Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Montale's Eel

I'm reliably informed (by Marco Sonzogni of Victoria University) that there are now more than fifty English-language versions of Eugenio Montale's famous lyric "L'anguilla" [The Eel], from his late collection La bufera ed altro [The Storm and Other Things] (1956).

So what's wrong with one more? (Mine's a little on the free side, as you'll observe from the version I've included underneath):


frigid ice-queen
of the Baltic
who quits her haunts

to plumb our river
branch to branch

capillary to capillary
deeper deeper
into the rock

writhing through ditches
till one day
a flash of light

glancing off chestnuts
ignites her
in the stagnant pond

lightstick birchwand
Love’s arrow on earth

led downhill through
Apennine gullies
to green fields

still waters
through dust & drought
the spark that says

Just do it
when everything’s
burnt toast

your spitting
iris recognition

would suggest
mired in this life
can you not call her


Here's a more literal translation for anyone else who'd care to try their hand:

Eugenio Montale (1896-1981):
L’anguilla / The Eel

L’anguilla, la sirena
The eel, siren
dei mari freddi che lascia il Baltico
of the cold seas that quits the Baltic
per giungere ai nostri mari,
to come to our seas,
ai nostri estuari, ai fiumi
to our estuaries, to the rivers
che risale in profondo, sotto la piena avversa,
rising from the deep, under the downstream surge,
di ramo in ramo e poi
from branch to branch and then
di capello in capello, assottigliati,
from capillary to capillary, slimming itself down,
sempre più addentro, sempre più nel cuore
increasingly more inside, increasingly into the heart
del macigno, filtrando
of rock, infiltrating
tra gorielli di melma finché un giorno
between rills of mud until one day
una luce scoccata dai castagni
a light glancing off the chestnuts
ne accende il guizzo in pozze d’acquamorta,
lights her fuse in stagnant puddles,
nei fossi che declinano
in ravines cascading down
dai balzi d’Appennino alla Romagna;
from the flanks of the Apennines to Romagna;
l’anguilla, torcia, frusta,
eel, flashlight, birch,
freccia d’Amore in terra
arrow of Love on earth
che solo i nostri botri o i disseccati
that only our gullies or dried
ruscelli pirenaici riconducono
Pyrenean streams lead back
a paradisi di fecondazione;
to a paradise of insemination;
l’anima verde che cerca
the soul that seeks green
vita là dove solo
life there where only
morde l’arsura e la desolazione,
drought and desolation bite,
la scintilla che dice
the spark that says
tutto comincia quando tutto pare
everything begins when everything seems
incarbonirsi, bronco seppellito;
burnt to charcoal, a buried stump;
l’iride breve, gemella
brief iris, twin
di quella che incastonano i tuoi cigli
to the one your lashes frame
e fai brillare intatta in mezzo ai figli
which makes you shine intact in the midst of the sons
dell’uomo, immersi nel tuo fango, puoi tu
of man, immersed in your mud, can you
non crederla sorella?
not believe her sister?

So what's all that about? To find out, let's turn to the notes in Jonathan Galassi's magisterial translation of Montale's Collected Poems 1920-1954 (2000), p.594 et seq:

Arrowsmith [in his dual-text version of La Bufera ed altra, 1985] emphasizes that the eel should not be read as essentially phallic, but that it incorporates both sexes, incarnating an "undifferentiated 'life force' akin to Bergson's elan vital" ... 'The Eel,' then, should be viewed as a cosmic love-poem, an account of the phylogeny of the human spirit as well as a dithyramb to the woman who inspired it, or as [Gilberto] Lonardi ... puts it, "the anabasis of the Anima, in the Jungian sense, of its author".

Just so. Couldn't have put it better myself.

I'd also recommend the fascinating discussion of Robert Lowell's strange translation / adaptation of the poem (included in Imitations, 1961) in Paul Muldoon's recent collection of his Oxford lectures on poetry, The End of the Poem (2006). Lowell ended up running this poem into the one which happened to be printed next to it in the Penguin Book of Italian Verse, as he didn't realise that the page divide was also the end of the poem ...

Monday, April 21, 2008

The "Queen's English Society" on Poetry

I dropped round to see my parents on Sunday. My father wanted to show me an article from the Weekend Herald on the necessity of rhyme and metre in poetry. He assumed it would interest me, but I'm afraid that I was very dismissive of it and him. And now I'm feeling guilty about it, because I read the article online this morning, and it interests me very much. So sorry Dades. I'll be way less offhand next time.

Basically the article (actually reprinted from the British Observer) discusses a group of people called the "Queen's English Society" who have "turned their attention to contemporary poetry and poets, arguing that too often strings of words are being labelled as poems despite the fact they have no rhyme or metre."
The campaigners say that there should be a new definition of poetry, outlining the characteristics needed before a piece of work can be called a poem.

"A lot of people high up in poetry circles look down on rhyme and metre and think it is old-fashioned," said Bernard Lamb, president of the QES and an academic at Imperial College London.

"But what is the definition of poetry? I would say, if it doesn't have rhyme or metre, then it is not poetry, it is just prose. You can have prose that is full of imagery, but it is still prose."
Michael George Gibson, who is heading the campaign, goes on to say:
"For centuries word-things, called poems, have been made according to primary and defining craft principles of, first, measure and, second, alliteration and rhyme," said Gibson. "Word-things not made according to those principles are not poems."

True poems, he said, gave the reader or listener a "special pleasure".

Gibson praised the work of Chaucer, Shakespeare, John Donne, Robert Graves and even Queen Elizabeth I, all of whom he thought followed the rules of poetry. But he was critical of current writers ...
I guess that Gibson must have become aware of the difficulties of his position when he realised that, by his own society's rules, Homer and Virgil didn't write poetry -- nor did any of the Classical poets or dramatists, in fact. Rhyme only became a technical resource for European poetry in the Middle Ages.

In fact, it's conjectured by many that the Troubadours, who first pioneered its use in their songs and ballads, borrowed rhyme from the Arabic poets of Spain. Some medieval Latin poets had already begun to use rhyme rather than the syllable-length-based metres employed by Greek and Latin poets before that, though, so the question is a controversial one.

I don't want to seem as if I'm splitting hairs or trying to bury the argument in pure historical detail. If the "Queen's English" society are solely interested in the rules of poetry in English, I think there may be certain problems with their argument even there.

Is blank verse, the standard English iambic pentameter, "poetic"? Shakespeare, singled out for special praise above, very seldom wrote in rhyme. In his songs and sonnets, yes, but not in his plays. Is the concluding couplet the only piece of "poetry" in his scenes? Do his plays become less poetic as the metre gets looser and harder to scan? By that argument, "Two Gentlemen of Verona" (an early, very regularly written play, in careful accentual pentameters) is closer to poetry than late masterpieces such as "King Lear" or "Hamlet."

Milton specifically decried "the modern barbarism of rhyming" in his preface to Paradise Lost. Is that a poem? It certainly doesn't rhyme. Was Milton only a poet in his early work, when he did use rhymes - in "L'Allegro and "Il Penseroso," for instance? Milton thought he was being more poetic by not rhyming -- he hated the jogtrot rhyming heroic couplets which would dominate English verse for the next century, preferring instead to refer to Classical models for his own epic diction. Is Pope's Dunciad (rhyming) a better poem than Paradise Lost (unrhymed)?

"Measure" and "alliteration," the two words Gibson uses to accompany "rhyme" as identifying features of "true poetry", were presumably chosen to get over this difficulty. After all, Anglo-Saxon poetry didn't rhyme - Beowulf was composed in alliterative verse. Rhyme came into England with the Norman conquest, in fact, and took a good two or three centuries to take hold here.

Strangest of all is the contrast the article ends on.

John Donne's bizarre, eccentric (electrifying) masterpiece "The Sun Rising" is contrasted with a recent poem by "Michael Schmidt, a contemporary poet and academic who had been awarded an OBE. Schmidt's piece "Pangur Ban" was not poetry, said Gibson."
Jerome has his enormous dozy lion.
Myself, I have a cat, my Pangur Ban.
What did Jerome feed up his lion with?
Always he's fat and fleecy, always sleeping
As if after a meal.
Perhaps a Christian?
Perhaps a lamb, or a fish, or a loaf of bread.
His lion's always smiling, chin on paw,
What looks like purring rippling his face
And there on Jerome's escritoire by the quill and ink pot
The long black thorn he drew from the lion's paw.
I have to say that these lines sounded pretty familiar to me. And, sure enough, a quick search revealed the (admittedly rhyming) Irish original of Schmidt's poem:
Pangur Ban

Messe ocus Pangur Bán,
cechtar nathar fria saindan:
bíth a menmasam fri seilgg,
mu memna céin im saincheirdd.

Caraimse fos (ferr cach clu)
oc mu lebran, leir ingnu;
ni foirmtech frimm Pangur Bán:
caraid cesin a maccdán.

O ru biam (scél cen scís)
innar tegdais, ar n-oendís,
taithiunn, dichrichide clius,
ni fris tarddam ar n-áthius.

Gnáth, huaraib, ar gressaib gal
glenaid luch inna línsam;
os mé, du-fuit im lín chéin
dliged ndoraid cu ndronchéill.

Fuachaidsem fri frega fál
a rosc, a nglése comlán;
fuachimm chein fri fegi fis
mu rosc reil, cesu imdis.

Faelidsem cu ndene dul
hi nglen luch inna gerchrub;
hi tucu cheist ndoraid ndil
os me chene am faelid.

Cia beimmi a-min nach ré
ni derban cách a chele:
maith la cechtar nár a dán;
subaigthius a óenurán.

He fesin as choimsid dáu
in muid du-ngni cach oenláu;
du thabairt doraid du glé
for mu mud cein am messe.
In other words, the Queen's English Society's argument has now extended to translations (and adaptations) of existing poems.

The Irish monk who originally wrote that lovely poem about his cat, did indeed use rhyme. Does that mean that all subsequent translators should do the same, even if their versions sound far limper than Schmidt's?
I and Pangur Ban my cat,
'Tis a like task we are at:
Hunting mice is his delight,
Hunting words I sit all night
... etc. etc. (trans. Robin Flower)
So was Pope on the right track in translating Homer into rhyming couplets, thus turning his (unrhyming) Greek hexameters into poetry? Or is it better to translate Homer into English hexameters, even though English is a stress-based language which can't really reproduce the metrical forms of unstressed languages such as Latin and Greek? Or would it be better to use (unrhymed) blank verse, even though it doesn't really resemble the Greek forms at all?

The responses Gibson has received are quite instructive, also:
One Poetry Society trustee told Gibson: "There is poetry in everything we say or do, and if something is presented to me as a poem by its creator, or by an observer, I accept that something as a poem."

Ruth Padel, a prize-winning poet who used to be chair of trustees at the Poetry Society, added: "In The Use of Poetry TS Eliot said, `We learn what poetry is - if we ever learn - by reading it'."

Schmidt, professor of poetry at the University of Glasgow, argued that for centuries poets had added variations to patterns and rules.

"It seems a primitive and even infantile notion that there are rules poetry must obey," said Schmidt, who accused the QES of placing poetry in a "straitjacket".

"Poetry that follows the rules too closely is bad poetry. I think every form of verse, free or metrical, establishes a pattern and plays on variations of it."
The "rhyme and metre" argument is certainly too simplistic to match the complexity of what has traditionally been regarded as "poetry" even in the English-speaking world. I mean, the QES's argument, if taken to extremes would argue that only the metrical versions of the Biblical Psalms turn them into true poems:
The Lord's my shepherd, I'll not want.
He makes me down to lie
In pastures green, he leadeth me
The quiet waters by.
Is that a "poem" in a way that the Authorised version's translation, which tries to reproduce something of the parallelism characteristic of Hebrew poetry, isn't?
The Lord is my shepherd:
I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures:
he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul:
he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake.
I'm reminded of the character who denounced the idea of a new translation of the Bible by saying that since the Authorised version was good enough for St. James, it was good enough for him ...

"Against stupidity the gods themselves contend in vain," as the German poet Schiller once remarked.

Mind you, I certainly think it's interesting to continue to debate what precisely is the difference between the heightened, patterned language we call "poetry" and that less-obtrusive medium we call "prose." Once might even argue that its the tension between the two which provides a good deal of the electricity surge we call "literature."

But to think that these terms can even be neatly parcelled up in the manner Gibson and his buddies suggest is, I'm afraid, a little akin to the nineteenth-century American state legislature which voted to make the mathematical ratio "pi" a round number. Yeah, it'd be nice if you could, but since the subject's really a lot more complicated than that, let's debate it seriously if we're going to talk about it at all.

In the meantime, I'll keep on reading Homer and Milton, and Gibson can stick to the collected lyrics of Elizabeth the First ...

Monday, April 14, 2008

Battlestar Galactica = Iraq War

Well, yes, I guess you don't have to be a genius to figure it out. The feature-length miniseries which spawned the remake first screened in 2003, less than two years after a certain sneak attack on the World Trade Centre got the Americans so crazy for vengeance.

It's true that the Cylons pretty much succeeded in wiping out human life on the 12 colonies with their own weapons of mass destruction, but the analogy is not -- as I understand it -- meant to be an exact one: simply a good way of setting up a dramatic situation where one can examine at leisure the psychology of a particularly paranoid and inward-looking society at war.

The "remake" idea is an excellent one when it comes to protective camouflage. What harm could possibly come from revisiting kindly old Lorne Greene as Adama, and those two good old boys Apollo and Starbuck hotdogging around the sky in their Star Wars-knock-off fighters? That version was made back in the late seventies, when Vietnam had sickened the USA on real wars, and escapist fantasy westerns and space operas were the order of the day.

Is mine a reductionist reading? Possibly. I'm a big fan of the new series -- not (even at the time) the old one -- but what struck me about it from the first was the profoundly insightful line it took on military expediency and power-hunger.

It isn't just the black uniforms with silver highlights that make Lee Adama and the others look like a squad of young Fascists. Edward James Olmos's croaky, world-weary Adama is certainly no Hitler, but he might be a Rommel or an Admiral Raeder. Is there anything he and his friends won't do in the interests of survival? Adama's led a military coup against civilian government, ordered the assassination of a superior officer, connived at torture, the black market, the murder of civilians -- the list goes on and on. Some hero.

But it's all okay, because the Cylons are even worse.

Or are they? The biggest revelation of the new-look series is the Cylons themselves. they look human. They look better than human, actually. The women -- Tricia Helfer (above), Grace Park (below) and our own ex-Xena Lucy Lawless -- are all babes and supermodels. The men, on the other hand, tend to take a bit of a back seat when it comes to decision-making.

Gorgeous female robots are no new thing in Sci Fi, of course -- think of Metropolis or (for that matter) Blade Runner or Solaris. The interesting thing about these "skin-jobs" (or "toasters"- or any of the other loving terms applied to them by the freedom-loving colonials) is their obsession with theology.

Yes, you heard me right. The quickest way to spot a Cylon infiltrator is to lure them into a discussion about the existence of God and His/Her intentions for the universe. That's the true genius of this TV series. Who the hell came up with that idea?

The Cylons are strict Monotheists -- they're very impatient with the pagan superstitions of the 12 colonies (the planets were named after thinly-disguised signs of the Zodiac: Tauron for Taurus, Geminon for Gemini etc.). The "gods" whom Starbuck and the others repeatedly invoke are an early version of the twelve Olympians: Zeus, Diana, Apollo, Athena and so on.

Liberal Humanism versus Islam? The Colonials are a pluralist society, very like contemporary America. The Cylons, on the other hand, are made of sterner stuff. Philosophy, for them, is to be taken seriously. The basic issue for them, as Sharon-the-Cylon explains to Adama at one point, is whether humanity deserves to survive. The jury's still out on that one, I'm afraid.

As for Iraq, the evidence is all there if you want to look for it: torture in Abu Ghraib prison, the lynch-mob mentality of the fleet's civilians, the primitive glee that Apollo and the others take in killing (they do have qualms when it comes to destroying their own ships -- but they fade pretty fast when the bullets start flying).

It's not a programme which propounds easy solutions, but there at times when the cowardly, compromised, half-schizophrenic Dr Gaius Baltar looks like the only sane one aboard. At least he enjoys basic human pleasures: booze, sex, cards. He's smart, too, if a little eccentric. Compare him to the drunken buffoon executive officer Colonel Tigh, and it's hard not to see the dichotomy between the red and blue states of the USA condensed into one simple proposition.

Start watching it. I think you'll find it's worth it. Who would have thought the American mainstream media could be so intelligently self-analytical?