Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
is available for $16.00 from FootHills Publishing, P.O. Box 68, Kanona NY 14856 or see www.foothillspublishing.com.

Tourist Snapshots is available for $8.95 from Randy Fingland, CC Marimbo, P.O. Box 933, Berkeley CA 94701 or see www.ccmarimbo.com.

Dada Poetry: An Introduction was published by Nirala Publications. It may be ordered on Amazon.com for $25 plus shipping. American buyers may order a copy from me for $23 including shipping.

The other books are also available from the author William Seaton. Write seaton@frontiernet.net.

A categorized index of all work that has appeared on this site is available by looking under the current month in the Blog Archive section and selecting Index.

This site is listed in BlogCatalog and
Literature Blogs
Literature blog

Sunday, April 1, 2018


The index now features hypertext connections. Simply click on any title below to read it.

Though this listing serves, I think, a clear purpose, not every posting falls easily into the categories. One essay might equally be placed under literary theory or medieval texts while another might fit under memoir, politics, or travel. Translations with comment might be either criticism or translation. Poke around a bit.

The categories are:

1. speculative, familiar, performance pieces, and other essays

2. literary theory

3. Greek texts (and a couple of Latin)

4. medieval texts

5. other criticism
A. 16th-19th century
B. 20th century to the present
C. Asian texts
D. songs
E. Notes on Recent Reading
F. Rereading the Classics
G. Every Reader's Poets

6. translation

7. poetry

8. politics

9. memoirs

10. travel

1. Speculative, familiar, performance pieces, and other essays
Agnostic Credo and Vita (October 2015)
Axiology and Subjectivity (October 2014)
Annual Report (August 2014)
Beards (December 2013)
Biking (November 2009)
Biking as a Spiritual Discipline (April 2017)
Cell Phones (June 2017)
Cookbooks (April 2014)
Dead Reckoning (February 2011)
Deer (December 2012)
Documents of the first Surreal Cabaret (March 2012)
Documents of the second Surreal Cabaret (June 2012)
Documents of the third Surreal Cabaret (October 2013)
Documents of the fourth Surreal Cabaret (July 2014)
Documents of the fifth Surreal Cabaret (February 2015)
Drugs and Religion (June 2016)
Dust: a meditative riff (November 2009)
Food for the Gods (December 2011)
Hippie (April 2011)
Immortality (July 2012)
Iowa Communards (December 2011)
A Library’s Commonplaces and Curiosities (May 2011)
The Mannerly Hedonist (February 2013)
Notes and Inserts (June 2016)
Polka (November 2012)
On Pronunciation and Pedantry (September 2015)
In Praise of Bias (November 2014)
Still Biking (November 2012)
A Structural View of Certain Oracles (August 2015)
Supermarkets (October 2010)
Taking Off (November 2009)
This and That (September 2017)
Walking the Via Negativa (February 2018)
Worn Tools (June 2013)

2. Literary theory
Afloat on the Ocean of Words (April 2016)
Allusion (March 2015)
Art and the Marketplace (April 2010)
False and Homophonic Translation (March 2018)
The Familiar Note in Poetry (January 2017)
The Formation of a Christian Rhetoric (April 2011)
How and Why to Signify (July 2011)
Idea of Comedy (January 2012)
The Inconsequential Bayonets of Art: Militant Rhetoric and the Avant-Garde (May 2010)
Lament for the Loss of the Avant-Garde (March 2010)
Millenarian Rhetoric and the Avant-Garde (August 2010)
On the Proper Ends of Literary Study [James Seaton] (July 2014)
Placing the Popular in the Structure of Literature (October 2010)
The Pleasures of the Familiar in Literature (June 2016)
Poetry Amid the Fierce Chaos of the World (December 2009)
Prof. Wellek, Prof. Leavis, and Prof. de Man (December 2015)
The Question of Literary Value (August 2014)
A Range of Visual Poetry (December 2017)
Riddles and Poetry (March 2015)
The Signifying Monkey Talks Literature (April 2010)
Some Notes Toward a Theory of the Avant-Garde (October 2013)
Sontag's "Against Interpretation" (September 2016)
Sweet Treason: Translating Lyric Poetry (November 2009)
Thoughts on Mythology (March 2013)
Transformation of Convention (August 2013)
What is Poetry? (February 2012)
Winged Words: Notes on the Oral Performance of Poetry (May 2010)

3. Greek texts (and two Latin)
Aphrodite’s Bed: Love in the Homeric Hymn (August 2010)
The Birth of Erato: Lyric, Vision, and the Spread of Writing (January 2010)
Dionysos and the Pirates (February 2012)
Ekphrasis in Apollonius: Jason's Cloak (May 2017)
Gorgias (February 2010)
Hermes and the Art of Poetry (March 2013)
Longinus' Sublime (May 2012)
Notes on Pan (June 2014)
Oedipus and the Meaning of Polysemy (July 2011)
Pindar's Athlete in Pythian 8 (January 2018)
Poetry's Long Memory [Horace] (July 2016)
Professors Kick the Willy Bobo [on Athenaeus] (December 2009)
The Role of Rhetoric in Theocritus (February 2011)
The Role of Wine in Nonnus' Dionysiaca (February 2016)
Sappho’s Holy Tortoise Shell: Eros and Poetry in Ancient Greece (December 2009)
Seneca the Elder (March 2010)
A Skeptic's Faith [Sextus Empiricus] (January 2015)
A Structural View of the Ephesiaca (April 2018)
Two Passages from Marcus Aurelius (June 2011)
The Web of Myth in the Hymn to Heracles (June 2012)

4. Medieval texts
The Aesthete of Desire: Lancelot and Courtly Love (July 2012)
The Aesthetics of Ambiguity in a Medieval Lyric (December 2012)
Aesthetic Principles of the Middle English Romance (July 2010)
Appropriation of Biblical Narrative in Patience (February 2013)
Bernart and the Music of Ideas (September 2016)
The Buddha in Europe: the Apologue of the Man and the Unicorn in Barlaam and Ioasaph (January 2011)
Chaucer’s Version of the Golden Age (June 2011)
A Conventional Ending in a Middle English Romance (September 2011)
Courtly Love in Romance of the Rose (August 2012)
Distant Rhyme in Two Medieval English Lyrics (August 2011)
The Early English Carol (June 2010)
Geoffrey of Vinsauf (April 2010)
Figures of Love in Lydgate's Temple of Glas (January 2014)
Functions of Alliteration in Thirteenth Century Lyrics (February 2011)
Hypermetric Lines in Beowulf (January 2011)
An Introduction to the Troubadours (January 2010)
Mechthild von Magdeburg (July 2010)
A New Look at Jaufré: Amor de Lonh as Criticism (December 2010)
Odin and Poetry (December 2015)
Openings in the Middle English Romance (July 2010)
The Pearl-Poet’s Use of Link-Rhymes (November 2011)
Phonetics and Semantics in the Last Line of Beowulf (March 2011)
Piers Plowman and the Man in the Moon (October 2011)
The Prima Etade of Literary Ambition [Petrarch] (March 2011
Transformation of Convention in Early Minnesang (April 2011)
Two Early Ballad Tales of Robin Hood (October 2014)
William IX (September 2010)
Who is Piers Ploughman? (June 2013)

5. Other criticism

A. 16th-19th century
Ambivalence in Thomson's The Castle of Indolence (March 2012)
The Archaeology of Gray's "The Progress of Poetry" (November 2017)
Baudelaire's "Painter of Modern Life" (July 2017)
Big Bill Otter's Sprees and Frolics (November 2013)
A Decadent's Dilemmas [Dowson] (March 2015)
Does Crabbe Look Forward or Back? (February 2016)
Dolce's Aretino (September 2015)
The Double Plot of Salem Chapel (December 2016)
Gascoigne's "Notes of Instruction" (September 2013)
Godwin's Theatre of Calamity (September 2015)
Herrick the Divine (August 2014)
Irving's Soft Romanticism (September 2017)

Keats' "Thing of Beauty" (November 2016)
Marius the Epicurean as a Modern (April 2015)
Moby Dick and the Density of the Aesthetic Text (January 2016)
"Monk" Lewis, Mr. Coleridge, and Popular Taste (July 2015)
A Note on Dryden and "Dramatick Poesy" (September 2012)
A Note on Radcliffe's The Italian (October 2012)
Pierce Penniless (May 2013)
The Play of Convention in Shakespeare's Sonnet 153 (April 2017)
The Problem with Swinburne (June 2015)
Rimbaud's Use of Montage (October 2016)
Shelley”s “Ode to the West Wind” as Structuralist Charm (May 2011)
Sir Thomas North's The Moral Philosophy of Doni (September 2013)
The Skeptico-Semiotico-Mystic: Carlyle's Sartor Resartus (June 2015)

Skepticism and Poetry in Keats' "The Eve of St. Agnes" (February 2015)
A Structural View of Meredith's The Ordeal of Richard Feverel (June 2017)
The Texture of Traherne’s Religious Thought (October 2010)
Thematic Continuity and Development in the Poetry of Christopher Smart: the Jubilate Agno and the Minor Poems (November 2010)
Thomas Love Peacock and the End of Poetry (August 2017)
Travelers [Marco Polo, Twain, Robert Byron](April 2012)
Trollope's Appeal (December 2012)
Two Notes on Hawthorne's Blithedale Romance (July 2014)
The Use of Nostalgia in Eliot's Scenes of Clerical Life (August 2015)

B. 20th century to the present
Another Look at The Seven Lively Arts (June 2013)
Apologia for a Fondness for Pound (November 2012)
Are Uncle Tom's Children Bound by History? (April 2014)
The Artist as Demiurge: Seligmann on Space (December 2017)
Banjo (March 2017)
A Brief History of Negritude (February 2017)
Burns' and Lovick's Vietnam (November 2017)
Comics (February 2010)
Conrad's Shadow-Line (June 2014)
The Critical Palimpsest: Black African Literature through White American Eyes (January 2010)
Dada in America (April 2012)
Eisenstein's Strike and the Problem of Realism (April 2013)
Epiphanies in Dubliners (May 2016)
An Explication of Stevens' "A Primitive like an Orb" (October 2017)
False Translations (August 2016)
The Fetish of the Primitive in Twentieth Century Art (April 2015)
A Few Films (November 2016)
A Few Proletarian Writers (March 2012)
Flash Reviews of Thirty African Novels (November 2011)
Flyin’ with the Muses: Kirpal Gordon’s Eros in Sanskrit (May 2011)
Hell's House (November 2013)
Kerouac’s Weakness and Strength (January 2011)
Kurt Seligmann's Moderate Surrealism (November 2016)
Kurt Seligmann and the Poets (October 2017)
Kurt Seligmann's Riddlesome Symbols (March 2017)
The Last Poets (March 2016)
The Legacy of the Beats (March 2014)
The Lyricism of the Ugly: Celine's Mort à Crédit (December 2014)
The Man with the Golden Arm and a Friend with Six Seeds (January 2014)
On Marinetti's Avant-Garde Fascism (September 2017)
Norris's Visionary (March 2018)
Onitsha Market Literature (February 2015)
Pig and Possum Teach Poetry (May 2014)
A Poem by Theodore Roethke (September 2011)
The Power of Picasso's Sculpture (November 2015)
Remarks on the Grassroots Poetry Scene (July 2017)
Saki's Novels (April 2015)
Sartre's "Black Orpheus (February 2017)
Some Poetry Reviews (December 2012)
Sound Poetry and Edith Sitwell's Facade (July 2013)
Tristan Tzara, Poet of Manifestos (February 2018)
Two Graffiti (May 2011)
A Very Funny Fellow [Lev] (May 2012)

C. Asian texts
Friendship and Romance in Ming Stories (February 2014)
Han Shan (December 2010)
Journey to the North (December 2013)
Liezi (October 2012)
Lu Xun (October 2010)
Monkey Rides Again (January 2013)
Notes on Liu Xie (August 2011)
Tang Stories (April 2016)
Theme and Tone In Kokoro (September 2016)
A Tibetan Novel (March 2017)
The Trials of Lady Ochikubo (April 2014)
The View from a Ten-Foot-Square Hut [Chomei] (February 2018)

D. songs
Blind Willie Johnson Preaches (May 2017)
Bukka White's Limpid Lyric Clarity (November 2017)
"Down the Dirt Road Blues" [Charley Patton] (October 2011)
Fishing Blues [Henry Thomas] (October 2015)
Foggy Dew as Symbol (July 2012)
The Heart of the Blues [Robert Johnson] (January 2018)
The Imagery of Hokum Blues Songs (July 2015)
"Lady Maisry" (November 2013)
"Moon Goin' Down" [Charley Patton] (May 2013)
The Mule in Blues Imagery (August 2017)
"Nottamun Town" (April 2018)
The Paraklausithyron Blues (May 2016)
"The Red Rooster" [Willie Dixon] (March 2014)
Robert Johnson and the Devil (September 2012)
Skip James' Blues Imagery (May 2015)
“Spoonful” and the Accretion of Meaning (December 2012)
"The Three Ravens" (August 2013)
Trinidadian Smut (April 2016)
Truckin' (November 2014)
“Walkin’ Blues” [Son House] (December 2011)

E. Notes on Recent Reading
Notes on Recent Reading [Melville, Greene, and Whalen] (September 2011)
Notes on Recent Reading 2 [Crane, The Crowning of Louis, Thornlyre] (October 2011)
Notes on Recent Reading 3 [Kipling, San Francisco Mime Troupe, Lynn’s Tao-te-ching] (November 2011)
Notes on Recent Reading 4 [Sarah Scott, de La Fayette, Wharton] (January 2012)
Notes on Recent Reading 5 [The Deeds of God in Rddhipur, Burney, Cooper] (January 2012)
Notes on Recent Reading 6 [Jewett, Addison, Crabbe] (February 2012)
Notes on Recent Reading 7 [Nabokov, Austen, Grettis Saga] (April 2012)
Notes on Recent Reading 8 [Bakhtin, Lewis, Brown] (May 2012)
Notes on Recent Reading 9 [Plutarch, Tacitus, Williams](June 2012)
Notes on Recent Reading 10 [Voltaire, France, Dryden](July 2012)
Notes on Recent Reading 11 [Wright, Kerouac & Burroughs, Gilbert] (August 2012)
Notes on Recent Reading 12 [Huxley, Norris, Dōgen](September 2012)
Notes on Recent Reading 13 [Mirabai, Wood, Trocchi] (November 2012)
Notes on Recent Reading 14 [Algren, Hauptmann, Rolle] (January 2013)
Notes on Recent Reading 15 [Hemingway, Orwell, Gaskell]{February 2013}
Notes on Recent Reading 16 [Howells, Ford, Mann] (April 2013)
Notes on Recent Reading 17 [McCarthy, Chang, Snorri](July 2013)
Notes on Recent Reading 18 [Radcliffe, Stendhal, Erasmus](October 2013)
Notes on Recent Reading 19 [Powers, Zhang Ji, Vietnamese folk song] (February 2014)
Notes on Recent Reading 20 [Rowe, Stevenson, Issa] (May 2014)
Notes on Recent Reading 21 [Fussell, Mahfouz, Watts] (August 2014)
Notes on Recent Reading 22 [Waugh, Belloc, Okakura] (October 2014)
Notes on Recent Reading 23 [Naipaul, Dinesen, Spillane] (January 2015)
Notes on Recent Reading 24 [Fielding; Izumo , Shōraku, and Senryū; Plath] (June 2015)
Notes on Recent Reading 25 [Baskervill, Gissing, Capote] (July 2015)
Notes on Recent Reading 26 [Tuchman, Premchand, Cocteau] (November 2015)
Notes on Recent Reading 27 [Forster, Sackville-West, Capote] (January 2016)
Notes on Recent Reading 28 [Verne, Waley, Hurston] (March 2016)
Notes on Recent Reading 29 [Achebe, Jewett, Villiers de l'Isle-Adam] (October 2016)
Notes on Recent Reading 30 [Bradford, Scott, Marquand] (April 2017)
Notes on Recent Reading 31 [Marlowe, Trollope, p'Bitek] (August 2017)
Notes on Recent Reading 32 [Morrison, Cary, Kawabata] (October 2017)
Notes on Recent Reading 33 [Tourneur, Peacock, Greene] (December 2017)
Notes on Recent Reading 34 [Hawthorne, Huncke, Bentley] (January 2018)

F. Rereading the Classics
Rereading the Classics [Burton] (November 2011)
Rereading the Classics [Gogol] (August 2012)
Rereading the Classics [Goldsmith] (December 2016)
Rereading the Classics [Kleist] (February 2012)
Rereading the Classics [Montaigne] (December 2013)
Rereading the Classics [Rabelais] (December 2011)

G. Every Reader's Poets
Every Reader's Blake (May 2017)
Every Reader's Donne (April 2018)
Every Reader's Herrick (December 2015)
Every Reader's Hopkins (May 2016)
Every Reader's Milton (January 2017)
Every Reader's Pope (May 2015)
Every Reader's Shelley (November 2014)
Every Reader's Skelton (March 2016)
Every Reader's Wyatt (December 2014)
Every Reader's Yeats (January 2015)

6. Translation
Alkaios' Happy Hour (January 2017)
Becher's "Someone Stands Up" (October 2012)
Christian and Dedicatory Epigrams from the Greek Anthology (March 2010)
Emmy Hennings (February 2010)
Emmy Hennings Poems (More from Die Letzte Freude) (November 2010)
Erotic Old English Riddles (March 2018)
Four Poems from the German of Richard Huelsenbeck (January 2010)
Four Quatrains by Wang Wei (January 2013)
Hans Arp (April 2010)
The Homeric Hymn to Dionysos (February 2012)
Horace I.21 (July 2016)
Hugo Ball (July 2010)
Hymn to Aphrodite (August 2010)
Hymn to Heracles the Lion-Hearted (June 2012)
Hymn to the Night [Novalis](March 2012)
Hymn to the Night II [Novalis] (July 2012)
Hymn to Pan (May 2014)
Leonidas of Tarentum (May 2010)
A Mixed Bag of German Translations (August 2014)
Rimbaud's "The Lice-Pickers" (March 2014)
Seven Poems from Léon-Gontran Damas (February 2017)
Some Anonymous Middle High German Lyrics (August 2011)
Three Horatian Odes (November 2012)
Translations of William IX (September 2010)
Wordsworth Speaks German (July 2011)
Yet Two More Versions of Wang Wei (June 2011)

7. Poetry
African poems (August 2010)
Domestic Incidents from the Life of the Lama Swine Toil (June 2017)
How to Be a Poet (June 2010)
The Liturgies of the Lama Swine Toil (September 2012)
Mexican poems (September 2010)
Poems from New Mexico (July 2010)
Poems from Turkey (June 2010)
Produce poems (May 2010)
The Soap Opera of the Pair Who Forgot Themselves, but only Temporarily (August 2012)
Some Sonnets (April 2010)
Three Poems from Peru (August 2011)
Two Lyrics on Death from Central America (January 2012)

8. Politics
Black Lives Matter (August 2016)
Economic Democracy (July 2013)
The Fiftieth Anniversary of the Port Huron Statement (June 2012)
Hard Rain Still Fallin’ (September 2010)
How to Get Serious about Fighting Crime (January 2010)
Local Politics (May 2015)
In Memory of a Generation's People's Heroes (October 2015)
Occupy Wall Street (November 2011)
The Role of Higher Education (November 2010)
The Socialist Martin Luther King (February 2016)
The Triumph and Tragedy of Revolution (December 2016)
Two Exemplary Anecdotes from the Sixties Student Movement (September 2013)
Utopia (November 2015)
Voluntary Poverty (October 2011)
Why I am a Socialist (March 2010)

9. Memoirs
Baby Boomer Reads the Beats (April 2012)
A Brief Literary Life (September 2012)
A Garland of Greek Professors (December 2010)
A Glimpse of Robert Bly (August 2012)
Grandparents (December 2009)
High School (August 2014)
Hip Poets of Seventies San Francisco (January 2011)
How I Came to Work at Scott Foresman (July 2017)
How I Was Hired to Teach in Nigeria (May 2011)
IWW (April 2011)
March in Cicero (December 2009)
A Memorable Roomer (June 2014)
My Most Politically Active Year (February 2011)
Nova Academy (March 2011)
Pestering Allen [Ginsberg] (March 2012)
Poetry on the Loose (September 2011)
A Scholar's Debut (October 2012)
Sherman Paul (August 2016)
Suburbanite in the City (November 2010)
Tim West (March 2013)
VISTA Trains Me (June 2011)

10. Travel
Arrival in Nigeria (August 2015)
Acadiana [Lafayette, Louisiana] (May 2010)
An Armenian Family in Bordeaux (December 2014)
Carnival [Portugal] (May 2012)
Cookie Man [Morocco] (October 2011)
Creel (October 2010)
Dame Fortuna in Portugal (May 2012)
Dinner with Mrs. Pea [Thailand] (April 2013)
Election Day in Chichicastenango (January 2012)
An Evening in Urubamba (July 2011)
Festival in Ogwa [Nigeria](January 2011)
On the Ganges' Shore (August 2013)
The Guru of Guinness (July 2016)
Haarlem (July 2010)
Hitchhiking in Algeria (September 2010)
Hitchhiking in France (January 2014)
Hungarian Food (December 2010)
Introduction to Tourist Snapshots (June 2010)
Jemaa el Fna (December 2010)
Knee-deep in History [Vietnam, Cambodia] (February 2014)
Najibe’s Stories (September 2011)
Nigerian Names and Vehicle Slogans (March 2011)
A Palm Wine Shack [Nigeria] (December 2011)
Portraits from a Floating World: Anonymous (October 2016)
Portraits from a Floating World: Najibe and Sandro (February 2010)
Portraits from a Floating World: Gahlia and Jack (June 2010)
Portraits from a Floating World: Leslie Spector and Pa’ahssyzy (August 2010)
A Problem on the Border [Algeria] (June 2011)
A Reading in Kathmandu (November 2009)
Sacred Space as Sideshow [Prague] (February 2010)
St. Joseph’s Day at the Laguna Pueblo (April 2011)
A Stroll around Lake Bled (May 2013)
Strong Stuff [Marrakech] (October 2012)
Tetouan (November 2010)
The Theory of Souvenirs (April 2012)
A Trip to India (January 2016)
Two Parades [India and Peru] (August 2011)
The Valley of Beautiful Women [Eger, Hungary] (March 2010)
Vignettes of Sunny Nigeria (March 2011)
A Waterfall near Marrakech (February 2011)

A Structural View of the Ephesiaca

The Ephesiaca by Xenophon of Ephesus [1] has been long considered inferior to other Hellenistic novels or romances. In fact, early editors speculated that the extant text is not a finished work but a summary of a superior longer version. One critic arguing that main characters display significant growth and maturation [2] stands apart from the majority who find the chief interest of the work to be its action. Even those who translate Xenophon are tempted to condescension. One characterizes the book as "a specimen of penny dreadful literature” and another calls it the ancient version of a "rip-roaring action film." [3] They at least make it sound entertaining.

The fact is that ancient Greek prose fiction in general tends like folk tales to focus with single-minded concern on a narrative thread, with little description of settings and virtually no analysis or development of character. In the Ephesiaca the incidents are implausible and repetitive, the characters flat and unchanging, and the narration generally spare. The story does include an elaborate rhetorical show-piece: the wonderful ekphrasis on the canopy above the lovers’ marriage bed. The lush and luxurious texture of this passage, lit with an erotic glow, very like the art object it describes, only emphasizes the plainness of much of the story's prose.

For the most part the narration is unadorned and simple, proceeding rapidly from one incident to the next. Like Lazarillo de Tormes or the Chinese Water Margin it is episodic and paratactic in structure. Very little builds on what comes before or prepares for what follows. The story could be lengthened or shortened without damaging its pattern or meaning.

This is far, of course, from the qualities prized in modern novels. Yet these very attributes that underlie the book’s lack of appeal to many moderns may also be the basis for the pleasure its original audience felt when reading it. The primary motive for such a plot is aesthetic, the purely formal appeal of the pattern, similar to the pleasure the listener has in a Bach fugue or in certain works of abstract visual art. Even when viewing natural objects, such as the silhouettes of trees or the colors of a sunset, the human sensibility seeks satisfying unintentional structures. The author has set in motion a number of psychologically potent elements which then mutate and repeat in striking formal patterns. [4]

The entire plot might be schematically represented, but perhaps it will be sufficient to describe the first two books to establish the structure which remains largely fixed throughout. The hero of the Ephesiaca is introduced less as an individual than as a paragon of masculine excellence, extraordinary in beauty and character, justified in his arrogance. He is Man writ large. Almost like Gilgamesh whose powers required the counterbalance of Enkidu, Anthia then appears as his female counterpart, exemplifying the qualities most prized in women. The single cell has divided in two.

The two then lose their peace and happiness and fall into the hands of pirates upon which each receives an unwanted lover, their evil Doppelgängers in a sense, Corymbos for Habrocomes and Euxinos for Anthia. Ease has been replaced by its polar opposite suffering and the two leading protagonists has each attracted an antagonist.

In Book II a secondary doubling occurs on the axis of social class. The hero and heroine each receive a counterpart on a lower social level in Leucon and Rhode whose adventures parallel and support those of the leading players. Apsyrtos, the leader of the pirate gang, then provides a synthesis that envelops the pattern by taking Habrocomes, Anthia, Leucon, and Rhode into his custody. A new threat then appears as Aspyrtos’ iniquitous male authority is matched by his daughter Manto. Infatuated with Habrocomes, she denounces him when he fails to return her affection. Not only is he then tortured; Anthia is given to the same Manto who has her married to a poor goatherd.

Soon both escape their perils, but only temporarily, and so the story goes with further variations, playing with the author’s set of bipolar oppositions – male/female, pleasure/suffering, rich/poor – which proceed in a regular stylized pattern reminiscent of fractals until the happy conclusion. Yet since the incidents of the story do refer to recognizable human experience, they possess thematic resonance as well. In a work of art nothing is unintentional. The novel does present themes: in the most general way the culture’s male and female ideals, the instability of fortune, and the mysterious mixture of aggression and compassion that characterizes sexual relations. In Greek mythological terms, the story relays the chastening of arrogance by Eros, and the celebration of Isis, the embodiment of the Great Goddess.

The play of transformation in the Ephesiaca collects around several foci of the sort that Freud might have called cathexes. The anxiety and desire that enwraps love and death, pleasure and suffering renders these topics endlessly interesting to our species. This narrative allows the reader to contemplate the mutations of fortune in wonder and amazement. Individualized psychological studies or social analyses are not the only functions of fiction, nor are they necessarily the most sublime. Perhaps modern critics no longer share the taste that allowed earlier readers to relish formal play in fiction as they did in poetic meter. It may be that the sense of an orderly world that underlies the pleasure of viewing human experience as a delightfully kaleidoscopic marvel is rare in this belated age.

1. In English sometimes called the An Ephesian Tale. The author is, of course, to be distinguished from Socrates’ student, Xenophon of Athens. The question of the text being an epitome remains controversial today.

2. See Aldo Tagliabue, “The Ephesiaca as a Bildungsroman,” in Ancient Narrative, Vol. 10, 17–462.

3. Graham Anderson and Stephen Trzaskoma.

4. I am not wholly original in this reading. Earlier critics who have made structural analyses of the Ephesiaca include R. W. Garson (“The Faces of Love in Ephesiaca or Anthia and Habrocomes,” Museum Africum, 7, 47-55), David Konstan (Sexual Symmetry: Love in the Ancient Novel and Related Genres, Princeton U.P., Princeton), and J. R. Morgan in several studies, but especially “Travel in the Greek Novel: Function and Interpretation” in C. Adams and J. Roy’s Travel, Geography, and Culture in Ancient Greece, Egypt, and the Near East, Leicester-Nottingham Studies in Ancient Society 10, Oxford, 139-160.

Every Reader's Donne

This is the tenth of a series of essays meant to introduce (or re-introduce) non-scholarly readers to the work of important poets. In this series I limit my focus to the discussion of only three or four of each writer’s best-known works while providing a bit of context and biography, eschewing most byways and all footnotes.

Texts of Donne’s poems are appended.

Since Eliot’s essay on “The Metaphysical Poets” almost a hundred years ago Donne’s literary stock has been high indeed. The anonymous 1595 painting of John Donne by shows a stylish young blade, beardless with a thin moustache, an extravagantly lacy shirt with an open collar, and a prodigiously huge hat. Donne, who was to be a grave divine, dean even of St. Paul’s, and a member of Parliament, here looks like nothing so much as a fashionable man-about-town. His contemporary, the writer and translator Richard Baker spoke of him in his youth as “not dissolute, but very neat; a great visitor of Ladies, a great frequenter of Plays, a great writer of conceited Verses.”

His present literary authority may have seemed unlikely in the days of his youth. The son of a London Roman Catholic bourgeois, his background offered little likelihood of favor in high places. Indeed, his brother died while imprisoned for concealing a priest. He bounced around, gaining admittance to Lincoln’s Inn as a lawyer and sailing with Sir Walter Raleigh. Looking for advantage, he served as secretary to the Lord Keeper of the Great Seal, only to incur his employer’s anger by marrying his niece, whereupon he was fired and initially put in jail. Writing to his wife about his dismissal, he signed “John Donne, Anne Donne, Un-done.” While he was freed soon after, he was in reduced circumstances for years while his wife bore child after child, twelve in sixteen years.

After his conversion to Anglicanism and his ordination as a priest, he wrote anti-Catholic pamphlets and his fortunes improved. He served as prolocutor to the king, sat in Parliament, and became a prestigious and popular prelate and chaplain to aristocrats. By the time of his death the public’s memory of the witty seduction poems of his youth had been overlaid with a newer celebrity based on energetic but wholly orthodox religious verses and such memorable meditations as that in which he declared “never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

“Elegy XIX: To His Mistris Going to Bed” features a dazzling display of wit, sufficiently risqué that the poem was denied a license. Excluded from his posthumous collected poems, it was published twenty-one years later. Though the sexes are figured as “foes,” and the lady may display a coquettish stand-offishness (what the troubadours called daunger), they are more profoundly at one in their pursuit of the heights of physical love. Donne sets the tone with the play on “labor” in the second line which leads directly to the erection joke – “tired of standing.” The motif returns in line 11 with his envy of the busk, the rigid center front piece of the corset, and again in line 24 with his saying she can set “flesh upright.” His body is only responding, of course, to the glories of hers which outdoes anything else in the natural world; indeed, it is divine because of her physicality, not in spite of it. The twenty-first century reader may find unpleasant his references to her body as a colony (in the oft-quoted line 27 “O my America, my new found land”) or, even more objectifying, as a mine. (l. 29) Yet he describes himself as in “bonds” (l. 30) though they paradoxically free him.

Though others may find an incompatibility between profane and divine love, between the physical and the spiritual, for Donne they are complementary.

Full nakedness, all joys are due to thee.
As souls unbodied, bodies unclothed must be
To taste whole joys.

He is a marvelously natural lover to whom adornments such as jewelry can only detract from the worshipped body, for him a “mystic book.” (line 41) The concluding lines may be read as reflecting prelapsarian innocence and the wonderful reciprocity of the love he envisions or as the cynical selfish line of a clever and courtly libertine. Very likely they are both.

To teach thee, I am naked first: why then
What need'st thou have more covering than a man.

In “The Sun Rising” Donne works some new variations on the old troubadour topos of the alba, the dawn-song in which the lover complains of daylight bringing to an end the idyll he had been enjoying in bed with his beloved. Donne immediately recharges this old motif by the use of vigorous, unmistakably colloquial language, providing the impression of sincerity arising from lived experience.

Similarly, the form is both old and new, conventional and innovative, with both rhyme and meter following well-defined but unpredictable patterns. Each stanza follows a rhyme scheme one quatrain short of a Shakespearean sonnet: ABBACDCDEE while the meter is iambic pentameter for lines three, four, seven, eight, nine, and ten. Line two is regularly shortened (and, in reading, slowed) to a dimeter, in the first two stanzas suggesting thoughtful inquiry and in the last, quiet wonder.

The poet indicates his values at the outset by treating the sun as a menial, annoyingly interfering with the all-important business of love-making. Yet he is not dismissed only to “chide late schoolboys,” but also to tend the king’s affairs, which in the lover’s view are as trivial as a child’s. Not merely human society from the lowest to the highest seems inconsequential to this lover, but even (one might have assumed as much from his high-handed address to the sun) such operations of nature as the ants prudent preparation for winter. The neo-Platonic justification for this amatory solipsism is provided in the couplet that concludes the first stanza. Love is eternal, outside of time; next to love’s glory, time is a ragged beggar.

The following stanza reinforces the hegemonic subjectivity that, for the lover, makes up his entire world. The sun vanishes when he closes his eyes, yet the entire world, his entire world, is ever–present in his lovers’ bed. Next to the delights of love all worldly honor seems inconsequential. The poet’s more-than- lordly position allows him to be condescending to the sun. The poem closes with a distinctly neo-Platonic geometric formula that considers the sphere to be the shape of perfection.

Even in his pose as a passionate lover, Donne uses philosophic justifications, most often neo-Platonic, to account for the strength of his desire. When he became an Anglican and a priest the center of his attention shifted from human to divine love while never denying the value and power of the former, and he became a celebrated preacher, drawing crowds to St. Paul’s as well as to Paul’s Cross, the al fresco pulpit nearby.

Remarkably, Donne managed to retain a comparable imaginative energy and sensuality in these religious poems. With “batter,” the first word of his Holy Sonnet XIV, he startles the reader with the ferocity of his passion. Once the reader understands the conceit, it grows only more monstrous. The poet imagines himself raped by God in a transport during which he is largely passive. The violence of the imagery is disturbing and unavoidable. The other governing metaphor of the poem is equally willing to flirt with masochism: the self as a city besieged by the divine, hoping to be captured. While these images are novel and likely to be shocking to many, Donne’s language is justified since the analogies of a rape or a city captured in war, while violent, are entirely consistent with the orthodox doctrine of salvation through grace. For Donne, the edgy rhetoric guarantees the reader’s attention and throws a new light on a familiar teaching.

He sounds as anxious for salvation as his younger self had been that the lady should undress. In praise of Donne Eliot had noted that for him the “disassociation of sensibility,” the separation of thought and feeling, did not exist. For Donne an idea was an experience and each emotion stirred ratiocination. While his every verse is grounded in concrete imagery of lived experience, it often uses the abstract concepts of neo-Platonism or Christian apologetics. For Donne the new discoveries of his day, the explorations of previously unknown regions, the latest in physics, alchemy and chemistry, all seemed to him rich with metaphorical possibilities. The fact is that, until the recent era of scientific specialization, men of letters and men of the cloth actually made scientific discoveries, among them Leibniz, Franklin, Goethe and Mendel. Over the centuries, the science may mutate and develop, but the emotional experiences never changes as though in the last analysis it is to those mutable and turbulent areas of consciousness that one must seek the most authentically lasting truths. Every poem of Donne’s is, though the poet’s craftsmanship, charged with the intensity of his intellect and no less of his heart.

"Elegy XIX: To His Mistris Going to Bed"
Come, Madam, come, all rest my powers defy,
Until I labour, I in labour lie.
The foe oft-times, having the foe in sight,
Is tired with standing, though they never fight.
Off with that girdle, like heaven's zone glistering
But a far fairer world encompassing.
Unpin that spangled breast-plate, which you wear
That th'eyes of busy fools may be stopped there:
Unlace yourself, for that harmonious chime
Tells me from you that now 'tis your bed time.
Off with that happy busk, whom I envy
That still can be, and still can stand so nigh.
Your gown's going off such beauteous state reveals
As when from flowery meads th'hills shadow steals.
Off with your wiry coronet and show
The hairy diadem which on you doth grow.
Off with those shoes: and then safely tread
In this love's hallowed temple, this soft bed.
In such white robes heaven's angels used to be
Received by men; thou Angel bring'st with thee
A heaven like Mahomet's Paradise; and though
Ill spirits walk in white, we easily know
By this these Angels from an evil sprite:
They set out hairs, but these the flesh upright.
License my roving hands, and let them go
Behind before, above, between, below.
Oh my America, my new found land,
My kingdom, safeliest when with one man manned,
My mine of precious stones, my Empery,
How blessed am I in this discovering thee.
To enter in these bonds is to be free,
Then where my hand is set my seal shall be.
Full nakedness, all joys are due to thee.
As souls unbodied, bodies unclothed must be
To taste whole joys. Gems which you women use
Are as Atlanta's balls, cast in men's views,
That when a fool's eye lighteth on a gem
His earthly soul may covet theirs not them.
Like pictures, or like books' gay coverings made
For laymen, are all women thus arrayed;
Themselves are mystic books, which only we
Whom their imputed grace will dignify
Must see revealed. Then since I may know,
As liberally as to a midwife show
Thyself; cast all, yea this white linen hence.
Here is no penance, much less innocence.
To teach thee, I am naked first: why then
What need'st thou have more covering than a man.

The Sun Rising

Busy old fool, unruly Sun,
Why dost thou thus,
Through windows, and through curtains, call on us ?
Must to thy motions lovers' seasons run ?
Saucy pedantic wretch, go chide
Late school-boys and sour prentices,
Go tell court-huntsmen that the king will ride,
Call country ants to harvest offices ;
Love, all alike, no season knows nor clime,
Nor hours, days, months, which are the rags of time.

Thy beams so reverend, and strong
Why shouldst thou think ?
I could eclipse and cloud them with a wink,
But that I would not lose her sight so long.
If her eyes have not blinded thine,
Look, and to-morrow late tell me,
Whether both th' Indias of spice and mine
Be where thou left'st them, or lie here with me.
Ask for those kings whom thou saw'st yesterday,
And thou shalt hear, "All here in one bed lay."

She's all states, and all princes I ;
Nothing else is ;
Princes do but play us ; compared to this,
All honour's mimic, all wealth alchemy.
Thou, Sun, art half as happy as we,
In that the world's contracted thus ;
Thine age asks ease, and since thy duties be
To warm the world, that's done in warming us.
Shine here to us, and thou art everywhere ;
This bed thy center is, these walls thy sphere.


Batter my heart, three-person'd God ; for you
As yet but knock ; breathe, shine, and seek to mend ;
That I may rise, and stand, o'erthrow me, and bend
Your force, to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp'd town, to another due,
Labour to admit you, but O, to no end.
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captived, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be loved fain,
But am betroth'd unto your enemy ;
Divorce me, untie, or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

"Nottamun Town"

“Nottamun Town” is a song of undoubted antiquity, dating at least from the late Middle Ages. With explicitly self-contradictory content, the lyrics challenge listeners’ assumptions in the most fundamental way. The surface it constructs, a shimmering blend of reality and unreality, is mirrored in the song’s elusive transformations over time. The available evidence suggests that the song had all but vanished in England by the eighteenth century, but it had crossed the Atlantic in the century before where it become established in a half dozen Southern states. Several broadside versions were published in New York in the nineteenth century, but the tune was not recorded until Cecil Sharp collected it from Jean Ritchie’s sister Una and cousin Sabrina in 1917. Ritchie later sang the song on many albums and through her renditions and those of other performers who had learned it through her (notably the Fairport Convention) it became reestablished in the U.K. Those influenced included some who deviated from the folk tradition. Dylan used Ritchie’s tune for “Masters of War.” Furthermore, on the holograph of “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall” just below the line “I saw ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken” Dylan wrote “Nottamun Town,” a clear reference to the line in Ritchie’s song “Ten thousand stood round me but I was alone.” [1] Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter recalled that the song’s underdetermination inspired them to use similarly mysterious imagery. [2]

Just what does that imagery signify? “Nottamun Town” may easily be characterized as nonsense poetry, but the term is imprecise. What is called nonsense poetry may be of three types. The words may follow the phonological and syntactic rules of a language yet introduce new, more or less suggestive, coinages in a generally intelligible setting. This is the sort well-known from “Jabberwocky” or “The Pobble Who Has No Toes.” Further dislocation from linguistic norms leads to a more radical form of nonsense verse that may approach gibberish such as one sees in magical formulae, Sioux lyric, scat-singing, and speaking in tongues. Some texts, however, including this song, include no neologisms, but rather employ ordinary language to subvert everyday logic. [3]

The theme of “Nottamun Town” is neither love nor death, but rather the nature of reality itself, or, at any rate, the capacity of language to describe it adequately. The paradoxical content of the song has struck many listeners as puzzling in spite of its resemblance to “O! Susannah,” Stephen Foster’s composed song, and nineteenth century children’s poems such as those by Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll.

The sociological bias common to folklorists has led many critics, baffled by the song’s illogic, to suggest the relevance of a variety of historical circumstances. Among the ingenious proposals are the conventions of mummers’ performances, the turmoil of the English Civil War, and outbreaks of plague or ergotism. The very breadth of these suggestions indicates the slender evidence for any. The fact is that even if some social cataclysm accompanied the song’s composition, that event would shed little light on its continuing popularity over centuries in the American colonies among people lacking contact with Great Britain.

The theory concerning the song’s meaning that I find most useful is, oddly, the least likely of all. Charles Upton, a poet associated with the Beats who became a Sufi, maintains [3] that the song is a coded guide to the spiritual path he regards as sophia perennis. For him each of the specific figures is allegorical, each color is meaningful, and the whole is coherent and complete. This excerpt will be sufficient to direct those who, like me, find Upton’s hermeneutics provocative and ingenious though far from compelling as a whole.

“Nottamun” or “Nottingham” Town is the place of “naughting,” the town where we travel to become “not.” It thus corresponds with the Sufi fana, or self-annihilation. It is the town of the dead—not necessarily the physically dead, but those who are dead in this life—who, in the words of Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) have “died before they are made to die.” As Omar Khayyam said, “Dawn is breaking and the caravan/ Starts for the Dawn of Nothing —O make haste!” But it is also, on the negative side, the land of those who are dead to the Spirit, the living dead who make up sense-bound “normal” humanity, now seen as they really are from the vantage point of that other world: hylic (material) man as witnessed from a psychic and potentially pneumatic standpoint.

Each of the seven stations of the spiritual Path is rendered, in “Nottamun Town,” as a polar opposition, whose synthesis opens the door to the next level. . .

I follow Upton only in part. Though his elaborate gloss on a simple song is admirably clever and almost justifiable, it is far too specific, tailored in detail to fit Upton’s largely preconceived vision. While it is true that the song triggers questions about fundamental assumptions taken for granted in everyday thought (for instance, it implies suspicion of dualism), only the enthusiast will find a detailed and specific spiritual ladder for the aspirant to ascend.

The song in fact belongs to a considerable tradition of nonsense literature, once directed toward a general audience, but which, in recent times has become associated in particular with children’s poetry. In “Farai un vers de dreit nien,” for example, William IX explicitly declares he will write about “nothing.” He explodes dualities by insisting he is neither happy nor sad, neither stranger nor native.

One function of such texts is to affirm the fundamentally irrational, ambiguous, or mysterious character of human thought processes, in William’s lyric illustrated by his love dilemma. There is a frisson of delight felt often by the very young in seeing self-contradictions and impossibilities boldly set forth; a similar pleasure, I suspect, underlies the popularity of magicians and, in American culture, special effects in films. Apart from this function as entertainment on the thematic level such celebration of paradox reminds the listener of how fragile the human cause-and-effect understanding of our lives can seem in the light of such consciousness-altering catalysts as art (including religion). Just as the viewer of a suspense film or a Greek tragedy enjoys imagining being in peril while safely enjoying an entertaining narrative (while knowing in the back of the mind that one is at all times in mortal peril) [4], the audience for “Nottamun Town” enjoys playing with epistemological doubt while to some degree recognizing its reality.

1. https://newtonexcelbach.com/2016/06/10/various-routes-to-and-from-nottamun-town/

2. See Blair Jackson's "An Interview About Songwriting and Inspiration," in Goin' Down The Road: A Grateful Dead Traveling Companion, 208-209.

3. I would not consider nonsense statements that seem to ignore natural law, such as one finds in myth, fairy tales, science fiction, “magic realism,” and elsewhere. The worlds imagined in such texts operate by laws, though they may differ from those of everyday lived reality.

3. In Folk Metaphysics. The relevant passage is available as well at www.sophiaperennis.com/discussion-forums/traditionalism-and-folklore/fair-nottamun-town-mystical-and-alchemical-symbolism-in-an-appalachian-folk-song/.

4. Behind this fear is the likelihood that the more or less enlightened viewer of Oedipus Rex, King Lear, or Silence of the Lambs realizes that in the end all is well because, in Pope’s words “Whatever is, is right.”

Nottamun Town as sung by Jean Ritchie

In fair Nottamun town, not a soul would look up,
Not a soul would look up, not a soul would look down,
Not a soul would look up, not a soul would look down,
To show me the way to fair Nottamun town.
I rode a grey horse, a mule roany mare,
Grey mane and grey tail, a green stripe down her back,
Grey mane and grey tail, a green stripe down her back,
There wa'nt a hair on her be-what was coal black.
She stood so still, she threw me to the dirt,
She tore -a my hide and she bruised my shirt.
From saddle to stirrup I mounted again,
And on my ten toes I rode over the plain.
Met the King and the Queen and a company more,
A-riding behind and a-marching before
Came a stark-naked drummer a-beating a drum
With his heels in his bosom come marching along.
They laughed and they smiled, not a soul did look gay,
They talked all the while, not a word they did say,
I bought me a quart to drive gladness away
And to stifle the dust, for it rained the whole day.
Sat down on a hard, hot cold frozen stone,
Ten thousand stood round me, and yet I's alone.
Took my hat in my hand for to keep my head warm,
Ten thousand got drownded that never was born.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

False and Homophonic Translation

There are endless challenges for the literary translator apart from the certainty that the product will never be flawless. [1] Some versions strive for literal precision while others seek more freely to capture an effect analogous to that of the original. The extreme of the first sort is the old Loeb Library’s facing translations which, for all the Victorian fustian of the older volumes, serve well as a crib of the original. The second sort might be represented by Pound’s versions of Li Bai or Robert Lowell’s “imitations.” Most literary translators situate themselves somewhere between.

Some works presented as translations, however, present an entirely different set of questions. One sort of false translation is the poem presented as a translation for which no original exists. In the trans-European trading about of narratives during the Middle Ages, a text not infrequently claims to be a translation of an earlier poem. If that source is unknown, it can be impossible to determine what, if anything, the present work owes to prior models. At times the assertion that the poet is merely transmitting an older story rather than composing altogether afresh is designed to enhance the received value of the work (though for moderns a claim to originality is privileged). Joseph Smith, for example, claimed to have “translated” the Book of Mormon.

In order to attach bardic significance to his work in the proto-Romantic moment James Macpherson published what purported to be the works of the legendary Ossian yet which was largely original. Since exoticism served the emerging Romantic sensibility as well as antiquity, William Thomas Beckford’s claimed his Vathek to be translated from an unpublished Arabic manuscript. Whether readers did or did not believe the source was other than English scarcely matters: the same semantic implications exist in either case.

Ezra Pound’s “Papyrus,” while shaped by scholarly publication of finds such as the Oxyrhynchus papyri, also valorizes the Modernist qualities of fragmentation.

Too long…

Though evoking antiquity and Sappho in particular (who mentions a Gongula), Pound’s one syllable first line implies the entire reverdie tradition of the Middle Ages. The two-syllables that follow echo the complaint continuous in poetry from the Bible [2] to the “Hesitation Blues,” and the three-syllable final line (drawn out in languid longing) is a name liquid on the tongue. The pretense of translation justifies the elliptical syntax and places the object of desire impossibly distant in time and place.

Doubtless the grandest monument on the shelf of translations without originals is Armand Schwerner’s The Tablets which purports to be a translation with commentary by a “Scholar-Translator” from ancient Sumero-Akkadian cuneiform. Rather like Carlyle had done in Sartor Resartus or Nabokov in Pale Fire this strategy purchases ironic distance and indicts the authority of the single authorial subject, refracting a multiplicity of possible attitudes and interpretations of experience. This is hardly the place for an exposition of this ambitious poem which, according to those who saw him, remains far less marvelous on the page than when performed by the author.

A second variety of false translation, unknown to me before the twentieth century except in brief, usually jocular, phrases is the type called "allographic translation", "transphonation" (in French) "traducson," or, most commonly “homophonic translation.” In this process the “translator” renders the sounds of a poem’s language in something close to the same sounds in a target language with no regard for the original meaning. Such “translations” have appeared for the last sixty years. The tradition is generally dated from the versions of Catullus published by Louis and Celia Zukofsky between 1958 and 1966 and collected by Cape Goliard in 1969, though these in fact represent a compromise between a reliance on sound alone and a conventional translation.

A few examples will suffice to illustrate the Zukofskys’ method. Here is the Latin followed by Celia Zukofsky’s literal translation and then the semi-homophonic version in their collection.

Catullus 112

Multus home es, Naso, neque tecum multus homost qui
descendit: Naso, multus es et pathicus.

Much a man you are, Naso, and that you much a man it is who
comes down: Naso, much you are and pathetic/lascivious.

Mool ’tis homos,’ Naso, ’n’ queer take ’im mool ’tis ho most he
descended: Naso, mool ’tis – is it pathic, cuss.

A Latin-derived word like “descend” passes between the languages with at least some semantic relevance (including useful hints of obscenity), but most words are not similarly accommodating . Even were it lacking the enigmatic “mool,” this translation clearly veers in the direction of gibberish. For instance, the concluding “cuss” seems wholly reliant on sound. Yet, for the reader familiar with the original and perhaps for others as well, the Zukofsky rendering can seem oddly effective. The slangy tone of the Zukofsky certainly mirrors the colloquialism of the original, and even its sniggering indecency seems to have a place.

A slightly longer piece may provide a better measure. Here the Latin is followed first by a plain prose translation by Leonard C. Smithers (1894) and then the joint Zukofsky rendering.

Catullus 70

Nulli se dicit mulier mea nubere malle
quam mihi, non si se Iuppiter ipse petat.
dicit: sed mulier cupido quod dicit amanti,
in vento et rapida scribere oportet aqua.

No one, says my lady, would she rather wed than myself, not even if Jupiter himself sought her. Thus she says! but what a woman says to a desirous lover ought fitly to be written on the breezes and in running waters.

Newly say dickered my love air my own would marry me all
whom but me, none see say Jupiter if she petted.
Dickered: said my love air could be o could dickered a man too
in wind o wet rapid a scribble reported in water.

Here again the anchorage in meaning the Zukofskys retained affords their verse a weird aptness, with new elements added through the “mistranslation.” For instance the repeated use of “dickered” in the place of forms of dicere suggests the repeated if minor squabbles of a couple and the transformation of a form of petere (to ask, seek, pursue) as petted suggests intimacy. The garbled syntax could be thought to represent the addled lover’s mind.

Yet the choices seem sometimes almost arbitrary. In accordance with their mixed mode of work the Zukofskys were satisfied to begin with “newly” solely because it sounds like “nulli” and to end by simply translating Catullus’ final acqua as water, there neglecting the sound altogether.

Since the Zukofskys’ Catullus was published, it has received negative reviews from Classicists and markedly mixed reviews from poetry journals. Paul Mann undertakes to speak for the majority when he says, “For most translators, the name Zukofsky represents a scandal. It is a name better left unspoken, and when it is spoken, it signifies grotesque infidelity, gratuitous distortion, the deliberate abuse of a poem for the translator’s own aesthetic satisfaction.” According to his account the “only” readers who “respond sympathetically” to Zukofsky’s book are those “devoted” to his “overwhelmingly difficult” poetry in general. [3]

On the other hand, to Curtis Faville “Louis Zukofsky's Catullus stands as one of the major works of literature of the 20th Century, right alongside Ulysses, “The Waste Land,” Mrs. Dalloway, Spring & All, Harmonium, The Naked Lunch, Light in August; in other words, in the company of those works which propose revolutionary, new paradigmatic conceptions of form and method.” [4] With only a bit more modesty on behalf of his poet, Peter Quartermain calls the book “one of the most imaginative and resourceful texts produced in English in the last half of the twentieth century.” [5]

To my knowledge no one has followed the Zukofskys’ method since. Yet a more extreme if less demanding procedure of homophonic translation which wholly ignores the signification of the original text, following only its sound, has become nearly commonplace. In Charles Bernstein’s widely used The Practice of Poetry, he recommends so “translating” a work from a language of which one is ignorant. Bernstein has himself essayed homophonic translation in his “From the Basque” and “me Transform – O!” [6]

Not surprisingly, others among the so-called Language poets, whose goal seems at times to make poetry as boring as possible, have taken a fancy to this procedure. Among the more widely known examples of homophonic translation is David Melnick's treatment of the opening of the Iliad in which Homer’s first words become "Men in Aida” (the title of the 1983 book). [7] Ron Silliman composed a new Duino Elegy under the title “Do we know Ella Cheese?” that opens

when itch scree
hurt as much

Then how's their angle
or known gun?

Honky sets selves,
his name a eye nor much.

Plows lick answers . . . [8]

In these examples sound is not only foregrounded; it is given unlimited license. Thus the author may arrive at a text through a process little different from free association. The words of an original in a different language serve as a basis for generating random meaning amid a constantly changing vortex of half-meaning, mistaken meaning, and willful defiance of meaning.

Homophonic translation spread into popular culture briefly with the 1956 publication of James L. Chace’s Anguish Languish (English Language) which was read on television by Arthur Godfrey and published in several daily newspapers as well as in Sports Illustrated. Most of Chace’s pieces were English-to-English (called by some “homophonic transformations) such as his retellings of “Ladle Rat Rotten Hut,” “Guilty Looks Enter Tree Beers,” and “Oiled Murder Harbored.” He does, however, also offer two French songs: “Freyer Jerker” and “Alley Wetter”:

Fryer Jerker, Fryer Jerker,
Dormer-view? Dormer-view?
Sunny lay martini!
Sunny lay martini!
Drink, drank, drunk.
Drink, drank, drunk.

Alley wetter,
jaunty alley wetter,
Alley wetter, shutter plumber ray.
Shutter plumber railer tat
Shutter plumber railer tat
Ale a tat, ale a tat
Ale a tat, ale a tat
Alley wetter, jaunty alley wetter,
Alley wetter, shutter plumber ray.

With a similar emphasis on humor and ingenuity, Luis d'Antin van Rooten published one of the most striking tours de force of homophonic translation, a sizable Mother Goose collection titled Mots D'Heures: Gousses, Rames: The D'Antin Manuscript. It is clear that van Rooten, unlike Chace, sought to maintain some syntactic plausibility in his version. [9]

Humpty Dumpty
Sat on a wall.
Humpty Dumpty
Had a great fall.
All the king's horses
And all the king's men
Couldn't put Humpty
Together again.

Un petit d'un petit
S'étonne aux Halles
Un petit d'un petit
Ah! degrés te fallent
Indolent qui ne sort cesse
Indolent qui ne se mène
Qu'importe un petit
Tout gai de Reguennes.

A child of a child
Is surprised at the Market
A child of a child
Oh, degrees you needed!
Lazy is he who never goes out
Lazy is he who is not led
Who cares about a little one
All happy with Reguennes

The most accomplished works of homophonic translation seem clearly limited to the realm of novelty, seeking to impress the reader with their wit and ingenuity and, in fact, with their oddity more than any other characteristic. The difference in literary value between Zukofsky’s Catullus or Pound’s “Papyrus” and the mass of utterly forgettable compositions by so-called experimental writers who keep pursuing the same, now traditional, avant-garde techniques is unmistakable. In spite of the mysteriously compelling appeal of dreams to the dreamer, they seem to be, alas, composed for an audience of one, for very little is as boring as another person’s dream. Elementary school students now compose exquisite corpses (after their unit on haiku, perhaps) which have precisely the appeal of those by celebrated poets who write in French. Tzara’s “Dada Manifesto on Feeble & Bitter Love," which prescribes the cut-up method for generating text, is itself a satisfactory poem. What results from following its instructions will, unfortunately, not be. Does anyone feel pleasure at the prospect of a half hour of Jackson MacLow? Does even Gary Sullivan read flarf? Is it produced only to annoy others?

The fundamental problem of all aleatory methods is that they remove intention from composition. Intention may be mistaken or twisted or self-deceiving or vicious, but it must be present to generate meaning. A sunset may be beautiful, but it is not a work of art because it lacks intention. Significance arises only in the interpretations of nature, not in its creation. I am not thinking here of authorial intention as the “correct” reading of a poem or story. [10] As Blake knew, the author may not know a new work’s potential. In fact the writer makes many revelations to readers without knowing what is going on. Yet there is some impulse of desire, some feeling of a moment, some shade of affect preserved in every work of art. The arts’ unique role arises from their ability, unshared with other artifacts, to render the evanescent gossamer of human consciousness in permanent form. The random generation of words can produce only an arid sham, what a cheeky child might call “the Avant-garde Emperor’s New Clothes.”

One might proceed further yet afield from literary translation as it is generally understood. What implications might lurk in Borges’ discussion of translations from Tlön, in my friend Bob Lundy’s painstaking and elegant transcriptions of glyphs of his own invention, or in Christian Vander’s lyrics for the French rock band Magma couched in the non-terrestrial language of Kobaïan.

A few conclusions are available, though, concerning the value and the limits on value of pretended translation and homophonic translation. Pretending a work is translated even when it is not is a specific move to add semantic elements to the field including associations with the supposed original. This move is neither more nor less valid than many other means of thickening meaning in the aesthetic text. The practice of homophonic translation, on the other hand, is capable of little beyond a few comic touches and an opportunity to display cleverness. [11] Both share with conventional translation the potential to stimulate the writer to move in directions otherwise unlikely.

1. This is only a more pointed version of the imperfection of all texts. See my “Sweet Treason” in Dada Poetry: An Introduction or on this website for a fuller treatment of conventional translation.

2. See Habakkuk 1:2, Psalms 13 and 35, Revelations 6:10, etc.

3. Translation Review, Volume 21-22, Issue 1, 1986, “Translating Zukofsky's Catullus” pp. 3-9.

4. http://compassrosebooks.blogspot.com/2009/02/louis-zukofskys-catullus-new-york.html

5. Stubborn Poetries: Poetic Facticity and the Avant-Garde, University of Alabama,p. 60.

6. The influential journal of translation Circumference features such homophonic translations regularly. See Horáček, J. "Pedantry and Play: The Zukofsky Catullus." Comparative Literature Studies 51.1 (2014): 106-131. Bernstein also composes in semi-gibberish, notably in “Johnny Cake Hollow.”

7. The opening scene is in a gay bathhouse. Melnick’s version of the first three books of the epic were published under the title of Men in Aida by Uitgeverij (The Hague and Tirana 2015).

8. First published in Roof V in 1978. The German is “Wer, wenn ich schriee, hörte mich denn aus der Engel/ Ordnungen? und gesetzt selbst, es nähme/ einer mich plötzlich ans Herz.”

9. Among the work’s admirers was Marcel Duchamp. The success of Mots D'Heures spawned first a later volume using different rhymes by Ormonde de Kay titled N'Heures Souris Rames (Nursery Rhymes), published in 1980 which includes “Signe, garçon. Neuf Sikhs se pansent” (“Sing a Song of Sixpence”) and “Hâte, carrosse bonzes” (“Hot Cross Buns”). The next year Mörder Guss Reims: The Gustav Leberwurst Manuscript by John Hulme appeared.

10. With the publication of their influential essay “The Intentional Fallacy” in The Sewanee Review in 1946, authors W.K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley questioned further the value of searching for authorial intention while others, while such a search is essential for others, such as E.D. Hirsch and M. A. Abrams.

11. In this they resemble other “constrained writing” techniques such as those favored by the Oulipo group. One work of this sort is Georges Perec ‘s full-length novel La Disparition (The Disappearance) which nowhere contains the letter e.