Strange Arts & Visual Delights
Elizabeth Bishop in Brazil in 1964.
Public domain (source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elizabeth_Bishop#/media/File:Elizabeth_Bishop,_1964.jpg)
People sometimes ask where an artist’s ideas come from. It’s a hard question to answer; “it depends” is probably the most accurate answer, though hardly illuminating to the questioner.
On a few blessed occasions, the answer is, “from everywhere.” I like this comment from a letter by Elizabeth Bishop to her friend, Robert Lowell:
Your poems “have that sure feeling, as if you’d been in a stretch … when everything and anything suddenly seemed material for poetry—or not material, seemed to be poetry, and all the past was illuminated in long shafts here and there, like a long-waited-for sunrise. If only one could see everything that way all the time! It seems to me it’s the whole purpose of art, to the artist (not to the audience)—that rare feeling of control, illumination—life is all right, for the time being.” (Elizabeth Spires, "One life, one art: Elizabeth Bishop in her letters,” https://newcriterion.com/issues/1994/5/one-life-one-art-elizabeth-bishop-in-her-letters)
An amusing side note comes from Cole Porter’s many stories explaining the origins of “Night and Day” (see William McBrien, Cole Porter, 1998). I’ve captured his various accounts, with poetic license, in my poem, “Theories of Origin,” recently published in Skating Rough Ground:
Theories of Origin
a little hotel, a patio,
ivory dealers in burnouses,
the barkeep simpatico,
a round on the house,
night and day the phonograph playing
Night & Day
while Porter’s in the corner saying
I wrote that in a taxi
in the roar of the traffic--
no, at lunch with the Astor’s
in Newport, when it was raining
drip drip drip—but no,
it wasn’t so prosaic--
I took the wife (no, lover)
to the starry mosaic
vault of a mausoleum--
no no no, it was the plaintive
cry of the muezzin
from a mosque in Morocco--
and no it doesn’t matter
darling where it was
on the Black Sea or a bus’s
if in a bar in Zanzibar
or on far out Antares
or in patent dancing shoes
under a nightclub moon.
That’s the best answer perhaps—it doesn’t matter.
Photo is in the public domain.
Creator:Jan Tomas - M. Manea, B. Teodorescu, Istoria românilor de la 1821 până în 1989, Ed. Didactică şi Pedagogică, Bucureşti, 1998, p. 188
Mihai Eminescu (1850 –1889) was a Romanian Romantic poet from Moldavia, and (according to Wikipedia) is generally regarded as the most influential Romanian poet. Several years ago, near the end of 2012, I worked on translating Eminescu’s Sonnet 1 from Romanian to English. Not knowing Romanian, I consulted an English translation, a French translation, Google Translate, and an on-line Romanian dictionary. To avoid a footnote, I added one line—the last line of the third stanza is an explanation of the story of Dochia (which I’ve spelled “Dokia” to clarify the pronunciation). I used Wikipedia to guess at the context of the tale of Dochia for the poem. I also had the help of a young woman from Romania who was excited about seeing the poem in English; she provided literal translations and comments on many words and lines.
Recently, I shared the poem with a friend with a background in Romanian folklore and literature. I was concerned about the switch from 2nd person to 1st person in the poem, but she assured me that it’s in the original, though the 2nd person has the sense of the French “on,” which in English can be quite awkwardly rendered as “one.” Using 1st person throughout would provide a more seamless reading experience, but for now I’m sticking with 2nd person in the octave.
My Linked-in connection says Dochia was not a fairy, but Eminescu thought otherwise, at least for the sake of the poem:
Outside, the leaves scatter. A fierce shower
beats its heavy drops against the pane,
while you pull out your frayed letters again
and relive a whole life in one short hour.
You hope no one knocks on your shut door
as you ponder things once said, the past’s refrain
of sweet nothings that soothe away cold rain.
You nod in pleasant daydreams by the fire.
Lost in that thought, as mist fills up my room,
I call to mind Dokia’s fairy sighs.
In dead winter she coveted spring’s bloom.
The rustling of a skirt is in my ear…
Footsteps lightly skip from stair to stair…
Those elegant cold fingers press my eyes.
"Virtually every sentence that contains the word 'brand' is bullshit...."--Cory Doctorow, "The Memex Method" (https://doctorow.medium.com/the-memex-method-238c71f2b46). This post prompted me to consider what I was reading and thinking about 10 years ago.
Portrait on Wittgenstein's being awarded a scholarship from Trinity College, 1929. Clara Sjögren - Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius by Ray Monk. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ludwig_Wittgenstein#/media/File:35._Portrait_of_Wittgenstein.jpg. Public domain.
Somewhere—probably in Ray Monk’s biography—I’ve read of the value the philosopher Wittgenstein placed on a poem by Ludwig Uhland (1787-1862), “Graf Ebenhards Weißdorn.” In that poem, Wittgenstein claimed the unsayable was “contained in what has been uttered” (qtd. in Tilghman, Wittgenstein, Ethics, and Aesthetics, 64).
When positivists of the Vienna Circle “met with Wittgenstein at times expecting elucidations on the nature of logic… instead [they] received defenses of religion or listened to Wittgenstein recite and discuss poetry” (Tilghman 18; Martin Pulido, "The Place of Saying and Showing in Wittgenstein's Tractatus," Aporia 19:2, 2009, 25).
Here's my rendition of Uhland’s poem. I wrote it several years with the help of Google Translate and other translations posted on the web; I no longer recall the sources. At the time, I was puzzled by what Wittgenstein claimed to have seen in the poem, but now I think I understand a little. In Christian legend, Christ’s crown of thorns was sometimes said to be from a hawthorn. I do not know whether Wittgenstein associated the sprig in the count’s helmet with the crown of thorns, but it seems possible.
Please send comments to email@example.com.
Count Eberhard’s Hawthorn
by Ludwig Uhland (1787-1862)
Count Eberhard the Beard
From Wurttemberg’s domain
On a pious journey fared
To the shores of Palestine.
One day as he was riding
A woodland path in spring
From a hawthorn bush
He took a little cutting.
In his iron helmet
He placed the hawthorn spray;
He carried it off to war
Over the flowing sea.
And when he was back home
He set it in the earth,
And soon the leaves and buds
Into life were stirred.
The count, faithful and true,
Each year came to the sprig;
He was filled with joy
To see it grow so big.
The count shrank with age,
The sprig became a tree.
Beneath it the old man sat
In deepest reverie.
Its high-arching limbs,
Its whisper in his ear
Remind him of the past
And of the distant shore.
For years, I've been collecting quotations that catch my eye or ear. Here's a set of roughly related thoughts on style and matter. The flowers were on our now demolished deck.
The fool is disturbed not when we tell him his ideas are false, but when we suggest they have gone out of style.--Nicolas Gomez Davila
Those who yield and adopt the style of the moment are killed the moment after.—Roberto Calasso, The Ruin of Kasch
The only books that matter are those of which it could be said that their author would have suffocated had he not written them.—Julian Green
The weight of our craft stays the same: / To change time into a stanza, / To concentrate fear into meaning.—Tomas Venclova
The greater the probability of a symbol's occurrence in any given situation, the smaller will be its information content. – E.H. Gombrich
Where we can anticipate we need not listen. – E.H. Gombrich, "Art and Illusion"
Today … the range of possible poetic attitudes often excludes such opportunities for satire, argument, and moral opinion as … seen in … [Wordsworth's "Great men have been among us," Shakespeare’s Sonnet 110, and Goldsmith's riff on David Garrick in "Retaliation"], favoring instead detailed particulars of person and setting, confessionalism, and the anti-intellectual role of seeming sincere. These preferences leave out formality and the play of rhetoric, especially any rhetoric with heroic content, as in Wordsworth’s poem. But also in Shakespeare’s 110th sonnet we witness a willingness to explore extremes not of experience only but even of culpability; it is this possibility of guilt that is even further antipathetic to most late-20th-century poets’ threshold of self-esteem.—Mary Kinzie, A Poet's Guide to Poetry.
In the 10th century, when the Kievan knights entered Haggia Sophia...they did not know if there were still on earth or... in heaven.—Czesław Miłosz
[In poetry] straining comes to nothing, for we receive the gift whether we are deserving of it or not.—Czesław Miłosz, Milosz's ABCs, “Ambition.”
Horror is the law of the world of living creatures, and civilization is concerned with masking that truth.—Czesław Miłosz
In the very essence of poetry there is something indecent: / a thing is brought forth which we didn't know we had in us.—Czesław Miłosz
The clothes of my name fall away and disappear.—Czesław Miłosz
Culture is slow, destruction can be instantaneous. For years I have been trying to capture in English something of the rapidity and delicacy of Rilke's poem on the beautiful butterfly and two texts that cannot be read--the characters on the butterfly's wings and a love letter torn to shreds. My poem is perhaps less a translation than an approach, a homage, to his poem.
After Rainer Maria Rilke
A butterfly near the ground
lets attentive nature look
at the illuminated letters
in its flight book.
Another folds its wings
on the flower I breathe--
now’s not the time to read.
Many others are flying:
the azures scatter,
floating and fluttering
like scraps of blue paper
from a love letter in the wind,
the letter torn to shreds
that I was writing for
my beloved as she stood,
hesitating, at my door.
I first became acquainted with the poetry of Nikolaï Kantchev in several issues of Visions International. Kantchev (1938 – 2007) was a Bulgarian poet, recognized after the fall of the Communist regime as one of the great Bulgarian poets of the 20th century. His first poems were published in 1957. He was barred from publishing from 1968 to 1980, but then published around thirty collections before his death in 2007. He has been translated into French (the French Wikipedia article is the source of my biographical and publication information) and several other languages, including Spanish, Italian, German, and Polish.
The English translations in Visions International are by Pamela Perry, a folklorist specializing in Bulgaria, and by Bradley Strahan, poet and editor of Visions International. Kantchev sent to Pam his own rough literal translations into English; she cleaned them up and sent them to Brad who, he writes, “to the best of my ability, … tried to make them work poetically in English without losing the intent and nature of the original.” Hopes for publishing a collection didn’t work out, but Visions continues to publish the translations. For Brad, it is a personal as well as literary project. In 2003, when he was in Macedonia on a Fulbright, he met Kantchev in Sofia after a scary bus ride through the mountains.
The first of Kantchev’s poems that caught my attention was “Wonders,” in number 92 of Visions International and reprinted here with permission:
Wherever I look wonders tremble in a haze.
A sunflower hurls a shining hare into space
while my right hand speaks to my left.
Facing my doppelganger I reply to my face,
Forgetting that the earth's skin bleeds with lava.
A treacherous wave sweeps toward us from the sea,
while the angry man's head becomes thoughtless fist.
There's no golden mean where they rule.
Let the one who claims you don't need wings to fly
drag himself over the land with a sea-snake's legs.
Uncovered during the night, I half close my eyes
to see if the cold will melt the Arctic.
Later the artificial ice will turn to glass.
White crows are perched on a snowy peak.
Toward evening they strew their feathers on the milky-say.
Even if it's Turkish-blue, the azure can't become a sultan,
though the moonlit beach glows with naked women.
In this place where the young have old testament faces
the plain is still grass and the grass a plain.
Here I've become the fourth leaf of a clover.
Let darkness spend the day in a well!
Let our ears be locked away from evil,
so that Cerberus' barking can't be heard.
With unheard words love half opens the world.
Every echo shall carry the flag of love's voice.
According to Wikipedia, Kantchev’s poetic practice employs many forms, combining modern and archaic techniques so as to offer, in the course of his books, a “personal synthesis of the history of poetry, whose epochs all appear as contemporary.” The wide range of cultural, historical, and literary references in “Wonders” supports the accuracy of this generalization. Though perhaps the poet would disagree--"that is not what I meant at all"--his work seems to participate in our long historical moment in literature, where the past, as Eliot wrote, becomes “fragments I have shored against my ruins.”
After ten years of work, especially during the year of lockdowns, I have a new book out—my annotated edition of an old, relatively obscure book, My Own Life or, A Deserted Wife, a memoir first published in 1898 by Ida Beard, a thirty-six year old woman from Winston-Salem, with only a grade-school education. She wrote the story of her life and her failed marriage to keep herself and her children from starving. It is available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle or directly from me; for a copy, message me on FB or send an email (jsabsherphd @sign gmail.com).
I will be writing more about Ida and her world. Set during the rise of a prosperous tobacco city, the Panic of 1893, and the coming of Jim Crow, her book has about everything—romantic love, neglect and abuse and attempted murder, a wicked stepmother and runaway sisters, tragic deaths, a race riot, fraud and deceit, the disastrous effects of economic depression, unexpected kindness, persistence in the face of adversity—and the intercession of friendly ghosts. To sell her book, Ida traveled the country for 30 years and eventually sold 90,000 copies.
Sales from this book will support my research into my next topic, a group portrait of the 50 African American men arrested in Winston-Salem, in 1895, for their part in preventing a lynching (this is the race riot referred to above). I’m interested in who they were (their backgrounds, professions/trades, family and social relationships, church affiliations, etc.), and, to the extent it’s possible to determine, why they acted as they did—that is, arming themselves, standing guard over the jail, and refusing to disperse despite the apparently sincere assurances of town officials.
For the most part, Joanie McLean’s Every Single Thing (Wayfarer Books, 2021) touches on human and social relationships through absence and loss.
A fine example is “Do You Know,” a poem addressing a dead friend who threw an annual Christmas party for the whole town. In the friend’s absence, the town carries on the tradition. As the poet carries the “little boy” of the dead friend through the crowd, she asks her friend:
Could you see how everyone’s
that shift around the eyes,
the inhale—as they realized
whom I held.
The poet poses other questions to the dead friend, none ending in question marks, perhaps a signal that the questions are rhetorical: no response is expected, beyond the sharper sense of absence elicited by the question.
Every Single Thing describes an aging and somewhat lonely existence—the loneliness partly a result of life events, partly a result of choices made. The communion with trees and animals is not shared with a larger human community. But a life so richly rooted in the life of field, stable, wood, and creek, is not bleak.
For more on Joanie’s poetry, please consult her website (https://www.joaniemclean.com/).
The poet alone speaking loud enough for others to overhear—this is the rhetorical situation of much modern lyric poetry since the Romantics. Reading Horace’s odes does not give me the same feeling. Though he lives on his farm in cultivated retirement, there are invitations, parties, poems of advice, descriptions of public events and shared historical experience. From my casual reading of his odes in translation, he is far from being “an ineffectual angel beating in the void his luminous wings in vain,” as Matthew Arnold described Shelley.
In my own poetry, at times I have tried to write from a communal perspective, with mixed results at best. This is a topic I hope to return to in future posts.
I first encountered McLean’s poetry in a poetry critique group. Over time I noticed her frequent use of personification. Every Single Thing (Wayfarer Books, 2021) has a number of interesting examples.
has gathered up its hems
and retreated to its center.
Less obviously, in the first stanza of “Snow Coming,” McLean writes: “The wind tests the tin roof, / tries the tack room door.”
At the end of “Black Mingo Creek,” the poet is floating down the creek in a boat. She sees a
of cotton mouths
coiled on the mucky shore.
I nod my respect
towards the shore,
McLean’s personifications arise naturally from her experience of nature, rather than as an arbitrary imposition of technique on experience. They grant an equality of being between the poet and the personified and allow the poet and her reader to “see into the life of things,” as Wordsworth describes it in “Tintern Abbey.” In “Abscission,” the technique helps us experience the falling leaves of autumn in a novel way. I urge you to read the poem for yourself.
As a young poet, I dismissed personification as fusty and lazy, but in McLean’s hands it gracefully bears a heavy load of meaning, a genuine connection to the natural world.