31 March 2014

Haiku 2014/90

rain fell with such force
each drop hit then jumped back up
staccato drumming

Poem of the Week 2014/14

National Poetry Month begins tomorrow, but we're getting a jump on it with this poem, which begins the theme for this month: poets writing about other poets. And as a reminder: we live in a commercial culture, and any art that doesn't make a lot of money for corporate interests is increasingly marginalized (or simply declared "dead" by people who never paid attention to it anyway). But we all know that the margins are where the interesting things mostly happen. If you think someone is doing good work, or keeping the good work of the past alive, support that person by buying their books. If I've posted a poem that interests you, I hope you will go to Amazon, or the publisher, or your local independent bookstore, or wherever, and buy the book.

Emily Dickinson's Defunct

She used to
pack poems
in her hip pocket.
Under all the
gray old lady
clothes she was
dressed for action.
She had hair,
in certain places, and
believe me,
she smelled human
on a hot summer day.
Stalking snakes
or counting
the thousand motes
in sunlight
she walked just
like an Indian.
She was New England's
favorite daughter,
she could pray
like the devil.
She was a
two-fisted woman,
this babe.
All the flies
just stood around
and buzzed
when she died.

Marilyn Nelson [Waniek]*

Contemporary American poet Marilyn Nelson cleverly adjusts our view of Emily Dickinson, who lived from 1830 to 1886 – prime pioneer woman days. She situates Dickinson in her habitat, New England, and simultaneously reminds us of New England's Puritan past, its influence on Dickinson, and her differences from it with a few deft lines: "She was New England's / favorite daughter, / she could pray / like the devil." Nelson emphasizes Dickinson's physicality (her body hair, her sweat: imagine, the poet orders, and emphasizes the word by placing it alone on its line) and her attachment to the natural world (the snakes – see Dickinson's A narrow fellow in the grass or Sweet is the swamp with its secrets; the motes in the sunlight; walking "like an Indian," that is, like someone who lives completely immersed in the natural world and can track his or her way through it; and at the end of the poem, stately use is made of I heard a fly buzz – when I died –). Dickinson's attachment to the natural world is well known as a feature of her poetry, but her physicality is less often considered; even the speculation on her sexual nature tends towards the theoretic and subliminal.

Given the common view of Dickinson (though perhaps less common than it once was, as her poetry becomes better known in more accurate editions – there was nothing resembling an edition that printed the poems as she wrote them until Thomas H. Johnson's in 1955 – and as critical views evolve and change) as the fey, reclusive woman in white, subject to odd fancies, it's really, really funny to think of her as "a two-fisted woman, / this babe." But those lines also capture something deeply true about Dickinson: she really was a two-fisted woman where it counts, in the only way that still matters to us about this long-dead woman: in her spirit, which was manifested in her aesthetic sense – she had to be aware that her way of writing poetry was not that of her time and place, and that it was in fact the type of art that has to create its own audience and its own posterity, as Proust puts it. Yet instead of trying to write in the style of her time, with more regular rhyme and meter (perhaps she knew such a style was not her gift, and therefore not to be attempted by her) she persisted in writing in her idiosyncratic style, and in preserving what she wrote, despite little expectation that she would be published in her lifetime, or even after.

* Marilyn Nelson wrote under the name Marilyn Nelson Waniek from 1978 to 1995, and she appears under that name in the anthology from which I took this poem, Every Shut Eye Ain't Asleep: An Anthology of Poetry by African Americans Since 1945, edited by Michael S. Harper and Anthony Walton. But if you're looking for her books, you may find them under Marilyn Nelson.

30 March 2014

Haiku 2014/89

washing the dishes,
doing laundry, showering:
Water, you bless us

29 March 2014

fun stuff I may or may not get to: April 2014

I've adjusted the format of the listings, hoping to make them less of a jumble, though they remain completely personal and arbitrary (I think the vogue word for that now is curated). There's a huge amount of really appealing stuff going on this month.

As mentioned last month, at Shotgun Players this month you can see Salvage, the third part of Stoppard's Coast of Utopia trilogy; you can also see the first two parts separately, or on two marathon days: 5 April and 26 April. For extra Russian thrills, on 15 April they present a staged reading of A Month in the Country by Turgenev, who is one of the characters in Stoppard's play.

Cutting Ball presents the American premiere of Communiqué No. 10 by Samuel Gallet, translated and directed by Cutting Ball Artistic Director Rob Melrose, 25 April to 25 May. Their Hidden Classics series has an interesting-looking offer on 27 April: Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis in a one-woman show with Ponder Goddard, directed by Melrose.

The Aurora Theater presents Wittenberg by David Davalos, directed by Josh Costello, in which Hamlet, back for the new school year (this must have been before his return to Wittenberg was ruled "most retrograde to [Claudius's] desire") has classes with Martin Luther and Dr Faustus. Sounds positively Stoppardesque, in case Coast of Utopia at Shotgun hasn't slaked your thirst. That's 4 April to 4 May. Also, on 17 April they are also opening a new, even more intimate performance space, Harry's Upstage, with The Letters by John W. Lowell, directed by Mark Jackson.

Baroque Music
Philharmonia Baroque presents Vivaldi's oratorio, Juditha triumphans devicta Holofernis barbarie, conducted by Nicholas McGegan, with the Philharmonia orchestra and chorale joined by soprano Dominique Labelle and mezzo-sopranos Cécile van de Sant, Vivica Genaux, Diana Moore, and Virginia Warnken. That's 2 - 6 April in their usual varied locations.

American Bach Soloists explores J S Bach and his legacy in a concert featuring motets and choral works by Bach, Mendelssohn, Brahms, Sandström, and Nystedt. That's 25 - 28 April, in their usual various locations.

New Music
Cal Performances presents their resident new-music group, the Eco Ensemble, on 12 April, performing works by Gee, Harvey, and Lin. My thoughts on their last concert may be found here.

Cal Performances presents the Kronos Quartet in Beyond Zero: 1914 - 1918, a new work for quartet and film. As the dates might tell you, this work commemorates the centennial of the start of the first World War. The music is by Aleksandra Vrebalov and the film by Bill Morrison. That's 6 April.

The 2014 Switchboard Music Festival takes place Saturday, 12 April, from 2:00 to 10:00, at the Brava Theater in the Mission. More information here.

The San Francisco Conservatory of Music remembers composer and faculty member Conrad Susa, who died last November, with an evening of his music, held at St Mark's Lutheran Church in San Francisco. That's 5 April; more information here.

UPDATE: Thanks to Lisa Hirsch for pointing out (please see the comments) that this month also includes the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players festival of Electro-Acoustic Music, 24 - 27 April at Fort Mason. More information here. As I said to Lisa in reply to her comment, this is up against Opera Parallele's Weill/Poulenc double bill, and Mark Morris's world premiere production of Acis and Galatea, and American Bach Soloists, and Fort Mason has got to be one of the most difficult venues to get to in the Bay Area, so sadly this one is not happening for me. I used to get postcards and e-mails from SFCMP, but for some reason they stopped sending them, and though their programs always look interesting they persist in thinking that 8:00 PM is a good start time for concerts during the work week, which it is not for working people, so unfortunately I just don't think to check them much these days.

The San Francisco Conservatory of Music presents Dominick Argento's Postcard from Morocco, 10 - 13 April.

Opera Parallèle presents a double bill of Weill's Mahagonny Songspiel and Poulenc's Les Mamelles de Tirésias, conducted by Nicole Paiement and directed by Brian Staufenbiel, 25 - 27 April at the Yerba Buena Center. More information here.

San Francisco Performances presents bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni with pianist Wolfram Rieger, performing Beethoven, Reichardt, Brahms, and Liszt, on 1 April at the Nourse Theater.

Chamber Music
San Francisco Performances presents pianist Marc-André Hamelin, clarinetist Martin Frost, and violinist Anthony Marwood, performing Schubert, Debussy, Stravinsky, Poulenc, and Bartok on 28 April at the Nourse Theater.

Cal Performances presents the return of the Mark Morris Dance Group in the world premiere of Morris's new production of Acis and Galatea. Handel's music as arranged by Mozart will be performed by Philharmonia Baroque. That's 25 - 27 April in Zellerbach Hall.

The San Francisco Ballet presents the west coast premiere of Alexei Ratmansky's Shostakovich Trilogy, 2 - 13 April; and the world premiere of Caprice, choreographed by Helgi Tomasson to Camille Saint-Saens, along with the twentieth anniversary presentation of the first work Mark Morris did for the company, Maelstrom, to music by Beethoven, along with Yuri Possokhov's version of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, 4 - 15 April.

Haiku 2014/88

what mattered today?
Nothing I could think to do,
nothing but the rain

27 March 2014

Haiku 2014/86

insolent seagulls!
swooping, squawking, and shitting
as if I weren't there!

26 March 2014

Haiku 2014/85

rain on wet pavement
each drop shines for a moment
then melts into wet

Poem of the Week 2014/13 (part 3)

Sappho: Fragment 104, variations on a theme

Part 1 may be found here and Part 2 here.

Here are some poems that reference in various ways Sappho's evening star fragment. These are all from English-language traditions, so for example Catullus 62 is not included. They are presented in the order in which they were first (to the best of my knowledge) published.

Oh Hesperus, thou bringest all good things:
   Home to the weary, to the hungry cheer,
To the young bird the parent's brooding wings,
   The welcome stall to the o'erlaboured steer.
Whate'er of peace about our hearthstone clings,
   Whate'er our household gods protect of dear
Are gathered round us by thy look of rest;
Thou bring'st the child, too, to the mother's breast.

from Don Juan, Canto III, stanza 107, Lord Byron (1821)

A moment of rest in a turbulent poet. Incorporating a well-known classical fragment was a recognized flourish in a poem, and not considered plagiarism, or the result of inadequate original ideas. The reader is supposed to notice the borrowing and admire the way the poet has referenced, repurposed, or extended the original. And unlike the related practice in earlier times of re-using Greek or Roman ruins as material with which to build new walls or fences, the original was not only left unharmed, but was enhanced by the prestige of becoming a poetic trope.


Low-flowing breezes are roaming the broad valley dimm'd in the gloaming:
Thoro' the black-stemm'd pines only the far river shines.
Creeping thro' blossomy rushes and bowers of rose-blowing bushes,
Down by the poplar tall rivulets babble and fall.
Barketh the shepherd-dog cheerily; the grasshopper carolleth clearly;
Deeply the wood-dove coos; shrilly the owlet haloos;
Winds creep; dews fall chilly: in her first sleep earth breathes stilly:
Over the pools in the burn water-gnats murmur and mourn.
Sadly the far kine loweth: the glimmering water outfloweth:
Twin peaks shadow'd with pine slope to the dark hyaline.
Low-throned Hesper is stayed between the two peaks; but the Naiad
Throbbing in mild unrest holds him beneath in her breast.
The ancient poetess singeth, that Hesperus all things bringeth,
Smoothing the wearied mind: bring me my love, Rosalind.
Thou comest morning and even; she cometh not morning or even.
False-eyed Hesper, unkind, where is my sweet Rosalind?

from Leonine Elegiacs, Alfred Tennyson (1830)

This is an early poem by Tennyson, later dropped by him from his official catalogue. Instead of extending and elaborating Sappho's lines, as Byron did, Tennyson refers to her and quotes her lines, with the further dismayed reflection that life does not always work the way poetry does. Hyaline at the end of line 10 means something having a glassy, translucent appearance, so presumably the reference is to a lake. And of course it's there to rhyme with pine in the middle of the line. There's some fancy mid-line/end-line rhyming going on throughout this poem. I wonder if the water-gnats murmuring and mourning in line 8 flew in from the Keats ode To Autumn.


Happy bridegroom, Hesper brings
All desired and timely things.
All whom morning sends to roam,
Hesper loves to lead them home.
Home return who him behold,
Child to mother, sheep to fold,
Bird to nest from wandering wide:
Happy bridegroom, seek your bride.

from Epithalamium in Last Poems, A E Housman (1922)

An epithalamium is a song or poem written to celebrate a wedding. Housman, by profession a classics scholar, exuberantly plays on that aspect of Sappho's lines. Poets love to add birds to this fragment. Birds are always poetical.


The Evening Star
Penelope's maidens sing of the old father of the absent Odysseus yearning for his son's return:

His eyes toward the even
     Age ever turns
Where fair in the heaven
     Hesperus burns:
Hesper the herald
     Who brings to their rest
Sheep to the sheepfold,
     Babe to the breast;
For Hesper will gather
     What Eos hath strown:
The son to his father,
     The prince to his own!

from The Songs of Sappho, Marion Mills Miller (1925)

As mentioned yesterday, this particular edition of Sappho included prose translations of the Greek, accurate if archaic in style, by David Moore Robinson, along with more fanciful repurposings by Miller: in this case, the lines are imagined as a song for Penelope's maids, singing of Odysseus's father's longing for his son's return, when he will come into his own kingdom. Eos is the goddess of the dawn.


The Evening Star
in memory of Catherine Mercer, 1994 - 1996

The day we buried your two years and two months
So many crocuses and snowdrops came out for you
I tried to isolate from those galaxies one flower:
A snowdrop appeared in the sky at dayligone;

The evening star, the star in Sappho's epigram
Which brings back everything that shiny daybreak
Scatters, which brings the sheep and brings the goat
And brings the wean back home to her mammy.

Michael Longley, included in Sappho Through English Poetry, edited by Peter Jay and Caroline Lewis (1996)

Longley is a contemporary Irish poet. Dayligone means twilight and a wean is a young child. The same lines that served Tennyson for melancholy recriminations and Housman for a joyful song serve Longley as the source of terrible pathos and irony: recollecting Sappho's lines, he also recollects a child that will never come home again.


At the violet hour, the evening hour that strives
Homeward, and brings the sailor home from sea,
The typist home at teatime

from The Waste Land, ll 220 - 222, T S Eliot (1922)

And we'll end with Eliot's sardonic repurposing of Sappho's lines; he even draws attention to the origin in his footnotes to The Waste Land, to make sure you see.

25 March 2014

Haiku 2014/84

those blossoms held on
as if waiting for the rain
to come strip them down

Poem of the Week 2014/13 (part 2)

Sappho: Fragment 104 x 25

Part 1 may be found here and part 3 here.

The first entry is from the Loeb Classical Library; since their translations are meant to serve as a crib for the original on the facing page, they provide a straightforward, fairly denotative sense of what the words mean, and bearing them in mind you can see what changes are wrought by the different translators. The rest follow according to the date of their first publication (to the best of my knowledge). I've added comments below some of the translations, but have skipped commenting if I've already mentioned something earlier.

Hesperus, bringing everything that shining Dawn scattered, you bring the sheep, you bring the goat, you bring back the child to its mother.

from Greek Lyric I: Sappho and Alcaeus in the Loeb Classical Library, edited and translated by David A. Campbell (1982)

You'll note that in this version the child returns to "its mother": I assume the Greek is gender neutral; as you will see, some translators use its, some use his or hers, and some make the child into children going to their mother.


O Hesperus! Thou bringest all things home;
All that the garish day hath scattered wide;
The sheep, the goat, back to the welcome fold;
Thou bring'st the child, too, to his mother's side.

from Greek Poets in English Verse, translated by William Hyde Appleton (1893)

Like many early translations of Sappho, this one favors not only a regular rhythm but rhyme. Though rhyme was not used by ancient Greek poets, it does help create the sense of a formal structure to the words, which is an important element of the original that is difficult to convey in translation, especially given the fragmentary nature of what survives, which can look very much like free verse. Also, to most late-nineteenth-century readers of English poetry rhyme would signal that the poem is a lyric (unrhymed poetry in English generally being epic, tragic, or at least narrative and lengthy).


Hesperus, bringing together
All that the morning star scattered, –

Sheep to be folded in twilight,
Children for mothers to fondle, –

Me too will bring to the dearest,
Tenderest breast in all Lesbos.

from Sappho: One Hundred Lyrics, translated by Bliss Carman (1904)

Earlier translators of Sappho felt it appropriate to shape what were after all ambiguous remnants into something that felt to them more like a complete poem in line with what they knew or supposed of the poet's personality and work (to add to the complications, my understanding is that many of them were working from inferior or inadequate editions of the Greek). So Carman's version turns the authentic lines into part of a love song, since Sappho had come to be seen as one of the great poets of love. Such an approach to translation was similar to the approach taken to the restoration of paintings or buildings in the late nineteenth and into the early twentieth century, which frequently involved wholesale repainting or rebuilding, often in ways that owed more to current notions of how Old Masters or old churches should look than to historical actuality. This attempt to make the past look current and pristine gradually gave way to the current mode, which is to keep restorations minimal and non-invasive, and to make clear what is an original survival, what a conjecture, and what a blank, even at the expense of smoothness and consistency of style or even of coherence.



Thou, Hesper, bringest homeward all
     That radiant dawn sped far and wide:
The sheep to fold, the goat to stall,
     The children to their mother's side.

from Love, Worship and Death: Some Renderings from the Greek Anthology, translated by Rennell Rodd (1919)

Again, we have the use of regular meter, and even more rhyme than in the Appleton version above. And as was common at the time, this version evokes both the distant past and an elevated world of "poetic" diction by using forms that had long dropped out of English speech and prose ("Thou" and "bringest". . . ).



Children astray to their mothers, and goats to the herd,
Sheep to the shepherd, through twilight the wings of the bird,
All things that morning has scattered with fingers of gold,
All things thou bringest, O Evening! at last to the fold.

from Sappho: A New Rendering, translated by Henry De Vere Stacpoole (1920)

This one reverses the original's order; it starts with the child (made into children), then the goats and sheep, and adds a bird, which are always poetic, all moving towards the Evening (rather than the Evening Star). It's a lovely evocation of the power of nightfall, but to me it loses the emotional impact of ending with the child returning to its mother. It's a very pretty poem, with some extra filigree (which I don't necessarily hold against it, and a bit of what can seem like padding is bound to happen when you're translating into regular meter and rhyme). An approach like this or Carman's goes against our current views of what translation is and should do, but such versions were meant as an honest attempt to recreate the lost work of a great poet, and not just as freehand fantasias on themes from Sappho (which is a legitimate approach to take, only nowadays there would be objections to considering such works translations; sometimes it's a fine line, and tomorrow we'll see some examples).


Hail, gentle Evening, that bringest back
All things that bright morning hath beguiled.
Thou bringest the lamb, thou bringest the kid,
And to its mother her drowsy child.

included in The Songs of Sappho in English Translation by Many Poets, translated by Edwin M Cox (1924)

Beguiled at the end of the second line is clearly there to rhyme with child in the fourth, but it adds an interesting element not found in most of the other versions: the sense that the day's activities have seduced and fooled you, and that what is authentically valuable is only found in "gentle Evening." Again we have the use of archaic diction: "thou bringest" and the Miltonic "Hail."


Hesperus, thou who bringest all things that the bright dawn scattered, thou bringest the sheep, though bringest the goat, thou bringest to the mother her child.

from The Songs of Sappho, translation by David Moore Robinson (1925)

This one was meant as a close prose transcription of the original, in the style of the Loeb Classical Library; even so, it retains the archaic diction of contemporary poetic versions. This particular edition (which advertises itself on its title page as "including the recent Egyptian discoveries") matched Robinson's scholarly versions with more fanciful rhymed recreations/adaptations by Marion Miller (whose version will appear tomorrow).


Evening Star that bringest back all that lightsome
Dawn hath scattered afar; thou bringest the sheep, thou
bringest the goat, thou bringest her child home to the
mother. . .

from You Burn Me, translated by J M Edmonds (1928)

The ellipsis at the end of this version seem like an interesting early attempt to convey the fragmentary nature of what remains of the original (by 1928, of course, Pound and Eliot had already published major work). "Lightsome" is an interesting word; perhaps it's a bit on the obscure side, but it does convey the sense of the rising light of Dawn, as well as nimble, light-hearted, graceful (making this version imply the opposite of the one above that had Dawn beguiling all things; beguiling can mean to while away the time, but there's often a sense that something deceptive or ultimately harmful is going on, whereas lightsome lacks the implications of deception and harm).


To the Evening Star

Evening Star, thou bringest home
All that Dawn had sent to roam,
Back to one another;
Thou bringest the sheep, thou bringest the goat;
Thou bringest the child to his mother.

from Swans and Amber, Some Early Greek Lyrics Freely Translated and Adapted by Dorothy Burr Thompson (1948)

Thompson gives herself a lot of leeway in her versions, which are advertised in her title as both "freely translated" and "adapted," but even so this version seems closer to the original than some of the earlier versions. The third line seems added mostly to provide a rhyme for mother in the last line. I find the line kind of awkward, as if the sheep, the goat, and the child were all returning to each other, instead of to their separate places of rest. Thompson's adaptations in general do have a freshness and charm.


You are the herdsman of evening

Hesperus, you herd
homeward whatever
Dawn's light dispersed

You herd sheep – herd
goats – herd children
home to their mothers

from Sappho: A New Translation, translated by Mary Barnard (1958)

I love Barnard's famous translation of Sappho, which was the first I read, and one of the first to avoid archaic and elevated "poetic" language and attempt to make Sappho speak in modern English, but reading over this one in the context of all these other versions, I'm a bit puzzled by what she's doing here. I'm not sure where she's getting the "herdsman of evening" concept, and while using herd for the sheep and the goats is fine, it sounds both harsh and ludicrous to talk about herding children to their mothers.


Dusk and western star,
You gather
What glittering sunrise
Scattered far,
The ewe to fold,
Kid and nanny home,
But the daughter you send wandering
From her mother.
(                 )
Hesperos, most beautiful
Of stars.

from 7 Greeks, translations by Guy Davenport (1965)

There are a couple of textual variations that appear in this version: first, the papyri are not only fragmentary but often in worn or tattered condition, and there are some scholars who read the last words of our fragment to mean that while evening brings the sheep and the goat home, it sends the child away from its home – the supposition is that the child is a daughter, and this is a song about marriage, in which nightfall sends her away from her childhood home and to her husband's house. Second, Hesperos is the subject of another fragment (often called 104b, making our fragment 104a), which is sometimes taken as part of this poem, and joined to it by some translators, as it is here after the empty parenthesis, used to indicate a break in the text. (The Loeb translation of 104b is "the fairest of all the stars.") Kid and nanny are interesting words to use for the goats, since kid is slang for a child, and a nanny is a child's caretaker as well as a mother goat. These puns (maybe it would be better to call them "word of ambiguous meaning" since pun implies some level of comedy) convey the other version of the text, in which the child goes home to its mother, before offering the alternate version. It kind of underplays the goats though.


Evening Star

Hesperos, you bring home all the bright dawn disperses,
bring home the sheep,
bring home the goat, bring the child home to its mother

[with a footnote: "In [classicist] Bruno Snell's reading the bright dawn brings out the sheep and goat, and the child away from its mother."]

from Sappho and the Greek Lyric Poets, translated by Willis Barnstone (1965)

This is very similar to Barnstone's later version (which we looked at yesterday); his footnote acknowledges the possible different ending of the poem.


Evening Star, you bring back
all that was scattered
in the shimmer of Dawn.
You bring the sheep, you bring the goat, and
you bring her child to the mother.

. . . the most beautiful of all stars

from The Poems of Sappho, translated by Suzy Q. Groden (1966)

This is a straightforward lovely version, with an interesting touch in the last line: most versions have the child returning to her/his/its mother, with an emphasis on the action of the child; this one puts a delicate stress on the mother instead by having the possessive refer to the child, so that the emphasis is on the mother who has been awaiting the child's return. The 1928 Edmonds translation above does the same thing; oddly it struck me more in this version, possibly because Groden's version has a cleaner, more modern sound, making nuances jump out a bit.


you gather all
to your breast

from Sappho, translated by Richard O'Connell (1975)

A very stripped-down version, in which Hesperus gathers everything into itself, which seems like an image of death – peaceful death, given that things are gathered home, but still death.


Dusk, you restore all that the glittering dawn has dispersed, –
bringing the sheep, bringing the goats, – but you keep the bride from her mother.

from Three Archaic Poets: Archilochus, Alcaeus, Sappho, translated by Anne Pippin Burnett (1983)


Hesperus, you bring everything that
          the light-tinged dawn has scattered;

you bring the sheep, you bring the goat, you bring
          the child back to its mother.

from Sappho: Poems & Fragments, translated by Josephine Balmer (1984)


Evening Star who gathers everything
shining dawn scattered –
you bring the sheep and the goats,
you bring the child back to its mother.

from Sappho's Lyre: Archaic Lyric and Women Poets of Ancient Greece, translated by Diane Rayor (1991)

Since the repetition of "bring" is a key rhetorical and emotional element of this poem, I'm not sure why the sheep and the goats are lumped together; to me it loses the rhythm.


Hesperus, loveliest of all the stars . . .
bringing back all that glowing Dawn sent forth:
you bring the sheep,
you bring the goat,
you bring the girl to a home away from her mother.

from Greek Lyric Poetry, translated by M L West (1993)


Evening star, you bring back all that the bright dawn scattered,
Bringing the sheep and the goat, and bringing the child to its mother.

from Sappho, translated by Robert Chandler (1998)


Star of Evening

you bring
home everything
which light of day dispersed:
home the sheep herds
home the goat
home the mother's

from The Love Songs of Sappho, translated by Paul Roche (1998)


     you gather back
          all that dazzling dawn has put asunder:
                                             you gather a lamb
                         gather a kid
gather a child to its mother

of all stars the most beautiful

from If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho, translated by Anne Carson (2002)


Hesperos, you bring all that the bright dawn scattered,
the lamb, the kid, the child to its mother.

     fairest of stars

from Sappho: Poems and Fragments, translated by Stanley Lombardo (2002)


Evening Star

Hesperos, you bring home all the bright dawn scattered,
bring home the sheep,
bring home the goat, bring the child home
to her mother.

from Sweetbitter Love: Poems of Sappho, translated by Willis Barnstone (2006)


Most beautiful of all the stars
O Hesperus, bringing everything
the bright dawn scattered:
you bring the sheep, you bring the goat,
you bring the child back to her mother.

from The Poetry of Sappho, translated by Jim Powell (2007)


Hesperus, you are
The most fetching star.
What Dawn flings afield
You bring back together –
Sheep to the fold, goats to the pen,
And the child to his mother again.

from Stung with Love: Poems and Fragments, translated by Aaron Poochigian (2009)

A recent version that uses rhyme, which was, as you have seen, out of favor for several decades. Poochigian's reasoning is that rhyme helps signal to an English-language reader that these are songs, and indeed all of Sappho's poetry was originally meant to be sung, either solo or in chorus, to musical accompaniment. "Fetching" is very clever, meaning both to bring something back and to be attractive and charming, though of course that's a cleverness in the English language that is added to the original.

24 March 2014

Haiku 2014/83

Fog covered the bridge.
I saw it from the window.
Later it burned off.

Poem of the Week 2014/13 (part 1)

Sappho: Fragment 104

Evening Star

Hesperos, you bring home all the bright dawn scattered,
bring home the sheep,
bring home the goat, bring the child home
to her mother.

from Sweetbitter Love: Poems of Sappho, translated by Willis Barnstone (2006)

Time for another Sapphopalooza! Last time I did this, the only reaction I got was that the number of translations was kind of overwhelming. So this time, there are three entries: the first today, so you can take in the basic poem on its own; the second tomorrow, with 25 different versions and variations, done between 1893 and 2009; the third on Wednesday, in which several poems from the English-language tradition reference this poem in different ways.

When a poem is built on repetition, even slight variations can have a powerful effect. This fragment of Sappho's work survives because it was quoted by an ancient rhetorician named Dimitrios as a charming example of anaphora ("the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of successive clauses or verses"). This translation preserves the cumulative power of the repeated words "bring home" (as you shall see tomorrow, not all of them do). Though the strictest, most literal translations do not include the word "home," it seems implicit in the poem's sense of a comforting return, as the day ends, to an intimate and familiar place of refuge.

There's a wonderful balance to these few words, in which Hesperos, the brilliant star of early evening, ends what the sun's bright dawn started: the business of the day in the world outside the home. It is time for wanderers to return home. For of course these lines were written when people mostly had to conduct their public business when the sun was out; night might be broken by bonfires and torches, but their light didn't carry far enough to make the outdoors a particularly safe place to be. And of course in these lines the sheep and the goats are not mere pastoral decoration, but a major source of food, clothing, and wealth; they were what you sacrificed to placate the gods, and what you protected from marauding predators, human and animal. There is a sense here of gathering in the gently, sweetly domesticated products of Nature to a place in which they are valued and safe, which deepens touchingly when the final item is brought home: the child to her mother. The very bareness of the words – "the child home to her mother" – allows us to supply whatever emotion (care, anxiety, gentle love, expectation patient or eager) we would most connect to in such a situation. This translator subtly emphasizes the importance of the child over the sheep and goats, and the importance of the concept of "home," by putting the direct object in this one case in between the words "bring home": it's bring home the sheep and bring home the goat but bring the child home. And only with the child is there a mention of who is waiting at home.

Part 2 may be found here and Part 3 here.

23 March 2014

Haiku 2014/82

calling some plants weeds
makes a garden a garden:
our elective loves

22 March 2014

Haiku 2014/81

you wake up tired
the world is a lumpy bed
tossing turning time

20 March 2014

Haiku 2014/79

accidental lawns
look so much happier than
smooth manicured greens

19 March 2014

Haiku 2014/78

strange noises outside
but I can't investigate
because I'm dreaming

18 March 2014

Haiku 2014/77

such a slender stalk,
but still it managed to hold
that little bird up

17 March 2014

Haiku 2012/76

subtle moon, to shine
afternoons, in the face of
the obvious sun

(Alternate version:

silly moon, to shine
afternoons, in the face of
the obvious sun

:any preferences?)

Poem of the Week 2014/12

The Lorica (Breastplate) of St Patrick

I bind unto myself today
The strong Name of the Trinity,
By invocation of the same
The Three in One and One in Three.

I bind this today to me forever
By power of faith, Christ's incarnation;
His baptism in Jordan river,
His death on Cross for my salvation;
His bursting from the spicèd tomb,
His riding up the heavenly way,
His coming at the day of doom
I bind unto myself today.

I bind unto myself the power
Of the great love of cherubim;
The sweet "Well done" in judgment hour,
The service of the seraphim,
Confessors' faith, Apostles' word,
The Patriarch's prayers, the prophets' scrolls,
All good deeds done unto the Lord
And purity of virgin souls.

I bind unto myself today
The virtues of the star-lit heaven,
The glorious sun's life-giving ray,
The whiteness of the moon at even,
The flashing of the lightning free,
The whirling wind's tempestuous shocks,
The stable earth, the deep salt sea
Around the old eternal rocks.

I bind unto myself today
The power of God to hold and lead,
His eye to watch, His might to stay,
His ear to hearken to my need.
The wisdom of my God to teach,
His hand to guide, His shield to ward;
The word of God to give me speech,
His heavenly host to be my guard.

Against the demon snares of sin,
The vice that gives temptation force,
The natural lusts that war within,
The hostile men that mar my course;
Or few or many, far or nigh,
In every place and in all hours,
Against their fierce hostility
I bind to me these holy powers.

Against all Satan's spells and wiles,
Against false words of heresy,
Against the knowledge that defiles,
Against the heart's idolatry,
Against the wizard's evil craft,
Against the death wound and the burning,
The choking wave, the poisoned shaft,
Protect me, Christ, till Thy returning.

Christ be with me, Christ within me,
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me.
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.

I bind unto myself the Name,
The strong Name of the Trinity,
By invocation of the same,
The Three in One and One in Three.
By Whom all nature hath creation,
Eternal Father, Spirit, Word:
Praise to the Lord of my salvation,
Salvation is of Christ the Lord.

traditionally attributed to St Patrick, translated by C F Alexander

Today is St Patrick's Day, so here is an old Irish prayer/chant/charm traditionally associated with him, though there seems to be a consensus that in its current form it actually dates from after his fifth century ministry to the Irish. It might have become associated with Patrick due to its emphasis on the mystery of the Trinity, which was a major component of his teaching (remember the shamrock. . . ), or perhaps it was merely the tendency, still observable on Facebook, of lending the moral and historical importance of well-known figures to any notable spiritual/uplifting quotations. Lorica comes from the Roman word for a cuirass (protective armor for the torso consisting of a breastplate joined to a backplate, made of leather or metal); hence a poetic lorica is a protective charm; as such, this type of poem goes back before Christianity to the druids, and there do seem to be elements in this particular example that go back to the primal impulses of unprotected humanity first confronting the forces of Nature – stanza 4 in particular ("I bind unto myself today / The virtues of the star-lit heaven, / The glorious sun's life-giving ray . . . ). As is often the case with ancient and originally oral poetry, there is a strong use of repetition, and little rhyme, allowing for flexibility and adaptation to individual circumstances and any lapses in perfect memory. This particular translation was done in 1889 by the wife of the Anglican primate for Ireland. Some of the phrasing echoes late-Victorian religious sentiment ("the sweet 'Well done' in judgment hour"), as well as that period's nationalistic urge to reclaim and renew a country's national past, buried with the long-silent bards and vanished seers, and surviving occasionally in musty disregarded manuscripts or unschooled peasants.

16 March 2014

Haiku 2014/75

when do children's cries
during joyful play become
public nuisances

15 March 2014

Haiku 2014/74

suburban backyards,
but the moonrise over them
is still so lovely

14 March 2014

13 March 2014

Haiku 2014/72

constant, changeable,
silver shaper of the sea:
moon as metaphor

12 March 2014

Haiku 2014/71

so blue is the sky
so blue is the restless sea
so blue is my heart

11 March 2014

Haiku 2014/70

deceptive daylight
just when I had heard your call
you had slipped away

10 March 2014

Haiku 2014/69

in a Chinese restaurant

neon OPEN sign
streaking the glass tabletops
with red reflections

Poem of the Week 2014/11


We were very tired, we were very merry –
We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry.
It was bare and bright, and smelled like a stable –
But we looked into a fire, we leaned across a table,
We lay on a hill-top underneath the moon;
And the whistles kept blowing, and the dawn came soon.

We were very tired, we were very merry –
We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry;
And you ate an apple, and I ate a pear,
From a dozen of each we had bought somewhere;
And the sky went wan, and the wind came cold;
And the sun rose dripping, a bucketful of gold.

We were very tired, we were very merry,
We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry.
We hailed, "Good morrow, mother!" to a shawl-covered head,
And bought a morning paper, which neither of us read;
And she wept, "God bless you!" for the apples and pears,
And we gave her all our money but our subway fares.

Edna St Vincent Millay

This poem is framed by its title, Recuerdo, a Spanish word that means not only a memory, a recollection, but also a memento, a keepsake, a memorial. What is the speaker recalling and commemorating: a giddy, by-gone night? the friend or lover she spent it with? her youth? Though she doesn't indicate her age by anything specific, this seems a poem about youth in the way that Puccini's La Bohème is: seen through the golden haze of memory, there's a rapturous, insouciant approach to the daily hassles and encroaching tragedies of life. These are people young and energetic enough to stay up all night, without much worry about getting to work the next morning, and optimistic enough not to worry too much about work and money, and to feel very merry while also very tired. (Things like this make me feel that I was not very good at being young; I never had the ability to stay up all night, I was always too anxiety-ridden about things like having subway fare. . . .)

The repetition of the first two lines in each stanza helps create the sense of memories being summoned; it interesting that the dash that ends the first line in the first two stanzas gives way, at the end of the first line of the third stanza, to a comma, as if the lines were being spoken with increased certainty, the break of the dash giving way to the light pause of the comma. (Similarly the dash at the end of the third line in the first stanza gives way to a comma in the third line of the second stanza, as the memories come with increased fluency; in a poem like this with a structure built on repetition and similarity, these small changes are telling.) The opening lines also create a mysterious ballad-like effect by raising questions that are not answered – they're tired because it's night and people get tired, but why are they merry? why are they riding back and forth aimlessly on the ferry, particularly if they're so tired; wouldn't sensible people go home and go to bed? – creating a sense of emotionally extravagant youth: they do these things because they are together, and because they can.

In each of the stanzas, the opening lines give way to the memory of tangential but vivid details of the sort that tend to linger in the memory for no discernible reason, except that they make the past come back to life (in the manner of Proust's madeleine dipped in lime-flower tea). And each stanza ends with the return of morning – night is a magical time of delightful silliness, in which even the stable smells and the whistle are part of the charm; morning seems to bring with it a grim reminder that the workaday world awaits. (Perhaps there is a reflection here of the poetic tradition of the aubade, the song of parting that lover sings to beloved when dawn arrives to part them.) The first stanza ends "the dawn came soon"; to me, the implication is "too soon," and farewell then to lying on a hillside beneath the moon. The second stanza ends with the image of the sun rising "dripping, a bucketful of gold," which is lovely and striking, but also carries a mercenary hint of what it takes to survive in the daytime world (by contrast, these night voyagers give away all their money except the bare minimum needed to get home). And when the sun rises the sky "went wan"; that is, it became sickly, pale, weary (not the usual associations with sunrise), and the wind blows cold. The third stanza ends with the sadly emblematic and isolated figure – aged, struggling to make ends meet – of an old woman selling newspapers in the cold dawn. She weeps with gratitude for the fruit and the spare change. The ferry riders buy a morning paper which "neither of [them] read": they'll discover the news of the morning, the struggles with money and age and loneliness, soon enough.

I took this from the Collected Poems of Edna St Vincent Millay.

09 March 2014

Haiku 2014/68

pointy leaves patterned
like red stars against blue skies
or the grey sidewalks

08 March 2014

Haiku 2014/67

pull weeds all you want
of weeding there is no end
they don't think they're weeds

06 March 2014

Haiku 2014/65

heavy on the hills
hangs a drape of grey-felt fog
soft undulations

05 March 2014

Haiku 2014/64

stolid grey buildings
suddenly become backdrops:
burst of bright green leaves

04 March 2014

Haiku 2014/63

day blushed for itself
under cover of darkness
the sun slipped away

03 March 2014

Haiku 2014/62

sitting in damp clothes
watching the rain fall outside
feeling it inside

Poem of the Week 2014/10

The Lord will happiness divine
     On contrite hearts bestow;
Then tell me, gracious God, is mine
     A contrite heart, or no?

I hear, but seem to hear in vain,
    Insensible as steel;
If aught is felt, 'tis only pain
     To find I cannot feel.

I sometimes think myself inclined
     To love Thee, if I could;
But often feel another mind,
     Averse to all that's good.

My best desires are faint and few,
     I fain would strive for more;
But when I cry, "My strength renew,"
     Seem weaker than before.

Thy saints are comforted, I know,
     And love Thy house of prayer;
I therefore go where others go,
     But find no comfort there.

Oh make this heart rejoice, or ache;
     Decide this doubt for me;
And if it be not broken, break,
     And heal it, if it be.

William Cowper

Here is a hymn for a dark night of the soul. Cowper pellucidly lays out a complicated, chaotic inner state: he longs for a steady, graceful (read that grace-full) life, but finds his inner emptiness varied only by shifting, frustrating outbursts of the contrary and the sterile. He takes the very Protestant view that grace is dependent entirely on the will of God (as opposed to achieving grace through good works), which means there really is no action he can take to escape this mental and emotional trap other than throwing himself on God's mercy (or, in phrasing we might recognize more easily today, submitting to a higher power). The poem ends at a dramatic peak; the point is not the actual resolution of this crisis, but the speaker's ultimate denial of self as the way to escape his inner waste land.

I took this from The New Oxford Book of Christian Verse, chosen and edited by Donald Davie.

02 March 2014

Haiku 2014/61

This cup once held tea.
Now it holds memory tea,
and potential tea.

01 March 2014

Haiku 2014/60

rain falls like lacquer
shining streets, gilding gutters,
making green leaves glow