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Saturday 29 September 2007

What is the language using us for?

My title is from the title of three poems by W.S. Graham. It is a quotation that sprang instantly to mind as I read a review by James Buchan of Ian Fairley's "translation" from Paul Celan's, "Snow Part/Schneepart and Other Poems (1968-1969)". He began his review by asking whether there can be any point to translating poetry.

The question has been raised many times before, by critics and writers, poets and linguists. Others too, have wrestled with the issues involved: cognitive scientists like Naom Chomsky and Fodor for instance. Indeed, the scientific study of language grew up with the development of the cognitive sciences, and has now become one of its central topics - and surely one of the most controversial. The problem of "what the words say" is fascinating in whichever aspect it is studied. It gives food for thought to playwrights, critics, philosophers and others and has spawned the current hot potato of (the impossibility of?) translating verse from one language to another.

There are perhaps three main strands to the problem:
words and their meanings
flow and rhythm
rhyme and assonance
Retain one of these as you translate, and you will lose the other two. There is a saying in Italian which we might render as: "translator - betrayer". Words just don't have literal equivalents in other languages, much less do they do they carry the same raft of alternative meanings and echoes of distant meanings from which we derive the all-important nuances, the vital ambiguities.

There are those - and I am all but persuaded to sign up - who argue that language, having developed for purely domestic and practical purposes, is suited to just those, and is out of its depth in deeper realms. In poetry, for example. If "uncertainty in meaning is incipient poetry" (Can anyone direct me to the source of that quote? I have not been able to track it down), it is also a barrier to understanding

Here are some lines from the first of Graham's three poems:

Certain experiences seem to not
Want to go into language maybe
Because of shame or the reader’s shame.
Let us observe Malcolm Mooney.

Let us get through the suburbs and drive
Out further just for fun to see
What he will do. Reader, it does
Not matter. He is only going to be

Myself and for you slightly you
Wanting to be another. He fell.
He falls (Tenses are everywhere.)
Deep down into a glass jail.

Malcolm Mooney is Graham's fictional explorer. According to Lopez the name derived from a chain of bars owned by Guiness.
Now here are the first ten (and a bit) lines from the second poem:

What is the language using us for?
It uses us all and in its dark
Of dark actions selections differ.

I am not making a fool of myself
For you. What I am making is
A place for language in my life

Which I want to be a real place
Seeing I have to put up with it
Anyhow. What are Communication’s

Mistakes in the magic medium doing
To us?

And finally, the last two verses from the third poem

What is the language using us for?
I don’t know. Have the words ever
Made anything of you, near a kind
Of truth you thought you were? Me
Neither. The words like albatrosses
Are only a doubtful touch towards
My going and you lifting your hand

To speak to illustrate an observed
Catastrophe. What is the weather
Using us for where we are ready
With all our language lines aboard?
The beginning wind slaps the canvas.
Are you ready? Are you ready?

In fact I could have taken my examples from any of Graham's poems. His early ones embody the problem, his later ones address it. Here is Dennis O'Driscoll on Graham:
'Language itself became a central obsession of his later work, especially in the incomparable "Malcolm Mooney's Land" (1970). This book appeared after a fifteen your gap and evinced a desire on the part of the poet to make contact in the most direct way possible with his readers: "Anyhow here we are and never / Before have we two faced each other who face / Each other now across this abstract scene."'
Again: 'Indeed in an uncollected poem, he remarked that he had begun "to speak what I think is / My home tongue," and "to translate/English into English."
Yet his words retained much of their sense of mystery and paradox and the overall effect was of what he had once termed "Intellect sung in a garment of innocence."'

Poetry is not just words or just sound patterns or even just meaning. At its best it is metaphor set to music. Retain the words and neither music nor metaphor will be replicated in the target language. Take rhyme, for example: it arises naturally during the composing of the original poem, since it is part of the same dynamic process that produces both the content, which leads up to it and gives it its rightness, and the rhythm and flow by which the poem breathes. It is, in other words, the content that returns the sonar echoes of nuance, the "pings" given off by the word when, being exactly the right word, it alerts us to its relationships to other words nearby.

some languages are rich in rhyme: Italian, for example, where every other word, it seems, ends in a or i. One consequence of this is the more frequent use of an eleven-syllable line for an iambic pentameter, necessary to accommodate the almost inevitable weak ending. (It happens in English, of course: Shakespeare's "To be or not to be, that is the question" being a very good example.) English, by contrast, has a very poor rhyme pool, so translations from Italian into English where rhyme is important become fraught with difficulty and the line may sound forced. French poets and dramatists like Racine made frequent use of hexameters which are cumbersome in English, the reason being that French is a very evenly stressed language that derives its rhythm from the varying vowel lengths, whereas English has at least one strong accent in every word of more than one syllable. This gives French a flexibility in the longer line that is denied to English

According to Fairley, Celan, a Jew who lost both of his parents in the Michelailovka Labour Camp and was himself a Holocaust survivor, could have written his poetry in any one of six or more languages, but chose to do so in German - the language by which was delivered the authority for his parents' deaths - but, Fairley says, he took on that language, its portmanteau words and logical structure and proceeded to demolish it, its logic, its structure and its meaning. "Only when language is utterly disabled," Fairley writes, "can it articulate, in some abandoned region at the end of space and history, a fugitive echo of reality."

In spite of my intention to write on the inadequacy of language to the purposes of poetry, I seem to have produced an appreciation of W.S. Graham. So that's what the language was using me for!

That being so, I'll let Graham have the final word:

What does it matter if the words
I choose, in the order I choose them in,
Go out into a silence I know
Nothing about, there to be let
In and entertained and charmed
Out of their master's orders? And yet
I would like to see where they go
And how without me they behave.

(Part 1 of "Approaches To How They Behave")

Monday 24 September 2007

My Entry for the Turner Prize

You may have forgotten - or even assumed that I would - but here is my entry, as promised in my post of May 11, for the non-existent Turner Prize for Poetry".

I Don't Know What I mean, but I Definitely Disagree.

Out of the darkness at the deep
heart of what I am, blind Angel, blinded
by internal light, by light
that burns its way towards the surface.
I am the Bush that burns
and yet is not consumed,
the burning Bush from which the voice of God goes forth
into the world, to put
out cap for coin, for currency
enough to buy this world of frivol
and fatuity, this pin-ball world,
for decency, for
eyes like those my father had
that saw in darkness,
sawed through the darkness
to the grain that ran our way.

I am the one you show across the road,
your penny-whistler whistling in the dark.
But friend, the other path is darker still.
All paths are dark except to one
who lives in darkness.

I am the hewn stone raised in witness,
the white stone of acquittal,
the stone-cold certainty
rejected by the builders.

But friends, know this:
there are those in this wicked world,
insurgents, evil men who snatch
the burning brands from me,
the lighted beacon of the western world,
to keep their flames alight
across the world's dark voids.
You see them in Iraq - and
what's that other country thereabouts?
But they shall not prevail, and those that die
I shall raise up.

Friends, let me be frank: at times
I grope for walls, for footholds, footling
holds, forgetting I have wings.
Come in beneath the shadow of my wings. There find
my Father's mercy seat.

I am the edifice
upon the megalith
upon the pebble from the shore
upon a grain of sand
adrift upon the void.
But friends, the void shall not prevail!

Friends, I am all things to all men, both
Elephant and Castle, Bush and Shepherd, and below
me are my Father's mansions. I, the way,
the only way, the escalator to the lines
of your salvation. No one can come
to Him but first descend in me.

Saturday 22 September 2007

Art Therapy

One of my earliest ambitions - after I had emerged from the 'wild man of the woods' phase (see my profile) was to be a medical artist. Someone had told me of the people who sat in the observation areas of operating theatres and made drawings at various stages of an operation. Why that appealed to me, I cannot now remember or imagine. For sure I would never have had the draftsmanship to carry it off. Later, two of my friends were to become art therapists, though neither of them permanently. (I am not sure if that small insight into a dead-end stage of my development will prove relevant, but I throw it in on the chance that you might find it so.)

So much is but background. My interest in art as therapy really took off at art school. The agent for it was a commission for six students each to paint a mural in a public area of one of those vast Victorian mental hospitals, fortunately now confined to history. The man responsible for this project (a psychiatrist, as I recall) would visit regularly to check the progress of the work that nothing might be put there to inflame or excite his charges. One student, engaged on a scene of fishing boats on a beach, was reprimanded several times for allowing the masts of the boats to cross the horizon. This was too dramatic, too violent for the patients. Horizontal lines were what were required, for they were soothing. Definitely nothing crossing.

I have been a somewhat frequent waiter in waiting rooms of late: dental, hospital and others. On one of these occasions I overheard a patient describe a rather gaudy sunset as "therapeutic". To my mind the thing about therapy is that it does not have to be Art, but it does have to be done by the patient - or at the very least to engage with the patient, not just sooth. It is the patient's field of encounter with what is troubling him or her. It is a way of facing - and hopefully, facing-down - the current demon. As such, it is not for waiting rooms.

Always, though, there are exceptions to our rules. Along one wall of one large department in our local main hospital is a series of large coloured photographs of body tissues and fluids in a variety of magnifications. They are sumptuous images, sexy, sensuous, and, it seems to me, having a great deal in common with my fractal print-outs (16 March, 22 March and 24 April). More importantly, they are relevant to , or could be seen to be relevant to, the preoccupations of some patients at least. They may not have been done by the patient, but they might well engage with the patient at an appropriate level. And if only one patient comes to see one or more of the images as relevant, and by that came to see the problem as having its own great intrinsic beauty, might that not help, emotionally? Might it not offset to some extent, the ugly thoughts that had held total sway until then? Might that not trigger a change from negative to positive?

So much that is referred to as art these days is little more than self-expression. The boundaries are blurred. And not just in painting. In poetry, for example, Frieda Hughs wrote recently about the perception that more people are writing poetry these days then are reading it, and attributed that largely to the fact that much of what is written is self-expression, requiring no work, no discipline, no engagement with the language or with the rules and forms of poetry.

Sunday 16 September 2007

Yet More Doodles from the Digital Darkroom

A touch too long since my last post, but having been given a new monitor (an early birthday present from my wife and my first LCD), I decided to spend a bit of time playing with graphics to try out its colour capability. (I know: excuses, excuses.) Naturally enough, I got myself hooked.

But easier to show than to tell what I have been squandering my time on: the second image here was intended as an abstract, but I have renamed it "Tunnel of Lights". The first is one of a series (ongoing) on The Raising of Lazarus, a favourite theme of mine from way back

Saturday 8 September 2007

The Prose Poem

A rather unusual email in my website box this week. Unique, I could say. From Portugal. A whole string of questions, from "What about a regular column on 'Little Known Facts of Poetry'?" (more appropriate for the blog, perhaps?) to, am I an expert on either ghazals (pronounced guzzles) or prose poetry and could I tell him..... in a frenzy of excitement at having had such an email to my website, I turned at once to answer it, only to wilt at the number of points raised. Then a better idea occurred: post the reply on the blog, thereby providing me with a ready-made subject and guaranteeing at least one additional visitor. (My Portuguese friend is comfortable with this.)

First of all, no, I am not an expert on either ghazals or prose poetry.... Well, thinking about it, I guess I know as much about ghazals as about other forms of poetry (interpret that as you will!), but all I will say for now is that a couple of blogs back (Two Poets) I wrote of Khalvati's latest book which contains some excellent examples. There are also plenty on the web, though many of these would not be regarded as 'true' ghazals. I may write more on them in the future.

Of prose poetry I probably know less, but never having been one to let ignorance stand in the way of an opinion, I will have a go. According to some authorities, the genre we know as prose poetry was invented by Baudelaire, though others maintain that it goes back to the ancient Hebrews and that The King James Bible is full of examples. Others believe that it is not a genre at all. These divide into two camps, one maintaining that it belongs to poetry by virtue of the way it uses language, and because of its (often) metaphorical nature. The other believes it to be a branch of prose through its reliance (usually) on narrative and its pursuit (usually) of some form of objective truth. I have seen it argued that prose poetry is really literary prose by another name, and that it shares with poetry a more thorough-going use of rhythm, euphony, fragmentation and so forth. It is the lack of recurring metric patterns that identifies it as prose. In Aristotle's famous dictum: It must neither possess meter nor be without rhythm. Additionally, some have pointed to the absence of line breaks as evidence of its place in the prose camp. This last point strikes me as being wholly trivial. What we can say, I think, is that at its best, prose poetry demonstrates the power of poetry in its use of compression, rhyme, assonance and those layers of meaning and nuance which take on such importance in our journey to understand what is being said.

So, if prose poetry looks like prose, it nevertheless reads - and sounds - like poetry, and it stays with us the way that poetry does. But of course, there are degrees. Most good prose (apart from purely technical, "plain" prose) has elements of poetry, which is why, no doubt, my Portuguese friend*asks how it is possible to tell "whether a piece of prose-looking writing is just prose or actually is a bit of prose poetry" (sic). At what point, I suppose he is asking, does it cross over? How many boxes must be ticked for it to qualify? It is like asking at what point, as you add red to mauve, does it become purple? It depends. On the viewer. On the colours around it. On the light. Or perhaps we should take our cue from the Modern painters and say, It is prose poetry because I say it is!

I will conclude with two examples. First, the final passage of Baudelaire's "Be Drunk".

And if sometimes, on the steps of a palace or the green grass of a ditch, in the mournful solitude of your room, you wake again, drunkenness already diminishing or gone, ask the wind, the wave, the star, the bird, the clock, everything that is flying, everything that is groaning, everything that is rolling, everything that is singing, everything that is speaking. . .ask what time it is and wind, wave, star, bird, clock will answer you: "It is time to be drunk! So as not to be the martyred slaves of time, be drunk, be continually drunk! On wine, on poetry or on virtue as you wish."

My other example is "Hysteria" by T.S.Eliot

S she laughed I was aware of becoming involved
in her laughter and being part of it, until her
teeth were only accidental stars with a talent
for squad-drill. I was drawn in by short gasps,
inhaled at each momentary recovery, lost finally
in the dark caverns of her throat, bruised by
the ripple of unseen muscles. An elderly waiter
with trembling hands was hurriedly spreading
a pink and white checked cloth over the rusty
green iron table, saying: "If the lady and
gentleman wish to take their tea in the garden,
if the lady and gentleman wish to take their
tea in the garden ..." I decided that if the
shaking of her breasts could be stopped, some of
the fragments of the afternoon might be collected,
and I concentrated my attention with careful
subtlety to this end.

Or click here for an interesting read on the influence of William Wordsworth on the prose poem.

* I do not know that my emailer is Portuguese, only that the email came from Portugal.

Saturday 1 September 2007

on beauty

It must be fashionable just now to speak of beauty as being unfashionable, at least so far as art and its practitioners and admirers are concerned. I have latterly come across several, some from either camp, talking as though beauty was either something to be weeded out of a "serious" piece of artwork or something of no consequence either way. Sometimes it is a question of one man's beauty another man's yuk, or even the confusion of "serious" with beauty. For me the whole issue was somehow encapsulated in the sad story of Jack Vettriano, he of "The Singing Butler" fame (£744,000 at auction), he who was originally, just plain Jack Hoggans. Jack Hoggans made an executive decision to change his name (a marketing ploy) and put commercial success before critical acclaim. Some would say before art, certainly before serious art (a definition of which must wait for another post). He succeeded, surely beyond his wildest dreams and now finds himself irritated by the carping and sniping of fellow artists who are obviously not a little resentful of his success. He is entitled to be. But he is equally at odds with the critics for their low opinion of his work, though it is not so easy to see why he should resent them. He deliberately turned his back on what he knew to be their standpoints. They sre not only within their rights, but duty-bound to say "We think this is not how it should be!".He went a different road and cannot now complain if they say so.

I suppose it was always so: there must always have been portraitists who were willing to flatter sitters (perhaps forgetting why they took up their brushes in the first place) for popular success - and artists who, sticking to their first principles, became jealous of that success. And from very early days there were probably artists frustrated when work was rejected for for not matching the wallpaper or some other trivial reason. And feeding that frustration, there would have been those who were willing to sacrifice other things in order to match the wallpaper for the sake of a few bucks - as they were perfectly entitled to do. Nothing wrong with that.

On the page facing the Vettriano story Grayson Perry was interviewing another artist commanding six-figure price tags, the sculptor Gary Hume, a workaholic and a man consumed by self-doubt, but one who does what he does from a "love of seeing and making".
Nothing wrong with that, either. Just don't compare Vittriano and Hume or judge one by the standards of the other. They are in different occupations. They are doing different jobs.

The two images are from the Wikipedia site. (Click for Gary Hume
Click for Jack Vettriano) They are: The Singing Butler and Gary Hume's Water Painting, which is in The Tate.