I was weaned on poetry. My grandfather was a poet and he was reading me his sonnets before I was fully five years old. On one memorable occasion, I interrupted his reading and told him that the poem “didn’t scan”.
He first exploded in wounded disbelief and then he checked. I was right.
He had instilled the form and function of the sonnet in me by osmosis, and to this day if I get the first line down, I can write you a passable sonnet in less than five minutes, a better one in half an hour. It’s instinctive, it’s part of my soul.
Grandfather published four volumes of children’s poems, and they were both to me and about me – I was a named “character” in the poems. I have those books. I treasure them. They are part of my DNA.
The land where I came from had a foundation of poetry. There are some poets – some poems – that all of us in my culture just KNOW, they’re part of our heritage. We don’t so much learn them as children as they’re simply part of the landscape and we navigate with, through, and around them – they’re signposts, they’re maps, they’re written on our spirit and we would all probably be able to quote them at each other at length at any time. My tribe is, at its core, built on poetry. All that I am I was built on the same foundation.
Poetry suffuces my writing
This is why my prose writing can be so lush, so verdant – I am drawing on a poetry legacy going back generations, transposing it to a different language, even, and it comes pouring out in a piece of description, a turn of dialogue phrase.
My bookshelves tumble with poetry. My own childhood poets (in my cradle tongue), Grandpa’s books, Shelley, Tennyson, Yeats, Wilde, both Brownings (Robert and Elizabeth Barrett), Wordsworth, Wilfred Owen, Pablo Neruda, Pushkin, Angelou, T S Elliot.
I once BEWILDERED a small child at the opening of the new Seattle Public Library – a random mother and child to whom she was reading a picture book of one of Elliot’s Cats poems, and I spoke the lines with the mother – “it was Mungojerrie, and Rumpleteazer, and most of the time they’d leave it at that.” I’ve never seen rounder eyes as that kid looked at me – how did I know what was inside her book? – but I know poetry. I read a lot of it. I used to write quite a lot of it when I was younger. In fact I had a book of poetry published when I was 19, which my father was always very proud of.
I was my Grandfather’s heir. Until the day he died he and I both knew that. I understood the weight of responsibility I would carry forward. It was my grandfather, and it was poetry, that pounded that piece of shapeless hot iron that I was as a child into a blade of words. I am a writer today because poetry existed.
What are your favorites?
I have been asked, more than once: 1) What is your favorite poem? and 2) Why do you love it?
Here you get a twofer. I’m giving you my two favorites, the one I found late in life first, possibly because it simply needs less verbiage to explain it.
It took me a very long time, TOO long, to find Leonard Cohen, and I did encounter him in musical form first – but every single one of his songs is a poem. By the time I confirmed that by owning a book of his poetry which included the lyrics of a number of his songs that I already loved, I was already well on the way to being half in love with the man just because of his words.
There are a number of songs of his that I love fiercely – part of that, of course, is the melody – but one of those songs I found well after I knew about the better known of his tunes, and those lyrics hit me with a hammer. Because that poem – and it is a poem – is literally a prayer, and it’s a prayer that is meaningful to me personally. I am talking about “If It Be Your Will”.
That first stanza smites me because so often I am unsure of my own place in this world and about the intrinsic value of my own voice or anything it says. And that first stanza is a heart-felt plea directly to God, and it might have come straight from my own soul. If I am not sure, if I am not certain, if there is nothing that is needful or wanted when spoken out by me – maybe God understands, maybe God will know, maybe God knows it isn’t the right time or whatever and I submit to the will of that which I believe gave me my gifts in the first place – and the poem offers a sacrifice:
If it be your will
that I speak no more,
and my voice be still
like it was before;
I will speak no more,
I shall abide until
I am spoken for,
if it be your will.
There is a part of me that receives that message with fear, with veneration, with the force of a vow. Am I speaking? Am I speaking the right words? Am I speaking the words that need to be heard? Am I worthy of those words? And if it be your will, higher power, then I will retreat into silence until something calls me back into the light…
It scares me. It exhilarates me because I haven’t stopped, and if I offer that prayer and I am not silenced it may mean that it may NOT be the higher power’s will that I… or am I just being filled with hubris… this is the power of poetry. It makes you think. It makes you feel. It makes you kneel.
Every word of every poem is written by that higher power’s will.
Thousands died in a pitiless winter retreat
As for poem number 2… You have never heard it, and you don’t know it, and you don’t have the background to understand it, but every member of my race knows it, or at least part of it, and rare is the person who can get more than a couple of lines into it without our throat closing up and the tears starting to come.
I once watched a professional actor, someone who had delivered thousands of lines in his acting career spanning decades, speak this poem in the place about which it was written, and weep while he said these words. I watched the tears come silently down his cheeks as he fought to control his voice.
I could translate just a few lines before I tell you what it means. The poet is a man named Milutin Bojic, born in 1892, and dead at only 25 years old in 1917 after having survived one of the most epic episodes of Serbian history, the retreat across the Albanian mountains into Greece in the late autumn and winter of 1915. The poem of which I speak is one of those he wrote about this period, and is called “Plava Grobnica” (“The Blue Grave”).
I have neither the scope nor the ability here to speak of the full extent of that tragedy. There are too many things about it that make me rage and weep, in fury, in pity, in transcendent grief.
Let me just say that the remnants of the Serbian army gathered on the Greek island of Corfu, to recuperate and regroup and then return to retake their lost country from its enemies – and they did. But before they did, thousands of them succumbed to that pitiless retreat across the winter mountains in the teeth of whiteout blizzards and enemies just waiting in ambush around every stone or tree. There was no place to bury those men, so their bodies were consigned to the sea, into the blue sea just off Corfu, into the Blue Grave.
And this poem opens up with these lines:
Stojte galije carske!Spustajte krme mocne!
Gazite tihim hodom!
Opelo gordo drzim u doba jeze nocne
Nad ovom svetom vodom.
I offer you a translation:
Stop, Imperial galleons! Let down your mighty anchors!
Tread light and soft!
I offer up a proud memorial in these hours of dark night
Over this holy water.
My pitiful translation is only words. What those words carry in the original language – to me, to those of my blood – is a holding of the breath, a gathering of tears in the eye, a closing of the throat, and a queer clench of the heart.
These are the men who lived and died for their people. Their memory is powerful.
To this day Serbian words drift through the language of the people of Corfu because they remember these men, and their pride, and their sorrow, and what they stood for, and the things they failed to do and then went back to make good.
It is a poem that makes me remember those men. It makes me proud of them. They may have died there – their bodies may have been given to the sea – but their spirit still lives there, still lives strong, still lives inside those who came in their wake as the nation recreated itself from ashes. It is not a poem that anybody who shares my heritage and my blood is likely to forget, or to be indifferent to. We all know it. When we hear the first words of that opening line, we stop what we are doing, and we straighten, and we gaze into our past. And the ghosts of those men rise up to salute us as they go back into hell for us all, for their descendants.
I have never been to Corfu. Given the way I respond to places where men have died – I could barely hold it together at a place like Culloden – I am not entirely sure that I am capable of doing so.
If I were to stand looking at that holy water, that poem would run through me like electricity. It would turn my blood to fire. It would break my heart. It would send my spirit seeking those ghosts who dwell there, so that I could throw my arms around them and drench their uniforms with bitter tears.
I have the poem. It is enough.
I internalize poetry, and carry it with me. I will go back and pick out lines, stanzas, from the ones I love. I always return to poetry. I come back again and again because this is the spring from which I first drank the sweet draught of language, and it will always be my beginning.
I believe I spoke already about how the poems I chose have been a part of my life, in the earlier discussion – but let me just get pithy for a moment and give you a sentence for each poem.
“If It Be Your Will” is a thing made at once of woven strands of pride and humility – it speaks of self-knowledge, of knowing who and what I am, and of what I am willing to do or sacrifice for that knowledge.
“Plava Grobnica” is quite simply a building block of my soul.
I spoke already of sharing “Mungojerrie and Rumpelteazer” with that kid in the library. I love to “finish” lines other people begin to quote. I listen to Alan Rickman quoting Pablo Neruda in a movie called “Truly Madly Deeply” and I understand COMPLETELY why a poem would be the only way to convey a deep emotional truth.
I wrote a lot of poetry when I was younger – in English – and then also, in the dark days of 1999,when my birth country was being bombed into rubble, punished for things it never did and had its heart torn from its body by people who would never understand the meaning of what they did, in my own language, because there were some things I could only say in that language and no other. I made my father cry, again and again, when these poems were wrenched from me. I share other people’s poetry… I share my own…and I will always, in a safe and secret place in the heart of my memory, share my grandfather’s, with him, starting with an earnest and precocious five-year-old child telling the grizzled poet that his poem was flawed and being right.
I am poetry. It has always been me.
This first appeared on the website of Fiona Macintosh HERE
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