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  • For Madhu

    Posted by Charles Cameron on April 2nd, 2011 (All posts by )


    In the forest of
    wisdom, part two, tree five,
    you shall find honey.
    The quintessence


    9 Responses to “For Madhu”

    1. onparkstreet Says:


      This is a nice poem. I had to Bing search (I like the photos better than the Google graphics which are tepid, IMO) some of the words because I am not religious and used to zone out whenever someone would try and teach me a little something.

      Funny thing. I don’t have the “knee-jerk” anti-religious feeling that some agnostics and atheists I know do. I find religion beautiful. And beauty is too important a thing to ignore.

      I like this poem.

      – Madhu

      *Atheists sure did a lot of killing in the 20th century, so I’m not exactly sure why man doesn’t get the blame for bad behavior instead of God….

    2. Charles Cameron Says:

      Hey Madhu!

      So: poet’s mind.

      One way of looking at poetry is as language packed with meaning — and I mean packed in the way you get when you’ve very carefully folded everything and tried several different ways of fitting one thing next to another, and someone comes up with a last-minute gift or two just as you’re heading out the door, and you manage — somehow — to include them, too, precious as they are…

      That’s one of the delights of poetry.

      And one of the delights of poetry is unpacking — both because you get to see how much was fitted how carefully into so small a space, and because you get to open the treasures…

      In this case, I had packed whatever I could, as a gift for Madhu, into seventeen syllables.


      Unpacking this poem, then…

      You zone out, while I’ve been soaking up religious lit like a sponge for years, I guess — nice balance there — and I have my favorites to be sure.

      I first read the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad many many years ago in a tattered Penguin edition, probably because TS Eliot quotes from it in The Waste Land. And what has stuck with me across the years is a section called Madhu-Vidya — where the word Madhu is translated sometimes as “honey” and sometimes as “essence” and Vidya means knowledge. So it is about knowledge of the essence / quintessence: Swami Krishnananda translates it as The Honey Doctrine.

      “Brihad aranya” translates as “big forest” (I’ve seen “wilderness” too), so I borrowed Eknath Easwaran’s translation, The Forest of Wisdom — and within it, the Madhu-Vidya is the fifth section of part two — thus “part two, tree five”.

      And Madhu, honey, the esssence, is what you find there.


      So it was written in code.

      Poetry is transmitted en clair, but when you read it, at first it may look scrambled.

      I don’t think teachers necessarily manage to convey this to their students — that poetry may need “unpacking” to be completely enjoyed — and indeed there are some poets who manage to write what seems like perfectly nice prose, interrupted with some strange, irregular spaces at the ends of lines…

      But take John Donne, for instance. He’s writing just at the point where the old geocentric worldview, with angels fighting dragons in its skies and cherubs puffing out the four winds in the corners of its maps, is giving way to the new scientific understanding, devoid of cherubs, shorn of angels, and with the earth definitively spherical, not flat.

      What does Donne say? In the seventh of his Holy Sonnets, he’s picturing the Christian doctrine of the Resurrection of the dead, and writes

      At the round earth’s imagin’d corners, blow
      Your trumpets, angels, and arise, arise
      From death, you numberless infinities
      Of souls, and to your scatter’d bodies go;

      And in those four words, round earth’s imagin’d corners, he’s compressed — for us to unpack — two visions of the world.

      And, okay, I’m going out on a limb here, but he has also gone one better than just performing the impossible task of squaring the circle — he’s sphered the square.


      Code is something magical. It allows spies to slip things past the watchful eyes of enemies, slaves to communicate via quilt and song without their masters’ knowledge, rabbis and alchemists to discuss visionary secrets within eartshot of the Grand Inquisitor…

      and poets to say more, with less.


      And the honey? The verse which summarizes the Madhu-Vidya [2.5.14] is this:

      This Self is the honey of all beings, and all beings are the honey of this Self. Likewise this bright, immortal person in this Self, and that bright, immortal person, the Self (both are madhu). He indeed is the same as that Self, that Immortal, that Brahman, that All.

      The taste is sweet, like that of the “almost unbearably sweet” honeys of the stingless bees of the Amazon, of which Claude Levi-Strauss writes:

      A delight more piercing than any normally afforded by taste or smell breaks down the boundaries of sensibility, and blurs its registers, so much so that the eater of honey wonders whether he is savouring a delicacy or burning with the fire of love…

    3. J. Scott Says:

      Charles said:

      “One way of looking at poetry is as language packed with meaning — and I mean packed in the way you get when you’ve very carefully folded everything and tried several different ways of fitting one thing next to another, and someone comes up with a last-minute gift or two just as you’re heading out the door, and you manage — somehow — to include them, too, precious as they are…”

      Another way to look at poetry—along with the meaning, is the ambiguity which allows the reader to find their own meaning. Empson makes this point very well in the preface to 7 Types of Ambiguity.

      Beautiful post!

    4. Charles Cameron Says:

      Hi, Scott:

      Thanks. As it happens, Empson was the friend and adversary of my own friend, the poet Kathleen Raine, back in the day.

      Okay, here’s how I see it:

      If the zen poet writes “geese leave no tracks across the sky” and you read it literally and it reminds you of geese flying in those v-formations against a wide blue sky, and that’s all, that’s fine — and if you get the zen sense that our thoughts and opinions too are fleeting as they cross wide blue mind, I’d say that’s part of what the poet “packed” in those words, and why he chose to emphasize the “no tracks” of the geese, rather than their silhouettes, or that v-formation, or the wind…

      Either one of those is a perfectly good “reading” of the poem, and you are certainly under no obligation to unpack everything the poet puts into it — although with a skillful poet, you may find hidden treasures if you do.

      But if you think the poem is an attack of geese for failing to impress the poet, I believe you’ve gone beyond the bounds of appropriate ambiguity — and if you think it said “grease leave no tracks” and mentally correct it to “grease leaves no tracks” and think the poet isn’t much of a mechanic — why then I’d say you’re getting it altogether wrong.

      So yes, each one of us will get something different from a given poem — and there’s a very beautiful effect that’s a sort of verbal equivalent of the moon seen through mist, where the poet leaves space in the thread of meaning for you to have your own very individual shiver of recognition, of love, of loss…

      But from my POV, the poet’s intent is also of some importance — and “love thy neighbor” is not an injunction to “covet” her…

    5. J. Scott Says:

      Hi Charles,

      How small is our world! I have wrestled with Mr. Empson several times through the years—I read Elliot Pearlmans excellent Seven Types of Ambiguity novel many years ago and immediately ordered Empson. I tried a “through-read” and kept stopping–at least a couple times. So I did chapters/sections—-and put an oar in the water when the book accuses me from the shelves, which it did last night; I pulled him down last night and re-read the preface and first chapter before sleeping. I do like his writing and wit.

      But, your points well taken—particularly the last sentence!

      When I wrote the response above I was thinking of Frost’s Death of a Hired Man—there are many vignettes of both meaning and ambiguity (Frost did this intentionally, I think). He left a couple of causes in question—just enough that the two principles weren’t even sure of “what” they knew of Silas, much less the reader.

      Many thanks!

    6. onparkstreet Says:

      I love this too:

      One way of looking at poetry is as language packed with meaning — and I mean packed in the way you get when you’ve very carefully folded everything and tried several different ways of fitting one thing next to another, and someone comes up with a last-minute gift or two just as you’re heading out the door, and you manage — somehow — to include them, too, precious as they are…

      Now, it’s funny. If you start talking to me about rhyme, rhythm, meter, iambic pentameter, and all that jazz, I just tune out. I don’t hear it, it makes my head hurt, I don’t “do” poetry.

      But when you put it like that, Charles, I’m intrigued. I see pictures and it is a puzzle for me to solve.


      – Madhu

    7. Charles Cameron Says:

      Well okay, here’s one for the both of you, using that poem of Frost’s that you like, Scott, and about poetry, Madhu:

      Like hawks, like eagles

      Some lines in the poem — not all —

      are like an eagle overhead.
      Some just get on with harvest, or
      the day’s talk across tea,

      church bells, or whatever
      doesn’t need be hearkened to,
      the hawk overhead when

      your mind is elsewhere – but
      in the poem some lines, some are
      way above us like eagles —

      part of a moon was falling
      down the west, dragging the whole
      sky with it to the hills

      lines that stoop for us like hawks.


    8. J. Scott Says:

      Charles, My two favorite sections, and you chose one. Many thanks for sharing! (I do like “harp-like morning-glory strings”—I can’t look at morning glories without thinking of these lines.)

      “Home is the place where, when you have to go there,
      They have to take you in.”

      “Part of a moon was filling down the west,
      Dragging the whole sky with it to the hills.
      Its light poured softly in her lap. She saw
      And spread her apron to it. She put out her hand
      Among the harp-like morning-glory strings,
      Taut with the dew from garden bed to eaves,
      As if she played unheard the tenderness
      That wrought on him beside her in the night.”

    9. onparkstreet Says:

      Lovely poetry.

      After our last conversation on the blog, I went and looked up a version of the Bhagavad Gita at Amazon. (Feeling guilty about not being religious or interested in religious things, per se.)

      The introduction to the version I browsed reminded me why I used to rebel as a child against what I was being taught (haphazardly by this person or that – not a lot of Hindu temples in Iowa in the 70s/80s.)

      The introduction says something like, “Imagine you are in a room, warm and cozy with a fire, and its a rainy day. You are focusing on the room, but what is outside? What about the things far beyond?” And so on, and so forth.

      And then I’d get irritated because it felt like the Hinduism that I was being taught was asking me to forget about the beauty of the fire, and warmth of the air, and the color of the fireplace, and how each brick or stone looked.

      “But I want to focus on the color of the flame,” I’d think. The flame is beautiful. Why can’t I see God in the flame, too? Why must I turn inward, why must I meditate inward? Can’t I meditate outward?

      Like most things in my life, though, I am probably being contrarian and getting it wrong.

      So, I would rebel by tuning out.

      – Madhu

      (The poetry is nice because it is like focusing on the flames of the fire and I like that. I like images.)