Thursday, May 16, 2013

The usefulness of trees, and poetry! - Adrienne Rich

On Adrienne Rich's birthday today I am reading her poem, "What kind of times are these."  I like how she connects nature to poetry.  Poetry lulls people in -- whether they agree with you or not, they have to listen to you.  It prevents the listener from shutting down and not listening and then thinking.

I have actually used this at work a lot to inspire people when they are making sub-optimal progress.  Because I know that they can sing, but am not willing to point out they are not singing their best.  To blatantly tell someone they are wrong, to criticize without the hidden reprimand of the poem is dangerous.  Therein lies the importance of trees and metaphors.  Therein lies the importance of poetry.





What kind of times are these
- Adrienne Rich

There's a place between two stands of trees where the grass grows uphill
and the old revolutionary road breaks off into shadows
near a meeting-house abandoned by the persecuted
who disappeared into those shadows.

I've walked there picking mushrooms at the edge of dread, but don't be fooled
this isn't a Russian poem, this is not somewhere else but here,
our country moving closer to its own truth and dread,
its own ways of making people disappear.

I won't tell you where the place is, the dark mesh of the woods
meeting the unmarked strip of light—
ghost-ridden crossroads, leafmold paradise:
I know already who wants to buy it, sell it, make it disappear.

And I won't tell you where it is, so why do I tell you
anything? Because you still listen, because in times like these
to have you listen at all, it's necessary
to talk about trees.



An interesting take on this poem: http://andrewjshields.blogspot.com/2012/06/what-kind-of-times-are-these.html

Adrienne Rich borrowed the title of this poem from the following poem by German poet Brecht (some interpretations say that Brecht prefers socio-political poetry over nature poetry, and that Rich sees nature poetry as a means to making socio-political changes.

To the Descendants

I

Truly, I live in dark times!
The frank is the foolish. A smooth brow
Indicates insensitivity. The laughing man
Has simply not yet heard
The terrible news.

What kind of times are these when
A conversation about trees is almost a crime
Because it includes a silence about so many misdeeds!
That man quietly crossing the street
Is probably no longer approachable by his friends
Who are in need?

It is true: I still earn my keep
But believe me: that’s only by accident. Nothing
I do entitles me to eat my fill.
I’ve been accidentally spared. (If my luck stops
I’ve had it.)

I’m told: eat and drink! Be happy you’ve got it!
But how can I eat and drink when
What I eat I rip off the hungry and
The thirsty lack my glass of water?
And yet I eat and drink.

I’d also like to be wise.
In the old books is written what is wise:
Stay out of the world’s argy-bargy and spend
Your short span without fear,
Also make do without violence,
Repay evil with good,
Don’t fulfil your wishes but forget them,
All that is seen as wise.
All that I cannot.
Really, I live in dark times!

II

Into the cities I came in the time of disorder
When hunger reigned.
Among men I came in the time of uprising
And I rebelled with them.
Thus passed the time
Given me on earth.

My meals I ate between the battles,
I lay down to sleep among the murderers,
practised love carelessly
And looked at nature impatiently.
Thus passed the time
Given me on earth.

The streets led to the swamp of my time.
Language betrayed me to the butcher.
I could do but little. But the rulers
Sat more securely without me, that I hoped.
Thus passed the time
Given me on earth.

The forces were few. The goal
Lay far distant.
It was clearly discernible, even if for me
Hardly attainable.
Thus passed the time
Given me on earth.

III

You who shall emerge from the flood
We went down in
Consider
When you speak of our weaknesses
Also the dark time
You have escaped.

For indeed we went, changing countries more often than our shoes,
Through the wars of classes, despairing
When there was but injustice and no rebellion.

Yet we know:
The hate of baseness
Too distorts the face.
Rage against injustice
Too hoarsens the voice. Oh, we
Who wanted to prepare the ground for friendliness
Could not ourselves be friendly.

You however, when it has come to pass
That man is a helper to man,
Remember us
With forbearing.

Here is the another translation of this:

Was sind das für Zeiten, wo
Ein Gespräch über Bäume fast ein Verbrechen ist
Weil es ein Schweigen über so viele Untaten einschließt!

(Bertolt Brecht, "An die Nachgeborenen"; Brecht reads it here)


What kind of times are these, when
A conversation about trees is almost a crime
Because it implies silence about so many atrocities!

(Bertolt Brecht, "To Those Born Later," my translation)



Another Translation:

Bertolt Brecht (1898–1956)

To those born later

I
Truly I live in dark times!
Frank speech is naïve. A smooth forehead
Suggests insensitivity. The man who laughs
Has simply not yet heard
The terrible news.

What kind of times are these, when
To talk about trees is almost a crime
Because it implies silence about so many horrors?
When the man over there calmly crossing the street
Is already perhaps beyond the reach of his friends
Who are in need?

It’s true that I still earn my daily bread
But, believe me, that’s only an accident. Nothing
I do gives me the right to eat my fill.
By chance I've been spared. (If my luck breaks, I'm lost.)

They say to me: Eat and drink! Be glad you have it!
But how can I eat and drink if I snatch what I eat
From the starving
And my glass of water belongs to someone dying of thirst?
And yet I eat and drink.

I would also like to be wise.
In the old books it says what wisdom is:
To shun the strife of the world and to live out
Your brief time without fear
Also to get along without violence
To return good for evil
Not to fulfill your desires but to forget them
Is accounted wise.
All this I cannot do.
Truly, I live in dark times.

II
I came to the cities in a time of disorder
When hunger reigned.
I came among men in a time of revolt
And I rebelled with them.
So passed my time
Given me to on earth.

I ate my food between battles
I lay down to sleep among murderersI practiced love carelessly
And I had little patience for nature’s beauty. 40
So passed my time
Given to me on earth.
All roads led into the mire in my time.
My tongue betrayed me to the butchers.
There was little I could do. But those is power
Sat safer without me: that was my hope.
So passed my time
Given to me on earth.
Our forces were slight. Our goal
Lay far in the distance 50
Clearly visible, though I myself
Was unlikely to reach it.
So passed my time
Given to me on earth.
III
You who will emerge from the flood
In which we have gone under
Bring to mind
When you speak of our failings
Bring to mind also the dark times
That you have escaped. 60
Changing countries more often than our shoes,
We went through the class wars, despairing
When there was only injustice, no outrage.
And yet we realized:
Hatred, even of meanness
Contorts the features.
Anger, even against injustice
Makes the voice hoarse. O,
We who wanted to prepare the ground for friendship
Could not ourselves be friendly. 70
But you, when the time comes at last
When man is helper to man
Think of us
With forbearance.
[1940]