Archive | poetry

By The Bivouac’s Fitful Flame


When the Civil War broke out in the April of 1861, Walt Whitman was staying in New York and Brooklyn, writing some extended newspaper pieces about the history of Brooklyn for the Brooklyn Daily Standard. He began visiting wounded soldiers, who were moved to New York hospitals. Later he went to Washington, D.C., where he spent countless long nights in the poorly ventilated wards nursing thousands of injured soldiers, both Union and Confederate, in the makeshift hospitals.

Based on his experience of a real battle that Walt Whitman wrote his powerful Civil War poems. Following is one of those Civil war poems that he wrote when he was at one of the army camps.

By The Bivouac’s Fitful Flame

By the bivouac’s fitful flame,
A Procession winding around me, solemn and sweet and
slow – but first I note,
The tents of the sleeping army, the fields’ and woods’ dim outline,
The darkness lit by spots of kindled fire, the silence,
Like a phantom far or near an occasional figure moving,
The shrubs and trees, (as I lift my eyes they seem to be
stealthily watching me,)
While wind in procession thoughts, O tender and wondrous
Of life and death, of home and the past and loved, and of
those that are far away;
A solemn and slow procession there as I sit on the ground,
By the bivouac’s fitful flame.

In this poem the poet describes how one night when sitting in front of an army camp fire his mind calms down and becomes introspective. His thinking is slow, deliberate and reflective. He describes his thoughts as “A Procession winding around me”. During these quite moments Whiteman reflects on life and death, of home and loved ones. He found this experience “solemn and sweet”. It was the surroundings, the poet found himself in, that invoked this sublime experience.

Whitman also wants the reader to participate in this meditative experience he was having. So he deliberately gives details of the scene around him in the following lines:

“The tents of the sleeping army, the fields’ and woods’ dim outline,
The darkness lit by spots of kindled fire, the silence,
Like a phantom far or near an occasional figure moving,
The shrubs and trees, (as I lift my eyes they seem to be
stealthily watching me,)”

On reading the above lines and visualizing the scene ones’ own thinking slows down and one does get a certain measure of the experience the poet is having just like when a teacher of meditation leads you into a quiet, sublime meditation.

In an age where the media through its trends almost prevents one from thinking as individuals, it is these poems that help us to step out of this mass culture and, quoting Edward Hirsch, “put us in touch with ourselves”. Indeed, in this poem of Walt Whitman there is luminosity in his thinking and inspiration in his writing.



Sri Aurobindo on Poetry

“Art can never really find what it seeks or succeed in liberating its soul in the highest perfection of speech unless it transfuses the rhythms of its exquisite moods into a sustained spiritual experience.” ~ Sri Aurobindo

After Sri Aurobindo moved to Pondicherry, he entered upon an intense period of practicing Yoga. He communicated only with a few of his students who looked after his physical needs and he generally did not receive any visitors except on very rare occasions. But almost every day he would sit with a few of his students, in an informal gathering, sometime late in the afternoon or evening. At these meetings the students would ask him questions and he would answer them. They asked him questions from a wide range of topics that included spirituality, politics, World War II, art, poetry, culture, history and medicine.

Once while answering a question on poetry, Sri Aurobindo said, great poetry must have power of beauty, power of vision and power of expression. He went on to say that there are different types of poetry and he mentioned psychic poetry. Then one of his students asked him to give them an instance of psychic poetry. In response, Sri Aurobindo quoted the following four beautiful lines from Shelley’s poetry:

“The desire of the moth for the star,
Of the night for the morrow,
The devotion to something afar
From the sphere of our sorrow.”

According to Sri Aurobindo, in the above lines of Shelley, the feeling and the expression are both psychic. In contrast to psychic poetry, Vedic poetry, Sri Aurobindo said, ”is poetry on the plane of intuitional vision. There is rhythm, force and other elements of poetry in it, but the psychic element is not so prominent. It is from a plane much higher than the mental. It moves by vision on the plane of intuition, though there are passages in which you may find the psychic element. It is a wide and calm plane, – it also moves you but not in the same way as the poetry which contains the psychic feeling. It has got its own depth-but psychic poetry differs from it in its depth and feeling.”

At another time while discussing the poetry of Blake and Shakespeare, the question came up as to who was a greater poet. Sri Aurobindo said, ”Shakespeare is superior in one way, Blake in another. Shakespeare is greater because he has a greater poetic power and more creative force, while Blake is more expressive.” Then he was asked what is the difference between “Creative” and “Expressive” and he replied, “”Creative” may be something which gives a picture of life creatively, representing the life-situation of the Spirit. “Expressive” is that which is just the expression of feeling, vision or experience. In “The Hound of Heaven” (Francis Thompson’s Hound of Heaven) you get a true creative picture. There you have such a picture of the life of a man pursued by God.”

When he was asked why a devotional feeling in a devotional poem cannot be considered “creative”, he clarified, “Because you identify yourself with the feeling and not with the character or man as in the case of Hamlet (Shakespeare’s Hamlet). It must come out as a part of the poet’s personality and the reader identifies himself with the world or personality which the poet has created or the experience which he had. Of course, anything is creative in a general way.”

(Source: Evening Talks With Sri Aurobindo, A.B. Purani, Sri Aurobindo Society, 1959)

Commenting on Sri Aurobindo’s poetry, K. D. Sethna said, “When he wants to bring home to us some eternal verity from its mysterious abode of light, he speaks in a tone which has in it either a sublime simplicity which renders clear a profound truth by a few striking images, or a direct imaginative force which without needing to bring in abundant colour can create for us a self-sufficient mystical symbol or atmosphere, or else a puissant intuitive luminosity which wears form and name only as a concession to the weakness of human mentality but imparts in a subtle unanalysable manner a sense of some beatific vastitude of ultimate creative Idea.”(1)

“In poetry there is an upward evolution of its powers and at its summit the highest function of sound is to instill in the listener the poet’s experience of a Truth that is behind all things, its significances in themselves beyond word and thought finding expression through an inner silence, and to lift him rapt, spellbound, dazzled into sudden awareness of that wondrous supreme Beauty and Delight which elude normal perception, a high-uplifted Beauty and Delight sustaining magically the cosmic process…If, therefore, the possibilities of the poet of the future are to come to their utmost fruition, his art, whether it flowers forth in the lyric cry or the narrative, in the drama or the epic, should not merely be an instrument of forces which work through him by passing inspirations. It must represent the continuous rhythm of an inner life in which the meaning of the universe shall be unfolded in the individual and the Spirit manifested, with constant integrality, even through the prose of daily intercourse with the world.” ~ Sri Aurobindo(2)


1) Sri Aurobindo the poet, Pg. 29 K. D. Sethna, Sri Aurobindo International Centre of Education, 1970.
2) Sri Aurobindo the poet, Pg. 39 K. D. Sethna, Sri Aurobindo International Centre of Education, 1970.


Sri Aurobindo

We will prevail

On April 16, 2007, a student at Virginia Tech, had killed 32 of the university’s students and professors besides himself. The tragedy had plunged the academic community at the university into sorrow and grief. The entire nation was deeply moved by this tragedy. Amidst this morning rose a voice that was strong, powerful and defiant with a touch of rebellion. It was Nikki Giovanni. She was addressing the thousands who had gathered the next day at the memorial service for the shooting victims. She was asked by the president of the university to give a speech at the memorial service. As Nikki Giovanni is a professor at Virginia Tech, she was herself deeply affected by the tragedy. She found it very difficult to write a speech. Instead she composed a poem. In fact it was a poem chant. In her very opening lines she takes the tragedy head on and accepts the reality with courage to ‘stand tall tearlessly’ and with humility ‘bend to cry’. She said,

“We are Virginia Tech.
We are sad today, and we will be sad for quite a while.
We are not moving on, we are embracing our mourning.
We are Virginia Tech.
We are strong enough to stand tall tearlessly,
we are brave enough to bend to cry, and
we are sad enough to know that we must laugh again.
We are Virginia Tech…”

In the lines that follow she conveys the message to her listeners that even as the tragedy is very personal, yet they cannot afford to indulge in the pleasures of self-pity. And so she tries to connect to the tragedies suffered by other innocent people like them. She said,

“We do not understand this tragedy.
We know we did nothing to deserve it,
but neither does a child in Africa dying of AIDS,
neither do the invisible children walking the night away to avoid being captured by the rogue army,
neither does the baby elephant watching his community being devastated for ivory,
neither does the Mexican child looking for fresh water…”

In these very powerful lines the poet by embracing the sorrow of others, transcends from the personal to the universal. Even as they grieved, by reaching out to the sorrow of others, Giovanni tapped into the fundamental goodness of humanity that resides deep within every human heart. Some of her closing lines are as follows,

“…We are strong, and brave, and innocent, and unafraid.
We are better than we think and not quite what we want to be.
We are alive to the imaginations and the possibilities.
We will continue to invent the future through our blood and tears and through all our sadness…
…We will prevail…”

Many speakers spoke before her including the president of United States. But it was the lone voice of Nikki Giovanni that not only raised the spirits of the students and teachers at Virginia Tech, but also the entire nation. It is these rare voices like Nikki Giovanni who help us rise above hatred and intolerance. They help us to accept the reality around us and embrace our fellow travellers, on our life’s journey, with sympathy and goodwill.

“Our philosophy is the acceptance of life for the transformation of life and also for the manifestation of God’s light here on earth, at God’s choice hour in God’s own way.” ~Sri Chinmoy

…The journey itself is home

In one of his travel diaries, Oku no Hosomichi, the 17th century Japanese Haiku poet Bashō most famously wrote, “A lifetime adrift in a boat or in old age leading a tired horse into the years, every day is a journey, and the journey itself is home.” Born in 1644, near Ueno, in Iga Province, about thirty miles southeast of Kyoto, Bashō’s first poem was published in 1662. Over the next decade his poems continued to be published in various anthologies. In the spring of 1672 he moved to Edo to further his study of poetry. He undertook arduous studies in Chinese and Japanese literature, philosophy, and history. His studies also included Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism and Shintoism. By 1680 he made a name for himself as a poet and taught poetry to quite a few students. Basho is considered one of the most learned poets of his time. In spite of his success as a poet, Bashō was lonely and dissatisfied. From 1682 Basho started undertaking long journeys on foot. On each journey he maintained a dairy which turned out to be a new poetic form he created called haibun. In haibun, Basho combined haiku and prose to trace his journey. This combination of prose and poetry was rich in two kinds of images: the external images observed on the journey and the internal images that these outer images invoked in the mind of the poet. Starting from 1684 Basho composed several such travel diaries that included Nozarashi Kiko, or Travelogue of Weather-Beaten Bones (1685); Oi no Kobumi, or The Knapsack Notebook (1688); and Sarashina Kiko, or Sarashina Travelogue (1688).

It was his last travel diary, Oku no Hosomichi, or The Narrow Road to the Deep North, that turned out to be his best and most famous piece of literary work. Basho composed this poetic travel journal on the last long foot journey that he undertook to the northern provinces of Honshu, covering 1,200 miles in over five months. He started his journey in the beginning of May 1689 and was accompanied by his student Kawai Sora. Their goal was to visit Oku that lay north of Sendai by following a narrow path that passed through the Sirakawa barrier, over the mountains. Both of them headed north to Hiraizumi, which they reached in one and half months. They then walked to the western side of the island, touring Kisakata and began hiking back along the coastline returning to Edo in late 1691.

When Basho was about to start on his journey many friends come to see him off. He describes this touching scene by putting into words an internal image that passes through his mind, “I felt three thousand miles rushing through my heart, the whole world only a dream. I saw it through farewell tears.” (1) Then he goes on to pen the following haiku:

Spring passes
And the birds cry out-tears
In the eyes of fishes

In this haiku, Basho is trying to convey the depth of his sorrow at parting with his close friends. The sorrow was so great that even the birds were crying and he increases the intensity by saying there were even tears in the eyes of fishes.

Many of the places visited by them had a lot of cultural and spiritual history behind them. These were places that were described by other poets of the past and Basho refers to these poems in his writing. For instance when he reached a beach called Shiogama, it was evening. After the summer rain the sky was just clearing revealing a pale moon over Magaki Island. This beautiful twilight scene reminded Basho of a line from Kokinshu’s poem, “fishing boats pulling together” and for the first time he understood what the poet meant.

Along the Michinoku
Everyplace is wonderful,
But in Shiogama
Fishing boats pulling together
Are most amazing of all.

On this journey into the deep north, often his mind soared into the rich depths of the Japanese history, culture and Zen philosophy. From those aesthetic heights, Basho came out with insights that are golden nuggets of human thought. The form was in prose but on reading the aftertaste is sheer poetry. When visiting a shrine at dawn, he gives the following description, “huge, stately pillars, bright painted rafters, and a long stone walkway rising steeply under a morning sun that danced and flashed along the red lacquered fence. I thought, “As long as the road is, even if it ends in dust, the gods come with us, keeping a watchful eye. This is our culture’s greatest gift.” (2). For a moment it is worth pondering on Basho’s insight. This shrine was five centuries old at the time of Basho. It seems what Basho is trying to tell us is that far into the future, maybe hundreds of years later, if a devout pilgrim visits this shrine and even if the shrine is in complete ruins, the pilgrim will receive the blessings of the gods he has come to pay homage to. The shrine which is something physical is time-bound (i.e.bound to decay with time) but its essence “the blessings of the gods” is timeless, eternal.

During their journey, Basho and his companion decided to spend a night at a place called Iizuka in a country inn. As it was a country inn the facilities were less than basic. After they had gone to bed, there was a heavy rain storm. Basho writes, “Suddenly a thunderous downpour and leaky roof aroused us, fleas and mosquitoes everywhere. Old infirmities tortured me through the long, sleepless night.”(3) At another time when for days and days they had to walk through rain and heat Basho wrote, “Through nine hellish days of heat and rain, all my old maladies tormenting me again, feverish and weak, I could not write.”(4) Sometimes for days they also had to walk through marsh land. These and other descriptions give one the impression that the journey was arduous and physically very difficult as Basho was of a delicate constitution and suffered from several chronic diseases. Also travelling by foot in seventeenth-century medieval Japan was immensely dangerous and hazardous. Yet Basho was willing to risk his life for the rich experience of his journey. In fact he considered it a pilgrimage.

By the time Basho composed his last diary, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, he had matured as a poet. The Narrow Road to the Deep North was the climax in his literary career. Using his close interaction with nature as a tool, Basho was always trying to be in resonance with something within him that was impersonal, deep and meaningful. Once when he was passing through a remote forest area where a few hermits lived in thatched huts under pine trees, Basho wrote, “Smoke of burning leaves and pine cones drew me on, touching something deep inside.” (5) Sri Chinmoy said, “Art in the most effective sense of the term is a sublime truth that draws our soul from within towards the infinite vast.” Through his poetry, Basho tried to achieve this artistic excellence. His poetry was based on the Zen concept that one attains perfect spiritual serenity by immersing oneself in the egoless, impersonal life of nature. The complete absorption of one’s petty ego into the vast, powerful, magnificent universe. Hamill writes, “When he (Basho) invokes the call of a cuckoo, invokes its lonely cry. Things are as they are. Insight permits him to perceive a natural poignancy in the beauty of temporal things – mono_no_aware – and cultivate its expression into great art.”(pg. xiv)


1. Narrow Road to the Interior, Basho, trans, Sam Hamill, Shambhala, Pg. 4
2. Narrow Road to the Interior, Basho, trans, Sam Hamill, Shambhala, Pg. 16
3. Narrow Road to the Interior, Basho, trans, Sam Hamill, Shambhala, Pg. 12
4. Narrow Road to the Interior, Basho, trans, Sam Hamill, Shambhala, Pg. 28
5. Narrow Road to the Interior, Basho, trans, Sam Hamill, Shambhala, Pg. 17
6. Narrow Road to the Interior, Basho, trans, Sam Hamill, Shambhala, Pg. xiv

The only news I know

The only news I know
Is Bulletins all Day
From Immortality.
The only Shows I see —
Tomorrow and Today —
Perchance Eternity —
The only one I meet
Is God — The only Street
Existence — This traversed
If other news there be —
Or Admirabler Show —
I’ll tell it You —
– Emily Dickinson

Ecstasy’s Skies – Sri Aurobindo


A marvellous sun looked down from ecstasy’s skies
On worlds of deathless bliss, perfection’s home,
Magical unfoldings of the Eternal’s smile
Capturing his secret heart-beats of delight.
God’s everlasting day surrounded her,
Domains appeared of sempiternal light
Invading all Nature with the Absolute’s joy.
Her body quivered with eternity’s touch,
Her soul stood close to the founts of the infinite.

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Confused by Thoughts


” Confused by thoughts,
we experience duality in life.
Unencumbered by ideas,
the enlightened see the one Reality.”

– Hui – Neng

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