Monday, August 25, 2008

"Tianamen" by James Fenton

by James Fenton

Is broad and clean
And you can’t tell
Where the dead have been
And you can’t tell
What happened then
And you can’t speak
Of Tianamen.

You must not speak.
You must not think.
You must not dip
Your brush in ink.
You must not say
What happened then,
What happened there.
What happened there
In Tiananmen.

The cruel men
Are old and deaf
Ready to kill
But short of breath
And they will die
Like other men
And they’ll lie in state
In Tianamen.

They lie in state.
They lie in style.
Another lie’s
Thrown on the pile,
Thrown on the pile
By the cruel men
To cleanse the blood
From Tianamen.

Truth is a secret.
Keep it dark.
Keep it dark.
In our heart of hearts.
Keep it dark
Till you know when
Truth may return
To Tiananmen.

Is broad and clean
And you can’t tell
Where the dead have been
And you can’t tell
When they’ll come again.
They’ll come again
To Tiananmen.

Hong Kong, 15 June 1989


James Fenton, a British poet, wrote this poem in Hong Kong in 15 June 1989, a reaction to the massacre in Tiananmen Square the previous month. He included it in his collection Out of Danger, which then won the Whitbread Poetry Prize in 1994.

In the first stanza someone is talking about Tianamen in a broad sweep of vowels: "broad", "clean". However the speaker adds an aside, about how one cannot realize there were deaths in Tianamen nor the incidents that occurred there. Then he tells you not to even speak about this Chinese square. With "speak", we have here an anticipation of what you can’t talk about, later, after this stanza, where similar mute consonants are used to enforce this prohibition.

Practically all the words in this stanza – and in the rest of all the following ones - are monosyllabic, except for the words, “Tianamen” and “happened”. These have three and two syllables, but they only possess one beat, if you don’t place any stress on “men”, not even a secondary one.

Now, imagine that this is a direct translation from the Chinese. And, Chinese characters are all, as far as I know, monosyllabic. The speaker does not use stress nor non-stress, as an English speaker does, upon any word, syllable, or character, in the case of the Chinese language; he uses pitch. So, since you cannot utilise pitch in English to differetiate meanings, you can try and give a beat to every word. This way, you would make the lines sound like some Red government slogan, propaganda, edict or pronouncement.

The lines in the second stanza are just those. Some Red official is telling you what you must not do. The words at the end of the lines all have mute consonants, k and p, and they all end-stop. These consonants either close the glottis or the mouth when spoken. It is like the official putting up his hand to keep you from speaking, thinking, dipping the ink.

But, after the first enjambement at “say”, a weak one, the rest of the end-stop words following then lose such consonants. Instead these end of line words have initial S and TH sounds. The official is shushing you, and using the tip of his tongue, repeating "there", as if he’s pointing the places to you. The last line in this stanza have M and N sounds, the tip of tongue placed behind the front teeth.

The first two lines of the third stanza hark back to the two very first lines of this poem, in syntax: subject, verb, and two complements; and in having broad vowels. But the broad vowel scheme stops at "kill", where it signal the next line having breathy sounds in “short” and “breath”, because the line following this tells you these men “will die”. “kill” and “will” rhyme, to make this connection. The second last line is also like the second last line of the first stanza, where we saw that “speak” prefigures some prohibition. Here, “lie” prepares you for more “lies”.

In the fourth stanza “lie” has a double entendre: as a laying down and as an untruth. Everything is a lie, lie, lie. “Thrown on the pile”, repeated, makes you remember “What happened there”, also repeated. “Thrown” and “there” have the similar TH sound, thus making the connection. The repeat of "pile" works like that of “lie”: there are piles and piles of bodies, there and there. All those "lies" cover the "piles" of bodies, to attempt to wash away the "blood" spilled in Tianamen.

In this penultimate stanza the S and TH sounds are utilized again, to contrast truth and the hiding of it. The next two lines use mute consonants in “Keep” and “dark”, to enforce this. In the repeated “hearts”, breathy sounds are used again, like in “short of breath”, earlier. Like in the second stanza, the mute consonants of k give way to softer sounds, of Ns, Ms and TH; because things will change when truth is known.

The last stanza repeats the scheme of the first stanza, with the first half repeated exactly. “When they’ll come again” looks different to “What happened then”, but their sounds are actually quite similar: “What” and “When”; “they’ll come” and “happened”; and the assonance in “again” and “then”. The last line changes “Of” to “To”, an apt resting place to end the poem.

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Sunday, August 17, 2008

"The Windows" by George Herbert

"The Windows"

/ / ˘ / / ˘ ˘ / ˘ /
Lord, how can man preach thy eternal word? A
/ ˘ ˘ / ˘ / ˘ /
He is a brittle crazy glass; B
/ ˘ ˘ / ˘ / ˘ / ˘ /
Yet in thy temple thou dost him afford A
˘ / ˘ / ˘ / ˘ /
This glorious and transcendent place, B
˘ / ˘ / ˘ / ˘ /
To be a window, through thy grace. B

˘ / ˘ / ˘ / ˘ / ˘ / ˘
But when thou dost anneal in glass thy story, C
/ ˘ ˘ / ˘ / ˘ /
Making thy life to shine within D
˘ / ˘ / ˘ / ˘ / ˘ / ˘
The holy preachers, then the light and glory C
/ / ˘ ˘ / ˘ / ˘ /
More reverend grows, and more doth win; D
˘ / / / ˘ ˘ / ˘ /
Which else shows waterish, bleak, and thin. D

/ ˘ ˘ / / ˘ ˘ / ˘ /
Doctrine and life, colors and light, in one E
˘ / ˘ / ˘ / ˘ /
When they combine and mingle, bring F
˘ / ˘ / ˘ / ˘ / ˘ /
A strong regard and awe; but speech alone E
˘ / ˘ / ˘ / ˘ /
Doth vanish like a flaring thing, F
˘ / ˘ / ˘ / ˘ /
And in the ear, not conscience, ring. F

- George Herbert (1593 - 1633)

While in the car, I suddenly remembered this piece I wrote as part of an assignment for my Introduction to Poetry and Poetics class. We were to analyse a poem by paying attention to how "form" relates to "meaning," for example, how metre, rhyme scheme, diction, alliteration and assonance etc. contributed to a poem's themes, its tone and the issue(s) it treats. (I have marked the metre and rhyme scheme in the poem above.) Inasmuch as modern poetry tries to do away with formal constraints, there has been an equal, if not, equally effective, reaction against "free verse," such as the advent of New Formalism. The analysis below does not pretend to explain which is better for us to write during our time, but in examining "form" and "meaning," make us rethink how we could write "free verse" by borrowing techniques from the past, how "free verse" cannot be sufficiently defined as a break from more traditional poetics, such as Romanticism, but as a logical extension from it; and how the more enduring poems to be written will consider tradition seriously while "making it new."

The poem begins by setting the priest up as an important architectural construct in the church – the window – which allows light to permeate through and illuminate the church. He is then transformed in the second stanza (incidentally the middle portion of the poem, as if dramatizing the process of light passing through the window) into a reliable vessel through which God empowers his congregation. Before the poem becomes nothing more than a primer for priestly conduct, the last stanza seems to advance a new argument: the marriage of ceremony and sermon, theology and rhetoric, the use of sacraments and speech, are what ultimately inspires the priest’s audience to have their “conscience, ring.” However, Herbert’s use of the conceit is not limited to the role of the priest. The reader is pressed to further interpret “the windows” as three mediating figures between God and his people, namely, the priest, the poet and Anglicanism with their via media (go-between) functions.

In comparing the two different windows that the priest might be: a “brittle crazy glass” or one which allows God’s “life to shine within,” the poem speaks of an imminent danger when a priest assumes the former’s faulty, breakable, distorting lens: he could mislead his congregation from living a holy life due to his flaws and imperfections, tainting God’s light as “waterish, bleak and thin.” The speaker proposes a transformative process whereby the emblem of God’s “story” is embed on the “window” of the priest, so that he becomes a living exemplum, a palpable symbol of godliness, through which God’s light could shine. To subtly mark this turn, the speaker uses solid, rounded ‘o’ sounds in words like “glorious,” “story,” “holy” and “glory,” in contrast to the weak, embittered ‘ee’ sounds, found in words like “brittle,” “waterish,” “bleak” and “thin”, which imply an unsuccessful transformation. Also, the internal feminine rhyme of “holy,” wedged between the end-rhyme of “story” and “glory” in the second stanza, physicalizes the “window” metaphor in which the priest allows God to take change of his process to “shine within.” By being outwardly surrounded by God’s promise of redemption (“story”) and his innate substance (“glory”), the preacher is motivated towards an inward conversion. The reader might also notice in the enjambment of “shine within/ The holy preachers” what might be the speaker’s intentional emphasis on the intimate encounter, as if the priest is cleansed by fire inside a furnace so as to concretize his function as a stain-glass window. This process, however, is not limited to a select few, as seen from how the speaker shifts from singular to plural in addressing his subjects – “he” of the “man” in the first stanza becomes the “preachers” in the second – God requires more than one priest to fulfil the function of “windows.”

Given Herbert’s preoccupation with using form to express religious meaning, it comes as no surprise that the “windows” appear in stanza form. The interlocking quatrain and couplet of each stanza (suggesting the frames of a window), is end-stopped, a new sentence after each turn, suggesting the conventional triptych structure of tinted windows in a church, where each window paints a different “story.” After the first two stanzas contrast the efficacy of priesthood with and without God’s anointment of prevenient grace to his priests, the third stanza seeks a denouement by yoking opposites between preaching the life of faith and being it (“Doctrine and life”), which mutually enhance and cooperate (the “colors and light” must “combine and mingle”), just as God relies on the priest as a mouthpiece – the window – to interpret and transmit the word inspired by Him – light, and also the dependence of the priest on God’s grace to build his church (“More reverend grows, and more doth win”). In this light, it might be useful to know that not only do the “windows” allow God’s light in; it has the potential of exposing the collective sins of the congregation, which reflects badly on the priest. Such a symbiotic relationship between God and priest is externalised for the first time in the poem, where there is a sudden metrical regularity (iambic) in the third stanza until the end, after the two choriambs which posit opposites (“Doctrine and life, colors and light”), both in content and sound (the ‘o’ sound is pitted against the ‘i’ sound). If this constant meter of the poem appears to be trite, the speaker interrupts it with a caesura just before the end, at “but speech alone...” as a warning to the priest to beware of relying solely on fiery words, which are “a flaring thing” that echoes in the “ear” as theological abstraction, instead of a successful probing into his audience’s “conscience,” in which he would have had incorporated his life as example and symbolic rank in the community. This idea is shored up by the speaker’s mingling of visual and auditory metaphors: “speech...vanish(es),” “colors and light...ring” and the separation of “ear” and “conscience,” which are antithetical concepts, by only one word apart. The unconventional use of synaesthesia and syntax highlights the fluidity in which the priest moves between his roles as preacher and symbol of the church.

Apart from the priest, the “windows” conceit is useful in framing the position of Anglicanism, which Herbert espouses as a via media between Catholicism and Protestantism. At the end, he rejects the Protestant belief in the effectiveness of the spoken word (“speech alone/ Doth vanish like a flaring thing”), and proposes the path of mediation – pure worship (Protestant) must be aided by ceremonial forms and sacraments (Catholic) – he celebrates the physical “window” structure as a means in which God’s “light and glory/ More reverend grow.” The metaphor is apt insofar as the ceremonial elements are valuable in drawing the worshipper closer to God: to know God’s presence, the sacrament cannot be divorced from its material aspect. The physical “window” belongs to the priest’s outward projection of his moral authority, which is complementary to his teaching.

Furthermore, Herbert seems to imply another layer of “window,” found in the mediating figure of the poet who straddles God and priests. As a “window” to the “window” of the priests when he instructs them, the poet resorts to using an art form which, in contrast to God’s “eternal word,” appears to be more limiting and ephemeral, just like the “speech” of the priest he warns of at the end. In his beginning plea, “Lord, how can man preach thy eternal word?”, he accepts his tempered position as the “window” through which human invention filters the need of devotion from both sides – God and man (priests), and so despite the architectural unity of his poem, Herbert wants to point out that his role as a poet is less important than his role as a priest that he sets out to be in the poem. Because of the indirect approach the poet uses in addressing his audience (“window” of a “window”), the poet in him is legitimate as long as he engages God in poetic collaboration, and for that he succeeds; his artisanal diction as a poet in constructing this poem is the same as that describing God’s creative craft of creating stained-glass windows (“anneal,” “mingle”) – both deploy similar tools for creation. Conjoined with the ultimate Maker in creating manuals for priesthood, he is both vessel and creator, but more importantly, just another “window.”

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Monday, August 04, 2008

"Last Word"

Last Word
By Richard Murphy

Her voice is a mist on the phone
Far away and precarious
As a tree whose roots cling
To rocks overhanging a cliff
As she threatens to hang up.

Years pass into dust
With drills, hammers and saws
Remodelling an old house
Whose walls of silence
Keep a granite hold on my loss.

Now that she’ll never intrude
On my rock garden concord
Far away through a static mist
I hear in her voice
Endless silence falling dead.

This poem is taken from the May 30 2008 issue of UK's Time Literary Supplement.

Apparently this looks like a very simple, straightforward poem, one whose meaning any reader would have no trouble grasping.

You would know, straight off, that the poet is listening to someone’s voice on the phone, whose sound is so distant that it is like a mist, far away. His use of precarious tells us there is some element of danger, of falling. We confirm this in words like overhanging a cliff, threatens, hang. The line with tree whose roots cling / To rocks … imply a once solid relationship. She is probably the rock, and he the tree with clinging roots. She might be the dependable and sturdy one in the relationship, and he the one who is clinging onto a relationship that is losing its steady foundation. Hang is a repeat of hang in overhanging: so, who is the one threatening to do oneself harm?

The years passing seems a very, very long time, if everything has crumbled into dust. The second stanza takes on the foundation or building motif for the second and third lines. He is trying to rebuild his foundation (Remodelling an old house) with a vengeance, with his full might or tenacity (With drills, hammers and saws); especially the walls of silence which are still, strongly, reminding him of his loss (a granite hold on my loss). He’s trying to redress his past, his former old ways.

In the last stanza he gives up his hold on his loss, now that he has tooled a rock-solid foundation. Rock here rhymes with rock of stanza one, inviting comparison or contrast. Like her, he is, or has, his own rock, a rock garden concord, a private, personal one which she’ll never intrude/On. In the last three lines, we see that he is accepting that her voice will always be far away through a static mist. Her voice is repeated from stanza one, as are mist and far away. The poet views these words differently, with acceptance of things as they must be now, without panic.

Unlike the rushing and panicky rhythm of the first line, with two double off-beats, endless silence falling dead has a steady, even, falling rhythm, with single beats. End in Endless, at the front of the line, and dead end-stopping with a full-stop, at the end of the line, round up nicely, at both ends (his and hers), the ending or death of the relationship. Also, there is no question about the finality of the relationship when the final beat misses a falling offbeat.

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Saturday, August 02, 2008


For this new issue of Elarti:2, now out, Amri Rohayat commissioned a few pieces of work from me, one of which is an essay on appreciating poetry. Here's an extract, in which I talked about David Harsent's poem Filofax:

by David Harsent

The entire township, heading north in cars, in trucks, on bikes, on foot,
some with next to nothing, some choosing to cart
(as it might be) armchair, armoire, samovar, black and white
TV, toaster, Filofax, Magimix, ladle, spindle, spinet,
bed and bedding, basin and basinette,
passed (each in clear sight) lynx and wolverine and bobcat,
heading south to the guns and the promise of fresh meat.


Like how Derren made his magic work with specific words placed inside his conversation, David also used a somewhat similar method. However, David’s poem is more structured. He didn’t place relevant or connected words far apart and hoped the reader is able to thread their connections by reading into rhymes or alliteration. In Filofax he clustered some items close to each other, separated by commas, or not, as in one case. This is so in-your-face, that you – or rather, I – see – read - them as individual words and also as related groupings.

Filofax is about an “entire township, heading north”, in the midst of some unnamed war, moving towards safety. With “in cars, in trucks, on bikes, on foot” and no sight of any action word – verb – progress is very, very slow indeed. The refugees are practically not moving at all, encumbered by “armchair, armoire, samovar, black and white/TV, toaster, filofax, Magimix, ladle, spindle, spinet/bed and bedding, basin and bassinette” – some hefty, heavy, and some, practically useless items, probably more sentimental in value.

The reader finally sees a verb, right in the penultimate line, in “passed”. Just as we see all these useless objects being carried, we see with “(each in clear sight)” a holy trinity – God’s will? - of death: “lynx and wolverine and bobcat”. David also wants you to see these three very, very clearly, and very slowly, by not using commas but the “and”s instead.

In the final line of the poem we see the “township” is “heading south”, as if they are moving downwards, towards Hell. Their destruction is already presaged by the three wild animals they “passed”, and also by that verb to imply a passing or an end of something, in this case, life. They are heading towards “the guns and the promise of fresh meat”. David uses the pair of “the” not as just some definite article. The “the”s sound some tom-tom or thuds, like bullets in trajectory or bombs exploding. They also sound these destructions as already known or prefigured.


Do buy a copy (or copies for friends) of Elarti:2 and read the rest of my essay.
Learn more about David Harsent from an earlier posting of mine here.

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