TCS: It Fits Your Palm Just So – 200 Years in 16 Poems and 5 Quotes

Good Morning!

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Welcome to The Coffee Shop, just for you early risers
on Monday mornings. This is an Open Thread forum,
so if you have an off-topic opinion burning a hole in
your brainpan, feel free to add a comment.
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Poetry is nearer to vital truth than history.
– Plato

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This month continues to supply us with a persuasion of poets – in a mere four days, we have seven poets born in three different centuries and five countries. It’s been a challenge to me, because only four of them wrote in English. Translations, particularly of poetry, are always difficult. In one case, I was able to find two different translations of the same poem, and I’ve given you both of them, because they each have something the other lacks, but together, they may bring us closer to that original “vital truth” of which Plato spoke.
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There has been a certain view of poetry as elitist that has unfortunately taken root — that it can only be written, read, or understood by educated people. Our first poet, Maria James, was mostly self-educated, and earned her living as a nursery maid. Her poems might so easily have disappeared without a trace, if her poem Ode on the Fourth of July 1833 had not been shown to an Episcopal bishop who was professor at Union College.

October 11, 1793Maria James born in Wales, American poet; emigrated to the U.S. with her family at age 7; after she was found to make neat stitches but sewed too slowly, her apprenticeship to a dressmaker was ended, and she went into domestic service, most often as a nursery maid. She wrote poetry in her limited spare time. In 1833, Sarah Nott Potter returned from a visit to friends, and showed her husband, Bishop Alonzo Potter, a copy of a poem written by a young woman in service to the family she visited . The Bishop was intrigued, and sought more poems written by Maria James. In 1839, he arranged for the publication of Wales and other Poems, with a lengthy — and pretty pompous — introduction written by himself, telling readers that Maria James “solaced a life of labor with intellectual occupations,” and that “her achievements should be made known to repress the supercilious pride of the privileged and educated.”

Motto

by Maria James

I would not ask, — for that were vain, —
To mingle with the reaper train, —
Who gaily sing, as hast’ning by
To pile their golden sheaves on high;
But with the group who meet the view,
In kerchief red and apron blue,
I crave the scatter’d ears they yield,
To bless the gleaner of the field.


To a Singing Bird

by Maria James

Hush, hush that lay of gladness,
It fills my heart with pain,
But touch some note of sadness,
Some melancholy strain,
That tells of days departed,
Of hopes forever flown;
Some golden dream of other years,
To riper age unknown.

The captive, bow’d in sadness,
Impatient to be free,
Might call that lay of gladness
The voice of liberty, —
Again the joyous carol,
Warn gushing, peals along,
As if thy very latest breath
Would spend itself in song.

Oft as I hear those tones of thine,
Will thoughts like these intrude;
‘If once compared, thy lot with mine,
How cold my gratitude.

Though gloom, or sunshine, mark the hours,
Thy bosom, ne’ertheless,
Will pour, as from its inmost fount,
The tide of thankfulness.’


Both poems are in the public domain.

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“Nacer hombre” is one of the best-known poems by Adela Zamudio. Here, it is translated by two different translators. Comparing the two versions shows some of the difficulties in giving the reader in a different language some feeling for the poem in its original tongue.

October 11, 1854Adela Zamudio (1854-1928) born, Bolivian poet, feminist, essayist, and educator, cited as the most famous Bolivian poet, and the founder of the Bolivian feminist movement. Her first poem to be published was “Two Roses” when she was 15 years old, under her pen-name, Soledad. Her first book, Poetic Essays, wasn’t published until 1887. Zamudio taught at Escuela San Alberto, and later became a director of a girls’ high school, which was renamed Liceo Adela Zamudio in her honor. She was an advocate of higher education for women, an outspoken critic of the Catholic Church’s paternalism, and campaigned for women’s rights, separation of church and state, civil marriage, legalization of divorce, and the labor movement. A Bolivian Catholic women’s group publically condemned her.  She was one of the founders of Feminiflor, a Bolivian feminist magazine, compiled a spelling book in Quechua for use in schools, and composed many poems in the Quechua language. In 1926, she was awarded a medal by Bolivia’s president for her writing. Her birthday is now honored in Bolivia as Día de la Mujer Boliviana.


Born a Man

by Adela Zamudio

It’s so much work, she must confess,
grappling with the sloth of her spouse,
cleaning his home, handling his mess!
(Let’s imagine it, if we can.)
He is useless and fatuous,
yet remains the head of the house,
because he’s a man.

Were she to pen a verse, they’d think
some man did the composition,
her part naught but a name in ink.
(Let’s imagine it, if we can.)
But if he is not a poet,
why accept this supposition?
Because he’s a man.

A brute votes on election day;
he is a man, and that’s the rule.
Yet brilliant women have no say.
(Let’s imagine it, if we can.)
Teach him to sign his name, that’s all;
it matters not if he’s a fool,
because he’s a man.

He gambles, he drinks, and he pouts
whenever his luck has gone wrong,
while she suffers, struggles, and doubts.
(Let’s imagine it, if we can.)
Yet they call her “the weaker sex”
and he’s reputed to be strong,
because he’s a man!

She must forgive if she is cursed
with a husband who cheats and lies.
And what if the roles are reversed?
(Let’s imagine it, if we can.)
He can kill in a fit of rage
and say he’s the victim! That flies,
because he’s a man!

Most fortunate of mortals,
how thoroughly and truly
(albeit, though, unduly)
you enjoy unquestioned fame!
Merely being born a man
was enough to make your name.

  • translated by Laura Nagel

To Be Born a Man

by Adela Zamudio

She works so hard
to make up for the sloth
of her husband, and in the house
(Pardon my surprise.)
he’s so inept and pompous,
that of course he’s the boss
because he’s a man!

If some poems get written,
a person must have written them,
but she just transcribed them.
(Pardon my surprise.)
If we’re not sure who’s the poet,
why assume it was him?
Because he’s a man!

A smart, classy woman
can’t vote in elections,
but the poorest felon can.
(Pardon my surprise.)
If he can just sign his name
even an idiot can vote
because he’s a man!

He sins and drinks and gambles
and in a backwards twist of luck
she suffers, fights, and prays.
(Pardon my surprise.)
That we call her the “frail sex”
and him the “strong sex”
because he’s a man!

She has to forgive him
when he’s unfaithful;
but he can avenge himself.
(Pardon my surprise.)
In a similiar case
he’s allowed to kill her
because he’s a man!

Oh, privileged mortal
you enjoy lifelong
honor and perfect ease!
For this, to get all this,
it’s enough for you
to be born a man.


  • translated by Liz Henry

 “Nacer hombre” from Poemas by Adela Zamudio

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October 11, 1885François Mauriac born, French novelist, playwright, poet, and journalist; awarded the 1952 Nobel Prize in Literature; his novel Le Désert de l’amour was awarded the 1926 Grand Prix du roman de l’Académie française.

I couldn’t find any poems by François Mauriac in translation – he is much better known for his novels – but I like these quotes, though the translators are unidentified:

  • “If you would tell me the heart of a man, tell me not what he reads, but what he rereads.”
  • “Most men resemble great deserted palaces: the owner occupies only a few rooms and has closed off wings where he never ventures.”
  • “To love someone is to see a miracle invisible to others.”
  • “Even the genuinely good cannot, unaided, learn to love. To penetrate beyond the absurdities, the vices, and, above all, the stupidities of human creatures, one must possess the secret of a love which the world has now forgotten. Until that secret shall have been discovered, all betterment in conditions of life will be in vain”
  • “I believe that only poetry counts … A great novelist is first of all a great poet.”

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Arna Wendell Bontemps is not as well known now as other influential figures of the Harlem Renaissance, and it’s easier to find copies of his novels than his poetry.

October 13, 1902 – Arna Wendell Bontemps born in Louisiana to a Creole family, American poet, novelist, and librarian, notable figure in the Harlem Renaissance. The Bontemps family moved to Los Angeles when Arna was three years old, and settled in the Watts district. After graduating from college in 1923, he worked for the post office, until he moved to New York in 1924.

A Black Man Talks of Reaping

by Arna Wendell Bontemps

I have sown beside all waters in my day.
I planted deep, within my heart the fear
that wind or fowl would take the grain away.
I planted safe against this stark, lean year.

I scattered seed enough to plant the land
in rows from Canada to Mexico
but for my reaping only what the hand
can hold at once is all that I can show.

Yet what I sowed and what the orchard yields
my brother’s sons are gathering stalk and root;
small wonder then my children glean in fields
they have not sown, and feed on bitter fruit.

“A Black Man Talks of Reaping” from American Poetry: The Twentieth Century, Volume 2; © 1926 by Arna Bontemps – Library of America


The Day-Breakers

by Arna Wendell Bontemps

We are not come to wage a strife
With swords upon this hill,
It is not wise to waste the life
Against a stubborn will.
Yet would we die as some have done.
Beating a way for the rising sun.

“The Day-Breakers” from The Book of American Negro Poetry – Harcourt, Brace and Company – 1922 edition

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In Masaoka Shiki’s short life, he became a major influence in the development of the modern haiku, and his literary criticism helped encourage the modern revival of the tanka poetic form.

October 14, 1867 – Masaoka Shiki born as Masaoka Noboru, Japanese poet, author , and literary critic during the Meiji period. One of the four great haiku masters, along with Matsuo Bashō, Yosa Buson, and Kobayashi Issa. He died of tuberculosis at age 34 in 1902.

Haiku by Masaoka Shiki

a spring day
a long line of footprints
on the sandy beach


a hollyhock
shot up to meet
the summer solstice


a dog howling
sound of footsteps
longer nights


autumn is leaving
tugging each others’ branches
two pine trees


a light
newly lit —
first winter drizzle


translated by Burton Watson

Masaoka Shiki: Selected Poems, translation © 1998 by Burton Watson – Columbia University Press

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Those who accuse feminists of being dour and humorless should read Katha Pollitt’s poems, which are full humor and wit. I love her poetry – so it was hard to narrow down the choices to just four of her wonderful poems.

October 14, 1949Katha Pollitt born in Brooklyn, New York, American essayist poet, critic, and feminist. She writes a bimonthly column, “Subject to Debate,” for The Nation magazine, and is the author of four essay collections and two books of poetry. She was The Frost Place poet-in-residence in 1977, and her poetry collection Antarctic Traveller won the 1983 National Book Critics Circle Award. Her 2014 nonfiction book, Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights is an unapologetic and wholehearted defense of abortion as a moral right and force for social good.


An Anthology of Socialist Verse

by Katha Pollitt

On every page a hero shakes his fist
while women on tractors chant deliriously “Take me”,
hydroelectric dams, of their own free will,
produce a cascade of roses and bicycles

and poets burst into tears
accusing themselves of pallor and bad digestion,
of sleeping late, of staring at the moon.
Of being sad. Of writing poetry.


“An Anthology of Socialist Verse” appeared in Poetry magazine’s October/November 1987 issue


Fishbowl

by Katha Pollitt

Here too loud dressers jostle
languid dandies waving their long scarves.
Beauties drift and dream in a golden forest,
Flashers scavenge quick meals on the bottom.

Here too it’s good to be stupid,
to forget the glass behind you and not see
the glass that curves and shimmers dead ahead
and so believe you slice through immense oceans.


“An Anthology of Socialist Verse” and “Fishbowl” appeared in Poetry magazine’s October/November 1987 issue


Eggplant

by Katha Pollitt

Like a dark foghorn in the yellow kitchen
we imagine the eggplant’s
melancholy bass
proclaiming its pompous, operatic sorrows
a prince down on his luck
preserving among peasants
an air of dignified, impenetrable gloom
or Boris, dying,
booming, I am still the Tsar.


“Eggplant” appeared in Poetry magazine’s June 1978 issue


Tomato

by Katha Pollitt

It is the female fruit: the plush
red flesh the fat
sac of seeds and o
those silky membranes
plump and calm
it fits your palm just so
it is that perfect softball of your childhood
the one you always lost
you can stroke the sleek skin
you can thumb
the comfortable pulp beneath
here’s
all soft gum
no sheer
secret murderous teeth.


“Tomato” appeared in Poetry magazine’s April 1979 issue

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There’s just nobody quite like e.e. cummings – a true original.

 October 14, 1894e.e. cummings born as Edward Estlin Cummings in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He studied Latin and Greek at Cambridge Latin High School, then got his BA and MA from Harvard, so he knew all the “rules” of grammar and of poetry, and threw most of them out. Poet and Critic Randall Jarrell declared, “No one else has ever made avant-garde, experimental poems so attractive to the general and the special reader.” His poetry collections include: Tulips & Chimneys; &; no thanks; and 1 X 1.


[Buffalo Bill ’s]

by e.e. cummings

Buffalo Bill ’s
defunct
who used to
ride a watersmooth-silver
stallion
and break onetwothreefour five pigeonsjust like that

Jesus
he was a handsome man
and what i want to know is
how do you like your blue-eyed boy
Mister Death


“[Buffalo Bill ’s]” from e. e. cummings: Complete Poems, 1904-1962, © 1994 by the Trustees for the E.E. Cummings Trust – Liveright Books


crazy jay blue

by e.e. cummings

crazy jay blue)
demon laughshriek
ing at me
your scorn of easily

hatred of timid
& loathing for (dull all
regular righteous
comfortable) unworlds

thief crook cynic
(swimfloatdrifting
fragment of heaven)
trickstervillian

raucous rogue &
vivid voltaire
you beautiful anarchist
(i salute thee


“crazy jay blue” from e. e. cummings: Complete Poems, 1904-1962, © 1994 by the Trustees for the E.E. Cummings Trust – Liveright Books

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About wordcloud9

Nona Blyth Cloud has lived and worked in the Los Angeles area for the past 50 years, spending much of that time commuting on the 405 Freeway. After Hollywood failed to appreciate her genius for acting and directing, she began a second career managing non-profits, from which she has retired. Nona has now resumed writing whatever comes into her head, instead of reports and pleas for funding. She lives in a small house overrun by books with her wonderful husband.
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