The Old Pond – Matsuo Basho

The Old Pond by Matsuo Basho is probably the most famous of all haikus ever written. I am sure it is the most translated at least. A Google search for The Old Pond throws up at least a few dozen varied translations of the haiku.

Haiku is, of course, a Japanese short poem format that has very specific rules regarding its subject and structure. It is typically composed of three phrases, one of which has to end with what they call as a cutting word or kireji. This word acts as a kind of pause between two phrases that convey distinct ideas but are still connected to the central theme of the haiku. The three phrases follow a 5-7-5 or 3-5-3 syllable (on in Japanese) pattern. Every haiku typically has a nature based theme and essentially includes a seasonal reference taken from a standard compendium of such words.

Haiku, as a poetic form, was developed in Japan over several centuries, having undergone so many variations to reach its currently recognized form. I will leave it up to you to read in detail about the highly convoluted history of the haiku’s origin on Wikipedia. But, all you need to know is that Matsuo Basho, a 17th century Japanese poet, was the one who popularized the haiku in its current format. It was called hokku then, I think.

What is amazing about this poetic form is the way a bare minimum of words is used, to bring up in our minds, the entire atmosphere of that moment in time captured in verse.

This haiku, for some reason, always conjures up an overcast, late afternoon in my mind. No breeze. The air heavy with humidity. A promise of rain, even. The old pond itself is dark and rich with moss, and lily pads floating around. The frog sitting quietly one of the lily pads, the entire world pregnant with its stillness. And then the frog jumps. A splash in the water! Shattering the tranquility of the scene. Ripples travelling across the pond, fading away. Silence again.

All that captured in just a handful of syllables, each and every one of them so lovingly curated to rightly deserve a place in the poem – beauty in brevity indeed!

Here is the poem in its original Japanese form:

Furu ike ya
kawazu tobikomu
mizu no oto

The literal translation in English goes,

Old pond!
frog jumps in
water’s sound

A more rounded out translation is, perhaps,

The old pond;
a frog jumps in —
the sound of the water.

But there is a whole plethora of its translations out there, in various languages too, each one trying to outdo the others in finding the most perfect words (the mot juste, if you will) to as closely capture the essence of the original as possible. There have even been attempts to retain the 5-7-5 syllable pattern in English, though our definition of syllable is quite different from that of the Japanese on. I will leave it up to you to discover and enjoy them.

And such is the universal appeal of The Old Pond haiku that it seems to have found resonance in all the corners of the world. Why, there is even a reference to it in a Tamil movie song from the early 00s, in which a boy and a girl sing of the various ways in which love had hijacked their lives. The girl sings,

KalangAdha kuLam ena irundhavaL
Oru thavaLai thAn kudhithadhum vatrivitten

(I used to be a still pond; a frog jumped in and emptied me out!)

Personally speaking, I am particularly partial to this whimsical version by Allen Ginsberg.

The old pond
A frog jumped in,
Kerplunk!

It never fails to put a smile on my face.

Bits of Verse – Poetic Metre 101

Some of you had asked me to do a post on poetic metre a while ago. I have only been sharing bits and pieces on the subject on my posts and the glossary. So I guess it makes sense to have a entire post dedicated to it. So here I am, due to heavy and popular demand (a girl can dream :)) with a post that will hopefully demystify poetic metre for you.

As per Wikipedia, metre is the basic rhythmic structure of a verse or lines in verse. It is what gives an even and measured cadence to the words of a poem. Try reading the following line out loud.

To meet, to know, to love – and then to part..

Can you almost hear an accompanying tempo to the words?

To meet, to know, to love – and then to part

da-Dum da-Dum da-Dum da-Dum da-Dum

That is what poetic metre is all about!

It probably made sense to have such a system in place, since early poems were mostly lays and ballads that were almost always sung. Rhythmically measured syllables are always easier to set to music, I suppose. Since no one saw any reason to change it (although poets did take a few liberties and used quite a bit of leeway when their muse demanded it), the tradition carried on for ages. Well, at least until the free verse movement “broke the pentameter”, of course.

Not just in English, but almost every language that has had a serious song writing and/or poetic tradition has its own metric system in place. Readers of Tamil will see a parellel to this in Yaappilakkanam, an entire grammar unto itself that describes form and metre of classic Tamil poetry. Similarly, Greek, Latin, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Arabic, Persian, Sanskrit, Japanese, among many others, all have their own metric systems for poetry, at least in their classic versions.

Right! Back to our topic. As I was saying, every line of verse is made up of repetitions of a rhythmic pattern of syllables. This repeating pattern of syllables is what is known as a metric foot (funny name, I agree – it immediately conjures up an image of a row of feet standing on a line of verse. :)). The foot is the basic unit of measurement of poetic metre. It is made up of 2 or more syllables in a sequence. The syllables may be measured by the length of their sound (long and short) or by the amount of stress on them (stressed and unstressed). While some of the other poetic traditions use the long/short classification, English poetry uses the stressed/unstressed method.

There are several different types of metric feet in use. Each type of foot is given a distinct name that kind of mimics the stress pattern of syllables it represents. Here are the names of the metric foot types commonly used in English poetry, their stress patterns and the style they each lend to the poem’s meter.

Type of FootStress PatternMetric style
IambUnstressed, StressedIambic
TrocheeStressed, UnstressedTrochaic
SpondeeStressed, StressedSpondaic
AnapestUnstressed, Unstressed, StressedAnapestic
DactylStressed, Unstressed, UnstressedDactylic

Now, a poem’s metre is decided based on not just the type of metric foot but also the number of those feet in each line of verse. If there is one foot per line, it is a monometer. If there are two feet per line, it is a dimeter. If there are three feet per line.. you get the drift. Thus, based on number of feet per line, we have trimeter (3), tetrameter(4), pentameter(5), hexameter(6), heptameter(7) and octameter(8). (Thank God, they stopped with that! :))

Combining the foot and the number gives us the metre of a poem. Thus, the metre of a poem with two dactyls per line is dactylic dimeter, three trochees per line is trochaic trimeter (very alliterative, I know :)) and so on.

The iambic pentameter is probably the most popular of them all as far as canonized English poetry is concerned. Shakespeare seems to have loved it. He used it for almost all his sonnets. He wrote his plays almost entirely in iambic pentameter, albeit as blank verse (unrhymed).

Most poems are entirely made up of one type of metric foot or the other, though there some glorious exceptions, like how we saw in The Tyger – mostly trochees with a few lines in iambs.

There are other variations to poetic metre too. A catalexis is where a line of verse drops a foot or two or a part of it, usually at the end of the line. We saw this too in The Tyger where the last trochee in each line dropped the unstressed syllable. A headless verse is a line of verse where the first syllable of the first foot in the line is dropped. (Very funny, I know! A verse becoming headless because it lost a part of its foot. :))

Anyway, I hope that gave you a fairly good idea about the metre used in English poetry. If not, you know where to throw the brickbats at. 🙂 So long, folks!

Happy Thought – Robert Louis Stevenson

Happy Thought by Robert Louis Stevenson

I found this little gem, Happy Thought by Robert Louis Stevenson, in my daughter’s book of poems. It is all of two lines, written in loose iambic pentameter. But what an astounding bit of verse it is!

The world is so full of a number of things,
I’m sure we should all be as happy as kings.

At first look, it sounds like a really happy thought, like the poet was having an especially happy day and *had* to condense all his joy into that perfect couplet for many others to enjoy.

Then you realize you could read the couplet a number of ways and get a very different mood out of it each time.

You could read it with smiling optimism, as you would any “happy thought“. You could also read it with breathless enthusiasm, all atwitter with wonder and excitement. Or with just a touch of whimsy. You could perhaps read it with righteous indignation (I mean, the world is so amazing. Why on earth aren’t we being happy about it?!).  You could even read it with bone-dry sarcasm (Right! The world is so amazing, we should be so “happy” – air quotes included – to be in it).

See, what I mean? Just from the tone of the reading, the mood of the couplet can go from quietly blissful to downright cynical! Doesn’t it feel like a mirror to the mind and personality of the reader? Or perhaps, just his or her mood that day.

What way did *you* read it?

Ozymandias – Percy Bysshe Shelley

I think I read Ozymandias, a sonnet by Percy Bysshe Shelley, in my 8th grade for the very first time. It talks about a mutilated statue that the poet says he heard about, through “a traveller from an antique land”. I even remember the bizarre drawing that accompanied the poem. It was nowhere as detailed as the illustration that I managed to dig up from the internet and put on this post. It was a black and white sketch of the infamous “vast and trunkless legs of stone” and the “shattered visage” next to it looked quite dreadful, if my memory serves me right.

The subject of the ruined colossus was, of course, Ramesses II, reportedly the greatest and most powerful of all Egyptian pharaohs, so much so, that his descendants often referred to him as the “Great Ancestor”. According to Wikipedia, Ozymandias is the Greek transliteration of his Egyptian throne name, “Usermaatre Setepenre” meaning “The justice of Re is powerful – chose of Re”, Re (or Ra) being the Egyptian sun god. He is famous for his innumerable successes on the battlefield and was largely responsible for securing and expanding Egyptian influence in the region. Ozymandias is also known for his obsession with building, transforming the landscape of Egypt with huge monuments to himself especially the temple complex of Ramesseum. Some ruins are all that is left of his buildings now.

Coming back to the poem, the sonnet itself has an interesting origin story. It was written as part of a competition that Shelley had had with his friend, the poet and writer Horace Smith, seemingly influenced by the impending arrival of a broken statue of Ramesses II at a London museum. They each penned a sonnet of the same name and had it published anonymously or using a pen name. We can clearly tell who won that competition now, hands down. Smith’s poem is not so well known, most likely mentioned only in the context of the aforementioned competition. On the other hand, this one by Shelley has for sure withstood the test of time – quite unlike the works of the titular character of the poem.

The poem uses an iambic pentameter (five iambs per line), though rather loosely. It follows an unusual ababa cdcedefef rhyme pattern as against the abbaabba cdc cdc (or cde cde) of most English sonnets written in the Italian tradition. Its structure also breaks away from the usual octave-sestet format of sonnets.

The poem begins with the preamble, “I met a traveller from an antique land” and quickly transfers the point of view to the said traveller, who narrates,

“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert”

Now, that immediately catches our attention as well as our imagination, as we grapple with the word vast in our minds, trying to gauge how big the statue really had been. The pause that Shelley makes in the middle of the 3rd line is almost as if to give us the time get our heads around the truly colossal nature of the monument, standing in the middle of nowhere.

Stand in the dessert…Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies”

It must have been a really eerie sight, the legs standing tall all by themselves, and nothing but the fractured face of the once whole statue for company.

Then we get to the “shattered visage” and what an expression it had! What arrogance and disdain and self-satisfaction?

Whose frown, And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command

The poet uses minimal details to bring out all the contempt and condescension etched into the lines and grooves of the once proud face.

The sculptor who created the statue must have made a close study of his subject indeed, to bring to life these qualities, so befitting the powerful and self-aggrandizing monarch that Ozymandias was.

“Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things”

He seems to have understood the very essence of the Ozymandias’s soul and brought it out so accurately on the face of the statue using his evidently considerable skill.

“The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed”

This is probably the most famous line in the poem. “The hand that mocked them” obviously belongs to the sculptor and “the heart that fed” to his subject. It is a very interesting line too, because the word “mocked” can be interpreted in two different ways. In using the word, did Shelley mean to say “laughed at”? (Not out loud, of course, unless the sculptor had a death wish) If so, would that mean that the sculptor held the monarch in contempt for his all-too-human frailties of pride and ego and hence brought those qualities to the forefront? Or did the poet just mean “imitated”, and the sculptor simply replicated these “passions” as evidenced on the face of the pharaoh, and “fed” by his ambitious heart. Now no one will ever know what the poet intended. But my belief is that Shelley deliberately used the wordplay to lend itself to both the readings.

The traveller continues his narrative, talking now about the inscription on the pedestal of the statue. It apparently said,

“My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!”

which is very much in keeping with our understanding so far of Ozymandias’s character. The poet, in actuality, has used a loose rewording of the inscription given by Diodorus Siculus in his Bibliotheca historica as “King of Kings am I, Ozymandias. If anyone would know how great I am and where I lie, let him surpass one of my works.” The pharaoh had been so sure of the permanence of his earthly works, that he practically challenged his successors to surpass them in scale and grandeur. He had sought to immortalize himself in stone, even to the point of deifying himself. He had thought all those grandiose monuments he had built would live on forever bearing testimony to his greatness for all eternity to come. But alas, nothing beside remains. The last 3 lines perfectly encapsulate the desolation and ruin of the once great king’s legacy.

“Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away”

Ozymandias – Percy Bysshe Shelley

Ozymandias - Percy Bysshe Shelley

Source: genius.com

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.”

Bits of Verse – Poetic Licence

I had an interesting discussion with some of my college buddies the other day. It basically stemmed from my last post about “The Tyger” by William Blake. One of them wanted to know why I did not mention the lines below in my commentary.

When the stars threw down their spears
And water’d heaven with their tears

These lines follow the poet’s musings on what human tools that the Creator might have used in forging the magnificent tiger. For some reason, I felt they did not fit into the flow of my commentary and had not called out to them, beautiful though they are.

Then all of us weighed in on what we each felt that the lines meant. My take had been that the stars were so moved by the Creator’s efforts and the spectacular result at the end of it, that they wept.

One friend wondered, “if the stars were overwhelmed with emotions both fear and awe.. threw [down their] spears and cried too”. Another friend agreed, saying, “[even] stars so powerful threw down their spears and wept in fear”.

Yet another friend thought “of [the] tiger in starlight and the rays being like fierce spears that want to hunt it but only make it look mightier”. She wondered if there might be a hunting reference in there somewhere. So, “when the tiger got hunted (hunters being the stars among animals) and the heavens wept for the loss, did the creator still smile with the pride of its creation?”

It was amazing to see how we could make so many different readings from the same bit of verse.

Then I thought, that is indeed the beauty of poetry (of all art, I should say). You can interpret it in any number of ways that call out to you personally. It does not have to be what the poet meant it be while he wrote it. The possibilities are really, endless!

Just as a poet has the artistic licence to bend the words of a language to his vision, so have the readers the licence to interpret them in a way that speaks the most to them. As my friend summed it up, the more the possibilities for interpretation, the richer the poem.