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Archive for the ‘Poetry’ Category

Canzon: The Yearly Slain

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Ceres and Proserpina (detail)
Ludwig Schwanthaler
(c) Barnaby Thieme

Today I’d like to share a lovely poem by Ezra Pound drawn from Canzoni & Ripostes by Pound and T. E. Hulme.

The poem was conceived as a response to Frederic Manning’s charming but inferior “Korè“. The subject of both poems is the goddess Persephone, daughter of Demeter and queen of the Underworld, sometimes called Kore, or maiden.

The locus classicus of Persephone’s well-known story is the Homeric “Hymn to Demeter“, written in honor of her mother, goddess of corn, known as Ceres to the Romans. One day, while gathering flowers, Persephone was seized by Hades, Lord of the Underworld, who dragged her below the earth to make her his queen. Demeter was heartbroken by the loss of her daughter and abandoned her office, and the land became barren and the fields infertile.

This time of infertility is widely interpreted in European literature as autumn and winter. However, in Greece, the time of infertility is not winter, but summer, when the fields lie untilled as the hard earth bakes beneath the harsh Mediterranean sun. The great Greek fertility festival honoring Demeter’s return to activity, the Thesmophoria, was held in autumn, at the beginning of the planting season.

Pound and Manning associate Persephone’s absence with winter, and beautifully employ melancholy autumnal images to signify her departure. Using the more generic term for the goddess, Kore, or maiden, they transpose the story onto a higher plane of generality. The loss of the maiden is also the loss of the beloved, and the sorrow of solitude is externalized by the falling away of the summer leaves.

As you read the poem, note the intricate and demanding rhyme scheme. Each stanza is ABCDEFG, repeating precisely throughout the entire poem (i.e., the first lines of every stanza rhyme, and so forth). This rhyme scheme is developed and perfected by the great Provençal Troubadour Arnaut Daniel, whom Pound regarded as perhaps the greatest of all poets. If the poem is slowly read aloud, the rhyme scheme produces a powerful musical effect that binds the whole together.

Canzon: The Yearly Slain
  (Written in reply to Manning’s “Korè.”)
       “Et huiusmodi stantiae usus est fere in omnibus
       cantionibus suis Arnaldus Danielis et nos eum secuti

              Dante, De Vulgari Eloquio, II. 10.


Ah! red-leafed time hath driven out the rose
And crimson dew is fallen on the leaf
Ere ever yet the cold white wheat be sown
That hideth all earth’s green and sere and red;
The Moon-flower’s fallen and the branch is bare,
Holding no honey for the starry bees;
The Maiden turns to her dark lord’s demesne.


Fairer than Enna’s field when Ceres sows
The stars of hyacinth and puts off grief,
Fairer than petals on May morning blown
Through apple-orchards where the sun hath shed
His brighter petals down to make them fair;
Fairer than these the Poppy-crowned One flees,
And Joy goes weeping in her scarlet train.


The faint damp wind that, ere the even, blows
Piling the west with many a tawny sheaf,
Then when the last glad wavering hours are mown
Sigheth and dies because the day is sped;
This wind is like her and the listless air
Wherewith she goeth by beneath the trees,
The trees that mock her with their scarlet stain.


Love that is born of Time and comes and goes!
Love that doth hold all noble hearts in fief!
As red leaves follow where the wind hath flown,
So all men follow Love when Love is dead.
O Fate of Wind! O Wind that cannot spare,
But drivest out the Maid, and pourest lees
Of all thy crimson on the wold again,


Kore my heart is, let it stand sans gloze!
Love’s pain is long, and lo, love’s joy is brief!
My heart erst alway sweet is bitter grown;
As crimson ruleth in the good green’s stead,
So grief hath taken all mine old joy’s share
And driven forth my solace and all ease
Where pleasure bows to all-usurping pain.


Crimson the hearth where one last ember glows!
My heart’s new winter hath no such relief,
Nor thought of Spring whose blossom he hath known
Hath turned him back where Spring is banishèd.
Barren the heart and dead the fires there,
Blow! O ye ashes, where the winds shall please,
But cry, “Love also is the Yearly Slain.”


Be sped, my Canzon, through the bitter air!
To him who speaketh words as fair as these,
Say that I also know the “Yearly Slain.”

Written by Mesocosm

October 26, 2012 at 8:30 am


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The Melancholy Spring, Wilhelm Lachnit
photo (C) Barnaby Thieme

by Georg Heym, translated by Mesocosm


A nest of young water rats in her hair,
And ringed hands like fins
In the flood, so she pushes through the shadows
of the great forests that come to rest in water.

The last sun that stumbled into shadow
Sinks deep into the sanctuary of her brain.
Why did she die? Why does she drive,
so alone, in the waters that fern and leaf confound?

The wind stands in the deep reeds. It drives
The bats off like a hand.
With dark pinions, wet from water,
They stand like smoke in the dark waterway

Like clouds of night. A longer, wiser eel
Slips over her breast. A glowworm shines
From her brow. And a willow weeps
foliage on her silent agony.


Grain. Seeds. And noon’s red sweat.
The field yellow wind sleeps quietly.
She comes, a bird who wants to sleep.
The swan’s wing covers her white.

The blue lids shadow gently down.
And by the scythes naked melodies
She dreams of a crimson kiss
The eternal dream in her eternal grave.

Gone, gone. Where the river bank roars
The sound of cities. Where the white river
is forced through dams. The reverberation is heard
With distant echoes. Where sounds below

Echo full of streets. Bells and chimes.
Screams of machines. Struggle. Where westward threatens
dull sunset in blind panes.
In which a crane with giant arms,

With black brow, a mighty tyrant
A juggernaut, so the black slaves kneel.
Burden heavy bridges, which draw above
like chains on the river, and hard spell.

Invisible she swims in the escort flood.
But where she drives past, the swarms of people pursue
With great wings of a dark grief,
Which cast shadows over both banks.

Gone, gone. As the darkness inaugurates
The westerly high summer day late,
Where in the dark green of the meadows stands
The distant evening’s delicate exhaustion.

The river carries them far away, the submerged,
Through some mourning port of winter.
Down from time. On through eternity,
which the horizon smokes like fire.

Georg Heym was an early Expressionist poet who spent much of his short life in Berlin. In 1912, he drowned in icy waters at the age of 24, while attempting to save a friend who had fallen through the ice.

Written by Mesocosm

May 27, 2012 at 7:55 pm


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by Hölderlin, translated by Mesocosm

Heidelberg Castle

Long have I loved you – wanted, for my own delight,
  To call you mother, and to offer you an artless song,
    You, the loveliest town that I have seen
        in the fatherland.

As the bird of the wild flying over the summit
  Swings past the river where it glistens above you,
    So the bridges, light and strong,
       From which wagons and people resound.

As if sent by the gods, a spell on the bridge
  once held me where I went over,
    and the beautiful distances shone
      to me here, in the mountains,

And the child-river moves off the plain,
  Bittersweet, like a heart overcome
    by its own beauty, downfall-loving,
      casting itself into the flood of time.

To the fugitive, you gave wellsprings
  and cool shadows, and all the shores
    watched after him, and the scene
      Quivered from her image’s waves.

But hard in the valley hung the gigantic
  destiny-knowing castle, down to the ground
    Torn apart by the weather;
      Yet the eternal sun poured

Her rejuvenating light on the aging,
  Colossal image, and around the green,
    vital ivy, friendly forests
      rustled down over the castle.

Bushes were blooming down, to the edges where
  the serene valley leaned on the hills or held the bank
    Your friendly streets
      Rest below the fragrant gardens.
All images (c) Barnaby Thieme. Click any to enlarge.

Heidelberg Castle


Written by Mesocosm

May 22, 2012 at 1:52 pm

Epigram for Poetry

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by Heiner Müller, translated by Mesocosm

Pegasus served the brave and honest of the poets of old
Carried them wingedly away over the terrestrial dust.
Today, busy with making the earth more palatable,
we need poets who are earthly and mechanized.
But our poets – what do they do? Drag out the old,
reliable horse from the stable, where he fed on charity.
Before the fragile one, they span the fast-driving
The lame horse behind the fast vehicle.
And it does not bother them, if he stumbles and breaks a
Spending old moans for new songs.

For J. K.
Dogs value lamp posts as much as birches.
Not so, the poet — he holds to birches alone.

To be permitted, it is allowed, one must only be capable, wrote one who was able.
Could the gods do nothing, because they could not?


I looked at this poem in particular because I’ve been reading Heidegger’s rather profound interpretation of Hölderlin’s hymns recently. Hölderlin perhaps represents the pinnacle of the German nostalgia for classical Greek culture, which he depicted in his poems as a distant realm of the absolute spirit, a place where gods walked the earth.

Hölderlin contrasted Greece with the materialistic and systematic character of his own culture, and interpreted Greece’s power to inspire the German imagination as the pull of the dialectical contrary or antithesis. In a sense, he believed, the spiritual vitality of Greece belonged more to the people of Germany, who, in making the journey outside of their home to the place where spirit made unveiled, encountered that realm in a way that the Greeks could not.

It is interesting to compare that view of of classical Greece with another great German poet, Heiner Müller, who worked a century and a half later. If Hölderlin’s Germany was animated by questions implied by the dialectical idealism of his close friend Hegel, then Müller’s DDR was structured by its antithesis, Marx’s dialectical materialism.

In Müller’s poem we have a much more ambivalent and tragic view of Germany’s use of classical Greece. Instead of the acme of immortality, the lyricism classical culture embodies is intensely fragile, and its message is perhaps no longer audible over the roar of the engines.

Müller’s own work is very much involved with reconceptualizing Europe’s relationship to its own heritage – please see my post on his masterpiece The Hamlet Machine for more on that subject.

Written by Mesocosm

May 18, 2012 at 10:13 am

Like Apples

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The Three Judges (detail)
Georges Rouault

“The field was the length
of this whole building, as far
across as the street is wide.
We’d fill it with potatoes.
I came from a big family
and we ate most of ’em –
they keep for a long time
in a cellar.”

He mostly turns toward me,
half-looking over his shoulder.

“We had a big triangle made of wood,
that had three points. We’d pull it
behind us with a rope. That was the rows.
And I’d go with a broom handle or a hoe
and poke holes into the ground just like this.”

He gestures two or three times.

“And my dad would come along with the potato,
or the eye of the potato,
and he’d stick it in the ground
and we’d cover it up.
They grow out in vines and
the potatoes grow underground, maybe
six of ’em on a plant. They had flowers
like anything else – white ones.”

He walks around to the other side of the big table.

“That was Pennsylvania. My father’s brother
owned a farm and let us use part of the land.”

He doesn’t look me in the eye, maybe shy.

“I remember in August the new potatoes – oh, God.
We would eat ’em like apples, they were so good.”

Written by Mesocosm

March 30, 2012 at 12:42 pm

Posted in Ephemera, Poetry

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New on Mesocosm: Links Roundup and Poetry Fridays

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Cupid and Psyche, Roman, c. 2nd Century CE
Altes Museum, Berlin

Hello, Mesocosm readers! I’m going to be trying out two new regular features – a periodic links roundup, and poetry Fridays.

Link Roundup

Some exciting news in paleobotany this week! First, a report that Russian scientists successfully grew flowers from 30,000-year-old fruit. A few days later, I read of a joint expedition in northern China excavating a Pompeii-like buried forest that is a staggering 300 million years old.

An international archaeological expedition is working in the Sumerian city of Ur, I am excited to report, and they have discovered a new temple dating back to around 2500 BCE.

The great songster Leonard Cohen has a new album out, and Cohen-biographer Liel Leibovitz has a story for the ages in this Tablet article.

From Bruce Schneier, I learned of this interesting post about a letter the famed game theorist John Nash wrote to the NSA in 1955. His musings appear to anticipate much of mainstream cryptography by decades.

National Geographic has an excellent article in their February issue about a beautiful charcoal and ink drawing that may well be a previously-unknown Leonardo da Vinci. The article is online here.

Finally, I was deeply saddened to learn that Arikamedu, an important historical site in India, has been recently devastated by a cyclone. First excavated by the great British archaeologist Mortimer Wheeler in the 1940s, Arikamedu was a Roman trading post in Tamil Nadu in southern India, established in the first century CE. The site had recently been ravaged by the 2004 tsunami.

Poetry Friday

On Poetry Friday I’m going to refer readers to poems that I enjoy on my Twitter Account – you can click the Follow button on the right of this page if you like.

We started two weeks ago with an snippet from the great Indian poet Kalidasa, and last week I referred readers to a lesser-known poem by E. E. Cummings, enter no (silence is the blood whose flesh.

(Yes, I said “E. E. Cummings,” which is how he more frequently signed his own name).

This week I would like call attention to the magnificent poem The Book of Thell, a (relatively) short work by William Blake. In this excerpt, the young maid Thell contemplates transience:

“O life of this our spring! why fades the lotus of the water?
Why fade these children of the spring, born but to smile & fall?
Ah! Thel is like a watry bow, and like a parting cloud,
Like a reflection in a glass, like shadows in the water,
Like dreams of infants, like a smile upon an infant’s face,
Like the dove’s voice, like transient day, like music in the air.
Ah! gentle may I lay me down, and gentle rest my head,
And gentle sleep the sleep of death, and gentle hear the voice
Of him that walketh in the garden in the evening time.”

The Lily of the valley, breathing in the humble grass
Answer’d the lovely maid and said: “I am a watry weed,
And I am very small, and love to dwell in lowly vales;
So weak, the gilded butterfly scarce perches on my head;
Yet I am visited from heaven, and he that smiles on all
Walks in the valley and each morn over me spreads his hand,
Saying: ‘Rejoice, thou humble grass, thou new-born lily flower,
Thou gentle maid of silent valleys and of modest brooks;
For thou shalt be clothed in light, and fed with morning manna,
Till summer’s heat melts thee beside the fountains and the springs
To flourish in eternal vales.’ Then why should Thel complain?”

Written by Mesocosm

February 24, 2012 at 9:24 am

Posted in Links, Poetry

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Kālidāsa’s Kumārasambhava

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Apsara, Madhya Pradesh, 10th Century
Image (C) Barnaby Thieme

Still sat Umā though scorched by various flame
    Of solar fire and fires of kindled birth,
Until at summer’s end the waters came.
    Steam rose from her body as it rose from earth.

With momentary pause the first drops rest
    Upon her lash then strike her nether lip,
Fracture upon the highland of her breast,
    Across the ladder of her waist then trip
And slowly at her navel come to rest.

5.23–24, trans. D. Ingalls

Update: I’ve written reviews of two superb translations of Kālidāsa’s work, The Origin of the Young God: Kalidasa’s Kumarasambhava by Hank Heifetz, and Chandra Rajan’s The Loom of Time, which includes a wonderful translation of his masterpiece “The Recognition of Shakuntala.” Barbara Stoller Miller’s Theater of Memory also includes a translation of that play, and translations of his other dramatic work as well. All three are terrific.

Written by Mesocosm

February 10, 2012 at 3:13 pm

Posted in Poetry

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Lettuce is My Hair

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Inanna's Descent, Sumerian Clay Tablet
Library of Ashurbanipal
British Museum

This charming Sumerian song was composed for a priestess to sing in the guise of the goddess Inanna, celebrating her mystical marriage to her lord Dumuzi, here incarnate as Shu-sin, the king of Ur at the dawn of the second millennium BCE.

The identification of the king with a god and the high priestess with the goddess, usually Inanna or Isthar, was the centerpiece of Sumerian and Babylonian religious culture for many centuries. During the New Year’s festival, the king would ascend the colossal pyramid-like ziggurat in the center of the city, and consummate his love for the goddess in a chamber at its apex. In this way, the Sumerian creation myth was ritually reenacted, setting the cycle of the seasons in motion for another round.

We’ve looked several times at the bull/moon god and his consort/mother on Mesocosm, such as in this post. Inanna and Dumuzi are the earliest such pair to figure in written material.

Though it is riddled with lacunae, the song is lovely, not least for its titular image of lettuce hair, which is beguiling for reasons known only to the vanished Sumerians, I think.

Lettuce is My Hair

My hair is lettuce, [planted] by the water,
It is gukkal-lettuce, [planted] by the water….
My attendant arranges it,
The attendant arranges my hair which is lettuce, the most-favored of plants.
The brother brought me into his life-giving gaze,
Shu-Sin has called me to (his) refreshing …. without [end].
You are our lord, you are our lord,
Silver (and) lapis lazuli – you are our lord,
Farmer who makes the grain stand high, – you are our lord,
For him who is the honey of my eye, who is the lettuce of my heart,
May the days of life come forth…..
It is a balbale of Inanna.

Translated by S. N. Kramer, from the indispensable volume:
Pritchard JB (ed.), Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament. Princeton University Press. 1969.

Written by Mesocosm

February 9, 2012 at 11:03 am

Posted in Ephemera, Poetry

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More Incredibly Conjugate

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From Chauvet Cave

From Robinson Jeffer’s “Roan Stallion”:

The atom bounds-breaking,
Nucleus to sun, electrons to planets, with recognition
Not praying, self-equaling, the whole to the whole, the microcosm
Not entering nor accepting entrance, more equally, more utterly,
more incredibly conjugate
With the other extreme and greatness; passionately perceptive of identity. . . .

The fire threw up figures
And symbols meanwhile, racial myths formed and dissolved in
it, the phantom rulers of humanity
That without being are yet more real than what they are born of,
and without shape, shape that which makes them:
The nerves and the flesh go by shadowlike, the limbs and the lives
shadowlike, these shadows remain, these shadows
To whom temples, to whom churches, to whom labors and wars,
visions and dreams are dedicate….

The entire poem can be read on PoemHunter, here.

Written by Mesocosm

November 17, 2011 at 6:44 pm

Posted in Ephemera, Poetry

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