Poetry Wednesday: Ikkyu Breaks Free

It’s been a busy and challenging week for the family. We’ve had so much going on, some of it successful and some less so. Whenever we have one of these weeks, I get thinking that it’s a 21st century curse. But it isn’t really. The 21st century just has a particular version of it, a particularly fast and irritating version of what has existed for centuries. It’s the panic filled, anxiety place of the cerebral cortex. It’s logic and reason taken to extremes that ignore the heart. And it always makes me think of 14th century Buddhist monk and poet Ikkyu. He definitely understood that this logic brain makes you lose your Original Mind, or pure state. It takes you into ego and away from your deeper self. Which isn’t a problem, exactly. As Ikkyu himself said,

“If it rains, let it rain, if the wind blows, let it blow.”

But it can be frustrating when it doesn’t line up with your own viewpoint. It’s a value question- what do we want out of the world? What do we want from ourselves, from each other? I live in two worlds when it comes to values and expectations. I teach science, I research science, I enjoy science. Science is rational. It’s the Church of Reason. When I’m not working, I live in a world of fiction and poetry. Poetry is the Church of the Heart. I love both, and I’m happy to be in both. But crazy days, money worries, and other problems definitely cause me to retreat into poems. These issues draw me to ancient Zen poets and wild old masters who preach the gospel of the poet.

“Nobody told the flowers to come up nobody
Will ask them to leave when spring’s gone”

One reason is the desire to question my own needs and wishes. The understanding that we need to let go of our egos, which poets have understood for centuries. One of my big frustrations with current academic poets is the loss of this meaning, the shift into more ego based poetry. Poetry should always have an element of letting go of reason, letting go of a certain notion of self. Reason has plenty of acolytes in the world- poets should be devotees of unreason.

So I turn to Ikkyu. Insane Zen poet of the Heart.


Hemingway and Utility of Language

Up the road, in his shack, the old man was sleeping again. He was still sleeping on his face and the boy was sitting by him watching him. The old man was dreaming about the lions.

Ezra Pound and Ernest Hemingway were more alike than either would ever have cared to admit. Both used language with fascinating alacrity, both fled the ridiculousness of America for a Europe that never really satisfied them, and both were a little mad. Maybe more than a little mad. Most importantly, however, both were geniuses.

Hemingway suffers from the weight of history and his own childish and consuming issues with women and masculinity. Like Pound’s struggles with reconciling socio-economic distress and culture and his subsequent descent into an awful and racist Fascism, though, it shouldn’t invalidate the brilliance of the art. No one could deny that Hemingway was a flawed person. Given his family history of mental illness, that probably had an origin in serious neurological issues that the era was unaware existed. We’ll never know. But the fact remains that his work remains interesting and vital. The man had problems- the work has problems. But it’s interesting.

The secret to appreciating Hemingway’s prose is the easy, utilitarian way he uses language. There isn’t much extraneous verbiage in his work. What often gets ignored, however, is that there is a sentimentalism that runs through it. Despite his image as a manly man, a paragon of masculine virtue, Hemingway was all for flowery imagery- just not flowery language. And that’s a strength. He understood that the word ‘alone’ held much more power to suggest pain than a dozen pages of internal monologue about being alone. Just the word conjures the pain, the sentiment, the intensity of the experience for the reader. English is a very verbose language-  by some measures more verbose than most- but the real strength lies not in number of morphemes but in ability to reflect the world. Hemingway understood this, and used it well.

Tire Pressure and Travel Spring

It’s fully spring in upstate New York, the place that defies spring until the very end. It may not completely last- we’re still holding out for another frost before May, and planting must wait til winter stops being such a jerk and stops freezing our flowers off. But this week has been an incredible one, warm and sunny and breezy. It makes me anxious to take off and explore the region. I’m a big fan of hiking and we do a lot of that in our family. But spring, against all ethical and historical desires in my bones, really makes me want to hop in a car and explore.

I have a love/hate relationship with my car. I prefer having a newer car that is without any mechanical problems at all, and can just cart me all over the country whenever I wish. I don’t always have that opportunity, though. And the ethics of buying new really bothers me, when I know that older cars being well maintained is the best way to be a responsible citizen of the Earth. But I want to move through the country, over roads and through villages, and car repair just slows that process down. I want the perks of the car! I love asphalt, I love stereos playing Pixies while I crest ridges. I’m a spoiled 20th century boy, I suppose.

"Um, Papa? Cars make carbon monoxide. We should walk."

“Um, Papa? Cars make carbon monoxide. We should walk.”

But spring means getting out into the world, and I can’t really wait for that. I’m thinking a new car may be my best choice for an exciting voyage into spring and summer travel. I can hear that voice in the back of my head telling me to take public transport to a good hiking trail and just go. I can hear my son, the boy who hates all polluting machines and curses modernity, saying the same thing. ANd he’s right.

There’s nothing quite like the car for getting out into nature, though. I wish I could say my experience was different, but it isn’t. The car is just a fantastic tool for exploring a country the size of the United States. I’d give anything for an awesome rail network like Japan has, or a clean and comfortable bus system that takes you everywhere safely. But we don’t have it. So, spring means thinking cars and trails. Spring means silencing that voice in my head and from my son’s seat saying I shouldn’t like my car as much as I do.

And spring means rolling through forests and fields over tarmac and grinning like a madman with a petrol addiction.

Poetry Wednesday: Patchen

  • I’ve written thousands of words about Kenneth Patchen over the years. Yet I’m drawn to write more, time and time again. I’m not sure exactly why he’s the writer who has the most meaning to me. He’s clearly an immense, once in a generation talent, but that could be said of others I read and admire. Maybe it’s the similarity to in his background, also from a small industrial town ravaged by factory pollution and suburban apathy. Maybe it’s his long term relationship with Miriam, an intense bond so much like my own experience with my own partner. It could be.

Nowhere to Go but Everywhere: Milan

I have the weirdest relationship with Italy. My trips there have been bizarre amalgams of touristy train trips and punk rock squat-hopping. I’ve seen dead bodies and pizzerias packed with families. I’ve gone up and down the country but never set foot in Rome. Italy and I don’t know quite how to handle each other. But I will say two things about my favorite Italian city, Milan, that should sell anyone on a trip there immediately. It has the most gorgeous people in the world, and it has food that is as near perfection as food can get. That’s enough reason to go, right?

In 1999-2000, I stayed in some punk rock squats in Milan, and I quickly had to flee those for my sanity. Italian punks are lovely, and intense, and bring out some of the worst traits in myself. I knew that unless my Italian trip was destined to end with flinging Molotov cocktails at the chain restaurants I needed to change my locale. I decided on some dingy bed and breakfasts in the city center. They were a slight step up in terms of hygiene, but a large step up in not-going-to-jail. This was pre-EU Italy, and it was fantastically Italian. No English, few franchises… Italy.

The best part of the little B and Bs clustered in Milan was that it was like a language school and cultural exchange program all rolled into a fantastic package. I stayed at once place that had a little kid, maybe four years old, who was desperate to talk to me. It was perfect for both of us- he had an adult to tell his story to, I had a person whose Italian was about on my level.

I haven’t been to Italy since 2000. I moved back to Japan in 2001 and never went back to Europe. I wonder what the changes to Italy have meant for travel around Milan. I generally dislike nostalgia in any form, and I’m especially bothered by nostalgia for a place that I didn’t really know beyond a few short trips. But I can’t help but be curious by Milan in 2015. It has to feel different. The little squats may still be there. The abandoned train cars filled with gutter punks may still be there, serving cold food and being drunk at 9am. I have no idea. But Milan probably isn’t the same.

Every kind of Milan

Every kind of Milan

It doesn’t matter that the city is 2500 years old, it really goes away and reappears every few decades as an entirely new town. Every city does that- it’s reinvented by new generations, new technology. Milan just strikes me more than most because that illusion of age makes you feel like you’re walking Roman streets. The oven fired pizza makes you think you’re eating in Fellini’s Italy. You can’t really do that, though. The places move on, they change. This is necessary and important, of course. I’m not so blinded by historical interest or my own experience to pretend otherwise for even a moment. But it is interesting, and it explains a lot about the world to me. We love or hate change, we fear or embrace it, but we can’t deny the impact it has. I look at Milan and see ancient columns that attract me, old piazzas that evoke a different era. I ride on scooters from the Italian “economic miracle” days and wonder what it was like to follow old stone paths in the wake of the devastation of WWII. It isn’t nostalgia, exactly- I don’t pine for it- but it is a kind of passionate curiosity. It’s a desire to imagine vividly the place I am, what it has gone through, and what may be to come. And it doesn’t happen everywhere I go, certainly. But it’s powerful and constant when I’m in Milan.

Even more beautiful emotions (Kafka’s diary entry, 27 March 1912)

A wonderful entry from biblioklept to ponder on Friday. Hopefully it’ll be filled with even more beautiful emotions!


27. March. Monday, on the street. The boy who with several others, threw a large ball at a servant girl walking defencelessly in front of them; just as the ball was flying at the girls’ behind I grabbed him by the throat, choked him in a fury, thrust him aside, and swore. Then walked on and didn’t even look at the girl. One quite forgets one’s earthly existence because one is so entirely full of fury is permitted to believe that, given the opportunity, one would in the same way fill oneself with even more beautiful emotions.

Franz Kafka’s diary entry, 27 March 1912. Translation by Joseph Kresh.

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Poetry Wednesday: Duncan

“These    are

the passages  of thought

from the light air”

Duncan. Ground Work

Duncan is a challenging poet to nail down. Officially a SF Renaissance poet, he never fit it perfectly with anyone. He famously avoided publishing anything for decades, working instead on his masterpiece Ground Work. It’s a stunning work, a work of a master of his craft no longer burdened with anything but his art. He’s able to pull expertly from every tradition, easily diving into metaphors of foreign tongues and unfamiliar mythos.

Unfamiliar, that is, to everyone else. Duncan understood poesis, making meaning through poems. The shift of language or culture was less important to him than the subtle shift of understanding that poetry could achieve. Unlike other poets I’ve written about, Duncan never got the popular following. In many ways, though he was admired and loved by other poets, he never fit into the same artistic sphere as the other poets who were drawn to him. He was cynical of publishing and promotion, and shunned the crowds that were drawn to his peers in the SF scene and the Black Mountain poets.

Strangely, this lack of engagement with the world was a source of permanent frustration by much of the external world that he wished to remain apart from. His political friends always attempted to understand his desire to keep the political and the poetic separated, and he lost some close friends and colleagues when he tried to insist on the distinction. A spiritual person, raised by Theosophists and dedicated to the mystery of life, Duncan must have felt overwhelmed and hemmed in by political talk. He saw in it, perhaps, a hardness that would crush the poetic.

In his poems, at least, the concrete was his enemy. His poems that resonate with me are light, experimental, and untouched by lengthy exposition. Take one of his finest from Ground Work II, Supplication;

         “Let me have the grace

for I would mind what happens here.”

Contrasting it with another good poem, A Poem Beginning with a Line from Pindar (reprinted in its entirety below), it’s magnificent in its simplicity. It”s as long as the latter poem, but filled with simple lines, airy spacing, dialogue that drifts between tense and person; it’s marvelous. When he decides to become more concrete, a good poem emerges… but something is lost. A questioning of the mythos, a critical eye towards the poem. In Supplication, he ponders “The very doubt of living upon which Life/from its initial darings cast itself abroad.” Not until the end of  A Poem Beginning with a Line from Pindar does he allow that fanciful wondering, reminding us that “We have come so far that all of the old stories/whisper once more.”

That is the Duncan at peace with his own power. The Duncan that can accept the weight of the old stories without any ballast at all.

A Poem Beginning With A Line From Pindar


The light foot hears you and the brightness begins
god-step at the margins of thought,
quick adulterous tread at the heart.
Who is it that goes there?
Where I see your quick face
notes of an old music pace the air,
torso-reverberations of a Grecian lyre.

In Goya’s canvas Cupid and Psyche
have a hurt voluptuous grace
bruised by redemption. The copper light
falling upon the brown boy’s slight body
is carnal fate that sends the soul wailing
up from blind innocence, ensnared
by dimness
into the deprivations of desiring sight.

But the eyes in Goya’s painting are soft,
diffuse with rapture absorb the flame.
Their bodies yield out of strength.
Waves of visual pleasure
wrap them in a sorrow previous to their impatience.

A bronze of yearning, a rose that burns
the tips of their bodies, lips,
ends of fingers, nipples. He is not wingd.
His thighs are flesh, are clouds
lit by the sun in its going down,
hot luminescence at the loins of the visible.

But they are not in a landscape.
They exist in an obscurity.

The wind spreading the sail serves them.
The two jealous sisters eager for her ruin
serve them.
That she is ignorant, ignorant of what Love will be,

serves them.
The dark serves them.
The oil scalding his shoulder serves them,
serves their story. Fate, spinning,
knots the threads for Love.

Jealousy, ignorance, the hurt . . . serve them.


This is magic. It is passionate dispersion.
What if they grow old? The gods
would not allow it.
Psyche is preserved.

In time we see a tragedy, a loss of beauty
the glittering youth
of the god retains—but from this threshold
it is age
that is beautiful. It is toward the old poets
we go, to their faltering,
their unaltering wrongness that has style,
their variable truth,
the old faces,
words shed like tears from
a plenitude of powers time stores.

A stroke. These little strokes. A chill.
The old man, feeble, does not recoil.
Recall. A phase so minute,
only a part of the word in- jerrd.

The Thundermakers descend,

damerging a nuv. A nerb.
The present dented of the U
nighted stayd. States. The heavy clod?
Cloud. Invades the brain. What
if lilacs last in this dooryard bloomd?

Hoover, Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower—
where among these did the power reside
that moves the heart? What flower of the nation
bride-sweet broke to the whole rapture?
Hoover, Coolidge, Harding, Wilson
hear the factories of human misery turning out commodities.
For whom are the holy matins of the heart ringing?
Noble men in the quiet of morning hear
Indians singing the continent’s violent requiem.
Harding, Wilson, Taft, Roosevelt,
idiots fumbling at the bride’s door,
hear the cries of men in meaningless debt and war.
Where among these did the spirit reside
that restores the land to productive order?
McKinley, Cleveland, Harrison, Arthur,
Garfield, Hayes, Grant, Johnson,
dwell in the roots of the heart’s rancor.
How sad “amid lanes and through old woods”
echoes Whitman’s love for Lincoln!

There is no continuity then. Only a few
posts of the good remain. I too
that am a nation sustain the damage
where smokes of continual ravage
obscure the flame.
It is across great scars of wrong
I reach toward the song of kindred men
and strike again the naked string
old Whitman sang from. Glorious mistake!
that cried:

“The theme is creative and has vista.”
“He is the president of regulation.”

I see always the under side turning,
fumes that injure the tender landscape.
From which up break
lilac blossoms of courage in daily act
striving to meet a natural measure.

III (for Charles Olson)

Psyche’s tasks—the sorting of seeds
wheat barley oats poppy coriander
anise beans lentils peas —every grain
in its right place
before nightfall;

gathering the gold wool from the cannibal sheep
(for the soul must weep
and come near upon death);

harrowing Hell for a casket Proserpina keeps
that must not
be opend . . . containing beauty?
no! Melancholy coild like a serpent
that is deadly sleep
we are not permitted
to succumb to.

These are the old tasks.
You’ve heard them before.

They must be impossible. Psyche
must despair, be brought to her
insect instructor;
must obey the counsels of the green reed;
saved from suicide by a tower speaking,
must follow to the letter
freakish instructions.

In the story the ants help. The old man at Pisa
mixd in whose mind
(to draw the sorts) are all seeds
as a lone ant from a broken ant-hill
had part restored by an insect, was
upheld by a lizard

(to draw the sorts)
the wind is part of the process
defines a nation of the wind—

father of many notions,
let the light into the dark? began
the many movements of the passion?

from east men push.
The islands are blessd
(cursed) that swim below the sun,

man upon whom the sun has gone down!

There is the hero who struggles east
widdershins to free the dawn and must
woo Night’s daughter,
sorcery, black passionate rage, covetous queens,
so that the fleecy sun go back from Troy,
Colchis, India . . . all the blazing armies
spent, he must struggle alone toward the pyres of Day.

The light that is Love
rushes on toward passion. It verges upon dark.
Roses and blood flood the clouds.
Solitary first riders advance into legend.

This land, where I stand, was all legend
in my grandfathers’ time: cattle raiders,
animal tribes, priests, gold.
It was the West. Its vistas painters saw
in diffuse light, in melancholy,
in abysses left by glaciers as if they had been the sun
primordial carving empty enormities
out of the rock.

Snakes lurkd
guarding secrets. Those first ones
survived solitude.

holding the lamp, driven by doubt;
Eros naked in foreknowledge
smiling in his sleep; and the light
spilld, burning his shoulder—the outrage
that conquers legend—
passion, dismay, longing, search
flooding up where
the Beloved is lost. Psyche travels
life after life, my life, station
after station,
to be tried

without break, without
news, knowing only—but what did she know?
The oracle at Miletus had spoken
truth surely: that he was Serpent-Desire
that flies thru the air,
a monster-husband. But she saw him fair

whom Apollo’s mouthpiece said spread
beyond cure to those
wounded by his arrows.

Rilke torn by a rose thorn
blackend toward Eros. Cupidinous Death!
that will not take no for an answer.


Oh yes! Bless the footfall where
step by step the boundary walker
(in Maverick Road the snow
thud by thud from the roof
circling the house—another tread)

that foot informd
by the weight of all things
that can be elusive
no more than a nearness to the mind
of a single image

Oh yes! this
most dear
the catalyst force that renders clear
the days of a life from the surrounding medium!

Yes, beautiful rare wilderness!
wildness that verifies strength of my tame mind,
clearing held against indians,
health that prepared to meet death,
the stubborn hymns going up
into the ramifications of the hostile air

that, decaptive, gives way.
Who is there? O, light the light!
The Indians give way, the clearing falls.
Great Death gives way and unprepares us.
Lust gives way. The Moon gives way.
Night gives way. Minutely, the Day gains.

She saw the body of her beloved
dismemberd in waking . . . or was it
in sight? Finders Keepers we sang
when we were children or were taught to sing
before our histories began and we began
who were beloved our animal life
toward the Beloved, sworn to be Keepers.

On the hill before the wind came
the grass moved toward the one sea,
blade after blade dancing in waves.

There the children turn the ring to the left.
There the children turn the ring to the right.
Dancing . . . Dancing . . .

And the lonely psyche goes up thru the boy to the king
that in the caves of history dreams.
Round and round the children turn.
London Bridge that is a kingdom falls.

We have come so far that all the old stories
whisper once more.
Mount Segur, Mount Victoire, Mount Tamalpais . . .
rise to adore the mystery of Love!

(An ode? Pindar’s art, the editors tell us, was not a statue but a mosaic, an accumulation of metaphor. But if he was archaic, not classic, a survival of obsolete mode, there may have been old voices in the survival that directed the heart. So, a line from a hymn came in a novel I was reading to help me. Psyche, poised to leap—and Pindar too, the editors write, goes too far, topples over—listend to a tower that said, Listen to Me! The oracle had said, Despair! The Gods themselves abhor his power. And then the virgin flower of the dark falls back flesh of our flesh from which everywhere . . .

the information flows
that is yearning. A line of Pindar
moves from the area of my lamp
toward morning.

In the dawn that is nowhere
I have seen the willful children

clockwise and counter-clockwise turning.

Robert Duncan

Nowhere to Go but Everywhere: Tokyo

Tokyo has been an important destination for travelers since before it was even called Tokyo- people were heading to see it when it was still called Estuary. It’s currently one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world, an international city that serves as the cultural and political capital of Japan, the financial capital of Asia, and an all around amazing hub of human enterprise. It’s a great place to see.

I lived in Japan for years, but never Tokyo. I came to Japan for something quite different than Tokyo, and I never had any desire for the pop culture aspect of Japan that I saw as Tokyo. I didn’t like manga, I didn’t really like much anime… Tokyo didn’t seem like it would appeal to someone who wasn’t in Japan for pop culture.

There are too many amazing books to even try to recommend... Just pick one and get started.

There are too many amazing books to even star to recommend by me. Just pick one and get started.

The person who changed my mind was the fantastic writer Haruki Murakami, a critic of exactly that aspect of Tokyo himself. He was a Japanese person who somehow personified everything Japanese while being an almost perfectly atypical representative of Japan and his generation of Japanese writers. And while I was searching for some imagined “real” Japan in Kyoto temples and Osaka waterfront dives, I was reading his works. I carried tattered paperback copies of Norwegian Wood (parts I and II… for some reason they divided the Japanese editions into micro-paperbacks that were adorably tiny) to Udon-Ya to read over scalding hot noodles at 3am. I scrambled on and off buses carrying nothing but a small pack and a notebook and these books- these books that somehow captured Japan perfectly without seeming to be the least Japanese.

And I slowly got Tokyo. A few days there, staying in a cheap ryokan, reading and rereading Murakami… it made sense. Tokyo is a lot of fun- it’s huge, busy, exciting… but it’s kind of depressing too. You get lost in the crowd, even as a foreign visitor. The anonymity is strangely appealing, but triggers an odd existential dread. Murakami perfectly captures that feeling in his books, and there is nothing like wandering around Tokyo to get a huge dose of it all at once. It’s similar to how I imagine Parisians felt in the latter half of the twentieth century, torn between the history of the place and the modern world crashing imperiously down on you. It’s exhilarating and awful, all at once. And once I understood it, I couldn’t get enough. Sitting in an all night cafe you can imagine being lit like a Hopper painting. The neon convenience stores glare at you everywhere, and light up a mix of architecture that evokes old Japan without ever really being old. (That old Japan was firebombed to oblivion, another aspect of the pervasive anonymity of the place.)

Despite how all of this sounds, I came to love Tokyo. Because in addition to that Ozu movie darkness, there are bustling shops, bright little cafes, animated mascots… the Japan that everyone comes to see. Tokyo is that too, just like everyone needs it to be. Spending time in Japan, you can find corners that seem untouched by the pop culture I initially feared; but Tokyo is a city that somehow evokes every aspect of Japan while feeling completely isolated. It’s challenging, disconcerting… and wonderous.

Nowhere to Go but Everywhere: Buffalo!

No, I’m serious. Buffalo!

My appreciation for Buffalo, like any appreciation the average person might have, I would assume, started by accident. My wife frequently spends her breaks at one conference or another, traveling near and far to learn more about physiology, teaching, or both. Usually she goes by herself and has a grand old time talking nerdy and taking advantage of hotel amenities. Occasionally, however, the whole family travels with her and takes advantage of being a new place to check out local flavor. For some reason lost to the depths of time, we decided to tag along to Buffalo once.

I'm so terribly sorry, western New York. You don't deserve this pain.

Not for this reason, of course. I’m so terribly sorry, western New York. You don’t deserve this pain.

We had planned on heading over to Niagara Falls and showing the kids the majesty that is the Canadian side, and we did that. But we were surprised to find ourselves actually having fun in Buffalo as well. We explored the waterfront, we ate at some fine local fare (we didn’t eat meat, so the chicken wings were out. I hear they’re somewhat popular, however.) We went to the excellent Museum of Science and explored a little history and science action. It was a great time. I know Buffalo isn’t a fun place in the winter- as a resident of upstate New York I can attest to the fact that none of New York is exactly winter wonderland- but there are four season here. Three are awesome.

It is a perfect of example of what I call the Pittsburgh Principle. Pittsburgh is a great town- good food, nice people with odd accents, lots to do. But no one cares. No one outside of the immediate area says “Ooo! Let’s go to Pittsburgh!” You’d be laughed out of the recommending-stuff-area. It just isn’t done, because our image of places like this- primarily small industrial cities- is tied to the past. We think of Buffalo as the rust belt city of the 70s, not the modern town it is. And sure, some aspect of that image is accurate. There are rusty old factories and abandoned areas of the city. There are places maybe not to set down a blanket and picnic. But there are tons of gorgeous places and fun things to do. Lake Erie is an awesome backdrop, and anytime not winter is wonderful for walking.

All this leads to a bizarre situation in which my daughter constantly asks us to move to Buffalo. She loves it. She’s perhaps the only seven year old in the world who’s favorite city is Buffalo, but there you are. When we moved to Ohio for a year, she was really upset it wasn’t Buffalo. I tried telling her we were not too far from Lake Erie still, but geography doesn’t work on kids. They’re immune.

So, visit Buffalo! Nod sadly at all the Bills paraphernalia! If you eat meat definitely eat the wings! Tell them you are affirming the truth of the Pittsburgh Principle! They’ll definitely appreciate that!

Poetry Wednesday: Mayakovsky

Russian Futurist Vladimir Mayakovsky is a hard poet to talk about. A dedicated Communist in the beginning, a hopeful comrade who saw a brighter future on the horizon…And was fairly quickly slandered by a regime that didn’t appreciate or understand him. He had a tumultuous life, filled with disastrous love affairs. He was a complicated man. I don’t doubt he had thoughts of suicide, but I highly doubt the official version of events that has come out of the Soviet propaganda machine.

What is not in doubt is his talent. Even in translation, his poems are powerful and direct. He was clearly a person who lived with his heart and soul exposed, taking in and experiencing the world in a powerful and direct way. It’s a common enough story, I suppose. To be sensitive is to be vulnerable. A poet must necessarily bare themselves to be great. And that door swings both ways…


if stars are lit
it means – there is someone who needs it.
It means – someone wants them to be,
that someone deems those specks of spit

And overwrought,
in the swirls of afternoon dust,
he bursts in on God,
afraid he might be already late.
In tears,
he kisses God’s sinewy hand
and begs him to guarantee
that there will definitely be a star.
He swears
he won’t be able to stand
that starless ordeal.

He wanders around, worried,
but outwardly calm.

And to everyone else, he says:
it’s all right.
You are no longer afraid,
are you?’

if stars are lit,
it means – there is someone who needs it.
It means it is essential
that every evening
at least one star should ascend
over the crest of the building.

Vladimir Vladimirovich Mayakovsky