Vintage Verdad: “Ancient Poetry: Drink Deep the Wine Dark Sea”

(A repost with modifications for World Poetry Day.)

Studying poetry in school felt like slow, merciless death. Those few weeks spent perusing the most insipid pap imaginable every year, tearing down the lines into rhyme, meter and all of the other technical detail, destroyed its power. I came away with the understanding that people in the ancient world were stuffy, insufferable boors. Why the fuck did people make such a fuss about this stuff? What was so great about it?

We were given tap water in safe spoonfuls, when there was a whole briny ocean out there to drink. We were restricted to a European reservation, with no idea that a whole world existed beyond our placid borders. Poetry had no meaning. It whispered in those dull rooms, while outside it shouted. And I never knew.

Caught the occasional glimpse, here and there. ee cummings and his brilliant Buffalo Bill. Ben Jonson’s superb The Noble Nature. Shakespeare’s dramatic and powerful Sonnet XXXV. Emily Dickenson’s deceptively simple I Took My Power in My Hand. But there were just a smattering. A taste of salt on my lips.

Then I discovered the wine dark sea, and set sail through the ancient world. The Islamic Empire. Ancient Greece. The old empires of China and Japan. Here was power. Here was passion. Here were the simple things made profound, the celebrations and the lamentations, the immensity I’d been told existed but had never been shown. And the laughter!

Set sail with me. And I know what you’re saying – my friend Monique said the same thing, once, when we were discussing poetry. “You just don’t think of old poets as being funny.” Of course you don’t. We’re never shown the whimsy, the apostasy, the robust ribald humor that existed in the ancient world. We’re just shown marble ideals.

It’s not like that at all.

Start drinking:

Abu Nuwas, Father Locks, would scoff at the idea that poetry must be something rarified and starched with dignity. He made fun of those poets of his day who slavishly followed the old conventions. Poetry in his age was stuck in a rut of morose Bedouin themes, contemplating the ashes of abandoned campsites and wailing over the simple life lost, while the glory of civilization beckoned. Abu Nuwas was having none of it:

The Wretch Paused (tr. Nancy Coffin)

The wretch paused to question an abandoned campsite,
While I paused to inquire about the neighborhood tavern.
May God never dry the tears of those who cry over stones,
Nor ease the love-pangs of those who yearn for tent pegs.
They said, “You mentioned the neighborhood where the Asads hail from…”
Shame on you! Tell me, who are the Asad family, anyway?
And who are the Tamim and the Qays and all of their ilk?
In God’s eyes, the Bedouins are nothing!

Forget all of that! Get on with yourself, and drink a fine vintage instead:
Golden-hued, it mingles with water and froth
As it pours from the hand of a slim-waisted beauty,
Who resembles a willow branch, flaunting its graceful bearing.
When the barkeeper saw that I’d been smitten,
He greeted me, making sure that I am lavish in my giving,
Then he brought me a cup brimming with the choices of wines,
Letting none other grasp it, straight from his hand to mine.

Give and be generous with all that your hand possesses,
Don’t hoard a thing today fearing poverty tomorrow.
What a difference between those who buy wine and enjoy it
Versus those who weep over the traces of old campsites!
Oh, you who rebuke me! Your signal has reached me
Though my pardon encompasses it, do not repeat it.
Were it meant as advice, then I’d accept your reproach
But your chiding is based upon envy instead.

Image is a line drawing of a man with a turban, flowing beard, and impish smile, waving one hand in a 'come-hither' gesture.
Abū Nuwās by Omar Farroukh, via Wikimedia Commons.

Where was that poem when I was suffering in school? Where was glorious Father Locks and his brilliant paens to wine? If I’d stayed on the reservation created by our schools, I’d never have known about the Islamic Empire’s golden age, much less their robust tradition of khamriyyat – wine poems. Gives you a rather different impression of what the ancients got up to, doesn’t it?

Wine flows through those seas of poetry. Here’s Du Fu, a Tang Dynasty poet, who seems on the surface to have little to do with Abu Nuwas and his irreverance:

View From a Height (tr. David Lunde)

Sharp wind, towering sky, apes howling mournfully;
untouched island, white sand, birds flying in circles.
Infinite forest, bleakly shedding leaf after leaf;
inexhaustible river, rolling on wave after wave.
Through a thousand miles of melancholy autumn, I travel;
carrying a hundred years of sickness, I climb to this terrace.
Hardship and bitter regret have frosted my temples–
and what torments me most? Giving up wine!

See how he ends! Profundity followed by whimsy – it’s what I’ve come to love most about Chinese and Japanese poetry. No wallowing in morbid thoughts for them, not for long – even the most morbid subject ends up being light as air. How much easier life is when you can meet its worst blows with a shrug and a smile!

On Parting With Spring

Day after day we can’t help growing older.
Year after year spring can’t help seeming younger.
Come let’s enjoy our winecup today,
Not pity the flowers fallen!

Wang Wei’s poem captures the essence of how we can live joyfully in a changing world, doesn’t it? He and Abu Nuwas would have had plenty to say to each other over those winecups.

Kobayashi Issa would have something to say to someone who got too morose over winter:

the dead tree
with butterflies

Bam! There you are. The haiku we studied in school was never like this – it was Westernized, paying too much attention to syllable count to translate meaning. Just let it be! Let us see that dead tree blooming with a million butterflies. Set it free.

Forget the insipid love poetry that made us think falling in love would be about as exciting as a chaperoned stroll. This is how it really is:

 ‘He’s equal with the Gods, that man’ (tr. A.S. Kline)

He’s equal with the Gods, that man
Who sits across from you,
Face to face, close enough, to sip
Your voice’s sweetness,
And what excites my mind,
Your laughter, glittering. So,
When I see you, for a moment,
My voice goes,
My tongue freezes. Fire,
Delicate fire, in the flesh.
Blind, stunned, the sound
Of thunder, in my ears.
Shivering with sweat, cold
Tremors over the skin,
I turn the colour of dead grass,
And I’m an inch from dying.

Image shows a dark-haired woman wearing a peach-colored flowing dress sitting on a marble bench.
Reverie a.k.a. In the Days of Sappho by John William Goddard, via Wikimedia Commons

That was Sappho. I don’t need to say anything more, do I?

Alcaeus returns us to our theme of wine. I can see him speaking this famous line to a young Abu Nuwas: “Wine, dear boy, and truth.” Only that fragment survives of what must have been an extraordinary poem. But we have this, almost whole:

‘Come tip a few with me’ (tr. Sam Hamill)

Come tip a few with me,
Melanippus, and you’ll see
why you crossed over Acheron
once again searching for the sun.

Come drink. Don’t set your sights
too high. Even King Sisyphus-
among all men, the wisest-
thought he might outsmart Death,

only to cross Acheron twice:
the judgement of Fate.
And now he labors endlesly
in Hades.

Come drink, and celebrate
while we are young. Later,
we will…the north wind blows.

All of these poets could have sat in the same tavern, drinking, celebrating the moment. Life is short, and precious. They seized it with poetry. They gave us an ocean.

They saw the truth, and shared it.

Why are we here? What is our purpose?

To drink!

Ballad of the Small Plaza (tr. A.S. Kline)

Drink the still water
of the song of the ages.
Light of the stream, and
calm of the fountain!


Vintage Verdad: “Ancient Poetry: Drink Deep the Wine Dark Sea”

5 thoughts on “Vintage Verdad: “Ancient Poetry: Drink Deep the Wine Dark Sea”

  1. 1

    Here’s my favorite non-Western poem (I have plenty of favorite Western ones too). It’s by Nazim Hikmet, a Turkish poet who spent over half his adult life in prison. I try to read it about once a year, and I get choked up every time:


    Living is no laughing matter:
    you must live with great seriousness
    like a squirrel, for example–
    I mean without looking for something beyond and above living,
    I mean living must be your whole occupation.
    Living is no laughing matter:
    you must take it seriously,
    so much so and to such a degree that,
    for example, your hands tied behind your back, your
    back to the wall,
    or else in a laboratory
    in your white coat and thick glasses,
    you’ll be able to die for people–
    even for people whose faces you’ve never seen,
    even though you know living
    is the most real, the most beautiful thing.
    I mean you must take living so seriously
    that even at seventy, for example, you will plant olives–
    and not so they’ll be left for your children either,
    but because even though you fear death you don’t believe it,
    becuase living, I mean, weighs heavier.

    Let’s say we’re seriously ill, need surgery–
    which is to say there’s a chance we won’t get up
    from the white table.
    Even though it’s impossible not to feel sad about going a
    little too soon,
    we’ll still laugh at the jokes being told,
    we’ll look out the window to see if it’s raining,
    or we’ll still wait anxiously
    for the latest newscast…
    Let’s say we’re at the front,
    for something worth fighting for, say.
    There, in the first offensive, on that very day,
    we might fall on our face, dead.
    We’ll know this with a curious anger
    but we’ll still worry ourselves to death
    about the outcome of the war, which might go on for years.

    Let’s say we’re in prison
    and close to fifty,
    and we have eighteen more years, say, before the iron doors will open.
    We’ll still live with the outside,
    with its people and animals, struggle and wind–
    I mean with the outside beyond the walls.
    I mean, however and wherever we are,
    we must live as if one never dies.

    This earth will grow cold,
    a star among stars
    and one of the smallest–
    a gilded mote on the blue velvet, I mean,
    I mean this, our great earth.
    This earth will grow cold one day,
    not like a heap of ice
    or a dead cloud even,
    but like an empty walnut it will roll along
    in pitch-black space…
    You must grieve for this right now,
    you have to feel this sorrow now,
    for the world must be loved this much
    if you’re going to say “I lived”…


  2. rq

    Mm, poetry.
    I had it of two kinds, growing up – Latvian and English (incl. translated). I actually didn’t mind the English poetry (or poetry in English, more accurate), because for that particular unit in English class, we were usually given a lovely anthology of all kinds of poems. My copies rarely *ahem* made it back to the classroom shelf, because beside the assigned reading, there were pages and pages of awesome reading. I’ve always been fascinated with poems about death (even the classics), and lemme tell ya, there’s a lot of death in poetry. Love poems? Mm, not so much – rarely. All the good ones didn’t even make it into the school-sanctioned anthologies.
    The Latvian poetry was more structured, I would say – very classic stuff, epic poems about heroes and bugles and defending one’s homeland from foreign invaders (hey, the Soviet Occupation was still a thing – at least until 1991, and then they didn’t really update the textbooks!). What made the poetry more fun was that a lot of the epic stuff (and the not so epic stuff, some great fantasy pieces, too!) were set in music for choir, and somehow that made it a lot more approachable. I’ve since discovered more modern Latvian poets, men and women, who write delicious and even erotic pieces of imagery. And yes, quite a few – on drinking! And death. With lots of whimsy in between (one of my favourites is one written by Klāvs Elsbergs, about a wee little spider going off to bed – he wrote it for his kids, but it doesn’t diminish the cute factor – actually, he seems to have had a thing for spiders, since they get mentioned often in his poems).

  3. 3

    I remember in fourth, fifth and sixth grades (at different schools, my family moved around a lot) we had Alfred Noyes’ “The Highwayman” inflicted on us because of the rhythmic “pounding beat.” Finally, when my seventh grade English teacher taught us Noyes’ noise, I brought in a record of the Clancy Brothers & Tommy Makem singing “Brennan on the Moor”. It’s a better story, the rhythm is as strong, and it’s not the same pap that millions of schoolchildren are forced to listen to.

  4. 4

    Here’s another poem about drinking:

    You have to be always drunk. That’s all there is to it–it’s the
    only way. So as not to feel the horrible burden of time that breaks
    your back and bends you to the earth, you have to be continually
    But on what? Wine, poetry or virtue, as you wish. But be
    And if sometimes, on the steps of a palace or the green grass of
    a ditch, in the mournful solitude of your room, you wake again,
    drunkenness already diminishing or gone, ask the wind, the wave,
    the star, the bird, the clock, everything that is flying, everything
    that is groaning, everything that is rolling, everything that is
    singing, everything that is speaking. . .ask what time it is and
    wind, wave, star, bird, clock will answer you: “It is time to be
    drunk! So as not to be the martyred slaves of time, be drunk, be
    continually drunk! On wine, on poetry or on virtue as you wish.”

    Charles Baudelaire

  5. 5

    If we are commemorating illustrious poets, we should consider the Scotsman William Topaz McGonagall and his epic “The Tay Bridge Disaster”. To give just a soupçon of McGonagall’s poesy, here are the first and last verses:

    Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay!
    Alas! I am very sorry to say
    That ninety lives have been taken away
    On the last Sabbath day of 1879,
    Which will be remember’d for a very long time.

    It must have been an awful sight,
    To witness in the dusky moonlight,
    While the Storm Fiend did laugh, and angry did bray,
    Along the Railway Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay.
    Oh! ill-fated Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay,
    I must now conclude my lay
    By telling the world fearlessly without least dismay,
    That your central girders would not have given way,
    At least many sensible men do say,
    Had they been supported on each side with buttresses,
    At least many sensible men confesses,
    For the stronger we our houses do build,
    The less chance we have of being killed.

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