Beginner's Heart

Beginner's Heart

day 5, National Poetry Month ~

One of the earliest poems I remember reading that voiced opposition to the war in Việt Nam was Denise Levertov’s ‘What Were They Like?’ I read it years ago at a reading of poets who had influenced the readers. I’m reading it next week at a Poets for Peace reading. 

Perhaps because I grew up in Việt Nam, that war — and subsequent ones, as a result — felt personal to me. Biên Hòa wasn’t the name of a battle to me; it was where we went for Sunday drives in the blue & white Buick. Villages weren’t ‘collateral damage.’ They were the homes of childhood friends, places I visited, playing with pot-bellied pigs and baby ducks. I knew very well what many people of Việt Nam were like, and they never deserved to be carpet bombed…

There were plenty of anti-war songs in the 60s and 70s, but if you were taking poetry — even at the college level — there wasn’t much anti-war poetry. Nothing like the large & impressive reaction to WWI and WWIIi from veterans who suffered the fall-out. So finding Levertov was like hearing an echo of my own horror at terms like ‘collateral damage,’ and the PTSD that back then didn’t even have a name. Just the broken shells of boys I’d known who came back a piece of someone else’s nightmare..,

What I didn’t know was what this poem — and others like it — cost Levertov: the friendship of a friend & mentor. That’s the thing about following our principles, though. There’s often fallout. But just as often (except perhaps less noticed) is how the example of one person can bloom within another. How Levertov’s poem helped me, many years later, find my own voice.

Here’s Levertov’s poignant poem:

What Were They Like?

Did the people of Viet Nam
use lanterns of stone?
Did they hold ceremonies
to reverence the opening of buds?
Were they inclined to quiet laughter?
Did they use bone and ivory,
jade and silver, for ornament?
Had they an epic poem?
Did they distinguish between speech and singing?

Sir, their light hearts turned to stone.
It is not remembered whether in gardens
stone gardens illumined pleasant ways.
Perhaps they gathered once to delight in blossom,
but after their children were killed
there were no more buds.
Sir, laughter is bitter to the burned mouth.
A dream ago, perhaps. Ornament is for joy.
All the bones were charred.
it is not remembered. Remember,
most were peasants; their life
was in rice and bamboo.
When peaceful clouds were reflected in the paddies
and the water buffalo stepped surely along terraces,
maybe fathers told their sons old tales.
When bombs smashed those mirrors
there was time only to scream.
There is an echo yet
of their speech which was like a song.
It was reported their singing resembled
the flight of moths in moonlight.
Who can say? It is silent now.

 

day 4 National Poetry Month ~

A friend asked me what my month of poetry has to do with Buddhism, with beginner’s heart. I wanted to yell EVERYTHING! But I didn’t. :) Instead, I gave a rational response about the need for words when we have none, and the impact of beauty. The way poetry speaks to more than our mind. The way it connects us.

In other words, I tried hard to quantify something that remains, for me, difficult to explain. I’ve told students in the past: I may not always get a poem, but I always get poetry. It’s the water I swim in, I guess.

When National Poetry Month arrives (finally!), I’m ecstatic. ALL MONTH I can talk about poetry. And even though I probably bore folks just as much as usual, THIS MONTH I can pretend it’s for their own good… :)

So today, in honour of my exuberant love of most things poetic, you get two poems. AND the picture that inspired them. Ekphrastic poetry – poetry about works of art — has a long & illustrious history. And these are two of my very favourite poets: Auden & William Carlos Williams. Both writing about Peter Breughel’s Fall of Icarus, above. Enjoy!

Here’s Auden, first:

Musée des Beaux Arts

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking  dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Brueghel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

And here’s William Carlos Williams:

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus

According to Brueghel
when Icarus fell
it was spring

a farmer was ploughing
his field
the whole pageantry

of the year was
awake tingling
with itself

sweating in the sun
that melted
the wings’ wax

unsignificantly
off the coast
there was

a splash quite unnoticed
this was
Icarus drowning

 

 

 

 

day 3 of National Poetry Month ~

One of my favourite poets died a few years ago, in 2007. Her name was Maude Meehan. She was an amazing woman, as well as a heckuva poet. She was a worker for social justice from way back: worker’s rights, women’s rights, gay rights… The rights of people everywhere, in all walks of life. Her work has had a huge impact on my own. I hope more people go find her poetry — it’s a pleasure to read.
Here’s my favourite:
Is There Life After Feminism (or how to wear boots and still be politically incorrect)

I like to wear boots.

I like the noise they make.
I walk real uppity in boots.
I walk strong.
If pressed
I can land a punch, a kick,
demolish a rapist,
and if I want to
I can go to bed in boots.

I cook without Tofu or eggplant
and I hate alfalfa sprouts. Call it heresy.
I hug my husband, my sons,
and send my daughter radical feminist literature.
I hug her too.  I hug my gay friends,
and don’t apologize for being straight.
I hug my friends of color
and won’t apologize for being white.
How can we stand up together
if we’re putting each other down?

I am a senior citizen.
There are advantages.
I get ten percent off on pancakes at Golden Wist
and a dollar off at the Nickelodeon.
Sometimes I wear lipstick, mascara
and don’t ask anyone’s pardon.
I wear a dress when I visit my mother.
She’s ninety-six, I’m sixty-five.
Spare me your arguments.  Where is it written
that any one of us has all the right answers
for anyone else?

I am a good citizen.
There are disadvantages.
I write to presidents and politicians
and they do what they want anyway.
I go to marches, to meetings, to jail,
and I have a file in Washington in my very own name
which I refuse to send for.
I know who I am.
Even when I do dishes, mind kids or wear high heels
I know who I am.
But what I like about wearing boots is,
there’s no confusion.
Everyone knows who I am.  Watch out!

Day 2, National Poetry Month ~

Today’s poem is one of my favourites. It also changes American poetry (arguably). It’s Ezra Pound, of course — that contentious, controversial poet who went loudly nuts during WWII.

But this is the quieter, Asian art-influenced Pound. The poet who read haiku in Japan, all of Ernest Fenollosa’s work on the Chinese ideogram, and eventually translated Chinese. Although he spoke none…

No where but in the arts can I imagine that story being real: a young American meets an artist, read his work, uses it to change the course of his own work, and ultimately brings an entire body of work into his own culture… Wow.

Here it is, balm for subway riders:

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.
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