This was written more than a thousand years back in the Tang dynasty by a eunuch called Liu Zhen Liang. It’s not the greatest poem ever written about tea (it reads a bit like the side-effects warning on a modern box of medicine) but it has its moments and gives an insight into why tea became so popular in China at that time. (Translation by myself.)
Digging is the first poem from the very first collection (Death of a Naturalist) by one of my favourite poets—Seamus Heaney. This is Heaney’s ars poetica – his reason for writing poetry. Not many poets start their careers with this type of poem, and here Heaney passionately tells us why he must be a poet. Digging is a call to arms from and to the young Heaney; it is respectful for tradition but without permitting tradition to choose the course of his life.
The first two lines of Digging, though short, are brilliant: ‘The squat pen..’ suggests he’s ready to go, to attack his life’s work. ‘Snug as a gun’ with the juxtaposition of the two seemingly different words makes the reader pull up and re-read before going any further.
Why a gun? Perhaps Heaney is saying that the pen has power to him; the snugness is his way of saying it fits him perfectly, unlike the tool of his antecedents, the spade, which we discover fitted them equally well in later stanzas. The poem’s first two stanzas rhyme at the end of each line, but Heaney doesn’t continue this through the rest of the poem. His meter changes and we are in free verse territory; this has the effect of jolting the reader, making him stop and start again, thrusting the poem’s language and meaning into the foreground.
Throughout the poem Heaney writes with short, consonantal words like slap, cuts, nicking, sods and lug—all sharp, coarse and cutting to the ears and, not coincidentally, all from the Germanic side of the english language’s family tree. The language of the poem is earthy and simple and doesn’t jar with the subject matter, particularly when Heaney is describing his grandfather’s work. (‘The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap of soggy peat.’)
The rhythm of his Father and Grandfather’s spades is beat with alliteration (‘Spade sinks’, ‘gravelly ground’, ‘tall tops’) and assonance, particularly with the vowel sound in ‘snug’ which thuds across the entire the poem. (eg cut, gun, thumb, lug, rump.)
Towards the end of the poem, Heaney writes: ‘But I’ve no spade to follow men like them’. This is an interesting line—he obviously could have a spade and continue the family tradition but has chosen a different direction, a different craft; one that is more suited to the person that he is.
Yang Wan Li was a Chinese official and Zen Buddhist in the 12th century. It’s said he wrote over 20,000 poems (of which, around 4000 survive). This poem was written in Hangzhou, a city I used to live in many moons ago and have many fond memories of.
(Note on translating: Most old Chinese poems don’t have standard translations, so there is no ‘fixed’ version in English)
Most of my favourite poets are those that have a story behind them—not just technically skilful writers, but those that ‘have lived’. John Berryman certainly falls into this category with his backstory of suicide, loss, alcoholism, depression and more suicide.
His most famous work is the sequence of 385 three-stanza poems called Dream Songs. In #14 we meet the protagonist of many of these poems, Henry. Henry is semi-autobiographical but Berryman uses him, through his use of the first, second and third person, as a way of exploring the extreme parts of a life (and death)—the effect is a kind of poetic hall of mirrors which is simultaneously exhilarating and confusing.
Berryman’s choice of language in Dream Songs is curious too—flirting between archaic and slang—the combination of this and the identity-crisis of Henry makes the poems feel like we are witnessing a one-man stage routine.
The focus of #14 is boredom, and its key line comes between the first and second stanzas, which we can all remember our parents saying a version of: ‘Ever to confess you’re bored means you have no inner resources.’
But Berryman fully accepts this diagnosis – he is bored, really bored. How much is Henry, how much is himself, how much is he bored of Henry? (Presumably not much as he’s got most of his Dream Songs left to write.) Interestingly, he compares Henry to Achilles whose sulky and petulant demeanour in The Iliad reinforces the adolescent in us that we return too when faced with a period of boredom.
The language of the poem reinforces his boredom too—Berryman doesn’t consult his thesaurus for synonyms of ‘bored’—he rams home the message by using the word a good seven times. Other words are repeated too, particularly at the end of lines which gives the poem a rhythm, albeit one that emphasises the monotony he is describing.
It’s fair to say that Don Paterson is a modern master of the sonnet; he’s experimented with them in his previous works (especially in Landing Light) and even written two books on the subject.
In 40 Sonnets, Paterson continues to use the Petrarchan and Shakespearean forms of the sonnet masterfully but also continues his evolution, and in some of these poems, revolution of the form. As he wrote himself, the sonnet is ‘one of the most characteristic shapes human thought can take’.
The poems range from the philosophical The Air to the sardonic and sarcastic To Dundee City Council in which he lashes out at local council policy and bureacracy. There is also a heavy tenderness, particularly in the poem Mercies in which he details the putting down of his pet dog. (That sounds like a dreadful idea for a poem, but somehow Paterson avoids it becoming sentimental and glib.)
Then we get to the odd sonnets in this collection. The experimental Shutter keeps to the sonnet’s 14 lines but each line only contains a word or two, a phrase, allowing the reader to mentally fill in the gaps. Incantation is a very modern sonnet about a stunted, circular conversation with a cold caller. The most difficult poem to read in this collection is Séance, with its unreadable ‘unwords’ that are spat across the sonnet. Finally, The Version is a prose poem that begs the question—what exactly is a sonnet if this is one too?
On the way back home from the camp/school, a scene from Miracles of Life came back to me; I say ‘came back to me’ but in truth, it was such a harsh and defining moment in Ballard’s mythology that it was never far away from thought during my search.
After the war ended and the Japanese waited for the Americans to arrive in Shanghai, Ballard would leave the camp and walk back into Shanghai, especially to see what had become of his family home. One such time as he was walking along the railway track he came to a guard house where he witnessed the torture and (he expected) death of a Chinese man who had been tied to a chair by a Japanese soldier outside, despite the war being over. I won’t re-write the whole scene here but I had an urge to find where that true experience had happened.
I thought about the railway line I’d been along on my way out to the camp – that was the original Shanghai-Hangzhou line which the young Ballard had walked along in the days after the war.
So I retraced my steps and went back to the walled-off segment of track. At one end near the old airport terminal was an old building standing right by the track; it had a platform in front of it and I imagined the Chinese man seated and tied up, in despair and knowing his life was about to end, as a young white boy stared and slowly walked by, too scared to do anything. Could it have been right there? Who knows, but it was a reminder of another, brutal, terrifying world that Shanghai had once been, and in my own interpretation of events decades before and involving people I had never even met, this was the spot.
As I cycled back past Longhua temple and to Xujiahui an air-raid siren started whirring. It was only when I got back home that I found out it was the anniversary of the end of the war—when Japan finally surrendered and Ballard would soon leave war-torn Shanghai behind and move to an even more alien land—England—and the great writer he would become, inevitably affected by the first 15 years of his life in Shanghai.