A selection of unforgettable verse by 21 poets from around the world.
Although the UNESCO celebrates March 21 as World Poetry Day, many countries, including the UK, still prefer to celebrate poetry day around October 15, which coincides with the birthday of Virgil, the Roman epic poet and poet laureate under Augustus. Earlier this year, The Independent published an article by Clarisse Loughrey, ‘World Poetry Day: 28 of poetry’s most powerful lines ever written‘, in which, barring the flamboyant Pablo Neruda, the 27 poets with the “most powerful lines ever written” were chosen from the English language. Even E.E. Cummings and Charles Bukowski, not usually regarded as great poets despite their popularity, find a place in the list.
A list claiming to represent “world poetry” cannot be so unapologetically English. A brilliant Neruda, despite being one of the bestselling poets in the world, alone cannot be picked up and granted imperial generosity. Market value cannot determine the readers’ choices. The debate on popularity often reappears before the announcement of the Nobel Prize for Literature. The prize has often been awarded to writers unfamiliar to the English-speaking world. In the backdrop of these contexts, here’s a list of unforgettable lines of poetry by poets who did not write in English, but no less memorably for that matter.
Our intimacy with political poetry, with new, radical forms of expression, particularly since the last century, has been best served by poets from France, Germany, Russia, Greece, Poland, Spain, Turkey, Mexico, Chile and other countries. The way non-Western filmmakers, from countries like Iran, Turkey, Thailand and Japan have offered us a different awareness of avant-garde cinema, poetry from languages other than English has played a profoundly similar role in bringing us new forms and sensibilities in literature. This is not a definitive list, but one illuminated by memory. The selection is subjective, but I hope ardent readers of poetry will surely find their beloved poets and lines.
Rose, oh pure contradiction, joy
of being No-one’s sleep under so many eyelids.
~ Rilke, Sonnets to Orpheus
Love means to learn to look at yourself
The way one looks at distant things
~ Czeslaw Milosz, Love
Black milk of morning we drink you at dusktime
we drink you at noontime and dawntime we drink you at night
we drink and drink
we scoop out a grave in the sky where it’s roomy to lie
~ Paul Celan, Death Fugue
In the dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will also be singing.
About the dark times.
~ Bertolt Brecht, In Dark Times
I know that each one of us travels to love alone,
alone to faith and to death.
I know it. I’ve tried it. It doesn’t help.
Let me come with you.
~ Yannis Ritsos, Moonlight Sonata
Writing is a puppy biting nothingness
Writing wounds without a trace of blood.
~ Mahmoud Darwish, Under Siege
Live where you fear to live.
Destroy your reputation.
~ Jalaluddin Rumi, Bewilderment
Power is disgusting, like licking a barber’s hands.
~ Osip Mandelstam, Ariosto
One evening I sat Beauty on my knees – And I found her bitter – And I reviled her.
I armed myself against Justice.
~ Arthur Rimbaud, Season in Hell (Prologue)
Eros once again limb-loosener whirls me
Sweetbitter, impossible to fight off, creature stealing up
~ Sappho, Fragment
I don’t know how many souls I have.
I’ve changed at every moment.
I always feel like a stranger.
I’ve never seen or found myself.
~ Fernando Pessoa, Untitled
No, not under a foreign sky,
No not cradled by foreign wings –
Then I was with my people, I,
With my people, there, sorrowing.
~ Anna Akhmatova, Requiem
Cut out my shadow.
Free me from the torture
of seeing myself fruitless.
~ Federico Garcia Lorca, Song of the Barren Orange Tree
I came into this world
Bringing only paper, rope, a shadow,
To proclaim before the judgment
The voice that has been judged:
~ Bei Dao, The Answer
The bird had come to the very end of its song
and the tree was dissolving under its claws.
~ Miroslav Holub, The End Of the World
It is good knowing that glasses
are to drink from;
the bad thing is not to know
what thirst is for.
~ Antonio Machado, Songs & Proverbs
Don’t imitate me;
it’s as boring
as the two halves of a melon.
~ Basho, Haiku
Death is near
because it is an idea not a body
and love is distant
because it is a body not an idea
~ Adunis, Candlelight
We are so bound up in discord
The centuries cannot disentangle us—
I’m a warlock, you’re a wolf. We’re close
In the continuous dictionary of earth.
~ Arseny Tarkovsky, Song Under the Bullet
It’s this way:
being captured is beside the point,
the point is not to surrender.
~ Nazim Hikmet, It’s This Way
Life is perhaps lighting up a cigarette
in the narcotic repose between two love-makings
~ Forough Farrokhzad, Another Birth
Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee is a poet, writer, translator and political science scholar from JNU. He has most recently contributed to Words Matter: Writings Against Silence, edited by K. Satchidanandan (Penguin India, 2016). He is currently an adjunct professor in the School of Culture and Creative Expressions at Ambedkar University, New Delhi.