Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Basho's haiku: "Noon doze"

Noon doze,
Wall cool against
My feet

(by Basho)

Yet another translated poem from me, this time from the East. This is only three lines, and is so, so short. This is a haiku.

Most of us probably know something about haikus, that they are a Japanese poetical form, usually rendered (for people reading or writing in English, at least) in 17 syllables, cut into three lines of 5-7-5. But did you know, or were aware, that this form of haiku was actually established only in the 19th century in Japan?

That’s why the haiku (excuse me, but I still have to use this term for it) here doesn’t seem to follow this fixed-syllable ruling, does it? This piece was actually written in the 17th century, and back then it was called a hokku. However, the English translation of this and other pieces collected in a Penguin Classics still stand as haikus, so that they are more palatable to Western reading tastes, I gather.

A bit about the poet:
He is Basho Matsuo, born 1644, died 1694. He was, and, today, is still, considered the greatest master of this genre. Actually, his name Basho was some nickname, for banana, not his real one, which was Kinsaku when very young and, older, Matsuo Munefusa. But the literary world, especially in the West, know him as a single-word entity (like Madonna). Like most of his countrymen in his days he wanted to be a samurai. A bit unusual, but he started writing haikus (or known then as haikai) because his master Sengin also wrote them, taking up another name, Sobo. He later traveled all over Japan, and wrote his haikus. He seemed to have attracted, or collected, quite a lot of students.

Back to the haiku (or hokku):
I don’t know how the actual Japanese of it sounds like. But I can give a good guess, that it could sound as profound and enthralling as the noh number I was listening to on Bjork’s soundtrack for Drawing Restraint 9, a musical set in Japan. The English translation, by Julien Stryk, should be very close to the original, I shouldn’t wonder.

The first line has so lengthy vowels, drawing out, so lazily, the mid-day snooze. The “n” sounds give a luxuriance in this context, and the voiced “z” gives us the impression of drawn breathing and perhaps some light snoring. They are both stressed words, so you’d read them without haste. This is a hokku, not an actual haiku, I repeat. However it follows some of the rules of the latter (thanks to the Western translator), of having a pause or some punctuation to indicate what would be introduced or revealed next. So, there is such a punctuation, but a comma, at the end of this first line. The next line also has a slow delivery, with two long-drawn vowels in stressed words. And, incidentally, the long vowel in “cool” echoes “noon”, but not very exactly, because normally you seldom take these things into consideration in haikus. Things speed up a little after those two words, with a faster delivery from “against” (unstress-stress), and from a western linguistic point of view of line-endings, there is a run-on here. The last line echoes the last word of the previous line and has also the same beat structure. The latter part of the haiku gives you an impression of someone waking up and feeling the sensation of a cool wall against his feet, doesn’t it?

This haiku still sounds as fresh as the day, the minute, it was written centuries ago. Such an everyday occurrence, so seemingly insignificant, has been turned into a moment of beauty, in visual and sound. Posted by Picasa

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Tuesday, July 18, 2006

"On the death of a Favourite Cat, Drowned in a Tub of Gold Fishes"

'Twas on a lofty vase's side,
Where China's gayest art had dyed
The azure flowers that blow,
Demurest of the tabby kind,
The pensive Selima, reclined,
Gazed on the lake below.

Her conscious tail her joy declared;
The fair round face, the snowy beard,
The velvet of her paws,
Her coat, that with the tortoise vies,
Her ears of jet, and emerald eyes,
She saw; and purred applause.

Still had she gazed; but 'midst the tide
Two angel forms were seen to glide,
The genii of the stream:
Their scaly armour's Tyrian hue
Through richest purple to the view
Betrayed a golden gleam.

The hapless nymph with wonder saw:
A whisker first, and then a claw,
With many an ardent wish,
She stretched, in vain, to reach the prize.
What female heart can gold despise?
What cat's averse to fish?

Presumptuous maid! with looks intent
Again she stretched, again she bent,
Nor knew the gulf between:
(Malignant Fate sat by, and smiled)
The slippery verge her feet beguiled,
She tumbled headlong in.

Eight times emerging from the flood
She mewed to ev'ry wat'ry god
Some speedy aid to send.
No dolphin came, no nereid stirred;
Nor cruel Tom, nor Susan heard.
A fav'rite has no friend!

From hence, ye beauties undeceived,
Know, one false step is ne'er retrieved,
And be with caution bold.
Not all that tempts your wand'ring eyes
And heedless hearts is lawful prize;
Nor all that glisters, gold.

Thomas Gray (1717-1771)

The "nymph" herself was Selima a tortoiseshell tabby cat owned by gothic novelist Horace Walpole (1717-1779) . The poor lady did indeed meet her untimely demise in a tub of goldfish at Walpole's house in Strawberry Hill, Twickenham. I must have seen the very same Chinese bowl (which Walpole had engraved with the first stanza of the poem) when I visited the house a few years ago. Wish I could remember it!

Walpole's friend, the poet Thomas Gray, was called upon to commemorate the tragic event in an epitaph. He wrote a poem instead. "I am about to immortalize [her] for one week or fortnight," wrote Gray to Walpole. We still feel the same mixture of pity and amusement two and a half centuries on!

What gives me greatest pleasure about the poem is the tone of it. There's such a contrast between the style of poem (a classical elegy which traditionally would have dealt with far loftier themes) and its content. There are plenty of classical allusions and references to Greek and Roman mythology. (A nymph is a water-spirit, genii are the spirits of the place, nereid are sea-nymphs.) Notice how the water in a fish bowl becomes a whole ocean? The gentle mockery is very funny.

Selima is spoken of in human terms. Her undoing is caused by her vanity (notice how she is entirely wrapped up in admiring her reflection in the second stanza) and her lust for gold ("What female heart can gold despise?/ What cat's averse to fish?"). Her death turned by Gray into a tongue-in-cheek moral lesson in the last stanza.

When I read the poem it reminds me of my own beautiful tortoiseshell tabby who flirts so outrageously with my husband I can't believe she's not trying to deliberately make me jealous! We're rivals, for sure. ("A fav'rite has no friends!")

Oh ... love also the form of the poem - the sixline stanzas with their aabccb rhyme scheme, and shorter third line. Formality here gives me much pleasure.

*Selima's portrait by Stephen Elmer (d. 1796). Note that the vase shown in the painting is made of glass - Elmer wanted to show his skill in painting fish!

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Sunday, July 16, 2006

"The Eagle (A Fragment)"

Consider the majestic eagle, the 'nobility of the feathered society', soaring high among the clouds, searching — with eyes capable of spotting a rabbit from miles away or a fish beneath the water — and swooping to meet the ground to snatch its prey with his 'crooked hands'... and consider Lord Alfred Tennyson's brilliant poem:
The Eagle (A Fragment)

He clasps the crag with crooked hands;
Close to the sun in lonely lands,
Ring'd with the azure world, he stands.

The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls;
He watches from his mountain walls,
And like a thunderbolt he falls.

Lord Alfred Tennyson, 1854
I used to spend long summer hours sitting on the steep slopes of the Plymouth Hoe, with its spectacular view across the Plymouth Sound, watching the surf and the sea-birds. This poem reminds me of those cliffs, the biting wind carrying the smell of the sea, and the harsh calls of the gulls. Conversely, whenever I see the sea I would be be reminded of Tennyson's description of the 'wrinkled sea' and remember this poem. So strong is the connection — that deliriously mutually-reinforcing association — between the sea, the Devonian coastline, and this poem in my mind that in my fanciful memories I would see on a clear day an eagle gliding high above the coastline and, through its eyes, see myself looking up — but I don't remember ever having seen an eagle in the wild.

This poem is short — almost abrupt — and while some may wonder if it is a part of a larger work (because Tennyson titled this poem The Eagle (A Fragment)), I sense that it is meant to be so short, for in a lifetime one could be so fortunate to glimpse an eagle in its natural element.

I have, however, never looked more closely at this poem before today. For Puisi-Poesy, for the first time, I am going to take the poem apart and delve its intricacies. It might get a bit dense but do come along with me and let's see what we'll find.

We'll start with the first line:
He clasps the crag with crooked hands;
The alliterative hard 'c' sounds in this line — clasps, crag, crooked — heckle for the listener's attention. The metaphor in this line is remarkable: 'crooked hands'. Why not 'feet'? — the eagle uses its talons to grab and carry away its prey, using its feet like how we would use our hands. Also, the use of the word 'clasp' evokes an image of a link in a chain, as in the clasp of a bracelet, and here it is literally an image of a mountain chain linked to the eagle. It makes the eagle seem larger than life.

We see that the first line is set in a regular iambic tetrameter, but the lines immediately following it, the second and third lines, both start with a trochee (a stressed syllable followed by a non-stressed one, e.g. TI-ger) i.e.:
RING'D with the AZure WORLD, he STANDS.
At the end of line 1, we would expect the next syllable to be an unstressed one but as we move to line 2, we encounter a stressed beat. The intuitive reaction is to speed through the next syllables to regain the rhythm. In line two, the phrase 'lonely lands' can be slowed down, dwelling on the l's, lengthening the beats to compensate for the compression earlier in the line — the line's rhythm is balanced; after the compression, the expansion.

In line 3, a caesura is used as a device to control the poem's rhythm. As with line 2, again we intuitively speed through the first part of the line (note also the contraction of the word ring'd). Then, the comma after 'azure world' — the caesura in question — prompts a short pause before we continue with 'he stands'. Again the rhythm of the line is balanced; after a compression, a pause for expansion.

Contrast the first stanza with the second one, which follows a rigid rhythm instead:
I have seen versions of this poem with a comma in the sixth line i.e. "And like a thunderbolt, he falls." Others leave it out. Perhaps it is a revised version, or maybe it is simply where people would intuitively pause and therefore they have inserted the comma. I would prefer to omit the comma, for I believe that Tennyson intended this stanza to be read continuously, building the momentum with the unwavering beats to flow unimpeded until we arrive at the final image of the eagle's fall.

Try reading the line out loud to sense the difference:
And like a thunderbolt [pause] he falls.
And like a thunderbolt he falls.
Which do you like better?

The poem is strongly end-rhymed, as you can see. It has an aaa bbb rhyme structure. No run-on lines... all are strongly end-stopped, giving a stately pace to the poem.

Because of its rhythmic qualities, as we have seen, and also for its sounds, it is a delightfully euphonious poem. I have noted the alliterative 'c'-words in the first line: 'claps', 'crag', 'crooked'; in the second line we have 'close', linking it to the first line; then: 'lonely' and 'lands', 'ring'd' and 'wrinkled', 'watches' and 'walls'.

Alliteration is the repetition of words with the same starting sound while assonance is the repetition of the vowel sounds. This poem exhibits a high level of assonance.

The first stanza is dominated with the sounds of the long-'a' in 'clasps', 'crag', 'hands', 'lands', 'azure' and 'stands'. The second stanza is peppered with the stressed-'a' sound in 'crawls', 'watches', 'walls', with near-rhymes in 'mountain' and 'thunder-'. Another obvious example of assonance in this poem are the 'ee' sounds in the fourth line: "The wrinkled sea beneath..."

Wooh! What a rigorous examination of just six lines of poetry! I hope nobody nodded off :-) I think that this poem was quite easy to analyze, and no wonder that it is a favourite of teachers to introduce the art of poetry. Last month Sham posted a richly musical poem called Sleep-stealer by Rabindranath Tagore. Have a look at it again, and try to spot the sound devices — alliteration and assonance — that I have shown, and see why it is such a fine poem.

What else to say about The Eagle? We haven't really explored the imagery used in the poem. Perhaps the personification of the eagle can be discussed. Do you think that there is an allusion to mythical role of the eagle as a messenger to the gods anywhere in the poem? Can you guess why, at the end of the poem, the eagle falls? [Find the answer here!]

Hope you all enjoyed this post. I certainly did enjoy writing it. Until next time...


1. About Lord Alfred Tennyson:
We still look to the earlier masters for supreme excellence in particular directions: to Wordsworth for sublime philosophy, to Coleridge for ethereal magic, to Byron for passion, to Shelley for lyric intensity, to Keats for richness. Tennyson does not excel each of these in his own special field, but he is often nearer to the particular man in his particular mastery than anyone else can be said to be, and he has in addition his own special field of supremacy. What this is cannot be easily defined; it consists, perhaps, in the beauty of the atmosphere which Tennyson contrives to cast around his work, molding it in the blue mystery of twilight, in the opaline haze of sunset: this atmosphere, suffused over his poetry with inestimable skill and with a tact rarely at fault, produces an almost unfailing illusion or mirage of loveliness.

— Edmond Gosse, "Tennyson," in the 11th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica.
2. Picture of the American bald eagle from National Geographic.

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Wednesday, July 12, 2006

"Things Standing Shall Fall, But The Moving Ever Shall Stay"

Vachana 820
by Basava

The rich
will make temples for Siva.
What shall I,
a poor man,

My legs are pillars,
the body the shrine,
the head a cupola
of gold.

Listen, O lord of the meeting rivers,
things standing shall fall,
but the moving ever shall stay.

- translated from the Kannada by A.K. Ramanujan in Speaking of Siva (Penguin Classics)


I chose this poem not only because I have found it deeply moving for years, so much so that it made me want to pen spiritual verse myself, but because of how increasingly relevant it has felt to me in recent times, in light of the ongoing spate of temple demolitions here in Malaysia.

Its relevance, today, is startling and beautiful. The last stanza captures so well what it means to hold on to faith under fire.

The above vachana is by the 12th century poet-saint and political activist Basava (also known as Basavanna, meaning "Basava the Elder", and Basaveshwara). Vachanas are "religious lyrics in Kannada free verse; vachana means literally, 'saying, thing said' " (from the introduction in the book which contains this translation). I have previously highlighted Ramanujan's translations on this blog, here.

Siva is a major Hindu god, and Basava's recurring epithet for him was "lord of the meeting rivers". This poem can be interpreted from both political and spiritual angles. Due to Basava's own political work, particularly his dream for a classless society, the vachana can be read as a polemic piece, emphasising the equal power of the downtrodden in the eyes of God. "The rich/will make temples for Siva./What shall I,/a poor man,/do?", the poem opens, contextualising it within a distinctly class-based setting. The question is rhetorical; the reply comes in the form of the second stanza, in which the poet/poor man persona details how he, too, is capable of what the rich man can do.

But the profoundness of the the final stanza moves it beyond the political, into the realm of the deeply spiritual. "[T]hings standing shall fall,/but the moving ever shall stay" -- captured by these breathtaking lines, it suddenly seems ridiculously reductionist to think of it as a sociopolitical poem. These are lines which describe the nature or the soul itself, its endurance through turbulence. These are lines which reaffirm, and reveal.

Basava was a controversial figure in his time, and his mysterious disappearance upon his return to Kudalasangama ("the confluence of rivers"), where he began his career, sparked off the imaginations of many, who variously co-opted him to suit their own ideologies: whether this meant ascribing divine qualities to him, or holding him up as an icon for social revolution.
Prior to his disappearance, he had been a minister in the court of King Bijjala, and his defiance of caste rules had been the cause of much political dissent and dispute.

For those interested in Basava's work, I recommend one of the novels I'm presently reading: Githa Hariharan's In Times of Siege. The book explores unsettling questions of identity, minority, invasion, imperialism, religion and spirituality through a fictional account of a middle-aged professor who finds himself having suddenly become a pawn used to fuel the fire between polarized secular and fundamentalist groups, when a lesson on Basavanna he writes for a correspondence course on medieval history turns controversial.

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Tuesday, July 04, 2006

"Superman Sounds Depressed"

As Superman Returns to the big screen, I thought of putting up this poem, having read it some years back as part of an introductory course to poetry.

Superman Sounds Depressed

Nothing could have prepared me for this life
in which all hinges on me,

where it’s only me and my past now left
to reassure the world. The trouble is

they forget me fast and start counting
on krill, or thinking they understand

turbulence; so I have to make regular
appearances on the borders

of disasters, dropping through some backdoors
in space whenever I feel the gravity

of their need. Apples for the teacher
are all I get for it, for holding the railway

train on the high viaduct by a single joint
of my little finger, blowing hard

at the last moment to keep the water upright
in the shape of a shattered dam, for stopping

a model of the earth based on real chaos from
breaking through. I feel spelled all wrong,

stuck in the east wind
with my face caught in an expression

which would mean world financial crisis
if the president wore it. Give me dinner,

a lovely long dinner in dim light, with someone,
someone who will propose something rude

so it doesn’t sound rude — just delicious —
nothing personal, anxious or brutal about it

though it might seem all of those things
to others when it’s not night, over their ordinary

sandwiches: wholemeal, mustard
and fragile morsels. My head aches; I want

that woman and enough passion to blast away
any hope of understanding what’s happening

to me. And I want us to eat scallops,
and I want to lick the juice from her chin

as though I could save the world that way,
and I won’t even ask what passion is for.

By Jo Shapcott

Far from the unruffled, heroic Man of Steel, Superman comes across here as a lonely, unloved figure in his soliloquy. The use of the couplet form (stanza with two lines) with run on lines that flow from one line to the next breaks the smooth flow of the poem, slowing it down, giving it a sad, plaintive tone. The caesuras (pauses created through the punctuations in the middle of the lines) further enhance this effect further of a world-weary Superman.

The run on line that breaks at “…gravity” emphasises both the magnitude and ‘weight’ of people’s expectations on him. The “Apples” he receives also plays on the “gravity” of Newtonian physics which he is less subjected to compared to the human ‘laws’ that are thrust upon him. It also highlights the disparity between all that he has done and the little gratitude he gets in return, sadly repaid with greater demands that rob him of his life as a person, an individual with his own needs, wants and desires.

Not surprisingly, what Superman craves is normalcy…not to be super, but to be just a man – a man who can enjoy a dinner with a lady he fancies. One can almost feel the desperation of his “want”, the “ordinary” that he yearns for…to “blast away” from the “gravity” of being Superman and just live life, passionately.

Although this is Superman’s soliloquy, does this poem just speak only for Superman?

[On a completely different note, S.B.Toh of The Star wrote an interesting review of Superman Returns, giving a cultural analysis of Superman as an American icon representative of its perceived benign world saving moral duties]

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