poetry & politics: lenses

July 8, 2015 § Leave a comment

lyrical in opposition to or in conjunction with the rhetorical

–“the value of anger as a political/poetical resource” (Despres)

community & collective identity
–related to pronominal forms (I-thou; you; we/our)
–related to readership & address (interpellation)
–different readers, communities of readers
–the bardic role: targeted audience, ‘we’
–critical interest in the first person plural (“we”):

Bonnie Costello: ‘impersonal personal’ 2009: “in what circumstances and in what terms might the poet speak of ‘we’?”

WR Johnson: ‘choral poetry’ 1982

Sharon Cameron: ‘amplified voice’ (Lyric Time, 1979)
(cited in Hunter, “Lyric & Its Discontents”)

empathetic imagination (mobilization); self moving into world

Antigone and Creon
–individual/repressed contra state; challenges to the state
–female virtu (Despres)
–poetry & the state; Plato

beauty is truth; truth beauty
–‘documentary adequacy’ (Heaney) & poetic form

poetic knowledge as a “thinking through the body” (Despres)
–the “bedrock of moral intelligence for much of feminist writing” (Despres)
écriture féminine; écriture au féminin
–body as resource, bedrock, source of power; vulnerabilities of source of power & knowledge
–Mistral: earthenware vessels
–links to ecopoetry; earth as ground for the body
–linked to ‘in situ’
–Philoctetes as model for artist/poet figure (wounded, ineffective)

–Rich, Dream of a Common Language

in situ
–a poem begins in a particular moment, in a particular place, in a particular body (Despres)
–poetry stands inside history, histories

a common language
–link back to community; poetry as drive to connect
–link to dream

–vision, political vision
–empathetic imagining
–poetry as dreaming body



poetry as knowledge or capacity
–Oren Izenberg 2011, Being Numerous: Poetry and the Ground of Social Life
–Bonnefoy “has proposed an ethical ‘pact’ (alliance) between poet and reader, ‘another way of knowing,’ the purpose of which is to ‘renew our relationship with others'” in Hunter, Lyric and its Discontents, p.86
–Bonnefoy: ‘Foreword: Ending the Mission, Inaugurating the Pact.’ in 20th Century French Poetry: A Critical Anthology2010

‘Every existence speaks a language of its own’: on the ghazal pt. 4

February 22, 2014 § Leave a comment

8/4/68 for Aijaz Ahmad

If these are letters, they will have to be misread.
If scribblings on a wall, they must tangle with all the others.

Fuck reds    Black power    Angel loves Rosita
–and a transistor radio answers in Spanish: Night must fall.

Prisoners, soldiers, crouching as always, writing,
explaining the unforgivable to a wife, a mother, a lover.

Those faces are blurred and some have turned away
to which I used to address myself so hotly.

How is it, Ghalib, that your grief, resurrected in pieces,
has found its way to this room from your dark home in Delhi?

When they read this poem of mine, they are translators.
Every existence speaks a language of its own.

— from Adrienne Rich, “Ghazals: Homage to Ghalib” in Leaflets: Poems, 1965-1968

The most powerful ghazals I’ve read, including those by Ghalib, despite the generally true observation that the couplets in a ghazal tend to be somewhat random or lacking in unity, do hold together in quite powerful ways, creating an emotional or political tenor akin to an electrical field. Thompson is listening to the radio late at night and catalogues his random thoughts; Ghalib describes the sounds of his own grief.

The poem I’ve recorded above is from a sequence by Adrienne Rich called “Ghazals: Homage to Ghalib,”  written in July and August of 1968, on the heels of May ’68 and the student uprising at the Sorbonne which inspired the mass worker strike across France; the Prague Spring is on (the Soviet Union will invade Czechoslovakia on the 20th of August with over 200,000 troops to put down the revolution 16 days after this poem was written); there are student sit-ins and protests across North America; the Vietnam war continues.

Rich inscribes the date for each ghazal, indicating how the ghazal functions for her like a transcription of a given day, a given time, as urgent and compelling and as necessary as the news of the day (“what is found there”). The ghazals in her sequence document moments of this revolutionary summer — “the clouds are electric in this university;” the heat; the graffiti, with poetry as analogue, in fact, graffiti as poetry (graffiti in May ’68 at the Sorbonne: “Nous somme tous les juifs allemands,” “Il faut baiser au moins une fois par nuit pour être un bon révolutionnaire,” “Fuck each other or they’lI fuck you”); private moments between lovers.

The power of these ghazals lies in their status as field notes where an urgent political graffito can exist on the same plane as a radio bulletin announcing a war very far away and a private moment transcribed — a single line — in which lovers lie back to back in the heat of a summer night. This is how we live.

The ghazal is ephemeral and points to the essence of lyric poetry as trace: “These words are vapour-trails of a plane that has vanished;/by the time I write them out, they are whispering something else.”

“When you read these lines, think of me/and of what I have not written here.”


‘and I the sound of grief’: on the ghazal pt. 1

November 17, 2013 § Leave a comment

No wonder you came looking for me, you
who care for the grieving, and I the sound of grief.

These lines return to me, after weeks of forgetting.  They are perfect, I think — translated by Adrienne Rich from a literal translation of a ghazal by Ghalib. The literal lines are:

(Now that) you ask for me, it is no wonder;
I am helpless/poor/afflicted/ miserable, and you who look after the afflicted.[1]

Compare with W.S. Merwin’s translation (he was working with the same literal translation as Rich):

You look after the wretched
no wonder you came
looking for me.

It falls a little flat. Merwin has worked miracles in free verse with some of his translations of Mandelstam (e.g. “Tristia”: “I have studied the science of goodbyes, the bare-headed laments of night” — hope this is close, I’m quoting from memory as I don’t have access to my books just at the moment). But Rich’s use of a five-beat line, roughly iambic in form, as well as of internal rhyme, play formality off of the formless abyss of unrequited love.

She still isn’t attempting an exact formal translation with traditional refrain/rhyme that speaks back to earlier couplets in the same ghazal. See Agha Shahid Ali’s interesting essay on this form in his Real Ghazals in English — a ghazal without rhyme and refrain, without lines of a similar length and rhythm, is not a ghazal he suggests, like a sestina without the strict pattern of line-endings; a free-verse sestina would be nonsensical; the same can be said of a ghazal.[2]

This particular ghazal opens with the lines, also translated here by Rich: “I’m neither the loosening of song nor the close-drawn tent of music;/I’m the sound, simply, of my own breaking.” As I understand it, the opening couplet of a ghazal would set the pattern in both lines with a rhyme and refrain; subsequent couplets would repeat this pattern in the second line. Rich doesn’t do this here.

No wonder you came looking for me, you
who care for the grieving, and I the sound of grief.

The line break is perfect. The line breaks on “you” — enacting the gulf between speaker and beloved. The repetition of “you” in the first line carries the compulsion of love. The internal rhyme holds the lines together, like a pulse, falling on the strong beats: me//grieving//grief. The speaker, “me,” is aligned by rhyme with the grieving and grief of “you,” and by the placing of the two side by side at the end of the first line: “me, you.”  (In another vernacular: Walk me to the corner, our steps will always rhyme). The phrase “you/who care for the grieving” refers to both those who grieve, encompassing the speaker, and perhaps also to the act of grieving.

“And I the sound of grief” — the speaker’s love is reduced to a sound, like a caion, for the beloved, as if one who, because unattainable, is dead. This gulf between you and me is at the heart of the ghazal form, as is the grief it sounds.

[1] The literal translations, as well as Rich and Merwin’s versions, come from Ghazals of Ghalib: Versions from the Urdu, edited by Aijaz Ahmad. Columbia University Press, 1971. This beautiful book has been placed in deep storage at UBC; you’ll have to request it through ASRS, & hope it’s not lost in the mechanical abyss. Rescue it from its imprisonment!

[2] Although I would not give up Phyllis Webb’s free verse experiments in this ‘form’: “My loves are dying. Or is it that my love/is dying, day by day, brief life, brief candle//a flame, flambeau, torch, alive, singing//somewhere in the shadow: Here, this way, here.” (from Water and Light: Ghazals and Anti Ghazals).

Postscript: There is much more that could be said on the music of these lines. The catching of ‘care’ and ‘grieving,’ with the hard /k/ repeated in /g/. The anapestic triplets that swallow syllables and race from ‘care’ towards ‘grieving and ‘I’, only to level out into iambs after the medial caesura — also signalling a divide between you and I. The staunching of grieving with the final monosyllabic ‘grief.’

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