Tag: rhyme

Elizabeth Bishop, “Large Bad Picture”


Remembering the Strait of Belle Isle or
some northerly harbor of Labrador,
before he became a schoolteacher
a great-uncle painted a big picture.

Receding for miles on either side
into a flushed, still sky
are overhanging pale blue cliffs
hundreds of feet high,

their bases fretted by little arches,
the entrances to caves
running in along the level of a bay
masked by perfect waves.

On the middle of that quiet floor
sits a fleet of small black ships,
square-rigged, sails furled, motionless,
their spars like burnt match-sticks.

And high above them, over the tall cliffs’
semi-translucent ranks,
are scribbled hundreds of fine black birds
hanging n‘s in the banks.

One can hear their crying, crying,
the only sound there is
except for occasional sighing
as a large aquatic animal breathes.

In the pink light
the small red sun goes rolling, rolling,
round and round and round at the same height
in perpetual sunset, comprehensive, consoling,

while the ships consider it.
Apparently they have reached their destination.
It would be hard to say what brought them here,
commerce or contemplation.

~ ~ ~

I recently picked up a copy of Elizabeth Bishop’s Complete Poems, and it has been an incredible read so far. What I especially love about her work is her use of rhyme. She doesn’t draw attention to it the way old poets used to, constructing elaborate mechanisms to build rhyme structures into their poems. Bishop uses her rhymes casually but deliberately, like the way you might crack an egg into a frying pan. Rhyme in this fashion adds another level to the wordplay of the poem, amplifying meaning across words and lines, without erecting an artificial structure to hold the thing up. This is exactly why rhyme is used in poetry and why it is so important, a reason often lost on poets across generations.

Milton Bracker, “Tomorrow!”


For baseball’s Opening Day! (which is today, not “tomorrow” but still.)

Hoorah, hooray!
Be glad, be gay-
The best of reasons
Is Opening Day.
And cheering the players
And counting the gate
And running the bases
And touching the plate.
And tossing the ball out
And yelling Play Ball!
(Who cares about fall-out-
At least, until fall?)
Let nothing sour
This sweetest hour;
The baseball season’s
Back in flower!

Jorge Luis Borges, “No eres los otros” (plus a rant on translations)


No te habrá de salvar lo que dejaron
Escrito aquellos que tu miedo implora;
No eres los otros y te ves ahora
Centro del laberinto que tramaron
Tus pasos. No te salva la agonía
De Jesús o de Sócrates ni el fuerte
Siddharta de oro que aceptó la muerte
En un jardín, al declinar el día.
Polvo también es la palabra escrita
Por tu mano o el verbo pronunciado
Por tu boca. No hay lástima en el Hado
Y la noche de Dios es infinita.
Tu materia es el tiempo, el incesante
Tiempo. Eres cada solitario instante.

And in English, translated by yours truly:

The writings left behind by those whom
Your fears implore won’t have to save you;
You are not the others and you see yourself
Now at the center of the labyrinth woven
By your own steps. The agonies of Jesus or
Socrates will not save you, nor will the
Strength of Golden Siddhartha who,
At the end of the day, accepted death
In the garden. The word written
By your hand or the verb spoken
By your lips, these too are dust. Fate has no pity,
And God’s night is infinite.
Your matter is time, ceaseless
Time. You are each solitary moment.

* * *

It’s a beautiful poem, isn’t it? One of my favorites, in any language. The message in it is very important to me too, which is why I felt the need to put it in my own words, so to speak. The current published translation, though useful as a guide for me and my rusty Spanish, I feel did not do justice to Borges’ simple language. The translator (clearly a poet himself) had really gone all poet-y on it and added a great deal of flowery language that was very obviously not in the original poem. Having a pretty decent understanding of Spanish, I understand that a word-for-word translation is both impossible and unwieldy, and that certain certain changes and assumptions must be made in the translation (notably for this poem, any English version loses the beautiful rhyming in Spanish, such as fuerte/muertestrength/death). But to alter a poem, especially one by a master such as Borges, with your own “interpretation” rather than translation is, frankly, insulting to the author and the reader. It somehow implies that the translator knows more what Borges meant than Borges did. It’s important to understand the poet’s intent and adapt it to your language, but I feel it’s more important to let the work speak for itself with as little manipulation as possible.

Look at the last three lines:

Y la noche de Dios es infinita.
Tu materia es el tiempo, el incesante
Tiempo. Eres cada solitario instante.

I wrote it out almost literally:

And God’s night is infinite.
Your matter is time, ceaseless
Time. You are each solitary moment.

The published translation goes:

And the enduring night of God is boundless.
Your matter is time, its unchecked and unreckoned
Passing. You are each solitary second.

Enduring? Unchecked? Unreckoned? Passing? I don’t see these words in the original. I would assume that if Borges wanted those words included, he would have included them. But hey, maybe this person’s translation is better. I mean what do I know. His is published and mine isn’t. It just seems right to take Borges at face value and not dress it up so much.

Paul Muldoon, “Longbones”


When she came to me that night in Damascus Street
she was quite beside herself. Her father was about to die
and his mirror was covered with a sheet

so his spirit might not beat
against it but fly as spirits fly.
When she came to me that night in Damascus Street

Longbones has driven through freezing rain or sleet
all the way from Lurgan. The Lurgan sky
was a mirror covered with a sheet

or a banner trailed by an army in defeat.
Though Longbones was already high
when she came to me that night in Damascus Street

she immediately shook out a neat
little blue or red cartouche until, by and by,
she had covered a mirror with a sheet

of that most valiant dust. Then she would entreat
me not to leave her, as if I
had come to her than night in Damascus Street,

as if I had asked if I might turn up the heat
and tested if the spare bed was dry
by slipping the mirror between the sheets.

Only when she turned to greet
me, wistful and wry,
that night of nights in Damascus Street,

did I remark on the discreet
blue or red teardrop tattooed under her left eye.
She covered the mirror with a sheet

and whispered, “Come, my sweet,”
in a tone as sly as it was shy:
“Come to me now.” That night in Damascus Street

was the last time Longbones and I would meet.
Only later did it strike me why
she would cover the mirror with a sheet.

Only when I looked back on her snow-white feet
and her snow-white thigh
did it come to me, next morning in Damascus Street,
that she herself was the mirror covered with a sheet.

* * *

I love the rhyming in this poem, and the playful (mis)use of the ghazal form. Things like rhyming and ghazals are just not cool anymore, and this poem is cool. It twists and turns you around so you don’t even know which way is up anymore, and then tells you in the end you didn’t even know which way was up in the first place. “Damascus” is such a fantastic word too.

James Whitcomb Riley, “A Barefoot Boy”


A barefoot boy! I mark him at his play —
  For May is here once more, and so is he, —
  His dusty trousers, rolled half to the knee,
And his bare ankles grimy, too, as they:
Cross-hatchings of the nettle, in array
  Of feverish stripes, hint vividly to me
  Of woody pathways winding endlessly
Along the creek, where even yesterday
He plunged his shrinking body — gasped and shook —
  Yet called the water “warm,” with never lack
Of joy. And so, half enviously I look
  Upon this graceless barefoot and his track, —
  His toe stubbed — ay, his big toe-nail knocked back
Like unto the clasp of an old pocketbook.

A.E. Housman, Nos. X and XI from “More Poems”



The weeping Pleiads wester,
  And the moon is under seas;
From bourn to bourn of midnight
  Far sighs the rainy breeze:

It sighs from a lost country
  To a land I have not known;
The weeping Pleiads wester,
  And I lie down alone.


The rainy Pleiads wester,
  Orion plunges prone;
The stroke of midnight ceases,
  And I lie down alone.

The rainy Pleiads wester
  And seek beyond the sea
The head that I shall dream of,
  And ’twill not dream of me.

* * *

Ah, Mr. Housman, so formal, so sorrowful, so beautiful. Iambic trimeter, with every other line starting with the first having an added half-beat at the end. Leaves you hanging on, leaves you unfulfilled and wanting resolution. This is how meter really works for you if you let it.