«Neige, neige blanche» / comptine traditionelle

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Neige, neige blanche

Neige, neige blanche
Tombe sur les manches
Et sur mon tout petit nez
Qui est tout gelé.

Neige, neige blanche
Tombe sur ma tête
Et sur mes tout gros souliers
Qui sont tout mouillés.

Neige, neige blanche,
Viens que je te mange:
Pose-toi tout doucement
Comme un p’tit fondant.

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A traditional French children’s song.
Honestly, such songs must be the best way to learn a (new) language: vocabulary, grammar, pronunciation, even heart—it’s all there.

Source: Les plus belles comptines de Noël 2009; de la collection «Succès», Les Éditions Éveil & Découvertes.
CD included in this colourful 26-page book. Illustrators: Francesca Assirelli, Martina Peluso. Musical arrangements: Collectif Enfance.
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La mélodie (solfège):

do (do) sol (sol) mi — re —
do (do) sol sol mi — re —
sol sol la la ti ti do —
sol fa mi re do — — —

“Tale” / Merwin

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Tale

After many winters the moss
finds the sawdust crushed bark chips
and says old friend
old friend

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This lyric fragment appears as epigraph to W. S. Merwin‘s longer poem, “Unchopping a Tree“. This latter, republished in 2014 (originally collected in The Miner’s Pale Children), takes the form of a lovely little stand-alone book of the same title. The work is illustrated by drawings of artist Liz Ward: her exquisite studies of the cellular structures of trees are created with silverpoint and tinted gesso on paper and on panel. Created over 14 years, this little art collection is titled, The Interior Life of a Tree.

(On completing the book, I discovered that the lines of “Tale” quoted above are actually excerpted from a longer prose poem; and that this same excerpt first appeared in the 1970 collection, The Carrier of Ladders, which work earned Merwin the 1971 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.)

A prolific and respected poet, and translator from many languages, Merwin has received a commensurate degree of recognition throughout his life. Just a few of these honours: the inauguratory Wallace Stevens Award (also known as the Dorothea Tanning Prize, one of the highest honours bestowed by the Academy of American Poets); the National Book Award for Poetry; the Pen Translation Prize; the Bollingen Prize for Poetry; the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize (an initiative of the Poetry Foundation, this is one of the most prestigious awards given to American poets and among the largest literary honors for work in the English language). He has twice received the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, and has served as the United States Poet Laureate. In 2013, he was named the first Poet Laureate of the Zbigniew Herbert International Literary Award (Warsaw).
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Merwin has resolutely addressed various themes in his writing. One of his most abiding passions has been a love for the natural world and a commitment to a “deep ecology” wherein humanity’s relationship with nature is keenly understood to be one of holism and radical interdependence. He has, for nearly 4 decades, been planting a sustainable forest of over 800 species of palm across 18 acres in Hawaii. This is the Merwin Conservancy, whose mission is . . . to preserve the living legacy of W. S. Merwin, his home and palm forest, for future retreat and study for botanists and writers, for environmental advocacy and community education. (merwinconservancy.org)

Planting a tree may be a little like writing a poem: nurturing new life by gathering and shaping into freshly-coherent form something that we care deeply about . . . And reading a poem, then, like getting to know an individual tree, consciously sharing some of your awareness, your energy, your time, your life, with it.

Final word to the poet, on poetry:
I think there’s a kind of desperate hope built into poetry that one really wants, hopelessly, to save the world. One is trying to say everything that can be said for the things that one loves while there’s still time.

“If” / Prelutsky

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If

If a baseball breaks a window,
does it cause the window pain?
If it rains upon a lion,
do the droplets water mane?
If you try to wring a lemon,
can you hear the lemon peal?
If you dream that you are fishing,
is your dream of fishing real?

If an ogre is unhappy,
does it utter giant sighs?
If you catch a booby snooping,
are you sure the booby pries?
If you bleach a bag of garbage,
do you turn the garbage pale?
If you tell a horse a story,
could it be a pony tale?

If you wish to paint a whistle,
will you make the whistle blue?
If you’re stuck inside a chimney,
do you suffer from the flue?
If you sketch an escalator,
did you practice drawing stairs?
If you separate two rabbits,
are you really splitting hares?

If you’re filling in a doughnut,
do you make the doughnut whole?
If you’re posing as a muffin,
are you acting out a roll?
If your conversation sparkles,
do you thank your diamond mind?
If you’re followed by a grizzly,
do you have a bear behind?

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From Jack Prelutsky A Pizza the Size of the Sun (1996); almost every poem herein is accompanied by brilliantly complementary drawings by illustrator James Stevenson (who is also a very prolific author and poet in his own right).

Jack Prelutsky is American poet-singer-artist extraordinaire who has enchanted generations of children and adults alike with his often humorous and always witty creations in rhythm and rhyme. A Gopher in the Garden and Other Animal Poems was Prelutsky’s first book; since then he’s written over fifty collections of poems, some with his own illustrations, some co-created with well-known illustrators; he has also compiled several children’s anthologies of poems by other poets. There are also audio versions of some of his books, in which he sings and plays guitar to his own musical settings.
In 2006 the Poetry Foundation named Prelutsky its inaugural (first-ever) Children’s Poet Laureate; he has won numerous other awards for his work, notable among them the Library of Congress Book of the Year, American Library Association Notable Children’s Recording, the New York Times Outstanding Book of the Year.

The month of April is both National Poetry Month . . . some good selections for children for this occasion here:
pbs.org/parents/education/bookfinder/popular-poets-for-kids/
and also (I’ve recently learned), National Humor Month (in the US, at least; inaugurated 40 years ago this year by humorist and author Larry Wilde) “as a means to heighten public awareness of the therapeutic value of humor. Laughter and joy – the benchmarks of humor – lead to improved well-being, boosted morale, increased communication skills, and an enriched quality of life.” (This info from humormonth.com/ ).

I will bet you didn’t know that “the study of humor and laughter, and its psychological and physiological effects on the human body” is called gelotology . . . I sure didn’t! Live and learn. That would be a pleasant field to pursue in one’s professional life :) (sciencemadefun.net/blog/)

And a final absolutely irresistible tidbit at:
sometimes-interesting.com/2011/07/16/the-tanganyika-laughter-epidemic/ .

We are such a strange species . . . who probably would be extinct by now if not for our ability to laugh. (Oh dear, is that a “tautology” I smell in that sentence? Ok, well anyway, we certainly wouldn’t be the same species.)

Cheers!

“Spring and Fall” / Hopkins

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Spring and Fall
[1880]

to a young child

Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leaves, like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! as the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you will weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sorrow’s springs are the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It is the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.

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English poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844 – 1889), was largely unknown and unappreciated as a poet during his lifetime. His primary identity was as a Jesuit priest, although, having converted to Catholicism in his twenties—yet for his final academic thesis, championing the theology of Duns Scotus (over that of Aquinas)—he was never fully valued by the ecclesiastical community, despite his profound spiritual gifts. (How obtuse the collective can be. But that is its nature, and this is life: an ongoing interplay between individual and group.) Sadly, Hopkins’s strong devotion to religion caused him to feel an obligation to suppress both his creative work and (even) his enjoyment of the beauty he saw in the world—which seems quite strange to us, who understand such capacities to be gifts of the Spirit. Still, this didn’t diminish the almost painfully intense feeling he had for the natural world; it was for him a sacrament, and he knew the smallest molecule to be “charged with the grandeur of God”.

Hopkins’ poetic style is very unique. The combination of unusual rhythm (often specially marked in the text), a brilliantly original vocabulary / inventive metaphor (which necessitates slow, imaginative reading), and a seemingly deliberate density of syntax (sentence structure) all make his poems a challenging experience for the reader—yet how ultimately worthwhile! It is useful to read through a brief article like that in SparkNotes (sparknotes.com/poetry/hopkins/section4.rhtml) if you really can’t find your bearing, or to see if you’re ‘on the right track’ . . . at the same time, we may take to heart these words from Walking with Gerard Manley Hopkins by Robert Waldron (2011): It is not always easy, we should warn readers, to understand Hopkins’ verse; it takes effort, but we believe, along with T. S. Eliot, that poetry communicates even when we do not completely understand it. What we as readers need do is simply to be open to Hopkins’ genius, and gradually, with reading and further reading, the beauty and meaning of his words will be revealed.
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My source for “Spring and Fall” was Hopkins: Poems and Prose in the series Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets; selection by Peter Washington, 1995. It’s an interesting and surprisingly replete little book, with fascinating selections of the poet’s sermons and correspondence in addition to many poems.

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This post is a tiny gesture to honour the hugely courageous and gentle life of our dear dog, Roscoe, who died in January. Ours was the privilege of sharing ten years with him; his presence with us—a precious gift.

“Every Star Shall Sing a Carol” / Carter

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Every Star Shall Sing a Carol

Every star shall sing a carol!
Every creature, high or low,
come and praise the King of heaven by whatever name you know.

God above, Man below, holy is the name I know.

When the King of all creation had a cradle on the earth,
holy was the human body,
holy was the human birth.

God above, Man below, holy is the name I know.

Who can tell what other cradle,
high above the milky way,
still may rock the King of heaven on another Christmas day?

God above, Man below, holy is the name I know.

Who can count how many crosses,
still to come or long ago, crucify the King of heaven?
Holy is the name I know.

God above, Man below, holy is the name I know.

Who can tell what other body
he will hallow for his own?
I will praise the Son of Mary, brother of my blood and bone.

God above, Man below, holy is the name I know.

Every star and every planet,
every creature high and low,
come and praise the King of heaven by whatever name you know.

God above, Man below, holy is the name I know.

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Sydney Carter (1915 – 2004) was an English poet, musician, and songwriter. Among his works is the well-known “Lord of the Dance”, set to the melody of “Simple Gifts”, the American Shaker song. From Wikipedia I learn that a compilation of Carter’s songs was created and released in 1981 by an all-star gathering of English folk musicians; it’s called Lovely in the Dances, and features John Kirkpatrick, Maddy Prior, and Shusha.
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Though I’ve hummed along to “Lord of the Dance”, I’d never heard of Sydney Carter before coming across “Every Star Shall Sing a Carol” in The Hymn Book of the Anglican Church of Canada and the United Church of Canada, 1971 (1974 reprinting). Carter wrote both its words and its music. It stood out for me immediately, first, because of the simple language, meter, repetition, and conversational style. There is a wonderfully imaginative intelligence and farseeing understanding evident here. But the clincher for me is the melody, somehow unusual for a modern carol: it’s in a minor (aeolian) key, with octaves and fifths throughout, very haunting, very interesting. It’s become an ‘earworm’ that I’m happy to host.
The poem, as I experience it, positively shimmers with metaphor . . . for just one example, “God above, Man below” in the refrain evokes the realms of the eternal and the temporal (the ‘cities’ of God and ‘Man’; in Christian terms, Christ and Jesus) . . .
However you hear it, I do hope you enjoy it!
(It just occurred to me that I could photograph the page with the music and attach it here, and you can sing it for yourselves . . . Well, that took a while; but here it is :)


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metaphor“: ORIGIN late 15th cent.: from French métaphore, via Latin from Greek metaphora, from metapherein ‘to transfer.’
A metaphor is a figure of speech (often used as a literary device, particularly in poetry) in which a word or phrase is applied to an object or action to which it is not literally applicable . . . so the word’s meaning is ‘transferable’ to / can be seen as symbolic of something else, often of something abstract.

“La feuille” / Arnault

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La feuille

De ta tige détachée
Pauvre feuille desséchée,
Où vas-tu? — Je n’en sais rien.
L’orage a brisé le chêne
Qui seul était mon soutien:
De son inconstante haleine,
Le zéphir ou l’aquilon
Depuis ce jour me promène
De la forêt à la plaine,
De la montagne au vallon.
Je vais où le vent me mène,
Sans me plaindre ou m’effrayer;
Je vais où va toute chose,
Où va la feuille de rose
Et la feuille de laurier.

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Antoine-Vincent Arnault (1766-1834) fut l’auteur de tragédies et de Fables. (Source: Mon premier livre de poèmes / choisis par Jacques Charpentreau, 1983. Collection Petite Enfance heureuse)
Antoine-Vincent Arnault lived in the “interesting times” of revolution in France, and his own life partook generously of the social and political upheavals of the turn of that century. He later authored a 4-volume memoir, Souvenirs d’un sexagénaire (1833) and collaborated on the Vie politique et militaire de Napoléon 1er (1822). Though his literary endeavours were primarily as dramatist, he is now better known for his Fables (published 1813, 1815 and 1826), collections of “graceful verse” (Wikipedia).
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A fable is a short work—usually a story—whose characters tend to be animals (or plants, or other non-human elements of nature), and which communicates a moral, a lesson about life / living life, for humans. I see it as a macro-metaphor which, as poems do, can contain (micro-)metaphors within it. Allegory is the proper term for such a “macro-metaphor”. A wonderful definition appears in A Treasury of Poems for Almost Every Possibility, edited by Allie Esiri and Rachel Kelly, illustrated by Natasha Law: an allegory is a method of telling two stories simultaneously, one of which carries a moral or social message. (Examples given are Aesop’s Fables and Orwell’s Animal Farm.)
“La feuille” is such a simple poem, but it can be followed on several levels — which makes translation not as easy as it may initially appear. (I’ve not yet sought out translations of the poem into English.) Consider the alliteration in the first line: d t t d tsh‘ — is it accidental or deliberate on the poet’s part? Funny thing is, I didn’t truly notice it until I began memorizing the poem /am working on improving my French language skills/. Making this effort to memorize is a little like drawing / sketching a picture from life; you develop an intimacy with your subject which otherwise might be difficult to achieve. In fact, the subject/object boundary itself begins to blur, even reverse, in an unexpected way.)

As for the ‘spirit’ of the poem . . . it brings to my mind a recent broadcast by CBC Radio, on the weekly program Tapestry (available as podcast); its very engaging host, Mary Hynes, interviews Philosophy professor Massimo Pigliucci, who has challenged himself to live like a Stoic for one year. It’s a most interesting conversation about cultivating the Stoic virtues of courage, self-control, practical wisdom, and justice / equanimity in the modern world (the segment runs for about 23 minutes, one-half of the hour-long show).

cbc.ca/radio/tapestry/why-you-need-to-be-a-stoic-stop-complaining-and-hug-a-stranger-1.3012673/how-to-be-a-stoic-in-five-easy-lessons-1.3012715
(to activate the link, add www. in front of it in your browser)
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Finally, a very tertiary and finnicky note: the book I have in hand (Mon premier livre…) names the series title as Petite Enfance heureuse, in a couple of places. Whereas it’s my understanding that French-language titles are to have only the first word capitalized . . . though I’m sure I’ve seen titles beginning with the definite article (indefinite, too?) also capitalizing the noun following. Maybe after an initial article or adjective, it’s fine. Un peu de mystère!

“No Reproach for the Drunkard” / Hafiz

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No Reproach for the Drunkard

Lay not reproach at the drunkard’s door
O Fanatic, thou that are pure of soul;
Not thine on the page of life to enroll
The faults of others! Or less or more
I have swerved from my path—keep thou to thine own
For every man when he reaches the goal
Shall reap the harvest his hands have sown.

Leave me the hope of a former grace—
Till the curtain is lifted none can tell
Whether in Heaven or deepest Hell,
Fair or vile, shall appear his face.
Alike the drunk and the strict of fare
For his mistress yearns—in the mosque Love doth dwell
And the church, for his lodging is everywhere.

If without the house of devotion I stand,
I am not the first to throw wide the door;
My father opened it long before,
The eternal Paradise slipped from his hand.
All you that misconstrue my words’ intent,
I lie on the bricks of the tavern floor,
And a brick shall serve me for argument.

Heaven’s garden future treasures may yield—
Ah, make the most of earth’s treasury!
The flickering shade of the willow-tree,
And the grass-grown lip of the fruitful field.
Trust not in deeds—the Eternal Day
Shall reveal the Creator’s sentence on thee;
But till then, what His finger has writ, who can say.

Bring the cup in thine hand to the Judgment-seat;
Thou shalt rise, O Hafiz, to Heaven’s gate
From the tavern where thou hast tarried late.
And if thou hast worshiped wine, thou shalt meet
The reward that the Faithful attain;
If such thy life, then fear not thy fate;
Thou shalt not have lived and worshiped in vain.

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Note: Hafiz is known in English also as Hafez.
In the book in which this poem is found, Hafiz (2004; in The Mystic Poets series), the author of the Preface, Ibrahim Gamard, writes that Khwaja Shamsu d’din Muhammad Hafiz (1320 – 1389) was known as the “Tongue of the Invisible World”; like Rumi, who lived in the 13th century, Hafiz was a Persian Sufi (Sufism is the mystical dimension of Islam). The Orientalist Wheeler Thackston says that Hafiz “sang a rare blend of human and mystic love so balanced…that it is impossible to separate one from the other” (Wikipedia). He is, in the words of Daniel Ladinsky, one of his recent interpreters, “a profound champion of freedom; he constantly encourages our hearts to dance! . . . Hafiz reveals a God that would never cripple us with guilt or control us with fear.” (from Ladinsky’s book The Gift: Poems by Hafiz, the Great Sufi Master, 1999. The brief Preface and Introduction to this book, by Ladinsky and Henry S. Midlin, respectively, are themselves small masterpieces which sing of Hafiz’s life and the challenging sociopolitical climate in which he did his work, as well as of his legacy in Persia and the world. I’ve only begun to discover the simple exuberance of Hafiz’s poetry, and must revisit very soon to plug into such a luminous source of meaning-enlivening and healing energy.)

Some of Hafiz’s work was first translated into English in 1771 by Sir William Jones. Western writers Goethe, Thoreau, Emerson and Conan Doyle, among others, appreciated and found inspiration in the poetry of Hafiz, and brought him to the attention of new readers in Europe and the Americas. I’ve really enjoyed the rather old-style and very musical translation by Gertrude Bell. Gamard tells us that, writing in 1947, A. J. Arberry, the well-known British scholar and translator of Rumi, described Gertrude Bell as “Hafiz’s most felicitous translator”. Her English translations were first published in Victorian England in 1897, but they remain among the most highly-regarded.

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Finally, I admire the poetry of Johann Wolfgang Goethe, and am motivated by reading of his connection to Hafiz to finally begin to search for and select a poem to post. I actually own a paperback edition of Goethe’s late work, the Westöstlicher Diwan, a collection of lyrical poems inspired by Hafiz; that is the place to begin my exploration.

“Crow” / David Harrison

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Crow

Crow, Crow,
why so proud?

My eyes are sharp,
my voice is loud.

Why do you choose
the tallest tree?

I sit up high
where I can see.

What if danger
lurks below?

I caw my friends
and off we go!

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From Farmer’s Dog in the Forest: More Rhymes for Two Voices, a picture book with verses by David L. Harrison and illustrations, Arden Johnson-Petrov, 2005. Colourful and lively, an accessible introduction to poetry for young readers and ESL learners of all ages.
Harrison has written many books for children and adults (see davidlharrison.com/books.htm), and won much recognition for his contributions to literacy and community awareness efforts. Awards include, in 1972, the Christopher Medal, for The Book of Giant Stories (recently republished and available, though am not sure that its appearance is exactly like the original). The Christopher Awards were established by Christopher founder Father James Keller to salute media that “affirm the highest values of the human spirit.” Their goal is to encourage men, women and children to pursue excellence in creative arenas that have the potential to influence a mass audience positively. Award winners encourage audiences to see the better side of human nature and motivate artists and the general public to use their best instincts on behalf of others (from The Christophers website, christophers.org, accessed 12 September 2015).
Harrison has a blog at davidlharrison.wordpress.com, where you can see what he’s up to at present.
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This particular poem especially appealed to me not only because I’m partial to crows, but because I simply can’t resist a pun, and it’s the only one I found in the book. A “pun” is a little joke often occurring seamlessly within regular conversation; it capitalizes on two possible meanings of a word, or on the fact that (as occurs in “Crow”) there exist words that sound alike but have different meanings (“caw” and “call”). An easy-to-remember definition is that a pun is a play on words. (I found myself wishing that each of the verses here contained a pun: the book would then be like a puzzle, and even more of a fun learning adventure than it already is. But I imagine it’s not always easy to create a good pun . . . though bad ones are enjoyable too, so, hey, it’s worth a try! Here’s one to get you started, courtesy of a familiar nursery rhyme: Hey diddle diddle, the cat and the fiddle / The cow jumped over the moo-oo-o-oo-oon . . .)

“Romanesque Arches” / Tranströmer

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Romanesque Arches

Inside the huge Romanesque church the tourists jostled in the half
darkness.
Vault gaped behind vault, no complete view.
A few candle flames flickered.
An angel with no face embraced me
and whispered through my whole body:
“Don’t be ashamed of being human, be proud!
Inside you vault opens behind vault endlessly.
You will never be complete, that’s how it’s meant to be.”
Blind with tears
I was pushed out on the sun-seething piazza
together with Mr. and Mrs. Jones, Mr. Tanaka, and Signora Sabatini,
and inside each of them vault opened behind vault endlessly.

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Tomas Tranströmer, widely acclaimed and translated Swedish poet (he was also a psychologist who specialized in work with convicts and drug addicts) is perhaps the most renowned Scandinavian poet of the later 20th and early 21st centuries. His awards include the Nobel Prize for Literature, the Neustadt International Prize for Literature, the Griffin Trust for Excellence in Poetry Lifetime Recognition Award. In 1990 he received the Nordic Council Literature Prize for his collection For the Living and the Dead wherein “Romanesque Arches” first appeared. My own encounter with the poem was in The Great Enigma: New Collected Poems, a fascinating collection featuring selections from several of the volumes published over the course of the poet’s life. It is sensitively translated by Robin Fulton, who also wrote the Foreword to the book.

In an early (1973) interview with Gunnar Harding (Swedish poet, novelist, essayist and translator), Tranströmer said: “… I respond to reality in such a way that I look on existence as a great mystery and that at times, at certain moments, this mystery carries a strong charge, so that it does have a religious character, and it is often in such a context that I write. So these poems are all the time pointing toward a greater context, one that is incomprehensible to our normal everyday reason. Although it begins in something very concrete.”

“Romanesque Arches” seemed to leap out at me as I perused The Great Enigma, perhaps because I’d just finished reading a fascinating book titled Miss Garnet’s Angel by Salley Vickers. (The novel is set for the most part in Venice, and is an ecstatic meditation on the city, its landscape and architecture, its denizens, and its connection—and the individual’s deepest psyche’s indestructible connection—to mythic, Apocryphal time.)

Tomas Tranströmer has just died, after a brief illness, at the age of 83. Thank-you, Linda (at https://shoreacres.wordpress.com/), for your comment alerting me to his passing. Thanks also to Jeff (at http://jeffschwaner.com/) for introducing me to Tranströmer’s poetry.