Monday, January 19, 2015

My Personal Anthology (12 Poems)

(As submitted to edX's "The Art of Poetry" MOOC led by US former poet laureate Robert Pinsky. Due to !@#%$ copyright issues, I chose not to include the text of my chosen poems; just click each title and you'll be led to each of them. Didn't the postman in Il Postino said, "Poetry doesn't belong to those who write it, but to those who need it"? Sigh...)

Anthology of Poems
Pablo Neruda (1904-1973), (translated by W.S. Merwin)
The deepest depths of despair is what I sense every time I read or recall the lines of the love poem “Tonight I Can Write” by the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda: to have loved and lost, and to lose oneself in the longing for the lost beloved.
The poet declares from the very first line his capacity to “write the saddest lines” tonight, as the “night wind revolves in the sky and sings.” He remembers his loved one, their past togetherness. And now he suffers despair, jealousy, and ambivalence – on what had and could have been.
He dwells on his ill-fated romance, and contrasts its brevity with the seemingly endless regretful remembrance of it: “Love is so short, forgetting is so long.”
Finally, he declares, boldly, “Though this be the last pain that she makes me suffer, and these the last verses that I write for her.” (Though it’s tempting to believe that the heartbroken lover has just begun to write more of his saddest lines.)
2. "Minstrel Man
Langston Hughes (1902-1967)
Somehow, this poem evokes in me the following lines from Shakespeare’s play Merchant of Venice, spoken by Shylock the Jew, “If you prick us, do we not bleed?” I surmise that Minstrel Man was written, spoken, by the poet in the same vein: a somewhat subdued protest appealing to and pricking the conscience of his fellowman; a lyrical anti-racism message in behalf of the black people, saying that despite a seemingly joyful appearance, deep down they suffer the deathly pain of discrimination.
Personally, it strikes a chord in me because that’s the way I carry myself (as I guess most people do), carrying a smile no matter how heavy the burdens I carry. Sometimes, I wish I can be a human billboard, shamelessly walking around wearing a huge “HELP!” sign.
Joe Pintauro (1930 - )
To be honest, I can no longer recall the title of the short poem. I have just searched the Internet and only found its full text on the linked page, of a photograph of flowers, perhaps a “signature quote” of the photographer. (And I’m not sure if “that” really is the title; same with regards to the exact form. I’m sure, though, that those are the exact words, starting with what is probably the title.)
I first read it in the poet’s book Kites at Empty Airports, which old copy I bought in 1991, when I was in senior high school. In my hazy memory, the poem was printed alone on one page of the book, as part of a series on the theme “believing.” And I’ve always believed it was a religious poem, about believing in God.
I’ve memorized it since. I have been reciting it in my head from time to time through the decades, as I really fell in love with the word play and its spirituality. It remains a prayer for me, even during my college years when I professed atheism.
Pär Lagerkvist (1891 – 1974)
What I like about this love poem is its imagery, of one element losing and fading into darkness or into a “whiter shade of pale,” or gaining itself into another in becoming one with it, when “all the colors will bleed into one.” Lovers, as nature, become. (Quotes are from the songs of Procol Harum and U2, respectively.)
Emily Dickinson (1830 – 1886)
Mortality, death, dealt daintily. Death portrayed as a gentleman, kindly offering his services, as a tour guide, through his carriage. Slowly pass by children, fields, buildings, the setting sun…
Death portrayed as a gentleman, kindly offering his services; and the poet, a lady, accepting courteously – the final ride to Immortality, Eternity.
6. “The Sentence” 
Anna Akhmatova (1889 – 1966)
How does one unlearn to live, and learn it back? The poem tells of the universal struggle of strengthening oneself to keep on living; to rise from our falls and to “learn to live again." Indeed it requires steeling of resolve, and certain coldness, a turning of “soul to stone.” We need to desensitize ourselves to a certain degree (a “killing of memory”), to become inured to pains so we can persist through life’s drudgery.
In the third and last stanza, though, the speaker in the poem vacillates; she is open to an exception. What if looking out her window, she sees a bright summer day -- one festive day that she has foreseen? Then perhaps she will soften her otherwise hardened heart, to enjoy this magical day in her life.
So it has to be an intricate balancing act, between toughing it up to endure the world’s brokenness, and becoming tender to indulge in its manifestations of beauty.
(I’m curious about the last two lines, the sentence, “For a long time I've foreseen this/ Brilliant day, deserted house.” Is the poet addressing her “deserted house”?)
7. “Lyric 17” 
Jose Garcia Villa (1908 – 1997)
I find this love poem the classic song of despair, when the world ends for the lover-poet upon the loss of his love, when he “can no more hear Love’s Voice.” Everything stops and loses meaning, and the lover exclaims in shock, “O my God! I am dead.” He is dead, as far as he is concerned. (“Birds No more sing. Words I speak return lonely. Flowers I pick turn ghostly.” And the sorrowful list goes on.)
Likewise with W. H. Auden’s “Song”: “Silence the pianos and with muffled drum/ Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.” And in The Carpenter’s song, “Why does the sea rush to shore? Don't they know it's the end of the world…?”
They’re all kind of cheesy, alright, but as the tabloids report, love kills.
8. “Bread” 
Michael Crummey (1965 - )
“Two people should never say the word love before they've eaten a sack of flour together, he told me.” So goes the last line of the first stanza of the poem “Bread” by Canadian poet Michael Crummey.
The poem is a “simple” narrative: the wife’s story on her young married life in a fishing village and its daily struggles.
She tells that her husband is older by two decades and that “his first wife died in childbirth”; that she married him for practical reasons; that she soon got pregnant after their wedding, yet persisted with various chores; and that in a month she even began missing him – in lieu of or because of love, still undeclared.
Then she later suffered miscarriage, and she wondered, “I don't know why sharing a grief will make you love someone,” as they mourned as a couple.
Finally, she got pregnant again. And served her husband bread, and told him it’s from the last from their bag of flour. He answered with a smile, and in a minute said “I'll pick up another today.”
True love -- whatever it really is -- need no hurry.
9. “Trees” 
Joyce Kilmer (1886 – 1918)
I’m already aware of two renowned literary critics who do not think highly of this poem (and there must be more of them). One said this is not one of Kilmer’s best, and he might as well had meant that this is the poet’s worst! The other one said it is too “showy” (or something to that effect).
Anyway, it doesn’t matter what they say; I love it! My father recited and sang it to me when I was a child, and I’ve since memorized some of its lines. And it made me love trees, as in real trees, more! (Isn’t this an anthem of environmentalists worldwide? Just a few a minutes ago, I discovered on YouTube a video of Bob McGrath singing it, and learned that it was set to music by Oscar Rasbach in 1922.)
A little trivia: Here in the Philippines, stanzas of this poem serve as road markers going up Baguio City (our popular travel destination during the dry season, on a cool pine tree-filled mountaintop), each stanza as one signpost, arranged chronologically, each around half-kilometer apart. So it’s arguable that this poem is one of the Filipino children’s first encounters with poetry in English.
10. “Antique” 
Robert Pinsky (1940 - )
I have a weakness for the concepts of constant and inescapable burning (“I drowned in the fire of having you, I burned/ In the river of not having you”) and going through what are beyond the human scale (“…a house of a thousand rooms...”), our mortal limitations (“…we were parted for a thousand years.”). All these in the first four lines, and I was hooked!
The presentation of the poem in the PoemJazz video, where I first encountered it, definitely affected me and enhanced my appreciation…but it’s the words, first and foremost. And this is another reason for my deep gratitude to this course.
E. E. Cummings (1894 – 1962)
My cousin Larah wrote in her own personal anthology (self-published in 2000 just for family and friends) about this poem, “When I first read this poem, I thought to myself that if a man ever wrote something as beautiful as this for me, I’d marry him.” I can’t blame her.

I’ve heard its lines repeatedly when I was in high school in the late 1980’s, recited as accompaniment to the theme song of the TV series “Beauty and the Beast.” I don’t remember exactly when I, finally, first read the poem, but I keep thinking of how beautiful its words are. In my late teenage years, I used to fantasize that I thought of them first, and imagined how impressed my prospective dates would be. (And I sheepishly admit that sometimes, I still do.)
This love poem, for me, is effective because of the quality described in the phrase of its second to the last stanza: “intense fragility.” It’s suffused and slow-burning with the endearing and at times overwhelming power of small and tender things, caused by the beloved. It’s the prick of a pin, a sting of a needle; enough to make you bleed a drop – and wince.
12. “A Cloud in Trousers” 
Vladimir Vladimirovich Mayakovsky (1893-1930)
I discovered this poem when, just out of curiosity, I set out to find a “purely political propaganda poem”: one that should be all about fighting for great social causes -- with no mention of that “distracting,” ahem, romantic love. (Just like Austin Powers in the “Beautiful Stranger” MTV, being advised by his partner that to succeed in his mission, “Whatever you do, don’t fall in love.”)
Then I came upon the Russian poet Mayakovsky, and this very long poem which soon established his reputation as the preeminent Bolshevik man of letters. The poem is all about their revolution, alright, but to my “sweet disappointment,” it was spoken from the vantage point – and distressed emotional state – of a spurned lover! The speaker of the poem may be a grim and determined revolutionary, but he is also a desperate lover whom his “Maria” made wait in vain at their appointed hour, whom she is leaving to marry another, who was kept repeatedly pleading on the street as she has locked her door.
And so he was reduced into nothing but vapor, “A Cloud in Trousers.” I guess even the most hardened revolutionaries are not spared, or perhaps even more so…

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