Letters From Crete (ii) : ONE NIGHT WITH THIRUVALLUVAR

 

Poetry should strike the reader as a wording of his own highest
thoughts

John Keats

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Today was a fine Cretan summer’s day, beginning with a climb to the summit of the hill which towers over Petra Village to the south. An interminable mix of jagged shrubbery & bouldering slopes, it was a poetically stalwart way to begin the day, with the red sun rising from the Aegean about half-way up, & by the time I had surmounted & dismounted I could already feel the heat of a day which would hit 30 degrees. The next few hours were spent ascending the Stromboli range in order to track down Manoles, the man who kicked off the whole Princess Scota quest. He was alive, fortunately, & we managed to find him in first through a woman who pointed to a house where English was spoken, who turned out to be a Californian Greek lady. She in turn pointed us towards Manoles’ house, where customary Greek hospitality was shown, including portions of his delicious honeyfied figs, as he confirmed the Scota-was-a-Minoan conversation he had with Gregor Sloss seven years ago.

From Kryoreni we came to a delightful village, surrounded by olive groves, where an old man in a shop began a vignette of some hilarity. After choosing a bottle of Cretan red from a rack of dusty bottles, I found a nearby café whose owner attempted to open the bottle with a too-small corkscrew. Cue broken cork & some bizarre attempts by the stocky, bearded Greek to move the cork by banging the bottle sideways against a wall. In the end I walked into his kitchen, got a wooden spoon & forced the cork into the bottle – as I had done many times before – & on doing so poured out a glass for my erstwhile new friend, who responded with alacrity & a stupendous ‘VIVA!’

From here we descended the rough & royal peaks to seagirt Bali – an excellent scatterdash of beach-dwellings where I dined on pork-in-wine while the ladies splashed in the warm seas. Then it was the drive home to Petra Village for our weary but happy late evening siesta, from which I have just recently risen. Leaving the ladies at the ranch I have idled into the old & lazy tourist-trappy streets of Koutouloufari, ordered a pizza & got to work. As I said in my last chapter, this series of essays shall be something of a dissertation to my status as a Pendragon, & so I need to return to a piece of prose I created some years ago when I was at the height of my sonneteering craze. On a future day on this Cretan sojurn I shall connect to my further theorizing, but for now, let us imagine ourselves as a poet – The Silver Rose of course – as he makes his way along the Beaches of Tamil Nadu.

 ——————————–

I met the ascetic mystic Thirruvallavar one morning in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. I was resting on a fine, empty beach, watching the white waves sweep sublimely across the Bay of Bengal. In a soft second of existence I was alerted to a flutter of birds & saw a mile or so along the coast a distant figure approaching. I couldn’t help but watch him come steadily nearer, a middle aged man with a thick, black beard, swathed in white robes, his bare feet leaving footsteps in the sand. I expected him to pass me by, but as he came to within a few meters he suddenly veered off in my direction & tho’ he was walking slowly was at my side in a flash.

What is your profession?” he curtly asked, his voice gravelly with wisdom, his gaze penetrating my soul.

“I am a traveler from a distant land.” 

Rider,” he replied, “Saraswathi, I see, has smil’d on you, then welcome to India. Are you wise, traveler?”

“I have studied a little, sir.”

As the city-dwellers know most animals only from photographs, your wisdom seems second-hand. You shall be my guest, for there appears much you are yet to learn in this life.”

He invited me to dine at his home, an offer which I quickly accepted. Walked together along the sands he engaged me in conversation & I could see already I was speaking to no ordinary soul.

Are you creative?” he asked.

“I write sonnets, sir.”

He suddenly froze on the spot & gazed with those magnificent eyes, burrowing into the heartlands of my mind.

“By any chance, are you carrying a silver rose?”

My startled hand suddenly went to finger the small piece of flower I had hung around my neck.

“May I see?”

“Of course,” I replied handing him the necklace. After a moments curious examination the mystic said, in esoteric tones, “I have been expecting you.”

“You have?”

“I once had a dream – in it I saw a young man who looked very much like yourself plucking a silver rose.” I was stunned a little by his words & prescience, then the mystic went on, “Could you describe where you found the rose.”

It was in Italy,” I replied, “Twenty-one years of age & taking my first steps into the poetic art. I had been inspired to write a poem on the death of the English, poet Shelly, & my journeys had brought me to the Gulf of Le Spezia, where he spent his last days. At one end of the bay lies the charming idyll of Portovenere, the port of Venus. There was a castle & an old Norman church on a rocky outcrop jutting into the azure sea, & behind me the giant cliffs of the Cinque Terra stretched away into the distance. Before setting out to Italy, I too had had a dream. In it I saw myself climbing a cliff, a wonderful panorama all around, & in my dream, as the light of the sun cascaded upon the world below, I was filled with both peace & exultation of the heart. I did not know what my dream meant, but I grew determined then to climb cliffs until it came true. Indeed, by the time I reached Italy I had climbed many along the coast of my native land.”

“Go on,” said the mystic.

As I began my ascent of the cliffs above Portovenere the still air was suddenly filled with an elemental wind. Up her stony slopes I huff’d, puff’d & scrambl’d, all a fluster in the blustery gale that was growing all the time. As I climb’d further my clothes were torn by the claws of thorny bramble as an angry Zephyrus summon’d yet more of his strength. My head told me to turn back, but my young heart had call’d upon the soul of our being, for being conquers all. As I reach’d the clifftop, glorious realm of diety, the winds suddenly settled & I began to write a poem. It was there, as the sun was setting, that my eyes were drawn to a flash of colour, reflecting the golden light of the sun as it slipped neath the clouds on the horizon. Investigating further I found a wee silver rose, & I wonder’d how such sweet tenderment grew, like a heavenly star. I spent what seemed like an eternity gazing at its lovely shape & immersed in its fragrance & every sinew of my body, & every fibre of my mind, was at peace. During this flush of pure nature I suddenly thought perhaps my dream had come true? I wasn’t sure, but if it had, & wishing for a memento of the occasion, I pluck’d that gorgeous flower.”

“Yes, these events you recant I saw in my dream,” said the wiseman, “& you are very welcome as my guest, come, my village is still a good way yet.’ 

On the way to receive his unadulterated hospitality, the sage asked me if I had any examples of my work. On answering in the positive I handed him a notebook containing my scribbled notes & polished pieces, the detritus of several years of sonnets & song. He picked up the book & skimm’d thro’ them at speed, seemingly absorbing each into his psyche.

“I notice you have master’d the fourteen feelings.”

“The feelings?” I asked.

“Yes, the fourteen impulses that drive poetic thought.”

“I did not realise I had.”

“Yes, this is the work of the Silver Rose, my friend, for he that plucks it will be enchanted – you are, in fact, a sonneteer & the rose is its emblem.”

“Well, I do enjoy the sonnet, it is a very venerable form. Do you know much of the sonnet,” I asked the sage.

“Indeed, traveler, for within its scanty plot of ground, as Wordsworth noted, many forms of poetry may be contain’d. It can be seen as the great compositive form, which draws components from all the others. It can use the monoverse of blank verse & vers libre, polyphonics, the couplet, the triplets, quatrains, cinquains, sestets, septets & octets – even Spenser has weaved his novtet into a sonnet.”

“There are many forms of poetry,” I remarked, “indeed, I have identified thirteen different forms of the sonnet itself, from the Terza Rima of Shelley’s Ode to the West Wind to the concrete sonnets of the modern surrealist; I have utilised many of these forms in creation of my own sonnets.”

The mystic held me a moment in his velvet eye, & then said, “a revered ancestor of mine also met a poet, very much like you, a troubador from Provence who composed entirely in a thirteen line form.”

“The Rondel,” I replied.

That is right. But then the young French man added another line to his form & created a Rondel Prime.”

“The French sonnet!” I replied in astonishment.

“If that is what it is called in the West, yes! My poet,” smiled the sage, “you are here to learn of a new form of sonnet. I shall introduce you to an acquaintance of mine, who is able to help you in your quest.”

“My quest?” I asked, “I did not know I had undertaken a quest.”

“But of course you have, for from the moment a poet plucks the Silver Rose, they can never rest until she is satisfied.”

Our discourse was all of a sudden dispersed by the spreading of a smile across the mystic’s face.

“At last,” he said, “Welcome to my village.”

The first house in the village was an unassuming cottage, but inside was all a-bluster with activity. Of those present in that room one was an old woman, racked with disease, led in her bed & very ill indeed. Nearby a young woman was in the final agonizing throes of labour, about to give birth to her first child. Others were watching on attentively as before them two cycles of life were fusing as one. The old woman was desperately drawing her last mortal breaths to the sound of a far younger woman gasping through childbirth, for as one soul was leaving this world another was entering. The old woman’s health had been failing her for several years, & now, surrounded by her family, she was ready to depart from her mortal coil. Her family were very distraught, slowly soaking the silken sheets with their tears. But the old woman was smiling. She said she knew it was time for her to leave this life, but she had had a good life. It was beautiful to be surrounded by her loved ones & they should not be sad, but happy they had the chance to dwell together. Then in a blaze of epiphany at the same instantaneous moment the old woman passed away & a new life was brought into the light of the world. It was a baby boy, red & raw with the onset of life. A fine babe, whose eyes stared back at his mother full of innocence. All around him grew & rushed the world & his gurgle was laced with a hint of expectancy. I smiled at the babe as the mystic turned to me.

“In this room today you saw a birth & a death – so life begins & life ends, thus is the circle of life. But there is also an inbetween. If you stay with me I hope you shall learn of this. I was born here too, in a hut just like this one. Before too long I was was running around the village, bringing delight to the wise old elders with my youthful affection for everything about me. I had a very inquisitive mind & was always asking what everything was, from the trees & the rocks, to the lizards & the birds. I would then ask why the birds lived in the trees & why the lizards crawled under the rocks. One day my father placed me upon his cart & I left the village for the very first time. We were travelling to a nearby town to buy some food, & we passed by many new places. I saw the rivers & the mountains, & saw other villages where the houses were different from those in my own. At length we came to a town where I was amazed at the many people busying about. My father held my hand tightly as we walked through the market. My eyes lit up at the new fruits father bought, & the shiny new coat he put on my back.”

I watched the mystic as he told his story, seeming both close to me & very far off in another place.

“On the walk back home I asked father many questions. I found out our village was just one of many that surrounded the town, & that town in turn was one of many that surrounded the city, & that city was not even the capital of the country where we lived. Then father told me that the world was made up of many countries & the universe of many worlds. It was only then that I realized I wasn’t the universe, but only a part, & a very small part indeed! Then father took me to a hill that overlooked the village, where we could see the business of every villager. We sat beside a gully that by some quirk of nature carried the conversations of the villagers up the hillside. I sat by my father listening attentively to all we heard & how the villages interacted with each other. At every turn he would try & explain the good & the bad in every situation & how best to be true to oneself. Once the sun had set he led me back down to the village & I had my first epiphany as to the nature of the world. I decided at that moment to help the people of the world to understand themselves.” 

Then the mystic sunk into silence & we continued on our way.

 

We arrived at his home a little later, a simple two-storey building of white washed stone stood within a luscious jungle of tall toddies. He was greeted by a young woman, fresh as unstirred snow.

“Gita, you shall make a bed for our guest, he shall be staying with us.”

The woman went away & the mystic led me onto the roof of his home.

“Tonight the moon is completely dark, as it will be again in a month’s time. Between now & the morrow I hope you will become wise, illumed by the light of the moon & the minds of your fellow guests.”

“Thank you for this opportunity,” I humbly said.

“You are very welcome, traveler, now if you do not mind, I must meditate. You will be looked after. But while I am gone, you must search for the moon.”

After he left with a gracious bow I began to scan the entire span of the starry skies, until I found the dark outline of the dark side of the moon, nestled between the Plough & the Bear. As I gazed upon that black sphere I found myself urging on its silvery light.

“Patience,” said the sage, who had silently re-appeared on the roof with Gita, “The light shall come!”

“Tis a vast universe,” I said, “so many stars.”

“Yes, so many stars… & so many worlds. Every action on every planet is governed by a mysterious, invisible force called ‘Divinity,’ existing everywhere at once & gives life, form & substance to all things in its sway.”

I pondered on what he had said in silence.

 ———————–

At this point I am back in Crete, walking to Petra Village under a bright, fullish moon, ready to insert a recent study of mine into the equasion. It was William Blake who said that divinity was, in all essence, the poetic genius, & thus when a sonneteer creates his little capsule of wordified beauty, he tosses up a new star into what I have called ‘The Sonneverse.’ More of that later, but for now let us return to Tamil Nadu & the house of Thiruvalluvar.

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1

The sage broke the silence once more, saying ‘thoughts & ideas are pure & simple, & when a series of these are placed together arranged in power-punching brevity, the assemblage is the nearest thing to God we can get on this Earth. As one candle burns, it shall only light a portion of the room, but when many burn together, the room is cast in a blaze of light. To the poets who utilize the Kural, the world is a room, & their thoughts are its candles.

Mystic,” said I, “What is a kural?”

A kural is a form of arranging words in simple combination. It consists of seven words divided into two breaths, each forming a line. With the first breath four words are spoken & with the second, three. These kural shall contain the best ideas using the best of words in their best order & it is the orator’s purpose to condense as much depth, meaning & subtleties into each of them as possible. A kural could be in the most simple words, or pregnant with complicated scientific terms, but at all times should they be perfumed with poetica absolute, for it is thro’ the music, rhythm & rhyme of speech that ideas are easily absorbed by the memory.”

At that moment a scribe entered the roof carrying a gold-tinted scroll, a bowl of sparkling ink & a mighty swan’s quill, which was placed upon a table near to where the mystic was sat. Upon examining his writing tools he whispered in the servant’s ear, who left the room & soon returned with another scroll, ink bowl & quill. To my astonishment they were placed in front of me.

“Traveler,” he called across the room, “Can you make kural?”

I have never tried, sir!”

“Are you willing?”

“Aye!”

All our words are nothing without understanding. Will you make kural?”

“I shall try.”

“Good, then let us begin. Listen to my speech & then condense it…. I shall begin?” The thinker-philosopher squatted in the yoga position, cross-legged, & began to speak with a ghostly air,

It is with god that everything begins. God is everywhere at once, from the beginning of time to the end. He is without bounds & infinite, & beyond the range of mortal comprehension. All we know is that he is here & this force pulses thro’ all it has created, uniting humanity with its energy, giving us life. The greatest manifestation of divinity being that of the rain that falls from the skies. This is the vital life juice of creation, without which everything would wither away & only a lifeless desert would remain.”

Life is a precious gift, created by the natural laws of the universe & improved upon by the movement of the aeons. The planet, our planet, is home to millions of different organisms of which we are only a small, yet significant number. Every one of these organisms is bound together intrinsically by the natural laws defined by the entity of creation.”

“Why does our planet teem with such a multitudinous variety of species, you may ask yourself? This is evolution; all life began the same, but environment & chance allied together to alter the offspring of the original organisms, & upon their offspring in turn, until over billions of years we have reached the state we are in today. Indeed, give another billion years the organisms of our world will be very different again.”

“Like the years are divided by four seasons & the world divided into four elements, each person on the planet exists upon four planes. Everyone of us possesses a soul, a heart to feel the passion of the world, a mind to think thoughts & a body in which to live.”

As the day began to dawn, the sage began to wrap up his elucidations of the human condition.

“Traveler, how did you find the night?”

“It was inspirational sir.”

“Excellent, & have you made any kural?”

“A small amount, sir.”

“Well, I shall leave you in tranquility to finish… Gita!” he shouted, his call soon answered by her soft smile, “get some candles for our guest, & a little wine I think.”

She returned a few moments later with several candles, which she placed upon the roof & lit. A charaff of wine & a golden goblet were placed before me & with a smile & a bow she left.

“Happy voyaging, said the sage & with a bow he also left, leaving me alone. As my mind could still hear the profound statements spoken thro’ the night, I became heady with ideas, their words fueling my imagination until I was pregnant with creation & I began to write.

As the red orb rose in glory & the pinkening sky transmorphed to cyan; when the last pearls of wisdom had been written down & the sun was casting ethereal shadows across the wax-warped candles, the sage return’d.

“So traveler, have you made your kural?”

“I have tried sir!”

“Good, may I read them?”

I was a little tentative as I passed over the ink-wet scrolls & held my breath as he began to read them.

 

Rain’s continuance preserves existence

Speaketh celestial ambrosia

 

Stances, glances, chances, dances

Epitomise youthful romances

 

As ant-holes collapse embankments

Civilians topple governments

 

Exquisite fortresses become rubble

Without excellent inmates

 

Her chrysoberyls perplex me -

Celestial? Peahen? Woman?

 

Promises, poetry, flowers, flattery

Produce sensuous pleasure-rooms

 

Hatred, sin, fear, disgrace -

Stain bedswervers imeperishably

 

Candles of knowledgable beings

Light many millions

 

Ancyent civilisations indecipherable pages

Futurity’s erudite manna

 

Splashing thro’ Parnassian streams

Mankind’s glorious attainment

 

He read in relative silence, broken only by the sporadic ‘hmmm,’ laced with an occasional, ‘interesting!’ Outside, commanding the morning sky, there was the thin sliver of a new moon, shining silvery against the divine canvas.

At last Thiruvalluvar had finished reading thro my meagre lines & I waited tentatively for his reaction. It was a moment of awesome proportion as I felt & saw everything around me. I admired my host, his handsome beard & endless eyes, his gleaming robes & noble stance & smile, twinkling in the sun.

Looking up from the pages the sage eventually & quite neatly said, “Good, you have the thread.” His voice was sweet, like the warbling of birds greeting the sun after a storm, “You are now ready to create a Tamil Sonnet, that is the placing of seven connecting kural together into one poem. Seven sets of couplets comes to fourteen lines, yes, & that is how many lines are in a sonnet, correct?”

“That is right,” I replied.

“There are seven words in a kural,” said the mystic, “thus making a kural sonnet a grand kural in itself – do you understand?”

As he said those words a moment of epiphany lit up my soul.

Do you understand?” repeated the poet.

“Yes,” I replied.

“Then you are ready,” said the mystic.

“Ready for what?” I asked inquisitively.

“The next stages of your quest,” said the poet, “I undertook it myself many years ago.” to my astonishment he opened a shirt & reveled a wee silver rose hung round his neck on a chain. “I am a barer of the rose & a master of the sonnet. Many moons ago I plucked my own flower & she led me on a literary quest. I see, tho you have not realised, you have also set your feet upon the path.”

The mystic sighed woosily, ‘you must return to the path now, traveler, & follow the will of the rose, for she shall guide your thought thro’ the fertile fields of creative experience.Keep writing & exercising in the sonnet form & continue a dedicated spirit, like those of the East who engage in the martial arts. The higher echelons of sonnetry are marked by discipline, focus of thought & dedication to the craft. Do you have these mental properties?”

“In a small degree. I hope they will be sufficient, for after hearing your words I wish to embark on this quest.”

“To attain the title of master sonneteer you must attain two more levels of proficiency, each marked by the composition of a polished sequenza. The first shall be a set of 14 sonnets – play with them how you will – & the second a set of 14 stanza, 14×14 sonnets, i.e. 196.”

“That seems an awful of experience & thought to pour into a single form?” I opined nervously.

You are young & youth is marked by impetuousness & restlessness. This restlessness is the mystical energy which will drive you to the mastery of the sonnet.”

“How?” I asked.

Your restlessness has brought you here, yes. Well only through travel can the sonneteer generate enough poesis to fill the major sequanzas. Before attempting the higher levels, I suggest you record your voyages; the emotions invoked, scenery, the history, the very essence of a country, in the same way you poeticized your own. These new sonnets may be of any form or feeling, even of an experimental nature, but the primal essence is exploration. When learning how to turn your experiences into sonnets, & on reaching the next stages of the art, your thought will be focused upon increasing discipline & you will be able to summon the poesis of your experiences at will. On completing this apprenticeship, as the acolyte will one day become a wise old sensei able to defend himself from attack, so shall the master sonneteer be able to produce exquisite sequanzas when they themselves are attack’d – not by an enemy but by the desire to compose poetry! You should commence your apprenticeship in Italy; for it is there that both the sonnet & the rose originated, for as nature is a constant wheel & all things once commenced will come full circle, then you should return them both to their places of birth.”

“Yes,” I said, “the sonnet was born in Sicily, out of the Canzone, those sweet & moving songs the shepherds sang as they tended their flocks on the pastures of that wonderful island. I sometimes feel very much like them, wandering the earth & singing my songs.’

Well spoken,’ said the mystic, ‘the Rose is truly with you. Even when her powers fade, the petals shall always remain a part of you, including the occasional flight of psychic fancy. You should expect many moments of verbal lucidity like these when you are treading the bloom d’argent. Please continue with your description of the canzone.”

Ah yes, the ancyent songs of the Sicilian shepherds. Over the course of many centuries these songs evolved into a fourteen-lined piece, with a turn, or volta – to a modern mind this would be where the chorus begins after the verse of a song.”

“Like the turn in an Italian sonnet,” offered the sage.

Precisely, for indeed it was from the spirit of these canzone that the first sonnets found expression at the Magnia Curia, the court of the Sicilian King eight hundred years ago. Shortly afterwards it was brought to an early perfection by Dante & the school of Tuscan poets blessed with their “Sweet New Style.”

Well explained, ‘said Thiruvalluvar, ‘& it is only natural you should travel to that country, where nature, weather, culture, history, architecture & society combine to such a pleasant degree that she has no comparison on earth.”

“I shall,” I replied, “& thank you. The time I have spent in your immaculate house has enriched me like the mountains of Parnassus.” 

A silence passed between us & the wind made noises I had never heard before. They sounded like the voice of a familiar song, summoning me to its native land. From the warmth of the melody & strength in the words I knew it to be that of the Tuscan sun & the song of the Arno.

Then I am for Italy,” I told them, “The music of the sea-breeze bids me there return.”

“Saraswati go with you,” spoke Thiruvallavar, & bowing my head I left his house, & returned to the shore where we first met.

 

Petra Village

July 6th

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