Category Archives: Poetry

The Consolation of Philosophy

What is philosophy, you ask?
They say it’s learning how to die.
But should you chance to flub that task,
Don’t fret: You’ll get another try —
And then a third, and so on, till
You get it right — you surely will!
It’s guaranteed, so don’t despair!
Philosophy is more than fair.
Her students may be plagued with doubt,
But not a one has yet flunked out.

 

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Filed under Philosophy, Poetry

A very concise 23rd Psalm

The Lord my shepherd is, and I
Shall nothing want. He makes me lie
In pastures green. Along the shores
Of waters still he leads, restores
My soul. In righteous paths I go,
There led for his name’s sake. Although
I walk the vale of deathly shade,
Of evil I’ll not be afraid,
For thou art there. For comfort to
Thy rod and staff I look. In view
Of all my foes thou settest up
My board, anoint’st my head. My cup
Runs over. Surely, to the end
Thy good and mercy shall attend
Me all my days until I die.
Then in God’s house I’ll dwell for aye.

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Filed under Old Testament, Poetry, Translation

Seamless verse: terza rima and a close equivalent

Dante’s Comedy is written in terza rima — that is, a rhyme scheme of aba bcb cdc ded efe … yzy z. One very appealing feature of terza rima is that each tercet is linked by rhyme to both the tercet before and the one after, making it possible to write an entire canto — arbitrarily long — which is one seamless whole, impossible to break into smaller units which can stand alone in terms of rhyme.

Unfortunately, terza rima just isn’t workable in English, at least not for long poems. It requires that every line of the poem rhyme with two other lines, and in a rhyme-poor language like English that is just too stringent a requirement (though of course it works fine in Italian). Reading Dorothy L. Sayers’s terza rima translation of Dante has made me even more sure of this. Too many forced and awkward rhymes, too many near-rhyme compromises. Many of the “rhymes” (like rhyming — no joke — here, singular, and far!) don’t even register as rhymes at all unless the reader is actively paying attention to the rhyme scheme, and in the end the effect is simply not that of reading rhymed verse. I know Sayers is operating under the additional constraint of having to write English terza rima which is a translation of Italian terza rima, but I think even writing original verse using this rhyme scheme would be unworkable in English, unless it were very short.

Structurally, terza rima is like a chain, every link of which has the shape of a figure-eight. The easiest way of adapting it to a rhyme-poor language like English, then, is to simplify it to a chain with ordinary circular links, eliminating the need for triple rhymes. I experimented a bit with this scheme when I was a teenager, before I knew anything about Dante, and I called it “snake rhyme” because it could be used to produce an arbitrarily long, indivisible poem.

terza rima

As an experiment, I tried rendering the beginning of the Inferno in “snake rhyme.” The main disadvantage of snake rhyme, as opposed to terza rima, is that every line is separated from its rhyme by two intervening lines, making the rhymes less obvious. I tried to ameliorate this by shortening the lines to four feet each — that makes for 32 syllables per quatrain, very close to Dante’s 33 per tercet. I’m not sure how successful the result is.

I have no intention of finishing this “translation” (if one can even use that word for a version which takes so many liberties, and whose author is ignorant of Italian); it was just an experiment. But I thought I’d share it for what it’s worth.

*

My life’s long journey halfway through,
I found myself within a wood
So dark my path was lost to view.

How hard it is to speak of how
that forest was — so dark! — and should
I call it back to mind, I know
fresh fear would kindle even now.

Such bitter fear — like death it stings! —
Yet good I found there, too, and so,
That you may understand that good,
I’ll shy not from the darker things.

How came I to be lost so deep
Within that dense and savage wood?
When lost I the true path? Who knows?
I was so very full of sleep.

But, stumbling through that murky maze,
I came to where a mountain rose
Up from that valley thick with vines
and tangled brush. I dared to raise

My eyes and saw its slopes aglow,
Lit by that Planet bright which shines
On all men’s paths and with its light
Directs them in the way to go.

With this my heart began to take
Fresh courage — for throughout the night,
A squirming terror vile and black
Had lurked within my bosom’s lake.

But now, like one who, safe ashore,
Still gasping from the swim, looks back
To see the churning waves which he
Survived — against all odds — once more,

So I, though in my heart still fleeing,
Looked back. I was the first to see
The other side of that dread vale:
None else had lived to do the seeing.

Awhile I rested in that sun,
Then stirred again and moved to scale
The lonely slope, and as I went
My firm foot was the lower one.

There on the lower slopes I spied,
Not far from where the hill’s ascent
Began — a leopard! — lithe of limb
And covered with a spotted hide.

Wherever then I turned my face
Or made to move, I spotted him.
All ways he blocked, till back I turned,
Retreating to my starting place.

But it was spring, and early morn,
And in its native Aries burned
The Sun, with those same stars attendant
It rose with when the world was born,

On that first morning when the Love
Divine first moved those things resplendent,
So that the season and the hour —
And, too, that dappled beast above

Me on the path — seemed cause for hope
but hope, alas, had not the power
To steel me for what happened next:
I saw a lion on the slope!

. . .

(If you want to know what happens next, read Dante.)

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Filed under Literature, Poetry, Translation

Bilingual limerick

There once was a rhyme, not a long one,
Comprising both English and 中文。
I wrote it, but how?
我也不知道。
I haven’t a clue, so 不用問。

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Filed under Language, Poetry, Silliness

With apologies to Joyce Kilmer

I think that I shall never see
A poem tiny as a flea.
Although my vision’s 20/10
(Compared with that of other men,
That’s rather good), I rather doubt
That I could make a poem out
On such a microscopic scale.
My eagle eyes, I fear, would fail
Me when confronted with so fine
A typeface. Even eyes like mine
Are not all-seeing; even they
Can’t read a strand of DNA
Without a magnifying glass
(A rather potent one), alas!
Alas, I say, for fools like me,
Who long to read what we can’t see!
A cruel trick, to give men eyes
That only see a certain size!
And what’s the use — explain, I plead! —
Of poems only God can read?

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Phoney

Old Holden never dreamt, I bet,
How very phone-y life would get,
Nor how the conquered human mobs,
Those vassals of the horde of Jobs,
Each phoney to the very heart,
Would think themselves so goddam smart.

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Litany Against Fear

Years ago I developed this version of the Litany Against Fear from Dune:

It kills the mind, that little death
called fear. It stings
the very soul,
complete obliteration brings
to all who breathe its poison breath.
I will not veer
but face my fear —
flinch not before its beating wings,
nor as it hurtles through me run.
It passes by.
I turn my eye
to see its path, my ear to hear
its wingbeats still, but there are none.
Imagined things
have now in whole
dissolved, and still remaining — I.

When I was in college, I developed (for reasons that are still not entirely clear to me) a paralyzing fear of the dark — which was most inconvenient, since I worked nights and had to walk home alone in the dark at 4:00 every morning. A few years later my nyctophobia vanished as mysteriously as it had come. But during those years this little poem, designed to be repeated over and over, is what kept me putting one foot in front of the other.

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Filed under Poetry