To the tune of Sounds of Silence, with apologies to Paul Simon…
Hello, winter, my old friend
I have a bone to pick, again
Because a snowplow softly creeping
Passed my house while I was sleeping
My driveway’s blocked and I’m shovelling again
My back’s in pain
I curse these days of winter.
Every day we play this game.
Digging out then filled again.
The snow drifts reach up unto my knees
Beneath the heavy snow my pipes do freeze
Each time I clear my driveway of the heavy load I know
There’ll be more snow.
I hear the plow a-coming.
And in the morning light I saw
Ten thousand shovels, maybe more
People shovelling without speaking
People shovelling their backs creaking
People piling snow on mounds that tower high
To reach the sky
The daily curse of winter.
“Fools,” said I, “You do not know
Snowdrifts like a mountain grows.
Snowblowers may throw it far and wide
But the drifts never do subside.”
From above, as the silent snowflakes churn
The plow returns
I curse the days of winter.
And the snowplow flew and sprayed
Another driveway wall it made
And shovels rose up and fell again
As the neighbours groaned and backs did bend
And the snow it continued to fall down
The plow turned ’round
Just another day of winter.
I must have travelled to another universe because when I awoke, the world had gone mad. Radio stations were pulling a popular, rather over-played, 74-year-old, playful holiday song because some folks thought it was about rape. Sexual assault. Or at least non-consensual sex. The media was full of Chicken Littles screaming that the cultural sky was falling if radio stations continued to play it. The song was subject of weighty opinions on editorial pages.
What is going on in this strange, politically correct and apparently unhinged universe?
Let me back up. Two items appeared simultaneously on my Facebook timeline this week: one was a video of a peacock strutting around, trying to win over a pea hen by flashing his tail at her. The other was news that Baby, It’s Cold Outside was causing such a furor that radio stations were banning it. But these Facebook items are actually two aspects of the same thing.
The song is a duet, a playful banter between a man and a woman about, yes, sex. But not sex as in explicit. Inferred, yes, perhaps implied, but never stated. And never forced. The peacock video is also playful banter, albeit wordless and nothing is forced.
There are a hundred or more shows on Netflix you can watch right now that include graphic nudity, sex and even rape that don’t even try to hide behind innuendo. The abysmally-written mommy-porn novel, Fifty Shades of Grey was graphically explicit – and so popular it sold more than 100 million copies worldwide. Sex and seduction are in the Bible – read the Song of Solomon! As far as I know, no one is having these banned or burned.
Is there some strange hypocrisy at work here? CBC writer Jessica Goddard wrote,
…nothing says “happy holidays” like the death of nuance and frantic institutional overreaction…
The accusation that Baby, It’s Cold Outside is about sexual assault is absurd unless you isolate the entire duet down to the lines “Say, what’s in this drink?” and “The answer is no.” That ignores the lyrics that suggest that same character internally wrestling with wanting to stay (“I wish I knew how / To break this spell,” “I ought to say ‘No, no, no sir’ / At least I’m gonna say that I tried”).
Baby, It’s Cold Outside is not pornographic or even bawdy. It’s about seduction and the age-old mating game. You know: the old tail-flashing peacock routine in the video a few tens of thousands shared without anyone being offended. You want bawdy, go listen to some madrigals or early Renaissance love songs.
If people were really kerfuffled about sexually explicit lyrics or misogynistic treatment of women, they’d have banned rap music years ago. No, this is unfathomably different.
I was standing in a bookstore in downtown Toronto a couple of weeks back, and opened The Essential Ginsberg, a collection of poems, songs and other writing by the late Allen Ginsberg, he of Howl fame*. I open the book at random and read the opening Ginsberg’s poem, Capital Air, which starts:
I don’t like the government where I live
I don’t like dictatorship of the Rich
I don’t like bureaucrats telling me what to eat
I don’t like Police dogs sniffing around my feet
Even though Ginsberg wrote it in 1980, it felt like something he would be writing today about America’s Trump government. Or about the increasing repression and fascism in his country. I shivered when I read it because it spoke aloud to now.
Ginsberg was more than a poet: he was also an outspoken political activist for freedoms and rights. Although he died in 1997, I’m sure he would be writing similar lines today, had he lived.
Of course, I had to buy the book (well, buying any book isn’t a difficult decision). Not just for this poem but for others he wrote, the best of which were collected within. I also picked up three more books of poetry: Rumi: The Big Red Book (trans. Coleman Barks)**; Haiku in English: the First Hundred Years (ed. Kacian, Rowland, Burns)***; The Essential Ginsberg (ed. Schumacher) and E.E. Cummings: The Complete Poems (ed. Firmage).
I initially passed on the 1,100-page Cummings’ collection because carrying a 4.2 kg – yes, I weighed it – hardcover in my knapsack through the hot city was daunting. But thought about it overnight, thought about how much he reminded me of Don Marquis and his delightful archy and mehitabel poems, that blank verse and their shared disdain for form, and how little I had of Cummings’s work on my shelves, then made a special trip back to the store to get it the next day. I also found the haiku*** collection beside it, a serendipitous find. ****
An odd thing happens when I read poetry. Normally, I read a dozen or more books at any one time: I am a fairly fast reader with good comprehension. I can juggle all the different types, styles and topics without losing much if anything between books. But when I read poetry, it’s like my brain shifts gears and drops off cruise control.
Reading slows down, it becomes more focused. The chattering monkey in my head stills. Words become heavier, as if gravity increased. I read poetry with more attention to each word, savouring each one, sometimes repeating lines in my head several times, feeling for the rhythm, the wavelike motion of each. I parse each line with more attention than I do to prose. A single, page-long poem can take me as long to read as a chapter in, say, a novel or a history.
I usually re-read the entire poem, once I’ve gone through it, just to try out different emphasis on syllables. Find its inner music, weigh the words. Even poems I’m familiar with – and I am prone to re-reading my favourites – take longer than prose, as if I need to digest each line at a measured pace until it settles in my mind.
It’s like music: emotionally entwining – but without the accompanying sound it’s a subtle mystery I have to decode. Although I can read music with a child-like effort, when I stumble through a songsheet, figure out the notes and how the tune progresses, I feel a great sense of accomplishment. Same with poetry. When the poem finally settles in me, I feel like I’ve achieved something, solved something.
I have no difficulty writing prose. It falls off me like water from a roof in a rainstorm. But poetry for me is a slog, the death march of my intellect. I can’t disconnect the monkey brain that demands I analyze, assess, parse each word as I attempt to write. it’s like building a Lego house while stopping to measure the distances between each block and compare the height of their protrusions. I have nothing but respect, admiration and a bit of envy for those who are able to write it with any ease.
Language translation fascinates me. It’s a mix of language skill, art, interpretation, science and, apparently, divination. Maybe even magic.
Going from one language into another is far from a simple step of swapping words in dictionary manner – Flaubert’s le mot juste. Any fool can do that. Hell, even Google can. A single word can be a fulcrum, and the decision to use one word instead of another can utterly change the meaning. I wrote about this in The Municipal Machiavelli. The translator’s choice of even a single word – in that case the choice between the English words ruin and destruction – can alter the reader’s emotions, understanding and appreciation of a work.*
Back in the 17th century, English poet, satirist and translator John Dryden divided translations into three forms:
…metaphrase, paraphrase, and imitation. Metaphrase is literal, word-for-word translation; paraphrase follows the sense of the author, rather than his precise words; imitation departs from the original at the pleasure of the translator, and really constructs a new poem on the basis of the old. Dryden rejects the two extremes of metaphrase and imitation, and chooses the middle way of paraphrase.(Full article here)
Dryden explained his approach in his introduction to his translation of Ovid’s Epistles (1680), the work that launched his late-life career as a translator. He evidently gave the process a lot of thought:
All Translation I suppose may be reduced to these three heads.
First, that of Metaphrase, or turning an Authour word by word, and Line by Line, from one Language into another. Thus, or near this manner, was Horace his Art of Poetry translated by Ben. Johnson. The second way is that of Paraphrase, or Translation with Latitude, where the Authour is kept in view by the Translator, so as never to be lost, but his words are not so strictly follow’d as his sense, and that too is admitted to be amplyfied, but not alter’d. Such is Mr. Waller’s Translation of Virgils Fourth Aeneid. The Third way is that of Imitation, where the Translator (if now he has not lost that Name) assumes the liberty not only to vary from the words and sence, but to forsake them both as he sees occasion: and taking only some general hints from the Original, to run division on the ground-work, as he pleases. Such is Mr. Cowley’s practice in turning two Odes of Pindar, and one of Horace into English.
Concerning the first of these Methods, our Master Horace has given us this Caution, Nec verbum verbo curabis reddere, fidus
Interpres — Nor word for word too faithfully translate.
I was thinking about how little poets seem to matter to modern political administrations. Maybe to modern society as a whole. Their light has, it seems, been waning for several decades as our collective attention shifts.
I was thinking about what an odd, awkward fit it would be for a poet to be invited to today’s anti-literacy White House. Would he or she have to start each conversation with the question “Have you read…” dreading the answer would be a blank stare, a silent shake of the head and the turning of eyes to smartphones and TVs blaring Faux News.
I was thinking of how John Kennedy asked Robert Frost to read a poem at his 1961 inauguration. Poetry still mattered then. Of how Carter, Clinton and Obama also invited poets to read at their inaugurations. Poetry seemed to fade after Kennedy, possibly because the Vietnam War invited more protest than introspection. Possibly because his death cut down many muses, as well. Possibly because we turned increasingly to TV and then the internet as our source of inspiration, not books. A 2015 CNN article noted:
The cult of people who buy books of poetry in the U.S. is almost certainly dwarfed by the 20 million or so viewers who watch a single episode of “Game of Thrones.”
A mere five poets were invited to attend and read at presidential inaugurations in more than 50 years. The CNN article noted:
Many Americans’ exposure to poetry today is limited to inspirational snippets on fridge magnets or a few verses recited every four years when a poet is trotted out at a presidential inauguration.
But that’s only true for Democratic presidents. Republicans shy from poets. At the Trump inauguration? None: just a handful of wannabe celebrities, some sycophants and has-beens. No poets, no authors, no reading, no evidence of culture deeper than the superficial. Not even as good as a single episode of America’s Got Talent.
Thus is the new world of politics: reduced to a small screen and a handful of words. No deep insight, no big reads. Is poetry disappearing from our lives? Sublimating to texting, Twitter, Instagram and such platforms that require little to no thought, but demand instant response and mindless reaction? Continue reading “Does poetry make things happen in 2018?”
At the Corporate & Community Services standing committee meeting this week, the committee discussed the Art on the Street festival, its operation and management to be taken over by the BIA. That’s probably a good thing because any affinity to culture and cultural events at the council table evaporated early this term. A cup of yogurt has more culture in it than The Block has. The whole ‘cultural economy’ thing and all the benefits that cultural tourism can bring has simply flown away this term.*
That report led to a discussion of a local Word on the Street festival, a “national celebration of literacy and the written word.” Apparently there is a move afoot to bring it back (it’s held in September, so I suppose that won’t be until fall 2018). Councillor Kevin Lloyd semi-jokingly suggested that council entertain regular poetry readings at the start of each council meeting to help publicize the event. There was an uncomfortable silence at the committee table (The Block not being able to easily recognize irony or sarcasm).
The stolid faces of The Block collective were shaken by his (somewhat sarcastic) suggestion. The idea that they might have to sit, in stony Politburo-like silence while someone read a poem clearly unnerved them. Even Sleepy Councillor Ecclestone tossed and turned in his sleep, in the grips of a bad dream where words and phrases were dancing around him with menace and malice.
How were they supposed to respond to poetry? Would they make the usual banal “gee that was swell” comments they toss out like candy to staff for run-of-the-mill reports? Or – a frightening thought – would they be expected to comment intelligently and coherently on the nature of the poem, its symbolism, its rhyming scheme, its use of metaphor, how it compared with the work of other poets? That would take The Block far from the safety of their comfort zone over the deep intellectual ocean, a place they had never ventured to.
When The Block plumb the depths of their collective intellect, they don’t need a ruler, much less a measuring tape to measure down to their seabed. Their ship of state is already stranded on its shallow reefs. Keep in mind that their greatest collective intellectual achievement this term is a bylaw that prohibits residents from throwing birdseed on their driveway. To expect them to do anything intelligent with culture – you’re better off wishing for something more achievable. Like world peace. Or the overnight reversal of climate change. Or the Rapture.