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From: Manoa
Volume 25, Issue 2, 2013
pp. 10-12 | 10.1353/man.2013.0074

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

rātrau vāribharālasāmbudaravodgvignenā jātāśruṇā
pānthenātmaviyogaduḥkhapiśunaṃ gītaṃ tathotkaṇṭhayā
āstāṃ jīvitahāriṇaḥ pravasanālāpasya saṃkīrtanaṃ
mānasyāpi jalāñjaliḥ sarabhasaṃ lokena datto yathā

  • rātrau. in the night

  • vāri-bhara-ālasa-ambuda-ravaudvignena. (bv. cmpd.) by him (the traveler) stricken by thunder from the cloud, slow and weighted with rain

  • jātāśruṇā. (bv. cmpd.) he with rising tears

  • pānthena. traveler

  • ātma-viyoga. own separation

  • duḥkha. grief

  • piśunaṃ. (adj. with song) telling, disclosing

  • gītaṃ. song

  • tathā. in this way

  • utkaṇṭhayā. grieving (literally, lifting the throat)

  • āstāṃ. must be (with traveling)

  • jīvita-hāriṇaḥ. life destroying

  • pravasana. living far-off, traveling

  • ālāpasya. talk

  • samkīrtanaṃ. praise, glory, boasting

  • mānasya. pride

  • api. then

  • jalāñjaliḥ. water or funerary offering (here: respect, observance; meta phorically, silence)

  • sarabhasaṃ. quickly

  • lokena. by the people

  • datto. (is) given

  • yathā. thus

turbulent overhead clouds
and a ripple of thunder.
The traveler
stung with tears
sings of a faraway girl.
Oh traveling
is a kind of death,
the village people hear it,
lower their heads
and suddenly quit their
proud tales
of adventure.

You could gather hundreds of Indian poems, sculptures, murals, and paintings that depict a person singing or playing music: love songs, work songs, ballads, folk lyrics—all carrying a subtle message for the listener or viewer. In particular the poets were sensitive to songs of heartbreak or separation from a beloved. Picture the villagers—many of them having returned home just ahead of the monsoons—seated by an evening fire, outdoing one another with accounts of their adventures in faraway places, when a song of grief cuts the night.

Travel in Old India was a necessity, but with the onset of the monsoon season, traders, merchants, soldiers, and pilgrims returned home to wait out the rainy months. This is the time in India when rain swells the rivers, roads get washed out, and travel becomes arduous or perilous. But monsoon season is also when Earth puts forth sweet blossoms, fresh grass emerges, and animal and bird life seems to waken. The poets regarded it as the time when, after long journeys home, humans make love to the sound of rainfall in the refreshing nights. To be caught on the road when the rains begin is the gravest misfortune. The villagers—hearing the traveler sing—give up glorifying travel, which steals one’s life, and make a funerary offering (jalāñjali) to their own boastful stories.

Here, the anonymous poet pays quiet tribute to the origins of poetry which lie in folksong. India has a long-held belief that village life and its repertoire of songs provide the best source for poetry. In their earliest verse collections, urban or courtly cultures cast a wistful, admiring look at the lives of rural or hunting people. Ethnopoetics. You find this tribute to origins in China’s Book of Songs, Japan’s Manyōshū, and in The Greek Anthology; Shakespeare; Coleridge and Wordsworth in Lyrical Ballads; Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience; García Lorca’s Gypsy Ballads; and Lorine Niedecker’s New Goose. Each poet wrote from his or her own folk tradition.

I wonder if the speaker in this poem isn’t a traveler, himself caught on the road as the clouds thicken.

Andrew Schelling  

Andrew Schelling, born in 1953 at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, Washington, D.C., has written, edited, or translated twenty books. Early opposition to American involvement in Vietnam, plus an encounter with India’s texts, set him on a lifelong engagement with Asian literature. He studied Sanskrit at the University of California at Berkeley, and began to translate from its classical poetry tradition around 1978. His first book, Dropping the Bow: Poems of Ancient India, received the Academy of American Poets translation award in 1992, the first time the Academy had honored work done from an Asian language. Schelling’s own poetry and essays emerge from the Southern Rocky Mountain bioregion in which he lives. Recent books of poetry wrangle with the Arapaho language as a way of reading landscape and the natural cycles; they include...

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