Thursday, April 26, 2012

Today's Reading: Ecclesiastes 12:1-8 (ESV)

Ecclesiastes is my favorite biblical book. Whether reading for philosophy, theology, or poetry, it fascinating and lovely. Below is my favorite section, a beautiful poetic exhortation. I post it for my friend who has just taken up reading the Bible for literary value and curiosity - two excellent reasons to read, religious or not.

Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come and the years draw near of which you will say, “I have no pleasure in them”; before the sun and the light and the moon and the stars are darkened and the clouds return after the rain, in the day when the keepers of the house tremble, and the strong men are bent, and the grinders cease because they are few, and those who look through the windows are dimmed, and the doors on the street are shut—when the sound of the grinding is low, and one rises up at the sound of a bird, and all the daughters of song are brought low—they are afraid also of what is high, and terrors are in the way; the almond tree blossoms, the grasshopper drags itself along, and desire fails, because man is going to his eternal home, and the mourners go about the streets—before the silver cord is snapped, or the golden bowl is broken, or the pitcher is shattered at the fountain, or the wheel broken at the cistern, and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it. Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher; all is vanity.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Nursery Rhymes, Ancient Papyrus, and Die Hard

In reading A History of the World in 100 Objects, I came across this three and a half thousand math problem from the Rhind Papyrus:

In seven houses there are seven cats. Each cat catches seven mice. Each mouse would have eaten seven ears of corn and each ear of corn, if sown, would have produced seven gallons of grain. How many things are mentioned in total?

This is strikingly similar to the Cornish riddle:

As I was going to St Ives, I met a man with seven wives. Every wife had seven sacks. Every sack had seven cats. Every cat had seven kits. Kits, cats, sacks, wives. How many were going to St Ives?

Eerie to be sure. The answer to the Rhind Manuscript: 19,607. The answer to the Saint Ives riddle: 1, as the narrator is going to Saint Ives and the animal loving, luggage laden bigamist party is going the other way. Samuel L. Jackson provides the same number in Die Hard with a Vengeance but explains the answer with colorful explanation something to the effect of "the man's got seven wives. He ain't going nowhere." (I think the original has cursing).

Monday, April 23, 2012

The Light of Future Suns - anxiety and the use of the future tense in Ether/Ore by Brett Elizabeth Jenkins

A psychologist once told me that depression is living in the past tense, anxiety living in the future tense. This seems to hold a deal of water. The future tense, after all, is a construction of what may or may not come. It is always speculative. Even a phrase such as I am going to the store after work supposes a working car, absence of personal emergency, and the continued beating of one's own heart. Brett Elizabeth Jenkins explores anxiety and uses of the future tense in her debut album Ether/Ore. Her tight, disarmingly honest collection uses the inevitable extinction of the sun as symbol of mortality and a source of anxiety. "How small have we become," she writes on considering the slow dying of our source of energy, heat, and life, "How light."

The poem "Dim Fires" begins with the statement, "I'm going to stop worrying about the sun." The narrator then proceeds to spend the rest of the poem (and the book) worrying about the sun, how nonexistence terrifies us:

      "no thoughts to wake us in the morning, no eggs
                  sizzling on the stovetop, or slippers, or feet

       for that matter in them (where do we go
                               when we leave our bodies?), no one to take
                 photos and no one to see them."

The future tense of vowing to change that starts off this poem with hope descends into the questioning panic what if?

On the page facing "Dim Fires," "Outlines" begins with a success story, the narrator has successfully completed one day of following her vow. Her sunrise/sunset tables tell the future tense with certainty: "at four minutes after six, the buildings are darkening, making outlines of red." These charts tell her also that mornings are dawning earlier, hastening the moment of panic (she doubts she will beat fear the following day) of seeing "[the sun's] bright arc popping / over the horizon like a lightbulb about to shatter."

Transferring anxiety onto the sun is not enough to keep off pervasive care. The narrator admits, in "If the Sun," that

            "If the sun went out, yes, I would
             spend the last eight minutes doing exactly

             what I spend the rest of my time doing:
             worrying about the places

            people keep their guns..."

The sun is not the issue. It's the realization that we are dependent on forces much greater than us, forces that are inhuman and unfeeling, utterly beyond control. "Outer space," she says, "is real. / And then it hit me: I am mortal. My God, I will die."

Later, Jenkins writes "Daylight savings time begins / in three weeks. "I will really have it together then," I say." This use of the future tense to shift and shirk responsibility onto a future self - what to say except I see myself here. Perhaps anxiety comes from a failure to take the advice of Horace to seize the day, trusting nothing to the future.

Of course, the present and past is made of futures that have come and gone, promised much but fizzled. Jenkins addresses this future past in "World without Me," writing "How many unfilled spaces shimmer like / ether, remembering what potentially was." Regret is the end of anxiety. The pitch has gone by. We did not swing. No need to worry. Only sadness remains now that time has clamped down the possibility of propositional futures. 

Friday, April 20, 2012

deleted poetics

The New Yorker recently wrote a blog post asking its readers the question "What word would you eliminate from the English language?" I began writing down an alphabet of words I would like to do away with and realized that there is a right time for any word. However, there are plenty poetic themes, words, and habits of which I am deeply distrustful.

A few words that are only used in poetry and used with alarming frequency - flay, Caravaggio, splay, engender, heft, haft, cigarette, filet.

Categories that I distrust - mythology, gardening, cooking, mechanics, painting. It's not that these can't be good topics, its that a poets narrative of cooking and gardening can create a Better Homes & Gardens effect, awing the reader with lifestyle and borrowing technical terms that show a sophisticate knowledge.

I dislike poems that mention other authors. Leaning on the ethos of Mandelstam, Rilke, Whitman, or any other dead poet cheapens the content of the piece at hand. Interacting with other poets can be done well of course - I love "A Supermarket in California" - but I don't trust casual mention. I also look askance at poets who dedicate poems to famous poets they know. I've read books where a half-dozen poems were dedicated to great contemporary poems. This seems a ploy to impress readers with how cool and well connected the author is.

End capitalization at the beginning of lines!

I have written poems about natural and human disasters but don't buy in to the idea often poetry of witness. Poetry must be witness but to private language not to wars and rumors of wars unless the muse moves. Poetry of witness can be wonderful but often poetry on subjects like the civil rights movement, tsunamis, and earthquakes relies on pathos not poetics.

No to concrete poetry.

Literal translations are fine but might not be poetry. Spirit is the key of translation, so it requires liberty and poetry.

Politics should be taken head on in poetry. That said, I do not like the bashing of conservatives (I know it's easy), religious groups, America, and people with whom a poet does not agree. This is not a political statement. Poetry is about complexity, humanity, connection, and language. Dehumanizing a person for voting republican or equating a political stance with a lack of intelligence is a gross oversimplification. It is unpoetic. I have seen a very low level of discourse from some very famous poets on politics in this election year and am saddened by it.

Don't not write. Do all the things above before you give up on a poem - editing bad poems is the way good poems are written.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Auld Lang Syne

I have been sitting on this video for a few weeks. One of my students taped it in class when I was teaching Robert Burns. My embarrassingly vain reason - I don't like my hairstyle (lack of styling gel) in the video. But today I am nostalgic for auld lang syne, the good old days gone by, temps jadis. And so, dear reader, despite bad hair and shabby singing, I raise my pint cup to you and auld lang syne.


Sun is streaming in through the window making it hard to see my computer screen. It's springish but still chilly after unseasonable warmth in February and March. I've been off blogging for a week or so as I've been busy. So a quick update:

  • Structo submissions are in and in process.
  • I have new translations from the Faroese at Asymptote Journal and a poem forthcoming in Stymie.
  • As a finalist in the Summer Literary Seminars Contest, I received a scholarship to travel to Lithuania this August. Perhaps. Perhaps.
  • The homophonic telephone project is in the hands of a French speaker now and nearing the end its long journey through language. A great line from the latest leg - there is no newspaper in the heart.
  • An interview on my translation project with Agnar Artúvertin is available on Faroe Islands Podcast.
And all of you I've been meaning to write letters and emails to - I will. I will. I will.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Today's Reading:If I Could Tell You - W.H. Auden

A good friend sent me this poem during a difficult time some years ago. I've carried it with me since. I love its combination of fierce devotion and resignation, the way it captures the frailty of human love. It echoes Housman's sentiment "If truth in hearts that perish / Could move the powers on high, / I think the love I bear you / Should make you not to die." But of course, Housman and Auden remind us "all is idle."


Time will say nothing but I told you so,
Time only knows the price we have to pay;
If I could tell you I would let you know.

If we should weep when clowns put on their show,
If we should stumble when musicians play,
Time will say nothing but I told you so.

There are no fortunes to be told, although,
Because I love you more than I can say,
If I could tell you I would let you know.

The winds must come from somewhere when they blow,
There must be reasons why the leaves decay;
Time will say nothing but I told you so.

Perhaps the roses really want to grow,
The vision seriously intends to stay;
If I could tell you I would let you know.

Suppose the lions all get up and go,
And all the brooks and soldiers run away;
Will Time say nothing but I told you so?
If I could tell you I would let you know.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

A River That Makes the City Glad

Psalm 46

God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way,
though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea,
though its waters roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble at its swelling.

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy habitation of the Most High.
God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved;
God will help her when morning dawns.
The nations rage, the kingdoms totter;
he utters his voice, the earth melts.
The Lord of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our fortress.

Come, behold the works of the Lord,
how he has brought desolations on the earth.
He makes wars cease to the end of the earth;
he breaks the bow and shatters the spear;
he burns the chariots with fire.
“Be still, and know that I am God.
I will be exalted among the nations,
I will be exalted in the earth!”
The Lord of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our fortress.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

A translation for Easter weekend


        after Federico Garcia Lorca

Look - the stars
are taking off their clothes
again! Blanketing the fields,
their cast-off camisoles.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Today's Reading: Triolet on a Line Apocryphally Attributed to Martin Luther - A.E. Stallings

Why should the Devil get all the good tunes,
The booze and the neon and Saturday night,
The swaying in darkness, the lovers like spoons?
Why should the Devil get all the good tunes?
Does he hum them to while away sad afternoons
And the long, lonesome Sundays? Or sing them for spite?
Why should the Devil get all the good tunes,
The booze and the neon and Saturday night?

Sigh No More