Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Quintus Horatius Flaccus revisited

Several weeks ago I was straightening up some of my older books (i.e. trying to figure out what I had) and came across my highschool text of Latin poetry: selections from Catullus, Vergil, Horace, and some Martial. I also looked up my Penguin Classic translation of Horace, since my Latin is more rust than iron, to rediscover what I found so fascinating about him.
Horace, after fighting with the losing armies of Brutus after Caesar's murder, ended up becoming almost the unofficial poet laureate to Augustus. Virgil introduced him to Maecenas, a friend of Augustus who became his patron; he had a position with the government if he wanted it. With all that time and financial support, all he needed was talent. He had that.

Let him explain what he did. He claims to have taken the old. staid and solemn Latin forms and rhythms and urged them into older but more elaborate Greek lyric stanzas. He also shunned as much as possible the solemn poetry praising battle and empire that Augustus asked for, praising instead the little things he knew and held dear. In that way he was a forerunner of modern populist poets.

So. Instead of armies marching to war he wrote about country life, village and farm. Instead of triumphant generals celebrating victory, friends and acquaintances having a few drinks, joking around, talking about girls. Such a welcome change from Vergil's solemn Aeneid. With irony and self-deprecation he kept his personal life out of the poems. Rather than beg for emotional response, he presented the image; he was the first to claim that a poem must make the hearer "see" what the poet had in mind, the image of the imagination.

After two millenia, Horace still speaks with a voice that resonates today. His images captivate; his forms and metrics intrigue. Now to search for that Epistle, his "Ars Poetica."

Monday, March 30, 2009

The Beginnings of Poetry

I used to tell this tale to illustrate how poetry might have begun, about its usefulness and early development. I never did write it down, so here is your chance to develop your own thoughts.
Back in the days when civilization wasn't even a dream, every male of the tribe huddled in their caves and huts was expected to provide food for all. Some wandered through the forests gathering fruits, stems, roots. Others fished in the streams, hunted for animals on the plains.

One reluctant young man went with the hunters but felt out of place. He found his place one day after a very exciting hunt. The hunters returned with a story about many big animals - they killed two, see? Our young man figured he could tell the story better: he had been off to the side and was a better witness than the hunters.

He told a tale of coming upon a great number of large beasts on the plain. These beasts became angry when the hunters slowly approached. They swung their heads back and forth; their horns cut the air like the hunters swinging their knives. The light in their eyes glowed like the coals in the fire at night. Then they decided to run, and as they ran their feet made a loud sound, like that from the sky when it rained sometimes. Even so, the hunters managed to bring down and slay two of these mighty beasts.

Our story-teller was using comparisons to let his audience identify more closely with his experience. He discovered the simile, one of the basics of poetry. In time, all he needed to say was "thundering " and everyone knew he was telling of a herd of great beasts running over the plain. He now had metaphor, the sky-noise standing in place of the hooves-noise. The tribe liked the way this one told stories, but they wanted to hear them again and again.

To help him remember what came where, he developed a pattern of sounds in the telling - rhyme and then other patterns. He developed a rhythm so his cousin could beat that pattern on a drum and help him out, especially when the stories became more intricate or when he began to make up some that hadn't happened but he had only imagined.

This way of passing on history and imagination became not just popular but necessary since there was no other way to let the younger ones know what the elders had done. Poetry became the history, the record, the expression of the life of the tribe.

And then came painting scenes on the cave walls. Nice, but unlike poetry and stories, you couldn't take it with you when you moved.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Poetry to Music

Some time ago, in a conversation among a group of writers, poets all, the topic of music and writing came up. Many confessed to listening to music while writing, in the sense that music played in the background but not in any way that would interfere with their focus. One lady said she loved to "mindlessly" hum show tunes at her keyboard. A man claimed silence worked for him; he wanted to write poems not songs. Following up on that, I asked if anyone had ever written a poem with a specific song in mind, noting that poems and songs are not interchangeable, and that early poetry was meant to be accompanied by music. Sadly, most looked at me as if I were an alien; no one tried to seriously consider the question I had raised.
In truth, I was disappointed because moments like that keep happening for me. Even in my teens I would write "alternate" lyrics for a popular song the way "Weird" Al Yankovic has used to build a career on and which a country music duo, Homer and Jethro, were doing at that time. It felt right to fit my words to an established and recognized pattern, a rhythm.

I grant that such endeavors were not the best poetry, that rhythm and rhyme were more important than expression and meaning, but that's the purpose of a song. However, I still find myself doing it. Back in the sixties when I was still feeling my way into poetry, I heard Leonard Cohen at a protest rally sing "Suzanne." He fumbled with the chording on his guitar, then apologized: "I'm a poet, not a singer." He recognized the difference, and went on to write poems with rhythm but only a limited tone and delivery. At this time, I wrote a poem to the rhythm of Bob Dylan's "Love Minus Zero - No Limit." The end result was very satisfying for me, although I never tried to sing it publicly, nor have it published.

A year or two ago I composed a poem that uses the rhythm patterns of the song "Two Hundred More Miles" by the Cowboy Junkies. It has been published; whenever I read it, I feel the rhythms re-establishing themselves under my voice. I don't attempt to sing it.
Even more recently I wrote a poem in memory of Irving Layton. Its rhythm isn't based on a specific song or piece of music, but uses the lilting 3/4 waltz time as its basic dactyllic rhythm. (You know, dum dah dah, dum dah dah .) I do sing this one, but never yet in public!
Every pattern of sounds, whether in music or in poetry, carries a sense of order and freedom, a sense that reaches above the common human experience. To blend the two, whether it is the musician composing to the written or spoken word or the poet writing with the sounds of music, is an ability that can only enhance both art forms.

Monday, March 23, 2009


I hope JS Porter doesn't mind my borrowing the title of his book. Over the last few months I've been nosing through his collection of essays again, sipping at the fluid bits, holding the crunch between my teeth for a time. The two thoughts keep playing tag under and in my consciousness: can I capture the essence, the spirit of an author I admire in one word? and what word could I choose to reflect my spirit as expressed in my written words?

The answer to the first question is a qualified "yes." I hope that this is because I understand the reasoning and the ideation behind Porter's way of looking at and attaching the authors he has consociated to a single word which is more than a word. I like narrative, but prefer a novel that carries more than a well-told story, something others might call "mood" but which is more than that, something Porter calls "spirit.

I'll give you a couple of examples that work for me. When I read Tony Hillerman's books, no matter what the story the feeling I have is "open." Always, of course, there is the space and distance of the landscape. But beyond or below that is the effortless openness of his characters and that wonder which is needed to approach a different culture on its own terms. Another is James Lee Burke's tales set in Louisianna. I have never been there, but once I had the chance to taste authentic gumbo; whenever I read Burke's books, I can feel and taste "gumbo" again in my mouth as well as my mind. Then too there is a poet who shall remain nameless. Whenever I read some of his work I can hear water rushing over stone: sometimes rough, sometimes smooth, but always, no matter what the subject of his poem, water on stone.

And what word would I use to sum up what I'm trying to impart, to radiate in my own work? I think about it now and then, but often come to a different conclusion. Perhaps it's better to leave that to someone outside of me. Perhaps you.

We have so many words that can do and be so much. And sometimes one word can hold a lifetime of expression as Porter shows so well.
Just feel all the concepts that are part of the word "dance." The marvel of language is the ability of one combination of sounds to carry and share so much. As much, as infinitely much, as being alive. In all its pain and glory to be distilled into the perfect word. This is a true Zen concept.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Tristan & Iseult

I'm reading the Romance of Tristan & Iseult, the prose retelling by J. Bedier as translated by Hilaire Belloc. It's an old tale of romantic love and has much in common with the English cycle of King Arthur and the knights of the Round Table. This one deals with Tristan, son of the sister of King Mark of Cornwall. He is sent to Ireland to find Iseult of the Golden Hair to be queen of Cornwall. On the way back the two accidentally drink a love potion meant for Iseult and King Mark. The two become bound in their passion even as she marries Mark as promised. (The theme of illicit love and a cuckolded king points toward Lancelot, Guinevere, and Arthur.) I won't go into detail but the two die together on a foreign shore and the king brings their bodies home.
It's not so much the story that holds my interest as it is the tradition by which it came to us. The most ancient is a series of poems about the story, not all authored by the same poet: the German poets Eilhart von Oberg and Gottfried von Strassburg, the French poet Beroul, the Anglo-Norman Thomas the Rhymer. (Malory used a fragment for his passage in his Mort d'Arthur as a foil to the adulterous love of Guinevere and Arthur's best friend.)

As the recitals became popular and written down as poems, another version appeared in the "vulgar" language, that of the people rather than the nobility. Instead of poetry it was set down as prose, a collection of tales.Still, it all takes me back to a time when poetry was entertainment, a social activity, a means of bonding and communicating. We have given up much by passing poetry from page to eye rather than from mouth to ear.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Poetry in Cambridge (Ont.)

The other day I travelled to Cambridge to attend a meeting of the folks who are putting together an intriguing event to celebrate April, National Poetry Month. It consists of representatives of the Cambridge Libraries, their Arts Centre, and three writer/judges.

What it really consists of is three categories (Child, Young Adult, Adult) from each of which ten poems are chosen. These thirty are published, one per day throughout the month at all branches of the library, put together in a booklet, and read to an audience at a gala affair. I had the responsibility of chosing ten young adult entries; it was a matter of choice rather than judgement.

Some I liked. Some I didn't. Most fell in between the two. There was a lot of emotion but very little of the similes and metaphors that I tend to look for. I was happy when I found them, and found them well-used. I was less impressed by likes and dislikes expressed without using any poetc devices. End rhyme abounded but other sound facets of poetry: alliteration, assonance, internal rhyme, regular rhythms, were sadly lacking. Much of the appeal came to rest on pretty words.
For better or for worse, ten were chosen. I understand that the other categories had similar concerns. There was some discussion about changing criteria, etc. but we decided to keep it as open as possible. We want to encourage writers but not by excluding any.

I guess I get to give a little praise/pep talk at the gala. I'll be short and kind. I hope they don't turn out to be too shy or lacking self-confidence to read to an audience.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Rules to Shape Language

Well, I've done it again. At an outdoor display of used books one evening something caught my eye and impulsively I purchased it. This time it was a hard covered book called The Literary Workshop and subtitled 'Helps for the Writer' by one Josephine Turck Baker. It wasn't until the next day, with brighter light and some research on the internet that I discovered what I had.
The book is not about conducting a literary workshop, as might be expected. Rather, its author uses it to express her opinions on matters of style and usage. Ms Baker seems to have been one of a number of supposed authorities on the rules of language at the beginning of the last century; the most enduring of these would be Wm. Strunk's The Elements of Style. Baker wrote and published a number of such works as Correct English Publishing Co. They included volumes on the correct word, correct pronunciation, correct grammar, and the art of conversation as well as a magazine titled "Correct English."

The book contains some general rules but also gets into some very specific ones about when and how to use certain parts of speech, tenses, etc. What this book and so many like it would not consider is that language is fluid and ever changing. As I grow in understanding, my language peeves no longer seem important. (E.g. weakening the past participle of an irregular verb such as "to light" from "lit" to "lighted.") Modern usage and style seems to be governed by the style books put together by major newspapers for their staffs.

So the book I have has become a bit out of date as rules and language change. People, the ordinary users of language, begin sentences with "and" and end them with prepositions. Rules should exist to assist language, not repress it.

I'll treasure the book. It shows where language has been and proves it can not be contained.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Meaning and Poetry (3)

We've looked at different ways poetry can carry meaning. There is the apparent meaning which is conveyed by the words and images used. Delving a little deeper, we could find meaning in the connotations those words carried or the emotional references attached to them. Then, of course, there would be obscure or esoteric meanings, some that may not have been meant by the author. But underneath it all, a good poem can impart meaning by its structure.
By this I don't refer to such obvious devices as a Christmas poem in the shape of a bell, or any poem in any external concrete form. Let's look at the formats that have stood the test of time and are still in use. The sonnet is a solemn form, used to explore emotional themes and conclusions. Heroic couplets in which each two lines rhyme seem usefull to teach or preach. You could never do that with the quick, laughing form of the limerick nor with the dance-like repetition of the villanelle. Can you imagine Robert Services ballads in any other form? The line length and rhythm make an excellent conveyance for his tales. They would not lend themselves to express the solemnity found in a sonnet, nor the wit and dash of a limerick. Each form provides a well understood basis for its expression.
What happens too often in so-called free verse is that beneath all the words and images there is no trace of any structure. A poet who begins from structure and language and poetic devices will have so much more at hand to impart his meaning: literal, symbolic, emotional, or hidden. Certainly there is no rule that structure should be evident but a poem that holds together the way such forms tend to hold them will be that much stronger in its impact.
Even though you cannot immediately see the structure underlying a poem, you should be able to feel it. It is the backbone, the strength of a good poem. Structure carries meaning and also makes the poem memorable.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Meaning and Poetry (2)

We've looked at the meaning of poetry as it is carried in the language and the ways that it is used. But that's just the outside, the wrapping paper and the packaging of a poem. In the way you can see different layers of rock in the face of a cliff, a poem consists of different layers of meaning.
Most words and phrases have taken to themselves extended and inclusive meanings. A poet, when using them should be aware of the possibilities that such connotations also bring to the poem. A sea, when it is a "sea of troubles," is no longer a body of salt water; in deep blue sea we need to consider, probably by context, whether deep refers to "blue" or "sea." And this is just one level. Is the blue sea also a sea of blues, therefore a sea of troubles? That's another possibility. Then, like a dream, can it convey longing for distant places, a force limiting expansion of the soul, and so on and so on. All these layers of meaning, whether close to the surface or not, have a presence in a poem.
So a poet must be careful not to distort his clarity of expression by using words and phrases that carry meanings contradictory to what he intends. He must know and understand as much of the possibilities his words may create, what nuances lie hidden among the similes, or how his metaphor may be interpreted.
Even then, the poet should not be surprised if someone ascribes to his work a totally subjective meaning or interpretation. The wash of language can validate almost any meaning. The surrealists taught us that.