Beginner's Heart

Beginner's Heart

day 7, National Poetry Month ~

 There’s a tendency to think of poetry as not much fun. Unless you’re a total nerd/ geek/ dork… Or (as I heard said recently in a venue I would never have expected to hear the term) a pointy-head. Re: intellectual. NOT ordinary folks…

It’s not true, of course. Children love poetry, until we ruin it for them. And no, poetry doesn’t have to rhyme. :) But it’s fun when it does — IF it does that difficult task well. And this poem — this author — is one of the best at  poetry, whatever I may think about other elements of his life…

If you’re a cat lover, you may already know this poem in its musical version. If not? Enjoy. Here’s T. S. Eliot’s ‘The Old Gumbie Cat,’ about one of my favourite cats, Jennyanydots:

The Old Gumbie Cat
I have a Gumbie Cat in mind, her name is Jennyanydots;
Her coat is of the tabby kind, with tiger stripes and leopard spots.
All day she sits upon the stair or on the steps or on the mat;
She sits and sits and sits and sits–and that’s what makes a Gumbie Cat!
But when the day’s hustle and bustle is done,
Then the Gumbie Cat’s work is but hardly begun.
And when all the family’s in bed and asleep,
She tucks up her skirts to the basement to creep.
She is deeply concerned with the ways of the mice
Their behaviour’s not good and their manners not nice;
So when she has got them lined up on the matting,
She teachs them music, crocheting and tatting.
I have a Gumbie Cat in mind, her name is Jennyanydots;
Her equal would be hard to find, she likes the warm and sunny spots.
All day she sits beside the hearth or on the bed or on my hat:
She sits and sits and sits and sits–and that’s what makes a Gumbie Cat!
But when the day’s hustle and bustle is done,
Then the Gumbie Cat’s work is but hardly begun.
As she finds that the mice will not ever keep quiet,
She is sure it is due to irregular diet;
And believing that nothing is done without trying,
She sets right to work with her baking and frying.
She makes them a mouse–cake of bread and dried peas,
And a beautiful fry of lean bacon and cheese.
I have a Gumbie Cat in mind, her name is Jennyanydots;
The curtain-cord she likes to wind, and tie it into sailor-knots.
She sits upon the window-sill, or anything that’s smooth and flat:
She sits and sits and sits and sits–and that’s what makes a Gumbie Cat!
But when the day’s hustle and bustle is done,
Then the Gumbie Cat’s work is but hardly begun.
She thinks that the cockroaches just need employment
To prevent them from idle and wanton destroyment.
So she’s formed, from that lot of disorderly louts,
A troop of well-disciplined helpful boy-scouts,
With a purpose in life and a good deed to do
And she’s even created a Beetles’ Tattoo.
So for Old Gumbie Cats let us now give three cheers
On whom well-ordered households depend, it appears.

 

 

day 6, National Poetry Month ~

 Elizabeth Bishop is another poet who is easy to love. She makes her art almost invisible, effortless. Like those invisible zippers that hold the pieces together…

This is a poem I return to again & again. It’s a villanelle — an old & demanding form. In Bishop’s hands, it seems like conversation…And it has everything to do w/ beginner’s heart. Change. Loss, attachment ~ it touches on each of these & more.

Here’s Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘One Art':

One Art

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.
Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.
Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.
I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.
I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.
—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

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

 

 

 

 

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