Musings on Poets and Poetry

Best PoemsFor me, reading the American literary critic, Harold Bloom, is often like wading in molasses. Intellectual molasses, to be sure, but slow going nonetheless. His writing is thick with difficult ideas and difficult words. Bloom’s historical reach, his knowledge and his understanding of the tapestry of literature far outstrip mine, so I find myself scuttling to the Net or other books on my shelf for collateral references, for critical commentary, and often to the dictionary.

Bloom’s commentaries and essays are a challenge to me because his terms of reference are so much greater than my own. Hence my appreciation of them: he makes me work, and work hard to keep apace with his quick mind. Well, perhaps not apace, more like a few kilometers back, but at least following more or less in his tracks.

Shakespeare: The Invention of the HumanI first encountered Bloom’s writing several years ago through his 1995 book, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, in which he argues that the Bard “invented human attributes that we think are very much our own inventions” as well as creating our language in which to talk about ourselves. Bloom goes through each of the plays, exploring and explaining them to make his point. It’s a brilliant analysis that ranges through not only Shakespeare’s works, but other parts of the “Western canon” to underscore his ideas. I often turn to Bloom’s essay on a play before I read it to get perspective and milestones to look for within Shakespeare’s words. 

A couple of years ago, I ordered his book, The Best Poems of the English Language, an anthology of poets from Chaucer to Frost. When it came, I stayed up into the wee hours reading it, then looking through my other anthologies to compare their selection of poets and poems. I was looking through it again recently as I was downsizing my library.

I have a lot of books of poetry, and most I intend to keep despite the pressure to relieve the congestion on my bookshelves. Yes, I still read poetry, perhaps not as much as I did in those younger years when I fancied I could write it, too (back in the Paleolithic of my late teens and early 20s). But I am as easily moved by poetry as I ever was, and also find it as baffling, inexplicable, contentious, beautiful, tasteless, passionate, tedious, exciting, and relevant as I ever did. However, I freely admit that what poems moved me in the past may not do so today, or at least not in the same way. I now appreciate poets who in my past I either never knew, or found leaden and incomprehensible, and wonder at my immaturity for liking those I did way back when.*

While the scope of his “Best Poems” covers an enormous, almost unwieldy, number of poets, Bloom decided to stop at those born before 1900 (to his credit, Bloom does not limit his selection to only English poets, but includes several American poets he exalts, too, but, inexcusably, he includes no Canadian poets). Although this still includes many 20th-century poets, it also means some of the century’s greatest modern poets, and some of those I consider among the best poets in the language, are missing from his collection simply for their misfortune of being born after 1899. Yes, that’s right” no Dylan Thomas!

So for me, the term “the best poems” is a marketing term; hyperbolic at best, inaccurate at worst. 

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I Struggle With Milton

Blake's vision of Milton
Confession time: I find a lot of epic or narrative poetry a slog. Milton, Homer, Dante… I have read my way into them all, but unlike my other books, I never get very far in any of them at each reading, although I make the effort and do so often. I don’t even enjoy reading Shakespeare’s two long poems, Venus and Adonis, and The Rape of Lucrece, and I read everything else by the bard with great relish. 

It’s odd because I love reading Chaucer’s poetry, even his longer pieces. I delight in Shakespeare’s sonnets. I have dozens of collections of works by poets like Auden, Yeats, Frost, Pound, Stevens, Lorca, Cummings, Eliot, Cohen, Dickinson, Horace, Rumi, Catullus, Li Po, Williams, Ginsburg, and many, many others. I have read the Gilgamesh and Beowulf epics in poetic form, both several times in different translations and enjoyed them. I have translations of poets from around the world. I have limericks and numerous books filled with Don Marquis’ Archy and Mehitabel poems. I read the poems in the Tanakh and in the 1,001 Arabian Nights. I read the blank verse in Shakespeare’s plays, especially his great soliloquies.

And I enjoy reading them all.

So it’s not the poetic form that stymies me: I like poetry in almost all of its styles and forms. And it’s not the reading: I consume books, reading hundreds of pages a day spread across a half-dozen or more books most days. But when I pick up Milton, as I am doing these days, I find I read like I’m wading through molasses.

Nor is it the author. I find in Milton great lines, masterful language, powerful emotions. I marvel at his skill and his vocabulary. The story he tells is rich and complex, with well-imagined and deep characters. Yet when I pick him up, time moves at a slower speed. Ditto with Homer and Dante.

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Reading Catullus

With the extra time to read on my hands these days, I’ve been dipping again into the poems of Gaius Valerius Catullus, Roman poet around the time of Julius Caesar. I’ve written in the past about reading Horace, a somewhat later Roman poet whom I greatly admire. I like to pick up a translation of Horace’s Odes or Epodes and read a few lines, maybe a whole poem, every now and then. Horace can be quite insightful and inspirational. Not so much Catullus for me. He’s entertaining in so many different ways. If Horace is a letter to the editor or an op-ed opinion, then Catullus is, for the most part, the editorial cartoon.

That may be a trifle unfair. What we have left of Catullus’s work is a collection of a mere 116 poems, although my translations leave out numbers 18, 19, and 20 as falsely attributed (there is some scholarly debate around them, especially 18). Most are short; some are love poems to his anonymous lover Lesbia (identified later as Clodia Metelli, a bit like Shakespeare’s Dark Lady of his sonnets), some are comments about or to other Romans, or on current events, some are scatological, some satirical, others obscene (or obscenely funny depending on your sense of humour). And a few are long, deep, and complex (like the elegaic Poem 64).

Obscene? you ask. Well, yes — by the uptight moral standards of suburban-consumerist-WASPish North American culture and that of the 19th century British school curriculum where he as required reading in Latin classes. Not by Roman standards – they were far more relaxed and open about many aspects of sex and sexuality, including homosexuality, in Catullus’ time. It’s one of the reasons Augustus tried (mostly unsuccessfully) to impose a straight-laced moral code, laws and all, on his own Roman culture. Even his own daughter failed to live up to his ideals and ended up being exiled for her wanton ways. But I digress.

Earlier translators of some of his poems tried to water down, bowdlerize, or even exclude the dirty bits. Others tried to mold his words to more sensual or erotic (and less explicit) forms. Even today some translators struggle with verbs like irrumare and try to soften them.  Me, I suppose I’ve come to the age when little in the classical world shocks me — that effect is reserved for the stupidity, selfishness, and corruption of today’s world (especially in the USA). Catullus’ frankness I find amusing.

Seen in the light of our online, easy-access-pornography culture,  I suspect Catullus’ words have less opportunity (or ability) to shock and titillate today. Many recent translations grapple to find a modern, yet linguistically accurate way to express Catullus’ sexual and scatological imagery, varying between euphemism and metaphor to outright obscenity. But Catallus, too, wrote in metaphors that one needs a critical guide to fully understand (I’m also reading Charles Martin’s Catullus, Hermes Books, Yale University, 1992, which offers an academic analysis of the works).

Perhaps the thing that strikes me most in his work— and in reading any of the classical authors — is that it shows how little human behaviour, reaction, passions, and emotions have changed in the intervening millennia. Catullus is at times horny, lustful, angry, lovesick, sad, blustering, thoughtful, friendly, and snobbish. He’s so very human in his writing, and in that he’s much like Horace.

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The Sounds of Winter

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.

Relevant poetry

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

Allen GinsbergEven 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.

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Found in translation

Into EnglishLanguage 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.

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Does poetry make things happen in 2018?

WB Yeats on poetryI 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?
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Albert and the Lion

There’s a famous seaside place called Blackpool,
That’s noted for fresh-air and fun,
And Mr and Mrs Ramsbottom
Went there with young Albert, their son.

A grand little lad was their Albert
All dressed in his best; quite a swell
‘E’d a stick with an ‘orse’s ‘ead ‘andle
The finest that Woolworth’s could sell.

Albert 'Arold and Others
So begins the poem, The Lion and Albert, written by Marriott Edgar. I first read it in the book pictured on the right: a book that accompanied a collection of 78 rpm records in which Stanley Holloway read the poems (click to see a larger image).

I was perhaps nine or ten years old when I first found them in the family collection of 78s, along with the book of 12 poems and their drawings. We had an old, hand-cranked 78 record player in the basement and I used to go there and crank it up and listen to the scratchy old records. I loved them.

I loved the process of having to wind it, to set the heavy head on the platter and release the catch to get it spinning. I recall we also had an electric one – trec chic – in the basement where it had been exiled to, along with other odds and sods from my grandparents, like an old tube radio that was almost as tall as I was and had a half-dozen knobs on the front. In those days, I could still walk to the corner store and buy replacement tubes for it with my weekly allowance

Holloway at that time wasn’t known to me from any other performance. He wouldn’t appear in the film My Fair Lady until 1964. But I delighted in his voice and from him I learned a bit about British vaudeville, burlesque and even about the era of the Pearly Kings and Queens.

I used to parade around in my basement, swaggering, shouting out the words of the poems and monologues that I soon memorized. “With ‘er ‘ead tucked underneath ‘er arm…” about Anne Boleyn was one of my favourites. “Sam, Sam, pick oop tha musket Sam…” was another.

That was then. Somehow, over the years, I lost track of the book, forgot the sounds and the words. We moved from the house to a smaller apartment in 1962, and the old 78s and its player vanished, probably tossed away or given to neighbours. As I reached my teenhood, other fancies and interests took hold. I didn’t even think about them until many decades later.

When my parents died, I ended up with some of their belongings. Among them was a thin, battered, old book: the “libretto” for those Stanley Holloway records. A book I had read and reread many times in my childhood. Taped and retaped, it has been in someone’s closet or drawer probably every since I last looked at it. It’s the same one you see here, in the scan of the cover. It was published in the 1930s and was my father’s. He brought it to Canada, likely when he emigrated from England, in 1949. It’s one of the few things I have left of him.
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Auden, Trump and poetry

W. H. AudenThere’s a poem by W. H. Auden (1907-73) going the internet rounds these days with suggestions of Auden’s prescience towards the latest American president and contemporary politics. It’s a powerful piece, but the bad news for conspiracy theorists is that Auden was a poet, not a prophet. A good poet, even a great poet, mind you, but not one to predict much of anything outside the local reaches of the human heart.

Yes, yes, I know: it’s unusual, perhaps bordering on blasphemy, to put poetry in the same headline as the notorious philistine, but worlds do collide at times, even if awkwardly. Lipstick sometimes becomes conflated with the metaphorical pig, guilty by association.

The poem in question – Sept. 1, 1939 – opens like it could have been written by a somewhat later Charles Bukowski:

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.

Waves of anger and fear/ Circulate over the bright/ And darkened lands of the earth… sure sounds like it might have been written with the vast protests that followed Trump’s inauguration: more three times as many people came out to protest in Washington alone than showed up at his inauguration, and that doesn’t include the numbers who marched worldwide. Waves of anger and fear, indeed. But it wasn’t an augury.

September 1, 1939 would have been for Auden’s era and generation a landmark date, like Nov. 22, 1963 was for my time. Maybe January 20, 2017 will be for the current generation. One of those where-were-you-when dates frozen in the neuronic amber of memory. The place, the sounds, the grubby details of that day forever etched in our brains. Auden’s 52nd Street dive. The panzers tearing across Polish farmlands. People running through the crowded streets of Dallas after the shot. The bleak day when Trump raised his hand to be sworn in. Where you you when…?

The date must have been doubly important for Auden, because earlier that year he had left England for America, where he remained the rest of his life. When war was declared, he offered to return home to serve, but was politely rebuffed. At age 32, he wasn’t needed. He stayed in America from then on – making it somewhat difficult to identify him as a strictly English or American poet in anthologies. So the poem is, in a way, a goodbye to a life he left behind.

Auden had increasingly deep political beliefs that sometimes peer through his writing and show their complexity growing with age and wisdom. He spent a year living in Berlin in 1928, and would return to the city several times before WWII broke out. He watched the rise of fascism, anti-semitism. He loved Berlin, but hated what it became under the Nazis.
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