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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Friday, January 1, 2010

The Critical Palimpsest: Black African Literature through White American Eyes

(This was originally presented to the New York College English Association a dozen years ago. The text is unchanged.)


Once, talking theory of literature in a graduate seminar, I ventured to mention the ancient notion that one end of art is to give pleasure. "We don't," the professor chided, "talk about our personal lives here, Mr. Seaton." That seemed to me wrong-headed at the time, and it still does. I came of age, after all, in the 60s among friends who insisted that theory and practice should be fused and that the personal is the political. For this reason, before approaching African literature, I would like to give some account of how I come to be speaking on this topic. Through explaining the particular appeal of African writing to me I may be able to suggest its value for you and to make some observations about how we all read and why.

I am, of course, anything but original in my practice of subjective criticism. From the pseudo-Longinus through Hazlitt and genteel 1920s PMLA impressionism to the aggressively ironic decentered subject that speaks in some recent critical discussion, most readers have assumed the final authority of their own reading experience. Yet, many of us remain unself-conscious and therefore unapologetic New Critics and, as David Bleich notes, "Those discussing a work [today] usually pretend that they did not experience it in a direct emotional way" (7). I could be grand and invent a new jargon by which we academic homeboys can recognize each other, or grandiose and announce a new school of confessional criticism which holds the potential of catapulting professors to afternoon daytime TV, or I could be familiar and recognize that I simply wish to talk as I would among friends.

It is not for me to delineate the value of African literature for Africans or for African-Americans any more than I would venture to imagine how Wole Soyinka might be received by a Chinese critic or by our great-grandchildren. I could learn from their insights, but in the end the readings I offer can only arise from my own life.

I grew up in a suburb that barred not only black people and the poor, but also Jews and Asians. The Democratic Party was virtually nonexistent while the John Birch Society and the Christian Anti-Communist Crusade were active. So, like others in similar environments, I listened to a lot of jazz and blues, marched with Dr. King, and supported the Panthers. My brother married a black woman, as did a stepbrother and a stepsister. I worked with the Vice Lords in VISTA, taught in Bedford-Stuyvesant and in the bush of Nigeria's Bendel State not far from old slave forts and new oil refineries on the coast.

What brought me to those humid mangrove swamps? What brought me here today? White guilt or the radical chic that led Langston Hughes' characters, the Carraways, to "go in" for Negroes? (19) Another 60s formula held that liberals act out of charity, feeling pity for the unfortunate, while radicals seek their own liberation. But this may be just self-dramatizing rhetoric for the commonplace practice of seeking self-knowledge in the other: in love across the gender line, in exotic travel (so fashionable among the well-educated), in my field of comparative literature, in cultural studies that address that other we find beneath our noses in Family Feud, bumper stickers, and Donald Duck. Most would agree that one who knows only English literature cannot know literature nor can one who knows only European-American culture know what it is to be human. One must triangulate experience to analyze either oneself or general truths.

Now the multiplication of perspective is inherent in all literature (most of us expect our students to "broaden their knowledge" through reading), but certain texts foreground it. The sharpness of vision available to the well-read and the well-traveled provided they keep eyes and minds open, is not theirs alone. It is inherent in texts from "the other half," and it may be valuable to readers who do not share the author's place in the structure of society. Surely the phenomenon is evident in the prominence of Irish writers in the English literature of the last century, of Jews and, more recently, a whole spectrum of ethnics in America, of writers with a foot in each of two cultures (like Rushdie and Ishigoru), as well as in those who resuscitate versions of the archaic such as Gary Snyder, Diane di Prima, and Jerome Rothenberg.

The commonest American form of the other is racial, and Leslie Fiedler was right when he identified the color contradiction at the heart of a long line of American classics. Hegel's master/slave dialectic hovers in the background as the split vision of the Black writer becomes explicit in American culture. The locus classicus is DuBois:

After the Egyptian and the Indian, the Greek and the Roman, the Teuton and the Mongolian, the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world, -- a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his twoness -- an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.
(45)

In spite of the prophetic implication of second sight and the masterful rhetoric which authenticates the claim, DuBois seems to be describing an illness. More recently Cornel West described the Black writer as "languishing at the interface of Black and white cultures." (hooks 14) But Richard Wright, whose Native Son was also, paradoxically, an Outsider, claimed that his "split subjectivity" placed him "ahead" of white writers (Gilroy 172). The "underground" of Wright (in "The Man Who Lived Underground") and Ellison (in the Prologue to Invisible Man) as well as the "undergrounds" of literary bohemia and political struggle offer a physical image for this dual vision. Baldwin notes the Fanon-like rage he feels when he is seen as a curiosity in Europe, while the Swiss "cannot be strangers anywhere in the world," but proceeds to the insight that "The interracial drama acted out on the American continent has not only created a new black man, it has created a new white man, too . . . This world is white no longer, and it will never be white again" (175), while also noting that "the Western world has created me" (Voices, 661). A similar process of racial dialectic, of creative creolization is evident in the formation of jazz which rose out of a mixture of African and European musical modes and grew in the interplay of interpretation between the white Original Dixieland Jass Band and King Oliver, Sinatra and Sarah Vaughn (Jones).

White artists have long been aware of the value of Africa for their own work. Picasso's appropriation of African sculpture, the dadaist modohojo mumbo-jumbo (Huelsenbeck), Josephine Baker and the Revue Negre, 30s leftist use of Black materials, and the embrace of jazz exiles as well as of writers like Wright and Baldwin, all testify to Europe's long acceptance of African aid while seeking for ways to be modern. Gilroy's The Black Atlantic details more of the connections than I can mention here.

The radical potential of Black art I wish to establish, though, comes not from sources free of European contamination (if such a thing exists). I say nothing here of traditional art in which the double consciousness of which I now speak is replaced by the bipolar oppositions traced by Levi-Strauss or of the poets of oral literature, those funambulist tricksters on the taut rope of irony and contradiction. Examples of how such texts can challenge the European reader's imaginative stretch and reward with rich misprision abound in the back files of Alcheringa.

The first significant notice European readers gave African authors came with the publication in 1948 of Senghor's Anthologie de la nouvelle poesie negre et malgache. A central text for the European appropriation of African literature is provided by Jean-Paul Sartre's introduction.

It is because [the African or African-American poet] is already exiled from himself that he feels this need to declare himself. So he begins with an exile, a double exile. To the exile of his heart, the exile of his body offers a magnificent image. He is most of the time in Europe, in the cold, amid grey crowds; he dreams of Port-au-Prince, in Haiti. But that is not all: at Port-au-Prince he is already in exile. The slave-dealers have snatched his fathers from Africa and scattered them. And all the poems of this book . . .offer us the same mystic geography. A hemisphere; far down, making the first of the three concentric circles lies the land of exile, colourless Europe; then comes the dazzling ring of the Islands and the childhood that dances in circles around Africa; Africa makes the last circle, navel of the world, pole of all black poetry, Africa bright, burning and oily like a snakeskin, Africa of fire and rain, between being and becoming, more real than the endless boulevards of pleasure, but destroying Europe by its black invisible rays, beyond arrest, Africa, imaginary continent. . .


Sartre accurately notes that this Africa is imaginary, a continent viewed through the refracting lens of the critic reading its poets. But yet, to use the terms of Aristotle's Poetics, for that very reason the textual Africa is more real ("more philosophical and higher") than history. Of course the information it contains describes not the Black poets but the French author in mid twentieth century. Still, Sartre was correct in calling Black poetry "the true revolutionary poetry of our day" (in Black Orpheus), not because of its essential African qualities, but because of its relation to twentieth century European thought. A revolution, after all, requires two sides.

While Richard Wright was socializing with the existentialists, Norman Mailer, a spiritual son of Sartre in the U.S.A. prophesied that Black Americans would inspire "a psychically armed rebellion" against which the "mean hypocrisies of mass conformity will no longer work" (356). Kerouac said he wished he was a Negro (Baldwin Price 297) and delighted in the birth of bebop emerging from artists "misplaced in the white nation."

From the start, then, from both Black and white perspectives, the significance of the American racial experience lies in structural relations, in encounters; it is a radically mulatto phenomenon. The same rich intellectual and artistic miscegenation is evident in colonial and postcolonial literatures.

To encode the simultaneous multiple perspectives of such experience in literary texts, a whole array of possible forms is available. The double consciousness of the author means that every convention implies its own reversal, ironic use, and doubly ironic return to sincerity, to mention only a few of the possibilities. I have elsewhere suggested a systematic taxonomy for these transformations. Here I can only sketch the outlines of the system by pointing out a few examples.

One inevitable type of African writing would be the inadequate imitation of European models. These works in form and content would submit to colonialist assumptions. There are ample African parallels to Phyllis Wheatley's "'Twas mercy brought me from my pagan land." But the most available information offered by texts of this sort is simply a paler repetition of the culture of the more powerful people, offering little of value beyond the simplest historical propositions for either Africans or Europeans.

The plot soon thickens, however. The first African novelist to gain celebrity was Amos Tutuola whose idiosyncratic Palm-wine Drinkard was praised by adventurous white critics in the 50s (Dylan Thomas describes it on the paperback cover as a "brief, thronged, grisly, and bewitching story"). The same qualities that gave the work success, though, inspired resentment by African critics who saw its celebrity as patronizing because it was the work of a naif. Tutuola was useful to Europeans in the same way as mental patients had allowed Rouault to follow out Romantic assumptions by appropriating their work to create the category of art brut.

In many colonial and postcolonial texts the two cultures are in open conflict. Achebe's Things Fall Apart, which is a sort of narrative museum of Ibo culture, is the best known. A whole genre of first novels by educated Africans concern the plight of a bright young lad who becomes alienated from his own people through his success in school (Ngugi's Weep Not, Child is one of the best). The tone may be nostalgic, tragic, or revolutionary, but Europe and Africa are adversaries and Europe is the victor.

The work of Senghor, who called himself "a cultural mulatto" (Moore and Beier 19), of Aime Cesaire of Martinique, author of the seminal Cahier d'un retour au pays natal and originator of the term negritude, and Leon Damas of French Guinea embraced European racial mythology while reversing the usual value judgments. The same process is evident in Black nationalist theories from Wright's "Blueprint for the Negro Writer" to past polemics of Amiri Baraka and the reassertion of hoodoo by Ishmael Reed. White authors, too, have used non-European peoples to criticize their own cultural values and to privilege irrationality and passion from Montesquieu and Chateaubriand to D.H. Lawrence and recent Africaphiles like Ulli Beier and Janheinz Jahn and such musicians as Peter Gabriel and Mickey Hart. Jahn argues that African poetry is timeless and pure, devoid of historical moment, specifically because such a myth is meaningful to him as a white European (207) just as many in our own country continue to view our aboriginal people as noble savages though the term has become taboo.

Africa before the involvement of Europe is "always already escaped" yet "always already inscribed" to use Derrida's formulae (159, 266) in Senghor where "dark pulse of Africa in the mist of lost villages" (48) is associated with the bush country of the Freudian subconscious more than with any geography. Africa means perfect women, magic, and the ancestors, because of his own alienation (he calls himself "exiled" [Moore and Beier, 49] and says he can only "breath the smell of our dead"). For this member of the Council of Europe and of the French National Assembly as for Ron Karenga and all cultural nationalists, race is fetishized and finally definitive. Thus Senghor speaks of Blacks as a "newer" race and a "luckier" one. Africans possess an Edenic primeval character for him. They are physical, mysterious, strong, natural, "beautiful like the first men that were created by [God's] brown hands." Is this not congruent with the fashionable Carraways satirized by Hughes who exclaim over their Black caller: "He is the jungle" (21)?

Senghor's poem "Totem" describes his need to conceal some "ancestor," some "animal protector," abstract and never-specified, but identified with the author's "faithful blood." Surely both the idealizing and the vagueness are markers signifying not Africa itself but the appropriation of the theme of Africa by French intellectuals, Black and white. It is noteworthy that it is in “New York” that Senghor hears the "distant beating of your nocturnal heart, rhythm and blood of the tom-tom, tom-tom blood, and tom-tom" (57) The concept is so thoroughly European that Senghor insists on the word "tom-tom," a French use of a British version of a Hindi word for which many West African analogues are available.

It is impossible today to explore adequately even a single example of African literature that transcends the contradiction of cultures and produces a new synthesis. The citation of a single line will have to suffice. The composition and criticism of African literature has always been highly political, and the best authors such as Soyinka, Armah, and Ngugi wa Thiongo have been attacked for not asserting the reductive revolutionary thematics Marx himself deplored. Ayi Kwei Armah's The Beautyful Ones are Not Yet Born includes a series of graffiti expressing popular reaction to the "Mercedes socialists" of Nkrumah's regime: "Money sweet pass all, Who born fool, Socialism chop make I chop, Contrey broke, You broke not so?, Pray for detention, Jailman chop free" (106). The free citizen under a soi-disant revolutionary government wishes to be jailed. Here is neither traditional Africa nor internalized racism nor a Romantic resurrection of tradition nor simple opposition. Yet Armah was condemned for his "unattractive" picture of Ghanaian life and in response produced the markedly inferior but politically acceptable Two Thousand Seasons.

I base my readings of African literature on two critical moves: the value of the multiplication of perspective and the inevitability of subjective interpretation based on the reader's experience. But both are in fact inherent in all reading.
The very act of reading implies a doubling of perspective since the vision of writer and reader can never be identical. The long critical tradition that associates irony, ambiguity, and polysemy with the aesthetic text appears in such formulations as Mukarovsky's analysis of the constant renewal of aesthetic norms (94-5) and the principle that such norms are "largely effective in their violation" (26-7). This is close to what Lotman calls "creolization" which for him increases semiotic value (24-5) and what Eco calls "ideological code switching" (289-90). And, finally, deconstruction offers its own vocabulary for the same critical fact: writing as trope, as trick, as under erasure, as a hinge, a fissure, as truth and lie at once. Here, too, is the source of those twentieth century poetic trends that intentionally set out to overturn preconceptions: Dada, Surrealism, and their offspring oppose all received ideas regardless of content.

And surely all readings are subjective. In spite of the lingering influence of critics like M. K. Abrams who would maintain the text's unitary meaning and the authority of the writer's intention, most modern readers realize that, to borrow a vignette from Barthes, Bossuet in the hands of Gide as he floats down the Congo (29) could hardly be the same author as he had been in seventeenth century France. If we in the humanities have superseded the aping of the hard sciences that encouraged the collection of quantifiable data and the proliferation of jargon, it is only to attempt to trump physics by impenetrability and utterly detached cool irony. But far from being a liability we should disguise, subjectivity demands attention as our only access to reality. It was not to absorb the exotic so much as to become acquainted with the self that Artaud ate peyote with the Tarahumara and Eco attended the ceremonies of the candomble; this is what led me to Africa and, I think, a part of what led us all to literature. For in fact doubled vision is the tool by which we can best cope with the biases inherent in our own nature and experience, not by trading them for some "better" set and mistaking it for a new-found objectivity, but by being aware that biases cannot be banished to take them into account.

On the wall of my library is an engraving of Asian art from an eighteenth century French book. The draftmanship is neoclassical; the facial expressions belong to Hogarth's characters rather than to Buddha; some figures appear oddly antic and weird as their originals must have done to the artist who likely knew little of the East. One robed figure grimaces and scrapes his ear. So the semiotic signal has passed from a Chinese artist to a European one to a twentieth century critic born in the Midwest and then to you. The truth here may seem to be receding, but in fact, of course, all culture is transmitted through inexact and mutating imitation every day. What distinguishes this artifact is that several levels of inscription, several takes and mistakes in reading are evident. Comparative studies call attention to the leaps between minds, the critical moments of interpretation when the spectator suddenly sees the palimpsest for what it is. We never read a simple text, for it always can only be a text upon a text upon a text leading toward, but never reaching, the original and purely naked truth in glory. And we continue to read and write and teach, led always by the reflected mirage of that same beautiful truth on ahead, a truth which may at times be proclaimed by the African hipicat, which, if one can believe Dillard, is a Wolof word meaning "man who is aware or has his eyes open" (119). If it is dark underground, outside is only "deeper darkness," and we must "learn a way of seeing in the dark world" (Wright in Voices, 147).


WORKS CITED


Armah, Ayi Kwei. The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born. London: Heinemann, 1969.

Baldwin, James. Notes of a Native Son. Boston: Beacon, 1965.

Baldwin, James. The Price of the Ticket. New York: St. Martin's, 1985.

Barthes, Roland. Mythologies. trans. by Annette Lavers. New York: Hill and Wang, 1975.

Bleich, David. Subjective Criticism. Baltimore: John Hopkins, 1978.

Derrida, Jacques. Of Grammatology. trans. by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Baltimore:
Johns Hopkins, 1976.

Dillard, J. L. Black English. New York: Random House, 1972.

DuBois, W.E Burghardt. The Souls of Black Folk. New York: NAL, 1969.

Eco, Umberto. A Theory of Semiotics. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1976.

Eco, Umberto. Travels in Hyperreality. trans. by William Weaver. San Diego: Harcourt
Brace Jovanovich, 1986.

Gilroy, Paul. The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness. Cambridge:
Harvard, 1994.

hooks, bell. Postmodern Culture. vol. 1, no. 1. Sept. 1990.

Huelsenbeck, Richard. "Tree." trans. by William Seaton. Chelsea 59, 1995: 125.

Hughes, Langston. "Slave on the Block." The Ways of White Folks. New York: Vintage,
1971.

Jahn, Janheinz. Muntu: African Culture and the Western World. trans. by Marjorie Grene.
New York: Grove, 1990.

Jones, Leroi [Amiri Baraka]. Blues People: Negro Music in White America. New York:
William Morrow and Co., 1963.

Lotman, Juri. The Structure of the Artistic Text. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1977.

Mailer, Norman. "The White Negro." in Advertisements for Myself. New York: G.P.
Putnam's Sons, 1959. 337-358.

Moore, Gerald, and Ulli Beier. Modern Poetry from Africa. Baltimore: Penguin, 1963.

Mukarovsky, Jan. Aesthetic Function, Norm and Value as Social Facts. Ann Arbor:
University of Michigan, 1979.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. Black Orpheus. New York: French and European, 1976.

Senghor, Leopold S. Anthologie de la nouvelle po‚sie n‚gre et malgache. Freeman, 1977.

An Introduction to the Troubadours

Nearly a thousand years ago, the poets of southern France and nearby areas of Spain and Italy (including a surprising number of women) led a poetic revolution that transformed literary practice and produced one of the most remarkable bodies of work in world literature. For most general readers the troubadour is a major type of the poet, visualized perhaps with a lute beneath a lady’s window. While this image has its own Romantic integrity, it provides little clue to the actual nature of the troubadours’ poetry. Few educated people (including English majors) could even name a single troubadour poet, allowing exceptions for those who are fond of Dante or Pound.

Long before Freud the troubadours placed eros properly in the center of human concerns. Through the centuries, of course, sex and violence, which is to say love and death, are, along with god, the most perennial of themes, but the reader of the troubadours does feel intimate sympathy, from the inside as it were. Oral cultures tend to celebrate the mystery of fertility and to present sex with the clear and concrete immediacy of dream images like the Winnebago trickster sending his penis across the stream in search of a mate. True heroic poetry usually sidelines the feminine, while the poets of the Greek Anthology were grand versifiers of polymorphously perverse lust. In Heian Japan Lady Murasaki refined love very nearly beyond recognition.

But the troubadours limn desire through the range from lascivious self-interested physicality to sublime idealization in a way that is wholly recognizable at every point. For most lovers who urgently grab after orgasms, who may even deceive or betray or otherwise act the fool, are the very same who caress with hand and word, whose time with the beloved is illuminated with mutual joy, and they are also the same who sacrifice self either in part or altogether. The tumescent ego and the extinguished ego are sides of the same coin. We honor the troubadours as poets who admitted that, though they might be Christians and warriors as well, they were most essentially lovers.

Furthermore, as the first vernacular poets of the Middle Ages, they ended the dualism between ephemeral popular culture, songs and stories, and stage shows forever lost because unrecorded, and courtly or learned or pious works in which the emotional juice and melodic swing is often indiscernible beneath the heavy latticework of artifice. It is true that the troubadours gloried in conventions, obscurity, and stylized language, but their poetry used the words they actually spoke, often they mention people and places with the most casual and natural air, and they performed (or their joglars did) out loud, in real social settings, for the sheer delight of singing.

Finally, like the T’ang Chinese and the Elizabethans, they deserve close attention for their excellence. Though literary value is virtually impossible to prove, their virtuoso versification, their monumental influence, and the opinion of nearly all who know them from Dante on down, give them a solid claim. Since the 18th century, though, craftsmanship has rarely been the most highly regarded quality in poetry. While the Romantics and many since aimed at inspiration and the sublime, many early twentieth century practitioners focused on the level of the image, and contemporary work in general values colloquialism, the great eras of the past – Chinese, Greek, and Elizabethan – were obsessed by technique. Craft has two goals: absolute beauty and concision. The first is self-explanatory. Of the second, I will say here only that if readers are familiar with conventions, they have expectations that may be either fulfilled of frustrated. The more dense and efficient the conventional codes, the more the author may express in the fewer words.

The verdict can, of course, only rest in the end on one’s own reading. Those with French will be able to read quite a bit of Old Occitanian (which scholars prefer to Old Provençal as the language much exceeded the boundaries of Provençe). The pronunciation is as easy to acquire as Chaucer’s, and the poets’ lexicons are limited and repetitive. While images may be enigmatic indeed, the words only rarely are.

A brief survey may be useful. The earliest in most accounts of troubadours is Guilhelm IX, Count of Poitiers and Duke of Aquitaine, one of the greatest noblemen of his day (with realms greater than those of the King of France) and an immediate ancestor of Eleanor of Aquitaine (she of the Courts of Love), Richard Coeur de Lion (no mean poet himself) and thus Henry VIII and Elizabeth. For all this worldly importance, he was regarded in his own day as rather wild. His daring brought him more than one excommunication, and he may sound rather outré even today with his announcement of his theme “dirai vos de con, cals es sa leis” (“I shall sing about cunt, what its law is.”)

We might more decorously describe his theme as an investigation of the other in the form of woman. The small corpus of cansos by William IX Duke of Aquitaine and VII Count of Poitiers has confounded readers seeking consistency. Jeanroy arranged them in a spectrum from “les pièces badines” to “la pièce du ton le plus grave.” In fact these texts are arch-poetic in their representation of contraries, tensions, and ambiguities with precision. William seems sometimes lascivious and wholly physical, consistent with William of Malmesbury’s description of him as “fatuus” and lubricious,” yet is capable of crusading piety as well.


One method for examining this puzzling complex of attitudes on a small scale is to follow the implications of an image like that of the horse in “Companho, faray un vers covinen” (“Comrades, I’ll make you a proper verse”). Women’s association with animals may be honorific as in the Homeric “Hymn to Aphrodite” with its beasts fawning on the goddess (or di Prima’s Loba) or pejorative as in Semonides, Juvenal, or everyday vulgarity. William’s particular image of lovers as horses whom he rides appears in blues like Charlie Patton’s “Stone Pony Blues,” Son House’s “Pony Blues,” and the widespread “Easy Rider.” Considering the erotic properties of horses, their rhythmic ride, the rider’s position astride, and the like, this is doubtless natural. In the poem William asserts his right to the horses as feudal property, parallel to his possession of citadels. Thus would seem straightforward, a brag or gab like much of today’s rap, were it not for the fact that the image continues to develop.

In “Compaigno, non puosc mudar qu’eo no m’effrei” (“Comrades, he reverses the image, telling the husband who tries to limit his beloved that “si non pot aver caval . . . compra palafrei” (“If she can’t get a thoroughbred, she’ll purchase a nag”). In other words, if she is prevented from pursuing a worthy noble lover, she will seek one where she can, perhaps among the lower orders. It is the male who is now the horse, and the man who attempts to control his woman is an inevitable failure, less than a nag.
Other animal images complicate the picture further. In “Tant ai agutz d’avois conres” the “cons gardatz” (“guarded cunts”) are equivalent to a “gorc ses peis” (“pond without fish”). Though hints of the hunt and the social power of wealth still cling to the image, its new aspect is recalled, intensified, and elaborated: “per un albre c’om hi tailla n’I naison [ho] dos ho treis/ E quam lo bocx es taillatz nais plus espes.” Here, on the deeper level of vegetable nature, the female’s magic fecundity becomes a reward for participation in life. The reader finds himself in the realm of the neolithic Venuses rather than a medieval court.

William’s vocabulary for describing his vision arose from gender, sexuality, and love, through feudal privilege and the complex weave of mundane reality, yet rested at last in vatic formulae. Jaufré Rudel, on the other hand, used love as a means to express something quite close to what the Bauls of Bengal mean when they sing about Krishna, what John of the Cross approximated in his verse, and what the medieval Arabic poets such as : the approach to ultimate reality, to what the thirteenth century called “the cloud of unknowing.”


Bernart seems to me one of those who provides a classic statement of the conventions. Without particular innovation or emphasis, he covers the ideas, the verse-forms, the rhetoric of other with eloquence and grace. Bertrand de Born wrote about love, but more notoriously about war. The works of the Comtessa de Dia interrogate troubadour notions of gender from a female perspective. Arnaut Daniel, with his trobar clus,” plumbed the farther reaches of poetic technique and strained the readers of even his own era.


Lovers of troubadour verse may well go on to survey the trouvères of northern France, the Minnesingers of Germany, the stilnovisti of Italy. Though in Germany some texts indicate a certain movement into folk settings and forms, the more dominant theme over time is toward greater spiritualization. I resist any further generalizations about any of these groups as reductive. The field branches in all directions: toward Sappho and Ovid and the Sufis, toward an aesthetics of the lyrics of the American blues, or the relation between the rhetoric of mortal love and that of mystic religion with subsections on the Song of Songs and the performances of the Bauls of Bengal. And then there is the question of the aesthetics of pornography, which is surely either the most or the least spontaneous of tastes.

But enough – as Guilhelm says with his marvelous habit of bipolar opposition:

gu’eu sai de paraulas com van
ab on breu sermon que s’espel,
que tal se van d’amor gaban
nos n’avem la pessa e•l coutel.
From “ab la dolchor del temps novel”

[I know how words go on
from a little speech comes more and more,
some talk and talk then more of love,
while we, we have a piece of its bread, and a knife.]

How to Get Serious about Fighting Crime

(This was written almost two years ago. It was meant to be an opinion piece in the local newspaper. Knowing that even liberal people are uneasy with prison issues, I strove to make the rhetoric as conventional as possible. The paper rejected it.)


A February 29 AP story notes that the United States leads the world by far in both the percentage and the actual number of citizens it incarcerates. Even China with a population four times as large, a dictatorial regime, and an arbitrary justice system is left far behind. Our one-time competition in this field – apartheid South Africa and the old Soviet Union – no longer waste their national resources keeping such vast numbers behind bars.

Make no mistake; it is a substantial commitment of resources. Estimates in different states vary widely, but most spend in the range of $20,000-$40,000 every year for each prisoner. As a whole the states spend about seven percent of their budgets on corrections, amounting to $44 billion, a figure that has more than doubled in the last twenty years, even when adjusted for inflation.

Corrections officers understand that the very “frills” that sometimes annoy outsiders (such as HBO or weight rooms) are essential at present staffing levels since they occupy many inmates for long periods of time with little supervision. A corrections teacher in the New York system has about twenty inmates in a class. In a building where I worked for six years, there were four such classrooms: including porters and other programs almost a hundred men were typically overseen by a single officer. But, unlike daytime television and athletic pastimes, education has been proven by study after study to reduce recidivism -- by 33% in the recent comprehensive OCE/CEA Three State Recidivism Study of state-held prisoners. Similar results are available across the country. When college was allowed, not a single B.A. recipient in California’s Folsom prison re-offended after release. This kind of success, one would think, would lead those concerned about crime to advocate more such programs, but the very opposite is the case.

Of course, reducing crime to begin with is even better than reducing recidivism. Here, too, the answer is clear. Crime is overwhelmingly economically motivated. Only a few inmates are sadistic or pedophiliac or otherwise psychologically damaged; most simply sought to make money in socially destructive ways such as drug-dealing. Given another option, most are smart enough to take it. The great majority of New York inmates come from only a few blighted neighborhoods. How many students from affluent suburban high schools end up incarcerated? Those from the upper middle class are not morally superior; they simply have more options.

Racism remains a potent factor in American corrections. One in nine black men between 20 and 34 is imprisoned. Very often my class was made up entirely of black and Hispanic students. The occasional white person was more likely to be from Albania than Albany. The rate of imprisonment of African Americans is not only seven times that of whites; it is also seven times the rate at which apartheid South Africa locked up blacks in 1993. According to a study reported in the Wall Street Journal a white ex-con has a better chance at getting a job than a black man without a record.

A serious commitment to a renewed war on poverty would reduce the number of offenders more effectively than any “get tough” policy. A secure job with good union benefits would provide every worker with a motive to stay out of trouble.

I am speaking of social policy, not of morality. As I always told my inmate-students, whatever they did to harm people remains their own moral responsibility regardless of social factors. They have brothers and sisters who, subject to the same pressures, influences, and temptations did not take the foolish path into crime. However, morality is an individual matter that cannot be legislated. Creating better opportunities for American youth both before and after incarceration can be done. To build a better America for the future, both for those who would otherwise be criminals and for potential victims of crime, we need social programs that provide something closer to an even playing field for all and that seek to reintegrate offenders into society rather than stigmatizing them.

William Seaton worked for ten years in education programs of New York state prisons.

Four Poems from the German of Richard Huelsenbeck

(This appears in the current issue of Adirondack Review.)

Dada staked out very nearly the entire territory that has since been occupied by the avant-garde: multi-media, abstraction, bricolage, performance and conceptual art, found objects, use of tribal and popular culture, the cultivation of a privileged “hip” vision. Despite their seminal influence, though, actual dada works are often known only vaguely at second-hand. I have found in recent live performances of my translations that dada poetry can still bring an audience to attention. Even after nearly a century, competing with all the current varieties of spoken word, the works of Richard Huelsenbeck, Hans Arp , Hugo Ball, Emmy Jennings, and their colleagues remain scintillating with rebellion and spectacular in the eruption of unlikely images, but also ambitious far beyond their immediate shock value.
The title of Richard Huelsenbeck’s autobiography Memoirs of a Dada Drummer defines his role both literally and figuratively. Huelsenbeck was a principal performer in the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich. In Germany he participated in the provocations of the extravagant Oberdada Johannes Baader. Condemning the church and the Weimar regime, they demanded a brand of “radical communism” that sought “progressive unemployment,” circuses “for the education of the proletariat,” establishment of a Dadaist sex center, and “daily meals at public expense for all creative and intellectual men and women.”
Known for his insistence even during the 20s that "Germany must be defeated," he was to the Nazis a clear example of the “degenerate” artist and an obvious target. After emigrating to the USA (with the aid of Albert Einstein), he transformed himself into a Jungian analyst, later practicing “existential psychiatry,” in Manhattan, using the name Charles R. Hulbeck.
Huelsenbeck’s poems are declamatory in their rhetoric and pyrotechnic in the speed and flash of their images, but they also have a kind of propulsive passion sometimes lacking in avant-garde works. The following poems are from his Phantastische Gebete [Fantastic Prayers] which was published first with the author’s own art in 1916 and reissued in an expanded version with wonderful drawings by George Grosz in 1920. In his 1959 preface to a new edition Huelsenbeck describes religion in terms that apply in fact to other symbolic manipulation such as art and particularly to his “prayers”: “It is the experience of constructive will in the world which lends wings to the course of the stars despite all the fallen angels and helps man in the course of his life to understand the archetypal symbols of his existence.” I believe these poems do no less.


Mafarka

Ravens circle lemon yellow
deepdark cold shadow-walls
of the shadow-walls has masks
o o ho oho in legs carved of wood
association and Baudelaire Mafarka blooms
the cherry tree blooms a blue clock-strike
slowly it rises from the dark it falls from the white against him faster it closes and violates perspective loosens itself posthaste in the vast surfaces teaches to worship cries the yellow the red o that Indian’s red of the totem cries the death knell for the condemned the umbrellas call out rose madder slide swim over the fountains sitting and seating and seating and laughing and seating and laughing the quee-ee-een of porcelain the quee-ee-een the dragons toss their tongues over the capitals – o – o – o – the capitals are on fire the blue flames of the capitals strike across the seas so colorful together the seas amid the sound of flames o – o – the lassos whiz far off to the equator


Death
For Li

Death is greater than a porterhouse
he goes with monster eyes like two clouds of cinnabar
through the land
so that the sun goes down in fainting fear the cop
stands amazed
and the sea cries a great wonder! from his sleep
yes the hearse’s procession with well-nourished corpses
jostles carts
also virgins whose kisses froze on their lips and
countenances
mother’s body in fits god made the measureless
o he sings more powerfully than the priest’s litany
and steam rises and trumpets call
peoples disperse little crybabies o the helpless beg
god god god he ties his coat round his haunches
breath comes in the cities where weeping on beds, brokenhearted,
we have no choice but to wrap our minds about the inconceivable
he’s on our shoulders and necks before we suspect anything
caresses tender cheeks and mouth dog
all-powerful killer revolutionary
we are attention and we are disregard as well
in that we’re made in your image


End of the World

Indeed things have come to such a pass in this world
that cows sit atop the telegraph poles and play
chess
the cockatoo sings so sad under the Spanish dancer’s
skirts like a trumpeter from HQ
and the cannons complain
the whole day long
it’s the lilac landscape Mr. Mayer spoke of
when he lost his eye
only the firefighting squad can drive the nightmare from the
salon
but their hoses are all cut
yeah yeah Sonya you think the celluloid puppet’s a changeling
and shout, “God save the king!”
All the Monist Club is meeting on the steamer Meyerbeer
the helmsman alone can conceive a high C
I pull an anatomical atlas from my toes
and set to serious study
have you seen that fish who’s loitered by the opera
in a morning coat these last two days and nights?
Oh, oh, you great devil – oh, oh bee-keeper, base commander
wants a wow-wow-wow, wants a woe-woe-woe who doesn’t know
what Daddy Homer wrote
war and peace I hold in my robe but I’ve decided
that mine will be a cherry flip
no one knows today if tomorrow he’ll have been
the rhythm’s beat on the coffin-lid
if someone had only the balls to tear the feather-tail
from the streetcar it is high time
zoology professors gather in the fields of grass
they avert rainbows with upturned palms
the great guru places tomatoes on his brow
you fill again the castle and copse
the roebuck whizzes the horse leaps
(who wouldn’t go crazy at that)


To Ludwig the Flirt

Your leg hangs over me like a crescent moon;
it’s altogether clear: your breasts pant like beasts
under the best Belgian lace
hey, waiter, café au lait and the paper and a glass of water
at bottom you’re like your sisters with the swaying
bellies
who creep along the gutters, ears pricked
for the whistle of morality and the flesh-eating pimps
the cowboy whose pants you took (with his alligator
wallet)
told me all I need to know about your
soul.
hey you old pig you’re fifty years old,
but the high schoolers dream of you nightly
they dream – you come sneaking with a supple
cane
heating them up behind with what their hearts desire
hey you dirty old men you manipulator of girls you gypsies and
hotel thieves
pray yes pray if you get a kick that way
or swill yourselves smashed till the houses rise their drains
break
let the firefighters thunder driving rivers from their sleep
old bums I approach a bottle under my arm crazy
ghost
and is it you once more oh precious swine has the surgeon
caught sight of your belly grappling iron all ready torch and anaesthesia
dada dada no one lives but you, oh my tender beloved

The Birth of Erato: Lyric, Vision, and the Spread of Writing

It is natural, perhaps, for modern lovers of poetry to romanticize ancient Greek lyric. For the Greeks, as for all early and oral cultures, poetry was the privileged form of discourse. All important data were encoded in poetry: love, religion, even knowledge, including history, science, and practical advice. Poetry was a major form of popular entertainment. The Greeks performed poetry at dinner parties, athletic contests, and public events. The entire population thrilled to tragedies, and the poet retained a portion of his archaic role as shaman. In contrast, in our present age, people consume poetry primarily through the media of popular music, advertising, bumper stickers, and graffiti. Mainstream culture depicts poetry as a “special interest,” slightly odd if not ridiculous or, at times, pedantic. A close reading of ancient Greek lyric allows the modern reader to recover, not merely the lovely, profound contours of the authors’ words, but also a grander view of poetry itself, a glimpse of its sublime potential.

Poetry is universal. Though some cultures have no metals, some no pottery, and some lack the ability to control fire, all make use of refined verbal technologies. Among peoples for whom the “aesthetic” is not a category, the prestige of poetry can only arise from its usefulness. Poetry, with its figures of speech and multiple meanings, is the most densely meaningful form of signification.


1. The Earliest Art

Judging by artifacts and what we know of present-day hunter-gatherers, palaeolithic humans constituted their identity primarily through roles, collectivities, and relationships. Thus an individual belonged to a certain tribe, to a clan within that group; he or she had a clear gender role, and perhaps possessed as well honorific status due to fighting or hunting ability, wisdom, descent, or seniority. In addition, every person was connected to others through a network of family relationships. Of course, people had individual characteristics, personalities, tastes, and views, just as they do today, but these were often invisible and always secondary in the subjective constitution of identity.

Analogously in the arts of the Stone Age, convention ruled. Poets, potters, painters, and musicians tended to work in established forms whose principles were known, whose codes were familiar, and whose themes were accepted by the entire community. The artists were, nonetheless, individuals: some talented, some clumsy, some inventive, some slavish in following their models. Occasionally an artist twisted convention or overturned it or ignored it. These innovations might be imitated in their turn; more likely, they might be abandoned.

There were surely individual love poems and laments, expressing authentic passion. Those who offended community standards would likely have been pilloried in satire until they changed their ways. Friends might well commemorate significant occasions with verse. These occasional productions were soon forgotten, though fragments of striking and clever language may have found their way into other work.

The business of “professional” artists, however, was not personal utterance, but collective expression. For these early societies the artist acted as the undifferentiated intelligentsia: scientist, magician, fortune-teller, physician and metaphysician. Acting on behalf of the whole, he would advise in difficult situations, predict the future, assure good harvest, success in combat, or recovery from illness. It was the poet/shaman who provided coherence and significance to life by pronouncing the critical rituals, retelling the myths, lecturing on ethics and ultimate reality. He also made life more tolerable by providing entertainment.

With the Neolithic move from the male-dominated hunt to the female territory of the cultivated plot arose goddess-centered fertility cults. The prey animals which had appeared in such marvelous plentitude on the cave walls at Trois Freres and Lascaux are replaced by cult figurines of women with ample breasts and buttocks. Empires and their urban capitals eventually arose in part to manage the water rights to the Tigris, Euphrates, and the Nile with minimal violence and to protect trade.

The refinement of copper and then bronze and iron had little effect on farming. (Wooden plows, indeed, persisted in wide use into the twentieth century.) But metal did make more formidable arms, and the new technology of ore and smelter encouraged trade over large areas, requiring correspondingly greater political control at the same time that it fostered war and the coalescence of large empires. The conquering heroic patriarchal societies projected potent sky-gods that insist upon hegemony in heaven as well as earth. Jehovah is jealous of his rival gods, anxious to demonstrate his superior power (as in the magic competition between Moses, Aaron, and the Egyptians ), and Zeus dominates one locality after another by absorbing or demoting the local god and having sex with the goddess.

By the sixth or seventh century before Christ, though, the authority of these sky-gods had been undermined by the persistent worship of chthonic deities (underground, indeed, and never eliminated), by the importation of dying and reborn gods such as Dionysos, Attis, Osiris, Inanna, and Persephone, and by the mystery cults that promised personal salvation (an attractive offer compared to a etiolated afterlife in Hades). Furthermore, people were aware of multiple notions of ultimate reality, and some of these metaphysicians were aware of others. No longer would a single tradition determine the boundaries of thought. The fences were breached; the souls were roaming.

Writing had existed for three thousand years, but its use was spreading from the palaces to landowners and merchants. Commerce among nations was growing, though rapacious raids continued (and continue). Greece became a trading country, and thus a cosmopolitan one. Political ferment and class struggle resulted in the rise of tyrants to replace hereditary monarchs and oligarchs. People began to view history not wholly as divinely mandated fate, or in the light of the ancient heroes, but also as the willful creation of remarkable all-too-human humans.

Concomitant with the change in consciousness arose the spread of writing. Writing requires of its adepts a narrow visual focus that departs from the generalized alertness of preliterate humankind. In addition, Plato reminds us that writing brought the death of memory. Though writing made possible the accumulation of a vast storehouse of experience, the collective memory of the great libraries (now further expanded with digital storage), it decimated individual memory. Part of consciousness can be externally stored and need not animate the individual who can look to authorities instead of knowing everything at once, including the mysteries.

The arrival of writing necessarily transformed literature. The oral text has flexible form. Depending on the audience it may be edited for content or style. Even such a scripted spectacle as the circus varies in every performance. Its most fixed form is that constructed by the viewer. Each person’s experience, once registered, changes little, and every spectator’s response is shaped by the reactions of the group, the social conditions of reception (just as in a movie theater the viewer is more likely to laugh or gasp or drop a tear in concert with others). For a written text, the contradiction is reversed: the text never changes, but it invites a fresh construction from every reader. New meanings may always be adduced from the code, just as Augustine thought new readings of scripture may be as authentic as old. While a new reading may attempt to supplant an old one, more often it simply joins already existing readings. The poetic text glories in polysemy, whereas other forms of discourse seek simple clarity.

Manguel points out that the classic tag “scripta manet, verba volat” is today taken to indicate the advantage of writing which “lives on” while spoken words vanish, whereas it originally suggested the opposite valuation: that spoken words have wings and can fly, in other words, they are inspired, in contrast to the dead and inert written words.

Written culture was slow to come. Most readers mumbled the words if they did not read out loud. More than a thousand years after writing had become widespread and available not to an elite caste but to the well-to-do in general, Augustine is amazed to see Ambrose reading silently, and most poetry was performed aloud for another millennium after that.

Homer, at the dawn of generalized literacy, presents us with a written text of a composition processed through centuries of oral performance. The question of Homer is vast, and substantial recent discoveries in the field of oral literature have provided more fruitful questions (not all the answers). Whether the identification is literally true or not, the reader must be startled when the author of the Homeric Hymn to Delian Apollo suddenly includes this boastful pitch, very nearly an advertisement: “Remember me in after time whenever any one of men on earth, a stranger who has seen and suffered much, comes here and asks of you: `Whom think ye, girls, is the sweetest singer that comes here, and in whom do you most delight?' Then answer, each and all, with one voice: `He is a blind man, and dwells in rocky Chios: his lays are evermore supreme.'” Around the seventh century B.C.E. we find the earliest demonstrably self-conscious artists, creators who feel they deserve a brand name.

The change in material conditions is again associated with a change in verbal technology. Art, and, in particular, lyric poetry, becomes a snapshot of consciousness, no longer what all the group sees, but what the maker says the persona sees. Though poetry still purveys dogma and received truths, it also does the opposite: it opens up critical possibilities, it points toward ambiguities, contradictions, ambivalence to a degree unknown to earlier times. Preserving a moment of consciousness, lyric verse asserts the irrational that governs the greater part of our thought even in this twenty-first century. Poetry foregrounds sense impressions, the raw data of all our conclusions. Poetry arises from an impulse toward pleasure, and Freud was far from the first to recognize the fundamental role of what he called the pleasure principle. For all these reasons, Aristotle could make his celebrated claim that poetry is truer than history. Through the play and manipulation of symbols which distinguishes our species from the others, each so excellent in its way, people have found something like the Buddhist mindful here-and-now and, using these tools of words, have vaulted from the most immediate to the sublime. A poem, a “program” of words, has the power, as Longinus says, to “entrance” its consumer, to inspire “exaltation” and “joy.”


2. Archilochos

The first named poetic personality in European literature is Archilochos, a mercenary and colonizer who died in battle during the seventh century B.C.E. Perhaps he assumed the vision of an outsider due to his birth from a slave mother (according to the traditional biography). At any rate, he is known as the first poets to use iambics, a meter strongly associated with satire and invective.

Homeric culture is heroic. The Iliad centers about Achilles’ acceptance of his impending doom. When Andromache makes her humane plea to Hektor, he says he would feel shame before both men and women, were he to fail to fight with valor. He hopes rather, he says, to gain glory for himself and his family, fame that is the warrior’s immortality. The Spartan mothers are said to have told their sons to return from battle, either with their shields or upon them (i.e. having fought nobly or else dead). Even today we are expected to glorify the war-dead, and the citizen who shows little enthusiasm for the sentiment is suspect.

In his most familiar poem, Archilochos directly contradicts the conventional pro patria et deo piety:

A Saian exults. He’s got the shield I left behind
in a bush, blameless, but against my will.
I got away myself. What’s the shield to me?
Forget it. I’ll get another no worse.

Over the centuries, the reader feels the cool breeze of a broken taboo, a boundary crossed, the simple declaration of a fact known to all combat veterans but rarely admitted: that honor and valor coexist on the battlefield with panic and pissing in one’s pants and simple self-preservation. The difference is that the poet speaks with an individual voice, confident that his own vision, his concrete specifics, bear truth and demand attention. No longer a craftsman with rigidly prescribed skills writing for a committee of the whole, he is able to warble his own tune and follow it where it leads.

The poem is not perceived more or less instantaneously like a painting or a building. Rather it unfolds over time, like music or a story. Archilochos’ poem is a kind of psychological cinematic montage. After the initial scene is sketched, it becomes a play of subjectivities. From imagining the Saian delighted at his booty, the mood shifts to the natural reaction of repugnance the Greek audience would have felt upon hearing of the lost shield. The deepening miasma is then suddenly contradicted by the single word: “blameless.” With some of the force of magic, the very pronunciation of the word makes it true. The admission, coming out of a certain military closeting, as it were, overwhelms the idée reçue. The warrior’s ego inheres in his will, and the poet admits loss, but still looks to the future, buoyed by his own individual conviction of merit, so secure he volunteers the tale of the lost shield as a paradoxical affirmation of his confidence and worth.

Whereas Demodokos in the Odyssey is “instructor of the people,” repeating the vitally important principles that create the community, those things about which all agree, Archilochos is their critic. Meleagar called him “thorny.” After he died, the story spread that wasps hovered over his grave.


3. Alcman

Originally, people regarded nature with awe. Animist beliefs found divinity in that other which they could not wholly control. When nature influences narrative in Homer, it is generally as a reflection of divine wills. Hesiod, on the other hand, a yeoman farmer rather than a landed gentleman, calls his community Ascra “a woebegone village, bad in winter, unbearable in summer, good at no time.” His entire effort was devoted to mastering nature, and he found the struggle taxing. For the later market agriculturalist animals and plants have economic reality. Their fertility, which had been illuminated with numinous potency, has become a matter of account book bottom lines. The ecstatic shamanism of the Upper Palaeolithic has deteriorated to a collection of prudential superstitions: for instance, it is taboo, Hesiod advises, to stand upright and face the sun while urinating; one should open new wine-jars on the 27th of the month.

Alcman’s time doubtless considered itself less superstitious yet, but the ritual substratum persisted. Alcman wrote choral lyrics, meant to be performed as  (song and dance) by young girls under a male choirmaster. He refers to the male chorus leader as a “stallion.” In another piece, he laments the weakness of his [aged] limbs before his “girls of honey-sweet voices,” wishing he were a halcyon soaring with them over the sea. This is at once a realistic vignette suggesting freedom and energy, a wish for renewed sexuality, and a reference to the myth that claimed that the female halcyon would carry the male, when aged, on her back. In a way the choruses may resemble the entertainment world of today which elevates ever-young maidens to rejuvenate us all in imagination.

He often praised specific members of his troupe (the leaders of his half-choirs of virgins Agido and Hagesikhora, for instance) by name. The glorious dance, the beautiful bodies, the concentration of élan vital are themselves redemptive. In Oedipus Tyrannos the chorus dances and sings: “when [shameful deeds] are held in esteem, why dance together?” The inverse proposition was equally reasonable to the Greeks: when people did dance, their ordered movements indicate (and help to create) an ordered cosmos, a harmonious world. Thus the viewers of the tragedy could find solace in the performance itself even as they contemplated dread events. The chorus dances, rather like an existential “man of action;” it “goes on” like Vladimir and Estragon in the face of death and dissolution. The lyric choir dances still, though for us the dance is encoded as black marks on a white page.

The lyricist moves to recover a portion of the old mysterium tremendum. The precise details of nature, in Homeric poetry summoned to elaborate grand similes, here stand alone. He simply describes the scene, expecting that the facts, edited from raw sense impression, will be significant. The speaker is, of course, a persona and the picture doubtless owes much to earlier models, so the poem may be as much about other poems, other visions, other sensibilities, as about the scene before him, but it asserts verisimilitude. The gods are notably absent. Nature is apprehended in itself or as a projection of the viewer in a way familiar to us from Chinese and Japanese poetry. The poem is not so distant from hymns calling on deities and asking favors. Here the poet seeks sympathetic psychic rest by singing to sleep the marvels of creation, geological formations and fauna, but the last word goes to the wonders of the wholly natural. The poet invokes a sort of peace which passeth understanding, but the last word is spent in wonder at those miraculous yet ordinary objects: the wings of birds, birds that mediate between this world and another.

Sleep is on the mountains,
the peaks and the clefts,
headlands and torrents,
all those that walk the woods,
nursed by the black earth,
predators, mountain-bred,
and the race of bees,
and monsters from the sea’s purple depths!
Sleep on, you tribe of birds
with such long wings!


4. Sappho

What could be more subjective and powerful than sexual love? The focus of most popular song today, it is also the most traditional topic of poets. Archilochos wrote a number of love lyrics (as well a number of thoroughly obscene verses ), and Alcman’s young choruses dance illuminated by an erotic nimbus, but for Sappho and her coterie, love is unapologetically central. Whatever else it may have been, Sappho’s  was an association for the cultivation of sensibility reminiscent of Sei Sonagon and Lady Murasaki’s Heian Japan or Eleanor of Aquitaine’s Courts of Love in southern France. The old Victorian dodge of maintaining that she ran a school may have some truth, but it was hardly the sort of excuse they sought. We now admit the ancient Greek predeliction (very well documented in the case of men) for sex between adults and teens, but she seems to refer to adult women in references to some of her associates as  which sounds like a term used among equals. In addition, she does not slight the power of heterosexual love: apart from her own marriage, she was known to have written an entire book of epithalamia.

In the Phaedrus Socrates surprises his interlocutors with the claim that “our greatest goods come to us through madness,” but he quickly limits this: “assuming the madness is a gift of the gods.” All the varieties he describes are associated with poetry: prophetic madness (governed by Apollo), telestic madness (as in Dionysian ritual), poetic madness (Muses), and erotic possession (Aphrodite and Eros). Here the subjectivity in which we live is embraced and glorified as divine.
And this is not simply the transport of love’s first blossom. Sappho’s work is filled with jealousy, petty backbiting, resentment of all sorts, but this is clearly part of love’s dialectic. confidence in one’s subjectivity, a vision for triangulation, capturing what Lawrence called the mystery of “the offering-up one yourself to the very great gods, the dark ones, and nothing else” by keeping precise and direct record of its visitation.

The man's all but a god
who sits with you and pays such heed
to your sweet talk
and lovely laugh --

listening excites me --
my heart's at odds, unsettled.
And when I look at you my mouth
can't form a word.

My tongue stopped, I'm filled
with thin flames -- vision fades,
and my ears hear the beating
of my blood.

Cold sweat on my side, I'm taken
with trembling and blanch like straw.
Little short of death,
I must last it out,

without you . . .

Longinus praised this catalogue of physical symptoms of love, saying its power arises from describing the “most extreme and intense” signs of passion. The poem was translated (after a fashion) by Catullus and his version was translated by Sir Philip Sydney during the love-sonnet craze of the 16th century. In her intensity and single-minded focus, Sappho points toward the Platonic “ascent of love” from the individual beloved to the divine, later elaborated by Plotinus and the Victorines. As Longinus notes, the goal of poetry is not to persuade, but to entrance, to transport with wonder. This is an altogether different experience than being taught, persuaded or informed. The shamanic trance, the “Pentecostal” possession during group ceremonies, is replaced by an aesthetic experience, more idiosyncratic, but equally ambitious.


5. Conclusion

With the spread of writing, the individual vision is preserved and privileged. The poet perceives the Olympians through the quotidian. The educated classes in particular lost some of the cosmic participation mystique which humans had cultivated through ritual and liturgy (i.e. through art) at least since they have been homo sapiens, and the new lyric, through the real, undeniable data of everyday life, revalued everything. Archilochus presents a dissent from social norms; Alcman a nonmythological but nonetheless still sanctified nature; and Sappho the incendiary irrationality of love.

The genre of lyric poetry is distinguished from other forms of discourse not merely by extraordinary compression, but also by its ability (shared only with the other arts) to accurately represent human consciousness, properly privileging subjectivity, the irrational, sense impressions, and pleasure-seeking. Poetry also allows the expression of new ideas, contradictions, ambiguities, and ambivalence. Art provides the means for investigating the mysteries of god, love, and death. The thematic spectrum runs from those works that most affirm a society’s accepted truths (and this sort dominates in the oral age as well as in mass and popular media), and works that question the present order (these have been preserved since the dawn of writing, but have been preferred only since the Romantic era).

A character in an ancient dialogue says of the reputation of a poet that he would live as long as “serving-lad bears round mixed wine for cups and deals bumpers about board, so long as maiden band does holy night-long service of the dance, so long as the scale-pan that is daughter of bronze sits upon the summit of the cottabus-pole ready for the throwing of the wine drops.” This in the face of inevitable suffering and death, in a cosmos finally unknowable, and thus subjectively unpredictable and absurd, a person chooses to drink, yes, and to take joy in the bodies of others (both the “serving-lad” and the “maiden[s]” offer up their youth), but also to socialize, to fling wine in an unlikely game with elaborate rules and to pass the time as well composing poetry.

In my youth, the primary image of Greek antiquity was the fountainhead. In the old ethnocentric view, philosophy, aesthetics, democracy, values of tolerance and liberality, all good things flowed to us from the Periclean age. Europeans have made a variety of uses of the classics: the veneration of the medievals for whom antiquity regularly signified authority, Renaissance celebration of Greece to legitimize a new humanism, the 18th century Enlightenment thinkers who founded a new “cult of the muses,” the growth of scientific investigation which flowered in the philological rigor of Wilamowitz and then gave way to the decadent prose of John Addington Symonds and the poised academic swoon of Alma-Tadema’s paintings.

Like all these predecessors, I would argue that my Greeks are the authentic Greeks. Like the lyric poets, indeed, like all of us, my own subjectivity provides my sole access to Truth.

















The Muses

The muses arose in association with cult practice. For Pausanias the original muses are song, memory, and action (, also “practice” or “occasion”). This formulation implies ritual performance. Alcman and Mimnermus regard them as children of Gaia and Ouranos, and thus primeval. Much of the vocabulary of poetry points in the same direction: metrical “feet” began with dance steps, the “strophe” signified a physical turn, etc.
To account for the later tradition that names Zeus and Mnemosyne as parents of the muses, Pausanias suggests there may have been two generations of muses. Of these the first may imply collective, altogether oral events, and the second, performances that were written, though (as the role of memory indicates) virtually always orally performed.
The muses are actually a late systemization. Erato was especially associated with love poems and hymns. Among canonical nine there are muses for astronomy, history and for geometry. In the early era the muses’ realm was spacious, extending over the range of human culture (including scientific learning) through poetry, music, and dance. Through the metrical patterning of poetry, knowledge was given a gleam of the divine and preserved.
Erato is the muse associated with lyric poetry, with the lyre, with love poetry and hymns. In the tradition of late classicism Euterpe also governs lyric poetry, but she is generally depicted with a flute (the ).
The muses sometimes reflect a Jungian anima, a subconscious wisdom that inspires the poet with vision. Graves, in his twentieth-century concept of the muse-poet, who through his art worships the Goddess, consciously recalls the ancient and the medieval in his attempt to revive this blend of the vatic and the erotic.
Caveat lector: When they appeared to Hesiod as he watched his flocks, the muses said, “We know how to say many false things as though they were true, but we also know, when we choose to, to tell the truth.”
Posted by William Seaton at 8:16 AM