Literary Birthdays January 3 – 9

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January 3

Savitribai Phule (born January 3, 1831) – Indian poet, teacher, educator of women

Read about Savitribai Phule here and here and here

Savitribai Phule was born on 3 January 1831 in a poor farming family in Naigaon, a place situated on Pune-Satara Road, some 50 km from Pune. In 1840, at the tender age of nine, she was married to thirteen-year-old Jyotirao Phule.

She never received formal education before her marriage; it was her husband, Jyotirao Phule, who wished to educate her, a venture which met fierce resistance from his family. In 1841, Jyotirao started her education and training to become a teacher.

On 1 January 1848, Savitribai and Jyotirao Phule established India’s first open school for girls in the city of Pune, with a batch of nine girls, mainly from Shudra and Atee Shudra communities, also making her first and youngest female school teacher of modern India, at age of seventeen.

In 1854, Savitribai published her first collection of poems, Kavyaphule, making her first modern poetess of Marathi literature.

In 1897, during the third pandemic of bubonic plague, Savitribai and Yashavantrao [her son] opened a clinic in the area of Sasane Mala, Hadapsar near Pune, area free of infection. Savitribai personally took the affected to the clinic, Yashavantrao treated them. It is while caring for plague patients, she contracted disease herself. She left the world on 10 March 1897, only losing to plague with vision of a better world in her eyes.

[Excerpt from this article]

Two of Savitribai Phule’s poems:

Go, Get Education

Be self-reliant, be industrious

Work, gather wisdom and riches,

All gets lost without knowledge

We become animal without wisdom,

Sit idle no more, go, get education

End misery of the oppressed and forsaken,

You’ve got a golden chance to learn

So learn and break the chains of caste.

Throw away the Brahman’s scriptures fast.


Rise, to learn and act

Weak and oppressed! Rise my brother

Come out of living in slavery.

Manu-follower Peshwas are dead and gone

Manu’s the one who barred us from education.

Givers of knowledge– the English have come

Learn, you’ve had no chance in a millennium.

We’ll teach our children and ourselves to learn

Receive knowledge, become wise to discern.

An upsurge of jealousy in my soul

Crying out for knowledge to be whole.

This festering wound, mark of caste

I’ll blot out from my life at last.

In Baliraja’s kingdom, let’s beware

Our glorious mast, unfurl and flare.

Let all say, “Misery go and kingdom come!”

Awake, arise and educate

Smash traditions-liberate!

We’ll come together and learn


Slumber not but blow the trumpet

O Brahman, dare not you upset.

Give a war cry, rise fast

Rise, to learn and act.

More poetry by Savitribai Phule at:

January 4

Gao Xingjian (born January 4, 1940) – Chinese playwright, novelist, painter; 2000 Nobel Prize for Literature  – The Other Shore (1986)

Read the Wikipedia biography of Gao Xingjian

Read about Gao Xingjian’s play The Other Shore

Read his Nobel Prize acceptance speech:

Once literature is contrived as the hymn of the nation, the flag of the race, the mouthpiece of a political party or the voice of a class or a group, it can be employed as a mighty and all-engulfing tool of propaganda. However, such literature loses what is inherent in literature, ceases to be literature, and becomes a substitute for power and profit.

In the century just ended literature confronted precisely this misfortune and was more deeply scarred by politics and power than in any previous period, and the writer too was subjected to unprecedented oppression.

In order that literature safeguard the reason for its own existence and not become the tool of politics it must return to the voice of the individual, for literature is primarily derived from the feelings of the individual and is the result of feelings.

…as well as serving as a carrier of thought literature must also appeal to the auditory senses. The human need for language is not simply for the transmission of meaning, it is at the same time listening to and affirming a person’s existence.”

January 5


Umberto Eco (born January 5, 1932) – Italian novelist, essayist – The Name of the Rose (1980)

Read Umberto Eco’s obituary in the New York Times and the Guardian

Read about Eco’s literary legacy in this 2016 Guardian article

Eco’s first, watershed novel, The Name of the Rose, was published in 1980. An artful reworking of Conan Doyle, with Sherlock Holmes transplanted to 14th-century Italy, the book’s baggage of arcane erudition was designed to flatter the average reader’s intelligence.

Yet the success of The Name of the Rose weighed heavily on Eco. When the French director Jean-Jacques Annaud released his film of the novel in 1986, Eco refused to speak to the newspapers about it. Each night when he returned to his flat in Milan he said he could “barely open the door” for the accumulation of interview requests. In private, Eco judged Annaud’s film a travesty of his novel, and found the monks (apart from the one played by Connery) “too grotesque-looking”. Yet Eco approved of Annaud’s Piranesi-like sets, which he concurred were “marvellous”.

His second novel, Foucault’s Pendulum (1988), was a thriller set amid shadowy cabals and conventicles such as the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and the Rosicrucian Society. Eco saw modern-day political parallels with these and other sects; indeed, the P2 masonic lodge and the far-left fringe of the Red Brigades indulged a similar secrecy and fanaticism. Eco was fond of the Italian term dietrologia, which translates, not very happily, into “behindology” and presumes that secret cliques, camarillas and consortia are everywhere manipulating political scandals. In all his work, fiction and non-fiction, Eco displayed a classically Italian enthusiasm for conspiracy and arcana.

In 1971, Eco became the first professor of semiotics at Bologna, Europe’s oldest university. His lectures at the university, avidly attended by semioticians, analysed the James Bond novels, the Mad comic magazines and, with equal fizz-bang, photographs of Marilyn Monroe. Throughout his Bologna professorship, Eco denied that he was “intellectually slumming it” by speaking of Donatello’s David in the same breath as, say, plastic garden furniture.

When the entire world is a web of signs, he said, everything cries out for exegesis. Marginal manifestations of culture should not be ignored, he explained: in the 19th century, Telemann was considered a far greater composer than Bach; by the same token, in 200 years, Picasso may be thought inferior to Coca Cola commercials. (And who knows, Eco added jokingly, one day we may consider The Name of the Rose inferior to the potboilers of Harold Robbins.)

Umberto Eco speaks about words and the semiotics of translation

Umberto Eco [Minute 10:20]: Should a translation lead the reader to understand the linguistic and cultural universe of the source text, or transform the original by adapting it to the reader’s cultural and linguistic universe?

The question is not as preposterous as it seems when we consider that translations age. Shakespearean English is always the same, but even if modern Italian readers read Shakespeare in an Italian translation of the 19th century, we feel uncomfortable.

January 6

Idris Davies

Idris Davies (born January 6, 1905) – Welsh poet

Read these short biographies of Idris Davies

Rhymney Hill

If I should die before I’m old

Before I’m worn and grey

Bury my heart on Rhymney Hill

That I loved in childhood’s day.

Bury my heart in that hour

When the curlew cries and cries

And all the moor is brooding

Beneath the fading skies;

In that hour when the finite

And the infinite are one,

One mystery, one glory

Of earth and setting sun.

Rhymney Rhythms Visualized

January 7

Shobhaa Dé

Shobhaa Dé (born January 7, 1948) – Indian novelist

Read the Wikipedia article about Shobhaa De

Watch an interview of Shobhaa De

January 8

gaston miron
Gaston Miron (born January 8, 1928) – French-Canadian poet – L’Homme rapaillé

Read about Gaston Miron in this essay:

Gaston Miron Or How To Become A National Poet
by Peter Byrne

Miron was born in 1928 in the village of Sainte-Agathe-des-Monts in the Laurentides sixty miles north of Montreal.

Then in 1940 Miron’s father died suddenly at forty-four. The Canada of the day didn’t offer much help in such cases. When the family savings ran out Miron’s mother had to sell the family home and take in washing to keep her four daughters. Gaston at thirteen was sent off, willingly enough, to become a teaching Brother at the Brothers of the Sacred Heart normal school near Granby, ninety miles from home. The boarding school regime is startling to consider. There were no summer vacations, only August spiritual retreats. In six years Miron would make but one visit home. His mother and sisters visited him twice.

Miron loved the training school of the Brothers of the Sacred Heart at Granby. He stayed from the age of thirteen to nineteen. Despite all the criticism of oppressive religious institutions that Quebec would know in its transition toward secularism in the 1960s, Miron never faulted his life at school or the Brothers. During a lifetime spent among writers of an anticlerical bent, he was reluctant to speak a word against the Church.

It was the Brothers who taught Miron introspection. Recruits for the religious life learned to look inward to their conscience to see if they were up to scratch morally. In his diary written at school the air was thin with abstractions and Miron would often address God directly. His ultimate literary voice would flow from the mix of this ritual self-abasement and his lyric poet’s narcissism. He was by nature a performer and excused the egoism involved by performing for God. He mixed talk of his unworthiness with enormous claims for himself. Later his people, his nation, and his language would take center stage with God pushed into the wings. Miron would perform for them.

Looking back, Miron would thank the Brothers for their excellent instruction in French. They never discouraged his efforts in poetry and steered him into the classic forms of French verse. He wrote away in rhymed alexandrines about the beauties of nature, little else being on offer around the isolated school.

Change came in 1946 when he finished his studies and began teaching in Montreal as an apprentice Brother. Reluctance to bind himself to chastity and his absorption in poetry soon made for a crisis that saw him abandon the religious life. He began to live in the city on his own, scraping a livelihood. He confronted the modern French poets. His real education began.

In the late 1960s the Quebec sovereignty or separatist movement gathered force. It would lead to a polarization within Quebec opposing independentists to federalists. Two referendums on the question in 1980 and 1995 decided against independence, the second by only one percentage point. The question is far from settled. Miron’s adhesion to the separatist cause was the pivot of his life and his poetry. Since his arrival in Montreal his verse showed him immersed in self-contempt and disarray. His relationship to women was all yearning and failure. He hoped that collective action might be a personal way out and participated in various youth club activities with a religious tinge. Joining the sovereignty movement was the next step.

Hommes, souvenez-vous de vous en d’autres temps (Men, look to what you were in other times)

As an independent nation Quebec could, Miron believed, erect a wall and keep foreign words out. He would then feel at ease. Late in his life, Gaston Miron, the defender of Quebec’s uniqueness, would admit that he felt fully human only among the sixty million French speakers of France. It was a significant avowal and indicated that his problem with language remained a very personal one. Whatever one feels about Quebec becoming an independent state — and the idea pleases this writer — Miron’s hopes were another exercise in credulity. The omnipresence of English on the planet would hardly be undone by Canada’s loss of a province. Fortress Quebec chewing over its language woes would risk becoming a kingdom of otherworldly cranks.

Miron became a highly visible proponent of the separatist cause. There was no doubt of his sincerity, but his engagement was also a literary strategy. Militancy certainly invigorated his poetry to begin with. It gave him a focus and kept him from the trivial. His hypersensitivity to words made him a remarkable poet but it also ended his creativity prematurely. He clearly found it easier to throw himself into promotional and political work — speech-making, organization, propaganda — than to sit down and write poetry. His exhausting schedule served as an alibi for not squaring up to his writer’s block. At the end of his life he was more a public performer than a creative writer.

Miron was ingenuous to the last. No doubt Quebec had not got the best of deals in the Canadian Confederation and was reasonable in wanting out for that and other reasons. But it was laughable to quote Franz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth and lump Quebecers with the colonized people of the Third World. Miron could be a clumsy foot soldier in the battle of ideas. From behind his plain man façade, megalomania regularly peeked out.

In the end there are the poems. It’s the quality of his total identification with his people, a people he sees in his idiosyncratic way, that made Miron the national poet of Quebec. His commitment is stirring.

Recours didactique / Didactic Recourse
(Also titled in English “A Lesson in Commitment”)

My comrades, over the long course of my youth
I stayed in the heights with my poetry; now
I am in the public square with my own
And my poems have taken on the darkness of our combat

Mes camarades au long cours de ma jeunesse
si je fus le haut-lieu de mon poème maintenant
je suis sur la place publique avec les miens
et mon poème a pris le mors obscur de nos combats
For a long time I was the poet with a conformist face
Who shivered within the parallel lines of his thoughts
Who withered in rage under bristles of desperation
And his heart scoffed at the flood of injustices.
Longtemps je fus ce poète au visage conforme
qui frissonnait dans les parallèles de ses pensées
qui s’étiolait en rage dans la soie des désespoirs
et son coeur raillait la crue des injustices
I still see ourselves in distress in this century
I see our inferiority and I feel hurt for each of us
Or je vois nos êtres en détresse dans le siècle
je vois notre infériorité et j’ai mal en chacun de nous
Today in the murmurs of the public square
I hear the beast returning to our steps
I hear the surge of our great resinous subconscious
The tornado of the butchered remnants of our anger
Aujourd’hui sur la place publique qui murmure
j’entends la bête tourner dans nos pas
j’entends surgir dans le grand inconscient résineux
les tourbillons des abattis de nos colères
You, my love, you stand tall these days
We love each other with a force equal to that dividing us
The rank odor of clashing metal and interests
You know that I can come back and remain next to you
In spite of blood, anarchy or war
And yet I fight, I swear to you, I fight
Because I am a danger to myself and you
And both of us are to others
The poets of our time stand guard against the world
Toi mon amour tu te tiens droite dans ces jours
nous nous aimons d’une force égale à ce qui nous sépare
la rance odeur de métal et d’intérêts croulants
Tu sais que je peux revenir et rester près de toi
ce n’est pas le sang, ni l’anarchie ou la guerre
et pourtant je lutte, je te le jure, je lutte
parce que je suis en danger de moi-même à toi
et tous deux le sommes de nous-mêmes aux autres
les poètes de ce temps montent la garde du  monde
Because the peril is in our bones, the confusion
a shadow within our depths and on our surfaces
Our consciousness is scattered
In the debris of our mirrors, our gestures that merely simulate liberty
I do not sing anymore, I push the stone of my body
Car le péril est dans nos poutres, la confusion
une brunante dans nos profondeurs et nos surfaces
nos consciences sont éparpillées dans les débris de nos miroirs, nos gestes des simulacres de libertésje ne chante plus je pousse la pierre de mon corps
I’m in the public square with my own
Poetry has not made me blush
I knew that hope lifted the world until now.
Je suis sur la place publique avec les miens
la poésie n’a pas à rougir de moi
j’ai su qu’une espérance soulevait ce monde jusqu’ici.

“Le Damned Canuck”

We are numerous, silent, rough and roughened
in a fog of raw sorrow
taking pains to nose-dive into the line of misery,
a  fire feeding on our guts
and the head — good lord —
we have a head a little lost at how to revive our two hands,
Oh — we are trapped by frost and extreme weariness

A life consumed by fatigue without results
a life muted, that loves to lament
with eyes of anguish disguised as naive confidence
a retina of pure water in its mountain home
a life always at the edge of air
always at the waterline
of awareness,
a hand pulled away from the world’s door

Ah, ring the jingling bells of your entrails,
laugh and make fun of  the cup of your privilege,
great men, masquerading class, who made  me
the sub-human, suffering grimace of a cro-magnon
the cheap wayman, the cheap workman
the damned Canuck
only the knees, only some halting speech

Here’s another English translation of “The Damned Canuck”

January 9

Hayim Nahman Bialik

Hayim Nahman Bialik (born January 9,* 1873) – Israeli poet

* Day of birth varies according to source; Britannica Encyclopedia says January 9.

Read about Hayim Nahman Bialik here and here

I Didn’t Win Light in a Windfall

I didn’t win light in a windfall,
nor by deed of a father’s will.
I hewed my light from granite.
I quarried my heart.
In the mine of my heart
a spark hides – not large, but wholly my own.
Neither hired, nor borrowed,
nor stolen – my very own.
Sorrow wields huge hammer blows,
the rock of endurance cracks
blinding my eye with flashes I catch in verse.
They fly from my lines to your breast
to vanish in kindled flame.
While I, with heart’s blood and marrow
pay the price of the blaze.

Read the Authors Calendar biography of Bialik

Read Bialik’s poem On the Threshold of the House of Prayer/Al Saf Beis HaMidrash in Hebrew

Read commentary on this poem


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