04/20/14

The difficult art of reading poetry


Metonymy cartonSynecdoche. Metonymy. Not exactly words that trip lightly off the tongue. Unless, I suppose, you’re Harold Bloom. Those are two of the four fundamental tropes in literature, Bloom tells us. Identified originally by Kenneth Burke, who, as Bloom calls him, was a “profound student of rhetoric.”

Bloom references Burke in his introduction to The Best Poems of the English Language (Harper Collins, 2004), which he both edited and selected. I’ll get back to that book, in a separate post, and discuss whether they are actually the “best” or in fact whether anyone can make such a claim for another reader.

What I was looking for was how others – scholars and writers in particular – define what is good, moving or important in poetry. Like most art, we believe know what’s good when we see/hear/experience it. But that’s just a personal, subjective and very ambiguous definition. What are the underlying structures, the rules, the guides to look for?

Think about pop music and the cycle of popularity: you first hear a song and love it. Just fall all over it. Can’t get enough. Have to listen to it over and over. And then one day you can’t stand it. You are weary of turning on the radio and hearing it played over and over and over. What changed? Not the music, not the lyrics. What changed is your perception of it.

Of course, pop music, with its predictable cycle from introduction to over-play and its commercial exploitation driven by corporate financial goals well outside aesthetic ones, may not be the best model in which to frame an artistic discussion.

What are the standards for art, for music and – what I was particularly looking into: poetry – that stand above and outside personal perspective? Finding those requires me to look more deeply into the nature and structure of poetry; the vertebrae that give a poem its posture. So I started with Bloom. Who in turn starts with Burke.

Burke’s essay on tropes was published in The Kenyon Review, Vol. 3, No. 4, Autumn, 1941 (available to read on Jstor) and in his book, A Grammar of Motives (1945). It’s a might dry.

The other two tropes he says are irony and metaphor. Burke himself wrote,

For metaphor, we could substitute perspective;
For metonymy we could substitute reduction;
For synechdoche we could substitute representation;
For irony we could substitute dialectic.

See? Doesn’t that make it clearer?*

Burke wrote that his primary concern with these master tropes is “not with their purely figurative usage, but with their role in the discovery and description of ‘the truth.’” By which I gather he’s also trying to define those same, steadfast rules and standards. Burke’s tropes seem the cornerstone for an entire literary debate, so I will have to keep them in mind as I progress. But Bloom is all over the figurative aspect of poetry.

Apparently I have also to learn a new glossary like this one, before I progress into the next Circle of this Dantean labyrinth. And here’s another. Personally I look forward to the day when I can confidently use words like zeugma, erotema, meiosis and prosopopoeia in everyday conversation.**

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04/18/14

Spoon River: Smith, Goodman and Masters



VERY well, you liberals,
And navigators into realms intellectual,
You sailors through heights imaginative,
Blown about by erratic currents, tumbling into air pockets,
You Margaret Fuller Slacks, Petits,
And Tennessee Claflin Shopes—
You found with all your boasted wisdom
How hard at the last it is
To keep the soul from splitting into cellular atoms.
While we, seekers of earth’s treasures,
Getters and hoarders of gold,
Are self-contained, compact, harmonized,
Even to the end.
Edgar Lee Masters: Thomas Rhodes; from Spoon River Anthology, 1915

What is is about poetry or musical lyrics that moves us so differently than just prose? So thoroughly? So deeply it can make grown men cry?

Why can we remember lyrics of songs we heard decades ago, poems we learned in grade school, yet can’t recall what we had for breakfast or what was on the shopping list? Lyrics, perhaps, are different from poetry in that they are interwoven with the rhythm, melody and harmonies of the song, which itself carves a rut in our memories. But both stick with us better than mere words.

Why can a song send shivers up our spine, raise the hair on our arms, sweep us away with its emotions, helpless like driftwood on a river? Why can it dredge up those emotions years later, outside any context?

(Listening to Trio Los Panchos playing La Malagueña Salerosa today brought goosebumps to my arms… but almost any version of that song does that. Perhaps it comes from hearing it played live, by buskers, along the malecon in a warm, romantic February evening in Mexico… and today, years later, it has the power to transport me there.)*

In The World in Six Songs, Daniel Levitin writes,

One characteristic of poetry and lyrics, compared to ordinary speech and writing, is compression of meaning. meaning tends to be densely packed, conveyed in fewer words than we would normally use in conversation or prose. The compression of meaning invites us to interpret, to be participants in the unfolding of the story. The best poetry – the best art in any medium – is ambiguous. Ambiguity begets participation. poetry slows us down from the way we normally use language; we read and hear poetry and stop thinking about the language the way we normally do; we slow down in order to contemplate all the different reverberations of meaning it contains.

Which strikes me as a singularly catching insight. I thought about those words recently while transcribing some Bob Dylan songs for our local ukulele group. Dylan is a master of ambiguity. Which makes his songs so much more memorable, I suppose. How odd, how amazing, I thought, that I can still remember the words and chords to his songs I learned to play 30 or 40 years ago.

And they are songs that have no particularly deep emotional contact for me – not necessarily songs I listened to with a lover, shared with a friend or simply found emotionally fulfilling. But I can simply pick up a uke and strum out Memphis Blues Again, It Ain’t Me, If Not for You, I Shall Be Released and The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest or a dozen others without giving much thought to words or music: they just spill out like old, familiar tunes, even though I haven’t likely played them for years.

It’s like the music is a meme; an intellectual virus that binds itself to your DNA. Like herpes; one it takes hold it never leaves and unfolds itself when called out. How and why does it do that? It’s the subject of many books, including Levitin’s.

I HAD fiddled all at the county fair.
But driving home “Butch” Weldy and Jack McGuire,
Who were roaring full, made me fiddle and fiddle
To the song of Susie Skinner, while whipping the horses
Till they ran away.
Blind as I was, I tried to get out
As the carriage fell in the ditch,
And was caught in the wheels and killed.
There’s a blind man here with a brow
As big and white as a cloud.
And all we fiddlers, from highest to lowest,
Writers of music and tellers of stories,
Sit at his feet,
And hear him sing of the fall of Troy.
Edgar Lee Masters: Blind Jack; from Spoon River Anthology, 1915

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04/9/14

Oooh, shiny….


Godin MultiukeReligious texts are full of admonitions about avoiding temptation. The Lord’s Prayer tells God to “lead us not into temptation.” Fat lot of good that does. We can find the way ourselves, thank you.

Not only do we lead ourselves there, we go willingly and eagerly. Pushing and shoving aside those who stand in our way to reach temptation. Ever see the crowds in the mall on Boxing Day?

Psychological texts, magazines and sites are full of secular advice on resisting temptation, too. It’s our brain’s “executive control” functions that  fail use when we succumb to our impulses. And fail they do, with disconcerting frequency.

Religious temptation, Wikipedia tells us, is the inclination to sin. Well, I can’t get into the whole notion of sin, relativism cultural and social bias, and situational ethics here. Maybe another post. For now, I’ll leave it to the theologians to wrestle that particular set of demons into the mud.

I’m talking about the average daily, run-of-the-mill temptation, the sort  that makes you pull out your wallet when you come across an unexpected sale on power tools, when you went to the store for a bag of potting soil. The sort that makes you go to the grocery store and come back with mangoes, exotic cheese, avocado and ice cream instead of just the milk you went to get. The sort that makes you go onto Amazon’s website just to look up something and end up ordering a half-dozen books and that first West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band CD you’ve always wanted in your collection (okay, okay, but I had the other two already so I had to complete the set).

Temptation, Wikipedia says,

…is the desire to perform an action that one may enjoy immediately or in the short term but will probably later regret for various reasons: legal, social, psychological (including feeling guilt), health-related, economic, etc… actions which indicate a lack of self control.

Godin MultiukeIt’s tough, you know. We live in a rich, consumer-oriented society in which we are bombarded daily by thousands of ads all screaming “Buy me!” Promising a better, richer, more fulfilling life if we just give in and pull out our wallets. We are born and bred to be consumers.

We live in a world full of music stores replete with ukuleles just hanging there on the walls singing like sirens when you walk by. Hear that? That’s the voice of a solid-koa Koaloha sweetly calling my name… and that dulcet voice? That’s a Martin… Oooh, what’s that shiny one?

And then when we get the credit card bill, we start regretting it. But how to resist? Should we even try? Are we doomed to fail? But… is life to short to live without another ukulele?

In The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde has his character, Lord Henry, say,

The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it. Resist it, and your soul grows sick with longing for the things it has forbidden to itself, with desire for what its monstrous laws have made monstrous and unlawful. It has been said that the great events of the world take place in the brain. It is in the brain, and the brain only, that the great sins of the world take place also.

And when you do, inevitably, yield, you are then beset with those nagging questions, the voice of your conscience nagging, scolding. What was I thinking? Why did I do it? Why did I buy it? What will she think?

She being the spouse, of course (at least in my case). The one who sits in judgement on the new toy, the new pet, car, TV set, ukulele, motorcycle, personal watercraft, riding lawn mower, that bag of specialty cheeses… did I mention ukulele? Did I mention it was shiny?

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03/23/14

Thinking about a new ukulele


Kala resonator uke
I’ve been thinking seriously of adding another ukulele to the herd. A tenor resonator, or resophonic, like the Kala shown above. That’s the re-designed 2014 model.

I’ve played earlier models, including the 2013 version with the strings attached to a tailpiece (see photo below, left). The 2014 design (shown above) anchors the strings back into the cover plate, which I expect will be a better design; it looks cleaner, too. But I believe the biggest change is that the through-the-plate model has more tension on the biscuit (see below). And I like Kala products, too.

Earlier Kala resoI really like resonator instruments and currently own a Soares resonator tenor guitar. It’s lovely; all-metal body, but a heavy beast (20lb or so)

I owned a Republic all-metal reso uke, a few years back, but it was concert scale. Interesting uke, but I didn’t keep it. I loved the look, but I don’t like concert scale as much as tenor, and I think that concert scale strings don’t put enough tension on the biscuit to make the cone work effectively. However, it gave me some ideas about improving reso uke output.

In the physics of guitars and ukuleles, the more tension on the saddle, the greater the energy passed along through the bridge to the sounding surface (top). Thus the greater the tension, the louder the sound and the greater the sustain.

A tenor uke has more string tension than a concert, and because of this it is this is generally louder and richer in tone than a shorter scale uke.

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03/21/14

Marcus Aurelius


Marcus AureliusI continue to be profoundly moved by the wisdom of the classical authors. It’s often hard to accept that some of them were writing two or more millennia ago: many seem so contemporary they could have been written this century.

Of late – within the past year or so – I’ve been reading Lucretius, Aristotle, Horace, Cicero, Seneca, Pliny the Elder*… and more recently Marcus Aurelius.

I’ve had a couple of versions of his Meditations (written ca. 167 CE) kicking around on my bookshelf for decades. I’ve dipped into it many times before today, but never really read it for more than some pithy, salient, quotable lines. These translations have all been 19th century ones. This week I started reading a more recent Penguin edition (trans. Maxwell Staniforth, 1964) and was duly impressed and delighted at how much crisper and clearer it reads than the somewhat florid, older ones. So much so that I recently ordered an even more modern translation from Amazon (George Hays, Modern Library, 2003) and started on it, too.

In part my hesitation in the past to read more of the classics has been due to the rather dense prose that many of my translations offered – most of them being published originally in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Great in their day, they see archaic and stilted today. The newer, modernized translations make these works much more approachable.

For example, here’s the George Long (1862, reprinted in the Harvard Classics series, 1909) translation of the opening of Book XII:

ALL those things at which thou wishest to arrive by a circuitous road, thou canst have now, if thou dost not refuse them to thyself. And this means, if thou wilt take no notice of all the past, and trust the future to providence, and direct the present only conformably to piety and justice.

And here is an 18th century translation by Hutcheson and Moor:

All you desire to obtain by so many windings, you may have at once, if you don’t envy yourself [so great an happiness.] That is to say, if you quit the thoughts of what is past, and commit what is future to providence; and set yourself to regulate well your present conduct, according to the rules of holiness and justice.

Compare these with the 1964 translation by Maxwell Staniforth (Penguin Books):

All the blessings which you pray to obtain hereafter could be yours today, if you did not deny them to yourself. You have only to be done with the past altogether, commit the future to providence, and simply seek to direct the present hour aright into paths of holiness and justice.

Here’s the 2003 Hays’ translation:

Everything you’re trying tor each – by taking the long way around – you could have right now, this moment. If only you’d stop thwarting your own attempts. if only you’d let go of the past, entrust the future to Providence, and guide the present towards reverence and justice.

I’ve also tended to shy away from reading too much of Meditations in part because he also deals with divinity and soul – and I tend more towards the moral and ethical, the philosophic rather than spiritual, writers. But reading through his book now, the Hays’ translation in particular, I find his spirituality less cloying than I had initially.

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03/18/14

CPLUG songs and more


CPLUG
CPLUG – the Collingwood Public Library Ukulele Group – has so far proven a very popular group. We started with 17 people at our first monthly meeting and more have attended each time: 34 people came out last month! I’m hoping to continue this trend and see as many this week at our next meeting (March 19).

You can read about our group in this newspaper story, here. We are dedicated to enjoying making and learning music in a friendly, supportive community group setting.

We need help! We need songs, song leaders, helpers, tuners and ukuleles. And of course ukulele enthusiasts.

Songs and song leaders: I’ve been choosing and arranging the songs so far, laid out in PowerPoint for projection on the big screen so everyone can see the lyrics and chords. We would benefit by getting other arrangements of different songs, however, and not always be bound by my particular choices. Have some favourite tunes? Get them ready to share – or bring in the song book or sheet so we can discuss how to get it ready.

Song leaders are those folk who feel confident in standing up in front of the group and leading the rest in the song – explaining the chords the rhythm, the changes and any techniques. And, of course, singing.

Song leaders will also be able to take over the group if I am called away to meetings or conferences. I can offer advice and help getting the songs set up for projection, if you need it.

Helpers are people who can aid the newcomers and beginners getting tuned, fitting their fingers to a chord shape, helping them hold the instrument or figure out strumming. We already have a couple of great helpers, but a few more would be ideal. Share your knowledge and experience.

Tuners: not everyone has (but should own) a digital tuner. Please bring yours so we can get through the initial tuning a little faster.

Ukuleles: every meeting, some people have shown up without one. Some hope to be able to borrow the library’s few ukes, but they are, so far, booked ahead of time. I’ve been bringing a few extras, but last meeting we simply didn’t have enough for everyone. If you have an extra ukulele or two, and feel comfortable letting someone else play it, please bring it along.

I’ve been asked by CPLUG members where people can buy ukuleles. That’s not always easy in a small town. I’ve purchased most of mine online.

Locally, you can order one from Blue Mountain Music, but they are a small operation with limited in-store stock, so you’re usually buying one sight unseen.

Broadway Music, in Orangeville, has a fair selection and isn’t too far away. I’ve also seen a fair selection of mid-to-low end brands in music stores in Barrie and Owen Sound. And, of course, there’s always the Twelfth Fret in Toronto. Or the Ottawa Folklore Centre and Folkways stores in then Kitchener-Guelph area). If anyone knows of other sources, please let me know.

Larger urban centres tend to have a better selection, of course., but nowhere near the range of brands and models available online. Canada seems about a decade behind the USA in commercial trends, so music stores up here are not always aware of the uke’s popularity.

You can also buy them online, even get a good used on from the marketplace on Fleamarketmusic.com or ukuleleunderground.com/forum although that’s a caveat emptor option when buying from individuals.

If you want advice on brands, models, sizes, strings and so on, please ask at any meetings. You might also ask another member to try his or her uke to see it you like it. The best way to choose one is to try playing several.

Anyway, here is the song sheet* from February’s CPLUG session, and March’s upcoming CPLUG session. Both are in PDF format. If you want to get these in email before every meeting, contact me to join the CPLUG email list. Here is the chord book, for letter-sized printing.

Update: By request, April will be a Bob Dylan month.

~~~~~
* All images and lyrics are from online sources and for entertainment purposes only, not for commercial reproduction. Photo courtesy the Collingwood Public Library.