- The following was inspired by Emily Wilson’s translation of the Odyssey. Specifically, read the closing paragraph in my previous post: Emily Wilson’s Odyssey. I did a few things differently with this poem. I roughed it out first, something I rarely do; then the blank verse revision. I’ve also been reading Shakespeare’s late plays, the romances, especially with a mind to his late style; and in combination with a book by Russ McDonald called Shakespeare’s Late Style. Historically, Shakespeare’s later verse has been considered problematic and was, by later poets like Pope, revised if not excised. Not to me. The syntactic “incoherence” of Shakespeare’s late verse is unmatchably beautiful. So, by writing the following, I wanted to learn from it. I combined the epithets found in Homer with the syntactic addition, divagation, delay, elision and suspension typical of Shakespeare’s late style. I know this isn’t any way to write in the 21st century, but me and my poetry have gone our own way.
Odysseus, wily navigator, you
Who have endured a thousand harborless sorrows,
I too have suffered.
••••••••••••I, being sent to launder
Your mistress’s apparel in the river
Or often, by myself, to bring from orchards
A desired olive, fig or grape, was also
Betrayed by those you’ve slain—made by them
A slave to slaves—my vessel desecrated
My lading mired and diminished, sorted
With weeds and brackish waters—yet for that
••••••••••••Odysseus, ingenious King—
Tell him, your minstrel with the wine stained fingers
Who sings of wayward tides, of witches, Gods
And far-flung isles, that I was also lost
Longing for home who had no home to search for;
And tell your songster in your rage you snared
My sisters by one rope between a pillar
And dome; and that we were together lifted,
Each beside the other, nooses round
Our necks until our feet no longer touched
The earth—the knots tight as a luthier’s string.
Tell your songster, though he sings of you
To tell of the twelve girls who were like
Thrushes that spread their wings to fly at last
But could not. Though struggling, we only breathed
To take another dying breath—our agony
••••••••••••Tell him: ‘Sing of girls, of slaves
To slaves, who twitched a little while but not
For long; whose rags were left behind, bone broken
And creaking in the winds of Ithaca.”
Tell him that we waited to be lain
Among the corpses we ourselves had carried
From the blood-soaked hall.
••••••••••••So long as sings your minstrel,
Odysseus, so long will fly from us
The last syllable of our breath: that far
From Ithaca, cries of murder, bloodshed
And vengeance—where the grass at evening shivers
In sea-spray and the noiseless spider sifts
The wind—was seen a startled thrush that cried out,
Took flight above the drumming waters, even
Above the dissolution of the air,
Into the spreading fingers of the Milky Way.
March 12th 2018 by me, Patrick Gillespie
I picked up Emily Wilson’s new translation of The Odyssey. It’s quickly become my favorite translation, alongside Mandelbaum’s. For years, Mandelbaum’s translation was my favorite given his mastery of blank verse and his gift for language and imagery. There are many translators who can translate the original’s content, but rarely the original’s poetry. I can’t be bothered with free verse translations. To translate a poem without translating its formal structure is to do half the work. Homer’s dactylic hexameters are part of the original poem’s language.
Not only does Wilson translate the story but, like Mandelbaum, she translates Homer’s dactylic hexameter into the iambic pentameter of blank verse. Her poetic gifts are of a different order than Mandelbaum’s. Her imagery is limpid and her ductile blank verse makes the Odyssey read as though it happened yesterday. In doing so she manages what relatively few modern metrists seem able to manage: She brings to blank verse a modern pace and vernacular that doesn’t dilute the integrity of its line. Too many modern poets, ears dulled by free verse, can’t seem to write blank verse without watering it down to a kind of accentual-syllabic prose. There’s more to blank verse than counting syllables. The best practitioners strike a balance between syntax, rhetoric and line ending.
Tell me about a complicated man.
Muse, tell me how he wandered and was lost
when he had wrecked the holy town of Troy.
and where he went, and who he met, the pain
he suffered on the storms at sea, and how
he worked to save his life and bring his men
back home. He failed to keep them safe; poor fools,
they ate the Sun God’s cattle, and the god
kept them from home. Now goddess, child of Zeus,
tell the old story for our modern times.
Find the beginning.
So begins Wilson’s translation. By comparison, Mandelbaum’s:
Muse, tell me of the man of many wiles,
the man who wandered many paths of exile
after he sacked Troy’s sacred citadel.
He saw the cities—mapped the minds—of many;
and on the sea, his spirit suffered every
adversity—to keep his life intact,
to bring his comrades back. In that last task,
his will was firm and fast, and yet he failed:
he could not save his comrades: Fools, they foiled
themselves; they ate the oxen of the Sun,
the herd of Hélios Hypérion;
the lord of light required their transgression—
he took away the day of their return.
Muse, tell us of these matters. Daughter of Zeus,
my starting point is any point you choose.
First to notice is that Wilson’s opening is 11 lines whereas Mandelbaum’s is 15. Wilson’s translation, the entirety of her book, has the same number of lines as Homer’s. Wilson writes that she “chose to write within this difficult constraint because any translation without such limitations will tend to be longer than the original, and I wanted a narrative pace that could match its stride to Homer’s nimble gallop.” Getting back Mandelbaum: While there may be a more classical beauty to Mandelbaum’s blank verse—poetic phrases like “man of many wiles” and “mapped their minds” lend poetic density to his translation—Wilson’s verse has a more pellucid pace possessed of its own poetic advantages. Next is Fitzgerald’s much looser blank verse:
Sing in my, Muse, and through me tell the story
of that man skilled in all the ways of contending,
the wanderer, harried for years on end,
after he plundered the stronghold
on the proud height of Troy.
······························He saw the townlands
and learned the minds of many distant men,
and weathered many bitter nights and days
in his deep heart at sea, while he fought only
to save his life, to bring his shipmates home.
But not by will or valor could he save them
for their own recklessness destroyed them all—
children and fools, they killed and feasted on
the cattle of Lord Hêlios, the Sun,
and he who moves all day through heaven
took from their eyes the dawn of their return.
Of these adventures, Muse, daughter of Zeus,
tell us in our time, lift the great song again.
Seventeen lines for Fitzgerald. The line “took from their eyes the dawn of their return” is a truly beautiful line—real poetry. Fitzgerald’s tone, to me, is that of an epic recitation, mainly due to the heightening of syntactic inversions—something which Wilson avoids. Next is Chapman’s Homer, the inspiration for Keats’s famous sonnet On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer. Chapman was a contemporary of Shakespeare:
The man, O Muse, informe, that many a way
Wound with his wisedome to his wished stay;
That wanderd wondrous farre when He the towne
Of scared Troy had sackt and shiverd downe.
The cities of a world of nations
With all their manners, mindes and fashions,
He saw and knew; at Sea felt many woes,
Much care sustained, to save from overthrowes
Himselfe and friends in their retreate from home.
But so their fates he could not overcome
Though much he thirsted it. O men unwise,
They perished by their own impieties,
That in their hunger’s rapine would not shunne
The Oxen of the loftie-going Sunne,
Who therefore from their eyes the day bereft
Of safe returne. These acts, in some part left,
Tell us, as others, deified seed of Jove.
Chapman translated Homer’s verse into open heroic couplets (or riding couplets). Pope would later translate Homer’s Odyssey (or, scandalously, parts of it) into the preferred, and highly formal, closed heroic couplet of the Restoration.
I’ve never studied classical Greek or Latin, so I can’t speak to the literal fidelity of the translations, but reading other sources, one gathers that Homer’s text is, to quote another reviewer, “a hodgepodge of dialects and vocabulary”. Wilson comments on this, writing that Homer’s style is often:
“not ‘noble’: the language is not colloquial, and it avoids obscenity, but it is not bombastic or grandiloquent. The notion that Homeric epic must be rendered in grand, ornate, rhetorically elevated English has been with us since the time of Alexander Pope. It is past time, I believe, to reject this assumption. Homer’s language is markedly rhythmical, but it is not difficult or ostentatious.”
It’s not Wilson alone who makes this claim, and so one is tempted to think that Wilson’s translation is closer, in spirit, to the original than any translation like Pope’s, or a free verse translation like Fagels’s which, though said to be the most faithful, abrogates that claim by its failure to translate the original’s meter.
Perhaps the most notable fact of Wilson’s translation is that hers is the first by a woman into English. You might, and as I did, question how that matters, but I’d recommend you read Wilson’s article in The New Yorker, A Translator’s Reckoning With the Women of the Odyssey, to grasp the subtle, and not so subtle, ways in which a translation can radically affect a reader’s perception. From the article:
After Odysseus slaughters her suitors, he tells Telemachus to kill the female slaves who have slept with them. Contemporary translators and commentators often present the massacre of these women as if it were quite ordinary, and entirely justified. The murdered slaves are routinely described in contemporary American English translations as “disobedient maids,” and are labeled as “sluts” or “whores”—a level of verbal abuse that finds absolutely no analogue in the Greek. The killing of these abused slaves (who are usually referred to, euphemistically, as “servants” or “maids”) is often described as if it were unquestionably ethical. The study guide SparkNotes describes these women as “disloyal women servants” who must be “executed,” while CliffsNotes calls them “maidservants” who were “disloyal,” and claims that their murder has a “macabre beauty.” In the poem’s original language, Telemachus refers to them only with hai, the feminine article—“those female people who . . . slept beside the suitors.” In my translation, I call them “these girls,” and hope to convey the scene in both its gruesome inhumanity and its pathos: “their heads all in a row, / were strung up with the noose around their necks / to make their death an agony. They gasped, / feet twitching for a while, but not for long.”
I’ve extensively quoted this paragraph for a reason. I was so moved by Wilson’s translation, and her reasons for it, that I took to writing some poetry of my own—a kind of response. I’ll append the poem in a post immediately following this one, but the affect of Wilson’s translation is worth reiterating. Odysseus is no longer elevated by the nobility of a language that makes him a sort of mythical being beyond the reach of sympathy or condemnation. And the girls with whom Odysseus interacts are not defined as “maids” or “servants”, somehow removed from sympathy by their appellation. They are girls, no different in fears, hopes or desires than the girls reading about them thousands of years later. In a sense, Wilson removes the Odyssey from antiquities. Odysseus is less a hero than a man who could be heroic, loyal, and cruelly vengeful.
So, this is going to be a diversion from my usual subject matter, mostly. My original ambition was to be a composer. I studied for two years at Cincinnati’s Conservatory of Music and studied composition, but soon and somewhat reluctantly decided my real talent was in writing.
Anyway, the question that prompted this post arose during a conversation between Jordan Peterson and Samuel Andreyev. Jordan Peterson, if you haven’t already heard of him, is a Canadian Professor and Clinical Psychologist (currently famed for his critique of neo-Marxism in, as he labels it, academia’s radical left). He brings Joseph Campbell’s knowledge of mythological archetype to a psychologist’s perspective. He offers fascinating insights regarding the nature of being, rationality, intuition, religion, mysticism and, quite simply, how to be in the world. He recently published a book on just that subject called 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. I haven’t read it. But he’s a gifted lecturer and well worth listening to. Samuel Andreyev is a composer, poet and teacher entirely unknown to me prior to the interview.
What makes a composer great? What is it about Bach’s music, or any great composer’s music, that survives their lifetime?
Andreyev’s answer struck me as circular in it’s reasoning. At about the 47:40 mark:
Peterson: How do you decide what you should continue to listen to?
Andreyev: (….) Works that are no longer able to communicate something vitally important—that [only address] a present concern—trend to fall out of favor. History is merciless. (….) Think of the tens of thousands of composers that were active during the baroque period. How many have we retained? There’s maybe a dozen figures that are still regularly performed and discussed and generally known to the public. There’s an absolutely ruthless selection process that goes on(….) And of course one of the fundamental difficulties of addressing contemporary or modern forms of art is that that process of selection hasn’t taken place yet(….) There is an overwhelming likelihood that what you’re going to hear might not be of the highest standard. If you figure that there are a hundred thousand composers active in the world today, how many of them are geniuses?—how many of them are producing work of the highest order? It’s going to be a vanishingly small percentage.”
So, what exactly is “vitally important” isn’t addressed by Andreyev. He calls it “something”, but he establishes the notion that it is communicating something. Peterson will pick up on this assertion, characteristically thinking of it in mythological terms . But first he makes one of his memorable quips (which is why he’s so enjoyable to listen to).
Peterson: As an avant-garde listener you’re more likely to be killed, so to speak, as the avant-garde in the battle.”
You can take this two ways: Either contemporary art’s greatness will be so far ahead of your own vision that you will be archetypally “killed” (somewhat like peeking into the Arc of the Covenant) or, alternately, that it’s mediocrity will accomplish the same. I’m not sure which death is preferable.
Peterson goes on to ask:
Peterson: What does it mean that Bach still has something to say? It’s the same as Shakespeare I suppose, but it’s isn’t obvious what it is that remains to be said, I don’t get that, it’s got to be something like: The culture has not fully incorporated all of the perceptual genius that that person had to offer. Bach hasn’t been transformed into cliché or implicit into assumption assumption, or something like that. But I think that one of things artists do, visual or auditory, is that they teach people to see or hear.
This is where Peterson picks up on Andreyev’s assertion that great works of art are communicating something that transcends present concerns—that they have something “to say”, as if there were some hidden and mystical “message” to be found in their “art”. Unfortunately, I think this sort of framing is a dead-end mainly because, as happens with Peterson, you next begin asking yourself just what Shakespeare or Bach were communicating?—or, as Peterson puts it: offering. But I think that’s the wrong question. The music of genius and mediocrity are both communicating the same things, it’s just that genius is better at it. It’s not that Bach was communicating something that his mediocre rivals couldn’t comprehend, it’s just that he translated his comprehension into music in a way that, for instance, Scheibe and Mattheson (contemporary composers critical of Bach), never could.
Peterson goes on to ask:
Peterson: Do composers teach us to hear? And once we’ve learned everything they have to say, do we not need their lesson anymore?”
At this point I think Peterson goes somewhat off the rails, equating great composers with, I suppose, great college lecturers (equating their musical compositions to lessons). But why not? Mathematicians are endlessly flattering themselves with their proclamations that Bach was really a great mathematician just like them! Why shouldn’t a gifted Canadian University professor compare himself to Bach? (Is it coincidence that Peterson chose the opening to Bach’s Goldberg variations as the theme for his podcasts?) The answer is that there isn’t some hidden message in Bach’s music. There’s no “lesson”.
But anyway, more to the point:
Peterson: It still doesn’t answer the question of why those people in particular [survive]…
Andreyev: The great composers are the ones that fundamentally: They own their material more thoroughly and in a more, deeply personal way than other composers. In other words, there’s a minimum of neutral material in their music—material that already exists; that is almost like found material in a sense; and that you don’t have to work very hard to fashion into something resembling a coherent piece. A great composer invents forms. they invent a language. They invent a universe. They take enormous risks.”
Now I think that gets closer to what’s really going on. He goes on to say:
Any composer you can think of that is considered today to be among the greats has at some point been horribly denigrated and humiliated and spoken badly of by the public of their time. That’s just a permanent feature of music history.
Well yes, but that comes with a considerable caveat. Mediocre composers were also “horribly denigrated and humiliated”. Just think of Salieri. While the events in the play Amadeus are fictional, the conspiracy theory that Salieri murdered Mozart was absolutely not. Even on his deathbed, Salieri felt forced to deny that he’d murdered Mozart out of jealousy. No “great” composer was ever denigrated or humiliated like that—and on his deathbed. I think those less conversant with music history prefer the notion that geniuses prevail against all odds, but much of what you read about Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and others being ignored in their day simply isn’t true. Bach was famous and recognized as a great composer in his own day. Consider Johann Mattheson’s own comment regarding “the famous” Bach: “I have seen things by the famous organist of Weimar, Herr Joh. Sebastian Bach, both for the church and for the hand that are certainly such as must make one esteem the man highly.” If not recognized by all, and not like we do, so what? There are still audiophiles who prefer Telemann to Bach. But Bach was in fact so well-regarded that he was invited to Potsdam by no less than Frederic the Great where no sooner had he stepped out of the carriage than he was made to perform (so eager was Frederick, and the attendant musicians, to hear the great composer). Many years later, long after Bach had died, Mozart visited Leipzig and played at Bach’s organ. An old man, who still remembered Bach, was said to have stated that it was like old Bach had returned. Not only did this old man recognize Bach’s genius, but he recognized Mozart’s as well.
Peterson goes on:
Peterson: It’s what you’d expect too though because someone who is, let’s say, going in the right direction but who is way ahead of everyone else(….) It’s very difficult for them to communicate what they’re doing and it’s very difficult for them to distinguish themselves from the naked emperor.
Again, yes and no. This somewhat buys into the myth of genius, which Andreyev also seems to endorse. Yes, Bach’s music was called turgid by critics, and yes, Mozart’s music was sometimes criticized as too complex, but don’t forget that both composers also had their fierce, and I do mean fierce, defenders and advocates. The city of Prague begged Mozart to leave Vienna. Haydn begged Mozart to come to London where London’s musical patrons were fully prepared to pay Mozart’s way. Were Mozart and Bach artistically way ahead of everyone else? Yes. Was it very difficult for them to communicate what they were doing? I’m not so sure. If the ability to communicate what they were doing was the barrier to success, then many a lesser composer with a gift for doing just that, as with Bach’s son Johann Christian, wouldn’t have died in poverty.
So all this interests me because defining genius, or greatness in art, has always fascinated me. Defining what makes poetry great is why I blog. So why am I talking about music? Here’s why: Because I have a background in music, have loved music (and Bach in particular) since I was two years old, and because I also love poetry and language. I gradually came to a recognition that music and language are deeply interrelated in a way that, I don’t think, has really been recognized or explored yet—or understood. Andreyev touches on it when he says: “A great composer invents forms. they invent a language.”
Robert Frost liked to say that his poetry was about capturing “the sound of sense”. He liked to say that if one stood outside a door and heard a man and woman argue that, even if you couldn’t make out the words, you might get the gist of the argument solely by the sound (the cadences) of their speech. This is vitally important. What Frost was saying was that speech isn’t just about words. It’s about the cadence and intonations that underly those words; and though every language has its own intonations and cadences, I’m willing to assert, sans evidence, that there are also universal cadences and intonations that underly all our languages; that even were we to hear a couple arguing in Chinese or Swahili, there would be that “sound of sense” that we would innately understand. That ability is ancient and human. It’s evolutionary. It’s that capability, I’d argue, that is part and parcel of a human being’s ability to learn language.
A baby isn’t born understanding the meaning of words. What a baby is born with, I’d argue, is the ability to perceive the sound of sense. First comes the sound of sense, then, as the baby develops, the meaning of words are understood in relation to the sound of sense underlying them. Mothers instinctively grasp this when they communicate to baby’s using “nonsense words”. The words may be nonsensical but the “musical” sound of sense underlying these nonsense words is instinctively grasped by the child. Rob the human child of the ability to perceive the sound of sense and, I’d argue, you greatly impede, if not make impossible, her ability to discern the meaning of words. One might object: What about a child born deaf? I’d respond that because a child is deaf doesn’t mean he or she isn’t still wired to perceive the sound of sense. Deafness is only an impediment. That said, a deaf person’s speech will always and noticeably lack that underling sound of sense. A deaf person, for example, will have great difficulty learning how to reproduce the inflections of sarcasm. But there are other psychological impediments that impede not just the ability to communicate the sound of the sense, but to perceive it—Autism for example.
But what does this have to do with music? I’d argue that music is the abstraction of language’s sound of sense. Music abstracts not just the sound of words (the ability to differentiate between the different sounds of words) but the falling and rising intonations that characterize the “soundscape” of language—the meaning of its sounds, cadences, inflections). Consider that the same word can have an entirely different implication, even meaning, depending on the sound of sense that underlies it—sarcasm, inquiry, relief, curiosity, anger, happiness, etc… These emotions aren’t communicated by the words but by the cadences that underly them. Humans are quite good at expressing all these meanings without words. The cadences of speech give words context: reinforce, undercut, or alter their meanings in unexpected ways.
Music, I’d argue, is quite literally our residual, childlike, perception of language before we comprehended words.
So then, to answer Peterson’s question: What makes Bach or Mozart’s music great?
I’ll stick with Mozart (though I think the same assertions could be made of the Beatles for example). It’s often said of Mozart that even when he was writing instrumental music, he remained an operatic composer. (The vast majority of Bach’s music, not coincidentally, was vocal, as was Schubert’s.) What’s meant by that is that there’s always the feeling, in Mozart’s music, of the declamatory—the notion that the music imitates the patterns of speech or of someone singing. All this, I think, is just another way of saying that the sound of sense characterizes even Mozart’s instrumental music. In order to be a great vocal composer, the composer must innately graft not just the word’s meanings to the music, but also the sound of sense that underlies the words.
This is what separates the great composer from the mediocre composer. Where the mediocre composer, with greater or less success, grafts the music’s grammar to the meaning of the words, the great composer is able to translate not just the meaning of the words into music, but musically translates the sound of sense underlying those words. We know it when it happens. We instinctively recognize it without being able to put words to it because it’s a recognition of language that precedes words. It’s what brings us back to composers of genius again and again. They light up that pre-verbal neural pathway in a way that mediocre composers don’t. Listen to Mozart’s instrumental music (and I have listened to his music many times over and have read his music in score) and you begin to hear the sound of sense in every musical phrase (what others like to call his operatic musical phrasing). Mozart (like other great composers) possessed a genius for translating the sound of sense into music. (The Beatles do this too, by the way.) Musical phrases feel declamatory, as though they’re questioning, arguing, curious, assertive, reluctant. It’s because Mozart was able to translate the evolutionary scaffolding of language into the abstraction of music. Bach, using the musical language of the Baroque, did the same thing. He once said, in fact, that a piece of music should sound as if the instruments were in conversation. Few pieces of music typify this assertion more so than the Brandenburg concertos. Bach’s musical phrases are like declamatory assertions (assertions possessed by the feeling of sense and emotional content) traded, expanded, debated and explored within the confines of the music’s form.
How is it that a musical phrase can evoke the sound of sense?—sorrow, anxiousness, anger, excitement? Through a combination of melodic and harmonic inventiveness that inevitably defines a composer’s genius—and personal musical “language”. Certain modulations, certain chordal progressions, produce an almost universal and concomitant set of emotional responses. For instance, a minor chord universally produces a different set of emotions than a major chord, and that emotional response, I’d argue, is universal in its commonality. The great composer, among other gifts, possesses a far greater sensitivity to what different harmonies, cadences, and modulations can produce in the listener, and possesses the melodic and harmonic genius to achieve that understanding. The more mediocre or difficult a piece of music is, the more it will be divorced from that declamatory scaffolding, that abstraction, of language’s sound of sense. Though we can learn the language of extremely dissonant music, for example, it will be difficult precisely because it is so distant from the intuitive sound-phrasing that underlies all human language.
In short: The periodicity of a musical phrase, in its likeness to the periodicity of the linguistic phrase, combined with a genius for the harmony underlying the phrase, abstracting and imitating the sounds of sense that universally underly all languages, is what characterizes musical genius and what answers Peterson’s question. If this ability to recognize the abstraction of language’s sound of sense weren’t universal, then we might expect Bach and/or Mozart’s music to be meaningless to speakers of Japanese or Chinese.
You might object that if I’m right, then why aren’t we all listening to Bach and Mozart? The answer is partly straightforward—musical taste. But having said that, I’d argue that within each musical tradition—classical, jazz, country, rock—audiences will, overtime, gravitate toward those composers and musicians most able to abstract language’s sound of sense within their own musical vernacular. Music is, in a way, a linguistic art.
And how does any of this apply to poetry? Perhaps only obliquely. Where composers are working with the sound of sense that underlies language, poets are manipulating the language itself. Poets and composers are both, in a sense, linguists, though their exploitation of language proceeds from a very different place. Music, I think, appeals to an ancient developmental place before words (and which human beings still experience as children) which is why it’s universal. Poetry (Traditional Poetry using meter and rhyme) proceeds from the sound of the language itself. Some might call it the music of the language, but I would be careful not to conflate what poet’s and composers are doing.
Greatness in poetry depends on a different sort of genius, one that transcends content. Great poetry, I’d say, is transcendent in its language, its memorableness, and lastly, its content. When Peterson asserts that Shakespeare, like Bach, “still has something to say”, one can interpret that literally or figuratively. If interpreted literally, I would have to disagree with Peterson’s premise. What Shakespeare had to say really wasn’t all that different from what his contemporaries were saying. Shakespeare, in fact, liked to copy, almost word for word in some cases, his source material. What made the result a work of genius was not the content—not what he had to say (which had already been said by Plutarch or North)—but in how he said it (in his sublime poetic alterations). That’s a much tougher nut to crack, but well worth the effort—Shakespeare’s transformation of the proverbial and commonplace into the sublime solely through the arts of language is astonishing. It’s an art that his contemporaries, and our own, remain largely incapable and ignorant of. But Keats understood it; and so did T.S. Eliot, among others.
Saturday February 10th 2018 | up in Vermont
Addenda | February 11th:
My, I’m-not-making-this-stuff-up addenda.
Just had an interesting email exchange with Samuel Andreyev. Encouraged me to fetch some links that, I think, lend credence to my hypothesis—not yet a theory I guess. A really fascinating and recent study, The Inherent Gender of Names, finds for instance that there’s a universal predilection, across languages and cultures, for differentiating between male and female names by sound. The link above is to a Scientific American Article discussing the study.
So, one could postulate, based on that, that there are musical themes, instrumentations, or chord progression that might feel more masculine or feminine. Did you know that in 70 percent of languages, questions are asked with a rising intonation? The question is why. Is there some neurological basis? Evolutionary? Is it simply linguistic? The preceding link tries to answer that. You can find further information on this question and further studies at Wikipedia.
Another paper from the Canadian Center of Science and Education closes with the following paragraph:
“The universality of emotional colours appears in general intonation characteristics of positive and negative emotions. Positive emotions are, as a rule, characterized by the higher tone registers unlike the negative ones, which have the lower tone level. Those words, which bear emotional load, are pronounced with the higher melodic melodic tone.”
So, again, I think one begins to perceive the fundamentals of our capacity for music in these studies—from what it arises and the mechanics of how it affects the human brain. My assertion that musical genius (among other heightened traits) is characterized by its use of musical intervals (harmony) to abstract the sense of sound that characterizes all human languages, finds some evidence in a study found at the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, entitled Musical Intervals of Speech. The abstract includes the following:
“Throughout history and across cultures, humans have created music using pitch intervals that divide octaves into the 12 tones of the chromatic scale. Why these specific intervals in music are preferred, however, is not known. In the present study, we analyzed a database of individually spoken English vowel phones to examine the hypothesis that musical intervals arise from the relationships of the formants in speech spectra that determine the perceptions of distinct vowels. Expressed as ratios, the frequency relationships of the first two formants in vowel phones represent all 12 intervals of the chromatic scale. Were the formants to fall outside the ranges found in the human voice, their relationships would generate either a less complete or a more dilute representation of these specific intervals. These results imply that human preference for the intervals of the chromatic scale arises from experience with the way speech formants modulate laryngeal harmonics to create different phonemes.”
The study demonstrates that these intervals are not random but apparently a universal feature of human language which, again, explains why Japanese and Chinese speakers easily comprehend the musical “language” of Bach, Mozart, or Pink Floyd. And that invites the question: If music reflects the ‘intonational’ foundation of all human languages, then can different languages likewise exert an influence on the music of those same cultures. Indeed, apparently, they can and do. An article at NCBI entitled Effects of Culture on Musical Pitch Perception, examines just that question, and the answer is yes:
“The strong association between music and speech has been supported by recent research focusing on musicians’ superior abilities in second language learning and neural encoding of foreign speech sounds. However, evidence for a double association—the influence of linguistic background on music pitch processing and disorders—remains elusive. Because languages differ in their usage of elements (e.g., pitch) that are also essential for music, a unique opportunity for examining such language-to-music associations comes from a cross-cultural (linguistic) comparison of congenital amusia, a neurogenetic disorder affecting the music (pitch and rhythm) processing of about 5% of the Western population. In the present study, two populations (Hong Kong and Canada) were compared. One spoke a tone language in which differences in voice pitch correspond to differences in word meaning (in Hong Kong Cantonese, /si/ means ‘teacher’ and ‘to try’ when spoken in a high and mid pitch pattern, respectively). Using the On-line Identification Test of Congenital Amusia, we found Cantonese speakers as a group tend to show enhanced pitch perception ability compared to speakers of Canadian French and English (non-tone languages).”
And that’s that. That should provide anyone with enough links to further explore this subject on their own.
Monday February 12th 2018
What follow are photographs of a medieval musical manuscript my grandmother bought while in Spain during Franco’s rule. If memory serves, she said that many institutions, specifically religious, were dissolved and/or often forced to sell what they could to survive. She recounted that the manuscripts below came from a chant book whose pages were being torn out and sold to tourists.
I doubt they’re worth anything but, on the off hand that these are the missing pages some musicologist has been searching for since the mid 20th century, I post them on my blog. I don’t speak Latin (I’m guessing it’s Latin rather than some early form of Spanish) but the text appears to be that of the Magnificat.
The daughter of Wilhelm Friedemann Bach (eldest son of Johann Sebastian Bach) apparently moved to Oklahoma with a cache of her father and grandfather’s manuscripts. Apparently, at some point in Oklahoma, Bach’s manuscript’s were “inadvertently” destroyed. Even if the Oklahoma family didn’t care a wit for the manuscripts (by music’s greatest genius) the rest of us weep. My manuscripts aren’t worth a single note of Bach, but at least if they’re inadvertently destroyed, someone my someday thank me for posting images of them.
I put snow tires on, better late than never, and stopped by the Dartmouth bookstore. There’s a book there that’s been tempting me, called Readings in Contemporary Poetry. The book is really lovely, nicely presented, spacious and with brief biographies and discussions of the poets and poems.
The book (I’m guessing by design) has more the layout of an art book than a poetry anthology. Biographies and background on the left page, paintings, prints, or in this case, poems carefully reproduced on the right page. The poems generally fit to a page and are thoughtfully typeset on glossy paper. And I like the book’s cover art. Appeals to my sense of the transgressive.
First to the presentation. I found it interesting because, intentionally or otherwise, the book would appear to be blurring artistic spheres in a mercantile sort of way. The presentation of the poems suggests, if unintentionally, that the value of these poems functions in the same theater as contemporary art (in the sense of “art valuation”). To understand why I find this intriguing (and without rewriting the wheel) take a look at the following article at Quartz (and you can find many other articles making the same argument): High-end art is one of the most manipulated markets in the world. It begins:
“You’d think the value of art would depend on its aesthetic value; a picture you enjoy looking at on your wall. How could a dismembered corpse artist be remotely successful? Yet these paintings were classified as desirable by the art market.
To understand why, you must first understand the economics of art galleries in America and Europe. Almost all primary art sales—art bought from the artist as opposed to another collector—occurs through art galleries. Galleries set taste and prices—sets is actually an understatement. Galleries manipulate prices to an extent that would be illegal in most industries.
Someone with a financial interest controlling the market is worrisome. In any market, price manipulation causes distortions, shortages, and inefficiency. But in its own peculiar way the primary art market functions; contemporary art generates tens of billions of dollars of revenue each year.”
So what do you do when no one is paying attention to your poetry but a small clique of groupies and devotees—each devoted to maybe half a dozen poets out of the thousands starved for attention in chapbooks, journals, colleges and universities? Perhaps you attempt to create the same kind of buzz contemporary art galleries drum up when they want to attract the “invite only” art investor. Is it coincidence that the book is published by the Dia Art Foundation? And this isn’t just any collection of poets. I notice a coterie of names that always seem to show up together, like well-connected vultures circling a feast. If you’re a certain age, if you’re a bird of the feather, you’ll be invited to the kill.
I’m shocked that I wasn’t invited. Shocked.
The problem would seem to be that a poem isn’t like a painting. There is only one painting. Complete a painting and you have, in effect, a kind of death. The painting is unique. There will never be another like it. Xerox a poem and you have two thousand—each just as worthless or invaluable as the next. It takes the death of the poet to really make a poem valuable. Alas. But wouldn’t poets love to be able to present their poems in an art gallery, poem as performance ‘piece’ and Objet d’art, and have them auctioned off for tens of thousands of dollars? Apiece?
That’s not going to happen, but maybe if you can make the poet his or herself like that painting, then maybe some of that perceived value will brush off on the poetry? If contemporary poetry can’t sell itself as poetry, then maybe as modern art? This, I think, is the effect of the book, regardless of intent. Both the poem and the poet are the centerpieces. They are curated; and we’re clearly meant to admire both. I’ll be curious to see if this “art valuation” of poets and poetry amounts to anything. It’s a new, if somewhat pretentious, play for a new market.
But why didn’t I buy the book?
I sat with it at the bookstore, reading some parts, skimming others. The problem was that I found the editorial introductions to the poets and their poems more interesting than the poems themselves. The poems are discussed much like contemporary paintings; and I can’t think of a single poem that wasn’t discussed in terms of content. The summaries also briefly describe this or that poet’s characteristic style, development and personality (as if between friends); and I do like knowing the biographies of poets. But in the time allotted me (by the parking meter) I couldn’t find a single poem that wasn’t free verse. That puts all the weight on the poem’s subject matter and they’re simply not that compelling — generally vaguely clever observations expressed in mundane forms with all the usual stale stylistic tropes — missing syntactic connectives, typographical arrangements, short lines consisting of one or two words, and various “poems” that dispense with lineation altogether—prose poems. Ron Silliman, who you would fully expect to find in a curated (and obviously important) anthology like this, dispenses with the pretense altogether. His poem is three paragraphs with all the personality of three bricks.
I would say that the poems are most typically characterized by some element of cleverness, most generally in their subject matter rather than execution. This, at least, is what seems to appeal to the editor/curator Vicent Katz. At $30.00 for the book, this just wasn’t enough to compel me.
Acknowledging that I’m not the audience for these poems, I don’t find anything in them particularly fresh or exciting. The only real test of a poet’s linguistic skills remains rhyme and meter, and not one poet risks it. I am so bored with free verse. The form is as tired as a brokeback pack mule. Critics of rhyme like to say they can guess the rhyme before they’ve read it; and maybe half the time (or better) they can. Thing is, I can guess the line endings of free verse with near one hundred percent accuracy. Writing traditional poetry is a hard, risky and potentially fatal business. I doubt any one of the poets in the anthology could pull it off. Dedicated formalists, devoting a lifetime to the constraints of the English language, have a hard time doing so but at least take the risk.
Surely Katz could have found some poets willing to buck the last hundred years of prevailing aesthetics.
There’s nothing left but overall
Remnants of what had once been fall;
Even where a week before
A leaf or two blew through the door
The dwindling days have turned to soot
The little traveling underfoot.
Snow will follow soon enough
Careening through the unmown scruff
Of jimson weed and bush clover,
Nothing apt to be covered over
With just a midday’s squall—but soon
Winter will stay the afternoon.
Then who will afterward remember
The few days readied since September?—
The ghostly sighs of thimbleweed,
The breaking knuckles of the reed,
Whole fields of startled hair turned white
Before the year end’s stricken flight.
I wouldn’t ask but that I know
It’s not just seasons come and go.
When ice gives way to watercress
And all of April’s loveliness,
Remember, though the days are few,
November has its flowers too.
by me | January 8 2018
- This is my first audio recording using my new YETI microphone. My reading of the poem is just okay, but then I’m never satisfied that way. Best that I never hear myself. The poem itself is one I started not in November of last year but the year before, with a haiku. I finally devoted the time to finishing it.
Despite the cold, which tonight may almost reach -30 below, winter is never so beautiful.
····whichever way—the Milky Way and horizon
····a winter’s night slips under the crow’s
····her colored crayons—the little girl drawing