Monday, April 24, 2006

"To his Coy Mistress"

Had we but world enough, and time,
This coyness, lady, were no crime.

We would sit down and think which way
To walk, and pass our long love's day;
Thou by the Indian Ganges' side
Shouldst rubies find; I by the tide
Of Humber would complain. I would
Love you ten years before the Flood;
And you should, if you please, refuse
Till the conversion of the Jews.
My vegetable love should grow
Vaster than empires, and more slow.
An hundred years should go to praise
Thine eyes, and on thy forehead gaze;
Two hundred to adore each breast,
But thirty thousand to the rest;
An age at least to every part,
And the last age should show your heart.
For, lady, you deserve this state,
Nor would I love at lower rate.

But at my back I always hear
Time's winged chariot hurrying near;
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.
Thy beauty shall no more be found,
Nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound
My echoing song; then worms shall try
That long preserv'd virginity,
And your quaint honour turn to dust,
And into ashes all my lust.
The grave's a fine and private place,
But none I think do there embrace.

Now therefore, while the youthful hue
Sits on thy skin like morning dew,
And while thy willing soul transpires
At every pore with instant fires,
Now let us sport us while we may;
And now, like am'rous birds of prey,
Rather at once our time devour,
Than languish in his slow-chapp'd power.
Let us roll all our strength, and all
Our sweetness, up into one ball;
And tear our pleasures with rough strife
Thorough the iron gates of life.
Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.

by Andrew Marvell


Having commented on Dreamer Idiot's Wordsworth post the other day that I find contemporary poetry easier to relate to ... here I am dipping back in time to the C17th! This is probably a poem you already know well, and much anthologised.

But this is my favourite of all favourites! I can't remember when I first encountered it, but I can remember suddenly needing to read it and driving all the way to Bangsar to rummage through the poetry books in Skoob to find it. I learned it off by heart, as I do with all the poetry I love.

I used it in the classroom too. I loved putting it in front of my Matriculation classes when I was in teacher-training. Quite naughtily, I wouldn't explain a thing about it, just tell the students to get into groups and work out for themselves what the poet is trying to say ... and I enjoyed the look on their faces when they got the message! (I loved teaching poetry as a subversive activity!)

I remember the whole class laughing one time when a student suddenly exclaimed "He's just trying to get into her pants!"

But that's more or less it, isn't it? A three hundred year old poem ... and we know exactly what's going on.

There was of course much debate in the classroom about how genuine the guy is. Does he really adore his girlfriend this much, or is he just using every trick in the book to get his leg over, so to speak? (I hate to tell you but , although I firmly believe the former, my Malaysian students were way more cynical than me and ... could justify their interpretation in the light of personal experience.)

The poem is a monologue of sorts, addressing a lady who is playing hard to get. I love the way the speaker builds his argument in the three stanzas (Marvell was a politician so one must assume used to penning persuasive speeches!) by following the proposition: If we had, but we don't, so then ...
Yes, yes, you deserve to be loved like this ...
he says in the first, gently mocking his loved one even as he declares the extend of his love for her.

If we had enough time, he says, you could spend all day looking for rubies by the Ganges (which must have represented the height of exoticism at that time) while he would mooch around by the much duller Humber river (in the chilly North of England). Has his time scale for adoring her body parts. (Only 2,000 years for each breast in the face of eternity? I'd want them adoring for longer, I tell you!)

Then in the second stanza, he reminds her:
... but time's running out ...
We are bound by our mortality. Our lives are but a tiny speck compared with "the deserts of vast eternity".

The speaker switches tactic:
... ... so what are you keeping your virginity for? the grave and the worms? ...
My goodness, that image of the worms taking her virginity (especially after all the worshipping that's gone on before)! Clearly, he wants to shock his lady.

But, the argument is persuasive - common sense tells us that.

The pace of the poem quickens in the third stanza:
... okay then let's do it NOW! ...
becomes as breathless as lovers in the heat of passion. Did ever a line of poetry describe lust better than "while thy willing soul transpires/At every pore with instant fires"? I love the image "tear our pleasures with rough strife/Thorough the iron gates of life".

The poem ends with the magnificent cry of triumph "though we cannot make our sun/ Stand still, yet we will make him run."

The poem is a pleasure to read aloud. I love the richness of the imagery. But I love it most because it strikes me as very very true - life is so brief and we must grasp whatever experiences we can.

But - let me be naughty here for a moment - just as I like to imagine Dorothy Wordsworth giving her brother a hard time, I imagine the lady receiving this letter, giving it a quick glance over and scrawling this reply to be delivered by next post:
Whether I submit or nay,
The worms will get me, anyway.

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Monday, April 17, 2006

Kuruntokai - "Red Earth and Pouring Rain"

What He Said

What could my mother be
to yours? What kin is my father
to yours anyway? And how
Did you and I meet ever?
But in love
our hearts have mingled
as red earth and pouring rain.

-- Cempulappeyanirar


Some of you may be familiar with the novel "Red Earth and Pouring Rain" by Vikram Chandra. The title of the novel is derived from the poem above.

This poem dates to around 2000 years ago, to the Sangam age of Tamil poetry as compiled in the "Kuruntokai". This translation is A K Ramanujan's. The history of Tamil poetry is marked by many anonymous contributions, and traditionally the poet is identified based on a distinct phrase from his or her work. "Cempulappeyanirar" literally means "red earth and pouring rain".

This is one of those poems that I think of as being like lightning. Though brief, it offers a split second of such powerful illumination. It is especially meaningful contextually, when you think of Tamil culture (its emphasis on marrying within kin and community) and even the geography that must have surrounded the poet. When I read this poem, I am taken immediately to summer rain -- scarce, relished -- in Chennai, how the streets run red with mud, the smell of it.

More universal are the concepts of chance/destiny -- of everyone possible alive on this earth, how is it that we met one another?

The timelessness of poetry like this never ceases to awe and humble me. I've chosen to showcase this poem because the red earth/pouring rain reference may be familiar to some of you. More Sangam translations by Ramanujan can be found online at

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Tuesday, April 11, 2006

“She was a Phantom of delight”

She was a Phantom of delight
When first she gleamed upon my sight;
A lovely Apparition, sent
To be a moment's ornament;
Her eyes as stars of Twilight fair;
Like Twilight's, too, her dusky hair;
But all things else about her drawn
From May-time and the cheerful Dawn;
A dancing Shape, an Image gay,
To haunt, to startle, and way-lay.

I saw her upon nearer view,
A Spirit, yet a Woman too!
Her household motions light and free,
And steps of virgin-liberty;
A countenance in which did meet
Sweet records, promises as sweet;
A Creature not too bright or good
For human nature's daily food;
For transient sorrows, simple wiles,
Praise, blame, love, kisses, tears, and smiles.

And now I see with eye serene
The very pulse of the machine;
A Being breathing thoughtful breath,
A Traveller between life and death;
The reason firm, the temperate will,
Endurance, foresight, strength, and skill;
A perfect Woman, nobly planned,
To warn, to comfort, and command;
And yet a Spirit still, and bright
With something of angelic light.

William Wordsworth

Note: “machine” as used then refers to a complete organism.

For my turn, I have chosen Wordsworth, a familiar poet who is much read and well loved. Being a very poor shadow of the other well read contributors, I hope you will pardon me for not introducing new poets and poems as I revisit familiar ones instead in the coming months ahead.

This week’s poem is a love poem of sorts, written in a style that has been unconsciously or unknowingly adopted by many (very) young, aspiring Malaysian poets out there. The ‘flowery’ descriptions and sentiments expressed are very much characteristic of Wordsworth’s poetic language, which was not just a language of emotion, but the language of the ordinary people (as opposed to the witticisms of the poets who preceded him). Structurally, this poem is a three stanza iambic tetrameter, rhyming aabbccddee (each letter for each rhyme).
[Though I am not at all well versed (pun unintended) with poetic rhythm, for the benefit of some readers, I have included a short section on iambic feet].

This poem can be said to capture the experience of falling in love, as the speaker is suddenly struck at the sight of a beautiful lady. However, the past tense “was” indicates that it is a memory of his first seeing his lady love. Indeed, he still lovingly recalls how beautiful she looked then in his descriptive praise of her natural beauties. The words “gleamed”, “Dawn”, “Twilight”, “stars” and also in an indirect way “Delight” all serve to give the imagery and impression of the visionary captivation she held over him, and like the sun of both the dawn and twilight, as a light unto his world.

In the second stanza, as the speaker ‘moves’ to a closer view and acquaintance, she ‘becomes’ a real person and individual, but still retains her “Spirit”-like nature for him, an ethereal being whom he feels should be above and free from the inescapable earthly joys and pains of human life. The speaker’s idealisation of his lady love is very much in evidenced here, and although the third stanza shows that he is still rooted in reality, the speaker’s love powerfully colours and shapes his perception of her.

What is also interesting for me in this poem is that some of the positive qualities of the lady described in the third stanza can be said to have been less associated and attributable to women than men during that time; and for Wordsworth to name these qualities, he probably must have had an enlightened view of women, not as a weaker sex, but one who equally possesses “reason firm”, “Endurance”, “foresight” and “strength”.

For the ladies reading this, would you be flattered if a guy wrote such a verse of you?

Short note on the iambic meter

[Confession: I totally suck at ‘feeling’/hearing poetic rhythm :)
The iambic feet refers to a very light beat (unstressed) followed by a heavier one (stressed). This poem after being ‘scanned’ can be seen to have four (tetra) feet per line, hence an iambic tetrameter.

She was / a Phan / tom of / delight
When first / she gleamed / upon / my sight;

Most lyrical English verse is written with iambic meter, hence giving it a kind of musical sing-song quality.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

"The Vision of the Virgin"

‘The Vision of the Virgin’

For his climactic Divine Comic strip
Illustrating Dante’s Paradiso
Botticelli wrote this title, then stopped
And left the vellum blank. It was as though

This is a piece from Ian Duhig’s collection The Lamas Hireling. The title poem in it won the Forward Best Single Poem prize for 2001. Admittedly, I first chose the piece here not because it was the best among the lot, but – sorry to say – it was one of the shortest. (There is yet another piece even shorter, unbelievably in 2 lines and with only 3 words!) However, delving through the lines, I am delighted to discover how complex and intricate, how synchronous, symmetrical and balanced, these four lines are, and how layered, too.

On the surface, the one stanza here seems to merely depict Botticelli attempting to draw out Dante’s Paradiso as a comic strip. Incidentally, Botticelli’s real name is Alessandro di Mariano Filipepi, a Renaissance painter from 15th century Florentine. The Virgin of the title refers to, probably, one of his paintings of the Virgin Mary . . . or does it?

When I read this piece, I feel an insistent rhythm after the first line, of 5 beats. A beat is a stress marking a part of a word, so that you actually tend to read it louder or with more force.

The first line, essentially, only has, not 5 beats, but 4: cliMACtic, diVINE, COmic and STRIP. Only after reading the following two lines and finding 5 beats effecting rather regularly (perhaps not so, the last line) do I go back to see if I can read his and force – technically, promote - a beat upon it. So that the line now could go:

For HIS cliMACtic diVINE COmic STRIP

The rhythm has, essentially, a rising tone - fall-rise – at the start. The rest of the line following has a mixed tone, and the next two lines a falling tone. But the end of line 3 has more of a mix, particularly signaled by the comma.

ILluSTRAting DANte’s PAraDIso

BOTtiCELli WROTE this TItle, then STOPPED

The beginning of the last line has a rising rhythm, but the full-stop signals a change following this:

And LEFT the VELlum BLANK. It was as though

Alternatively, to sustain the 5-beat pattern, I can read in 2 beats into the last sentence fragment after the full-stop, just as I have promoted his to a beat. (I won’t tell which ones yet. Why don’t someone write me and see if he’s got them right?) But there is a reason why I should leave this last line with only 3 beats, missing 2. If that’s the case, then I should also leave the beat out of his in the first line:

For his cliMACtic diVINE COmic STRIP

If I do this, I find that the poem is now balanced, with three syllables without stresses or beats at the start, against 4 of the same at the end. When you read For his climatic, you’d sense or feel a whooshing climb up towards Divine. (Try and read as ‘foorrhiisscle…mack’) On the other end, the number and length of the vowels in It was as though gives one a sensation of falling into a void, of going into and through a void or opening; of being awestruck (by a vision?). And you’d notice this sentence just hangs, with no full-stop to indicate end of a sentence, as though the words just disappear away at the end.

There is a symmetry, felt in the last word on line 1 and on line 3. strip and stopped are not exactly half-rhymes, but their ending consonants, when you read the words, cause your lips to close, to meet, you to balk. Another one: the ‘o’ of Paradiso in line 2 and the ‘ou’ of though in the last line, so that both these make you part your lips in a little opened moue. The lips closing at end of line 1 and 3 contrasts against the lips opening at end of lines 2 and 4. If you take blank as the end of the sentence qua a sentence proper of the last line (as there is no full-stop at end of though) you can synch it to Paradiso: both have your lips parted, with blank drawing your lips back. There are some kind of interlaced balances and symmetry going on.

There are two layers of effects in the first line. ‘…strip/Illustrating…’ makes up a syntactic whole, so that the line is a run-on one. You’d read the end of the first line without stopping at strip, and read on to the next one, from Illustrating. However, for effect, you can pause ever so slightly at strip, giving the line an end-stopping effect. This is the same with stopped at the end of the 3rd line. But the run-on here is a weak one, so that you can also equally pause at stopped, for effect.

There are still more layers and technical effects in this poem. But this posting is going to get too long. So it suffices to say that what Duhig means to do with this poem is not just to tell us about Botticelli and his comic strip. He is showing us how he could take elements from a traditional, Renaissance metrical form, the pentameter, and meld them into free verse of sorts, by forging only 4 lines, instead of more (stopped and blank and the disappearing or hanging last line bear out this cutting off or baulking). Botticelli and Dante’s Paradiso are the tradition, and Comic strip is modernity or free verse.

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