“Trees Die Standing,” a book of Arabic poetry by Ramzi Suleiman, Raya Publishing House, Haifa, Israel, Autumn 2015.
A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of hosting Ramzi Suleiman during his brief stay in New York. Ramzi is Chair of the Psychology Department at Haifa University. He’s also a physicist, engineer, and poet—in short, a Renaissance man. His presence in my home was as enlivening as a writer’s colony. By the end of our visit, Ramzi and I were exchanging poems and commenting on each other’s work.
After I read three of his poems I said, “It makes me realize how poetic your speaking voice is. Reading your poems is like hearing you tell stories around the table–as you have done many times this week. The imagery and metaphors are so rich, and the insights are so deep.”
I was especially taken with one poem translated from Arabic: Things Have Their Reasons. It carried me along like the ocean. Like ocean waves I found myself returning to it again and again, and emerging from it breathless.
Things have their reasons
(translated from Arabic)
Because things cannot be complete
without their shadows,
God created the candles
And the glittering lamps
on the water’s surface
Because the sea surface rises up
and collapses Down,
like a lover’s chest
Because lover’s sighs
stumble one after another
like the sea waves,
God created the moon
Because the Earth
does not stop spinning,
in search of its rendezvous
God created the hours
and asked them
to look after the minutes and the seconds,
and because, usually, appointments
choose their appointees,
God spared chance
Because the pomegranate tree
keeps its vows,
and the full chestnut
yearns for its self,
God created the earth
Because the night holds its grip
On the day’s sleeves
Like a blind man
clinching his hand on his cane,
Because the day
Throws the remnants of its light
And slips underneath the evening’s gown
God created the opposites
Because nothing is complete
without what compliments it
God created love
Because things have no being
without what is not in them
God spared the pain.
— Ramzi Suleiman
Things Have Their Reasons will appear in “Trees Die Standing,” a book of Arabic poetry by Ramzi Suleiman, Raya Publishing House, Haifa, Israel, Autumn 2015.
Most people would agree that poetry is best read aloud.
I was fortunate to have had a mother who read poetry to me from the time I could walk. Our first shared poems included those of A. A. Milne:
When I was One,
I had just begun.
When I was Two,
I was nearly new.
When I was Three
I was hardly me.
When I was Four,
I was not much more.
When I was Five,
I was just alive.
But now I am Six, I’m as clever as clever.
So I think I’ll be six now for ever and ever.
Having absorbed Milne’s satisfying dimeter, I wrote my first poem. It was an ode to sweet hot cereal.
Up and down,
Oh, hear the happy sound.
I can still feel the movement of my spoon shmushing and melting the brown sugar into my cereal.
Only now do I notice how this early poem breaks the rules by having two beats in each of the first three lines, followed by three beats in the last. At the same time, doesn’t that last line act as a stop to the forward motion of the poem—like a flashing yellow light and clanging bell signals the lowering of the bar for an oncoming train?
I’m currently adapting 19th century poetry by a well-known children’s book writer/illustrator to serve as voices for some of the magical creatures in my middle grade WIP. The original poems employed four feet to a line (tetrameter). Sometimes the rhythm was a bit “off”, but I liked the quirkiness and interest this created. Yet, people–editors, writing groups—warn that meter must be spot on if it’s to appear in a published work for children.
When did children become so picky?
On the other hand, I balk at poems that begin with a certain meter and change into something mushy and undefined. Once established, listeners depend upon a reliable meter—as reliable as a heartbeat, so that when the heart skips or rushes on, or god-forbid, stops—we sit up and take notice.
Two useful guides to poetic meter and stressed syllables:
Do you think poetry for children should follow a different set of rules than poetry for adults? I’d love to hear your comments.
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