Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Twenty Poems about Silence (2 of 4) – Analysis and Commentary

First post in the series:


This second group of poems consists of contemporary—that is, modern and postmodern—works. The first four poems, all my favorites, are conventional and very accessible. Only the last poem by e. e. cummings (pen name) is avant-garde.


SILENCE by Billy Collins

There is the sudden silence of the crowd
above a player not moving on the field,
and the silence of the orchid.

The silence of the falling vase
before it strikes the floor,
the silence of the belt when it is not striking the child.

The stillness of the cup and the water in it,
the silence of the moon
and the quiet of the day far from the roar of the sun.

The silence when I hold you to my chest,
the silence of the window above us,
and the silence when you rise and turn away.

And there is the silence of this morning
which I have broken with my pen,
a silence that had piled up all night

like snow falling in the darkness of the house—
the silence before I wrote a word
and the poorer silence now.


...quiet of the day far from the roar of the sun.


Billy Collins is a popular American poet known for his easy, accessible style distinguished by wit, intelligence, sensitivity, and depth. He draws us into everyday musings characteristically understated. Using artful turns of a phrase, he brings to our sudden awareness recondite aspects of familiar and commonplace objects and experiences.

In this poem, Collins tackles the intriguing subject of silence, gently nudging us to look closely at aspects of it that elude our conscious awareness—“the sudden silence of the crowd above a player not moving on the field,” “the silence of the falling vase before it strikes the floor.” Cleverly ending, the poem prods us to reflect that the world is the poorer for the words that populate it.

Poetry Foundation biography of Billy Collins:



THE QUARREL by Linda Pastan

If there were a monument
to silence, it would not be
the tree whose leaves
murmur continuously
among themselves;

nor would it be the pond
whose seeming stillness
is shattered
by the quicksilver
surfacing of fish.

If there were a monument
to silence, it would be you
standing so upright, so unforgiving,
your mute back deflecting
every word I say.


...your mute back deflecting every word I say.


“The greatest thing by far is to be a master of metaphor,” said Aristotle in The Poetics. “It is a sign of genius.” Linda Pastan’s poem is in this respect touched by genius. The poem dwells upon the most suitable metaphor for a “monument to silence” and then declares that it is not our default images of silence that should be memorialized in this way but rather the fraught silence that enters our interpersonal relations.

Poetry Foundation biography of Linda Pastan:



WHAT THE DOG PERHAPS HEARS by Lisel Mueller

If an inaudible whistle
blown between our lips
can send him home to us,
then silence is perhaps
the sound of spiders breathing
and roots mining the earth;
it may be asparagus heaving,
headfirst, into the light
and the long brown sound
of cracked cups, when it happens.
We would like to ask the dog
if there is a continuous whir
because the child in the house
keeps growing, if the snake
really stretches full length
without a click and the sun
breaks through clouds without
a decibel of effort,
whether in autumn, when the trees
dry up their wells, there isn't a shudder
too high for us to hear.

What is it like up there
above the shut-off level
of our simple ears?
For us there was no birth cry,
the newborn bird is suddenly here,
the egg broken, the nest alive,
and we heard nothing when the world changed.


...we heard nothing when the world changed.

Many copies of this poem appear online. See, for example:


The poem is a sustained exposition of a core insight: what it is like for a dog to hear what a human being cannot. The poet engages us in a series of conjectures, delightfully intriguing—“the sound of spiders breathing,” “roots mining the earth,” “asparagus heaving, headfirst, into the light.” Observing accurately that, in contrast to dogs, “we heard nothing when the world changed,” the poem does not fault us for our incapacity but rather chides us for our inattention to the momentous transformations ongoing all around.

Poetry Foundation biography of Lisel Mueller:



STILLNESS by Fidel de Castro

      Standing still—I never seem
To know when it comes, the trance,
I mean—I feel the stream hushed
      Under the thin glass,
The horses, motionless, clinging to
The hill, a cloud balancing the sun
      In a cotton hand.

      I hold my breath. Then from the
Mouth of a tree explodes a flock of
Birds, flight and feather weaving
      A brittle spell: beaks
Spilling crystals lighter than dew
On spider webs. So bright my sight
      I see the lilting

      Notes leap, glint, hug and tease
The air, nimble as motes, do almost
Anything but disappear: with supple
      Twists perform like
Aerialists. This miracle a canticle
To the stillness all around. And
      Round the edges of

      The sound of birds I feel a lit
Stillness deeper than of horses,
Cloud and stream, a stillness bigger
      Than love, brighter than
Light, or darker than the darkness
That moves above and under the ground—
      Oh, a stillness more

      Luminous than Death, and I feel
It breathing in myself, no longer
Standing still but walking away—
      The sunset on my back—
My pious feet stepping on the ground,
Behind me leaving no marks, no quiet
      Or the slightest sound.


...a cloud balancing the sun in a cotton hand.

A copy of the poem is in L. M. Grow, Scattered Felicity in Philippine Poetry, Philippine Studies, Vol. 47, No. 3 (Third Quarter 1999), pages 393-406. See:


The poem draws us into a first-person account of an experience of stillness, sustaining our attention throughout until the closing lines. Whence derives its drawing power?

It could be the sincere tone, authentic sentiments, and words plainspoken yet nuanced according to our everyday manner of musing. Pauses in the first three lines, for example, invite us to enter into the meditative mood of the poem: “Standing still—I never seem to know when it comes, the trance, I mean—” Gradually, the narrative, in finely calibrated denouement, pulls away at the end: “My pious feet stepping on the ground, behind me leaving no marks, no quiet or the slightest sound.”

Diction and figurative language are keenly chosen. Consider, for example, this stunning metaphor: “Then from the mouth of a tree explodes a flock of birds…”

One of the gems of Philippine poetry in English.


up into the silence… by e. e. cummings

up into the silence the green
silence with a white earth in it

you will(kiss me)go

out into the morning the young
morning with a warm world in it

(kiss me)you will go

on into the sunlight the fine
sunlight with a firm day in it

you will go(kiss me

down into your memory and
a memory and memory

i)kiss me,(will go)


Green White (1961) by Ellsworth Kelly

The poem was originally published in 50 Poems (1940).

JSTOR copy of this poem:


Edward Estlin Cummings or “e. e. cummings” is sure to remain among the most notable poets of the twentieth century writing in English. He belongs to the vanguard of Modernist writers in English that includes the likes of Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, T. S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf, and James Joyce.

Cummings repudiated linguistic conventions of grammar, syntax, and diction, not to mention literary conventions of form and style, to create his own idiosyncratic poetry of image, sound, and sense that to this day continues to engage and entertain, young readers, especially. Analogous style in the visual arts is Cubism, which spurned academic conventions of visual representation in order to rework images according to its own insurgent doctrine of visual deconstruction and reconstruction. Cubism’s emergence preceded the publication of Cummings’ avant-garde poetry by a decade or so.

In this poem “silence” is a salient motif. The word appears twice, all other terms are themselves silent—“morning,” “sunlight,” “memory,” for example. Two motifs in particular repeat themselves—“will go” and “kiss me.” Because the poem has been broken into pieces and then eccentrically rebuilt, it harbors occult and elusive meanings. It is the reader’s task—and prerogative—to tease out plausible semantics.

Friday, June 22, 2018

Aphorisms



APHORISMS

Even the desert blooms.

Flowers grow a very great distance from the sun.

Twisted logic is the tendrils of an evil spirit.

A partial truth is always more dangerous than unalloyed truth or a varnished lie.

When you do not say what you mean, you cannot be trusted in anything you say.

Guess what?—“a white lie” is a racist idiom.

Deepest blue, the desert sky is untainted, barren because it harbors no rain.

Eternity does not distinguish between the fresh-faced moon and the world-weary sun.

In a street fight a sword is mightier than a pen.

Whoever said a dog’s bark is worse than his bite hasn’t been bitten.

Good governance is hard to find.

A penny invested is a penny gambled.

A soap that floats has value only inside a bathtub.

The government that lacks transparency evades accountability and in all probability has something to hide.

The law used to perpetrate crime and to sanction impunity for crime is the misrule of law.

Propaganda is the gruel eaten by prisoners of the state.

Politicization of the judiciary weakens it, ensuring that those who have less in life will have even less in law.

Intelligence with integrity is fair-mindedness, without integrity it is venality.

The purpose of education is to teach not only critical thinking but also historical thinking, so that all citizens develop the capacity to evaluate ongoing changes from the standpoint of past transformations.

Today the biggest single reason for famine is war.

Anyone who lies is doing the devil’s work. It is his telltale signature.

Genuine democracy, which subsists in the democratic values and principles internalized by the people, is subverted when criminal leaders controvert the laws embodying the people’s deepest aspirations for freedom from tyranny.

A good book is a good friend you engage again and again.

The Apostle Paul inveighed against scoffers, calling them fools, yet he did not suffer the Gehenna threatened by Jesus.

A government of values and principles is degraded by a regime of patronage and corruption.

An untimely death waylays the conversion of the damned.

Democracy is a work in progress, fascism a work in regress.

Forgetfulness is the incomprehension of those who misconstrue the past.

Remembrance is the vision of the future.

Kindness’ roots are nourished by compassion.

Cruelty is a volcano. It thrives on the magma of abuse.

He who does not take a stand sits on his rights.

The heart makes up its reasons.

The right to information is a necessary check against the abuse of power. It is an essential means whereby the oppressed seek, pursue, and obtain redress for just grievances.

You can’t have fake news and democracy, too.

Charity culminates in humanity.

Originally published in Cacti Fur (April 25, 2018)


Saturday, June 9, 2018

Ten Greatest Poets – Pablo Neruda, the Greatest Poet of the Twentieth Century


PABLO NERUDA, THE GREATEST POET OF THE TWENTIETH CENTURY

Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1971, Pablo Neruda, pen name—and later legal name—of Ricardo Eliécer Neftalí Reyes Basoalto, has been hailed as “the greatest poet of the twentieth century” by Gabriel García Márquez, himself winner of the same prize in 1982. Although the title’s bestowal by Márquez is debatable, there is no doubt that Neruda is one of the most important poets of Latin America in the twentieth century. In this respect, he could also be considered the greatest.

Choosing a recent or contemporary figure by declaring their lasting relevance to future generations is always tricky because we lack the perspective of long history, but if we don’t make a choice, we end up settling for our unsatisfactory reluctance to risk premature judgment.

More than a handful of poets of the last century, some still living, could qualify, besides Neruda, for inclusion in the top ten. Among them, we are inclined to mention Edward Estlin Cummings, or “e. e. cummings,” all lower-case letters, as his name was often printed in his published works. Cummings passed away in 1962. He introduced his highly innovative poetry at the beginning of the last century, the influence of which extends to the present day. He entirely broke free of nineteenth-century conventions of Western Romanticism, especially those concerning form, experimenting with grammar, syntax, diction, meaning, and particularly the visual arrangement of words on the page, effectively engaging and often delighting the reader, and successfully creating his own unique, instantly recognizable voice. Cummings was a revolutionary in the best sense of the word. Nearly half a century after his demise, his cleverly inventive poetry remains memorable, and it is especially popular among the young.

Cummings was not selected for inclusion in the top ten for two reasons. First, we already have an American, Walt Whitman, in the list. Second, it is only appropriate that a worthy representative of the rich, expansive culture and heritage of Spain and the colonies of the former Spanish Empire, Central and South America in major measure—as a whole, populous, important, and influential—should make the list. If we add up the various populations of this grouping of countries, excluding the 18 present-day U.S. states that were formerly Spanish, the total equals approximately 850 million today.

Neruda is recognized as a master of the lyric and the epic, but critical reviews of his work tend to judge him a better lyric poet than epic.

One of his earliest works, Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair, published in 1924 when he was only 19 years old, established his reputation as a poet. He would return to the motif of romantic love multiple times, notably in One Hundred Love Sonnets, published in 1959. “Sonnet XVII” in this collection illustrates well his mastery of the lyric.

Our appreciation of any poet not writing in the English language depends substantially on the quality of the translation. Fortunately, the English translation of this poem by Mark Eisner is excellent.

ONE HUNDRED LOVE SONNETS: XVII by Pablo Neruda
Original language Spanish
Translated by Mark Eisner

I don’t love you as if you were a rose of salt, topaz,  
or arrow of carnations that propagate fire:  
I love you as one loves certain obscure things,  
secretly, between the shadow and the soul.

I love you as the plant that doesn’t bloom but carries  
the light of those flowers, hidden, within itself,  
and thanks to your love the tight aroma that arose  
from the earth lives dimly in my body.

I love you without knowing how, or when, or from where,  
I love you directly without problems or pride:
I love you like this because I don’t know any other way to love,
except in this form in which I am not nor are you,  

so close that your hand upon my chest is mine,  
so close that your eyes close with my dreams.

Each line of this splendid poem harbors a trove of meanings, imaginings, and feelings. They inhabit, as it were, a tenuous penumbra wherein figurative language simultaneously communicates and obscures. How does love exist “between the shadow and the soul”? Is there space in between? “Your hand on my chest is mine”—do these words express oneness of being with the beloved or do they describe some mysteriously separate union?

Neruda’s epic masterpiece, Canto General, published in 1950, is political poetry. Concerning this work, some have disputed his ideological claims besides his overall visionMark Strand, for example, in The New Yorker has written: “His largeness of spirit…in ‘Canto General’ was sometimes cramped by ideology.”

Neruda is at his best in the lyric. He might be described as the Sappho of the twentieth century. He has been styled “the ecstasist” by Strand.

Published in 1958, “Keeping Quiet” shows his lyrical flair. At the same time in this poem we come across the political Neruda. We encounter his deep passion for things political as well as his activist social vision.

KEEPING QUIET by Pablo Neruda
Original language Spanish
Translated by Alastair Reid

And now we will count to twelve
and we will all keep still.

For once on the face of the earth
let’s not speak in any language,
let’s stop for one second,
and not move our arms so much.

It would be an exotic moment
without rush, without engines,
we would all be together
in a sudden strangeness.

Fisherman in the cold sea
would not harm whales
and the man gathering salt
would not look at his hurt hands.

Those who prepare green wars,
wars with gas, wars with fire,
victory with no survivors,
would put on clean clothes
and walk about with their brothers
in the shade, doing nothing.

What I want should not be confused
with total inactivity.
Life is what it is about,
I want no truck with death.

If we were not so single-minded
about keeping our lives moving,
and for once could do nothing,
perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves
and of threatening ourselves with death.

Perhaps the earth can teach us
as when everything seems dead
and later proves to be alive.

Now I’ll count up to twelve,
and you keep quiet and I will go.

Let’s “all keep still,” Neruda urges, so that “those who prepare green wars” would “walk about with their brothers.” “I want no truck with death,” he intones.

From his twenties into his thirties, Neruda was, we might say, a political mute. The turning point in his political development was the execution in 1936 by a Fascist militia of the leftist Federico García Lorca, a fellow poet and dear friend. Thenceforth, Neruda turned anti-Fascist, which in the calculus of the Spanish Civil War meant that he became a Communist. He maintained this ideological position the rest of his life.

When in 1973 Augusto Pinochet instigated a successful coup d’état against the regime of Marxist President Salvador Allende of Chile, Neruda was a prominent target. The circumstances surrounding his death indicate that he had been poisoned, probably on Pinochet’s orders. Neruda died soon after he had been injected in the stomach by a doctor.  



Pablo Neruda, 1963

Ten Greatest Poets – Walt Whitman, America’s Poet


WALT WHITMAN, AMERICA’S POET

The twentieth century has been described as America’s century. And so it is. The century began with the cresting of the imperialist powers of Europe and saw the rise of Imperial Japan, taking its newfound place as a world power after defeating the Russian navy. Emerging from rapid industrialization during the nineteenth century, the U.S. joined the ranks of the imperialists. After two world wars, the U.K. and France slowly declined to the status of middle-level powers, while the U.S. and the Soviet Union squared off in the so-called Cold War. The U.S. got the better of the ideological rivalry because of its superior economic system, and when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, it seemed as if the U.S. as the leader of the Western bloc had indeed established a new world order in which liberal democratic ideology had become normative. We know today it is not the case.

America’s rise as a world player the beginning of the last century and its continuing position today as a leading great power, are among the bases for its major ongoing influence on world culture. Hollywood is known—if not always welcomed—worldwide, for example, and English, especially American English, is the lingua franca of international business. Contemporary conditions of world culture, we might describe it as a type of cultural hegemony, logically persuade us to include at least one American poet in our list of the ten greatest.

Walt Whitman, a consummately American poet, represents an astute choice. He has been called “America’s poet” by Ezra Pound, more to the point, “He is America.” Whitman sought to encompass the breadth and height and depth, indeed, the very being of America, the enthusiastic idea of it as well as the expansive reality, in his person qua poet, and from the standpoint of the poetic imagination we could say that, strangely enough, he succeeded, or very nearly so.

Whitman celebrates America, that is, America as an existential ideal. Whitman sets forth his imaginative and poetic conception of America in his poem by the same title.

AMERICA by Walt Whitman

Centre of equal daughters, equal sons,
All, all alike endear’d, grown, ungrown, young or old,
Strong, ample, fair, enduring, capable, rich,
Perennial with the Earth, with Freedom, Law and Love,
A grand, sane, towering, seated Mother,
Chair’d in the adamant of Time.


Whitman in this poem celebrates America consisting of people—“equal daughters, equal sons”—bound together by abstractions like “Freedom,” “Law,” “Love.” Implicitly, they are united by “Equality” and “Fraternity.”

The abstract concepts are essentially related to “Democracy,” which is a unifying motif in Whitman’s poetry. “Democracy” is a rubric encompassing Whitman’s existential ideal.

In “For You O Democracy,” Whitman exclaims, “Come, I will make the continent indissoluble, / I will make the most splendid race the sun ever shone upon. …I will plant companionship thick as trees along all the rivers of America, and along the shores of the great lakes, and all over the prairies.”


When Whitman extols America, he is elevating an existential ideal, that is, his sanguine conception of a community of people inhabiting America, the land itself, who reify abstract ideals of democracy in their own lives. This conception is metaphysical because Whitman asserts its transcendental reality.

What’s more, the persona in Whitman’s poetry assimilates America. This claim is made multiple times, for example, in “Song of Myself,” Whitman’s signature poem:

“In all people I see myself, none more and not one a barley-corn less,
And the good or bad I say of myself I say of them.”

“I am an acme of things accomplish’d, and I an encloser of things to be.”

“I am large, I contain multitudes.”

The speaker in “Song of Myself” identifies with people, things, the entirety of psychic experience, everything, and then some more. He launches into majestic, sweeping, detailed descriptions in the first person.

“I am the mash’d fireman with breast-bone broken,
Tumbling walls buried me in their debris,
Heat and smoke I inspired, I heard the yelling shouts of my comrades,
I heard the distant click of their picks and shovels,
They have clear’d the beams away, they tenderly lift me forth.”

“I find I incorporate gneiss, coal, long-threaded moss, fruits, grains, esculent roots,
And am stucco’d with quadrupeds and birds all over,
And have distanced what is behind me for good reasons,
But call any thing back again when I desire it.”

“I hear bravuras of birds, bustle of growing wheat, gossip of flames, clack of sticks cooking my meals,
I hear the sound I love, the sound of the human voice,
I hear all sounds running together, combined, fused or following,
Sounds of the city and sounds out of the city, sounds of the day and night,
Talkative young ones to those that like them, the loud laugh of work-people at their meals,
The angry base of disjointed friendship, the faint tones of the sick,
The judge with hands tight to the desk, his pallid lips pronouncing a death-sentence,
The heave’e’yo of stevedores unlading ships by the wharves, the refrain of the anchor-lifters,
The ring of alarm-bells, the cry of fire, the whirr of swift-streaking engines and hose-carts with premonitory tinkles and color’d lights,
The steam whistle, the solid roll of the train of approaching cars,
The slow march play’d at the head of the association marching two and two,
(They go to guard some corpse, the flag-tops are draped with black muslin.)

“I hear the violoncello, (’tis the young man’s heart’s complaint,)
I hear the key’d cornet, it glides quickly in through my ears,
It shakes mad-sweet pangs through my belly and breast.”

The metaphysical being of the speaker zooms far into space.

“Speeding through space, speeding through heaven and the stars,
Speeding amid the seven satellites and the broad ring, and the diameter of eighty thousand miles,
Speeding with tail’d meteors, throwing fire-balls like the rest.”

The speaker ranges through time.

“The past and present wilt—I have fill’d them, emptied them,
And proceed to fill my next fold of the future.”

He is everywhere.

“I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.”

Whitman the poetic persona encompasses America, extending beyond it to eventually incorporate the entire universe. He is “a kosmos.”

To achieve a rolling, encyclopedic effect, Whitman frequently resorts to anaphora, as in the example below.

“Through me many long dumb voices,
Voices of the interminable generations of prisoners and slaves,
Voices of the diseas’d and despairing and of thieves and dwarfs,
Voices of cycles of preparation and accretion,
And of the threads that connect the stars, and of wombs and of the father-stuff,
And of the rights of them the others are down upon,
Of the deform’d, trivial, flat, foolish, despised,
Fog in the air, beetles rolling balls of dung.

“Through me forbidden voices,
Voices of sexes and lusts, voices veil’d and I remove the veil,
Voices indecent by me clarified and transfigur’d.”


Whether you love him or hate him, you can’t ignore him. All Americans at some point in their lives have to deal with Whitman’s cosmic conception of America. To the extent that America exerts global influence and power, the rest of the world, I suppose, is also obliged.



Walt Whitman, 1887