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The power of poetry

Poetry is older than prose by thousands of years. Epics, chants, odes, histories and genealogies were powerful because the rhymes and rhythms of poetry could dance the words into our minds and memories without the necessity, or even the possibility, of reading. That's why the power of poetry continues today— in our latest pop songs, opera, oratory, or even in simple lines on a page. "Modern" poetry only seems to ignore those elements of memorability.

Epic and Ancient Poetry

Sappho: The Poems

Sappho of Lesbos established personal lyric poetry as an enduring genre. Plato called her the Tenth Muse. The slim Sappho: The Poems is all we have left of her genius, after the Byzantine Christians tried to obliterate her from history. "She was incomparable in the perfection of every line, in the felicitous correspondence of the sense and the sound of her words"— Edwin Marion Cox.
Sappho Teaching Supplement

In The Changes (the metamorphoses), the Roman poet Ovid translated and arranged a series of Greek and Roman myths into one encyclopedic tale from the beginning of the Earth to the crowning of Caesar Augustus, his contemporary. Even that encomium did not save Ovid from exile, as Augustus Caesar was intent upon "purifying" the new Roman Empire. The term "metamorphoses" refers to Ovid's recurrent theme of humans, animals, or gods being transformed into another shape or being, usually at the displeasure of a god or goddess. This encyclopedic work in Jacob Tonson's edition, was put into English in iambic pentameter by eighteen poets, including Alexander Pope, John Dryden, Joseph Addison, and others.

The work of scholar James MacPherson, the Ossian Legends presents reconstructed poetry by the 14th-century Celtic/Scottish bard Ossian. The poetry and stories reflect enduring themes of love, treachery, adventure from a different age and sensibility.

Renaissance: The Turn Toward Love

Dante Gabriel Rossetti,tr. Dante and His Circle.

Dante and His Circle is a selection of love poetry drawn from Dante Gabriel Rossetti's translations of poets of Dante's contemporaries (often responding to each other); it reveals the next stage after the troubadours of Provence in developing a European literature. The Vita Nuova of Dante is also available separately (see below).

Who was Dante's Beatrice? They met in the tween years; Beatrice Portinari later married someone else, but died in her mid-twenties. Yet Dante's poetic portrait of her Vita Nuova reveals a deep fascination with her, which continued long after her death. Aside from his personal feelings, he used these poems to publish the first modern analysis of how poems are constructed.

Shakespeare's first appearance in print, a longpoem of the encounter of the goddess Venus with the inexperienced Adonis (it ends badly), describes Venus's extensive catalog of the phases of love.

Nineteenth Century Poetry

The poet and artist William Blake waited until after his death before sharing his true thoughts on religion and human nature ("You read black where I read white…"). The Everlasting Gospel and Other Poems shares some of his personal visions, as well as a catalog of wry aphorisms on human nature.

Ghalib's Ghazals of Ghalib is written in a unique ghazal format. Each poem consists of four to ten two-line stanzas, all on the same general topic, but not otherwise related (i.e., no "story line"). In other words, each stanza is like a comedian's two-liner, the set-up and the punchline. Ghalib was a master of wit, and the form fit him well. When he moved next to a mosque, he declared that now "God is my neighbor." His personal relationship with The Beloved (deity) seemed highly personal, yet fraught with misunderstanding or spurning.

The essence of poetry was challenged severely in America by Walt Whitman's unusual book, Leaves of Grass, which disregarded rhyme, rhythm, metaphor, line length, throwing out European allusions to classical myths. In other words, making way for a thoroughly American poetry. "An epic of the self … comparable … to Paradise Lost, or… the Song of Krishna in the Bhagavad-Gita"—V.K. Chari.

Also, Teacher's Supplement to this edition
and A Backward Glance over Traveled Roads pamphlet

The Babylonian Captivity, Lesya Ukrainka.

This allegory of Babylon was written a hundred years ago to protest the Russian domination of the Ukraine. Sound familiar?

Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Aurora Leigh, What the Heart Knows.

A novel-length poem with elements of the poet's own life records an orphan girl, half-Italian living in England, who is offered an easy marriage to a cousin whom she actually likes, but she refuses his offer of marriage to make her own way in life (mainly literary), until, decades later after she has gained some stature as her own person, he returns, who himself has suffered some setbacks in his campaign for working people. This time, she is ready, on her own terms. Both of them have changed, but their affection remains.

The Deserted Village, Oliver Goldsmith.

This longpoem, although set for nostalgia of the old days in a comfortable small town, reveals the underside of the Industrial Revolution, as cottage industries are forced out by factories, people flee to overcrowded cities ill-prepared for a population boom. In other words, the nostalgia is an important social document of recent history.

Christina Rossetti, Goblin Market

A children's story with a deeper meaning— given the circumstances, how far will a sister go to protect and save her sibling? And how can she succeed?

Modern Times

Hayashi (Dennis Holt), Tanka Waka Uta 

An exercise in form, the tanka and double tanka applied to nature, to relationships, to sudden flashes of recognition in just a few lines. An experiment in the limits, and power, of form.

Berlin, The Divided City 1945-1989. (German/English) Guest editor, Mitch Cohen.

An anthology produced in the early 1980s, when the Berlin Wall was real, but had outlived its creator and really had become a remnant that, just a few years after this anthology came out, came down by ordinary people tearing it down with their hands, on both sides, when they had come to recognize it as obsolete.

Jorge de Sena, Sobre Esta Praia…, 8 poems (Portuguese/English)

The first of the Inklings series of bilingual texts, a reprint of the original edition. Sena, Chair of the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at UC-Santa Barbara, meditated on the California beach life contrasted with the wild Midi of France. He died two young, at the age of 59.

Paul Portugés, Aztec Birth, (Nahuatl/English)

In the bilingual Inklings series. A reprint from the original letterpress edition. Based on the rare text of Sahagún, this deals with the Aztec ritual of birthing, with a foreword by Peter Whigam describing the process.

Astrid Ivask, At the Fallow’s Edge, poems (Latvian/English)

Third in the bilingual Inklings series, a reprint. Ivask (d. 2013), reminisces of her childhood in Latvia, at the western edge of the great continent-wide grasslands (the "fallows).

Sasha Newborn, Eight 2 Two

A collection of one hundred short poems, two of which are translations of Pablo Neruda. Plus one puzzle.

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