MTV-U’s Poet Laureate: Simin Behbahani

MTV (Music Television) “University” has selected Simin Behbahani, “the poet who never sold her soul or her pen,” to be its second poet laureate.
For a visually challenged 82-years-young Iranian, how cool is that?
Beginning Monday, Nov. 2nd Behbahani’s poems will be featured on MTV-U in a series of 19 short films.
Why would MTV do this? Is it political? In the The Wall Street Journal, MTV senior Vice President Ross Martin explains:

“Her poems speak to us because they are from a part of the world that is front of mind and confusing… We know there’s a groundswell on U.S. campuses advocating freedom and an end to oppression in Iran. mtvU has a responsibility to hear that cry and respond to it.”

Amid Iran’s post election tumult, millions around the world heard Behbahani’s timeless lament at the death of Neda Soltani:

You are neither dead, nor will you die
You will always remain alive
You have an eternal existence
You are the voice of the people of Iran

Yet it is Behbahani, the reputed “Lioness of Iran,” who will now re-introduce millions of the world’s youth to Iran, through the medium of rock ‘n roll, music television, in her universal voice.
When Iran’s President Ahmadinejad dismissed those who protested the election’s legitimacy as mere “dirt,” Behbahani hurled the insult back, with the pen:

If the flames of anger rise any higher in this land
Your name on your tombstone will be covered with dirt

Yet MTV’s featuring of Behbahani should not be interpreted as adding to the cacaphony of voices pining for more invasions, war, sanctions, bloodshed. Nearly 30 years ago, Behbahani wrote of her horror in seeing a martial fever for war arise in her students then:

Oh, the child of today
If war is what you want
I am the child of yesterday
To me, war is shameful

MTV’s Ross Martin further explains the choice of Behbahani on his own blog,

“Behbahani’s poetry champions women’s rights and acts as a voice of peace and freedom during a time of political and social upheaval. Twice, she has been nominated for the Nobel Prize in Poetry. Her poems illuminate not only the struggle of Iran but also the extreme beauty of the land, its people, and its history.”

Martin also notes how none of this would have been possible were it not for the literary skills and devotion of Professor Farzaneh Milani. Her translations bring Behbahani’s “iconic” poems to life in English. If Behbahani is Iran’s national poet, Milani has rendered her the world’s.

To stay alive, you must slay silence,
to pay homage to being, you must sing….

Noa & Mira — confusing the categories

(Update, after making this post, I’ve been alerted that there’s another side to Noa lately that rather undermines her reputation. I’ll post a separate entry above.)
There’s something ironic, yet hopeful in Israel’s entry to the 2009 Eurovision music competition, to be broadcast from Moscow in May. (Think “American idol” — only bigger.) Though not geographically part of Europe, Israel participates as a member of the European Broadcasting Union.
Israel’s entrants this year, “Noa and Mira” (Achinoam Nini and Mira Awad), are “Israeli” singers confusing the categories and getting sniped at from multiple sides inside Israel.
For background, see this recent Ethan Bronner NYT dispatch, which explains how a popular Israeli singer of Yemeni extraction linked forces with a green-eyed Israeli Christian Arab. They’re feeling a bit orphaned by their own country, condemned by many for their criticisms of settlements, Hamas, and the use of violence. Their January selection to participate in Eurovision was criticized even by the “left”:

[C]oinciding as it did with Israel’s Gaza war and the rise of Avigdor Lieberman, the ultranationalist politician who threatens Israeli Arabs with a loyalty oath, the committee’s choice was labeled by many on the left and in the Arab community as an effort to prettify an ugly situation…
A petition went around demanding that the duo withdraw, saying they were giving the false impression of coexistence in Israel and trying to shield the nation from the criticism it deserved.

Conundrum indeed. How does one be a voice for peace, without being “used” by hasbaristas who would abstractly proclaim peace while still building settlements, strangling Gaza, erecting walls, etc? Curious, I scrounged around youtube to learn about this intriguing duo.
Here’s a 2007 interview with Noa & Mira, keyed to their popular rendition of the Beattles classic, “We can work it out.” (Here’s a lively version of the song performed in Paris last year at the “peace of the heart” confab for Israel.)
In the abstract, I rather like Noa’s apparent philosophy. In the interview above, she wrestles with the Christian concept of turning the other cheek, and how it runs hard into the ongoing “exploding & release” of pent up frustrations and hurts. Yet Noa insists that the parties must “apologize, recognize & share.” If only. Mira is a bit more coy, saying that “everyone knows the solution,” even as she professes that she doesn’t know much of politics.
Undaunted by their critics, Noa & Mira on March 2nd performed four tunes before Israeli viewers and judges. In the end, Israel selected this song to be its entry for the Eurovision semifinals: There must be another way.
And when I cry, I cry for both of us
My pain has no name
And when I cry, I cry
To the merciless sky and say
There must be another way
(Full Lyrics here and in extension.)
May we yet find it.

Continue reading “Noa & Mira — confusing the categories”

Tewks: “Let the Children Dance”

I recently highlighted Gina Bennett’s National Security Mom, with it’s marvelous drawing from the “lessons we teach our children” to understand national security.
I’ve been wondering then what lessons Israel has been purporting to teach to the children of Gaza. Is this the message of the iron fist, that if you dare to mess with Israel, you will be pounded, mercilessly, until you submit? That seems to be logic of Tom Friedman’s latest column, wherein he invokes the “success” of Israel’s pounding of Lebanon in 2006 to explain Israel’s Gaza “strategy:”

“Israel basically said that when dealing with a nonstate actor, Hezbollah, nested among civilians, the only long-term source of deterrence was to exact enough pain on the civilians — the families and employers of the militants — to restrain Hezbollah in the future….That was the education of Hezbollah.”

In Gaza, Friedman can’t quite tell “if Israel is trying to eradicate Hamas or trying to “educate” Hamas, by inflicting a heavy death toll on Hamas militants and heavy pain on the Gaza population.”
Friedman favors “educating” those civilians who would vote for Hamas. He prefers that Israel not “obliterate” them. How magnanimous.
We’re now past 1,000 Gazans dead, including over 300 children. With Gazans now properly “educated,” Friedman deems the time for “diplomacy” with them is at hand
But what lessons have the surviving children learned? Are they now more likely to submit to Israel’s will or turn in despair to very violent means?
As I have struggled with such madness, I came across a lyric from a rising Charlottesville singer/thinker, David Tewks: I post his blog preface and song with his permission.

Continue reading “Tewks: “Let the Children Dance””

Ever On, Dan Fogelberg (1951-2007)

(Note – this is Scott writing.)
Independent thinkers, activists, and peacemakers have lost a friend in the passing yesterday of Dan Fogelberg. Just 56, Dan “the artist” Fogelberg succumbed to a long battle with prostate cancer.
To be sure, Dan Fobelberg is most famous for his soft-rock hits: tales of loves (Longer, Since you’ve asked); loves lost (The Long Way, Tell me to my face); and greed gone bad (Sutter’s Mill). Dan will also likely be “immortal” for tributes to New Years (Same Old Lang Syne); to the Kentucky Derby horses (Run for the Roses); to Geogia O’Keefe (Bones in the Sky); to under-appreciated fathers everywhere (The Leader of the Band); to abandoned seniors (Windows & Walls) and to the renewing power of nature (To the Morning).
Fogelberg’s range across 20 albums was extraordinary; he could do sappy (Wysteria), driving rock (As the Raven Flies), classical (Netherlands), jazz (Holy Road), or blue grass (High Country Snow).
I encountered his music long before he became a pop icon, via a progressive free-spirit who prized his early albums.

Continue reading “Ever On, Dan Fogelberg (1951-2007)”

Wilfred Owen poem for the day

I just found a marvellous new source for Wilfred Owen’s war poetry, thanks to Oxford University. It lets you view multiple manuscript versions of these poems.

And today’s poem is…



Happy are men who yet before they are killed

Can let their veins run cold.

Whom no compassion fleers

Or makes their feet

Sore on the alleys cobbled with their brothers.

The front line withers,

But they are troops who fade, not flowers,

For poets’ tearful fooling:

Men, gaps for filling:

Losses, who might have fought

Longer; but no one bothers.


And some cease feeling

Even themselves or for themselves.

Dullness best solves

The tease and doubt of shelling,

And Chance’s strange arithmetic

Comes simpler than the reckoning of their shilling.

They keep no check on armies’ decimation.


Happy are these who lose imagination:

They have enough to carry with ammunition.

Their spirit drags no pack.

Their old wounds, save with cold, can not more ache.

Having seen all things red,

Their eyes are rid

Of the hurt of the colour of blood for ever.

And terror’s first constriction over,

Their hearts remain small-drawn.

Their senses in some scorching cautery of battle

Now long since ironed,

Can laugh among the dying, unconcerned.


Happy the soldier home, with not a notion

How somewhere, every dawn, some men attack,

And many sighs are drained.

Happy the lad whose mind was never trained:

His days are worth forgetting more than not.

He sings along the march

Which we march taciturn, because of dusk,

The long, forlorn, relentless trend

From larger day to huger night.


We wise, who with a thought besmirch

Blood over all our soul,

How should we see our task

But through his blunt and lashless eyes?

Alive, he is not vital overmuch;

Dying,* not mortal overmuch;

Nor sad, nor proud,

Nor curious at all.

He cannot tell

Old men’s placidity from his.


But cursed are dullards whom no cannon stuns,

That they should be as stones.

Wretched are they, and mean

With paucity that never was simplicity.

By choice they made themselves immune

To pity and whatever moans in man

Before the last sea and the hapless stars;

Whatever mourns when many leave these shores;

Whatever shares

The eternal reciprocity of tears.

Manuscript Sources

Fasc T, f328r
Fasc T, f329r
Fasc T, f330r
Fasc T, f328v
MS 43720, f19a
MS 43720, f20a

* In the original text taken from the Oxford website, this was written “Drying”. But sense and a tiny bit of detective work in the ms. sources (see Comments) indicate alike that it should be “Dying”.

Wilfred Owen’s gut-socking words

Down in the lengthy Gallipoli discussion commenter Friendly Fire has posted a favorite poem of his, a rather thoughtful piece of war remembrance, “Poppies of war”, by E.M. Warnock.
I’ve always been struck by another British poet of World War 1, myself: Wilfred Owen. That site there says, rather coyly that:

    Owen was injured in March 1917 and sent home; he was fit for duty in August, 1918, and returned to the front. November 4, just seven days before the Armistice, he was caught in a German machine gun attack and killed. He was twenty-five when he died.
    The bells were ringing on November 11, 1918, in Shrewsbury to celebrate the Armistice when the doorbell rang at his parent’s home, bringing them the telegram telling them their son was dead.

Well, “injured” in 1917– yes. The guy had a raging case of shell shock. The condition that was later “discovered” by the Yanks as PTSD.
He was sent to the British military hospital at Craiglockhart, near Edinburgh, where numerous other shell-shocked British warrior-poets were also gathered. (Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves, etc.)
The main doctor figure there who seemed vaguely to have an idea what was going on was Dr. William Rivers Rivers. If you haven’t read Pat Barker’s brilliant “Regeneration” trilogy of novels about that convergence of tortured souls, you should.
I seem to recall that in her account, even Rivers– the most humane of the docs there– was certain that the “best” thing for his patients was to get them back to the front. Something to do with “manhood”, as I recall? Of course, issues of homosexuality barely repressed or not repressed at all were enormous at Craiglockhart, as they were throughout the entire history of the British Empire…
By the way, that latter site I linked to is one I just discovered: “The Heritage of the Great War” a bilingual, Dutch-English site with material written by a Rob Ruggenberg. He even has a little slideshow of photos of the Gallipoli battles there…
Anyway, back to Wilfred Owen. Here’s the first of my picks for today:

    Parable of the Old Men and the Young
    So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
    And took the fire with him, and a knife.
    And as they sojourned both of them together,
    Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
    Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
    But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
    Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
    And builded parapets and trenches there,
    And stretch\ed forth the knife to slay his son.
    When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
    Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
    Neither do anything to him. Behold,
    A ram caught in a thicket by its horns;
    Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.
    But the old man would not so, but slew his son. . . .

Powerful, huh?
Now you’ll have to click on “continue” to read the next one:

Continue reading “Wilfred Owen’s gut-socking words”

JWN poetry corner– # 1

I read this in The New Yorker, and was moved by it:

    Now, when the waters are pressing mightily

      by Yehuda Amichai

Now, when the waters are pressing mightily
on the walls of the dams,
now, when the white storks, returning,
are transformed in the middle of the firmament
into fleets of jet planes,
we will feel again how strong are the ribs
and how vigorous is the warm air in the lungs
and how much daring is needed to love on the exposed plain,
when the great dangers are arched above,
and how much love is required
to fill all the empty vessels
and the watches that stopped telling time,
and how much breath,
a whirlwind of breath,
to sing the small song of spring.

    Translated from the Hebrew by Leon Wieseltier.