If you read a lot of poems, most of them don’t.
Click into place for you, that is.
And then you read one, and it’s like you’re old friends already. That shock of recognition. Weird.
There are lots of reasons why this happens, not all of them to do with the quality or beauty of the poem. Sometimes the poem speaks to you because the circumstances of the writer are close to your own. And sometimes this similarity stretches across time uncannily.
Here, for example, is a fragment from Sappho, translated by Aaron Poochigian:
That later on,
Even in an age unlike our own,
Someone will remember who we are.
(Μνάσεσθαί τινά φαμι καὶ ὔστερον ἀμμέων.)
Poochigian has created a brief rhyming form for his translation (see Don Paterson, 2004, “a poem is just a little machine for remembering itself”). Neat and clever. One line from Sappho – just the remark that human beings will remember ‘us’, whoever we are – creates a rhyme that confirms the sentiment and is, by the way in which it’s voiced, memorable. Sappho lived two and a half millennia ago. Someone two and a half milliennia ago shared our preoccupation with being remembered.
Actually, the note in the Poochigian’s Penguin Sappho tells me this fragment “appears near the end of a Discourse wrongly ascribed to the Greek writer . . . Dio Chrysostum”: it is a line spoken by a character who is upset because his statue has been taken down – so he “lectures the Corinthians on immortality through art”. Not a personal statement from Sappho, then. And yet perhaps it is. We want it to be, don’t we? We want that to be the voice of Sappho resounding through the centuries, human speaking to human.
Because part of the point of art, especially written art (though Sappho expected to be remembered by ear, not by book), is connected with memory. We want to be remembered. But not just that. Our writing is an attempt for something to be remembered (Poochigian uses this poem as an epigraph to his own first collection, The Cosmic Purr). We feel as though our little lives, insignificant as they are, hold clues to something meaningful.
—Forgive me. I need to digress. I have discovered only this morning that a whole element of history has escaped me. I didn’t know that our way of talking about ancient history as B.C. (Before Christ) and A.D. (Anno Domini, or in the year of Our Lord) has changed. Am I the only person not to have known that now most scholars say CE and BCE? And that CE can ignore Christ because it stands for Common Era (though if you are Christian, you can take the letters to mean Christian Era)? And BCE obviously came before that.
The new terminology doesn’t compensate for the fact that numbers getting smaller as people get older BCE is confusing. But how odd that I didn’t know A.D. had been consigned, along with Noah, to the ark. It’s comforting to note that Carol Ann Duffy, in the preface to the Penguin edition, refers to Sappho as born “after 630 BC”, while the translator (Poochigian) in his introduction to the same volume says she was “born after 630 BCE”. Duffy is my generation. Poochigian is still in his thirties.
Anyway, thanks to the internet I have adjusted my mental framework. The other ancient poet I am working my way towards is more straightforward because she’s a CE poet, so her dates go in the same order as ours: born in 1084 and living to about 1151. I’m referring to Li Ch’ing-chao or Li Qingzhao, another woman whose voice floats down through history. Again, her poems were written as songs with tunes, but print has allowed them to survive. Here is ‘Cassia Flowers’ from the Complete Poems translated by Kenneth Rexroth.
After my sickness
My temples have turned gray
I lie and watch the waning moon
Climb up the gauze window screen.
I boil a drink of cardamom leaf tips
Instead of tea.
It is good to rest on my pillows
And write poetry.
Before the door
Beautiful in wind, shadow and rain,
All day the fragrant cassia blossoms
Bend toward me, delicate and subtle.
Perhaps this poem would not have ‘clicked’ with me normally. I haven’t been sick. My hair is fading but not going gray. I don’t know what cassia blossoms are though I think they may look something like this (follow the link). In her next poem, though, she says “I have studied poetry for thirty years”. I can relate to that.
But I came to this lyric via another route. I am working, as I said last week, on a volume of poems by Tom Duddy. In many ways I feel as though I’m following him through his last couple of years, reading the life through the poems, trying to get inside his head. Here is one of his written in January 2012 (he died six months later). It’s titled ‘First Week of New Year Before Treatment Begins’.
Outside, the storm that came up
as the darkness came down
whacks the loose fence
against the gate-post
at our westerly gable.
An engine that can only be
a water pump or road drill
doing emergency work
has droned for hours
like a small biplane
circling nonstop over Cherry Park.
I drowse by the wood fire,
reading over and over
(during brief spells when
the sparking logs rouse me)
Li Ch’ing-chao’s ‘Cassia Flowers’.
Now both poems have clicked. I see why Tom read ‘Cassia Flowers’ “over and over”. The Chinese poet wrote this when she was ill; writing was a comfort to her. Tom read it in the same situation. It’s not hard to see and feel the electric connection between two human beings across centuries.
Tom Duddy knew the secrets that make poems remember themselves. Here, the immortality is in the detail. It’s in the word “whacks” that recreates the noise of the loose fence in the storm. It’s in the irrelevant engine that has “droned for hours”, and which only an ill person could notice so precisely. It's in the “sparking logs”. It's in the connection between human experience and the weather: the calm after a storm. It’s in the name “Cherry Park”, a housing estate in Galway. I wonder whether Tom heard, even there in the word “Cherry”, an echo of those cassia flowers.
His poem captures that feeling of indolence, the haze that slows down time when we’re neither ill nor well, when action and initiative are removed from us. You can hear it in the sound of the words: flowers, rouse, fire, drowse. Human beings, so long as we've existed, must have felt like this at such a time. And Tom’s book, The Years, is at least partly about the mystery of time itself: the way the years vanish in an instant, but also how they stop, everything focussed, sudden and alive, in a single moment.