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.

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Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Sweet Treason: Translating Lyric Poetry

Literary translation is clearly altogether different from the translation of technical writing of any other form of information-oriented discourse. If one translates an article to appear in a journal of experimental physics, the goal is to convey the data as clearly as possible. Such texts as a car repair manual, a newspaper, or, indeed, a lecture on translation may be rendered into another language without any loss of meaning whatsoever.

In fact, some translations of poetry are almost as straightforward. Unpretentious interlinear translations of Greek and Latin poetry were once popular with students as cribs. The translator who primarily seeks to facilitate the reader’s access to the original is engaged in a pedagogical exercise, providing, perhaps, a literal prose translation along with annotations. Even in this case, however, the translator cannot avoid semantic decisions with which others might differ.

At the other end of the spectrum are translations read for their own literary value and judged by the same standards as other poetry. Sometimes such a translator seeks to devise cross-cultural analogies (such as saying “god” for “Zeus” or substituting English iambs for Greek dactyls). A poet/translator may aim to assert the spirit of the original in a holistic way, but, having abandoned literal fidelity, any license may be justified. Such versions may slide entirely from the category of translations to become hommages or poems “inspired by” other texts.

The problems of translation go far beyond even the connotations of words and the recognition of irony and intertextual allusion. A distinguishing characteristic of the aesthetic text, of literature as opposed to other forms of discourse, is that form is content. Therefore the translator must consider prosody, rhyme, vocalic clusters, rhythm, alliteration, level of diction, and countless other elements, all of which are operative or significant in varying degrees in a given poem.

The upshot is that poetry has been called flat-out untranslatable by definition. My title is derived from the saying “traduttore, traditore". A French version, laced with misogyny, suggests that a translation's fidelity to the original is inversely proportional to its aesthetic value: "Les traductions sont comme les femmes, ou belles ou fideles." Unfortunately, though, the less beautiful are not always the more faithful, nor are loveliest always least faithful.

The translator pursuing a goal of word-for-word correspondence will rapidly discover that content can be preserved only at the cost of form, and retaining formal elements often means sacrificing a share of literal meaning. And where are grace and charm by then? Even a commitment to some semblance of original form does not end the difficulties. Should the translator of Beowulf who rejects free verse seek to retain the four beat accentual meter (not to mention the alliteration, the caesurae, and the kennings) to give a stronger flavor of Old English ? Or should he render the text in iambic pentameter, as the typical epic meter of English? Perhaps heroic couplets would reflect the more highly patterned conventions of the original, though rhyme plays virtually no part in Old English prosody. In some cases the patterning cannot possibly be reproduced. The quantitative measures of Greek, Latin, and Arabic poetry, for instance, are virtually impossible to duplicate in English. In a non-tonal language the translator cannot even try to imitate the tonal patterns used in poetic convention in Chinese and in Yoruba. Opposite responses to decisions about formal convention are the chief difference between nineteenth century translations and those of today.

The brilliantly original stylist Vladimir Nabokov places himself among the advocates of literal translation. I will indulge us all by printing his remarks at some length:

There is a certain small Malayan bird of the thrush family which is said to sing only when tormented in an unspeakable way by a specially trained child at the annual Feast of Flowers. There is Casanova making love to a harlot while looking from the window at the nameless tortures inflicted on Damiens. These are the visions that sicken me when I read the "poetical" translations from martyred Russian poets by some of my famous contemporaries. A tortured author and a deceived reader, this is the inevitable outcome of arty paraphrase. The only object and justification of translation is the conveying of the most exact information possible and this can be only achieved by a literal translation, with notes.

Nabokov may be been replying to the challenge in the preface to Robert Lowell’s very successful 1962 collection Imitations: "Strict metrical translators still exist. They seem to live in a pure world untouched by contemporary poetry. Their difficulties are bold and honest, but they are taxidermists, not poets, and their poems are likely to be stuffed birds.” Instead Lowell took every freedom: “I have dropped lines, moved lines, moved stanzas, changes images and altered meter and intent.” More than one twentieth century translation has been made by writers who knew little or none of the original language.
Most translators operate somewhere between these extremes. One who seeks to bring as much of the original into another language as possible will use the prosodic and thematic decisions already made by the author, whereas the advocate of free-wheeling taste-governed approach will aim primarily to create a compelling text in English, but most translators fall somewhere between and are thus confronted with a myriad decisions governed by the competing claims of accuracy and art. A sensitive writer might hesitate between highly dissimilar choices:

The sonnet form does not signify for the contemporary North American reader what it did for Petrarch’s contemporaries in fourteenth-century Italy. Using the same form for a translation in a different age and a different culture may therefore carry quite a different meaning and produce the opposite of a faithful rendering. One solution is to look for a cultural equivalent (such as the English iambic pentameter for French Alexandrines) or a temporal equivalent (modern free verse for classical verse forms of the past).

Perhaps the best concluding word among the quarreling authorities is an image.

Translation is the art of revelation. It makes the unknown known. The translator artist has the fever and craft to recognize, re-create, and reveal the work of the other artist. But even when famous at home, the work comes into an alien city as an orphan with no past to its readers. In rags, hand-me-downs, or dramatic black capes of glory, it is surprise, morning, a distinctive stranger. The orphan is Don Quijote de la Mancha in Chicago.

And Barnstone’s compelling images remind us of the value of translation. Just as all human culture is profoundly collective, and technological innovations spread rapidly even in antiquity, poetry, a form of verbal technology, is continually refreshed and renewed by innovation which may arise with the excuse of a foreign text as well as though the ingenuity of a native. Roman translators of Greek work like Ennius, Naevius, and Livius Andronicus presented the Romans with models, just as the Korean, Vietnamese, and Japanese scholars adopted Chinese conventions. Catullus translated Sappho and popularized her meter in Latin. Xuan Zang brought Buddhist scriptures to China from India just as today missionaries translate the Bible for the remotest tribes. John Gower wrote in English, Latin, and French around the same time that Chaucer adopted the continental habit of rhyming (as well as translating Romance of the Rose and Boethius), and in the next century Wyatt and Surrey learned from Italy to write sonnets. Translation of newly available ancient works, and, in particular, the Greek classics, was a constituent part of the Renaissance. Then, as Pound has pointed out, the Elizabethan age was a great age of translation, producing Chapman’s version of Homer, Golding’s of Ovid, Gavin Douglas’ and Surrey’s Vergil. In the early twentieth century the Imagist movement imitated Chinese poetry. Poets such as Pound, Rexroth, Bly, Gary Snyder and Paul Blackburn have made translation a significant portion of their oeuvre. Translated works such as the morality play Everyman or Fitzgerald’s Rubaiyat are treated very nearly as original works, while some translations (such as the King James Bible, A. W. Schlegel’s Shakespeare or Baudelaire’s Poe) are regarded as classics.

The pitfalls and peaks of translation illustrate, as though through a microscope, problematics inherent in all communication. Few of us feel we have access to absolute Truth; rather, we are conscious of constantly managing with what data we can pick up. Further, every speaker, whether lecturing from a podium or sharing a pillow with a single auditor, is conscious that words do not quite adequately bear meaning. Scarcely able to know our own minds, we formulate utterances by makeshift and jerry-rigging. We have all known of cases in which a listener understands in a way that differs widely from that consciously intended by the speaker, or in which two auditors have altogether different interpretations while the speaker’s mind remains unknown.

Even the simplest of conversational conventions may be laden with potential oblique signification. A simple “good morning” may carry tones of flirtation, censure, concern, etc. How much more mysterious are words of love, of philosophy, or of art! The notorious vogue of deconstruction taught us, at least, that every utterance is inaccurate, that our writings persist only under erasure. The forked tongue in its figurative sense is part of what makes us human. The flawed material that does make it to the page will be incompletely and inaccurately understood by readers in an ever-metamorphosing variety of readings.

Thus, the problems of translation are simply a particular category of the problems of communication in general. The Greek rhetorician Gorgias taught the most uncompromising skepticism, declaring three remarkable propositions:

1. Nothing exists.
2. Even if something were to exist, nothing could be known about it.
3. Even if something could be known, it could not be communicated.

Gorgias, of course, ignored these limitations to become a celebrated man of words, composing works that were described as magical and incantatory, with an effect that, according to the author, could only be compared to taking drugs.

Most thinkers would not follow Gorgias (or even take him seriously), but few would dispute that the formulations of language are never perfectly efficient, that further information is inevitably lost upon reception, and that aesthetic texts are dramatically more imperfect, because more ambitious, than other kinds of writing. Even the greatest poetic composition falls short of a complete record of vision and it is always imperfectly understood by the consumer. But we no sooner stop singing for this reason than we stop declaring love to our lovers (or our gods) because language seems not quite up to the task. We tell lies and truths and monstrous combinations of the two to our fellow humans daily, and we while away some of our time under the sun telling tales to beguile the day, singing a song of joy over a full belly, and later making love with words in the dark.

All communication (including reading and translating) is a search for meaning. There can be no perfect translation, just as there is no flawless man, no poem to end all poems, but that is no reason to stop talking, and singing, and translating. James Merrill’s wonderful "Lost in Translation" delineates a knot of woven narratives suggesting memory loss, misunderstanding, emptiness, and ignorance, but, along the way, creates an unforgettable series of scenes between a boy and his governess, a séance, a 19th century French notion of Islamic lands, the mature poet adrift in Greece, and more. Like all poems worth their salt, it reflects our own fallen life in magnificent but fallen language. As Merrill says:

But nothing’s lost. Or else: all is translation.
And every bit of us is lost in it . . .
And in that loss a self-effacing tree,
Color of context, imperceptibly
Rustling with its angel, turns the waste
To shade and fiber, milk and memory.

Taking Off

My hat’s in the heavens,
my ears start to flap.
Get set for ascent, boys,
I’m not going back.

Having traveled here and there by air lately, I have a renewed sense of the pleasure of taking off. For some the reassuring return to the ground may be preferable, but I confess that for me simple safety cannot compare to the frisson of that first moment aloft. Much of the romance of aviation has, I fear, faded. The technically gifted have passed on to the more obscure challenges of microcircuitry, and airports, which in my childhood were among the more exciting of destinations, now seek only to emulate shopping malls. The traveler endures the myriad small annoyances of traffic and parking; removing one’s shoes in the security clearance one feels like a displaced person entering a refugee camp, likely at any moment to be sprayed for lice. Airplane food, which could never compete with the linens, the heavy crockery and silver of the old railroad dining cars, ceased any attempt at palatability years ago and has now, for the most part, vanished altogether. Though the quite marvelous ascent of metal monsters is obscured by routine, the liftoff retains for me its magic.

The whole body is caught up in the sheer physicality of the experience. Like the juvenile erotic sensations of the swing (or their intensified preadolescent amusement park roller coaster versions), like the enervation of exhaustion or the total-body involvement of the athlete, the dancer, the opera singer whose very body vibrates with the tune, the passenger takes flight.

One need not be a poet to submit to the charm of a metaphor intruding in this phenomenal world. A spring morning can be midwife to new beginnings in realms other than the vegetative, and the blues are all the bluer under overcast skies. Taking off brings one to extraordinary heights and sets one down in a new spot. That very elevation of language which has come to signify artificiality once indicated the ambition, at any rate, to soar.

This may be associated with the Holy Spirit, the soul’s ascent, the shaman’s astral wandering. According to a recent study the animals painted on palaeolithic cave walls are all airborne. Parmenides, my favorite among the pre-Socratics for riding his thought to its end unafraid, regardless of his neighbors’ notions, imagined himself in a celestial chariot. That divine craftsman Horace declares that, as a poet transformed into a swan complete with “wrinkled legs,” he will soar with “no paltry or commonplace wings.” Ovid and holy Augustine and many others besides figured their inspired perspective in terms of ascent.

The pseudo-Longinus who in the first Christian century wrote a work of criticism marked more by poetic illumination than pedantic system, called his text “On high things.” Han Shan asks “who can leap the world’s ties/ And sit with me among the white clouds?” And Pegasus flew until recently on the cover of every Poetry magazine from Chicago. Has the sensitive passenger on flight 574 from Atlanta to Newark failed to earn even some small share of participation in this mystery?
Taking off signifies catching the spoor of inspiration, as in the second of the cow-herding pictures of the Zen master Kuoan Shiyuan, “discovering the footprints” of the Truth: “these traces can no more be hidden than one’s nose, pointing skyward.”

The moment when the fog resolves ahead into the first rough outline of an idea, uncertain and shifting at first, is familiar to each at home in the life of their mind. Surely the most delicious stage of writing for most of us is that initial stage of invention, the rest being craftwork and polishing and all too often drudgework. The mind persists through memory of that moment when the spirit was borne over the waters long after it has returned to rest in the familiar wetlands of quotidian consciousness.

And that return is inevitable. As with a ball tossed into the air, or the intoxication of opium, as with sleep, sex, life, or a novel by Dickens the end of the flight must come, the essay must close, the last breath exhaled.


Though fond of the old Athenian, I was given pause when I read that Socrates greeted a bystander who looked as if he hadn’t been spending much time in the gym with the rather rude remonstrance: “You don’t look as though you’re a very good citizen.” I, and much of my cohort growing up in the American 1950s, considered athletes to be the polar opposite of intellectuals and artists. My friends and I liked to quote the words imputed to Robert Hutchins: “Every now and then I feel the urge to exercise, but I find that, if I lie down for fifteen minutes, it passes.” In high school, the boys who wore letter sweaters coalesced with the country club set in what seemed a junior version of the ruling class. I never attended a game in high school or college, though I do recall leafleting against the Vietnam War outside the University of Illinois stadium at homecoming in 1966, expecting that the football fans would be particularly hostile, fired up on school and other spirits. In the years since, I have never watched any sort of sporting event, a fact that always astonished my student-inmates when I taught in the prison system.

Yet these days I spend over an hour every day hurtling down the Heritage Trail, doing twenty-two miles at the fastest pace I can maintain. There have, of course, been cultural changes. In my younger days a runner alongside the road would have been taken for either a professional boxer or a loony, but in the 70s ordinary people suddenly began jogging and biking, then running, even marathons! And in a twinkling gyms sprang up in every strip mall.

I fancy my own evolution owed little to these trends. I had always bicycled. As a child I would roam towns near my home, looking for soda bottles to redeem for snacks. Later, I biked to school and to work as a cheap means of transport, allowing me to opt out in some small degree from the wasteful consumerism that characterizes our culture.

One day, in my forties, while teaching in Brooklyn, I found I had difficulty reading footnotes (often the liveliest part of scholarly texts) and was told I needed glasses for presbyopia. Around the same time, while explaining occult comma lore in the classroom, I noticed that, for the first time, my belly seemed to have trespassed ever so slightly over my belt. (I feel sometimes as though I slid from youth to age with no period of maturity between.) So I began biking simply for exercise, resenting the time it consumes which seems so very like a waste.

I have never understood those who say that they are refreshed or energized by exercise; to me it is a simple account book matter, energy spent is gone (though the morning’s initial store of physical potential can, of course, increase over time). No have I felt the exhilaration reported by some (those more adept at self-hypnosis?). Every day I’m reluctant to set out, feel fatigued after a few minutes, consider shortening the route but don’t, and I arrive back home pleased at having survived once more. It is a largely unpleasant grind, though not altogether without compensations.

First, of course, is the undeniable physical benefit. In my seventh decade, I am obliged to take cardiac and vascular disease seriously. One must pay nature’s debt, but there is no virtue in being in a rush about it. I admit as well the value for weight control which has after all an aesthetic component. (Is one’s body one’s definitive composition?) Besides, why live longer if you must always be eating less than you’d like?

Still I would find the trail depressing as a gym were it no for other rewards. Along its route are fields and woods, fine vistas and curious structures. I see wildlife daily: a swan family, springtime turtles lumbering across asphalt, rabbits and turkeys and deer. The regular rider will observe in the vegetation the procession of seasons as well as smaller daily changes. Just now blackberries hang for the taking.

One can think, as well, if one eschews the earphones sported by many riders. As those Buddhists knew who practiced walking meditation, physical activity can facilitate the movements of the mind. (I have often paced about my own house, looking in every corner for an elusive word.)

The trail itself is often enough a melodrama. Every milestone has its associations like incidents in the plot of a novel. Even after years, watching them pass in review has the satisfaction of familiarity known to fans of Seinfeld and of Superman comics. Approaching and overtaking others is always a tiny narrative, and being overtaken has its own sensation, one I strive most heartily to avoid. A small child just learning to cope with two wheels, a Hasidic man chanting prayers – one never knows who will appear around the next corner. Though the pathway remains in place, the experience is forever fresh.

All the while the rider feels the play of ill and desire, overcoming the impulse to take it easy, making the cyclist kin to overland explorers and those in boot camp and maybe even distantly related to St. Simeon Stylites and the Hindu fakirs. Developing the will, one gets to know the body better. And a fine rosy glow appears in overwrought thighs which seems almost erotic.

Whether these motives will prove sufficient tomorrow I cannot say. But that may be the fundamental value of the ride: like life’s ride, it is existential; it encourages the consciousness to focus on the here and now; on the burning of one’s muscles or the small snake on the road twisting off toward some end of its own. The solitude of physical exertion reflects the solitude of the island of ego, at every moment susceptible to pain and death, and, if nothing else, one hopes this modest but regular ritual (or is it a rehearsal?) may serve one well in the end.

Dust: a meditative riff

What could be more lowly and inconsequential than dust? A particle of dust, a single speck, is invisible with barely a purchase on existence at all. Only in great congregations can dust hope to assert itself. Yet even then its claims are scarcely stronger. Dust is seen rather as an imperfection, an accidental and undesirable accretion on some more solid substance. In wiping the dust from the bookshelf, one turns it into a reassuringly recognizable though disagreeable smudge. But even that smudge may be a simulacrum, itself projected from the cerebral magic lantern, an image of our restless refusal to be satisfied with the apparently fallen state of things. Surely the Sixth Patriarch would object, as he may have done before even his own birth, and then perhaps with warmer conviction, “Buddha-nature is forever clear and pure,/ Where is there any dust?”

Still, even Buddhists persist in spring cleaning and have in fact an illuminated janitor among their worthies. I found after a thorough renewal of my own home, when I came at last to clean the cellar, that the very foundation bricks were returning to dust regardless of temporary tidiness upstairs, and I took it for a sign, and was busy for hours thereafter at least. I soon faced, though, the conundrum that while one man, expecting to live but a little space of time, might feel inclined to labor to complete some great project before passing, another might feel that, under the cosmic arch, and with the light of eons trained upon the stage, play alone is profitable. Yet most of us neither work nor play in earnest but rather step from one hour to the next like travelers stepping on rocks to ford a stream, relieved to have come this far at least without falling. And all the while the stones and the bricks are turning ever so slowly to dust, even now this very evening, and disintegration then makes a quiet background to our talk, a music as light and massive as the falling of snow, and these lost downtown Middletown building basements are crumbling, too, into debris of paint chips and brick-dust and sand and nameless forlorn forgotten traces that once were new and had a great future before them.

Most dust, though, is not the return to nature of structures built by man. A great part is blown soil, for terra firma is never very reliable, and yesterday’s forest floor may be blowing about one’s head today, and blowing even into the eyes, and in that way clouding the judgment and the temperament alike. The earth does not cease with the topsoil, but rarifies only. And even the sea, which seems a more unlikely source for dust is a more prodigious one in fact. For the liquid and greater part of the earth’s surface sprays forth several billion tons of salt dust annually, a figure as grand and oceanic as anyone could wish, so the Pacific is not below sea level alone, but reaches far into the ether and blows about the globe unimpeded in a most free and enviable way and mingles there with salt from other seas.

Soil and sea water being the main constituents of the surface of this earth, it is unsurprising that they predominate as sources of airborne dust. And all the dramatic upheavals that impress us so contribute far less, though they do have their place. The volcanoes that sometimes erupt in the Icelandic islands, forest fires, like those that devastated great tracts of Mongolia and Indonesia this past year, man’s profligate addiction to fossil fuels in combustion industrial and domestic, as well as all the coughing exhausts of our American totem, the automobile, no longer the finned Leviathan it once was, but a most hungry sports utility truck-baby still, all these dramatic and fiery transformations produce smoke pregnant with dust. Dust puts us in our place when even our worst bugaboos and habitual vices make little mess.

The final source of any significance is meteoric matter, penetrating from space into the earth’s atmosphere, so that the dust hanging in a shaft of sunlight may indeed partake of stardust as you had imagined as a wise and dreaming child.
Organic dust does, of course, exist in complex architectural molecules of rich variety: pollen, mite feces, cast off epithelial cells, but these are trivial, just as my life or all biological time is a mere flash in the sun’s pan, and the sun itself a pulse in ever so grander a void. Though veterinarians call blockages in horse intestines “dust balls,” these have none of the sprightly levity of dust, but weigh upon the beast most unpleasantly, I am told, and have the damp and smelly character we associate unmistakably with life.

In the heroic world of the Iliad, however, dust meant submission rather and a quick and violent death. The poet speaks of simple sinking to the dust, clawing the dust, and, in a memorable congruence of archaic Greece and Dodge City, Agamemnon prays his enemies may “bite the dust as they fall dying.”

As though aware of their transience in this dusty world, Abraham and Joshua, too, put on dust and ashes, but in their case as a voluntary ritual of submission. “I give up” may be the first words of an honest man, as the Twelve Step programs would have it, or Islam, whose very name denotes surrender, but the ancient Hellenic and Hebraic patriarchs seem to have submitted in a lugubrious mood. Still, some researchers have proposed that laughter, too, is a gesture of submission, to enhance civility and discourage dustups. Democritus, who saw only atoms (a close cousin to dust) and empty space and worlds upon worlds coming into existence and disappearing in time, could only laugh and extol cheerfulness as the most sublime reaction to the human predicament. He was wise enough to know that he was obliged to submit to the world or to persist in knocking his brain-pan against the same spot indefinitely which would soon become tiresome and raise ugly bruises to boot.

This , however, has not prevented some from crying out against the world’s long cons. Amos the herdsman of Tekos hurled dark words against those who sought to toss “the dust of the earth on the head of the poor.” We all bear the burden of sufficient dust in nature without dusting our brother the more as we ride him piggyback. Amos attacked those who “swallow up the needy,” and would sell the poor for a pair of shoes, and if anyone here is wearing Nikes, these words have landed in the dustbin of history through a rather rough twenty-seven hundred years, but only because the Wobblies were right when they declared that “the working class and the employing class have nothing in common,” and the rich are always puckish, ready to vamp on the nearest warm blood available that won’t fight back. And even if we’re hard put to see who it is that we rule, we are all Americans and thus by definition have a superfluity of shoes and a shortage of prophets, and if we faced the plate naked at dinner time we should know that we are eating the poor in spite of Amos and Dean Swift and Lu Hsun who did their job as poets and gave fair warning.

I once visited London when the dustmen were on strike and their absence was immediately apparent in stinking heaps outside the Albert Hall (which itself strikes some as a disagreeable heap). And I have lingered in Lagos where plumbing is rare and the rain doesn’t begin to wash away the rot. The shit-carrier in Fela’s song “Alogbon Close” spoke the truth when he declared to the big shots, “I be agbepa I de do my part/ Without me your city go smell like shit.” The composer of a gospel for Martin Luther King could have done no better than to bring him to death while defending the garbage-men of Memphis.

Every word has a semantic cloud defined by bits of meaning flung across a field and the spoor of words may be traced with precision through time. Dust descends from Germanic dunst which meant that which rises or is blown about in a cloud such as dust, vapor, or smoke. How close this definition is the the list of images for the world in the Diamond Sutra! The Buddha told Subhuti we should view what we can see as we would a star, as a blind spot, as a lamp, a magic show, a dew drop, a bubble, a dream, a flash of lightning, or a cloud. Insubstantiality links these terms, but insubstantiality has, too, another face, and the Ur-Wort also can mean breath. Indeed, Jehovah formed man from “the dust of the ground.” In the same way, dust, the most useless of things, has a form similar to flour and meal, the foodstuffs that allowed accumulation of surpluses and opened the way to all artistic and intellectual pursuits. For shaman, poet, priest, and tenured professor who dig no physical dirt and produce no tangible and edible fruit are thereby allowed the liberty to construct sweetmeats of the mind and sometimes more substantial fare as well.

The unapologetic unproductive character of the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake is fossilized in the name of the lovely liberal arts, necessarily reserved for freemen only, and the word school meant simply leisure in the Greek language and this was carried into Latin and thence to English, and schoolboys have forgotten that to sit before even a squinty and dyspeptic teacher is quite a different and a better thing than to follow the foreman into a mine like the British children of whom Marx tells who worked and sweated and drank their whiskey and cursed their lot, the nameless Victorian working-class girl who “spelt God as dog and did not know the name of the queen,” or Blake’s dear chimney sweep with his poignant call “ ‘weep! ‘weep!”

More indirect and hence perhaps more revealing, the Chinese word ch’en means dust or dirt and also means the world. The semantic radical is t’a the earth and the phonetic is lu a deer, showing horns, body, and feet. Did the sign suggest the dust raised by a deer in flight? Meaning retreating from the viewer? Truth hightailing it? I have somewhere a copy of a sermon preached for a Southern funeral in which the soul was figured as a deer, racing to the river, pursued by hunter/relatives and dog/doctors seeking to prolong its life. But the deer leaped the creek which is to say the River Jordan and arrived safer on the other side. What relation might this soul-deer be to the animal between whose horns Christ has been sighted, ot the beloved hind whom Wyatt found “wild for to hold, though I seem tame”? But I should leave etymology for even its moister byways and further superstructures might seem dry-as-dust to those of little Sitzfleisch.

Dust settles, reminding each temporarily solid surface of the passage of time, and according to Ferdinand von Richtofen settled dust is the origin of the loess deposits which in China reach thicknesses of seven hundred feet. Siince it is estimated that sixty-eight tons of dust fall each year on New York City, perhaps in time Manhattan will share the fate of the lost city of Ubar, “the Atlantis of the sands,” ruined capital of the people of Ad who Mohammed said were buried for their sins, like the Sodomites before them, though in this case leaving behind “weird monkey-like creatures called nisnas to haunt the spot. In Arabia one sees, as well,m a dust devil now and then, which bustles industrious about its business, but sand is grosser than dust and sooner comes down, though it keeps many secrets, even if Ubar is now known.

And dust rises, demonstrating to us a solemn and self-absorbed movement that makes a middle between the microcosm of the subatomic particles and whatever smaller stuff may lie beyond and the greatest macrocosm, the immense vasts where things drift, and it still may be that our cosmos is a dust mote in one still greater. Each cloud of dust presages the great entropic soup toward which all tends and which is contained as well within the inner heart of present things. So all about on every side one sees nothing but a lazy flux, an easy aimlessness, a hium of action without goal that should instruct in the art of non-doing the Daoists call wu wei.

Dust is the very soul of clouds which can form only when the requisite number of solid condensation nuclei, which is to say, dust particles on assignment, are floating above. Air and water can fill the sky with fancy and make every mood concrete, but only with the excuse of a high-flying dust cloud, too sparse to see from ground level, but crowded nonetheless at three hundred to five hundred particles per cubic centimeter. And the clouds are instructive in their plasticity in that they move and change and mimic and mock in time all that occurs below. But to go into the cumulus, which is to say the heap, in an airplane is always disappointing because the cloud block the view and leave the passenger reliant only on his own imagination or the in-flight magazine which is little consolation or salt peanuts which is something better at least either in the form of high-borne music or as aliment. So it is with many a marvel, and thus the wiser part is often to pass the opportunity to pierce the veil as the view is generally better from before it.

But for scale and for time, I, too, am dust, and you. We all deserve the title of “dustyfoot” the Scots gave wayfaring peddlers though our heels are no more dust in the end than our heads and our hearts. So let us salute each other and trust our sweat and tears and in the end our blood will serve to keep down the dust a while at least. These words are only so much the more dust tossed atop millennia of dusty stacks, but there can be no end of words, and never an end to dust, for there is no road but the dusty road, and the way leads willy-nilly irresistibly on.

Friday, November 6, 2009

A Reading in Kathmandu

For overland travelers forty years ago, Kathmandu was the climax: the most remote, exotic, cheap, picturesque place on earth. To many it seemed an enlightened zone with its colorful mix of Hinduism and Buddhism (not to mention its cannabis). Virtually no outsiders had visited there until the nineteen-fifties, but today, the visitor will find little unchanged except the mountains, and even these have disappeared behind smog. A few years ago Kathmandu, against stiff competition, was named “the most polluted city in Asia. The visitor to the tourist-oriented Thamel district will see hundreds of sex businesses, and human trafficking transports Nepalese women to India. After years of armed insurrection, communists displaced the monarchy in an election judged fair by observers, but few on the streets seem to expect much from those who took power in the name of the people.

Early this year I read my poetry there to the Kathmandu Writers’ Roundtable. My wife and I had found it difficult to engage a rickshaw to go to the reading. The drivers, ordinarily the most shameless of hustlers, were reluctant to take us “due to some politics." As we approached the venue, we heard a great roar in the distance, gradually increasing block by block. By the time that we had come within a half-mile or so of the venue, we could see a large political rally in progress, and the street was so thick with pedestrians our driver was all but stalled. Groups of tribal dancers in costume marched in formation to take their places at the demonstration in the nearby parade grounds. Hundreds of red flags and hammer and sickle banners blew in the breeze. Somewhere a loudspeaker was exhorting the populace, but most people in our vicinity had fixed their gazes more close at hand. I assumed that the ruling faction, the Communist Party (Maoist), was holding a pep rally, but the newspaper the next morning revealed that it was a protest by the Communist Party (United Marxist-Leninist). United they may be today, but no one knows tomorrow. I was told that Nepal has fifteen different communist parties.

When we had made our way through the crowds, as we approached the hall where the reading was to be held, I was met not only by our friend Yuyutsu Sharma (who writes in English and whose work I recommend to all), but also by the press. It seems that half a dozen reporters and photographers had been dispatched to cover the readings. I was sequestered with them where they were serious as could be and took voluminous notes. The next day the story covered an entire page in the English language paper and was featured in smaller features in the Nepalese. I met an extraordinary range of literati including a man who wrote in classical Sanskrit slokas (just as some European poets persisted in writing learned Latin verses centuries after the language had ceased to be spoken by ordinary people). Another poet was a revolutionary who had laid down his arms after years of fighting in the insurgency. The lyrics of another, I was told, had been set to music and were sung by illiterate peasants as they planted paddy. There were professors and established authors, people from the Ministry of Culture, archaeologists and young novelists, traditionalists and innovators, an “energy healer” and a film actor, people who would very likely be attending ten different events in Manhattan -- here all were gathered in one hall.

After the reading a group of us wandered from café to bar to restaurant talking poetry into the night over wine (the Brahmins here are more casual than their Indian cousins about alcohol and meat-eating). Literary life seemed vigorous indeed for a country in which still more than half the people are illiterate, but perhaps it is only natural that the small educated class will form a tighter group than in our America where everyone goes to college. The marginalization of poetry about which so many complain in the United States is not an issue here where culture has a secure, though not necessarily a lucrative, place in the social structure. Even working class Nepalese are fiercely proud of their writers whether they read them or not.

I am not sure whether I have quite recovered yet from a sort of bemused dizziness at the fuss made over my appearance. I was called “renowned” and “distinguished,” adjectives which would never be applied to me by an American critic and which I can only relate in self-satire and appreciation for the politeness of my hosts. Surely a good deal of this, though, is what we called in the sixties “white-skin privilege.” It expresses a sort of internalized colonialism like the pride of the Nigerian school where I taught which gloried in being the only place for miles around with a white teacher. Isolation hardly exists today. Yuyutsu was educated in English and writes in English. He was mentored in university by an American poet and was likely thinking of Whitman among others when he launched a literary movement, Kathya Kayakalpa (Content Metamorphosis), to free Nepalese poetry from rigid adherence to traditional style and meter. Such interchange of ideas, of course, has existed since the Stone Age, and all culture lives and grows in such reaction and counter-reaction, understanding and misunderstanding each other. Yuyutsu told some fine tales from the Indian point of view about Allen Ginsberg’s pilgrimage to South Asia during which he seems to have sorely tried their conventional respect for poets, and yet much was learned surely on both sides.

He is coming in a few weeks to read and I am not only pleased that I can return his hospitality so soon, I am also confident that his interaction with local writers can only be productive. May the poets of the world mix it up and hear each other and challenge each other and read another poem and toss ideas and images about and in this manner we will make our way to the new writing of the future.