14 February 2022

A poem by a Nobel Laureate, and an award-winning photo

White serpent
polar circle
wings in granite
pink sorrow in the iceblock
forbidden zones around the mystery
heartpounding miles from distance
wind chains hanging on homesickness
flaming shell of fury—

And the snail
with the ticking pack of God-time.

When I was an English major back in the 1960s, I read lots of poetry for course assignments, from the epic book-length ones (Milton's Paradise Lost, Robert Penn Warren's Brother to Dragons, Lord Byron's Don Juan) to the briefest (I still remember sitting in a coffeehouse explaining to some bewildered coed the meaning of e. e. cumming's vertical poem l(a, which is four words long).

But I just can't wrap my head around the one above.  Harper's notes that it was written by Nelly Sachs, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1966.  It has been translated from the German, so perhaps something has been lost in the process.  Had this been presented to me in 1968 to parse in three pages of a yellow exam book, I suppose I could have come up with something, but nowadays I'll just assume it appeared from another space-time continuum.

My personal taste in poetry tends toward The Road Not Taken or Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.  Readers are invited to explain the embedded poem to me in the Comments.

This seems to be an appropriate place to append an award-winning photograph that I don't understand -

- from a gallery at The Guardian presenting "the best of the Sony World Photography awards 2022, this one credited to Vladimir Zivojinovic as part of a project getting to know the "Russian soul from different angles."

I know it's juvenile to mock things one doesn't understand, so I'll just move on...


  1. That photograph looks like a roadside picnic. It's got an aesthetic: a beautiful heirloom of a platter, but cheap tablecloth, and well-used cheap folding table. It speaks to me of practicality, utilitarianism, reverence for continuity of family, joy in simple pleasures of fresh fruit and a wooded lakeside. (What does it lack? It lacks the excess of a lavish feast, it lacks the commercialism of the West. No brands, no packaging, no entertainment.)

  2. I like the long ones, to memorize. The Perfect High, by Shel Silverstein (the version done by Bob Gibson). Leviathan, by some anonymous person in the 1920s but the way I learned it was how Biff Rose did it on his album Thee Messiah. The Cremation of Sam McGee, by Robert L. Service. Horton Hears a Who, by Dr. Seuss. And The Green Eye of the Little Yellow God, by J. Milton Haynes:

    I like everything by Christopher Chandler, starting with Sofas And No. 2 Pencils. And Meryn Caddell, the whole album Angel Food For Thought. For example from that, The Sweater:

    Robin Williamson, Five Denials on Merlin's Grave:

    Those are the best poetry, to me. Compare them to the kind of poems you read in school, but you notice you only remember what those were about (like, football, say) and maybe a line or two ("they gallop terribly against each other's bodies") Or deer and it's "takeover from within", or a bird and it's "the branch will not break", or suicide and it's "you might as well live". Meh. With what I think of as a real poem, forty years later somebody says any part of any line it's all there.

    Though, I think of some of The Moth stories as poems and I couldn't recite any of them word for word, not even the one by Anthony di Salvo about his pizza place financed by a guy named Anthony The Hat. It's so wonderful:

    And Firesign Theater. Poetry.

  3. Maybe I'm wrong, but the platter seems to show some wear as well? To assemble "strange" things was one of the basics for the surrealists. I like especially René Magritte. The picture? It's about the Russian soul, I'm not Russian. Does a melon have a special meaning in Russia - I don't know. The picture looks arbitrary, for me, would not guess that this picture could win such an award. I'm really curious now whether a melon has a special meaning in Russia or not..............

  4. I'm kinda of surprised by your comments regarding the poetry of Nelly Sachs. While I am equally at a loss as to understanding this particular poem, as a Nobel prize winner her work has been addressed by scholars and one can easily find analysis and discussions of her meaning, perhaps even this particular work.

    I guess it's debatable as to whether any work of art should need explaining (this is the perennial battle regarding non-representational art) Perhaps it's just best to pass by work that does not incite your interest and investigate further that which does?

  5. By some fluke, I was able to graduate from UC Berkeley with a degree in English Literature. I still don't know the language. But I do know what I like. To "...ticking pack of God-time..." I must say: nope.

    I do like the watermelon photo. Looks like a good melon.

  6. I've been rather familiar with the photographic art scene for some forty years now, and as with most other art forms, you'd best not try to make sense of it.

    As for the photo above, personally, I rather like it- if placed within context of a supporting essay. As a stand alone photo, or (ahem!) prize winner- Meh.

  7. Ah. Postmodernist poets. Gotta love 'em. Bless their hearts.


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