Friday, December 12, 2008

Poem of the Week 11/10/2008: Sing a Song of Sixpence

Sing a Song of Sixpence

Sing a song of sixpence,
a pocket full of rye.
Four and twenty blackbirds,
baked in a pie.

When the pie was opened,
the birds began to sing.
Wasn't that a dainty dish
to set before the king?

The king was in his counting house,
counting out his money.
The queen was in the parlour,
eating bread and honey.

The maid was in the garden,
hanging out the clothes,
When down came a blackbird
and pecked off her nose!

There was such a commotion
that little Jenny wren
Flew down into the garden
and put it back again

Unknown, 17th Century

For some reason this song popped into my head today, and I thought it's actually a really nice, surrealist, fun poem to put up. One could say all sorts of silly academic things about it, but is there a need to talk about the surprise of the moment, the inherent violence of the children's song exploding out of the pie into the king's face, the role of the Jenny wren... all of that seems kind of funny and postmodern in the face of this little old song. 

Poem of the Week 11/3/2008: from The Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 1: The War Within

from The Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 1: The War Within

Having seen your son's forces set in their
places and the fighting about to begin, Arjuna
spoke these words to Sri Krishna

O Krishna, drive my chariot between the two
armies. I want to see those who desire to fight
with me. With whom will this battle be fought?
I want to see those assembled to fight for
Duryodhana, those who seek to please the evil-
minded son of Dhritarashtra by engaging in war.

Thus Arjuna spoke, and Sri Krishna, driving his
splendid chariot between the two armies, facing
Bhishma and Drona and all the kings of the earth,
said: "Arjuna, behold all the Kurus gathered together."

And Arjuna, standing between the tweo armies,
saw fathers and grandfathers, teachers, uncles,
and brothers, sons and grandsons, in-laws
and friends. Seeing his kinsmen established
in opposition, Arjuna was overcome by
sorrow. Despairing, he spoke these words:

O Krishna, I see my own relations here anxious
to fight, and my limbs grow weak; my mouth is
dry, my body shakes, and my hair is standing on
end. My skin burns, and the bow Gandiva has
slipped from my hand. I am unable to stand; my
mind seems to be whirling. These signs bode evil
for us. I do not see that any good can come from
killing our relations in battle. O Krishna, I have
no desire for victory, or for a kingdom of pleasures.

... Arjuna explains at length the ills of going to war against his own friends and family, until,

Overwhelmed by sorrow, Arjuna spoke these words.
And casting away his bow and his arrows, he sat
down in his chariot in the middle of the battlefield.

translated by Eknath Easwaran

It is telling that this chapter heading is, "the War Within," for we must ask, in this introductory section, what this war consists in. "Bhagavad Gita,'" translated, means "song of God," and so it seems that the violence cannot be real, or rather against other beings; rather, the violence is that of a war within. But what is this war? Well, it is a war for a kingdom and pleasures; if I had included the introduction section, it would become clear that it is also a family war, presumably the result of years of inherited grudges, misdeeds, and tiffs. It is a very great war, with two sides, each trying to beat the other, each side matched. Arjuna lets us know that the war is against Duryodhana's minons, who are attempting to please the "evil-minded one." All of these are facts. But are they the entire story?

The song probably includes many levels of interpretation, the large scale ideas about "following one's dharma," doing what one ought in a damned if you do, damned if you don't situation, but I think this moment is also a moment of confronting oneself, of having to sacrifice a personality, or a desire or craving, or a fear-- in the following sections, Sri Krishna gives Arjuna a teaching about the nature of reality and illusion, ego and Atman/Self... for a small book it spans the whole cosmos. You really ought to read it when you want to do so. It's on Google Books, even:,M1

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Poem of the Week 10/27/2008: You I choose, of all the world alone

You I choose, of all the world, alone;
Will you suffer me to sit in grief?
My heart is as a pen in your hand,
You are the cause if I am glad or melancholy.
Save what you will, what will have I?
Save what you show, what do I see?
You make grow out of me now a thorn and now a rose;
Now I smell roses and now pull thorns.
If you keep me that, that I am;
If you would have me this, I am this.
In the vessel where you give color to the soul
Who am I, what is my love and hate?
You were first, and last you shall be;
Make my last better than my first.
When you are hidden, I am of the infidels;
When you are manifest, I am of the faithful.
I have nothing, except you have bestowed it;
What do you seek from my bosom and sleeve?

translated by R. A. Nicholson

I don't think this poem is about a lover, as in flesh and blood. Instead it is about The Lover, Rumi's beloved, the One and Only, i.e. Truth, Reality, God, Objective Consciousness (poor english terminology is so impoverished). And it raises all sorts of fabulous questions--what is the nature of will, and what ought we really desire? What would real wishing be?