Imagination, being by definition un-willed, often comes in unexpectedly, the result of some chance encounter or coincidence. We can’t will ourselves into a genuinely imaginative space. We can work with what imagination provides – uncover the form, improve the syntax, work to complete the poem – but imagination itself is uncanny, unbiddable.
Imagination always takes us somewhat beyond ourselves – beyond our habitual everyday consciousness, beyond the man or women who sits down with a mug of tea and starts to write. Imagination can never, therefore, be in service to anything – be it feminism, Marxism or Buddhism.
The chance encounter that sparked off this poem was listening to someone tell a story from an ancient Buddhist sutta (‘thread of discourse’). I’d been on retreat and out of contact with the outside world for nearly four months. The sutta (called the Dhaniya Sutta from the Sutta Nipata, a collection of discourses containing some of the very earliest Buddhist teaching) is about a farmer meeting a beggar. The beggar – a religious mendicant living off alms – is the Buddha. It is written in Pali, an ancient Indian language that only survives in Buddhist texts, in verse dialogue, and stripped of any context. But as far as the inspiration for my poem was concerned, the most important aspect of the story was that it was told by someone with a North American accent.
Robert Frost had long been an inspiration, and this scenario – a farmer meeting a vagrant, recounted in an easygoing Californian drawl – reminded me of Frost’s narrative poems: ‘Two Tramps in Mud Time’, say, or ‘The Ax-Helve’: sinewy, resonant works. Frost’s narratives had been in my mind because I’d started one or two myself. I’d even thought of writing a collection around such poems.
Frost’s great book, North of Boston – grouped around long poems like ‘The Death of the Hired Man’, ‘A Servant to Servants’ and ‘Home Burial’ – was his second collection. I’d had the hubristic idea of modelling my own second collection on his: narrative poems interspersed with short rhyming lyrics. Of course it didn’t work out like that, and I couldn’t hope to emulate Frost’s pitch-perfect writing, but the idea lingered and hearing what felt like a Frostian story told in that accent set me off.
Narrative poems are out of fashion. In a recent conversation published in The Poetry Review the Scottish poet Kathleen Jamie talks about sticking a note above her desk saying ‘Nae narrative!’ Telling a story, telling it without breaking it into fragments, telling it from beginning to end (with a middle in the middle) feels very 19th Century. There’s the interminable ‘and then, and then…’ of narrative; the plot tedium; the clichés of characterisation. And we’ve long since decided that the narrator is unreliable.
Another reason for the unpopularity of narrative poetry is marketing. Narrative poems are long, so they’re difficult to get published. No-one wants to read them. We all know that sinking feeling on opening a collection of poetry, seeing a single poem going on page after page after page, and we’ve all made that decision to read a little one-page ditty instead. Most of us like our poems (if we like them at all) short, with plenty of white space.
But I kept hearing a narrative voice in my head. I’d already started a monologue called ‘The Travellers from Orissa’ and I’d had the idea (again from Frost) that I’d like to write a dialogue poem in the manner of ‘West-Running Brook’ or ‘The Fear’. But you can’t just sit down and write a poem with dialogue; something needs to prompt you. You need to have to write whatever it is you’re writing. Often the problem with a poem is not the form, the content, the syntax or the word choice but the sense that it didn’t really need to be written in the first place.
The story from the Dhaniya Sutta was enough to catch my imagination. I started writing. And straight away it was clear that the voice I was writing in was trying to speak in pentameter. It was to be a blank verse poem (i.e. pentameter ‘blank’ of rhyme) written in verse paragraphs.
I purposely didn’t look at translations for a long time – I didn’t want to be guided by the sutta; I wanted to let my imagination take off from what I remembered. I even considered recasting the episode in Frost’s New Hampshire, but I couldn’t pull it off. Finally I turned to translations and incorporated some of that material into the poem. For instance, the phrase ‘If you want to rain, rain-god, then go ahead and rain’ is lifted directly from the Pali. I also stole things from other Buddhist texts – the Dhammapada, especially (another ancient sutta) and the White Lotus Sutra, a later Mahayana text. I don’t think of ‘The Cattle Farmer’s Tale’ as a ‘translation’ or even a ‘version’; it’s more like a poem ‘inspired by’ the sutta.
Looking at translations, however, set off something else. Reading the words ‘The rice is cooked, my milking done’, I felt the beginning of a song in dimeter. So I had the farmer sing a snatch of something. I thought song was probably closer to speech in those days, and I liked the reference to the verse form of the original Pali (it’s probable that the early suttas were sung or chanted). But that gave me a new problem. If the farmer sang, the Buddha would have to sing back. And his song would need to be larger both in form and content. So I ended up writing the Buddha with a short, tetrameter verse.
After much faffing and fiddling, I finished the poem and tried to get it published. But something was wrong. In the original sutta, Mara (a personification of worldliness and limitation – his name literally means ‘death’) appears and tries to lure the farmer away from the Buddha’s teaching. I’d decided not to bring in Mara – he appears rather abruptly in the sutta, only to be dismissed just as abruptly. But my narrative lacked drama. Finally I thought of a way of including Mara, which meant writing verses for him too – verses that needed to be different, more archaic. Looking at the finished poem now, I can’t imagine it without Mara’s intervention.
Note: kummasa is a very poor food made of what we would call mung beans. In the Ratthapala Sutta (Middle Length Sayings) a servant fobs off a monk with last night’s kummasa.
The Cattle Farmer’s Tale
He was standing in the middle of the yard
waiting for me to speak and it was this
that put me on my guard – his not pretending
to be meek or grateful to set me at my ease
and, funny thing, it stopped me in my tracks
so for a moment I stumbled on my words –
‘You’ll be wanting somewhere to lay your head
now they say the rains are sure to come.’
I led him to the house, laying down
the rule I always had for the likes of him:
two weeks maximum and keep away
from the calves and womenfolk. I called my wife
and would’ve waited but something made me fuss
with bowls and cups and busy myself with talking.
‘Last year the cowshed was all but washed away,
the rain came down so hard, but now I’m ready
and can truly say ‘If you want to rain, rain-god,
then go ahead and rain!’ I liked the phrase
I’d found and liked to use it. He smiled at this
and seemed about to speak but then my wife
came in, firelight brightening up her face.
The rice is cooked,
the milking’s done,
the grain is safely stowed,
the rain can come
and drum and drum…
It was an old song, my father used to sing it
in that flat voice of his, this time of year.
The man sat very still and watched me sing.
Usually with the likes of him, homeless men
spending the night wheresoever they can,
under a tree or in a dirty shed, usually
they get to talking straight away like folk
who’re starved of company – so the silence
made me wish I’d given him short shrift
and shown him to the gate.
I said as I sat down, ‘that’s how many
cows I’ve got. I go over with the slops
and they come up to the fence as if they’re friends –
yearlings and milch cows, heifers and breeding bulls.
I’ve level paddy fields with good embankments
and corn that’s high enough to hide a crow!’
My voice was louder than I’d meant as if
I spoke to someone right across the room.
‘If you’ve walked along the Mahi riverbank
you’ll have seen the barns – my father left them –
good and strong as anyone’s around.’
‘My mind is fertile’ he said, putting down
his cup. ‘Wherever I look it might be fields
of wheat or well-ploughed irrigated land.’
He had a way of saying ‘fertile’, an accent
I couldn’t place, but I could see he was
an educated man. I’d half a mind
he meant to lecture, so I jumped in quick
with what I had to say.
‘I’ve men who’ll pick
the flies away and light the smoky fires
to keep mosquitoes off. The fields I own
are ready for the rains, the cows are strong
and range about the meadows where they will.’
I left a gap for him to see the good of it.
‘I have no need of shelter; my hut’s unthatched
and all the household fires are out.’ He looked
to where my wife stood like a frightened doe,
her eyes so wide and timid by the door.
I bade her fetch the kummasa and rice
but she waited like she might’ve disobeyed.
Well, I could see the game that we were playing –
a man on either side – so I waved her off,
then carried on to see where we would go.
‘I’ve had my work cut out – trenches to dig,
rafters to mend with honest working men
as rare as hare’s horn. Working’s all there is
for those of us who have a house to feed –
the stakes are in, the ropes are firmly tied –
but you see the farm’s my own; I’m lord
of all that I survey, so I can sit here
anytime I choose and talk to you like this.’
‘My work’s the Aryan Eightfold Way, my rest’s
Nibbana’s cave. I live on my awakening –
a cloud that might be gathered in and caught.
My home’s the dust roads of this floating world;
my drink’s the Law-rain falling on the ground;
my sons and daughters are the quickly growing
muñja-grass and vines – so if you want to
rain, rain god, then go ahead and rain!’
He smiled at me to give my saying back.
‘I’ve four good sons; you watch them coming in.
You’ve seen my wife, how obedient she is –
compliant and restrained, I never hear
a bad word said about her.’
‘My mind is tamed,
compliant to my will. And love sits here –’
he pointed to his heart, then smiled again
to show me it was true. ‘Once, like you,
I had a handsome wife, a son, fine lands,
a wealthy father – I left that all behind,
seeing it would end.
I built a raft of ropes and wood
and tied it tight and made it trim,
then set the sail to make it good
and though the current bucked and skimmed,
I landed on the further shore
where there was sorrow nevermore.
He rocked slightly while he sang, his voice
so sweet and almost hidden in his breath.
I felt a lurching in my brain; I tried
to speak again and meant to shout him down
but something in his gaze – so frank, so true –
held me like a hunted deer. All at once,
like some great drum stretched tight across the world,
thunder shook the sky while lightning cast
his shadow massive on the wall and then
the rains came roaring on the roof as if
Namuchi’s army were fighting to get in
with slings and arrows, lightning clubs and bolts.
I wrenched my gaze away and turned aside.
Suddenly I saw a figure in the doorway
all dressed in pelting rain – his face was grey,
a kind of whispered comfort came from him
and when he spoke his voice was soft and bubbling
in his throat:
Everyday I’ll sing
the song of your delight.
Those with children win delight
and everyday they sing!
Everyday brings joy
in prosperous farm and cattle.
For the sake of keeping cattle
everyday brings joy!
Everyday brings peace
from gods of hearth and home.
With a wife who keeps the home,
everyday brings peace!
‘There are two thoughts, Dhaniya,’ –
the vagrant laid his hand upon my arm –
‘one leads to suffering, the other to joy.
The first is yoked to yearning like a calf,
a suckling calf that’s yoked unto his mother,
the other’s like a shadow that never parts.
That intoxicated man whose main delight
is in family, wealth and cattle, death
comes and carries him off like a great flood
that sweeps away a sleeping village – sons
are no protection, nor father’s land, nor wife.’
Something was holding all the water back.
I let it break. And rushing black and muddy
in the room, the torrent came and heaved
and seemed about to wash away the house
and drown us all but then it lifted me
into the Heaven of the Yearning Gods –
my body made of air and white as curds –
and there I seemed to linger like a star…
My wife returned with the dish of kummasa.
At first I didn’t reckon what it meant
or where I sat or who this woman was
who bent beside my chair. I looked to where
the man had spoken from the open door
but all I saw were shawls of falling rain.
Then the vision fell away; the room
came back – I could recognize my things –
and I was home again inside my daily life.
I heard a voice that cried – it was my voice
in my mouth –‘What do you call this, woman?
Who asked for kummasa? Bring him the best,
for he is worthy of the choicest gifts;
this two-fingeredness is unbecoming.’
I saw a tear starting in her eye.
She looked afraid to hear me speak like that,
so I was sorry and went to go and help.
He stayed a month until the rain had stopped.
And while he stayed he’d come and teach us both
sitting quietly in this room, quietly talking.
Every night my wife would cook her finest –
sukaramamsa and jujube fruit, milk-rice,
gavapana mixed with honey and palm sugar,
galub jamun – her eyes had tears of joy.
But finally he left. We watched him go,
half-hoping he’d turn back. We waited while
his figure disappeared…sometimes I think
that afternoon, it was us who disappeared.
For days I couldn’t settle to my work –
the farm was scant and empty while the room
seemed water-lit, like the inside of a bridge.
I’d sit and stare and try to catch his shadow
grow tall again and dance across the wall.
But even now I struggle to describe him –
was he tall or short? I can hear his voice,
sometimes, and now and then I see his face
which seems the face of everyone I know.
‘The Cattle Farmer’s Tale’ is taken from Yarn (Bloodaxe Books), which will be published later this year. Maitreyabandhu’s first collection, The Crumb Road, was published by Bloodaxe Books in 2013.
I loved this when I first read it in The Long Poem Magazine – had to search the shelves to find it again, It’s very interesting to be given an insight into the process of thinking about narrative poems. Breaking the long text up with song and
different visual breaks really works. I’m trying to put together a long poem at the moment – it is a narrative but based on experience in a place. This article gives me a lot to think about and makes me want to go back to that work now and get on with it. Thanks Maitreyabandhu for this and for other inspiring writing by you I’ve read and re-read lately.