Poem of the Day
A few years ago, my husband and I shared a flat in London with my brother and sister. On some kind of quest for self-improvement, we decided that we should all read more poetry. In order to force the issue, I started writing down one poem a day on a piece of paper and sticking it to the door of the shared bathroom. Everyone has to go to the bathroom, usually first thing in the morning. And there it would be. No way to avoid it.
In the evenings, we’d talk briefly about the poem of the day. Much of the time we didn’t quite get it. Mostly I was just pleased that we all read one poem that day. I love poetry and I don’t think it matters that I often don’t fully get it, even after reading a poem many times. Most of us don’t really get music either, but that doesn’t stop us from enjoying it.
Why isn’t it the same with poetry? Maybe it’s because it’s considered high art, out of the reach of ordinary people, or because we had to learn it in school, or simply because it’s not staring at you in the bathroom first thing in the morning.
I can’t help thinking that we all have a poem that lights something inside us, or shakes us, or just makes us wonder. With that in mind, we present to you some of our favourites.
T.S. Eliot said that “what a poem means is as much what it means to others as what it means to the author.” So although his poems are loaded with philosophical and religious references, mythical allusions and symbols, I love “Preludes” for a simple reason – the instant familiarity of the world it evokes so vividly.
I first read this poem many years ago and was especially struck by the third stanza, where Eliot shifts to the second person and pulls the reader – “you” – into the poem, into the restless night of sordid images, watching the creeping light, listening to “the sparrows in the gutters”.
Although it is usually read as a condemnation of modern, urban life – leaving a strong impression of grime and squalor, monotony and alienation – there is something unbearably beautiful in its montage of smells and scraps, trampling, muddy feet and soiled hands.
Perhaps it has a pessimistic, or even nihilistic, outlook, but to me this poem and the multisensory experience of reading it fully encapsulates what poetry is all about – it illuminates the world in new ways. You, and the world around you, are not quite the same afterwards, even if it’s still a depressing, squalid world.
– T.S. Eliot
The winter evening settles down
With smell of steaks in passageways.
The burnt-out ends of smoky days.
And now a gusty shower wraps
The grimy scraps
Of withered leaves about your feet
And newspapers from vacant lots;
The showers beat
On broken blinds and chimney-pots,
And at the corner of the street
A lonely cab-horse steams and stamps.
And then the lighting of the lamps.
The morning comes to consciousness
Of faint stale smells of beer
From the sawdust-trampled street
With all its muddy feet that press
To early coffee-stands.
With the other masquerades
That time resumes,
One thinks of all the hands
That are raising dingy shades
In a thousand furnished rooms.
You tossed a blanket from the bed,
You lay upon your back, and waited;
You dozed, and watched the night revealing
The thousand sordid images
Of which your soul was constituted;
They flickered against the ceiling.
And when all the world came back
And the light crept up between the shutters
And you heard the sparrows in the gutters,
You had such a vision of the street
As the street hardly understands;
Sitting along the bed’s edge, where
You curled the papers from your hair,
Or clasped the yellow soles of feet
In the palms of both soiled hands.
His soul stretched tight across the skies
That fade behind a city block,
Or trampled by insistent feet
At four and five and six o’clock;
And short square fingers stuffing pipes,
And evening newspapers, and eyes
Assured of certain certainties,
The conscience of a blackened street
Impatient to assume the world.
I am moved by fancies that are curled
Around these images, and cling:
The notion of some infinitely gentle
Infinitely suffering thing.
Wipe your hand across your mouth, and laugh;
The worlds revolve like ancient women
Gathering fuel in vacant lots.
Nayan P. Sindhuliya
Longing, expressed as majestically as Robert Hass’s “Meditation at Lagunitas”, is a thing of pure aesthetic joy. When I first started reading poetry at boarding school, around the time my own idea of “home” began to evolve from the tangible to the abstract, I was immediately drawn to themes of longing and nostalgia. The thing I love the most about this poem is the universality of its imagery – and the images are really sharp, and precise – which at the same time retains the unique flavour of the American West Coast. The black birch and the blackberry are Californian; Hass is a son of San Francisco, but every time I read this poem, it reminds me of my own long-lost kadam trees and sunakharis.
Meditation at Lagunitas
– Robert Hass
All the new thinking is about loss.
In this it resembles all the old thinking.
The idea, for example, that each particular erases
the luminous clarity of a general idea. That the clown-
faced woodpecker probing the dead sculpted trunk
of that black birch is, by his presence,
some tragic falling off from a first world
of undivided light. Or the other notion that,
because there is in this world no one thing
to which the bramble of blackberry corresponds,
a word is elegy to what it signifies.
We talked about it late last night and in the voice
of my friend, there was a thin wire of grief, a tone
almost querulous. After a while I understood that,
talking this way, everything dissolves: justice,
pine, hair, woman, you and I. There was a woman
I made love to and I remembered how, holding
her small shoulders in my hands sometimes,
I felt a violent wonder at her presence
like a thirst for salt, for my childhood river
with its island willows, silly music from the pleasure boat,
muddy places where we caught the little orange-silver fish
called pumpkinseed. It hardly had to do with her.
Longing, we say, because desire is full
of endless distances. I must have been the same to her.
But I remember so much, the way her hands dismantled bread,
the thing her father said that hurt her, what
she dreamed. There are moments when the body is as numinous
as words, days that are the good flesh continuing.
Such tenderness, those afternoons and evenings,
saying blackberry, blackberry, blackberry.
I have known poetry like an atheist knows God: with the certainty of its non-existence in his own life, but witness to evidence that it exists in the lives of those who believe. Also, like most atheists, I was once a believer, steeped in the myths and lore that form the bridge between believers across the ages, between saints and sinners. I admired the ability of a poem to at once be woolly and tender and also possess the hard clarity of a cut and polished gem. But I was ever-suspicious of its ability to carry wisdom. Sometimes it overwhelmed the mind with the enormity and complexity of its articulation, and sometimes, the hot air with which it was inflated could be heard hissing away, dissipating into the hollow. When I was told repeatedly that I was writing stories disguised as poems, and when a classmate named Whitney created poetry magic with the single use of the word “font”, I stopped writing poems. Or, at least, acknowledging them as mine. I also pretty much stopped reading poetry.
Therefore, now, to discuss a favourite poem is difficult. I am going to cheat and introduce a poem deceptively simple, yet very moving and universal in its effect. As in any good poem, replace the absentee beloved with any other object of devotion, and the poem gains in stature. Simple, six syllables in each line, alternate lines rhyming: to read it aloud is to believe again in poems. It has tempered hope, and also the courage for bitter despair. Vikram Seth’s ability to pick the right sound and word to craft a perfect sentence each time is well known. This poem resonates also because. I mean – who hasn’t known intimately that this poem is addressed personally to them?
All you who sleep tonight
– Vikram Seth
All you who sleep tonight
Far from the ones you love,
No hand to left or right
And emptiness above –
Know that you aren’t alone
The whole world shares your tears,
Some for two nights or one,
And some for all their years.
For many of us, reading is an integral part of our lives. We read on bad days and on good days, in winter and in the summer. So it is for me. But time and again, in moments of confusion, chaos and pain, I find myself turning to prose and poetry with a sense of desperation. When I can’t quite understand my own feelings, reading what others have written about a similar experience brings me solace, solitary and shared. Someone out there has been through it all and managed to put it beautifully into words, creating a clarity that almost makes the situation bearable. So it was at a time of utter loss and confusion in my life, many Marches ago, that I came across this poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay. It was as I read the last six lines that I sat up and thought, “That’s exactly it!”, with a sense of relief. The power of words and poetry had never felt stronger.
Time does not bring relief; you all have lied
– Edna St. Vincent Millay
Time does not bring relief; you all have lied
Who told me time would ease me of my pain!
I miss him in the weeping of the rain;
I want him at the shrinking of the tide;
The old snows melt from every mountain-side,
And last year’s leaves are smoke in every lane;
But last year’s bitter loving must remain
Heaped on my heart, and my old thoughts abide.
There are a hundred places where I fear
To go, – so with his memory they brim.
And entering with relief some quiet place
Where never fell his foot or shone his face
I say, “There is no memory of him here!”
And so stand stricken, so remembering him.
Just this morning, I shied away from writing a foreword for a book of poetry in translation. “I don’t know anything about poetry,” I explained, “What if I don’t even like the stuff?” But my faux-humility hasn’t stopped me from selecting a favourite somesuch and elaborating upon it here. In truth, it was a pure and simple lack of time; the decidedly non-poetic rush of my life runs roughshod over too many things I wouldn’t actually mind doing.
What springs to mind when I do have the time to reflect on my lack of time is that immortal couplet from WH Davies’ “Leisure”:
What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.
If I didn’t really appreciate the value of doing nothing in my teenage years, I surely do now, and as I tell people sorry, I simply don’t have the time, Wordsworth’s “The World Is Too Much With Us” rings in my years as well:
The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Wordsworth, romantic that he was, claimed he’d “rather be a Pagan suckled in a creed outworn.”
It strikes me as depressing that he was complaining about modern life 200 years ago. The more things change, the more they remain the same. Yet it is his fellow Victorian, Edward Lear, whose tone of irreverent romanticism I prefer. His longer poems never fail to take me out of my time into a timelessness, a non-world of nonsense that somehow makes sense.
This particular poem has long been a favourite, and when I was asked last summer if I would like a reading to mark a simple civil ceremony in the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth-by-the-sea, I couldn’t think of anything better. In the event, my sister Rajani came up with something more appropriate, but here for you today is quintessential Lear, with a happy ending to boot.
The Owl and the Pussy-cat
– Edward Lear
The Owl and the Pussy-cat went to sea
In a beautiful pea-green boat,
They took some honey, and plenty of money,
Wrapped up in a five-pound note.
The Owl looked up to the stars above,
And sang to a small guitar,
“O lovely Pussy! O Pussy, my love,
What a beautiful Pussy you are,
What a beautiful Pussy you are!”
Pussy said to the Owl, “You elegant fowl!
How charmingly sweet you sing!
O let us be married! too long we have tarried:
But what shall we do for a ring?”
They sailed away, for a year and a day,
To the land where the Bong-Tree grows
And there in a wood a Piggy-wig stood
With a ring at the end of his nose,
With a ring at the end of his nose.
“Dear Pig, are you willing to sell for one shilling
Your ring?” Said the Piggy, “I will.”
So they took it away, and were married next day
By the Turkey who lives on the hill.
They dined on mince, and slices of quince,
Which they ate with a runcible spoon;
And hand in hand, on the edge of the sand,
They danced by the light of the moon,
They danced by the light of the moon.
I read Jenny Joseph’s “Warning” to myself every year on my birthday. I want to read it out to my loved ones who make harmless jokes about me getting older because they think that is the generous thing to do every year as I crawl my way closer to a bad back, white hair, bad knees and a terrible memory. But this poem makes me feel cool about growing old. It makes me feel like I am that much closer to being my true self and those who don’t like it can take a hike.
– Jenny Joseph
When I am an old woman I shall wear purple
With a red hat which doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit me.
And I shall spend my pension on brandy and summer gloves
And satin sandals, and say we’ve no money for butter.
I shall sit down on the pavement when I’m tired
And gobble up samples in shops and press alarm bells
And run my stick along the public railings
And make up for the sobriety of my youth.
I shall go out in my slippers in the rain
And pick flowers in other people’s gardens
And learn to spit.
You can wear terrible shirts and grow more fat
And eat three pounds of sausages at a go
Or only bread and pickle for a week
And hoard pens and pencils and beermats and things in boxes.
But now we must have clothes that keep us dry
And pay our rent and not swear in the street
And set a good example for the children.
We must have friends to dinner and read the papers.
But maybe I ought to practice a little now?
So people who know me are not too shocked and surprised
When suddenly I am old, and start to wear purple.
Smriti Jaiswal Ravindra
I admire Carol Ann Duffy for giving voice to the voiceless. This particular poem, “We Remember Your Childhood Well”, dramatizes a chilling social reality that is very rarely addressed in poetry – children’s abuse by families and social structures. The child’s vulnerability and her/his inability to defend her/his memory highlights the extent to which children can be and are subjugated by stronger institutions.
As a mother of a young child, the poem affects me most strongly. It forces me to look at my own child-rearing practices and reminds me of the immense power I can hold over someone else’s life.
We Remember Your Childhood Well
– Carol Ann Duffy
Nobody hurt you. Nobody turned off the light and argued
with somebody else all night. The bad man on the moors
was only a movie you saw. Nobody locked the door.
Your questions were answered fully. No. That didn’t occur.
You couldn’t sing anyway, cared less. The moment’s a blur, a Film Fun
laughing itself to death in the coal fire. Anyone’s guess.
Nobody forced you. You wanted to go that day. Begged. You chose
the dress. Here are the pictures, look at you. Look at us all,
smiling and waving, younger. The whole thing is inside your head.
What you recall are impressions; we have the facts. We called the tune.
The secret police of your childhood were older and wiser than you, bigger
than you. Call back the sound of their voices. Boom. Boom. Boom.
Nobody sent you away. That was an extra holiday, with people
you seemed to like. They were firm, there was nothing to fear.
There was none but yourself to blame if it ended in tears.
What does it matter now? No, no, nobody left the skidmarks of sin
on your soul and laid you wide open for Hell. You were loved.
Always. We did what was best. We remember your childhood well.
Pranab Man Singh
Back in 2010, when we organized the first ever poetry slam in Nepal, we were not really sure what to expect. We knew poetry was popular in Nepal, but was it cool to be a poet? We figured a poetry event would be interesting, but would it have a future? Five years on, it’s safe to say that the spoken word poetry scene in Nepal hasn’t looked back. It is incredibly popular and it continues to spread among a generation born and raised in a democratic Nepal. They are the first sounds of untainted free expression in this country.
One of the advantages of organizing literary events is that once the show gets rolling, there isn’t much to do other than to take it in. I first got to watch Ujjwala Maharjan and Yukta Bajracharya perform on stage during that event in December. Even then, I knew I was witnessing something special – an awakening of sorts. Since then, the two have become friends and we’ve become family. Their work is free from the weight of the history of poetry, yet they represent a moment, dare I say a change, in Nepali history. In their sounds, I sense poetry closer to our unique space, more so than those relying on the privileges of poetic pasts and linguistic limits.
The poem below marked the first time the two poets produced a piece together. It works to both their strengths as performers and provides a window onto the issues that impassion them as much as many of their generation.
I came to know about Mary Oliver during my first year of college, in the fall of 2000, when upperclassmen mentioned her name in hushed, reverent tones, as that special faculty member who had won a Pulitzer Prize. Unfortunately, that year was also Mary’s last year of teaching and back then, I had yet to understand what poetry was all about. Not only did I not sign up for her class – I probably wouldn’t have gotten in anyway – I never got a chance to interact with her.
In any case, it was years later, with a poem here and there, and then a book, that I gradually entered Mary’s poetic world until I took it upon myself to buy every one of her publications. Since then, I have bookmarked favourite poems that I reread on a regular basis, typed her poems inside bodies of emails and forwarded them to friends, and have read aloud select sections during poetry circles. When it was time to leave New York – and hundreds of books behind – I did not think twice before picking out two big volumes of Mary’s poems.
I think of these volumes as spiritual guides, as beacons of hope, as bright stars, which is what Mary Oliver means to me – someone much larger and deeper than what the four-letter word, poet, encapsulates. In precise, elemental prose, Mary writes mostly about nature. She pays attention to one aspect or a being – a plant, an animal, a pebble, a rock or a wildflower – and through her reflections and descriptions, compels us to think about our own lives and our humanity. The following poem, “Spring,” is a beautiful example of her work, and also pretty apt for this season.
– Mary Oliver
a black bear
has just risen from sleep
and is staring
down the mountain.
in the brisk and shallow restlessness
of early spring
I think of her,
her four black fists
flicking the gravel,
like a red fire
touching the grass,
the cold water.
There is only one question:
how to love this world.
I think of her
like a black and leafy ledge
to sharpen her claws against
of the trees.
my life is
with its poems
and its music
and its glass cities,
it is also this dazzling darkness
down the mountain,
breathing and tasting;
all day I think of her –
her white teeth,
her perfect love.