Great Poets Issue
I think great poetry is usually simple and sincere. It comes from the heart and it touches our heart because it is honest and true. Even great epic poetry or the great poetic Shakespearian tragedies endure in our conscious appreciation because they show us what life is. If great poetry often describes great people and great events, it also always allows us to step into those roles, to feel what they feel.
One famous commentator said that he feels that it is because of Shakespeare’s compassion that he is still remembered and loved. I think he is right because when I read Shakespeare’s vast work, I see how deeply he inhabited all of his characters. Their joys and, often, untold sorrows became his own.
Sri Chinmoy has written nearly one hundred thousand poems, an amazingly prolific output no matter which standard we might choose to apply. I like his poetry for its tremendous variety and scope. At the start of his literary journey, now more than half a century ago, he chose a lyrical, imagistic style to convey his ideals and experiences. More recently, he has adopted a more aphoristic expression. These newer poems are usually concise but compact, and they speak with an understated power.
I like what Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in his essay entitled ‘Nature’ (1836), “To speak truly, few adult persons can see nature. Most persons do not see the sun. At least they have a very superficial seeing. The sun illuminates only the eye of the man, but shines into the eye and the heart of the child. The lover of nature is he whose inward and outward senses are still truly adjusted to each other; who has retained the spirit of infancy even into the era of manhood.”
Emerson is stating here that when children see the sun or beauty in the natural world, that that beauty actually becomes a part of them; they assimilate it in the depths of their being. Good poetry is practical. It becomes a part of us and it teaches us how to live.
Maybe that’s why the holy scriptures of so many different traditions are often great poetry. I’d be hard pressed to find a greater epic poem than the Bhagavad Gita, or more heart-wrenching lyrics on love and loss than the Song of Songs. The many narrators of the Gospels assume a simple, reportorial style that is moving for its frankness and humility.
Sri Chinmoy wrote in 1962 that “In the bright days that are dawning upon the earth well may we look for the leaven of transcendental poetry to uplift the whole human mass.”
The idea of referring to poetry as “leaven” is very interesting. Leaven is something that will help us to rise and to grow into our truest, fullest selves. I suppose that this is the loftiest aspiration of poetry.
For people interested in Sri Chinmoy’s poetic work, I would eagerly refer them to his wonderful Seventy-Seven Thousand Service-Trees Series, which is at this writing more than halfway completed.
This series belongs to his recent, pithy style of simple and often instructional verse. They are far from didactic, however, as they express universal truth with deep feeling and imagination. Some of the poems hit home without the use of imagery:
Is wearing thin.
This is, indeed,
A great tragedy.
(Seventy-Seven Thousand Service-Trees #20385)
In other poems, he incorporates vivid imagery:
There is no bird above me.
There is only one blue-gold bird
Inside my heart,
And its name is my soul.
(Seventy-Seven Thousand Service-Trees #9764)
And, in some of these poems, the imagery is implied:
The wisdom of all the sages:
Never see darkness
In any human being.
(Seventy-Seven Thousand Service-Trees # 32,679)
God’s first Smile was born
The day humanity awoke
To His Light.
(Seventy-Seven Thousand Service-Trees #1421)
Our comedies reach God’s Mind-Door.
Our tragedies reach God’s Heart-Room.
(Seventy-Seven Thousand Service-Trees #23138 and #23139)
In Macbeth’s eulogy to his wife, Shakespeare also expresses intense, visceral feeling almost without any images at all:
She should have died hereafter.
There would have been a time for such a word.
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time...
In an article I wrote for the Sri Chinmoy Inspiration Group, I discussed the mantric power and grace of Sri Chinmoy’s poetic work in some detail.
While in prose, it’s the content that matters, in poetry, it is the graceful struggle between form and function which gives it its unique thrill and interest.
I like what Rabindranath Tagore said on poetry: “I wonder why the writing of pages of prose does not give anything like the joy of completing a single poem. One's emotions take such perfection of form in a poem, they can be taken up by the fingers, so to speak. While prose is like a sackful of loose material, incapable of being lifted as you please.”
I wish the reader good luck in finding good poetry, whether it be in the form of a poem, or a noble sacrifice, or an amazing insight into what life really means.
I cannot resist the temptation to close with Walt Whitman’s conclusion to his masterpiece, Leaves of Grass:
I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your bootsoles.
You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
And filter and fibre your blood.
Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you.
Title photograph: Other Lives by Pavitrata Taylor
Rhode Island, USA
Emily Dickinson referred to herself as a pagan. Some biographers would go so far as to label her a druid for her worship of nature. But was this apparently stubborn heathen life really built on atheism?
On the surface what seems a blatant rebellion against the Christian reforms sweeping New England in the 19th Century could be misinterpreted as a lack of spiritual inclination. If we look beneath even a single veneer we will undoubtedly find true spirituality at the heart of her endeavour; far from snubbing God, but simply insisting on no less than a first-hand experience of Him.
The poet shunned religious doctrine, but did she shun religion? Certainly not as a whole, and even then it may be merely a matter of syntax. The words 'religion' and 'spirituality' may at times be used interchangeably, and at others a fine distinction must be made. Charles Anderson chooses to make no distinction, using the word 'religion' in its broadest, and perhaps most primal sense:
"The final direction of her poetry, and the pressures that created it, can only be described as religious, using that word in its 'dimension of depth.'"
Emily inherited the Puritan traits of austerity, simplicity, and practicality, as well as an astute observation of the inner self, but her communication with her higher Self was much more informal than her God-fearing forefathers would have dared. The daughter of the 'Squire' of Amherst, she came from a line of gritty, stalwart pioneers, carrying what was almost considered the blue blood of America. Her family was far from poor, but she did not lead a lavish life, for the Puritans abhorred luxury and waste (even a waste of words, which trait the poet may have done well to inherit).
She accepted the Puritan ideals of being 'called' or 'chosen' by God, and fully embraced the merits of transcending desire, but not the concept of being inherently sinful:
"While the Clergyman tells Father and Vinnie that 'this Corruptible shall put on Incorruption' it has already done so and they go defrauded."
She had faith in her own divinity, so perhaps she was yet more certain of God than her peers. She did not claim to fully understand Him, or even to have perennial faith in all His Ways—her poetry bears a continuing strain of doubt—but she certainly did not fear Him. The inner freedom this afforded her—rare for a woman of her time—brought her to the point of being almost cheeky in her familiarity and certainty. This confidence fed her poetry sumptuously, and gave it the well-known child-like quality. To her, truth was in nature. In that beauty she could see and feel God directly:
"Some keep the Sabbath going to Church —
I keep it, staying at Home —
With a Bobolink for a Chorister —
And an Orchard, for a Dome —
Some keep the Sabbath in Surplice —
I just wear my Wings —
And instead of tolling the Bell, for Church,
Our little Sexton — sings.
God preaches, a noted Clergyman —
And the sermon is never long,
So instead of getting to Heaven, at last —
I'm going, all along."
Emily did actually attend church regularly, sometimes traveling to hear some of the rousing and charismatic preachers who stamped their mark on that era. She was often moved by these sermons, perhaps as compelled by the speaker's delivery and the construction of words as the message within them. But this was not enough to entice her to succumb to the fierce religious revival. One by one her friends received an inner calling and were 'saved,' officially accepting Christianity. Members of her close-knit family eventually followed suit, including her strong-willed father, and finally her brother, Austin, perhaps her closest ally. Emily would not commit to something she could not sincerely feel, even under the unthinkable social pressure that surrounded her.
Until the age of 30 she continued going to church, although she was excluded from certain meetings and services open only to those who had been 'saved'. She became increasingly reclusive throughout her 30s. It is tempting to see her seclusion as further evidence of spiritual asceticism. Her spiritual path was certainly intensely lonely in such a social climate, but she craved aloneness more and more, and seclusion somehow formed a symbiotic relationship with her art. Increasingly her art became an expression of her spirituality.
Immortality ("the Flood Subject" as she called it) consumed Emily's consciousness. Dwelling on death was natural in those times as illness and general hardship frequently took lives around her, her awareness heightened further by the many years spent in a house adjoining a cemetery. But dwelling on death was also almost a spiritual practice, a 'graveyard meditation,' a means of focus, breathing life into the concepts of Eternity, Infinity and Immortality.
Poet and philosopher Sri Chinmoy said of the poet:
“Emily Dickinson wrote thousands of psychic poems. One short poem of hers is enough to give sweet feelings and bring to the fore divine qualities of the soul.”
“With a deep sense of gratitude, let me call upon the immortal soul of Emily Dickinson, whose spiritual inspiration impels a seeker to know what God the Infinite precisely is. She says:
“The infinite a sudden guest
Has been assumed to be,
But how can that stupendous come
Which never went away?’”
What drove her consistently was that she needed truth, and at any cost. She needed to see it with her own eyes and feel it with her own heart, not grasp at it in the words of a clergyman but explain it to herself through her own words. It seems she was even ready to die for her cause:
"I died for beauty, but was scarce
Adjusted in the tomb,
When one who died for truth was lain
In an adjoining room.
He questioned softly why I failed?
“For beauty,” I replied.
“And I for truth, -the two are one;
We brethren are,” he said.
And so, as kinsmen met a night,
We talked between the rooms,
Until the moss had reached our lips,
And covered up our names.”
Emily's truth-seeking was a spiritual quest that governed her inner life, and naturally blossomed through her poetic works. Her own words, in a letter to a friend, succinctly claim Eternity and Immortality as her own. Perhaps they also presage the enduring spiritual appeal of her writing, far beyond the short span of her life:
“So I conclude that space & time are things of the body & have little or nothing to do with our selves. My Country is Truth.”
At the end of the last century, BBC Radio conducted a survey to choose the greatest songs of the past 100 years. When the votes were counted, the number one song was “Yesterday”, credited to the great songwriting team of John Lennon and Sir Paul McCartney (though as most fans of the duo would know, that particular song was all McCartney’s work). Music critics often talk about a “perfect” pop song. So what made this one more perfect that anything else?
Surely it was the melody. In a story he used to enjoy repeating, McCartney heard it in a dream, and awoke with some deeply inane lyrics: “Scrambled eggs” was his original title. He changed the lyrics not due to profound inspiration, but because they matched the tune.
The three-minute popular song, the one that echoes in your head, has long been a standard. With the songs that have lasted the decades, the melodies can be sublime, or at least wonderfully catchy. The lyrics, however, are usually less than profound, inserted so that we have something to sing rather than simply hum. In a love song, we can somehow predict that anyone who is waiting (or indeed, waitin’) will also be anticipating (or anticipatin’), simply because it rhymes. Common, two-syllable words will miraculously gain extra syllables, in order to match a tune, when phrases like “doo-be-doo” and “sha-la-la-la-la” simply won’t do. Most of it isn’t really poetry – or at least, the “poetry” is no weightier than the nonsensical limericks of Edward Lear.
But there are exceptions. Just as some great pop songs have been written by great composers, they have also been the work of great lyricists. It seems terribly unfair to discover that, in some cases, a songwriter has been miraculously blessed with both capacities. Yet some of the great pop songs have demonstrated such genius.
Like Keats and Shelley (or Mozart and Chopin), many of the great songwriters peaked while they were young. The melody of “Yesterday” might have single-handedly elevated it to greatness, but McCartney demonstrated a penchant with both music and poetry when he wrote “Hey Jude” four years later. At the time, he was 25. There was nothing complex about this song. Both music and lyrics were disarmingly simple. Advice for a friend, an offer of consolation.
“Hey Jude, don’t make it bad.But how could poetry appear in a pop song? Aren’t such songs constrained by a melodic structure? Moreover, aren’t they simplistic by their very nature? Shouldn’t great poetry be complex, in order to be deep?
Take a sad song, and make it better.”
Some would say so. Some would say that pop songs “cheat”, using music to add strengthen to their poetry. But at times, it is the very simplicity of pop music, in all its notoriety, that makes a song so powerful.
Paul Simon was 26 when he wrote “Bridge Over Troubled Water”. Another ode to friendship. Another song whose lyrics and melody merge perfectly.
“When you’re weary, feeling small,Once again, simpler than the simplest – and when combined with Simon’s melody, powerful enough to leave a strong person shaking like a leaf. The lyrics make a beautiful tune even more moving than it would otherwise be. The music takes the lyrics and turns them into poetry. Music lovers have long thumbed their noses at the shameless simplicity of pop music, preferring to analyse their Rachmaninov or their Wagner. In some cases, however, simplicity makes a song profound.
When tears are in your eyes, I will dry them all.
I’m on your side, when times get rough.”
Pop songs were not always so simple. The first popular song, using the imperfect logic that “popular” means sales of over a million copies, was “After the Ball”, written by a songwriter-for-hire named Charles K. Harris. In 1892, it sold five million copies of sheet music. (Recording technology wasn’t quite advanced enough at the time.) Though Harris could neither read nor write music, he worked out the rather sophisticated tune on his banjo. It was a love song, but with considerably more detail (in both words and music) than “Yesterday” or “Hey Jude”, or indeed, most popular love songs you can name from the past seventy years. It told a story: Boy meets girl, boy sees girl kissing another man, boy feels cheated and leaves, girl dies of a broken heart because she loved boy deeply the other man was only her brother. (Yes, the story even had a twist worthy of Saki or O Henry.) Songs at the time were far more complex creations, in which each verse advanced a tale of misery or joy.
Harris survived on the royalties of “After the Ball”, so he never needed to write another song. (In the days of sheet music, he was perhaps a precursor to the “one-hit wonders” of later decades.) Yet “After the Ball” survives. Chances are you can hum it, or at least recognise the melody. The same probably can’t be said of other popular songs from the 1890s. They might have caught the mood of the time, and had beautiful tunes, but did they have the perfect blend of music and lyrics that Harris’s composition can boast?
“Many a heart is aching, if you could read them all. Many the hopes that have vanished, after the ball.”Of course, it will never be known whether Harris had the capacity to write more than one great song. But the greatest songwriters, masterful as both poets and composers, are still an exclusive group. Irving Berlin was a superb tunesmith, and could certainly think up catchy lyrics to go with his melodies, but he wasn’t exactly a poet (even if “no business” and “show business” make such a contagious rhyme). Bob Dylan wrote scores of powerful lyrics, but less powerful tunes. Some of the most celebrated composers in the songwriting world – George Gershwin, Richard Rodgers, Elton John – usually had others to write their lyrics.
Yet the idea that popular music is too simplistic for poetry is, well, overly simplistic. It is in simplicity that some of the world’s great poetry has been revealed. Moments of poetic brilliance can be heard almost everywhere — and occasionally, they have even been heard in the Top 40.
Once, long ago, I could be found every Monday night in the lounge bar of the Albion Tavern on Wellesley Street across from St Matthews-in-the-City. It was ‘Poetry Live’ night. It must be admitted that the poetry interested me a lot less than the beer did. Admittedly, after a couple of pints of Lion Red the poetry did seem to get quite interesting too. (Of course, after accepting the spiritual life seriously, I completely gave up alcohol). My friend Nick was a poet and would read his work there.
Were any of the men and women at the microphone on those nights, sending their verses out across the smoky, alcoholic air, ‘great poets’? Some of them were ‘famous poets’ but who could judge if they were great? Probably only another great poet could tell – certainly I couldn’t; I could only tell that the beer was good.
I had come across a few poets who I thought might be pretty great.
The fact that Gerard Manley Hopkins was a Catholic priest gave him a certain appeal for me, but it was the sheer voluptuousness of his language that hooked me when we studied his verse in my last year at school.
...Down roughcast, down dazzling whitewash, wherever an elm arches,Later I stumbled across John Betjeman. Whether the fact that he was the Poet Laureate—charged to write on demand for the Queen—meant he was really a great poet or meant that he was really not a great poet, I couldn’t judge, but to me he was great for he could make one nostalgic for days which one had never lived; wistful for a lost era which one had never experienced. I never had a nanny; I never grew up in that England of public schools and misty cycle rides on the heath, but having read his poem of that name, how could I not fall in love with ‘Myfanwy’—with the wide-eyed, adoring love of a child?
Shivelights and shadowtackle in long lashes lace, lance, and pair.
Delightfully the bright wind boisterous ropes, wrestles, beats earth bare
Of yestertempest’s creases; in pool and rut peel parches
Squandering ooze to squeezed dough, crust, dust; stanches, starches
Squadroned masks and manmarks treadmire toil there
Footfretted in it. Million-fueled, nature’s bonfire burns on.
But quench her bonniest, dearest to her, her clearest-selved spark
Man, how fast his firedint, his mark on mind, is gone!...
Then what sardines in half-lighted passages!
Locking of fingers in long hide-and-seek.
You will protect me, my silken Myfanwy,
Ring leader, tom-boy, and chum to the weak.
At University I studied Classics. I read and studied the work of many Greek and Roman authors long judged to be great, but the one who struck me most was Virgil—Publius Virgilius Maro. Of the epic writers, it was cool to prefer Homer, but I recall sitting in the kitchen of my flat in Christchurch when my flatmates were—thankfully—out, the tears streaming down my face as I read Book II of Virgil’s Aeneid—his account of the fall of Troy.
The poem had been written 2,000 years before I read it; had been written in a world completely alien to my experience and about events ancient and lost even then; had been written at the command of a dictatorial ruler (Augustus) as a straight piece of propaganda to bolster the legitimacy of his government, and yet... and yet it hit me with a visceral impact. It spoke across ages to the universal human experience. Sir Laurens van der Post once asserted that all humans are psychologically either Greeks or Trojans. I had no doubt which I was as I hunched weeping over the pages of Virgil, reading of the destruction of my home town.
It certainly seemed that a trend was emerging in poets I considered great. It helped to be dead!—and perhaps—judging from Virgil—the longer the better.
The poets at the Albion Tavern on a Monday night seemed to be perhaps a little too alive to be great.
When I spoke at the funeral of my friend Nick I said:
‘...But Nick always seemed to me a quester after truth. He would never confess to have found any or even claim to know quite what it was but, like a figure in a fairy tale, he followed the tracks of that truth. He pursued it, and those glimpses of it through the trees - glimpses that we read about in his poems—those glimpses inspired him to keep pursuing it. He pursued it with a sincerity and a seriousness that may have masqueraded as frivolity but was real...’Perhaps now, nine years in his grave, he too begins to inch towards greatness.
Once he wrote:
I walk not alone,
But hand in hand
With the child
That I also am,
Auckland, New Zealand
“I'm suggesting poetry or Great Poets as the theme for this upcoming issue of Inspiration-Letters.”
“Hah!” the involuntary sound originated deep in my belly. This month’s topic is out of my league. The exclamation was exasperation. I like poetry but do not go out of my way to pick up a book unless it is one written by Sri Chinmoy or Panorama, a semi-annual book written by my fellow students of Sri Chinmoy. I have, ahem, contributed.
With the wave of a hand, I put the idea of an article out of my mind. Then, I remembered Hafiz.
I came home one day to find a surprise in my mailbox. A friend from the past sent me a copy of I heard God Laughing: Renderings of Hafiz by Daniel Ladinsky. Who is this Hafiz? I dismissed the gift and sung-sighed, “A poetry book, great.”
Some days, maybe even weeks later, on a deeply troubled night, I randomly picked it up from the pile of unread books on the floor beside my bed. I looked at the face of the man in the illustration. I first saw Hafiz as being bent over, but when I really looked that was not so. Bent over is not befitting Hafiz. Instead, he was serenely sitting next to a stream holding a staff and petting, of all things, a deer. Dressed in a long cloak and a hat embraced by a scarf, this old man with a well kept fuzzy beard had the audacity to be the personification of calm, have love in his eyes and a goofy, knowing grin. Why was this Hafiz smiling at me like that when I was feeling blue? Curiously, why was I feeling his love? “This is an illustration,” I told myself, “Get a grip.”
The very first words of Hafiz I ever read were:
“I wish I could show you,Stop, take a breath, absorb. I was stunned.
When you are lonely or in darkness,
The Astonishing Light
Of your own Being!”
Except for the poem, “The Absolute”, by Sri Chinmoy, few other poems I had read affected me to my core like these did. It could have been my vulnerable state at the time, but no. When I just typed them, I got the same feeling, deeply personal, deeply loved, as if Hafiz had written them solely for me to make it crystal clear my soul is astonishingly beautiful. Your soul is astonishingly beautiful. Could there be any greater wish as we struggle through the challenges of life today?
These few lines made me take stock and contemplate my soul from the standpoint of the beauty of the universal light and that it is my soul’s light that is the link to God, my true self. It gave me instant peace and joy to momentarily realize who each of us is: a spark of God.
Daniel Ladinsky, the interpreter of this volume of Hafiz’ ghazals says that each one is a short love song about the length of a sonnet. His interpretations of the literal translations of H. Wilberforce Clarke in 1891 are called “renderings”. Because of the difficulties in translating from Hafiz’ native Persian, Ladinsky endeavors to “reflect the sweetness and profundity” keeping the spirit rather than the form of Hafiz’ words. To this I say, “Bravo, well done. Mr. Ladinsky”. For one who can write with so much sincerity that the reader feels the heart of the words again and again hundreds of years after they were put to paper is the sign of greatness.
Hafiz lived c. 1320-1389 and continues to be a beloved poet in the Persian world. He was a wanderer and sung or recited his poetry spontaneously while others wrote it down. His insights appreciate the struggle of our never ending need to grow and transform from human love to divine love. His words convey the deep, universal love of what Hafiz calls the Divine Beloved who supports each and every human being whether we believe it or not. His writing has a light, playful tone which makes his profound poetry fun, clear and easy to read.
The following is the rest of the poem that the above verse belongs to and a few more selections from I Heard God Laughing.
MY BRILLIANT IMAGE
One day the sun admitted,
I am just a shadow.
I wish I could show you
The Infinite Incandescence (Tej)
That has cast my brilliant image!
I wish I could show you,
When you are lonely or in darkness,
The Astonishing Light
Of your own Being!
PULLING OUT THE CHAIR
Pulling out the chair
Beneath your mind
And watching you fall upon God—
What else is there
For Hafiz to do
That is any fun in this world!
YOU DON'T HAVE TO ACT CRAZY ANYMORE
You don’t have to act crazy anymore—
We all know you were good at that.
Now retire, my dear,
From all that hard work you do
Of bringing pain to your sweet eyes and heart.
Look in a clear mountain mirror—
See the Beautiful Ancient Warrior
And the Divine elements
You always carry inside
That infused this Universe with sacred Life
So long ago
And join you Eternally
With all existence—with God!
The name of Sri Aurobindo will reverberate in the hearts of truth-seekers and poetry-lovers alike. As a spiritual Master and possessor of the highest states of consciousness he fed the spiritual hunger and quenched the spiritual thirst of countless aspirants who yearned for the fruits of the spirit. His silent, yogic gaze, wreathed in compassion, directed many a wandering soul to the Heart-Home of God. As a poet he conveyed the message and essence of the highest Reality through divinely inspired and soul-stirring words, illumining the searching mind and thrilling the aspiring heart.
Sri Aurobindo was a seer-poet par excellence. A seer-poet is he who not only sees and feels a higher and divine truth, but also is endowed with the capacity to make others see and feel that truth, by virtue of his inspired poetic voice. Sri Aurobindo is one of those rare, mystic poets whose words bring down a higher reality and by dint of their intrinsic mantric quality make that reality tangible and palpable. The words themselves build a world of spiritual perfection and awaken an inner urge in the aspiring reader to attain that heavenly kingdom, which resides deep within his own heart.
The voice of Sri Aurobindo’s poetry is powerful; the body of his poetry is subtle. His poetry is indeed steeped in satyagraha or soul-force, making it a splendid vehicle for spiritual upliftment and fulfilment. Each line rings with a melodious beauty; every stanza resounds with a powerful truth. When reading Sri Aurobindo, one sometimes feels a majestic greatness stir deep within:
“Rose of God, like a blush of rapture on Eternity’s face,
Rose of Love, ruby depth of all being, fire-passion of Grace!” 
Sometimes a deep, soulful and peerless beauty, as in these lines:
“Who was it that came to me in a boat made of dream-fire,
With his flame brow and his sun-gold body?” 
And always an all-encompassing and all-knowing wisdom, born of inner mystical experience:
“This world behind is made of truer stuff
Than the manufactured tissue of earth’s grace.” 
Throughout his life Sri Aurobindo strove for a poetry which was loyal to the inherent and natural laws of metre, rhythm and rhyme, yet was not bound by them in any immutable or rigid way. Sri Aurobindo studied metre extensively and composed many poems that followed new and previously unexplored schemes of metre in the English language. He devised his own set of laws for the proper use and purpose of metre. In his sublime essay “On Quantitative Metre” he exposes his theories, arguing that metre and poetic rhythm are not things to be caught in fixed, hard-and-fast rules of quantity, but should rather be subtle, flexible and willing to bend to the suggestions of the inner ear. He felt strongly that metre should serve the poetic inspiration by heightening and sublimating it, not vice versa by dictating and governing the poetic speech. As he himself so eloquently puts,
“The poet least of all artists needs to create with his eye fixed anxiously on the technique of his art. He has to possess it, no doubt; but in the heat of creation the intellectual sense of it becomes a subordinate action or even a mere undertone in his mind, and in his best moments he is permitted, in a way, to forget it altogether.” 
In his highly informative and thought-provoking book “The Future Poetry”, Sri Aurobindo gives his own enlightened ideas not only on the technique of poetry, but also on the very nature, essence and ultimate goal of poetry. The role of the poet then, according to him, is to serve as an instrument or a channel of the divine Ananda, the delight of the soul. The seer-poet is he who most succesfully brings down this delight from its higher regions into the essence and substance of his poetry. In Sri Aurobindo’s own words,
“A divine Ananda […] is that which the soul of the poet feels and which, when he can conquer the human difficulties of his task, he succeeds in pouring also into all those who are prepared to receive it.” 
One must read Sri Aurobindo’s poetry and read it again and again to fully grasp its richness, vastness and inner profundity. For the secret wealth of the soul is hidden within its lines. To read his poetry then becomes a spiritual exercise, nay, a spiritual experience, more than anything else.
The Hague, The Netherlands
 Excerpt taken from “Rose of God” by Sri Aurobindo
 Excerpt taken from “The Dream Boat” by Sri Aurobindo
 Excerpt taken from “The Inner Fields” by Sri Aurobindo
 Excerpt from “The Future Poetry” (pg. 12) by Sri Aurobindo
 Excerpt from “The Future Poetry” (pg. 11) by Sri Aurobindo
The best selling poet of America in 2006 was not Whitman, Dickinson, Frost or Emerson but a Sufi mystic; Jaluddin Rumi, who was born in Afghanistan, on the borders of the Persian Empire (Iran). Rumi is one of the best known Sufi poets but digging deep into the realms of Persian literature we find a wealth of Sufi poetry which even today retains a universal and timeless appeal.
Sufism is the mystical branch of Islam. It has its roots in the Qu’ran and the Islamic tradition, but at the same times encompasses the universal mysticism that we see in other spiritual traditions. The essence of Sufism is the simple path of loving God. The Sufi Masters sing of the all-pervading love which inundates their being when they become one with their “beloved”. If there is just one goal of Sufism, it is to overcome the attachment to the binding ego and attain liberation through realising one’s identity with God. And thus the Sufi poets speak of dying to be born again, a concept similar to other mystical traditions.
Often the great Sufi poets lived during times of religious fundamentalism. The authorities censored them, because they openly taught that man could have a direct contact with God. As a result poets such as Hafiz developed an increasing array of metaphors and synonyms to describe God. Frequently we come across references such as Friend, Beloved, Father, Mother, the Wine seller, the Problem giver, and the Problem solver. This ambiguity in describing God served a dual purpose. Firstly it made it difficult for his poetry to be censored for its unorthodox mystical ideas. It also illustrates the inherent difficulty a poet has in describing the nature of God. The infinite is beyond all name and form, how can the poet describe that which is beyond words?
In love, nothing exists between heart and heart.However, despite the difficulties of describing their experiences, the words of the Sufi Seers still tease, cajole and inspire us to look beyond the page and into our own hearts. For those who love words, it is necessary to have poetry, which can take us beyond the domain of the intellect. Hafiz beautifully describes the purpose of a poet.
Speech is born out of longing,
True description from the real taste.
The one who tastes, knows;
the one who explains, lies.
How can you describe the true form of Something
In whose presence you are blotted out?
And in whose being you still exist?
And who lives as a sign for your journey?
—Rabia al Basri (1)
“A poet is someone who can pour light into a cup, then raise it to nourish your beautiful parched, holy heart.” (2)Frequently the Sufi poets use worldly imagery to describe their mystical experiences. Hafiz talks of visiting the wine seller to become inebriated with the overflowing cup of wine.
“Look! There is wine in the glass eye of the Winebringer
That intoxicates reason and leaves you with a hangover of happiness!” ( 3)
Here the wine refers to the nectar of divine ecstasy. The wine seller is the Giver of Divine Grace. Madness is merely a reference to the inner ecstasy of communion with God. It is delightful paradox that the Sufis use worldly imagery to describe that, which is beyond the world.
The Sufi masters believed that outer religious forms were useless, unless they inspired the inner devotion. Poetry was their tool to poke fun at the pompous and arrogant. They took great delight in exposing hypocrisy, pride and vanity.
“O hypocrite, you are so perfect, why do you criticize the lover of wine? Don’t worry, the sins of others won’t count against you in the Good deed book of God.” (4)
Their poetry is also a reflection of their unconventional, direct approach to God. The poems of many Sufis follow no obvious course. They have not been planned by a thinking mind; they flit effortlessly from one subject to another. We not do feel we are reading about a personality of say Hafiz or Rumi. We feel we are reading only about an inebriate devotee of God. The opinions of the world leave no effect on the poet who has transcended the norms and conventions of society. The poetry is a living expression of the timeless nature of the mystic. It comes from the source of all inspiration and requires no explanation to expand upon it.
“A mystic knows without knowledge, without intuition or information, without contemplation or description or revelation. Mystics are not themselves.” (5)An overriding theme of Sufi poetry is the expression of the relationship between lover and beloved. It is strongly reminiscent of the devotional bhakti tradition of Hinduism. At times they express the pain and agony of separation, at other times we get a tantalising insight into the unimaginable bliss of divine communion.
“I have found nothing in all the world that could match his love”The Sufi poets combined a rare combination of lyrical eloquence with a profound mystical revelation. There words are timeless, appealing to the hearts of those aspiring for truth and beauty.
—Rabia al Basri. (6)
“All year round the lover is mad,
unkempt, lovesick and in disgrace.
Without love there is nothing but grief.
In love.. what else matters?
To be or not to be
Is not my dilemma.
To break away from both worlds is not bravery.
To be unaware of the wonders
That exist in me,
Is real madness! (8)
(1) Rabia al Basri – “Reality”
(2) Hafiz The Subject Tonight is Love—Daniel Ladinsky
(3) In Wineseller’s Street by Thomas Crowe p.57
(4) In Wineseller’s Street by Thomas Crowe p.38
(5) Attar— The Hand of Poetry— 5 Mystic Poets of Persia— Lectures by Inayat Khan, Translations, Coleman Barks p.59
(6) Rabia al Basri “Brothers, my peace is in my loneliness.”
(7) Rumi – Whispers of the Beloved – Maryam Mafi and Azima Koln p.20
(8) Rumi – Whispers of the Beloved – Maryam Mafi and Azima Koln p.48
Walt Whitman's status as poetic innovator and father to American verse is undisputed today, but while alive he enjoyed little public acclaim and only minor distribution—and much notoriety. But Whitman was critically acclaimed right from debut; Ralph Waldo Emerson, so-called "father of American literature" wrote to the poet personally upon receipt of “Leaves of Grass”, proclaiming "I greet you at the beginning of a great career," and later described Whitman's poetry as "a remarkable mixture of the Bhagvat Ghita and the New York Herald."
Lauded and republished around the world—especially so in England—Whitman never saw a broad appeal or readership at home—the main subject of and intended audience for the majority of his poetry—albeit in a single poem which, ironically, the poet himself thought very little of: "O Captain! My Captain!"
O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done;With layout set deliberately to resemble a ship approaching a destination, “O Captain! My Captain!” is a masterful but rare example of rhymed, rhythmically regular verse by a poet renowned for innovative form and structure. There is no doubt the use of rhyme was intentional; written as immediate response to the assassination of Abraham Lincoln in 1865, it served to create a fittingly sombre, exalted effect; a bitter-sweet elegy of commiseration and commemoration.
The ship has weathered every rack, the prize we sought is won;
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring.
But O heart! heart! heart!
O the bleeding drops of red!
Where on the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.
The poem was published to immediate acclaim in the New York City Saturday Press, and was widely anthologised during Whitman's lifetime. He would be asked to recite the poem in public lectures and readings so often that he is quoted as saying "I'm almost sorry I ever wrote [it]," although it had "certain emotional immediate reasons for being."
Envisioning Lincoln as archangel captain, the poet is said to have dreamed the night before the assassination of a ship entering harbour under full sail, an image dominant throughout, and the poem was deliberately typeset to appear on page like a ship approaching its destination.
It could be argued that in Lincoln Whitman saw the living embodiment of his poetic ideals: uniter of the nation, kindred opponent of slavery, harbinger of a future golden—a future of universal freedom and brotherhood which the poet envisioned as American destiny; tangible reality as well:
I am of old and young, of the foolish as much as the wise,Poet Sri Chinmoy succinctly describes Walt Whitman's poetic and national vision as interchangeable: "When the wind and storm of today bring in the golden Tomorrow, Whitman will shine forth, haloed in a new glory on the new horizon. His poems and his nation's consciousness are inseparable."
Regardless of others, ever regardful of others,
Maternal as well as paternal, a child as well as a man,
Stuff'd with the stuff that is coarse and stuff'd with the stuff that is fine, One of the Nation of many nations, the smallest the same and the
largest the same
(Song of Myself)
Lincoln's death was a violent blow to Whitman's American vision and confident proclamation. Already traumatised by the division of the just ended Civil War, “O Captain!” was written at a time of great despondency and personal soul-searching.
The poem saw its first official publication as an addition to Whitman's Drum-Taps Civil War poems. He wrote, a little later, another poem for Lincoln, his famous “When Lilacs Last in the Door-yard Bloom'd”.
Ever the perfectionist, Whitman revised “O Captain!” in 1866 and then again in 1871, a trademark practise of continual revision and never-ending improvement. His life work, Leaves of Grass, was revised continually from first publication in 1855 until 1892—the year of his death; the name for the final, definitive version, which included “O Captain!” is thus 'the Deathbed edition.'
Auckland, New Zealand
“Poetry is an echo, asking a shadow to dance.”
Words for this article finally began to flow when I was spontaneously moved to tears upon reading two-time Pulitzer prize winning American poet Carl Sandburg’s comment, “Poetry is an echo, asking a shadow to dance.” It only seemed fitting that I should begin an article about poetry with tears and pangs in my heart. Having written numerous poems on my love of poetry, it is so dear to me that I sometimes get a little crazy on the subject of it. Somewhat unoriginal in my affections -- the likes of swans, rainbows, nature’s palette and places like Paris pale in comparison to my exuberance for writing and reading poetry. I came across Sandburg’s words when I was browsing through quotes of famous thinkers and poets on the subject of poetry. I was spontaneously moved to tears because his definition of poetry embodied my feelings so perfectly.
His talk of echoes and shadows hints at hidden and unknown realms that are brought to the fore through concepts gathered together into a family of words called a poem. The echo could be an echo/shadow of emotions and memories that one is trying to resolve or an echo/shadow of beauty and sublimity that the poem is trying to make manifest. Because poetry reaches for realms beyond the mundane, calling it a dance with the shadow emphasizes the hidden and even unknowable worlds found in ordinary viewpoints. Pulitzer prize and National Book Award winner Wallace Stevens shares Sandburg’s sentiment when he states,
"The poet is the priest of the invisible."
Despite the artistic building blocks of echo, shadow and the invisible, I’m left by the side of the road when it comes to highbrow poems that are not accessible without great explication and analysis. A friend of mine, herself a Radcliffe alumna, told me that one time she asked a Harvard professor what type of poetry Harvard likes to publish. The professor answered her by saying in essence - poetry that doesn’t rhyme and that cannot be easily understood.
My love of poetry veers away from the strains depicted by this professor and embraces rhyme and simplicity. For underneath the veneer of simplicity one can often find profundity and wisdom as well. This almost child-like style is the type of poetry that I love to read and write the most. Inside its practice, I find two powerful aids to the quality of my life – poetry as therapy and poetry as vision’s promise. The prolific poet Sri Chinmoy’s following words evoke this continuum,
“A poem starts in streaming tears and ends in soaring smiles.”
In the composition of poetry, I find a palliative remedy to process life issues with which I am grappling – the “streaming tears.” It also serves as well as a tool to open up a broader visionary horizon filled with the promise of greater possibilities – the “soaring smiles.”
Poetry as Therapy
Some of the poems I have written are cathartic exercises giving voice to inner battles. Their therapeutic value rests in the permission to carve out space for acceptance as the first step of the journey towards wholeness. By voicing the struggle, I legitimate all parts of my being.
Is my neediness
the trembling foghorn
revealing the shore
underneath the mists
of public me?
Hiding a giant
in a jelly jar
a sweet and sour
Jealousy ruins like
the streets of Pompeii
or a buried Atlantis
While my cathartic poems find me face-to-face with demons from my past, writing poetry also holds out a glimmer of light in the darkness. My following poems hint that in my spiritual seeking, the act of reaching out to God leads out of the wildnerness.
A crown of criticism
my seeming sovereign Lord
from childhood up
prickers and thorns
If I never manage
May I love God
more and more
around the corners
of the boulders
in the way.
Were you hiding
in a barrel?
all your problems
cured in brine.
Even when problems loom large, writing poems taps into an altered consciousness that becomes my lantern in the night. A little research discovered that I am not alone in my perception of the therapeutic role poetry can play in our lives. Originally called bibliotherapy, the use of poetry for emotional healing has gained increased acceptance within the therapeutic community. While most are probably more familiar with art therapy as a tool for growth and learning, I could only nod in recognition when I learned that there is an entire organization called the National Association for Poetry Therapy. Poetry therapists facilitate group discussion of one’s reaction to evocative poems as well as encouraging clients to express themselves in writing their own poetry. The organization’s website tells us that in America they trace their origins back to treatment ideas proposed by Benjamin Franklin in the first hospital in America, founded by him as well. Their website also tells us that Dr. Benjamin Rush, considered the father of American psychiatry, included the writing of poems by his patients as part of their treatment.
Poetry as Vision’s Promise
While my poems that articulate inner struggles facilitate greater self-acceptance, Sri Chinmoy’s words about poetry remind us that poems are also meant to end “in soaring smiles.” In his book Poetry: My Rainbow-Heart-Dreams, he states,
“A poet is he who envisions the ultimate, absolute Truth.”
As if tuning into a higher frequency, some of my poems – especially those expressing my love for poetry – reach towards vision’s beckoning call. I wrote a poem in this vein 13 years ago.
When we dance with poetry
truth waltzes into our living room
reality dons its Sunday best
and the dew holds the promise
of a glorious morning.
One of my whimsical poems also addresses the impact poetry can make upon individuals and society.
Poetry is a teacher
in the life learning book.
It changes your perspective
and even how you look
at a hidden
Poetry is a dreamer
who sits upon a perch
and brings a revolution
that can rival any church.
Indeed I find that I can sift through my poems scratched on scraps of paper, printed from the word processor or etched in my memory and feel that some sort of guardian angel is speaking to me and trying to teach me life's greatest intent if I can only listen carefully enough.
For this reason, I always come back to poetry. My inexplicable love of it brings a smile to my lips in moments of tribulation and I can find guidance and answers to my problems in stanzas written more than ten years ago or as recently as today. Some of them offer at least a glimpse and shadow of sparkling vision and promise. My following poems harken to this aspect of Sandburg’s poetry dance.
Who knew that life itself
could spring up on its toes
like a ballet dancer
Jump the staircase
at a time
fly the kite
with God-longing twine.
The crayon box opens
for a colour waterfall
into puddles of light
No boots no umbrella
a heart thunderstorm.
Writing and reading poetry convincingly offers a prescriptive and hopeful role in our lives. With tongue in cheek, I will write out an RX on the prescription pad which states,
Next time you are feeling blue
instead of crying boo-hoo
just try to write a poem or two.
If you experiment with this approach, I am sure you will find that Sri Chinmoy’s following poem can spell out truth in your own life as well.
“Poetry has proved,
In my case at least,
To be a sunlit and shortcut way
To my destination.”
He wanted the eighth day to be just like the seventh. And then just like the ninth, tenth, ten millionth. To lean back, put his hands on the back of his head and watch and wonder silently. Without interfering. By then the skylarks and vultures have tried out their wings, the wind knew how speedily or skulking he has to move in order to slightly stir oak tree branches or to sweep away all the golden leaves from the ground.
While having a cup of milk he watched the sun pushing up his orange-red head on the east horizon, and thought of the evening when he would be watching it sinking down on the west. But around noon he had a strange feeling. Still there was something that wasn’t there. Around 4 p.m. he had to admit clearly: something was indeed missing. The job is not yet done. In fact everything was as good as he had wanted, even his own little unplanned surprises came out very well, but somehow the soup needed salt. He needed someone to confirm that things went well so far, that the lush green of the nearby forest was the shade exactly suitable for whispering secrets and that the vine grapes turned the right hues of purple.
He stood up with a sigh and clapped. There came the nicely combed boys, clearing their throats, adjusting lutes and guitars. It was clear that the sunrise and the lush green of the bush had efficiently inspired them. They could flawlessly, tangibly reproduce it. One could feel the air draft created by the wing of a hawk, one could shut his eyes and yet see the perfect bright orange blaze of that morning... Yet he sighed. He made a dismissive hand movement and let them go back to the garden. It wasn’t their fault. He couldn’t explain to himself either what was not to his liking. After all, they perfectly depicted all he had done and seen.
He lay back again and concentrated. First with a question mark (what exactly do I miss?), then with a growing certainty (Yes, I want them not to faithfully describe my deeds. I want them to add that salt in the soup!). So, he created poets.
Soon he found himself in an old armchair on his terrace, amidst dozens of them, and the dozen dozens of their wine flasks, fulfilled and shattered dreams, dry and fresh cut flowers and pens and knives and blades and photographs and magnificent or senseless life stories, agreements and arguments, lost and won battles, lost and won women... He had a great time. They all spoke differently, they seemed to agree, although never really listened to what the other speaker had uttered, then they seemed unable to find a common point. But they all seemed to have something to say to him, even the one who notoriously shunned his eyes and tried to escape his view. Some wanted to ask for little or big favours, some just complained, some just explored his terrace and house. He was actually quite pleased to imagine the dozen dozens of different versions of the same sunrise he had watched the same day, interminably long hours before they gathered at his place.
Nevertheless, by 6.30 p.m. on this late September day (the Eighth day) he knew again, that he was still unsatisfied. The soup tasted salty enough, but it was a heavy feeling he had. So many things taste salty, things like blood, sweat and tears. He had wanted that salt in its pure form. Lightly, without the feeling of guilt or approval, without the blood, sweat and tears that accompany the great things of life. He wanted the essence from beyond all these.
He didn’t mind the guests praising, complaining, swearing, cursing, wanting, yearning, longing, adoring or hating any of the things and beings they wanted. But he had an increasing uneasiness at the bottom of his stomach. ‘It looks like they don’t get the point’, he thought, but didn’t say a word. Somewhere deep beyond his gaping sense of void he liked them. But in an unnoticed moment he managed to retire from the terrace, on tip-toe he moved across the salon, went down the stairways, silently opened the back door and escaped out in the never ending garden that ended however in a never ending forest. And there, already close enough to his natural bush fence he saw the unhurriedly moving fellow in dark grey suit, almost camouflaged by the descending twilight. There came Kosztolányi. Dezső Kosztolányi from Szabadka or Tátraszéplak or Budapest or maybe even Vienna. He leisurely wandered across the September afternoon and the garden-cum-forest. Their eyes met and they both felt a surge of happiness welling up from deep. He now knew what he had been missing earlier that afternoon.
‘Where have you been? You missed most of the discussions.’ He asked Kosztolányi. The poet replied:
“Drinking the cellar dry is not for me,
no dinner tempts me, nor patisserie.
I’d sooner raid that storehouse of belief
eternity has hoarded and defy
the void with never ending signs of life.
You bring on the ripe clusters of the vine,
my patron and protector, hand of fate;
bring me on too, I tremble on your line,
but look my spirit and my spine are straight.
My arm still has the power to command;
another draught, another, ever fill
and ever gild, immeasurable hand;
my head’s unbowed, no autumn shows there still.
The melon yields her ripeness; white as milk
her baby teeth are sparkling in the gum;
exhausted wasps find shelter in the silk-
soft garages of flowers in full bloom;
the grapes are almost splitting with their sweetness;
struck dumb with joy, the mouth is rendered speechless.”
‘I see,’ he said, ‘continue my son, just go on. What else do you want to tell me?’
“The earth has never been so richly tinged
with madness and enchantment, the trees prattle,
the sky drops loops of crazy colour, fringed
with bright vermilion flaming into purple,
the dusk blows kisses to the mist and sinks
with her in one enormous wave of pink.
Tell me, if you can, what place this is,
What lost domain of childhood fantasies?”
For the first time on this eighth day, while facing this fellow, he finally felt sincerely happy. He looked at the poet and wondered whether it was the right thing he had done to Kosztolányi. But in the poet’s eyes there was no reproach. Two years had passed since he became aware of his mortal disease, thirteen years have passed since he lost a friend but managed to make a great novel out of it, seventeen years since he lost his homeland annexed to another country with his relatives still living there, and only days and hours since the continuous little losses of his everyday life. Nevertheless, Kosztolányi was smiling. He had that little mysterious smile that strikes through his portrait pictures.
He smiled too. He was one step ahead and knew what was next and after next, but then something came to his mind. ‘Actually, one more year, why not? Let’s give him enough time to write it down. Otherwise I will be the only one who has heard all this.’ But he didn’t say a word.
For some time they looked at each other. He knew that the poet was temporarily feeling better, out of hospital, able to do this long walk across the fields and meadows and orchards and vineyards and bushes and village pathways... The poet knew it too that this was TEMPORARY.
At this thought a big realisation dawned on him. He almost turned pale when he suddenly understood that Kosztolányi knew something more than he did. Yes, Kosztolányi knew indeed the meaning of TEMPORARILY, even the stem, the root of the word: TEMP.
‘Yes, he knows TIME. And that’s what I don’t. To me it’s the same whether the seventh day or the eight or the ninth or the eighteen thousandth... Now that I got what I wanted... But this poet does know the difference between day seven and twenty seven of this September. And surely does he know the difference between 1917 and 1927. He just doesn’t know 1937 and he won’t know it ever’, he thought and smiled back to Kosztolányi.
‘You may want to ask something, if you have covered such a long journey. You have some question, haven’t you?’
‘No, thanks. Oh, still, yes, actually there’s so much to ask’, said the poet.
“So tall a sky, such wonder beyond reason.
Why are the stars so huge today, of all days?
Each afternoon the kitchen is ablaze
with crockery delightful to the senses.
What is one to do with confidences
of this nature? Whose epiphanies
are these? Who buffs the hills and scours the sky?
What pantheistic store of memories
invites me to relive the centuries?
Orion’s helmet – is it sparkling still?
Why are all things laundered in this thick
celestial vapour? Whose responsible?
Why stare, enchanting one? It’s only magic.
Sweet flame of being, may your fire be drawn
however aimlessly, through dusk and dawn,
arrest the clock and calendar, destroy
this rotting intellectual granary,
and raise my flag of youth, in attitudes,
of grace, above the festive altitudes.”
(Szeptemberi áhitat, Pieties for September)
‘Fine, you don’t need to come in, but before you go back, at least quench your thirst here by the spring. And as long as you can, be my guest at 3 a.m. in your Budapest window. I like your “Dawn drunkenness”, he said loudly.
‘Oh you mean that poem?’, replied Kosztolányi, sure I can still quote it, I still feel so. He began reciting his own poem written on an early dawn...
“I also realise there is time for leaving,
but in my racing heart one string held firm and bent
to song, and I began to sing the firmament,
that unlocated Unlocatable,
out of reach and unobtainable
in life or death. My muscles slacken,
already, my friend, intimate
with much more dust and clay than I can reckon,
yet I was a guest at the party of a great anonymous potentate.’
They both smiled and nodded. It was late, the dusk turned on chilly breezes on this eighth day of creation.Kamalika Györgyjakab
The quoted translations are from one of the rare geniuses able to transliterate our sophisticated language, George Szirtes and they were originally published in the bilingual anthology of Hungarian poetry entitled: The Lost Rider, published in 1997 by Corvina Books Ltd., Budapest
It wasn't at all like the glossy travel brochures. On the beach in front of the Swiss Garden Hotel near Kuantan, Malaysia, the waves were a dull caramel brown, not blue, muddied by rivers swollen with silt and rain and falling on grey, not golden, sands. This dawn it was still raining and after thirty minutes of running along the hard sand the Swiss Garden had disappeared into the mist far behind me.
Even in this desolation there was a kind of beauty and you revelled in the emptiness and solitude – to be alone in this wilderness of sea, sky, endless shoreline reminds us of a truth about ourselves that is both certain and finally consoling.
At the far end of my outward journey I stopped at a derelict picnic spot on an embankment above the tide – here a dilapidated table, wads of old newspaper, an abandoned wicker basket, a broken plastic chair chained absurdly to a tree. On the table an English language newspaper was smoothed out, the only deliberation in this pathos of scattered things. It was as though smoothed down by a careful hand, quite immaculate in presenting itself to my curious eyes.
And then a jolt to see there, row after row, the faces and photographs of so many dead children, laid out on the memorial pages in epitaph. Some were melancholy as though some premonition of their end had come upon them, others smiling in their best clothes and bright with life, unsuspecting and innocent of what would surely come. Beneath each the sentiments of mourning families, some touching, others platitudes dulled by convention yet all that could be said in the face of such despairing grief. And no explanation as to their sudden demise.
Sitting there in the rain, poring over each child’s face, you wanted to reach out with your arms as though to protect each one from life's harshness – how it touched the heart, the neat rows of dead children, the random arbitrariness of life.
In the face of such a monumental sadness your own petty things fly away and you are left with a sense of wonder to be among the living, the consciousness-spark between the darkness at each end of physical existence. Confronted by the portraits of the departed children you are reminded of the sacredness and brevity of your own life, that brief moment of sunlight, and you understand more clearly that each little thing you can do, or just to call out to God with an absolute sincerity, counts for something and finally measures your life's worth. Yes, each and every such moment is a powerful, redemptive thing and finally all that will remain of you.
The dead help us and remind us of what is real in our living. Beneath your wet skin you feel the slow drumbeat of your heart – your sudden tears, as much for yourself and the somber, hard mystery of human life as for the neat rows of dead children, dissolve into the rain and merge into the grass.
Auckland, New Zealand
Photograph: Kedar Misani
There are a few poems that I like a lot. One of my favorite poems is a little masterpiece by Ben Jonson. It is called “On My First Son”.
Farewell, thou child of my right hand, and joy ;Many people consider Ben Jonson to be the greatest poet of his age, after Milton, Donne and Shakespeare. So, I suppose that would make him the fourth greatest poet of his time.
My sin was too much hope of thee, lov'd boy.
Seven years thou wert lent to me, and I thee pay,
Exacted by thy fate, on the just day.
Oh, could I lose all father now ! For why
Will man lament the state he should envy?
To have so soon 'scaped world's and flesh's rage,
And if no other misery, yet age !
Rest in soft peace, and, asked, say, Here doth lie
Ben Jonson his best piece of poetry.
For whose sake henceforth all his vows be such
As what he loves may never like too much.
Of course to be considered the fourth greatest poet, during the era in which the very greatest of all English poetry was produced, is in no way a mean feat!
I suppose this poem, a twelve-line masterpiece, is one of the poems on which Jonson’s reputation so securely and justly rests.
I think this poem, while very moving even upon a casual reading, offers more and more insights as we read and reread it.
I like how Jonson tries to restrain himself as much as possible in this poem, but sometimes he cannot. I mean, he read and admired the Roman Stoics, and their ideal that the best way to brave life was to maintain poise and dignity under all circumstances.
When I look at the first two lines, we see Jonson trying to maintain his composure even in the face of terrible loss, in this case of his beloved son:
Farewell, thou child of my right hand, and joy;“Farewell, thou child of my right hand…”
My sin was too much hope of thee, loved boy.
The line starts out almost as if he were a lawyer drafting some kind of dry official document, or a soldier dismissing his subordinates. But after the comma we get “and joy”.
The second line also begins very formally: “My sin was too much hope of thee”. But then he writes “lov’d boy”. It is almost as if Jonson is fighting within himself, trying to maintain his dignified and stately public persona while grappling with these overwhelming feelings of grief and longing.
The next two lines are also very interesting:
“Seven years thou wert lent to me, and I thee pay,I find it interesting because in this couplet he maintains a very correct, legal tone. It is almost as if he were reading some passage from the Book of Common Prayer.
Exacted by thy fate, on the just day.”
But we see in the next line:
“O could I lose all father now! For why”We saw in the first two lines of the poem that Jonson was unable to maintain his cool demeanor for even a single complete line of poetry. But in the next two lines, as I have just said, he kept the feeling completely impersonal. Here, however: “O could I lose all father now!” his composure abandons him.
I’ve always been struck by this phrase in this poem: “O could I lose all father now!” There is such a big difference between the statements “I wish I had never been a father” and “I wish you, my son, had never existed”. In a sense, he is mourning himself, the part of himself he had invested and identified with his son.
If we go back to the first line of the poem, “Farewell, thou child of my right hand, and joy” it is almost the loss of his son is equivalent to the loss of a bodily limb, his right hand. Michael Vance in his wonderful essay, Heaven’s Due, talks about this idea convincingly and eloquently.
When I lost my mother, some ten years ago, I did not, at first, feel much emotional grief. Rather, I felt a terrible pain in my chest and abdomen that lasted for weeks and weeks. It was only after some therapy and meditation that I realized I wasn’t really allowing myself to feel the pain of her death, the impact of her death, on me. And that is perhaps a normal reaction. I felt terrible physical pain because I wasn’t able to accept the emotional hurt that losing her meant. It was only after I allowed myself time and space to grieve that the physical pain left me.
Perhaps Jonson was referring to a similar phenomenon when he bid goodbye to his “right hand” and cried, in anguish, “O could I lose all father now!”
O could I lose all father now, for whyIs also interesting to me for its use of enjambment. The words “for why” stand alone, almost like an existential plea for comfort and explanation.
In the next lines :
“Will man lament the state that he should envy?We know that part of the Christian liturgy during Jonson’s time involved references to the three main enemies of man: the World, the Flesh, and the Devil (please see Jonquil Bevan’s article Ben Jonson’s ‘On My First Son’ and the Common Prayer Catechism from Notes and Queries (March 1997 v44 n1 p90 (3)). But here, Jonson can only mention the World and Flesh. He cannot bring himself to even think of the idea of his son in hell.
To have so soon ‘scaped world’s and flesh’s rage,
And if no other misery, yet age.”
“Rest in soft peace, and asked, say here doth lie
Ben Jonson, his best piece of poetry.”
These two lines yield a lot of interesting ideas when carefully examined. I mean, ‘piece’ and ‘peace’ rhyme. If I think of ‘peace of poetry’ instead of ‘piece’ I immediately think of a lullaby- a peace poem.
It is also significant that Jonson named the child after himself. So when he says “here doth lie/Ben Jonson...” we do not know if he is referring to his son or to himself. Somehow, when I read these lines, and their intentional ambiguity, I can almost think of the poet getting into the grave with his son, his arms wrapped around him. Of course, that may very well be a purely subjective response on my part.
What surprises me about these lines also is that they are deeply moving, but they are not sentimental. In the first two lines of the poem, we saw Jonson struggling to find the right tone, between clinical stoicism and unabashed emoting. Here, at last, he has found it. We see how Jonson’s classical restraint allows him to call his son “his best piece of poetry” and it is heartfelt, perhaps even devastating, and yet totally believable and convincing.
In the last two lines of the poem:
“For whose sake, henceforth, all his vows be suchThe conclusion fits in perfectly with the opening lines of the poem: “Farewell, thou child of my right hand, and joy/My sin was too much hope of thee, loved boy.”
As what he loves, he never like too much.”
Perhaps Jonson is suggesting that everything in human life is ephemeral and fleeting. We cannot really attach ourselves to anyone or to anything, because everyone is mortal.
But he is not saying that he will not love anymore; he is just saying that he will try not to “like” what he loves too much. There is a difference between liking someone and loving someone, I suppose. But I would be hard-pressed to pin down what exactly that difference is. I mean, to like someone immensely is to love him, as well.
I wonder if Jonson is dealing with the difference between disinterested, abstract love, and ordinary, human love. I like what Sri Chinmoy says about the difference between pure divine love and love on the ordinary plane:
“First of all, let us try to know what love is. If love means to possess someone or something, then that is not real love, not pure love. If loves means to give oneself, to become one with everything and everyone, then that is real love. Real love is total oneness with the object loved and with the Possessor of love. And who is the Possessor of love? God. Without love, we cannot become one with God. Love is the inner bond, the inner connection, the inner link between man and God, between the finite and the infinite.”Rainbow-Flowers
It is also possible that Jonson might be using “like” in a different sense- not in the sense of to be fond of something, but rather as a variant on the word, “liken” to make one think “like” something else.
Jonson was a classical scholar and probably knew that in the ancient Jewish tradition, people did not name their children after themselves because it was bad luck. The Angel of Death might get confused and take the child rather than the parent, as both have the same name. I’m stating this speculatively, as I don’t know how well acquainted Jonson actually was with Jewish traditions and rites (there were no Jews in England at that time except for a very tiny Sephardic community in London). But it is an interesting possibility and Jonson at least knew enough Hebrew to make a pun on his son’s name, Benjamin, which is literally “son of my right hand”.
When I read this poem out loud, I am surprised at how affecting and moving it is to actually hear it. It seems written for the stage, for public performance, but the feelings it contains are utterly personal and intimate. That is to be expected, because Ben Jonson was the most famous and celebrated poet of his day (and was made what we would call the English poet laureate in 1616), and yet he also wrote many pieces of a very personal and heartfelt nature. In this poem we see a perfect combination of the two sides of his unusual personality.
Jonson was a remarkable individual, to say the least. He was a priest, a soldier, a courtier, a linguist and a playwright. His poem “To The Memory of My Beloved Master William Shakespeare” is probably the most beautiful and gracious tribute ever penned by one master poet to another.
If his reputation these days takes a back seat to that of Shakespeare, Milton and Donne, then I can say with true confidence that Jonson did pen poems, like “On My First Sonne” to which all three of these great men would certainly have bowed in utmost reverence and admiration.