Tag: Poetry

Maya Angelou: The Most Important Virtue

“I’ve always had the feeling that life loves the liver of it.”

The legendary poet and writer Maya Angelou passed recently at her home in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. She was 86.

I first came across Angelou because of an odd habit she had: she liked to work in dirty hotel rooms. Sadly it took her passing for me to look a little deeper.

In a 1977 interview by journalist Judith Rich, found in Conversations with Maya Angelou, she reflects on the meaning of life and the most important virtue.

I’ve always had the feeling that life loves the liver of it. You must live and life will be good to you, give you experiences. They may not all be that pleasant, but nobody promised you a rose garden. But more than likely if you do dare, what you get are the marvelous returns. Courage is probably the most important of the virtues, because without courage you cannot practice any of the other virtues, you can’t say against a murderous society, I oppose your murdering. You got to have courage to do so. I seem to have known that a long time and found great joy in it.

Still curious? Check out: The Complete Collected Poems of Maya Angelou.

William Blake — Heaven and Hell

“If the lion was advised by the fox, he would be cunning.”

***

Two excerpts from William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell found in The Essential Blake.

The Voice of the Devil
All Bibles or sacred codes have been the causes of the following Errors.
1. That Man has two real existing principles: Viz: a Body & a Soul.
2. That Energy, call’d Evil, is alone from the Body; & that Reason, call’d Good, is alone from the Soul.
3. That God will torment Man in Eternity for following his Energies.

But the following Contraries to these are True
1. Man has no Body distinct from his Soul; for that call’d Body is a portion of Soul discern’d by the five Senses, the chief inlets of Soul in this age
2. Energy is the only life and is from the Body and Reason is the bound or outward circumference of Energy.
3. Energy is Eternal Delight.

Those who restrain desire, do so because theirs is weak enough to be restrained; and the restrainer or reason usurps its place & governs the unwilling.
And being restrain’d it by degrees becomes passive till it is only the shadow of desire.
The history of this is written in Paradise Lost, & the Governor or Reason is call’d Messiah.
And the original Archangel or possessor of the command of the heavenly host, is call’d the Devil or Satan and his children are call’d Sin & Death.
But in the Book of Job Miltons Messiah is call’d Satan.
For this history has been adopted by both parties.
It indeed appear’d to Reason as if Desire was cast out, but the Devil’s account is, that the Messiah fell, & formed a heaven of what he stole from the Abyss.

This is shewn in the Gospel, where he prays to the Father to send the comforter or Desire that Reason may have Ideas to build on, the Jehovah of the Bible being no other than he who dwells in flaming fire.
Know that after Christs death, he became Jehovah.
But in Milton; the Father is Destiny, the Son, a Ratio of the five senses, & the Holy-ghost, Vacuum!

Proverbs of Hell

In seed time learn, in harvest teach, in winter enjoy.
Drive your cart and your plow over the bones of the dead.
The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.
Prudence is a rich ugly old maid courted by Incapacity.
He who desires but acts not, breeds pestilence.
The cut worm forgives the plow.
Dip him in the river who loves water.
A fool sees not the same tree that a wise man sees.
He whose face gives no light, shall never become a star.
Eternity is in love with the productions of time.
The busy bee has no time for sorrow.
The hours of folly are measur’d by the clock, but of wisdom: no clock can measure.
All wholesome food is caught without a net or a trap.
Bring out number weight & measure in a year of dearth.
No bird soars too high, if he soars with his own wings.
A dead body, revenges not injuries.
The most sublime act is to set another before you.
If the fool would persist in his folly he would become wise.
Folly is the cloke of knavery.
Shame is Prides cloke.

Prisons are built with stones of Law, Brothels with bricks of Religion.
The pride of the peacock is the glory of God.
The lust of the goat is the bounty of God.
The wrath of the lion is the wisdom of God.
The nakedness of woman is the work of God.
Excess of sorrow laughs. Excess of joy weeps.
The roaring of lions, the howling of wolves, the raging of the stormy sea, and the destructive sword, are portions of eternity too great for the eye of man.
The fox condemns the trap, not himself.
Joys impregnate. Sorrows bring forth.
Let man wear the fell of the lion, woman the fleece of the sheep.
The bird a nest, the spider a web, man friendship.
The selfish, smiling fool, & the sullen frowning fool shall be both thought wise, that they may be a rod.
What is now proved was once, only imagin’d.
The rat, the mouse, the fox, the rabbit: watch the roots; the lion, the tyger, the horse, the elephant, watch the fruits.
The cistern contains; the fountain overflows.
One thought, fills immensity.
Always be ready to speak your mind, and a base man will avoid you.
Every thing possible to be believ’d is an image of truth.
The eagle never lost so much time as when he submitted to learn of the crow.

The fox provides for himself, but God provides for the lion.
Think in the morning. Act in the noon. Eat in the evening. Sleep in the night.
He who has suffer’d you to impose on him knows you.
As the plow follows words, so God rewards prayers.
The tygers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction.
Expect poison from the standing water.
You never know what is enough unless you know what is more than enough.
Listen to the fools reproach! it is a kingly title!
The eyes of fire, the nostrils of air, the mouth of water, the beard of earth.
The weak in courage is strong in cunning.
The apple tree never asks the beech how he shall grow, nor the lion, the horse, how he shall take his prey.
The thankful reciever bears a plentiful harvest.
If others had not been foolish, we should be so.
The soul of sweet delight, can never be defil’d.
When thou seest an Eagle, thou seest a portion of Genius, lift up thy head!
As the catterpiller chooses the fairest leaves to lay her eggs on, so the priest lays his curse on the fairest joys.
To create a little flower is the labour of ages.
Damn, braces: Bless relaxes.
The best wine is the oldest, the best water the newest.
Prayers plow not! Praises reap not!
Joys laugh not! Sorrows weep not!

The head Sublime, the heart Pathos, the genitals Beauty, the hands & feet Proportion.
As the air to a bird of the sea to a fish, so is contempt to the contemptible.
The crow wish’d every thing was black, the owl, that every thing was white.
Exuberance is Beauty.
If the lion was advised by the fox, he would be cunning.
Improvement makes strait roads, but the crooked roads without Improvement, are roads of Genius.
Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires.
Where man is not nature is barren.
Truth can never be told so as to be understood, and not be believ’d.
Enough! or Too much!

The Divine Comedy

Is Dante still relevant in our new world? As if to prove this point, the most recent season of Mad Men kicked off with John Ciardi’s 1954 translation of Inferno:

Midway in our life’s journey, I went astray
from the straight road and woke to find myself
alone in a dark wood.

Last month poet and critic Clive James released a new translation of The Divine Comedy. Although, in fairness, it’s more of an interpretation than a strict translation. I don’t think the purists would enjoy it, but if you’re not doing a masters thesis on it, I think you’ll love this translation. I know I’m certainly enjoying it.

If you read Dante in the original italian it flows. Even in the dryest section you feel yourself being pulled forward because of the rhymes. English translations, however, are tricky in large part because it’s extremely difficult to translate Dante’s interlocking three-line rhyme scheme to English.

James opted for a strict, but English-friendly, rhyme scheme.

At the mid-point of the path through life, I found
Myself lost in a wood so dark, the way
Ahead was blotted out. The keening sound
I still make shows how hard it is to say
How harsh and bitter that place felt to me —

James, who turned 73 last year, has written a lot of other books. But he says Dante is different: “In a way, I’ve spent my whole life training for it.” James fell in love with The Divine Comedy in Florence in the 1960s when his girlfriend, Prue Shaw, read romantic passages from the original Italian to him.

“Dante is very compact, and there’s so much going on in a tight space that you’d swear you were reading a modern poet,” James continued in his NYT interview. “The temptation for any Italian poet is just outright lyricism, because the language is so beautiful. But Dante is never beautiful for its own sake, and every sentence, every line, is loaded with incident and meaning and wordplay.”

“You’ve got to be both accurate and inventive and not let the inventiveness destroy the accuracy,” he said. “You don’t want to sound too oldy-worldy, but on the other hand it mustn’t sound too new-worldy. And you don’t want any Hollywood slang creeping in.”

The NPR’s Camila Domonoske sums it up best: “This isn’t a student’s version of the Commedia. It’s a translation for readers who are culturally engaged, willing to follow lengthy narratives, and curious about free will and the soul.”

Take a look at these beautiful passages from Canto 1 of James’ translation.

This one propelled such terror from its face
Into my mind, all thoughts I had before
Of ever rising to a state of grace
Were crushed. And so, as one who, mad for gain,
Must find one day that all he gains is lost

My sage, so tell me how this mad attack
Can be called off. Then he: “You need to choose
Another route.” This while he watched me weep.
“This way there’s no way out. You’re bound to lose:
Bound by the spell of this beast pledged to keep
You crying, you or anyone who tries
To get by. In a bad mood it can kill,
And it’s never in a good mood. See those eyes?
So great a hunger nothing can fulfil.

The best part of Divine Comedy is Hell. In part, this is because Dante explores a lot of human folly. Before picking up James’ version, it had been a couple of years since I last read Dante, I missed him more than I thought.

(H/T NPR)

W.H. Auden’s Horae Canonicae

We live in a multi-tasking world, but every so often we get lost in a task. We become so lost in what we are doing that time flies. We miss a meal, not because we are busy, but rather, because we are so lost in what we are doing that we fail to notice we are hungry.

“And only those who have experienced that complete absorption of the self in something else,” writes Alan Jacobs in ,”something beautiful, know also what it means to have misplaced that capacity; only we know the anxiety that arises from the fear we may never have that again,” writes Alan Jacobs in The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction.

Jacobs argues that these moments are why attention is worth cultivating: “not just because it’s good for you or because it can help you ‘organize your world,’ but because such raptness is deeply satisfying.

In his series of poems, Horae Canonicae, W.H. Auden captures this desirable condition:

You need not see what someone is doing
to know if it is his vocation,

you have only to watch his eyes:
a cook mixing a sauce, a surgeon

making a primary incision,
a clerk completing a bill of lading,

wear the same rapt expression,
forgetting themselves in a function.

How beautiful it is,
that eye-on-the-object look.

Rudyard Kipling: How To Be A Man

Some more timeless wisdom from Rudyard Kipling:

If …

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;

If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream – and not make dreams your master;
If you can think – and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;

If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with wornout tools:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;

If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with kings – nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;

If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run –
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And – which is more – you’ll be a Man my son!

Photo by Roger-Viollet

My Symphony

My Symphony

To live content with small means;
To seek elegance rather than luxury,
And refinement rather than fashion;
To be worthy, not respectable, and wealthy, not, rich;
To study hard, think quietly,
Talk gently,
Act frankly;
To listen to stars and birds, babes and sages, with open heart;
To bear all cheerfully,
Do all bravely,
Await occasions,
Hurry Never.
In a word, to let the spiritual, unbidden and unconscious, grow up through the common.
This is my symphony.

— William Henry Channing

My Symphony was a favorite poem of Hetty Howland Robinson Green — The Richest Woman in America.

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