Three Poems by James Wright

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These three poems were collected in “American Religious Poems”, a diverse anthology edited by Harold Bloom. Something “to disturb the comfortable and comfort the disturbed” I suppose. (An expression coined by Finley Peter Dunne.) Click here to read three amazing poems by James Arlington Wright.

Aboriginal Poetry on the Milky Way

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From “The Unwritten Song: Poetry of the Primitive and Traditional Peoples of the World, Volume 1”
Edited by Willard Trask, Translator unnamed

Aranda
Central Australia; Simpson Desert, Northern Territory

“Native-Cat Songs”

The great beam of the Milky Way
Sends out flashes of lightning incessantly.
The great beam of the Milky Way
Casts a flickering fire glow over the sky forever.
The great beam of the Milky Way
Gleams and shines forever.
The great beam of the Milky Way
Burns bright crimson forever.
The great beam of the Milky Way
Quivers with deep passion forever.
The great beam of the Milky Way
Trembles with unquenchable desire forever.
The great beam of the Milky Way
Draws all men to itself by their forelocks.
The great beam of the Milky Way
Unceasingly draws all men, wherever they may be.
The tnatantja pole rises into the air,-
The great beam of the Milky Way.
The kauaua pole rises into the air,-
The great beam of the Milky Way.
The great beam of the Milky Way
Strips itself bare like a plain.

“How the pole of the Milky Way is drawing me to itself-
How my own pole is drawing me to itself!”
“How the pole of the Milky Way is drawing me to itself-
From what a far country it is drawing me to itself!”
“Let the Milky Way be tied around with many bands;
Let the dweller in the earth-hollow be tied around with many   bands!”
The pole of the Milky Way has drawn me irresistibly-
The dweller in the earth-hollow has drawn me irresistibly.”

The great beam of the Milky Way,
The dweller in the earth-hollow, is trembling with desire forever.

The narrowing sea embraces it forever,-
Its swelling waves embrace it forever.
The sea, ever narrowing, forever embraces it,-
The great beam of the Milky Way.
Its embracing arms forever tremble about it,-
The great beam of the Milky Way.
Set in the bosom of the sea it stands,
Reverberating loudly without a pause.
Set in the bosom of the sea it stands,
Sea-flecked with drifts of foam.
In the bosom, in the sea it stands,
Casting a flickering fire glow over the sky forever.

Let them sit down around the pole of the Milky Way,
Let them sit down around the dweller in the earth-hollow.
Around the pole of the Milky Way let them sit down,
Around the dweller in the earth-hollow let them sit down.
In their camp-hollow let them present gifts to each other,-
Let them sort out their bullroarers.

The Wife’s Complaint

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I make a point of reading English or American poetry more than translation, more than anything to find how fluent my own native language can get. Nonetheless, there are a few books in translation which are among my favorites. These include the Bible above all else, and Kenneth Rexroth’s translations, and the volume this poem is drawn from, Michael Alexander’s Earliest English Poems.

Indeed Alexander’s translations here have a great eloquence, gravity through their form, and sadness in their seriousness.  He holds to a faithfulness of form. The diction is rooted in Old English Anglo-Saxon vocabulary. And in some poems, though not here, the Old English bardic metric formula is kept. That meter has four stresses per line. At least three of them are alliterative. There is also a heavy pause between the two halves of the line, during which some propose a drum or other instrument could have been struck. The impact of this meter could hardly be more heavy and emphatic on the key words, yet it retained vitality by the flexibility of the unstressed syllables, the alternation of alliterative sounds every line, and the unremitting vigor of the subject matter. Click on this link to open The Wife’s Complaint.

Wilfred Owen’s Spring Offensive

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Spring Offensive

Halted against the shade of a last hill,
They fed, and, lying easy, were at ease
And, finding comfortable chests and knees
Carelessly slept. But many there stood still
To face the stark, blank sky beyond the ridge,
Knowing their feet had come to the end of the world.

Marvelling they stood, and watched the long grass swirled
By the May breeze, murmurous with wasp and midge,
For though the summer oozed into their veins
Like the injected drug for their bones’ pains,
Sharp on their souls hung the imminent line of grass,
Fearfully flashed the sky’s mysterious glass.

Hour after hour they ponder the warm field —
And the far valley behind, where the buttercups
Had blessed with gold their slow boots coming up,
Where even the little brambles would not yield,
But clutched and clung to them like sorrowing hands;
They breathe like trees unstirred.

Till like a cold gust thrilled the little word
At which each body and its soul begird
And tighten them for battle.  No alarms
Of bugles, no high flags, no clamorous haste —
Only a lift and flare of eyes that faced
The sun, like a friend with whom their love is done.
O larger shone that smile against the sun, —
Mightier than his whose bounty these have spurned.

So, soon they topped the hill, and raced together
Over an open stretch of herb and heather
Exposed.  And instantly the whole sky burned
With fury against them; and soft sudden cups
Opened in thousands for their blood; and the green slopes
Chasmed and steepened sheer to infinite space.

Of them who running on that last high place
Leapt to swift unseen bullets, or went up
On the hot blast and fury of hell’s upsurge,
Or plunged and fell away past this world’s verge,
Some say God caught them even before they fell.

But what say such as from existence’ brink
Ventured but drave too swift to sink.
The few who rushed in the body to enter hell,
And there out-fiending all its fiends and flames
With superhuman inhumanities,
Long-famous glories, immemorial shames —
And crawling slowly back, have by degrees
Regained cool peaceful air in wonder —
Why speak they not of comrades that went under?

Sir Thomas Wyatt’s Psalm 38

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(I have for readability modernized Wyatt’s poem, primarily changing spelling and archaic diction.)

Sir Thomas Wyatt (1503?-1542) was a courtier in the time of Henry VIII. Some historians believe that Wyatt fell in love with the woman King Henry also desired to marry, and that this may have been one of the reasons for his two imprisonments. Wyatt’s life was spared, and he lived to be an ambassador to France, Spain, and Italy.

Wyatt imported many verse forms from continental Europe, helping establish the sonnet in England.  Though not published until 1557, fifteen years after his death, he was the most represented poet in Tottel’s Miscellany, with 96 poems. That volume was the first anthology of English poetry.

Wyatt made versions, perhaps too loose to be called translations, of the seven “Penitential Psalms”. They are Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, 143. All of Wyatt’s versions employ terza rima, which is an interlocking rhyme scheme aba bcb cdc etc. In this Psalm 38 the rhyme pattern may have been useful to express instability and the desire for constancy.

This link opens to the KJV translation of the same psalm, made a bit later, at the turn of the 17th century, [Psalm 38 in the King James Bible.] Wyatt’s is a good distance from the original text. His version is 50% longer than the more literal King James Version. But Hebrew is a very concise language, and Psalm 38 in the KJV is more than 300% longer, by word count, than the original.

Sir Thomas Wyatt’s Version of David’s Psalm 38

O Lord, as I have thee both prayed and pray,
Although in thee be no alteration,
But that we men, like as our selves we say
Measuring thy Justice, by our mutation,
Chastise me not (oh lord) in thy furor
Nor me correct, in wrathful castigation.
For that thy arrows, or fear, or Terror
Of sword, of sickness, of famine, of fire
Sticks deep in me, I (lo) from my error
Am plucked up, as horse out of the mire
With stroke of spur; such is thy hand on me
That in my flesh, for terror of thy ire
Is not one point of firm stability
Nor in my bones, there is no steadfastness:
Such is my dread of mutability
For that I know my fearful wickedness.
For why? my sins above my head are bound
Like heavy weights, that do my force oppress
Under the which I stoop, and bow to the ground
As willow plant, hailed by violence;
And of my flesh, each not well cured wound
That is festered by folly and negligence,
By secret lust, hath rankled under skin
Not duly cured, by my penitence.
Perceiving thus the tyranny of sin
That with weight, hath humbled and depressed
My pride by grudging of the worm within
That never dies, I live without rest
So are my entrails infected with fevered sores
Feeding my harm, that have my wellness oppressed
That in my flesh, is left no health therefore.
So wondrous great has been my vexation
That it forced my heart to cry and roar.
O lord you know the tears of my lamentation
Cannot express my heart’s inward restraints.
My heart pants, my force I feel it quail,
My sight, my eyes, my look decays and faints,
And when my enemies did me most assail
My friends most sure, wherein I set most trust—
My own virtues—soonest then did fail
And stood apart. Reason and wit unjust
As kin unkind, were farthest gone at need.
So had they place their venom out to thrust
That sought my death by naughty word and deed.
Their tongues reproach, their wit did fraud apply
And I like one deaf and dumb with no lead,
Going without heed abroad, nor has to reply
Not one word again. Knowing that from your hand
These things proceed, and thou lord shalt repay
My trust in that where I stick and stand,
Yet have I had, great cause to dread and fear
That you would give my foes the upper hand.
For in my fall they showed such pleasant cheer,
That therefore, I always in the lash
Abide the stroke, and with me everywhere
I bear my fault, that greatly does abash
My doleful cheer; for I my fault confess,
And my desert does all my comfort dash.
In the mean while my enemies still increase
And my provokers hereby do augment,
That without cause to hurt me do not cease.
In evil for good against me they be bent
And hinder shall, my good present of grace.
Lo now my God, that sees my whole entente,
My lord, I am thou knowest in what case.
Forsake me not, be not far from me gone
Haste to help, haste lord, and haste apace,
O lord, the lord, of all my health alone.

Marianne Moore’s Elephants

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Elephants
by Marianne Moore

Uplifted and waved till immobilized
wistaria-like, the opposing opposed
mouse-gray twined proboscises’ trunk formed by two
trunks, fights itself to a spiraled inter-nosed

deadlock of dyke-enforced massiveness. It’s a
knock-down drag-out fight that asks no quarter? Just
a pastime, as when the trunk rains on itself
the pool it siphoned up; or when–since each must

provide his forty-pound bough dinner–he broke
the leafy branches. These templars of Tooth,
these matched intensities, take master care of
master tools. One, sleeping with the calm of youth,

at full length in the half-dry sun-flecked stream-bed,
rests his hunting-horn-curled trunk on shallowed stone.
The sloping hollow of the sleeper’s body
cradles the gently breathing eminence’s prone

mahout, asleep like a lifeless six-foot
frog, so feather light the elephant’s stiff
ear’s unconscious of the crossed feet’s weight. And the
defenseless human thing sleeps as if

incised with hard wrinkles, embossed with wide ears,
invincibly tusked, made safe by magic hairs!
As if, as if, it is all ifs; we are at
much unease. But magic’s masterpiece is theirs–

Houdini’s serenity quelling his fears.
Elephant-ear-witnesses-to-be of hymns
and glorias, these ministrants all gray or
gray with white on legs or trunk, are a pilgrims’

pattern of revery not reverence–a
religious procession without any priests,
the centuries-old carefullest unrehearsed
play. Blessed by Buddha’s Tooth, the obedient beasts

themselves as toothed temples blessing the street, see
the white elephant carrying the cushion that
carries the casket that carries the Tooth.
Amenable to what, matched with him, are gnat

trustees, he does not step on them as the white-
canopied blue-cushioned Tooth is augustly
and slowly returned to the shrine. Though white is
the color of worship and of mourning, he

is not here to worship and he is too wise
to mourn–a life prisoner but reconciled.
With trunk tucked up compactly–the elephant’s
sign of defeat–he resisted, but is the child

of reason now. His straight trunk seems to say: when
what we hoped for came to nothing, we revived.
As loss could not ever alter Socrates’
tranquillity, equanimity’s contrived

by the elephant. With the Socrates of
animals as with Sophocles the Bee, on whose
tombstone a hive was incised, sweetness tinctures
his gravity. His held-up fore-leg for use

as a stair, to be climbed or descended with
the aid of his ear, expounds the brotherhood
of creatures to man the encroacher, by the
small word with the dot, meaning know–the verb bud.

These knowers “arouse the feeling that they are
allied to man” and can change roles with their trustees.
Hardship makes the soldier; then teachableness
makes him the philosopher–as Socrates,

prudently testing the suspicious thing, knew
the wisest is he who’s not sure that he knows.
Who rides on a tiger can never dismount;
asleep on an elephant, that is repose.

Linton Johnson’s If I Woz A Top Notch Poet

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This is performance poetry that lives or dies by the tongue. Johnson’s reflections are perfectly sharp and honed to be light and substantial at the same time.  His sound really is sublime, and he makes his Jamaican patois an asset, not only a statement, in several places. This poem shows his complex multi-dimensionality as a grown person; not just bragging or rotting in simple envy, but from humility striking out in a restive claim to greatness that he can deliver on.  But Johnson is a serious and honored poet.  See another one of his poems, a more serious one, here .  Experience more jaw dropping British performance poetry here.

Linton Johnson’s New Crass Massakah

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The following poem was written by Johnson as a memorial for a 1981 London house fire that took the lives of 13 young people at a party in New Cross, London. There was an outcry because of suspicions of race motivated arson, white indifference, and a police cover up.

New Crass Massakah
by Linton Kwesi Johnson

first di comin
an di goin
in an out af di pawty

di dubbin
an di rubbin
and di rackin to di riddim

di dancin
and di scankin
an di pawty really swingin

den di crash
an di bang
an di flames staat fit rang

di heat
an di smoke
an di people staat fi choke

di screamin
and di cryin
and di diein in di fyah…

The author here, Linton Kwesi Johnson, is a Jamaican born poet and Reggae/Dub musician. He moved to London around the age of 11 and developed a strong political consciousness as a black youth and immigrant from a former colony. In his verse he brings significant boldness to race issues. Even as a boy he joined the British Black Panthers, and organized a poetry workshop in its ranks. Over the decades he has attained success in England, Europe, and Jamaica, for his writing and recordings.

This poem is remarkable for its even-handedness, skillful change of tone, its gravity, musicality, the immediacy of description, and its tonal and syllabic control. It is like a dub track in reducing the entire experience to a few elements in the palette. Johnson brings effects to mind through smooth and artful cycles. He foregoes attempting to create a full symphony by an arrangement of small aural effects, but does create big effects inside the reader’s mind while remaining technically small. And that is a dub choice. After all, Mozart or Albert King could create a really big dramatic sound with a few notes, but dub riddims keep the modest sound and still make a big impact.

I wrote a poem recently inspired by a dub toast, which is a spoken rap over a dub beat. The speaker though is not a DJ, but a sound engineer, like King Tubby, (pictured above,) or Scientist. This poem I have written is nothing compared to Johnson’s serious work of actual craftsmanship, I include it though hoping it is not worse than nothing at all. Click on this link to read Spinning Chester.  Admittedly, the poem does not reflect Jamaican speech patterns, patois or standard, in the street or on the mic. The diction reflects my own sense of song lyric, my own writing style, but it is embroidered on the theme of the dub toast.
(Linton Johnson pictured below.)

Linton Johnson

Ignatow’s Sunday At The State Hospital

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Sunday at the State Hospital

I am sitting across the table
eating my visit sandwich.
The one I brought him stays suspended
near his mouth; his eyes focus
on the table and seem to think,
his shoulders hunched forward.
I chew methodically,
pretending to take him
as a matter of course.
The sandwich tastes mad
and I keep chewing.
My past is sitting in front of me –
filled with itself
and trying with almost no success
to bring the present to its mouth.

More Abstract Ignatow 2 - Dryden

Sappho’s Fragment 31

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Fragment 31
by Sappho
translated by Willis Barnstone

To me he seems like a god
as he sits facing you and
hears you near as you speak
softly and laugh

in a sweet echo that jolts
the heart in my ribs. For now
as I look at you my voice
is empty and

can say nothing as my tongue
cracks and slender fire is quick
under my skin. My eyes are dead
to light, my ears

pound, and sweat pours over me.
I convulse, greener than grass,
and feel my mind slip as I
go close to death,

yet, being poor, must suffer
everything.

The ancient literary critic Longinus is the only reason we have this fragment, one of Sappho’s longest surviving works. (Though she was a fairly prolific and well collected writer in ancient times.) Longinus quoted this fragment to show the ecstasy of its lyric, attaining a sublime pitch through reproducing the almost diagnostic details that accompanied her experienced emotion.  The following is from Longinus’ work, “On The Sublime”.

“Are you not amazed at how she evokes soul, body, hearing, tongue, sight, skin, as though they were external and belonged to someone else? And how at one and the same moment she both freezes and burns, is irrational and sane, is terrified and nearly dead, so that we observe in her not a single emotion but a whole concourse of emotions? Such things do, of course, commonly happen to people in love. Sappho’s supreme excellence lies in the skill with which she selects the most striking and vehement circumstances of the passions and forges them into a coherent whole.” (Longinus, On the Sublime).

In a book review by Edith Hall in the NY Review of Books, she says, “public access to Sappho’s poem was widened by Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux’s French translation of Longinus (1674). Running through more than twenty editions by 1740, and published in English translation in 1711, Boileau’s Longinus put sublimity at the center of literary debate and laid the foundation-stone of the invention of aesthetics as a discrete philosophical field by Burke and Kant.”

One could then make a case that the lyric ecstasy of Sappho, presented historically by Longinus and Boileau, managed to exert a strong influence on the emotional shape of the Enlightenment and Romantic literary and philosophical periods, as well as the Victorian era and it has not died out yet I am sure. This influence is summed by the word, sublime, but takes strange shapes, from grand and terrifying landscapes, to Yeats’ tragic joy.