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“Root Cellar” / Roethke

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Root Cellar

Nothing would sleep in that cellar, dank as a ditch,
Bulbs broke out of boxes hunting for chinks in the dark,
Shoots dangled and drooped,
Lolling obscenely from mildewed crates,
Hung down long yellow evil necks, like tropical snakes.
And what a congress of stinks!—
Roots ripe as old bait,
Pulpy stems, rank, silo-rich,
Leaf-mold, manure, lime, piled against slippery planks.
Nothing would give up life:
Even the dirt kept breathing a small breath.

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Source: The Heath Introduction to Poetry 3rd ed. 1988.
Includes 26-page Preface, On Poetry, by the Editor, Joseph de Roche, which covers a lot of ground about poetry’s stylistic elements and their use and development over the centuries. In its last paragraph he writes:
The novelist E. M. Forster once suggested we should think of writers not as men and women locked into different centuries, but as men and women sitting around a table carrying on a living conversation . . . Not everyone, after all, becomes our close friend. Nonetheless, the more we open our lives to experience, the richer our lives become. The more poets and poems we come to understand, the livelier the world becomes, no matter what century they, or we, have been fated to live in.
This is an older collection, but truly inspired in its selections of English-language poetry ranging from the 8th century to the end of the 20th. Many poets are represented in six temporal / historical sections, each often by several poems. (Approaching the 20th and 21st centuries, increasing numbers of writers are portrayed.) Each period is introduced by a short summary, A Brief History, about the relevant stylistic and historical context. Among the most illuminating collections I’ve had the pleasure of encountering.
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Theodore Roethke (1908 – 1963) was, in the opinion of some of his more-or-less contemporaries (including novelist and one-time U.S. Poet Laureate, James Dickey, writing in the Atlantic Monthly in 1968), the greatest poet the United States had produced to date.
Though he was not as prolific as many of his peers (in part because he was also a devoted, influential and beloved teacher of poetry), Roethke’s verse is carefully crafted and continually strives to embody his wide and often unbearably intense experience of the ecstasy and anguish of living. He was relentlessly, vitally human, with a great appreciation for all life, and all facets of life.
The impact made on him by his youthful experiences of assisting in his family’s greenhouse business were among the first to profoundly and lastingly influence his life and work. Poet Richard Blessing’s impression of Roethke’s œvre, as reflecting the correspondences of the world of the greenhouse to the human being’s inner world:
The sensual world of the greenhouse is the first garden from which we have all emerged, and the attempt to make meaning of it, to recall the energies of that place occupies us all in the lonely chill of our adult beds. . . (We comprehend that) life is dynamic, not static; that the energy of the moment from the past preserves it, in part, in the present; that experience is a continuum, not a collection of dead instants preserved and pinned on walls we have left behind. (via poetryfoundation.org)

Roethke was recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, two National Book Awards, and a Bollingen Prize.
(The Bollingen Prize is awarded every two years for the best volume of poetry by an American published during those years, or for a poet’s lifetime achievement in his or her art. Launched in 1948 and originally conferred by the Library of Congress, the prize is now administered by the Yale University Library. The Bollingen Foundation’s name was philanthropists’ Paul and Mary Mellon’s way of honoring C. G. Jung, who had a country retreat near a Swiss village called Bollingen.)
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This collection contains 7 poems by Roethke, including what is probably his best-known, “In a Dark Time”. I must not start making a habit of these post ‘extensions’, but will quote just one verse from this 4-verse poem (if only to make clear to the reader that Roethke wrote about much more than plant life):

What’s madness but nobility of soul
At odds with circumstance? The day’s on fire!
I know the purity of pure despair,
My shadow pinned against a sweating wall.
That place among the rocks—is it a cave,
Or winding path? The edge is what I have.

—“In a Dark Time”, excerpt

«Die Poesie» / Goethe

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Die Poesie

Gott sandte seinen rohen Kindern
Gesetz und Ordnung, Wissenschaft und Kunst,
Begabte die mit aller Himmelsgunst
Der Erde grasses Los zu mindern.
Sie kamen nackt vom Himmel an
Und wussten sich nicht zu benehmen;
Die Poesie zog ihnen Kleider an,
Und keine hatte sich zu schämen.

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In Goethe Gedichte II: Gedankenlyrik; Westöstlicher Diwan, 1982, Diogenes Taschenbuch 20438.

T R A N S L A T I O N

Poesy

God sent his rough-hewn, hapless children
Law and Order, Learning, Art,
Bestowing on them all of heaven’s favours
To lighten for them striving earth’s grim lot.

Unclad they came from heaven, and
Unsure as to their nature or which part to play . . .
Then Poetry arrayed their frames in fitting garb—
And Shame? She blanched and crept away!

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Perhaps especially in the case of poetry, interpretation happens simultaneously and inevitably with this process of rendering lines of words into another language, i.e., translation. I hope I’ve done some justice to Goethe’s verse, however verbosely and rather loosely. Thanks to the good folks at LEO.org for help with that chameleony grass.

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Johann Wolfgang Goethe, 1749-1832, is generally considered Germany’s greatest and most influential literary figure of the modern era. Foremost a writer of epic and lyric poetry, he was also playwright, novelist, scientist, statesman, theatre director, critic, and prolific amateur artist. There are many sources online concerning Goethe and his legacy; I have accessed a thoroughly readable summary of his life and work, and their social and literary contexts, at Britannica.com. It is written by Nicholas Boyle, updated August 2015 (accessed March 2017). Please read if you want to get a good feel for the scope of Goethe’s stature and accomplishments. An excerpt, from towards the end of the piece:

If there is a single theme running through Goethe’s huge and varied literary output, it is his reflection on subjectivity—his showing how in ever-changing ways we make our own selves, the world we inhabit, and the meaning of our lives. Yet he also shows how, without leaving that self-made world, we collide all the time with the reality of things. Ultimately, Goethe believes, this reality is not alien or hostile to us, because, whatever it is, we—and our capacity for experience—ultimately derive from it too. Goethe therefore calls it Nature, that out of which we are born.

All right, so hold on . . . This “reality of things” just mentioned: so there is an “I” and there are “things” . . . My thinking is that each of these things is a subjectivity in itself, just like I am, whether it be animal, vegetable, mineral. What is “Nature” but a thronging mass of subjectivities?
We humans seem, in our very humanity, to endlessly attempt to seek out objectivity, some measure of it at least; we call this seeking the truth. Whether through immersion in nature, in scientific pursuit, philosophy, art, theology / religion / spirituality / mysticism—even travel, reading, relationships—we seek the same “thing”, with greater or lesser awareness of our aspiration. Poetry / poesy itself is, at its heart, a tool we employ to try to touch, to comprehend, some objective truth in this life . . . yet the final mystery remains, always remains. So do we also seek comfort in truth? I think we must do. And will we find it? . . . And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time . . . / And all shall be well and / All manner of thing shall be well . . . (T. S. Eliot, in “Little Gidding”)
I guess that’s where hope comes in. (Though Eliot has a thing or two to say about that, too. For another day.)
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Decades ago, I came across the following line that appears in Goethe’s tragic play / epic poem, Faust, Part Two. It occurs in a pivotal conversation between Faust and Mephistopheles*, though I don’t know the exact context. It is spoken by Mephistopheles:
Gestaltung, Umgestaltung,
Des ewigen Sinnes ewige Unterhaltung.

(Formation, transformation, / Eternal Mind’s eternal occupation.) (der Sinn is hard to translate; it can mean sense, meaning, consciousness, memory, intellect. The word mind would not normally be capitalized in English, but I’ve taken the liberty of doing that.)
Asking your indulgence, dear reader, I quote this line for you because, though my knowledge of the German language is weak, these words have stayed with me, teasing me with a measure of truth, and mystery, through the years.
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*Mephistopheles is a representative of Lucifer / Satan. There are many ways to interpret his action in the play, as well as the work’s final outcome—which may well offer redemption after the tragedy has played itself out.

«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.
For younger children, I can also strongly recommend a small but beautiful board book + CD with 20 comptines. It too is called «Les plus belles comptines de Noël», produced by Formulette; éditeur Jeunesse, 2014. Its producer/creator is Rémi Guichard; the songs are also interpreted by Rémi, along with les ateliers chansons d’Auxerre; illustrations by Marie-Pierre Tiffoin. (In fact, the music on this CD is quieter, gentler than on the first one mentioned. The selection of songs is somewhat similar, but I’d say, with more variety in the presentation.)
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«Neige, neige blanche»—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!