Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Poets and Catastrophe

Related to the last post about poets and protest, is the NYTimes article "The Poetry of Catastrophe." Perhaps we turn to poetry rather than prose in moments of great cataclysm because poetry, like the sword, cuts to the quick faster than a slower poison. (Though perhaps analogy here is little off, yes? Prose is not poison, nor poetry a sword, I guess I was speaking to the sharpness of the emotion. Anyway you get the 'point':).) Most catastrophes, natural or manmade, happen when we aren't looking, like 9/11, like the Japan earthquake, like the BP oil spill, like the bombings in Libya, and poetry responds, when it is done well, I think, to the sharp punch of pain and terror and confusion associated with such events. Think of Yeats, Auden, Shakespeare, Whitman. Likewise it captures the unexpected, sometimes irrational, human hope and bravery in the face of such cataclysm.  Think of Hecht and Komunyakaa and Adrienne Rich.

"My heart is moved by all I cannot save:
so much has been destroyed
I have to cast my lot with those
who age after age, perversely,
with no extraordinary power,
reconstitute the world."
— Adrienne Rich

The same can be said about poetry's capacity to describe revolution.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Khaled Mattawa, Poems and Protest

A poet friend of mine, Marcela Sulak (who by the way is an amazing poet and you should check out her book Immigrant), recommended the Libyan-American poet and translator Khaled Mattawa. Mattawa was born in Benghazi, Libya and moved to America in the 1970s when he was a teenager. I have three of his books of poetry. I am ashamed I have never read him before. His work is breathtaking and innovative, and yes, political.

So many in Israel worry about what the revolutions will mean to Israel. Uncountable times I've heard, "No Arab revolution has ever been good news for Israel". Perhaps. Whatever happens, there will be pain. The only hope is that it is short-lived, and that it leads to better things for Egyptians, for Yemenis, for Libyans, for Syrians, for Jordanians. 

I copied Mattawa's poem "Now That We Have Tasted Hope," just written below. It's not my favorite of his poems but it is one of my favorite statements. I love the last two lines. You can hear Mattawa read the poem on the BBC web site.


Now that we have tasted hope
Now that we have come out of hiding,
Why would we live again in the tombs we’d made out of our souls?

And the sundered bodies that we’ve reassembled with prayers and consolations,
What would their torn parts be other than flesh?

Now that we have tasted hope
And dressed each other’s wounds with the legends of our oneness
Would we not prefer to close our mouths forever shut on the wine
That swilled inside them?

Having dreamed the same dream,
Having found the water that gushed behind a thousand mirages,
Why would we hide from the sun again
Or fear the night sky after we’ve reached the ends of darkness,
Live in death again after all the life our dead have given us?

Listen to me Zow'ya, Beida, Ajdabya, Tobruk, Nalut, Derna, Musrata, Benghazi, Zintan,
Listen to me houses, alleys, courtyards, and streets that throng my veins,
Some day soon
In your freed light and in the shade of your proud trees,
Your excavated heroes will return to their thrones in your martyrs’ squares,
Lovers will hold each other’s hands.

I need not look far to imagine the nerves dying rejecting the life that blood sends them.
I need not look deep into my past to seek a thousand hopeless vistas.
But now that I have tasted hope
I have fallen into the embrace of my own rugged innocence.

How long were my ancient days?
I no longer care to count.
How high were the mountains in my ocean’s fathoms?
I no longer care to measure.
How bitter was the bread of bitterness?
I no longer care to recall.

Now that we have tasted hope,
Now that we have lived on this hard-earned crust,
We would sooner die than seek any other taste to life,
Any other way of being human.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Melville's Persistence and, well, also a bit of Palestine

I’ve been reading Herman Melville’s 18,000 line, 150 canto poem Clarel. No one reads Clarel. I can’t even say that I’m enjoying it all that much though admit there are moments of great lyricism.

Why am I reading it? First, it’s about Palestine and pilgrimage, two of my obsessions. Second, it’s poetry. Third, because Melville wrote it long after his writing career seemed ended. Because no one wanted him to write it. Because there was no reason for him to write it—there was no money and no one, including his wife and friends, thought his writing poetry a worthwhile endeavor.

Which got me thinking about obscurity and writing.

Herman Melville wrote five books before Moby Dick. He wrote Moby Dick before he was 30. Moby Dick and his tales of whaling brought Melville fame and a bit of fortune, but two domestic books later, his literary star had plummeted. By the time he was 35, he was for all apparent intent washed up as a writer.

Melville’s spirits and health likewise plummeted. In an attempt to reclaim both, his family and friends subsidized a trip to Palestine in 1857. Melville kept journals and wrote letters but it wasn’t until nineteen years later that he capitalized on his experience by publishing his 18,000 line 150 canto poem Clarel: A Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land.

He tried for years to write poetry. His first book of poems went unpublished. His second, Battle Pieces, virtually unread. No one, including his wife, approved of or subsidized his poetry. In fact, Melville’s wife confided to her stepmother, “Try to not mention to any one he is writing poetry—you know how such things spread.”

Melville lectured for three years after his return drawing on his South Seas experiences and travels, but never talked about his trip to Palestine. In any event, he grossed less than $1500 in three years and three years after his return, Melville found a dull job in the New York Customs Service as an Inspector. It was the job he would retain the rest of his life.

Through all of it and until he died, Melville continued writing poetry. This time it was Clarel, his epic poem about Palestine and a young man's search for faith. While not autobiographical, the poem utilizes images and experiences from his journals. But why poetry? Why even to continue writing?

Even Melville himself said about Clarel it’s “a metrical affair, a pilgrimage or what not, of several thousand lines eminently adapted for unpopularity.”

Clarel was finished and published in 1876. To no one's surprise including apparently Melville's, the reception was almost uniformly negative. Writing in 1876, Edmund Clarence Stedman of the New York Tribune, wrote, “There is ... no plot in the work; but neither do the theological doubts, questions, and disputations indulged in by the characters, and those whom they meet, have any logical course or lead to any distinct conclusions.”

When Melville died in 1891, he was almost completely forgotten.  Anyway, so back to the question regarding why I’m reading Clarel. I suppose my only answer is: for the same reason Melville wrote it. 

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Byron Rocks, Sort of

Byron wrote “She walks in beauty, like the night,” and “The Destruction of Sennacherib,” as lyrics to go with music composed by his friend, Isaac Nathan. Nathan was not only a composer, but a Jewish composer, which made both Byron's collaboration with him noteworthy and, at the time, scandalous. The collection, first offered in 1815, sold out immediately. Pirated editions, cashing in on the collection’s popularity, also sold out. And Byron and Nathan collaborated on an expanded version, published the following year.

She Walks in Beauty

You can hear several more of Byron's poems set to music at this site.

The music does, indeed, give a different kind of power to the poems. Byron wrote “She walks in beauty,” on seeing his cousin’s new wife at an evening event, wearing the black of mourning, looking beautiful and virtuous; Nathan matched that with a melody for “Lekha Dodi,” which envisions the Sabbath, arriving at evening, as a virtuous bride. Byron wrote “Oh Snatch’d Away in Beauty’s Bloom,” a mournful poem about the futility of mourning, which Nathan set to a meditative melody. “The Destruction of Sennacherib,” Byron’s dramatic retelling of 2 Kings 32-37, the miraculous plague that foils an invasion of Judah, pairs with Nathan’s dramatic music, reminiscent of Schubert’s uncanny “Erlking,” also written in 1815.

But then if it sounds so good, why did Nathan’s music disappear so completely? The paper sourced here claims anti-Semitism. Perhaps.