I came of age in poetry in the traditions of rhyme, meter and classic western forms. Once my limited view of the genre had been cracked open by the likes of free verse enthusiasts such as Charles Bukowski, the catalog of world poetry made more sense. Stanzas and lines became less important than content. I still like to write in forms, western or borrowed, such as the pantoum; but I now read and appreciate other forms including haiku and the ghazal. In the spring of 2014 I became intrigued by landays with the publication of I Am the Beggar of the World: Landays from Contemporary Afghanistan.
A landay is a folk couplet that may rhyme, but usually does not. It would have nine syllables in the first line and thirteen in the second. I have only read in translation from Pashtun so I won’t get the strict syllable count or the effect of them usually ending with either the sound na or ma. I do however read them as couplets and can appreciate the content and history of their circulation. These are women’s poems but women have not traditionally been able to gather in the traditional areas, except for family events such as weddings. The poems were repeated so they have a long oral tradition. They are also a bit, shall we say, on the naughty side since they were recited only by women to women for their own enjoyment. Because the oral tradition includes a type of reporting, they also include stories of war and how it effects girls, women, and their families.
These three examples are all from I Am the Beggar of the World:
In my dream, I am the president.
When I awake, I am the beggar of the world
My lover is fair as an American soldier can be
To him I looked dark as a talib, so he murdered me.
You sold me to an old man, father.
May god destroy your home; I was your daughter.
The poems go through updates to keep pace with occupying forces. The ones that mention Americans now used to be sung about the British or the Russians.
In the book Songs of Love and War we get even more of the poetry slant that women might joke about, chastising their lovers, but only among themselves. The poems frequently address fathers, lovers, and soldiers even though they are recited among the women.
May God prohibit you from any pleasure as you travel
Since you left me while I, as yet unsatisfied, was sleeping.
In secret I burn, in secret I weep,
I am the Pashtun woman who can’t unveil her lover.
You would be a heap of ashes instantly
If I threw you my intoxicated look.
Last night I had a dream that has come true:
My timid lover took me in his arms in the bright light of day.
I do wonder what these poems would sound like to me if I were able to hear and understand them recited in their local setting with native speakers. I’m reminded I once heard in a poetry class that early translations of haiku into English were made to rhyme, so that leaves me mindful that what I’m reading may be interpreted for some sense of English language expectation or correctness. Still my experience of appreciating the landays has continued to open up a burgeoning interest in the so called world poetry. While browsing in my local bookstore (Gulf of Maine Books, Brunswick, Maine) I happened on a book of Eritrean poetry. The title poem, the one that caused me to buy the book, is an example of finding a truth that seems universal even as it is expressed in an unfamiliar setting. It is by the poet Ghirmai Yohannes and it appears in the book in both English and Tigrinya.
Who Needs a Story?
I needed a story
And asked myself all day –
What can I write?
It kept me awake all night –
What do I have to say?
I emptied so many words
And Idea out of my brain
It would have floated away
If not tied to my heart.
Now I needed art.
Paper and pen in hand,
Tomorrow I would start . . .
What is it all about?
Do I really need a story?
All this time and hard work –
I hate myself for thinking this.
I already have a story
That nobody knows and it’s great –
I am the story.
Poetry is everywhere. I enjoy exploring new and old poetic styles in places new to me even as I continue to work with the western traditions. The thought of an ancient form passed orally among women speaking Pashtun, but now often done by cell phone, is an example of how poetry continues. As it does so, I want to be a part of it by both appreciating and contributing.
I Am the Beggar of the World: Landays from Contemporary Afghanistan
Translated by Eliza Griswold, Photographs by Seamus Murphy
Songs of Love and War: Afghan Women’s Poetry
Edited by Sayd Bahodine Majrouh, translated by Marjolijn De Jager
Who Needs a Story? Contemporary Eritrean Poetry in Tigrinya, Tigre, and Arabic
Edited by Charles Cantalupo and Ghirmai Negash
Previously published on Breathe Here Poetry.
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Ellie O’Leary often writes about growing up in the village of Freedom, Maine; has won the Martin Dibner Memorial Fellowship in poetry; previously hostedWriters Forum on WERU-FM, and taught at Pyramid Life Center (NY) and Belfast (Maine) Senior College. She has an MFA in poetry and her memoir in progress is Up Home Again.