We hear about The Consolation(s) of Philosophy, but what about poetry? Not that I need consoling, the weather having so warm, bright and invigorating lately, but if I do, I'll know where to look.
My friend Kay, when I saw her again in Wales last month, gave me a precious gift, a book of poems called The Water Table by a poet I'd not heard of before, Philip Gross. He teaches at the University of Glamorgan. Apparently he's a Quaker, practising silence as well as words. The poems in this anthology are inspired by the poet's familiarity with the Bristol Channel (or Môr Hafren, if you're Welsh); he must have stared at it a great deal. Ten of the 64 poems are entitled Betweenland. Here is the last of those:
Just after sunset, and the tide
high, almost white, dull-
lambent like nothing the sky
holds or could lend it. Each
shore, this and that shore,
black, a particular
blackness pinned in place
by each house- or street-lamp.
Done with. As if land
was night, and us its night-thoughts
and the river was the draining down
of daylight, westwards and out
of the world, so how could you notI get very excited by this sort of thing.
(your gaze at least) feel drawn
and want, half want, to follow?
I also picked up a book of Poems Of The Late T'ang from our bookshelves recently, although, because they're translated, I fear I am hardly getting more than a glimpse. In the introduction the translator A.C. Graham gives an example of how difficult it is to translate Chinese poetry, because it is so concise and the Chinese associations between word and experience so different from ours. My daughter-in-law says that the ancient Chinese poems are symbolic––not daring to express directly what the poet had suffered, perhaps from a cruel régime.
Here's the literal translation of a Chinese poem by Emperor Wu (Hànwǔdì) who died in 87 B.C.
silk sleeve, ah, no sound.
jade courtyard, ah, dust grow.
empty room cold and still,
fallen leaf lean on doubled door bar.
peer after that beautiful woman, ah, where find?
feel my heart not yet at ease.
and here is an attempt by Amy Lowell to translate the original more freely:
There is no rustle of silken sleeves,
Dust gathers in the Jade Courtyard.
The empty houses are cold, still, without sound.
The leaves fall and lie upon the bars of doorway after doorway.
I long for the Most Beautiful One; how can I attain my desire?
Pain bursts my heart. There is no peace.
Even in the literal version, the emotion behind this still transmits itself. Did it comfort this man to write his emotions down? In some mysterious way, it is comforting for us to share his humanity more than two millennia later.
The thing about good poetry is that once heard (or read at the speed of spoken words), it sticks. While I was shovelling the final remains of this year's snow from the path in our garden in this week's sudden heatwave, the line
They call it easing the Springcame into my mind, which led me to remember the rest of Henry Reed's famous poem (of 1943).