10/29/14

Larry & Jerry’s Inferno


InfernoI had forgotten about this book until recently when I came across a reprint. I read it originally in the late 1970s when I was reading a lot more sci-fi than I do today. (Many years ago, I ran a Toronto computer convention where I invited the authors to be the keynote speakers. I got to spend many hours and a memorable dinner with them.) I finished the reprint only a few days ago and started the sequel, Escape From Hell, shortly after.

I was researching Dante of late for something I’ve been slogging at for the past couple of years, when I came across the novel again. I’m always looking for something to sharpen my understanding of Dante, and sometimes a perspective like this can help.

Dante’s Inferno, the first of the Divine Comedy trilogy, has always fascinated me for its complex subject matter; its politics, theology, human drama and vision. I have numerous translations of it on my bookshelves. Some I keep just for the introduction and notes – the poetry is almost unintelligible without a guide (which is amusing; you need a second Virgil to guide you through Dante’s references and make sense of them in modern terms).

Dante is tough, but not for his words. Those are easy to read, but the poems are full of historical and literary references that make little sense to the average (non-academic) modern reader. Some of those references were contemporary to Dante, others are classical. Archaic politics have little resonance today.

He also had a rather ornate, medieval theology that furnished his view of Hell (apparently influenced by the writings of Thomas Aquinas (who I have not read but may some day tackle the 3,500-page Summa Theologica if i can work up the nerve). Without having some background knowledge or at least an edition with good notes, the words themselves often don’t tell you as much as you need to know.

Pinsky’s version was my favourite, although Kirkpatrick’s translation made it a close second last year. I recently started reading Mary Jo Bang’s colloquial version and it so far intrigues me, although it seems to have annoyed some critics for her modern (and not literate) interpretations. I also have the Ciardi, Wordsworth and Musa translations. Musa’s notes are worth the book alone.

Since its first translation into English, in 1782, the Inferno has been the subject of much literary discussion and the merits of each translation heavily debated. Ciardi’s version seems to have garnered the most accolades before Pinsky. I am somewhat iffy about versions that attempt to replicate Dante’s three-line rhyming scheme – it can seem rather strained – and tend to like blank verse versions better.

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10/16/14

Cold Mountain Poems


Han Shan and Shih TeI first became aware of the Tang dynasty poet, Han Shan, in the late 1960s, when I was engrossed in reading the poets of the earlier Beat generation. It was at that time that, through them, I started to discover and explore Western Buddhism – as it was adapted and represented through their experiences and words. I eagerly read everything by Alan Watts and Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsburg and others from the era.

Sometime around then, I discovered a few of Han Shan’s poems. Beat poet Gary Snyder had translated 24 poems for the Evergreen Review in 1958, and later included them with a collection of his own poems in his 1959 book, Rip Rap and Cold Mountain Poems. My copy of that book, in its 1966 reprint, has long since vanished from my shelves. But I remember the effect they had on me: their austere simplicity, their sincerity, their unfeigned naturalness.

I found Snyder through Kerouac’s portrayal of him in his novel, The Dharma Bums (which I also still have on my shelves). Around the same time I discovered haiku, Kenneth Rexroth’s translations, and translations of other T’ang poets: Li Po, Wang Wei and Tu Fu in particular… books which I still have. Snyder’s translations were crisp, clear and poignant.

Han Shan means “Cold Mountain” in Chinese. It’s not simply a place: in the poetry it’s a metaphor for both a state of being and a spiritual destination. The reader is not simply looking at a person: he or she is looking at a mirror: Han Shan is telling us to look within. The poems are important in the literature of Ch’an Buddhism, which later migrated to become Zen in Japan.

Clambering up the Cold Mountain path,
The Cold Mountain trail goes on and on:
The long gorge choked with scree and boulders,
The wide creek, the mist-blurred grass.
The moss is slippery, though there’s been no rain
The pine sings, but there’s no wind.
Who can leap the world’s ties
And sit with me among the white clouds?
translated by Gary Snyder.*

His original name has been lost in the ages between us. He has been dated to a wide range of years in the T’ang dynasty, between about 577 and 901 CE. He has also been identified as different individuals during that period, as well as a collective of poets. He travelled and wrote with a companion, Shih-te, although some authorities suggest they were the same person. No one knows for sure. All we know is that he wrote his poems on rocks (and maybe on bamboo and the wood or the walls of houses).

His only contemporary biographer, Lu Ch’iu-yin, Governor of T’ai Prefecture, wrote this of Han Shan:

He looked like a tramp. His body and face were old and beat. Yet in every word he breathed was a meaning in line with the subtle principles of things, if only you thought of it deeply. Everything he said had a feeling of Tao in it, profound and arcane secrets. His hat was made of birch bark, his clothes were ragged and worn out, and his shoes were wood. Thus men who have made it hide their tracks: unifying categories and interpenetrating things. On that long veranda calling and singing, in his words of reply Ha Ha! – the three worlds revolve. Sometimes at the villages and farms he laughed and sang with cowherds. Sometimes intractable, sometimes agreeable, his nature was happy of itself. But how could a person without wisdom recognize him?

You can read other biographical accounts online, including this one at Hermitary.

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06/11/14

The Hunting of the Snark


Hunting of the SnarkI’ve always wondered why Lewis Carroll’s wonderful poem, The Hunting of the Snark – an Agony in Eight Fits – has never been redone, rewritten in a modern version, with modern references and people. It seems to lend itself to revision, at least to my eyes.

Perhaps it’s because this sort of whimsical, satirical poem is not popular these days (it was written between 1874 and 76, a decade after Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and three decades after Edward Lear’s Book of Nonsense).

Perhaps it’s because it’s a long poem, and reworking it all would be a considerable effort. After all, it’s roughly 4,400 words and you need to make it both scan and rhyme.

Perhaps it’s because of the language: a combination of formal and nonsense writing. Wikipedia reminds us Carroll borrowed from himself with eight portmanteau words he coined earlier:

Eight nonsense words from “Jabberwocky” appear in The Hunting of the Snark: bandersnatch, beamish, frumious, galumphing, jubjub, mimsiest (which previously appeared as mimsy in “Jabberwocky”), outgrabe and uffish.

The Jabberwocky, from Through The Looking Glass, was equally brilliant, perhaps more so because of its brevity. Who can forget those wildly imaginative immortal opening lines:

’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

Perhaps it’s because Carroll was just too brilliant to imitate that these works have not been widely imitated or mimicked. Who, today, could out-Carroll Lewis Carroll with similar language and fancy?

Snark has been replicated in various – sometimes odd – ways, such as Mike Batt’s 1986 concept album, released as a musical on DVD in 2010. But these are tributes, not reinventions.

And what did Carroll himself mean by the poem? Is it just entertaining nonsense, or was it an allegory? Late in his life, Carroll “agreed with one interpretation of the poem as an allegory for the search for happiness.” Others have suggested it was:

  • an allegory for tuberculosis,
  • a mockery of the Tichborne case,
  • a satire of the controversies between religion and science,
  • the repression of Carroll’s sexuality, and
  • a piece against vivisection
  • a “voyage of life”,
  • “a tragedy of frustration and bafflement,”
  • Carroll’s comic rendition of his fears of disorder and chaos
  • comedy serving as a psychological defense against the devastating idea of personal annihilation,
  • “attempts to create a sense of order and meaning out of chaos.”
  • dealing with existential angst
  • Carroll’s satire of himself.

So it’s pretty much open to interpretation. Reads always have to answer for themselves what or who the Snark represents – and what a Boojum really is.

Hunting of The Snark
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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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07/12/13

Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde


Troilus and CressidaAfter reading the play by Shakespeare last week, I decided to tackle Chaucer’s epic 8,000-line poem about the Trojan lovers, Troilus and Cressida (or Criseyde as Chaucer writes it). It’s a long, somewhat meandering piece that begins, in the Online Medieval Classical Library version:

The double sorwe of Troilus to tellen,
That was the king Priamus sone of Troye,
In lovinge, how his aventures fellen
Fro wo to wele, and after out of Ioye,
My purpos is, er that I parte fro ye.
Thesiphone, thou help me for tendyte
Thise woful vers, that wepen as I wryte!

To thee clepe I, thou goddesse of torment,
Thou cruel Furie, sorwing ever in peyne;
Help me, that am the sorwful instrument
That helpeth lovers, as I can, to pleyne!
For wel sit it, the sothe for to seyne,
A woful wight to han a drery fere,
And, to a sorwful tale, a sory chere.

Okay, that’s the Middle English original. Not everyone’s cup of tea. But don’t give up yet. Read it aloud. Slowly. Pronounce each vowel as you would in Spanish or Italian. Sorwe becomes sor-weh. Parte is par-teh. You will at least hear, and perhaps feel, the rhythm in his words, the rhyming scheme.

You can hear how Chaucer would have pronounced his words on the Harvard Chaucer site. Or listen to parts of or the entire poem at Librivox.

You can also take several online courses in Chaucer that will help teach his language and style, like this one at Harvard U. The site also offers a handy interlinear translation of several fragments (although not complete poems) where the Middle English line is followed by a modern version. I have a paperback edition of the Canterbury Tales like that and it’s very helpful and quite readable.

Here’s the same two initial verses translated by Kline:

Troilus’s double sorrow for to tell,
he that was son of Priam King of Troy,
and how, in loving, his adventures fell
from grief to good, and after out of joy,
my purpose is, before I make envoy.
Tisiphone, do you help me, so I might
pen these sad lines, that weep now as I write.

I call on you, goddess who does torment,
you cruel Fury, sorrowing ever in pain:
help me, who am the sorrowful instrument
who (as I can) help lovers to complain.
Since it is fitting, and truth I maintain,
for a dreary mate a woeful soul to grace,
and for a sorrowful tale a sorry face.

Somewhat easier to understand, don’t you think? Continue reading