Soneto LXXIX

De noche, amada, amarra tu corazón al mío
y que ellos en el sueño derroten las tinieblas
como un doble tambor combatiendo en el bosque
contra el espeso muro de las hojas mojadas.

Nocturna travesía, brasa negra del sueño
interceptando el hilo de las uvas terrestres
con la puntualidad de un tren descabellado
que sombra y piedras frías sin cesar arrastrara.

Por eso, amor, amárrame el movimiento puro,
a la tenacidad que en tu pecho golpea
con las alas de un cisne sumergido,

para que a las preguntas estrelladas del cielo
responda nuestro sueño con una sola llave,
con una sola puerta cerrada por la sombra.

{In English}

Sonnet 79

Tie your heart at night to mine, love,
and both will defeat the darkness
like twin drums beating in the forest
against the heavy wall of wet leaves.

Night crossing: black coal of dream
that cuts the thread of earthly orbs
with the punctuality of a headlong train
that pulls cold stone and shadow endlessly.

Love, because of it, tie me to a purer movement,
to the grip on life that beats in your breast,
with the wings of a submerged swan,

So that our dream might reply
to the sky's questioning stars
with one key, one door closed to shadow. 


{The Difference}

What was that?!  Did you just let out a sigh?  If so, you’re not alone.  Every time I read one of Neruda’s love poems, I find myself sighing out of contentment, despair, or nostalgia.  His work is moving and emotional.  It can be swoon-inducing and full of romance.  It can be heart-breaking and scream of loneliness and longing.

In his capabilities at capturing the wild torrent of emotions that are often love, Neruda is not alone.  Many other poets from around the world do this with equal precision and skill.

These poems are a small sample that showcases one of the major differences between American poetry and its foreign counterparts:  Emotionality.

Pieces like Poema XX and Soneto LXXIX display a sleekness and romance that is sometimes hard to find in American poetry.  When I do come across similar modes in American writing, they are often portrayed with a sort of clumsiness.  They are heavy, awkward, and shallow.  Here, however, we glimpse love with softness.  There is certainly passion.  There is certainly mystery.  There can even be despair.  But whatever the emotion is, it is portrayed with an art and grace that masterfully surpasses the best of American poets.

Of course, this is just an exploration of one sort of emotion.  Other emotions – say anger or injustice – work just fine in American pieces.  But for romance or wistfulness, get your passports and library cards ready for a trip outside on our fifty states!

Saturday, March 23, 2013

A Paper Hug

Lately, I've been going through a pretty rough patch.  Anything that could go wrong, has.  Everything that seemed to be going well, suddenly decided not to. 

To keep myself from falling to pieces, I've been seeking out comfort, consolation, and companionship in all sorts of places:  I phoned old friends, begging them to remind me I had survived worse in the past.  I had hour-long chats with my two cats.  I cooked fabulous meals and tried to forget.  I curled into my fiancé at night and cried in the satin of my pillowcase.  I wrote in a journal.  I turned on my favorite comedies and tried to laugh.  I threw myself into my work, writing lesson plan after lesson plan.  I went to extra yoga classes and tried to sweat it all out.  I prayed until I was out of words. 

Earlier in the week – as my Lit class was immersed in poetry – I desperately turned to Google in hopes of finding something, anything that made me feel like I wasn’t the only person on the planet struggling to keep it all together. 

I snuggled into my familiar spot on the couch, closed the blinds to keep the sunshine from disturbing my melancholy, pulled my oldest and softest blanket up to my chin, and balanced my laptop on my legs.  I stared into the screen blankly, thinking What good can this do?  How is anything I find here going to make me feel any better?  After a few minutes, I typed phrases like these:

“Literature for the brokenhearted”
“Poetry for the downtrodden”
“Quotes to inspire”

Some of the results were a bit too much for me – a good amount were straight out of the self-help section of the bookstore, and others seemed written for the most devout and religious among us. 

There were also a number that offered little substance – I've blogged about these types of “inspirational quotes” before, see:  “What It Means to Dream” from December 2012.  My mood definitely wasn't going to be lightened by those little “gems”; on the contrary, I imagine I might have become angry.

But, alas, just as I wanted to give up and take a year-long nap, I came across three selections that made me feel the first twinges of hope.  I’m sharing them with you today, just in case you’re feeling lost like I was.  You’ll also find a few of my responses to them in italics

Bad Morning

Here I sit
With my shoes mismated
I’s frustrated

-Langston Hughes

*I know this one seems silly, and maybe it isn't your idea of consolatory, but it made me smile.  Have any of you ever done something so routine only to turn around and realize you completely mucked it up?  I certainly have.  I once went to work with inside-out pants and a backwards shirt on {I had gotten up late and hurriedly dressed in the dark}.  Obviously, the problems I've been dealing with lately far surpass little slip-ups like this, but perhaps I can consider them in this way.  Perhaps, I can simply stand up, go find the mated shoes, put them on, and go on my way, forgetting I ever erred in the first place.

A Winter Dawn

Above the marge of night a star still shines,
And on the frosty hills the sombre pines
Harbor an eerie wind that crooneth low
Over the glimmering wastes of virgin snow.

Through the pale arch of orient the morn
Comes in a milk-white splendor newly-born,
A sword of crimson cuts in twain the gray
Banners of shadow hosts, and lo, the day!

-Lucy Maud Montgomery

*L.M. Montgomery wrote a series of books about the beloved Anne of Green Gables.  Those books hold very special and sweet memories for me.  Her writing has always provided me with entertainment and cheer.  As such, I actually amended my search to include her name.  I came across this poem, which gently reminded me that every dark night is soon replaced by a new, bright day.

The Armful

For every parcel I stoop down to seize
I lose some other off my arms and knees,
And the whole pile is slipping, bottles, buns --
Extremes too hard to comprehend at once,
Yet nothing I should care to leave behind.
With all I have to hold with hand and mind
And heart, if need be, I will do my best
To keep their building balanced at my breast.
I crouch down to prevent them as they fall;
Then sit down in the middle of them all.
I had to drop the armful in the road
And try to stack them in a better load.

-Robert Frost

* I've never been a big Frost fan, but this poem reminded me of my life right now.  It is so much like carrying a tower of things.  One thing falls down, prompting another to follow, and another – and soon, you find yourself staring at a pile of broken eggs, torn bags, and smashed bread.  And what else is there to do, but stoop over and pick up the pieces?

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Poetry with a Pulse

I’ve never been one for poetry.  As much as I love reading, I have just never felt very connected to this particular genre.  Don’t get me wrong:  I completely understand that it is an art, a fluid expression of thoughts and ideas, sometimes imaginative, sometimes all-too-real.  I am capable of appreciating these characteristics, but I would never opt to read it over other forms of literature.

Today, while driving along on my two-hour commute from my home to my office, I realized there actually is a form of poetry that I wholeheartedly and unreservedly adore – MUSIC. 

I listen to music almost all of the time.  If I’m awake, there must be music.  Even as I’m teaching, there is music.  When I take a shower, I turn on music.  If I can’t sleep at night, I sing to myself!  Music is a huge part of my life.

To many, music might simply seem like beats of bass or extra sound; but, in fact, music is both an art and a science.  It is comprised of precision as well as chaos.  It is rhythm, but it is also lyrics {most of the time}. 
I am a lyrics person.  While I love a good beat or killer guitar riff, I need and seek out good words.  To me, songwriting is a whole lot like poetry.  The rhythm is just the accompanying track to the literature from the songwriter.

Like poetry, music includes a wide array of styles.

For instance, we can consider that pop music is the “Roses are red, violets are blue…” of the lyrical world.  The word choices and structure of these songs might be simple, end in rhymes, and come to a predictable conclusion, but they still require some writing skill as well as an understand of what might catch a listener’s ear.  {Please don’t take my comments here as an affront to pop music.  I channel my inner Kelly Clarkson on an almost daily basis while dancing around in my car.} 

Examples of this approach to lyrics {and poetry} can be found in several current pop songs.

K$sha’s “C’mon” includes lines like the following:

Feeling like I'm a high schooler
Sipping on a warm wine cooler 

Hot 'cause the party don't stop
I'm in a crop top 
… … … …
We been keeping it PG
But I wanna get a little frisky

Rihanna’s “Stay” includes similar rhyme-ending lines:

Round and around and around and around we go
Oh now tell me now tell me now tell me now you know
It takes me all the way
I want you to stay
Ooh the reason I hold on
Ooh ‘cause I need this hole gone
Funny you're the broken one but I'm the only one who needed saving
Cause when you never see the light it's hard to know which one of us is caving

More advanced songwriting can be compared to less obvious rhythms and themes in poetry.  Literary devices like metaphor or personification might be utilized.  Word choice may be highly varied and creative.  

Like their poetic counterparts, these sorts of songs may prove to be complex and quite deep.

My favorite band of all-time will forever be Led Zeppelin.  I find their songs rhythmically and lyrically interesting.  One of their most popular tracks is the highly-successful “Stairway to Heaven.”  The song – while certainly appealing based solely on Jimmy Page’s guitar work, John Paul Jones’ bass recorder and electric piano work, and John Bonham’s ever-stunning drums – is ultimately made by Robert Plant as he sings thought-provoking lyrics like the following:

There's a lady who's sure all that glitters is gold
And she's buying a stairway to heaven.
When she gets there she knows, if the stores are all closed
With a word she can get what she came for.
Ooh, ooh, and she's buying a stairway to heaven.

There's a sign on the wall but she wants to be sure
'Cause you know sometimes words have two meanings.
In a tree by the brook, there's a songbird who sings,
Sometimes all of our thoughts are misgiven.

Other complex lyrical schemes can be found in all genres of modern music.

Ben Folds, another favorite of mine, penned these lyrics to his song “The Luckiest”:

What if I'd been born 50 years before you
In a house on the street where you live?
Maybe I'd be outside as you passed on your bike
Would I know?

And in a wide sea of eyes
I see one pair that I recognize
And I know
That I am…
The luckiest

I love you more than I have
Ever found a way to say to you

Next door there's an old man who lived to his 90s
And one day passed away in his sleep
And his wife, she stayed for a couple of days
And passed away
I'm sorry, I know that's
A strange way to tell you
That I know we belong…

Literature has often inspired musicians to either allude to or outright mention certain works or authors.

Regina Spektor – who I think is some sort of modern-day musical genius – mentions authors in at least two of her songs.

In “Poor Little Rich Boy,” she sings:

Poor little rich boy, all the world is okay
The water runs off your skin and down into the drain
You're reading Fitzgerald, you're reading Hemmingway
They're both super smart and drinking in the café…

In “Pound of Flesh,” she alludes to Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice and also mentions a poet from our current text:

Ezra Pound'll sit upon your bed
ask you which books as of late you have read
ask you if you've read his own
and whether you could spare a pound
of flesh to cover his bare bones
You'll say, man, take a pound, take two
what's a pound of flesh between
friends like me and you?
What's a pound of flesh among friends?...

To me, these lyrical examples illustrate the commonalities that music and traditional poetry share.  Writers, whether song or literary ones, aim to express an idea and elicit some sort of emotional response from their readers {or listeners}.  Even pop songs or elementary poems seek to achieve this.  Their goal may simply be to entertain or lighten a dark mood.  More complex poems and songs may strive to communicate a vision or express an intricate concept.  They may hope to force their audience to consider alternate worlds or visionary ideas.

Ultimately, the success of these goals depends on the appeal of the work.  Skill, while clearly necessary, is not usually the determining factor for an audience.  Instead, the audience seeks connection to the message.

I can read volumes of poetry and find only a small number that spark connection; however, I can name many songs that have provided this.

To each his own, of course.  Some might feel that pulsating rhythm overshadows lyrics, making music more of distraction than a means of communication.  But for now, I will choose musical poetry over the textbook kind any day of the week!