James Wright’s hammock with chicken hawk

I’ve not had time to post for quite a while, such have been the pressures of work. But just now I read the always stimulating Rohan Maitzen‘s post about what she’d doing in her classes, and I felt inspired to emulate her in my own way, by noting here what has roused my interest in my own teaching this week.

I came across the poetry of James Wright, and this poem; the links take you to the Poetry Foundation site, which has useful biographical/background information, and the text of this and other works by him.

Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota By James Wright (1927-80); CGI reading of it here

Over my head, I see the bronze butterfly,   

Asleep on the black trunk,

Blowing like a leaf in green shadow.   

Down the ravine behind the empty house,   

The cowbells follow one another   

Into the distances of the afternoon.   

To my right,

In a field of sunlight between two pines,   

The droppings of last year’s horses   

Blaze up into golden stones.

I lean back, as the evening darkens and comes on.   

A chicken hawk floats over, looking for home.

I have wasted my life.

[from Above the River: The Complete Poems and Selected Prose (1990); first published in The Paris Review, 1961; see this article about it there from 2015 by Dan Piepenbring]

He focuses, as surely most of us do when we first experience the shock, on that extraordinary last line, that explodes everything that’s gone before; is a lament, a joke, a kind of boast, or ‘a religious statement’ (Wright’s own view) he wonders? He provides useful links to other speculations about and interpretations of it. I’m still not sure what I make of it.

He also provides links to a piece about it by David Mitchell at the Atlantic, a provocative article on ‘the popular disdain for poems’ by Ben Lerner, and a list of other critical responses at Modern American Poetry’s site. Well worth exploring. He also considers some of those responses, including those of Robert Bly and Thom Gunn.

I notice, as I try to process that final line and how it arises out of the previous ones, how he makes interesting use of the definite article for most of the concrete nouns he itemises in his sweep of his gaze around the view from the hammock: ‘THE bronze butterfly’, ‘THE black trunk’, and so on.

But it’s ‘A chicken hawk’ (whatever that is; we don’t have them in Cornwall. We do have buzzards, so I’ll picture it like that.) Why so unspecific about this one raptor? And why is it looking for home (its own, or any old home? Is it lost? Is that what provokes that apparent non sequitur of a closing line?)

Odd, too, how it’s the cow BELLS that ‘follow one another’, not the cows…Bovine synecdoche (a rhetorical term that came up in today’s class on Hard Times – ‘the Hands’).

All the best writing raises more questions of this kind than it answers. And that goes for that enigmatic, explosive last line. Most of us, I’d have thought, would find the curious, engaged sweep of gaze across this rural scene very much the most rewarding kind of spending one’s life – far less wasteful than commuting through dank January streets to work.

Maybe that’s one aspect of its startling impact; if he thinks he’s wasted his life by observing the life around him from that relaxing hammock, what does that make mine (i.e. my life) worth?

You might like to try ‘Outside Fargo, North Dakota’ (1968), or other links at Poetry Foundation site, source of most of these materials.

Finally, I recommend Rohan Maitzen’s site,  the one I mentioned at the start, ‘Novel Readings‘, where she regularly includes a ‘This week in my classes’ item. There’s also plenty of other intelligent, thoughtful material on all things literary and academic.

Just looked up Chicken Hawk at Wikimedia Commons. Here it is:

By Maynard, Lucy (Warner), 1852-1936. [from old catalog] – from Birds of Washington and vicinity, 1902 (& Library of Congress). Seems it’s the popular name for several kinds of raptor, including Sharp-shinned and Cooper’s hawks. Sharp-shinned?

 

Now back to Dickens.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wordsworth steals a boat

I’m still finding little time for my own reading as I work on the Romantics. So I thought I’d share here a piece I’ve adapted from something I’ve been preparing for my students to work on:

Wordsworth: The Prelude. The childhood boat-stealing scene

A central theme in Wordsworth’s epic blank verse ‘autobiography’ or history of the development of the poet’s mind, The Prelude, is that our identity and character are shaped by what he called “spots of time”. These significantly punctuate our lives, providing a “renovating virtue” by which “our minds / Are nourished and invisibly repaired.” They usually occur in the poem as an epiphany experienced arising from an incident or sight in the natural world.

One famous instance is the boat-stealing episode in Book I, ll. 372-441 from the 1805 edition (the first, 1799, and the third, 1850, are slightly different. Text from the Poetry Foundation

   One evening (surely I was led by her) [ie Nature]

I went alone into a Shepherd’s Boat,

A Skiff that to a Willow tree was tied

Within a rocky Cave, its usual home.                                   375

‘Twas by the shores of Patterdale, a Vale

Wherein I was a Stranger, thither come

A School-boy Traveller, at the Holidays.

Forth rambled from the Village Inn alone

No sooner had I sight of this small Skiff,               380

Discover’d thus by unexpected chance,

Than I unloos’d her tether and embark’d.

The moon was up, the Lake was shining clear

Among the hoary mountains; from the Shore

I push’d, and struck the oars and struck again      385

In cadence, and my little Boat mov’d on

Even like a Man who walks with stately step

Though bent on speed. It was an act of stealth

And troubled pleasure; not without the voice

Of mountain-echoes did my Boat move on,                       390

Leaving behind her still on either side

Small circles glittering idly in the moon,

Until they melted all into one track

Of sparkling light. A rocky Steep uprose

Above the Cavern of the Willow tree                                   395

And now, as suited one who proudly row’d

With his best skill, I fix’d a steady view

Upon the top of that same craggy ridge,

The bound of the horizon, for behind

Was nothing but the stars and the grey sky.                      400

She was an elfin Pinnace; lustily

I dipp’d my oars into the silent Lake,

And, as I rose upon the stroke, my Boat

Went heaving through the water, like a Swan;

When from behind that craggy Steep, till then      405

The bound of the horizon, a huge Cliff,

As if with voluntary power instinct,

Uprear’d its head. I struck, and struck again

And, growing still in stature, the huge Cliff

Rose up between me and the stars, and still,                  410

With measur’d motion, like a living thing,

Strode after me. With trembling hands I turn’d,

And through the silent water stole my way

Back to the Cavern of the Willow tree.

There, in her mooring-place, I left my Bark,                       415

And, through the meadows homeward went, with grave

And serious thoughts; and after I had seen

That spectacle, for many days, my brain

Work’d with a dim and undetermin’d sense

Of unknown modes of being; in my thoughts        420

There was a darkness, call it solitude,

Or blank desertion, no familiar shapes

Of hourly objects, images of trees,

Of sea or sky, no colours of green fields;

But huge and mighty Forms that do not live                      425

Like living men mov’d slowly through the mind

By day and were the trouble of my dreams.

 

Wisdom and Spirit of the universe!

Thou Soul that art the eternity of thought!

That giv’st to forms and images a breath               430

And everlasting motion! not in vain,

By day or star-light thus from my first dawn

Of Childhood didst Thou intertwine for me

The passions that build up our human Soul,

Not with the mean and vulgar works of Man,        435

But with high objects, with enduring things,

With life and nature, purifying thus

The elements of feeling and of thought,

And sanctifying, by such discipline,

Both pain and fear, until we recognize                   440

A grandeur in the beatings of the heart.

The location for this incident is usually identified as Black Crag, west of Ullswater in the English Lake District, Cumbria, which would have been seen behind the nearer ridge, Stybarrow Crag; the ‘huge cliff’ as Glenridding Dod; Mary R. Wedd suggests an alternative site near Blowick; the ‘huge cliff’ would be Place Fell (The Wordsworth Critic, 11 [1980]: 248). 

Stybarrow Crag

Watercolour of Stybarrow Crag by James Barrett (fl. 1785-1819), from the Wordsworth Trust online collection. Their blog at the same site is highly recommended: plenty of useful essays on Romanticism in general, and Wordsworth and his circle in particular.

Rudimentary analysis of this extract at this site.  This site has  an analysis of the extract and a handy pen drawing of the topography of the scene.

The BL site has an interesting illustrated piece on a text by T. H. Fielding and J. Walton, who spent two years in the Lake District making drawings and collecting information and ‘extracts from admired poets’ to produce their magnificent A Picturesque Tour of the English Lakes, Containing a Description of the Most Romantic Scenery of Cumberland, Westmoreland, and Lancashire…(London, 1821). The text and beautiful design and illustrations indicate that this was a book for dedicated tourists wanting to plan informed tours of the area. The book contains forty-eight hand-coloured aquatints made from the original drawings by Fielding and Walton. There are several references to Wordsworth and locations referred to in his poetry, including this boating scene.

 

 

Byron, Don Juan and Spenser

Lord Byron, Don Juan: CANTO THE SEVENTH

[Juan has been enslaved by the Turks, who are about to be attacked at Ismail (now Izmail, Ukraine; it’s changed hands many times since then) by their enemies, the Russians under Tsarina Catherine the Great – who will shortly become the latest in Juan’s long sequence of erotic conquests, to match those of the armies depicted in Cantos VII and VIII.]

 Stanza 2
And such as they are, such my present tale is,
A non-descript and ever-varying rhyme,
A versified Aurora Borealis,
Which flashes o’er a waste and icy clime.
When we know what all are, we must bewail us,
But ne’ertheless I hope it is no crime
To laugh at all things — for I wish to know
What, after all, are all things — but a show?

[The narrator continues with his default tone of detached and ironic despair at human folly and hypocrisy, assuming an air of something between ennui and resignation. He goes on to reserve the right to carry on attacking such hypocrites in life’s ‘show’, citing a list of previous critics of such vices in high places]

3
They accuse me — Me — the present writer of
The present poem — of — I know not what —
A tendency to under-rate and scoff
At human power and virtue, and all that;
And this they say in language rather rough.
Good God! I wonder what they would be at!
I say no more than hath been said in Danté’s
Verse, and by Solomon and by Cervantes;

6

Ecclesiastes said, “that all is vanity” —
Most modern preachers say the same, or show it
By their examples of true Christianity:
In short, all know, or very soon may know it;
And in this scene of all-confess’d inanity,
By saint, by sage, by preacher, and by poet,
Must I restrain me, through the fear of strife,
From holding up the nothingness of life?

8
“Fierce loves and faithless wars” — I am not sure
If this be the right reading — ‘t is no matter;
The fact’s about the same, I am secure;
I sing them both, and am about to batter
A town which did a famous siege endure,
And was beleaguer’d both by land and water
By Souvaroff, or Anglicè Suwarrow,
Who loved blood as an alderman loves marrow.

The quotation so disingenuously travestied is one of the best jokes in the poem. It’s a deliberate reversal (with an ingenious substitution of ‘faithless’ for ‘faithful’ in the original) of a famous line in the Introductory stanzas of Spenser’s epic romance, The Faerie Queene, published 1590, to which Byron is heavily indebted in DJ, and which he admired immensely:

Book 1 of The Faerie Queene, by Edmund Spenser (text at Luminarium)

LO I the man, whose Muse whilome did maske,
As time her taught, in lowly Shepheards weeds,
Am now enforst a far vnfitter taske,
For trumpets sterne to chaunge mine Oaten reeds,
And sing of Knights and Ladies gentle deeds;
Whose prayses hauing slept in silence long,
Me, all too meane, the sacred Muse areeds
To blazon broad emongst her learned throng:
Fierce warres and faithfull loues shall moralize my song.

Byron memorial

Memorial to Byron in Messolonghi, where he died campaigning against the Turks for Greek independence. Image via Wikimedia Commons: By Fingalo – Own work, CC BY-SA 2.0 de,

Byron’s willed misquotation forces readers to reconsider Spenser’s traditional representation of wars as ‘fierce’ and love as ‘faithful’; it is, he implies, politically motivated wars (like the Russo-Turkish one here) that are ‘faithless’ – by which he suggests they are contrived for motives less than noble or intended for the defence or otherwise of the people on whose behalf it is waged. On the contrary, it’s the ordinary people who suffer or die as a consequence of wars (Turkish civilian losses were huge in this siege; Russian tactics fell little short of slaughter of the civilian population). The politicians and monarchs who started the wars benefit and remain amorally, contemptuously aloof. To challenge this traditional view (and Spenser’s) they would argue is treacherous and unpatriotic – even blasphemous. It also serves to heighten Byron’s conviction that DJ was a highly moral poem, and that the objections to its eroticism and outspokenness were misguided, and evidence of the very hypocrisy and lack of vision that his poem satirises. By subverting Spenser’s conventional stanza, Byron ‘moralises’ his epic with acerbic, daring panache.

By the way, note the way Spenser adopts the traditional-classic pose of apologising for the weakness of his ‘wit’, his lack of skill as a poet, and general unworthiness to write – hence the conventional opening appeal to the Muses for inspiration. Byron does no such thing — on the contrary. He usually shows little interest in belittling his own capacity as a poet; where he does, as in the opening stanzas above, it’s to make light of it as being preferable to write colloquially, pointedly and racily than to ‘poeticise’ like the vapid, pompous ‘Lakers’ and their like.

The litany of writers’ names he invokes establishes his purpose as a wit (in the Augustan sense of his heroes, Pope and Johnson), moralist and satirist (like Swift, not averse to coarseness or crudity in exposing and ridiculing the faults of hypocrites and fools), not an aesthete or introspective, philosophising recluse like Wordsworth, Coleridge or the detested Southey.

 

 

It may be profligate, but is it not life? Byron, Don Juan

Byron, Don Juan (1819-24): Annotated online text Here

Byron claims from the outset he’s writing an epic, but knows he’s generically more in line with burlesque, low Italian ottava rima dramas, juxtaposing cod-serious, highbrow and lofty thoughts with very low and colloquial idioms in scenes that are usually bawdy, violent or both. Despite his disingenuous claims at times, most of the poem is definitively not the ‘high art’ of countless European renditions of the famous story of the libertine’s rakish life and terrible hellish fate. Although Mozart is named (Canto IX.47) in passing, he shows little detailed knowledge of his opera – or of Gluck’s ballet or Molière’s play. Such popular fare suited B’s own tastes and temperament better.

He wrote: ‘…it may be bawdy – but is it not good English? it may be profligate – but is it not life, and is it not the thing? Could any man have written it – who has not lived in the world?’ (letter to his friend, Douglas Kinnaird, 1819).

Cantos 1 and 2 were the first to be published in 1819 (author and publisher’s identity were prudently omitted). He begins by describing Juan’s apparently virtuous, studious mother, Donna Inez, but artfully prepares us for the bathetic revelation that she’s adulterous and scheming – typical of the English ‘cant’ and hypocrisy the satire of the poem is targeting. So here he is, ironically feigning to consider marriages such as hers in which (as he knew from bitter experience) the partners are not entirely well suited:

Canto 1, Stanza 22

‘T is pity learnéd virgins ever wed
With persons of no sort of education,
Or gentlemen, who, though well born and bred,
Grow tired of scientific conversation:
I don’t choose to say much upon this head,
I’m a plain man, and in a single station,
But — Oh! ye lords of ladies intellectual,
Inform us truly, have they not hen-peck’d you all?

One of the most famously ingenious sequences of rhyme in the poem. Throughout the poem Byron slips away from ‘poetic’ style (though he’s capable of poeticising with the best of them) into this highly colloquial, often racy and outrageous voice and persona, with cynical, satirical views on almost every conventional attitude and belief of the time, usually, as here, affecting a tone of false modesty and ignorance, while exposing the underlying hypocrisy of his countrymen. Though it was technically true, as he claims here, that he was ‘single’ – he and his wife had separated when this was written, and he’d found it necessary to leave England – he creates an image of a narrator who’s similar to himself, but who has several traits he knew to be fictitious but plausible – he loved to play on his rakish, ‘mad, bad, dangerous’ reputation:

23

Don Jóse and his lady quarrell’d —  why,
Not any of the many could divine,
Though several thousand people chose to try,
‘T was surely no concern of theirs nor mine;
I loathe that low vice — curiosity;
But if there’s anything in which I shine,
‘T is in arranging all my friends’ affairs,
Not having of my own domestic cares…

38 [He’s speaking of Donna Inez, DJ’s mother]

Sagest of women, even of widows, she
Resolved that Juan should be quite a paragon,
And worthy of the noblest pedigree
(His sire was of Castile, his dam from Aragon):
Then for accomplishments of chivalry,
In case our lord the king should go to war again,
He learn’d the arts of riding, fencing, gunnery,
And how to scale a fortress — or a nunnery.

Lord Byron in Albanian dress

Byron in Albanian dress, painted by Thomas Phillips in 1813 (Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Bathos again in that contrasting final couplet with its bawdy conclusion. He almost invites the reader to anticipate where he’s going with the progress of each stanza, and loves dropping in little twists and surprises at the very end, usually, as here, to puncture the pomposity or phony loftiness that’s gone before]

Byron loves inserting playful, inventive commentary on the difficulties the poet-speaker claims to wrestle with in meeting the exigencies of the poetic form, which is much better suited to Italian, where it’s far easier to find true rhymes; also with the metre – all part of that pose of an enthusiastic gentleman amateur, trying but failing to produce fine style, but clearly relishing his prowess in getting himself into tricky poetic spots then extricating himself with a flash of genius, or wit, and usually both.

84

And if in the mean time her husband died,
But Heaven forbid that such a thought should cross
Her brain, though in a dream! (and then she sigh’d)
Never could she survive that common loss;
But just suppose that moment should betide,
I only say suppose it —  inter nos.
(This should be entre nous, for Julia thought
In French, but then the rhyme would go for naught.)

Juan and his mother’s friend Donna Julia have fallen passionately in love, but he’s only 16 and she’s older – and married. So he does the honourable thing and tries to forget her and think lofty, abstract thoughts of a Wordsworthian nature [he hated the ‘Lakers’ for their introspective etherealness], to dispel the carnal ones that beset him, and resist Julia’s thinly disguised coy seductiveness, and the stirrings in his own blood. These stanzas end with yet more wonderful examples of that end-couplet bathos and ingenious rhyme, as he palpably fails to banish lustful-romantic thoughts and promptings:

92

He thought about himself, and the whole earth
Of man the wonderful, and of the stars,
And how the deuce they ever could have birth;
And then he thought of earthquakes, and of wars,
How many miles the moon might have in girth,
Of air-balloons, and of the many bars
To perfect knowledge of the boundless skies; —
And then he thought of Donna Julia’s eyes.

93
In thoughts like these true wisdom may discern
Longings sublime, and aspirations high,
Which some are born with, but the most part learn
To plague themselves withal, they know not why:
‘T was strange that one so young should thus concern
His brain about the action of the sky;
If you think ‘t was philosophy that this did,
I can’t help thinking puberty assisted.

Shelley again: Ode to the West Wind

Shelley, Ode to the West Wind. Text at the Poetry Foundation

Section V

Make me thy lyre, even as the forest is:

What if my leaves are falling like its own!

The tumult of thy mighty harmonies

 

Will take from both a deep, autumnal tone,

Sweet though in sadness. Be thou, Spirit fierce,

My spirit! Be thou me, impetuous one!

 

Drive my dead thoughts over the universe

Like wither’d leaves to quicken a new birth!

And, by the incantation of this verse,

 

Scatter, as from an unextinguish’d hearth

Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!

Be through my lips to unawaken’d earth

 

The trumpet of a prophecy! O Wind,

If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?

 

Shelley

Portrait of Shelley by Alfred Clint (d. 1883), now in the National Portrait Gallery, via Wikimedia Commons, attribution By Amelia Curran

Written while Shelley was travelling in Italy with his wife Mary in 1819, this poem was published in 1820. It has been seen as an expression of his feelings of helplessness and anger at the news of the political and social turmoil home in England, and in particular the Peterloo Massacre in Manchester in 1819. The poem is also his message of life and hope for the future.

It’s written in the terza rima form (with added couplets after four triplets or 3-line stanzas) used by Dante in The Divine Comedy – a poem with which Shelley was familiar.

In the first four sections the speaker expresses his feelings of wonder and admiration at the power of the autumn wind, blowing clouds and leaves fiercely along. In the fifth he turns his thoughts to the future: he addresses the wind directly, praying that it will transform his lifeless, decaying spirit (his own poetic powers or ‘leaves’ are falling, as those on the trees are) and use him as its ‘lyre’ – rather as Coleridge and other Romantic poets had written: poets express a desire to be metaphorical Aeolian harps, musical instruments which are ‘played’ by the natural forces of the wind strumming through their strings to make them resonate. That is, they become, literally, inspired – filled with the life-giving breath, animus or breeze of Nature.

He goes one step further in addressing the wind in the second triplet: ‘Be thou me’.

His argument develops organically from this thought to the desire that the wind should ‘drive’ his ‘dead thoughts’ worldwide, disseminating them and causing them to ‘quicken’ into life, out of their silent, sterile, lifeless current state.

Therefore this poem itself becomes its own ‘incantation’, a magic charm or prayer of fertility, causing the dying embers of his imagination’s or spirit’s ‘hearth’ to be scattered universally, ‘sparking’ revolutionary change into the lives of humanity, especially, presumably, those in oppressed England.

The image develops: by doing this, his poetic ‘voice’ will be as a rousing trumpet call, like the last trumpet perhaps, except it won’t signal Judgement Day in the biblical sense, but rather a revolution in England, a political awakening, not just a personal one for him.

This poem will then be, he concludes, an invocation and a ‘prophecy’ of change for the better. Hence the note of optimism at the end; though winter is inevitably anticipated in this autumn gale, spring will surely follow – as political change will inevitably follow if the spirit of the wind heed his plea to be used as its prophetic, vatic voice – and as Nature restores life to the frozen land in spring after the long death of winter.

I quoted in my previous post from Shelley’s ‘A Defence of Poetry’, in which he wrote:

A man cannot say, “I will compose poetry.” The greatest poet even cannot say it: for the mind in creation is as a fading coal [compare his image of sparks and embers in the poem] which some invisible influence, like an inconstant wind, awakens to transitory brightness…when composition begins, inspiration is already on the decline.

… Poetry redeems from decay the visitations of divinity on man. [just as the wind in this poem is urged to restore life into humanity through the poet’s voice, as surely as Nature restores life to the earth in spring]

In ‘Ode to the West Wind’, Shelley puts this theory into practice. In doing so he also enacts the famous closing words of his Defence: that poets are ‘the unacknowledged legislators of the world’ – that is, in poems like this, they are Nature’s instruments for effecting change. Unlike the despised Lake poets, radicals like Shelley reject the solitary, reclusive and reflective life they advocated and, largely, lived.

 

 

 

Shelley on poetry, reason and imagination

I’m still teaching the Romantics, and thus lack time for my own reading. I thought therefore I’d share something I found stimulating when working on Shelley. It’s taken from a fine website called Romanticism and Imagination, which focuses on Shelley and Coleridge and their differing views on poetry, imagination, reason, and related topics. The hyperlinks are from that site, and link either to passages from Coleridge – in particular his Biographia Literaria, in which he expounded, among other things, his views on these topics, or give explanatory notes in general terms. So here’s Shelley:

Shelley

Portrait of Shelley by Alfred Clint (d. 1883), now in the National Portrait Gallery, via Wikimedia Commons, attribution By Amelia Curran

‘According to one mode of regarding those two classes of mental action, which are called reason and imagination, , the former may be considered as mind contemplating the relations borne by one thought to another, however produced; and the latter, as mind acting upon those thoughts so as to colour them with its own light, and composing from them, as from elements, other thoughts, each containing within itself the principle of its own integrity.

Reason is the enumeration of quantities already known; Imagination is the perception of the value of those quantities, both separately and as a whole. Reason respects the differences, and Imagination the similitudes of things. Reason is to Imagination as the instrument to the agent, as the body to the spirit, as the shadow to the substance.

Poetry, in a general sense, may be defined to be “the expression of the Imagination:” and Poetry is connate with the origin of man. Man is an instrument over which a series of external and internal impressions are driven, like the alternations of an ever-changing wind over an Æolian lyre; which move it, by their motion, to ever-changing melody…

A man cannot say, “I will compose poetry.” The greatest poet even cannot say it: for the mind in creation is as a fading coal which some invisible influence, like an inconstant wind, awakens to transitory brightness…when composition begins, inspiration is already on the decline.

Poetry thus makes immortal all that is best and most beautiful in the world; it arrests the vanishing apparitions which haunt the interluminations of life, and veiling them or in language or in form sends them forth among mankind, bearing sweet news of kindred joy to those with whom their sisters abide– abide, because there is no portal of expression from the caverns of the spirit which they inhabit into the universe of things. Poetry redeems from decay the visitations of divinity on man.’

 

 

Teaching: a poem

I was building up to a post on the strange novel I’ve just read: Kobo Abe’s The Woman in the Dunes. But having a heavy cold and even heavier sense of sorrow for myself, I thought I’d try something I’ve not done before: post a poem. I’ve done flash fiction before, but never a poem. This is from a notebook entry I’d dated 8 Oct. 2011. It’s called ‘I’d been teaching.’

I’d been teaching

grammar for five weeks

so I thought I’d change the scheme –

70 new words in Collins 11:

How and why they’re coined: portmanteaus, blends,

affixes, taboo terms. I thought

It was pretty interesting. Then,

sprawled across her desk, a goth, bored,

asked: Are we meant to be doing this?

And that was one of her pink days.

Makes a change from writing about other people’s books. I no longer teach grammar, so feel ready to share the experience in that piece.

Spam poetry

S. Beckett (photo: Festival Paris Beckett)

S. Beckett (photo: Festival Paris Beckett)

I’ve just explored the spam filter on the dashboard of this blog for the first time; I’m amazed by some of the peculiar, poetic messages WordPress helpfully commit to the spam bin.  There’s this, for example:

Undeniably imagine that you said. Your favourite justification

seemed to be at the internet the easiest factor to be
aware of.  I say to you, I definitely get annoyed

 while other folks think about issues

 that they plainly do not recognize about.
You controlled to hit the nail upon the highest as smartly as defined out the whole
thing with no need side-effects , folks can take a signal.
Will likely be again to get more. Thank you

I’ve used this configuration because it seems to me a found poem.  I rather like ‘folks can take a signal’: sounds like something out of Richard Ford.

Richard Ford (photo: Guardian newspaper)

Richard Ford (photo: Guardian newspaper)

‘To hit the nail upon the highest’ mashes up the cliché and reinvents it as something that sounds biblical.   The fractured syntax is reminiscent of Beckett’s dramatic prose.  The website linked to the comment is for a spamming ‘make money online’ organisation, so I presume this message was generated by some automatic random algorithm – surely corresponds, therefore, to what Breton and the surrealists advocated in all creative writing…They’d have enjoyed the internet and its infinite capacities.

Here’s another found spam piece:

As that faculty uniforms rather monotonous, fail to replicate temperament, the provincial capital some middle school students began to wear shoes on the “rivalry”, like “your shoes are the generations”, turning into a hot topic once-school exchanges. Reporter 21, learned that some students the value of a combine of air max 90 shoes up to 5,00 zero yuan.

This appears (from the link given by WordPress) to be from a Chinese website promoting sports shoes; maybe it too is mechanically translated, but like the example above it has a weirdly pleasing resonance.

Another piece that looks to be translated by machine (I’ve modified punctuation slightly):

I’m at about 203-208lbs give or take what I ate. Sick weigh tomorrow and make it specified.  Nowadays is clear working day one for me.  I hope to be down 13lbs by may possibly fifth which happens to be 5 weeks.  Somewhat over 2lbs each week, but I believe I’m able to get it done.  I’m kickboxing and zi xiu tang bee pollen pillslifting. I want to be down to 160lbs from the middle of sept, 25weeks away.

This could be an interior monologue from any number of recent novels by writers in their twenties or thirties; there’s a Joycean neologism, ‘pillslifting’, which neatly links the registers of pharmacology and physical fitness, which is presumably what this spammer peddles.

Finally, here’s an extract from what looks like a site promoting expensive shoes for women (the ones with the shiny red soles – shoes, that is, not women):

particularly binaural beats become desirable among players, businesses, and those functioning to their personal development and/or religious brain express.

The plosives in the first phrase and the loose, paratactic syntax give a satisfying whiff of Ginsberg.  There’s a hint of the cut-up technique of William Burroughs here, too.

photo: the Allen Ginsberg Project blog

photo: the Allen Ginsberg Project blog

I love the internet.

Rhyming Byron: Orioles and Eliot

 ‘I also like to dine on becaficas’: T.S. Eliot, epigraph to The Sacred Wood

In  Beppo (written in Venice in 1817) stanza 42 Byron’s narrator says he likes ‘on Autumn evenings to ride out’ without worrying too much whether the weather will be clement, for in Italy everything is less mundane than in England.  He goes on, in the next stanza, with further examples of why he finds Italy superior to England:

I also like to dine on becaficas,

To see the Sun set, sure he’ll rise tomorrow,

Not through a misty morning twinkling weak as

A drunken man’s dead eye in maudlin sorrow,

But with all Heaven t’himself: the day will break as

Beauteous as cloudless, nor be forced to borrow

That sort of farthing candlelight which glimmers

Where reeking London’s smoky Caldron simmers

We can still find genuine pleasure in the playful pararhymes in Byron’s verse; ‘becaficas’ clearly chimes visually as well as in a sonic sense with ‘weak as’ – the vowel sounds are identical if one adopts a vaguely Italian pronunciation for the ending of the first line, and the consonants are also symmetrical (although the sibilant Italian terminal ‘s’ clashes with the ‘z’ sound in ‘as’).  But this pattern is subverted when, according to the rhyme scheme, we expect line 5 to chime with lines 1 and 3; instead we get ‘break as’ – which only rhymes if we pronounce this already irregularly sounded word falsely, as if it were an ‘ee’ vowel, not ‘ay’.  It’s an eye-rhyme, a sonic corruption, and it thwarts the very pattern established by the preceding stanzas.

It’s this subversive teasing with words and sounds that is one of the reasons I enjoy Byron’s lighter poems: he refuses to take himself or anyone or anything else seriously; it’s the opposite of po-faced (‘smiling’?)  Here’s another delightful example (he’s writing about Venetian ladies’ pretty faces):

And like so many Venuses of Titian’s

(The best’s at Florence – see it if ye will),

They look when leaning over the balcony,

Or stepping from a picture by Giorgione’…

Once more he’s teasing his pretentious readers with their smug awareness that the Italian name ‘Giorgione’ is pronounced ‘George-oh-nay’, and that therefore one’s reading of ‘balcony’ renders the next line-ending problematic – he’s forcing us to consider pronouncing the artist’s name ‘GEORGE-oh-nee’, with the stress on the first syllable, to rhyme with ‘balcony’; or else we have to consider the ridiculous possibility of retracing our readerly steps and retrospectively re-pronouncing ‘balcony’ as ‘bal-CONE- y’, with the stress on the second syllable!  As the academic F.V. Bogel helpfully explains, this produces for the reader a ‘division…between visual and auditory modalities’ (The Difference Satire Makes: Rhetoric and Reading from Jonson to Byron [Cornell UP, 2001]).  While we’re looking at Beppo, here’s one of my favourite lines, a beautifully balanced and modulated artifact in words: the narrator is mockingly praising England – ‘Our cloudy climate, and our chilly women’.

So what on earth IS a ‘becafica’?  The OED spells it ‘beccafico’(although an ‘a’ ending is one of its variant forms), deriving from the Italian for ‘fig-pecker’:   ‘A name given in Italy to small migratory birds of the genus Sylvia, much esteemed as dainties in the autumn, when they have fattened on figs and grapes: they are identified with the British Pettychaps and Blackcaps’.  Marquez often writes about his characters eating such small fowl, maybe baked in pies.  Conrad Aiken in an essay about Eliot defines ‘becafica’ as a small bird, a warbler, a garden oriole, loosely termed by Italians as one of the ‘uccellini’.   He says that by using Byron’s line as an epigraph to this book published in 1920 Eliot was suggesting that he likes to ‘dine on song-birds’, apprizing us, ‘with a gleaming and slightly sinister politeness, that he is about to do so’.  He intends, that is, to be ‘severe to the point of destructiveness’ (‘The Scientific Critic’, in Freeman, 2, [2 March, 1921], pp. 593-94).

How fitting that Eliot should choose to head his collection of essays  about poetry, published in 1920, two years before The Waste Land, with this particularly ambiguous line; while delineating the modernist notions of technique, feeling and a  ‘tradition’ in poetry, (here we find his famous pronouncement: ‘Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality’) Eliot illuminates the text and prepares us for the bombshell of The Waste Land with jewel-like fragments like those ‘becaficas’, which fail to sate our appetite, but  charm us with their song.