Saturday, September 17, 2011

John Donne in DC Today

When Henry Miller tried unsuccessfully to disuade a young friend from joining the big war, he took another approach. He told this friend to bring the morning paper down to the library and compare it to any newspaper from 10, 20, 30, 50 or 100 years earlier. In this classic cut to the chase, Miller dared him to find anything different in these papers and their stories of war except the names of the people and places. For Miller all war was the same war. His point wasn't any less profound for being so obvious. Ritual behavior runs a gamut from warfare and lynch mobs to praying, flirting and singing; a kind of behavior that happens constantly, inevitably and in every time and in all places.
The third century BC philopher Theophrastus wrote a book of character that attempted to make a sort of zoological catalogue of recurring personality types. He lists some 30 common personalities. He probably wasn't the first to attempt this kind of study, and he definitely wasn't the last. While I prefer Chaucer's stab at it in the Canterbury Tales, the most influential example of this kind of book today is arguably the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manuel of Mental Disorders, the so called DSM-IV. When you hear your shrink flipping pages, it may be that he's looking for you in its index.
While DSM-IV, would be a handy tome for handicapping political races and debates in the House of Representatives, there's another guide that helps me see our current congress with that same clarity that the wise old satyr, Miller, tried to shine on his young friend, the Satires of John Donne. He wrote five satires, three of them in the classic satire form perfected by the Roman poet Juvenal. In that form, the speaker of the poem (the poet) engages in something of a rant against folly to a character that he's accompanying into some scene that the character moves comfortably in. These poems rip the scene and the companion.
Donne is famous for his Jack and John phases. As a young man (Jack) he wrote rakish poems of lust and seduction as well as some of these satires and other works. Later on he wrote his Holy Sonnets in his John phase and the best of these are at least the equals of Shakespeare's best sonnets. Obviously, the satires are very different in tone from his sonorous spiritual sonnets. Donne's versification in the satires is jagged and choppy with plenty of stops contrasting to places where the verse seems to tumble out of an overstuffed closet. None of it happens casually. These are ugly poems about ugly people and I think they're beautiful. The ugly scenes are on the streets of London, in the legal courts and in the royal court.
They're the kind of poems that need to be read over and over until you're ear is attuned to that late Elizabethan rhythm. You also need to look up all of the references he's making. Only then can you begin to visualize the carefully crafted image structures he creates to sustain his logical tirades against folly, corruption and yes, sinne. The imagery often contains rich connections to his personal story as in this denigration of legal affidavits:

Of affidavits: words, words, which would teare
The tender labrynth of a soft maid's eare,
More, more, than ten Sclavonians scolding, more,
Then when winds in our ruined Abbeys rore.

Those winds in the ruined Abbey would roar very loudly in the heart of a man whose Roman Catholic family had endured the Reformation in England, a man who later became an Anglican Dean in St. Paul's. The Sclavonians of line three are Slavic people. Perhaps Donne heard the Croatian sailors scolding the lonshoremen as they unloaded bundles of fresh rosemary onto the Thame side docks, a vital image of the growing global draw of Elizabeth's London.
Taken as a whole, the images in these four lines ascend from the tender maid's ear, to the discordant unfathomable scolding of London's raw market districts to the painful history of the ruined abbeys. This kind of progression of imagery is where Donne and Shakespeare leave most other poets behind. Earlier in the poem Donne had observed that many lawyers had begun as poets. So the words words in the affidavits move out from the maiden's ear, a place where a poet's words may be more appropriate, to the rowdy assault of dock side or market place language to the trauma of a violent history.

Donne's attitude toward the political aspect of London would be familiar to most Americans as they try to figure out Washington. It is summed up in the opening lines of Satire II, "Sir; though (I thanke God for it) I do hate perfectly all this towne..." It's nice to know that Love Hate was not invented in our neurotic time. He goes on a classical tirade against writers that ends in a wonderful scatalogical observation on plagiarists:

And they who write, because all write, have still

That excuse for writing, and for writing ill;

But hee is worst, who (beggarly) doth chaw

Others wits fruits, and in his ravenous maw

Rankly digested, doth those things out-spue,

As his owne things; and they are his owne, tis true,

For if one eate my meate, though it be known
The meate was mine, th' excrement is his owne:

The portraiture is as unkind as he can make it and observing a place populated by a people "Who with sinnes all kindes as familiar bee/ As Confessors; and for whose sinfull sake;/ Schoolmen new tenements in Hell must make..."

Sunday, May 9, 2010

The more you know about Abigail Adams the more you want to know. McCullough's biography of John Adams wasn't nearly up to his Truman biography, but it had great moments in it. There's one scene where an ancient Voltaire goes to the Paris Opera, maybe for the last time, and meets Benjamin Franklin for the first time. The two of them embraced as all around the witnesses applauded the reunion of the silken tree and its homespun fruit. What a time to be in Paris, before that decadent bubble burst and sprayed the topiary bushes with royal blood. The whole political waltz between France and America, beginning with the French and Indian Wars and moving through to the Louisiana Purchase must have looked like a form of statutory rape to the political observers of that time, with France leading the little buck-skinned waifs to the slaughter. You can imagine what they were saying in London. And yet the rubes won the day. Louis the XVI must have imagined a series of French client states at the end of the gambit but the game ends with the doubling of the size of the United States.

I've been trying to imagine Paris through the 1784 eyes of Abigail Adams. Abigail came to a Paris that was buzzing with the Montgolfier brothers (the first brothers act in flight innovation) recent demonstration of manned flight in a hot air balloon. One imagines a city where all of the royal realms were surrounded by those heavily manicured landscapes as the rest of the city sprawled in Dickension slums. To Abigail both of these realities must have looked alien. Her New England farm existence was brutal enough to include those cold winters, a daughter with breast cancer and an absentee husband who the British meant to draw and quarter, but it wasn't the sort of hopeless squalor that the poor in Paris were enduring. It may have required red-knuckled determination, but Massachussets had hope.

When she finally eased into the more elegant Parisian scene, Abigail must have walked on air.
I've been trying to imagine it through her eyes for a poem, that won't resolve itself. As is often the case, my favorite line is almost unintelligible to a reader; "the thinnest slice of silence from the slab." It came out of thinking about her perceptions of those manicured landscapes, how surreal they must have seemed.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

On Mendelsohn's Cavafy

One of the great things about new translations is that they compel you to revisit poets, you may have already consigned to that zone known as the already read. The new translation of his work by Daniel Mendelsohn was just the catalyst I needed to pick Cavafy up again. After about an hour of reading, I fell into a pleasant state of half-sleep in which I dreamed of him at his desk writing. Imagine Constantine Cavafy settling into his creative realm to write one of his poems. Outside, the Alexandrian evening is clattering with its noise, a noise that has sung an unbroken urban aria for thousands of years. Rising from within him to meet that sound is a kindred cacophony from antiquity. He hears the internal, and often mundane, voices of countless sailors and bureaucrats, winners and losers, as if he were the lone confidant of an utterly lost age.
While Cavafy is the Greekest poet since Homer, he is also an Egyptian poet writing in Greek. And it’s precisely his Egyptian qualities that enable him to conjure up the Greek and Roman voices that haunt his poems. Cavafy’s eloquently measured testimony of the players of the past, both mundane and magnificent, are an expression of Alexandria itself, where the horizontal reality of the living street intersects with the vertical presence of the passage of time and its attendant dead.
The book begins with The City, whose opening admonition sent a chill through this travel writer.

You’ll find no new places, you won’t find other shores.
The city will follow you. The streets in which you pace
will be the same, you’ll haunt the same familiar places,
and inside those same houses you’ll grow old.
You’ll always end up in this city. Don’t bother to hope
for a ship or a route, to take you somewhere else; they don’t exist.
Just as you’ve destroyed your life, here in this
small corner, so you’ve wasted your life throughout the world.

A different, and perhaps more American, tone comes from Whitman’s, “afoot and light hearted, I take to the open road.” Cavafy’s tone is what makes him sound so Egyptian to me. If you’re lucky enough to get to Cairo or to make good friends with Egyptians you’ll likely find that they have about them, for lack of a better term, a world weariness that seems steeped in their experience of a vast and dry country whose population centers gather around water whether it’s the Nile, the oases, the Red or Mediterranean sea shores. Herodotus said it best with his famous line, “Egypt is a gift of the Nile.” Couple that with an overwhelming sense of the Past deriving from the enormously powerful monuments from antiquity. Even in its infancy, ancient Egypt was preoccupied with the mysteries of death. It’s not for nothing that its most famous surviving manuscript is The Book of the Dead.
In Cavafy, these essentially Egyptian sensibilities are expressed in Greek measures that endow them with that unadorned elegance that give them a classical feel. Thus the poetry speaks with the confident authority of a sensibility speaking almost from beyond the grave with the full knowledge of history, especially its limitations, as when the Alexandrians knew “what empty words these kingdoms were.” Compare the presence of history in Cavafy to the history served up by a poet like Tennyson, who mainly sees it as a grandiloquent canvas for the spreading of glorious battle pennants and monumental achievement. At times, as in the lines about travel above, Cavafy’s authoritative admonitions sound similar to Aeschylus at his most didactic.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Stations of the Cross #3 is probably Fernando Pessoa's most quoted poem by those who read him in English translation. I have issues with the English rendering of the poem by Peter Rickard, as I think, he clung to close to the original syntax of the Portuguese in the final two lines. It's a 14 line poem and if it suggests a sonnet, it's more akin to Petrarch's eight and six; than to Shakespeare's quatrain's & couplet.

It's the changing nature of the persona in the poem that I find so interesting. As a Station of the Cross, Jesus is speaking at the same time, as Boabdil, the last Moorish King of Granada and Pessoa himself. The reader moves through all of these figures who are being exposed to the same emotional torrents at entirely different times. The opening stanza suggests that Christ is "remembering" the exile of Boabdil which actually took place 1,400 years later. If the reader chooses to locate the voice in Pessoa than it's chronological, but if they prefer, as I do, to locate the voice in Christ it cuts a much more interesting sensibility. I believe both readings are intentionally juxtaposed as part of Pessoa's struggle.
Since I first saw this poem in the 1980s, I often considered Christ "remembering" all the subsequent history that moved forward from his death. He remembered from Golgotha, the death camps of World War II, the slaughters of the Crusades, the Black Plague and the whole march of Western history.
In the second stanza he says,
Perhaps in former time I was, not Boabdil,

But merely his last look from the road

At the face of the Granada he was leaving,history

A cold silouhette beneath the unbroken blue...

Boabdil's exodus is one of the most operatic moments in history and the heart break of the Moor fires the legends of Granada; that most tragic and beautiful of Spanish cities. It's said that as Boabdil cried on the road from Granada, his mother delivered the hammer with, "Go on cry like a woman for what you couldn't defend as a man." Ouch.

If you've been divorced; evicted from your home and family, you may be able to channel the feelings of Boabdil as he watched Isabella and Ferdinand move into his quarters in the Alhambra.
Pessoa, who was a man of many names and many personae, ends his poem with those great six last lines.

What I am now is that imperial longing

For what I once saw of myself in the distance...

I am myself the loss I suffered...

And on this road which leads to Otherness

Bloom in slender wayside glory

The sunflowers of the empire dead in me...

These tragic images flow through Christ, Boabdil and Pessoa simultaneously; a fusion of religion, history and poetry.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

The great sea
Has sent me adrift,
It moves me as a weed in a great river,
Earth and the great weather move me,
Have carried me away,
And move my inward parts with joy.
I first came upon this poem back in a class I took on the Inuit in college. The version I had back then was part of a longer poem collected by anthropologist Knud Rasmussen, who did more to explain Inuit culture than anyone. I always imagine a lone rider in a kayak when I think of this poem. It's a crisp morning and she is having a moment outside of her labors to see exactly where and what she is. Somehow she makes insignificance feel comfortable and resignation becomes an almost divine act of will. The way the poet shifts landscape from being a weed in a great river to a being subject to the movements of the great weather and than moving the landscape to her inner world now awash in joy. It's an unusual use of shape shifting, as the poet having dissolved into her landscape now changes as it changes because she's inside of it and then in the last line it's inside of her and we're back to where the poem's perspective began.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

On Two lines by Gabirol

"Be smart with your love," my friend chided,
"Find solid ground for the circle it clears."

You could make a case that Shelomo Ibn Gabirol (1021 to 1058) suffered the early incarnation of the soul that tore just as violently through the life of Arthur Rimbaud. In the brief bio that introduces Gabirol's selection in The Dream of the Poem, Hebrew Poetry from Muslim and Christian Spain 950-1492 (Princeton University Press), Peter Cole, the anthology's editor and translator, describes a man who was writing "accomplished poems by 16, important ones by 19." The portrait Cole paints is of a physically ugly man who lived in constant pain due to an unknown illness and who did not suffer fools.

Though he wrote philosophical treatises and many other poems, I have found myself stuck on the lines above since I first encountered Cole's translations on a trip to Andalucia a couple of years ago. The image of love clearing a circle conjures up two aspects of love; the sexual ritual of clearing space to make love and secondly, the clearing of space for a home, and by extension, a family.

That in itself would make the lines worth remembering, but the image also addresses the power of love in an individual, the singular focus of it, so strong that it creates a circle of clarity within the confusions and distractions of life. That emotional focus that is so overpowering when we first fall in love; maybe it's that focus that is so captivating.

It's believed that Gabirol's family may have been dislodged from Cordoba when the fundamentalist Berbers razed the city for being too effete. Cordoba, the smashed hive from which all the honey bees scattered to enlighten other Andalucian cities that include such lost glories as Seville, Cadiz and Grenada. Though they are all beautiful in their own way, Cordoba feels the most essential. The Great Mosque, squats in the middle of it all, its interior arches telescoping deeper into the darkness. To think that Maimonides was a boy strolling past the town's blinding white homes and narrow lanes. After the destruction, all of that creativity that had gathered to the court of the Ummayids was banished to wander town to town.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Consider the way the word "socialism" is being swatted around in the newspapers and on the news networks. We are told the bank bail out is socialism. The stimulus package is socialism also as is universal health care. Whenever the word socialism is used it evokes, and is usually intended to evoke, the word communism. The words belong to a lexicon of conservative boogie words, words that are called upon to channel essential American fears. Reagan was able to manipulate the word liberal into the grand tradition. The catalogue of these words reaches back to the way the word anarchist was used by the newspapers to describe Sacco and Vanzetti or the flaming wildman who shot Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo.

To the American ear the words anarchist, socialist and communist suggest something foreign. They suggest ideas cooked outside of our wholesome history by long bearded men in long black coats working devilishly, wildly in European basements where ideas are concocted in cauldrons. Liberalism, on the other hand, is as American as baseball, apple pie and Woodrow Wilson. Liberals, the feeling goes, are the Americans who through their smug naivety will sell out the real Americans to the communists, socialists and anarchists.

In the Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne, the tightly knit community of Salem fixates on the wild dancing that goes on in the forest outside of town. To those Puritans, nature was not the pristine paradise untainted by sin, that it is positioned as today. Back then, it was the haunt of devils and witches. Despite all of the drugs, violence and decadence going on right here in America that we read about in our newspapers and see on our TVs, we still seem as paranoic about ideas coming in from foreign lands as our ancestors were about the wild dancing in the forests.

Isn't it interesting that we don't associate the political power that wealth buys as a case of creeping European decadence?

"What is astonishing," he said, "is that this public which judges the men and events of the war solely from the newspapers, is persuaded that it forms its own opinions." So said Baron de Charlus in Proust's Time Regained.