The balm of poetry


Now that hugs have become virtual, and meals with friends take place on Zoom, it’s an opportunity to rediscover the solace of poetry. Poetry can be an endless source of comfort and inspiration.



And I won’t be seduced by the thought of my native language, its milky call.

How can it matter in what tongue I am misunderstood by whoever I meet.

Marina Tsvetaevna 


Eugenia Ginsburg was imprisoned in Stalin’s Gulag for a horrendous 17 years. She was a teacher, and what helped her survive was reciting poetry—sometimes to herself, sometimes aloud, with other prisoners. Her favorites were Anna Akhmatova and Marina Tsvetaevna. Poetry speaks to the heart: how many displaced people wouldn’t identify with the lines above. 

Geometric shapes can be soothing, too. Watercolor and colored pencil on khadi paper



I grow old, I grow old, I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.
Shall I part my hair behind?
Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers
And walk upon the beach
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each
I do not think that they will sing to me.

T. S. Eliot, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock


I am of a generation who still had to learn poems by heart, and even though we all complained at the time, this has since been a source of endless pleasure.

I think educational methods have vastly improved since my time, with endless learning by rote, dusty lists of dates and translations from the Latin and Ancient Greek being replaced by more interactive systems, and more emphasis on thinking and creativity. However, I find it a pity that learning poetry by heart has mostly been discontinued.

A 12-year-old boy of my acquaintance whose English teacher at school made the class write poems produced some lovely stuff, something which he would never have thought of doing on his own. Poetry can be very modern, and fun for kids.



WE REAL COOL. We

Left school. We

Lurk late. We

Strike straight. We

Sing sin. We 

Thin gin. We

Jazz June. We

Die soon.

—Gwendolyn Brooks, “We Real Cool”



As it happens, thousands of people still write poems, so this practice has not been discontinued at all. And I assume that those who write poetry, also enjoy reading it.

My favorite poet in my teens was T. S. Eliot, and he remains a favorite to this day, amongst many others. One I must mention today is Constantine Cavafy, the Alexandrian, Greek, poet-historian who was drawn to what was lost: forgotten Byzantine kingdoms, beautiful boys briefly glimpsed and never seen again. I think poetry is best read in the original, since a certain particular flavor or music is lost in translation; but the two poems below are quite close to the original.



Imagined voices, and beloved, too,
of those who died, or of those who are
lost unto us like the dead.

Sometimes in our dreams they speak to us;
sometimes in its thought the mind will hear them.

And with their sound for a moment there return
sounds from the first poetry of our life–
like music, in the night, far off, that fades away.



Voices, translated by Daniel Mendelsohn

*

This room, how well I know it. Now
they’re renting it, it and the one next door,
as offices. The whole house has been taken
over by agents, businessmen, concerns.

Ah but this one room, how familiar.

Here by the door was the couch. In front of that,
a Turkish carpet on the floor.
The shelf then, with two yellow vases. On the right―
no, opposite―a wardrobe with a mirror.
At the center the table where he wrote,
and the three big wicker chairs.
There by the window stood the bed
where we made love so many times.

Poor things, they must be somewhere to this day.

There by the window stood the bed: across it
the afternoon sun used to reach halfway.

…We’d said goodbye one afternoon at four,
for a week only. But alas,
that week was to go on forevermore.

The afternoon sun, translated by James Merrill



Most of us have the Oxford book of English poems or some other anthology lurking on our shelves, but most poetry nowadays can also be found on line. These days of confinement, dipping into them would make a change to bingeing on Netflix.

As for those stuck at home with children, kids love words that rhyme. I cannot count how many times I’ve read Room on the Broom, The Owl And the Pussycat, or Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes. And for people who can’t be bothered with doing it themselves, there’s a site called poetrygeneration, where someone reads aloud a different poem every day. A great selection of poems, beautifully read. 




18 thoughts on “The balm of poetry”

  1. I love your geometric designs, Marina. Two of my favourite poems, you probably know them.

    Not Waving but Drowning
    BY STEVIE SMITH
    Nobody heard him, the dead man,
    But still he lay moaning:
    I was much further out than you thought
    And not waving but drowning.

    Poor chap, he always loved larking
    And now he’s dead
    It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,
    They said.

    Oh, no no no, it was too cold always
    (Still the dead one lay moaning)
    I was much too far out all my life
    And not waving but drowning.

    When You Are Old
    BY WILLIAM BUTLER YEATS
    When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
    And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
    And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
    Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

    How many loved your moments of glad grace,
    And loved your beauty with love false or true,
    But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
    And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

    And bending down beside the glowing bars,
    Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
    And paced upon the mountains overhead
    And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

    Best wishes, Pete.

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  2. I remember reading T.S. Eliot at school and the first line of ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ is one I still come out with from time to time, even though I can’t remember all of the rest of it.
    I love both of Pete’s choices above too.
    My eldest daughter could recite the whole of ‘The Owl and the Pussycat’ when she was about four and I have it on film to prove it. It was adorable.
    Funny you should say that about educational methods. I found, when we moved to France 15 years ago, both girls who were aged 9 and 11 at the time, were expected to learn reams of stuff by rote which was doubly difficult as their French was in the beginning stages. I couldn’t really understand it and not sure I liked it but it is true that, to this day, I can recite my times tables and sometimes do so when I’m trying to get to sleep at night instead of counting sheep. Being able to quote multiple passages from ‘Pride and Prejudice’ has proved rather less useful.

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    1. Greek school is based on the French education system, so you can imagine the repetition… I love the tiny four year old knowing the whole poem. My three year old grandson only know the Fireman Sam song!

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  3. Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
    Close bosom friend of the maturing sun,
    Conspiring with him how to load and bless with fruit
    The vines that round the thatch eaves run.
    John Keats

    J’aime le son du Cor, le soir, au fond des bois,
    Soit qu’il chante les pleurs de la biche aux abois,
    Ou l’adieu du chasseur que l’écho faible accueille,
    Et que le vent du nord porte de feuille en feuille.
    Alfred de Vigny

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      1. Down in the southern hemisphere, we’re slowly coming into autumn, and these two made me think of northern Europe in September, about the equivalent season. “Le Cor’ is best declaimed in deep, sonorous tones – my father used to stride around the house on a Sunday morning before mass, treating us to a rendition! The actual poem is yards long, I’ve just given you the first verse.

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  4. Even as a teenager I regretted that we weren’t made to learn poems or chunks of good prose by heart. I regret it even more now. I’m reading the poems of John Donne, but they require a lot of concentration and I don’t have much to spare at the moment.

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