Category Archives: poetry

Something there is that loves a wall

At one point or another every English major has had to read Robert Frost’s poem Mending Wall.

Mending Wall

By Robert Frost

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun;
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.
I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
‘Stay where you are until our backs are turned!’
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
Oh, just another kind of out-door game,
One on a side. It comes to little more:
There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, ‘Good fences make good neighbors.’
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
‘Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it
Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.’ I could say ‘Elves’ to him,
But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather
He said it for himself. I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me,
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father’s saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, ‘Good fences make good neighbors.

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44266/mending-wall

To be honest, I’ve always hated Robert Frost, not for the conservative Mending Wall but for The Road Not Taken, a poem all my professors loved because they could use it to teach their students that “poetry resists interpretation.” Blah Blah Blah Yeah Modernist Bullshit. Another famous poem “Death of the Hired Man”isn’t concerned about the hired man at all, but about his employer’s wife, who agrees with her husband that the working class is more or less obsolete but believes that “we” should treat them with compassion. In Mending Wall Frost is upfront about who he is, a cranky old school New England Republican who believes that we define ourselves but what we own and by what boundaries we set between ourselves and our neighbors.

Riding my bike today through my hometown of Roselle, NJ I was intrigued by this pair of houses. Look closely. They seem like two completely nondescript suburban houses, but it seems as if their owners have come together to build a wall, not between themselves, but between themselves and the rest of the world. Examine the fence. It’s clearly the same material, the same paint job, the same construction.

wall

Roselle, NJ July 2020

So I wonder. Did the two owners come together and say “let’s build a wall together?” What happens if one of them moves? Is there a contract about who gets custody of the the other half? And what exactly are they trying to keep out? It’s not as if someone couldn’t just walk around the side of one of the houses and get into their common backyard. Maybe they have barbecues together. Maybe they share a common pet? There are so many intriguing questions about nondescript suburban houses in New Jersey if only you look more closely.

Ozymandias was problematic

I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/46565/ozymandias

With the recent uproar over statues, I’m now beginning to wonder who Ozymandias was? We he an Egyptian Pharaoh? Was he an Assyrian or a Persian? Maybe he was my distant ancestor Genghis Khan?

And was Percy Shelley really making a timeless statement about the way the passing of time destroys the memory of great men? Or was he just another white Englishman rejoicing in the “erasure” of ancient cultures not Greek or Roman?

I’m going to have to rate this poem as “problematic,” especially if Ozymandias was a person of color.

A High School English Teacher Grades Famous Writers

E. E. Cummings (B-) “Edward. You should a good deal of creativity and independence of mind but spelling conventions exist for a reason.”

Shakespeare (C+) “Bill. I really liked some of your work, especially the play about the failson who has a thing for his mom and the two young lovers but you tend to take it a little over the top sometimes and just out and out make up words. I’m only being so hard on you because I think you can do better.”

Mark Twain (F): “Mr. Clemens. We do not use the N word in this class. Please resubmit.”

Rimbaud (D): “Monsieur Rimbaud. We really don’t need to know about all the drugs you’ve done. If you want to start a punk band, start a punk band. This is high school.”

Victor Hugo (C+): “Victor. You show some potential and have some interesting stories but you consistently run over the word count limit. You can probably get away with it here but it’s going to hurt you when you get to college.”

T.S. Eliot (F): “Mr. Eliot. You’re not as clever as you think you are. We naive old Boomers have this little program called Turnitin. You have clearly plagiarized much of your ‘poem.’ Putting in footnotes doesn’t excuse it. Please see the Vice Principal. He will arrange a conference with your parents.”

Jonathan Swift: (D): “Ooo. Real edgy about eating babies. Get off the Internet and grow up. This is a class, not shit posting on 8Chan.”

John Milton: (B+): “Pretty good poem, if a bit long. But as my mother used to tell me, mixing politics and religion usually just leads to bad feeling. Next time try to find a more neutral subject.”

Emily Bronte( A-): “We all love the bad boys, especially when we’re young. But see your sister’s paper for a warning. They’re usually hiding something unpleasant in the closet.”

Samuel Beckett: (F): “Some of us are still waiting for the point Sam. Did you even read the instructions?”

Emile Zola (D): “I’m not really interested in your politics. Do better.”

Mark: (A-): “Absolutely terrific story about a poor boy who grows up to be a great teacher and spiritual adviser. Can the subaltern speak? You’ve proven that against the Roman Empire he can. I loved the imagery of the three crosses and that scene where he chases the money changers out of the temple. Terrific writing. But I can’t help but think you got a bit lazy with the ending. What? They kill him and then he just gets up and walks? Reminds me of a bad TV show where the screenwriter resolves the plot by saying it’s all a dream.”

Charles Bukowski (D): “I know you may not want to hear this but you’re actually a privileged white male. You got that unionized job at the Post Office and some better qualified person of color didn’t. Stop being so self-indulgent.”

Noam Chomsky (F): “Right. It’s all the media’s fault. How is that working out for our current President. Fake news. Fake news. And where did you get most of your examples. From the media, of course.”

Phillip Roth (A): “I liked the book about the Nazis taking over New Jersey but the one about the boy jerking off borders on sexual harassment. But I guess I better give you an A because if I don’t you’ll go whining to the ADL.”

William Faulker (D): “I honestly didn’t understand half of what you wrote. And much of it is borderline ableist and racist.”

Karl Marx: (C): “Lazy political writing. You ignore the intersectional complexity of our patriarchal and racist society to concentrate on class. You seem to have gotten most of your idea of what a proletarian looks like from a Springsteen album.”

A Short Haiku For Bill Gates

In light of Bill Gates’ recent comments and the fact that its a cultural given that we hand free things to billionaires, I’ve written a haiku just for him. While I’ve inverted the normal 5-7-5 format, I think this poem still embodies the spirit of concision that animates the form.

Without further ado:

You have been very lucky,

Shut the fuck up Bill,

And pay your goddamn taxes

The Robbers (1781)

If France gave us the greatest revolution, then Germany has given us the greatest revolutionaries, not only Luther, but Karl Marx and Ludwig Von Beethoven. In 1771, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote a short epistolary novel called The Sorrows of Young Werther. The revised edition would come out in 1787, only two years before the storming of the Bastille.  A few years later, in 1792, the French Revolution would enter its most radical phase, culminating in the first, and hopefully not the last, red terror.

Ten years earlier, a 19-year-old cadet at the Karlsschule military academy in Stuttgart named Friedrich Schiller was deeply immersed in the plays of William Shakespeare. At some point, probably after reading Richard III, he thought to himself “hey I bet I can write something like this.” Then he sat down and did just that. It was a lot like a similar 19-year-old in the 1980s or 1990s picking up a guitar, playing Stairway to Heaven and saying “hey maybe I can be a rock star” but with one important difference. Schiller was not only a genius, he was a genius open to the collective passions of the age. Over the next few years, he would not only write one of the greatest works of German Romanticism, playing Eddie Vedder to Goethe’s Kurt Cobain, he would predict Robespierre and Marat, Georges Danton and Louis Antoine de Saint-Just, for if ever a work of literature could be called “revolutionary” it is The Robbers by Friedrich Schiller. But don’t take my word for it. In 1792, the French National Convention had written a letter making Schiller an honorary citizen of the French republic.

Interestingly enough, Schiller had also written the National Convention a letter asking that they spare the life of King Louis XVI. While that may at first seem a bit surprising, it’s well in keeping with his exploration of revolution, and of its consequences, in The Robbers.

Karl Moor, the plays hero, and his brother, Francis Moor, its villain, represent two sides of modern man, the duality of the human soul under capitalism. Karl, good looking, moody, rebellious, the romantic outcast, embodies a lot of the same qualities that the Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg attributes to herself for being on the autism spectrum. He cares little about convention. He dreams of a more heroic past. He detests “the law,” rank and hierarchy.

Francis, on the other hand, is rational, calculating, diplomatic, the perfect capitalist. “He is a fool,” he thinks while rationalizing to himself his plan to steal his brother’s inheritance, and his girl, “who takes any view that is contrary to his own interest.” The result of this unresolved contradiction, of their father’s inability to mediate between his two very different sons, is disaster, violent revolution, fire, brimstone, death and damnation, the French Revolutionary Terror in a five act play.

But what made the young Schiller a genius was not so much his ability to express the passionate rebellion of youth, but the regrets of middle age. Karl, returning to his family estate, from which he had been banned by his gullible father at the urging of his treacherous brother, looks upon the landscape of his childhood and suddenly realizes the happy future he’s lost. He’ll never get married or have a family with his beloved Amelia. He’ll never grow old watching his children and then his grandchildren take his place. He will live the rest of his life as an outcast and a rebel, a damned soul wandering the earth, never knowing peace or contentment, a son rejected by his father.

The golden age of boyhood lives again in the soul of the outcast. I was then so happy, so wholly, so cloudlessly happy—and now—behold all my prospects a wreck! Here should I have presided, a great, a noble, an honored man—here have—lived over again the years of boyhood in the blooming—children of my Amelia—here!—

Schiller, Friedrich. The Robbers (p. 81). Kindle Edition.

As we near the end of the human species, extinction by global warming, it’s worth meditating on what we’ve lost. The French Revolution and the Enlightenment opened up the possibility of a world transformed through human reason, a society free of hierarchy, exploitation, superstition and ignorance, but it was not to be. Over the course of history, Francis Moor prevailed over Karl Moor, self-interest over the urge for a better, more noble, more poetic world. The Industrial Revolution, which began at about the same time as Schiller sat down to write The Robbers, could have freed us from poverty and back breaking labor. Instead it gave us environmental devastation. The French Revolution and the industrial Revolution could have given us democracy. Instead it gave us capitalism. There’s nothing much to do at this point — for we will not rebel against our own extinction — but mourn what could have been.

Springsteen is Langston Hughes Turned Inside Out

I found this interview rather interesting, especially this line.

“In my songs, the spiritual part, the hope part, is in the choruses. The blues and your daily realities are in the details of the verses.”

https://www.npr.org/2019/03/26/706566556/bruce-springsteen-born-in-the-usa-american-anthem

In Langston Hughes’s poem Let America be America, the (ultimately hollow) patriotic cheerleading is in the verses. The recognition of the USA’s white supremacist history is in the chorus.

Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)

https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/let-america-be-america-again

In Born in the USA, as Springsteen points out, the dark, negative energy that came out of the imperialist war in Vietnam is in the verses and the affirmation of “America” is in the chorus.

Born down in a dead man’s town
The first kick I took was when I hit the ground
End up like a dog that’s been beat too much
Till you spend half your life just covering up

Born in the U.S.A., I was born in the U.S.A.
I was born in the U.S.A., born in the U.S.A.

https://genius.com/Bruce-springsteen-born-in-the-usa-lyrics

Interestingly enough, the far right has never tried to appropriate Langston Hughes.

John Keats Died at 25

I didn’t understand Keats when I was 25. I was too strong, too healthy, too oblivious of my own mortality to understand the poetry of a man dying of tuberculosis. But now in middle age I finally understand what he felt when he saw the Elgin Marbles in the British Museum and fell into despair at the thought of the arc of history, something he could understand but never experience.

On Seeing the Elgin Marbles

My spirit is too weak—mortality
   Weighs heavily on me like unwilling sleep,
   And each imagined pinnacle and steep
Of godlike hardship tells me I must die
Like a sick eagle looking at the sky.
   Yet ’tis a gentle luxury to weep
   That I have not the cloudy winds to keep
Fresh for the opening of the morning’s eye.
Such dim-conceived glories of the brain
   Bring round the heart an undescribable feud;
So do these wonders a most dizzy pain,
   That mingles Grecian grandeur with the rude
Wasting of old time—with a billowy main—
   A sun—a shadow of a magnitude.

A Man Called Ove: Celebrating the Use of Space in Swedish Cinema

What are we beyond our memories? It was just after having a petty argument with the florist, an ignorant teen as she was that Ove first exposes the dimensions of his existence. Grieved by the death of the only love of his life, Sonja, we see him dissipating his space by magnifying his trivialities. A man that knew no work than the one that involved car engines, we see a reflection of unfaithful involvement with life in his disturbed yet deliberate movement. Who is this man; one may ask. There are blatant contradictions in his existence. Who is this being who dejects life and then lives only to uphold every law of it? We get our answers, unwoven thread by thread, in Hannes Holme’s A Man Called Ove.

The most fascinating element of this film is the use of space. We not only see the characters associating meanings to a particular space but also get metaphorically represented by it. For instance, the movie hardly shows us panoramic view of the entire space. Mostly, we are kept in the ‘guarded’ and ‘restricted’ space of Ove’s residential colony, his home and during the latter part of the film, his car. The only instances of open space with elements of movement and divergence come in the flashback scenes from Ove’s childhood and adulthood when there were present, reasons for him to escape linearity. This contradiction in the use of space in the representation of past and present tells us about the importance of life in the eyes of this weary old man called Ove. After the death of his wife Sonja, his life has lost any motivation to move beyond the linearity and hence the only space he restricts himself to is the restricted and regimented space of his residence. Moreover, it is only during his budding friendship with Parvaneh that we see the open space of a restaurant or the city road being brought back to his life (Interestingly he relates such openness with the time he used to have with his wife).

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It is hard to deny the metaphorical use of space in the narrative of the film. The one that strikes the most is the train station. It is this space where we see intertwining of Ove’s past, present and a probable future. It is this space that stands for the very nature life; which is nothing but a mosaic of losses and love, of things being built and destroyed. So much so that the moving train almost felt like the ruthless movement of life itself. We are introduced to this space time and again to emphasise on the philosophy that life cannot be contextualised unitarily. It is the semiotic nature of everything that life offers us that makes it beyond every degree human comprehension. One baring example of this can be the scene from Ove’s mother’s funeral.

Lastly, I’ll take this discussion on memories to the use of strong representational symbols. And the one that struck me the most was the cat. Like every morning of life, this cat kept on showing up on Ove’s door, every time more undesirable than before, even after his constant shooing off. As the movie progresses, we can see the changing relationship of the cat with the protagonist that ran parallel to the change in perspective on life that he had. It is when Parvaneh tells him that it is you that have to take care of this cat that I see a bell being rang in Ove’s head telling him that his life shall be engineered by his own volition.

Even though there existed a beautiful sub-narrative that talked about inclusivity and diversity (the fact that Ove became friends with an Iranian refugee and a gay man) it is the natural display of empathy that inspired the screenplay. The very idea that we can delve into each others’ hearts while not being patronising at all speaks volumes about the most important common denominator that we share – humanity.

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The Avant-Garde, Zeenat Aman

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The cinema of the 70s is often termed as an era that marveled the art of pop culture reorientation. A decade that immersed itself in the chaos of coming of age screenplay and ever inspired music ensemble, the flights of imagination was anything but predictable. It was during this period that Hindi cinema saw the rise of its one of the most ground-breaking actress, a gifted performer and a formidable fashion icon – Zeenat Aman. The characters that she adorned were unafraid of juxtapositions and oozed liberation that was rarely seen in the public eye. From being an adultress in Dhund (Obsession) to a cheerful prostitute in Manoranjan (Entertainment), Zeenat Aman redefined narratives of gender roles in not only Hindi cinema but also in the entire urban Indian society. A former Miss Asia Pacific (1970), she was the first South Asian woman to win this coveted title. Even though her acting skills were second to none, Zeenat Aman had sealed her name in the history of Indian cinema for her unparalleled contribution in revolutionizing the use of fashion in Hindi movies.

The looks adorned by the lady swing across the spectrum of avant-garde fashion. She had never ceased to reinvent herself and often pushed the boundaries of artistic expression by her V-neck hem slit evening gowns or her infamous Boho looks. This post is a tribute to some of the most foresighted, coming of age and classical fashion statements of the woman that charmed the 70s and cemented her position in the pop culture.

  1. The Boho Chick

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Dubbed as her first block-burster hit, Hare Rama Hare Krishna (1971) paved the way for Zeenat’s towering success. What began as a role received by fluke, later unraveled into a timeless performance that got her the Filmfare Award for Best Supporting Actress, and most importantly, her perennial place in the pop culture.

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Playing the role of a girl separated from her family who subsequently slips into drug addiction, the character of Janice was unconventional for her period but beheld potential for a memorable performance. And for the visionary as she was, she delivered, and delivered with utmost excellence.

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2. The Girl with a Guitar 

When Zeenat Aman held a guitar to belt out a soothing lullaby for her lover in Yaadon Ki Baraat (The caravan of memories), she gave us a melody of a generation. The climatic progression of the music with the innocent smile decorating her face, Chura Liya Hai (Now that you’ve stolen my heart) is the musical beauty of the highest order. Apart form its melodious supremacy, it was this long white gown that etched Zeenat Aman in every man’s heart for years to come. Complementing that look with a choker necklace, she added one more feather to her overtly decorated hat of fashion laurels.

3. The Femme Fatale 

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Although, every song of Zeenat Aman has been a masterpiece in its own right, there is one song that not only concreted her as a superstar but also reflected her ideas of empowerment through sexual liberation. In Laila Main Laila (Laila, I’m Laila), a song that has been subsequently covered by a dozen singers and actresses, Zeenat Aman unleashes her femme fatale and explodes into the space where she adheres to no boundaries, rising above the artificial constructions of gender roles.

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In Aap Jaisa Koi (Someone Like You) and Don, she takes her seduction to next level and amalgamates it with her impeccable acting skills to deliver the critically acclaimed performances as a cabaret dancer and a villain respectively.

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Zeenat Aman had metamorphosed into a multi faceted performer who freed herself from the fear of being judged for her decisions. She pushed the limits of visual representation in Hindi cinema and became an icon for all the actresses that followed. Apart from her mounting commercial successes, she was critically well received for her depiction of a rape victim in Insaaf Ka Taraazu (The Scales of Justice). She was translated as a visionary, an artistic maverick, and a farsighted actress for her coming of age role of a cheerful hooker in Manoranjan (Entertainment). With more than half a ton movies on her name, Zeenat Aman was and will always be the first and the most beloved diva  of Hindi cinema.

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