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

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

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

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


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

This site is listed in BlogCatalog and
Literature Blogs
Literature blog






Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Hungarian Food

The Hungarian word for food -- eter -- has, of course, no relation whatever to “eat.” As a non-Indo-European tongue virtually all Hungarian words are inscrutable even to the traveler who knows French and German. Few tourists gain any substantial acquaintance with the language, but every visitor comes to know something of the cuisine. The intimate communication of dining, the very paradigm of travel as the foreign outside is taken into oneself and assimilated with delight or dyspepsia, is available from every café, restaurant, and street vendor; it is all but inevitable. (It takes really stubborn satisfaction to return from Acapulco’s Hilton as Henry did, saying, “They eat just like we do: big steaks, salad bar . . .”) Eating Hungarian food while meditating on the word eter, one may come to associate that assertive t with insistent garlic, paprika, and heavy-handed salting, the liquid r with the richness of fats (lard and deep-frying are still popular; cream, sour or fresh, may top anything; pastries and snacks are popular at all hours, including the humblest of all: langos or fried dough, susceptible to toppings ranging from sugar to garlic), and those precise little es with the strength of the basic ingredients, the goose, duck, pork, and carp, the potatoes and pasta and egg noodles veering toward gnocchi that form the cuisine’s foundation. Eter. The word food sounds flat-footed by comparison, but no more than an American diner meal might taste.

The stereotype of Central and Eastern European meals as weighty affairs has some truth yet (though for me Hungarian restaurants offer nothing as hefty as their Czech cousins whose ubiquitous “farmer’s plate” may include two types of dumplings and three varieties of pork, the entire composition chromatically muted, a sort of grey tending toward beige). The category of “special diet” or “health-conscious” options in restaurants with an English menu may list only deep-fried foods, starting with deep-fried Camembert which has earned its role as a “diet” dish due to being meatless.

The Jegverem restaurant in Sopron glories in substantial offerings, calling itself “a restaurant for guzzle-guts.” A rhyme in the menu entertains the waiting customer with its pleasantly garbled English, though reserving a trap-door for the last line:


Be it lunch, dinner, or other meat,
Our lifestyle is to have big feat.
Hungarians always up tull eat,
Whilst they lie under a coffin-sheet.


At this establishment Patricia had venison stew, while for me it was a pig’s knuckle, served over leeks and pickles inside a container of bread topped with sour cream and accompanied by a half liter of Soproni beer. (As this was a “gypsy” preparation, the ever-whimsical menu description said, “First, steal a pig and singe the hair off. If you are too lazy to do this, steal a pig already singed . . .”)

The Hungarian cook operates on a principle of savory overkill, overwhelming the diner with rich substance. At the Lukac in Budapest, I had pork stuffed with liver pate and then breaded, fried, and served with paprika sauce; Patricia had veal stuffed with Roquefort, then rolled in nuts and fried. There was such a quantity of Roquefort she left a great pool on her plate. Ordering goose leg at the Cellarium in Pecs, she was given two sizable legs with thighs attached as well as a side dish of cabbage prepared with apples and champagne. And we were eating at modest establishments.

The typical Central European breakfast of (bread with cheese and cold cuts or sausages in its minimalist form in a cheap pension was enhanced with little individual packets of liver and ham paté, hazelnut butter, and tarragon mustard. One could pass on the sorry sort of juice drink and make the most of the muesli.

At the main indoor market of Pest, the Vamhaz, a fanciful turn of the century building with excited ornamentation, one sees the noble fresh-water fish so popular here, catfish, and trout, giant carp and pike-perch from Lake Balaton. Apart from a marvelous variety of peppers, root vegetables abound: overgrown radishes, unapologetic celery roots, parsnips, even kohlrabi. These fine and sturdy vegetables seem rarely, though, to make their way to restaurant plates where salad is apologetic: a few slices of cucumber, a bit of shredded cabbage, and a pickled morsel or two.
Louis XIV called tokay "Vinum Regum, Rex Vinorum" ("Wine of kings, king of wines"), and, having come to its hometown, we sampled the celebrated Tokaj Aszu which we could hardly stomach in spite of its praise by popes and nobles of earlier eras of taste. Then there are the wines: Egri Bikavér or Bull’s Blood, of course, and some palatable enough others, kekfrankos and kekoporto. Hungarians make as well a variety of distilled palinkas with their intense fruit spirits, and the mysterious bitter liqueur Unicum. John Cross relayed his mother’s folk wisdom about this dark blend of many herbal flavorings, “It’s medicinal, really. After sleeping your blood sugar is down low and you need a swig or two of Unicum in the morning to get going. You see, it has a white cross on the bottle. That’s because it’s good for you.”

A New Look at Jaufré Rudel: Amor de Lonh as Criticism

The ultimate object of this study is not even dear Jaufré or poetry at all, but dualism. The poet wrote not of satisfied love, but of love from afar, love “under erasure,” if I may make him sound Derridean. The notion could as well be linked to Nagarjuna’s tetralemma; it has links to Graham Priest’s dialetheism. To fit the notion in a fortune cookie, it might be “if the truest love is absence of love, existence is emptiness.” Should these thoughts seem silly or fruitless, have no fear. Jaufré’s poems are so lovely, the rest need not matter.





Since early troubadour poetry stands at the historical fountainhead of the the vernacular European lyric, one's understanding of it will have profound implications. In part for that very reason, many of the most basic questions concerning the themes and techniques of this poetry, not to mention its origins and development, are vexed indeed. If the problem is courtly love, its heart is Jaufré Rudel. [1] Jaufré’s amor de lonh (“love from afar”) has been interpreted as biography, mysticism, and allegory. [2] A more structural analysis of this extraordinary poetry of paradox and metaphysical sensuality [3] reveal the fundamental relationships of several ever-varying sets of associative possibilities [4]. Their variation and transformation doubtless accounts in part for the multiplicity of critical opinion, yet this very ambiguity allows the poet to enact a notion of the nature of poetry itself. Though I believe that readings around themes of love, spirituality, and psychology are all fruitful, it is the self-reflective reading, in which the apparent self-contradiction of the rhetoric is most clearly essential to its precision, that I intend to pursue here. In this connection I mean to note an analogy for the problem of Jaufré in the work of Robert Johnson, [5] an American blues singer. I believe that the relationship between the medieval courtly poet and the itinerant American musician are apparent not only in the semantic content of the text, but equally in the manipulation of sound values. Though consideration of the musical element of Jaufré’s work is not possible today, his poetry may be read as music and this music then read for its critical implications about the genre of poetry.

Particularly in view of the portion of this project that will be devoted to sound patterns, I will isolate a very small portion of Jaufré’s work for examination. The canso “Lanquan li jorn son lonc en may,” called “undoubtedly the best known of Jaufré's works,” and “also the most enigmatic,” [6] begins with the following stanza.


Lanquan li jorn son lonc en may
M’es belhs dous chans d'auzelhs de lonh,
E quan mi suy partitz de lay
Remembra•m d’un’amor de lonh:
Vau de talan embroncx e clis
Si que chans ni flor d'albespis
No•m platz plus cue 1'yverns gelatz.



[When the days are long in May. the far-away song of the birds seems beautiful to me, and when I have gone away from there, the parting reminds me of my far-away love: I go bent with desire and my gaze downcast, so that neither songs nor hawthorne blooms please me more than frozen winter.]


The Natureingang (nature introduction, similar to the French reverdie) in its simplest forms celebrates the speaker’s love together with the spring-time rejuvenation of vegetation. Here, however the primary values inverted as in several albas. [7] Nature is conceded its obvious fecundity and life-richness, but it is also viewed as mocking the poet by the contrast in their moods. Perceiving nature as hostile, he expresses indifference to it. In fact there is a hint of hostile perversity in the last line suggesting a morbid sentimental preference for nasty weather. But the poem has pretensions far beyond the depiction of the depression of a frustrated lover. The poem develops with other vectors in the field: the senhor (lord, l. 8), the pairi (godfather, l. 51), the themes of pilgrimage and pagan lands, but the first mystery of this stanza stands at its center, in the fourth line. The quality of distance, lonh, which asserts the lady’s absence as a constitutive element of her value epitomizes the contradiction I am seeking to explicate.

Ignoring the many possible erotic-psychological implications of this formulation, [8] I would propose an alternate reading of the stanza in question. Birds are not a simple emblem here of nature's unselfconscious reproductive energy; more specific associations are at play. For instance the birds suggest freedom [9] and are often thought to be intermediaries between god and man. [10] Further, and most immediately to the point at issue, birds are very commonly identified with poets. The reader has license for this association from Jaufré’s own usage: the first stanza of “Quan lo rius de la fontana” (“when the waters of the spring”) declares that he should modulate his song as the nightingale does. If one interprets the birds of Jaufré's stanza as other poets with whom the author is familiar, the attribute lonh here would mean the distance between the poet and tradition, in time, space, and set of mind. With this association one finds Jaufré rejecting poetry even as he sings. The entire weight of past art is insufficient for his needs and is thus irrelevant. He is “embroncx e clis” (bent and bowed) by his desire in spite of hearing the birds, though he had been fond enough to call them belhs only a few lines earlier. While recognizing the charm of song, Jaufré finds it impotent in the face of his current despair. His response is to relegate song (though not song alone, for it is still linked to the larger world of nature through the bird’s perch, the albespis) to a category worse than useless. He likens it in value to the ivern (winter), clearly an enemy of life.

But the opposition is a complex one, and it is significantly blurred. The birds’ song had pleased him and in fact led him to his own canso. Yet Jaufré says he now cares no more for song than for winter, but he says this in a song. He is a poet; his fate is that of poetry, and the text before us leaves no doubt that, whatever else may be said about the occasion it describes, it produced poetry. In fact, in an almost magical way, the unease of the poet’s depression elicits the verse as a balm, though the line itself says that singing is useless.

If one considers the song of the first stanza to be poetry, this stanza of Jaufré’s canso rejects past literature, as every new poem must do, and claims for the itself a privileged position as the only meaningful text (for the moment of its creation at any rate). (Following that moment, it will be obliged to submit to the judgment of others.) Just as tragedy laments the human predicament and in some sense exorcises it or redeems it, just as the music of the blues is an aesthetic remedy to suffering, Jaufré’s song of complaint is a victory over his circumstances.

The stanza's structure is even more nakedly present when emptied of the aesthetic terminology of self-reference and, indeed, of the languages of alternative applications. One might call the vague but directly life-bearing quality which subsumes notions of god, beauty, love by none of these names but plainly X. The canso’s singer notes X in birds, but feels put off and depressed by it as he recalls his lack of some great X of his own. Lacking X he spitefully embraces not-X, all the while employing rhetoric which itself exudes the X-factor.

Now because of the very fact that the poem itself possesses X-like qualities of formal beauty, pleasure, and design, the poet’s verbal technology, far from perverse, is as effective at salving the speaker’s suffering as it was at formulating the pain. The whole operation is like a magical spell, the goal of which is to reproduce X qualities anew within the poem and thus, through verbal technology, to reintegrate the poet with X. These relationships, while cumbersome to describe and abstract, function smoothly and naturally in the poem, whether one thinks of the Countess of Tripoli or the logos or the crusader's halo as the primary meaning of the greater X.

To return, then, to the self-referential terms one may insert legitimately into this abstract paradigm of relationships, one finds the reaction to tradition which Jaufré exemplifies one that is most familiar in contemporary critical discourse. (12) Bloom’s talk of the “anxiety of influence” and Paul de Man’s concept of literary modernity are both quite close to what Jaufré seems to be saying. But the pattern in the poem is prior, conceptually as well as historically, to the formulations of these critics. The whole notion of the primacy of structural relationships clearly disallows any final delimiting semantic fix on the poem's position. The most significant structure is that which precedes and encourages polysemic interpretation. It might most generally be conceived as a psychic mood, a posture of the mind that might be elicited by any of a variety of situations, but which is limited by none of them. Such a structure will exemplify the critics’ statements without being contained within them. Its power derives from its formal “rightness,” rather like a fugue or a blues lick, though, like those musical forms, it may bear considerable affective energy.

As a highly conventional linguistic structure, troubadour poetry is particularly laden with comment on the weight of past tradition and the poet's relationship to it. Stanza-form, melody, phrasing, image choice, even in the earliest period, are heavily dependent on intertextuality for their effects. The phenomenon has then been multiplied by the vast and complex tradition that has since sprung from these poems. These facts in part justify my reading of Jaufré’s stanza as a description of itself within that larger setting of literature necessary to its existence, but which it must fend off to make room for itself.

A similarly conventionalized and self-referential lyric genre commenting on the varieties of frustrated love developed in the twentieth century United States. As Jaufré is the quintessential mysterious troubadour, the touchstone for any theory of “courtly love,” Robert Johnson has for some years been accepted by blues aficionados as the most artful and enigmatic of blues musicians. Both have accumulated biographies rich in legendary accretions, though Johnson was singing hardly more than forty years ago. One might compile a catalogue of coincidences connecting the two artists, but a meaningful relationship may arise from even a single point of contact. A reading of the following stanza from one of the bluesman’s most celebrated songs “Stones in my Passway” [13] will immediately suggest comparison with Jaufré’s previously cited stanza.


I have a bird to whistle, and I have a bird to sing,
I have a bird to whistle, and I have a bird to sing.
I got a woman that I’m loving, boy, but she don't mean a thing.


Here the significance of the bird, is the same as in Jaufré. Its song is assumed to be beautiful (to possess a positive power one might call X) but that song is either meaningless or faintly mocking to the poet since he lacks satisfying love. The “whistle” is the trivialized negative projection of music, as the song is its positive promise. The bird song is available but scorned. Though the post claims to have a lover, the second half of the line undercuts that claim, leaving it sounding both bitter and wistful. Though Jaufré’s stanza is neither so compressed nor so elliptical as Johnson’s, the same information is present. Song is revalued in the present crisis and found wanting, thus allowing the poet to produce his new song. [14] In order to maintain the dialectic of the situation, the new song, the poem being enacted, is perverse or “diabolical” in that it willfully embraces inverted values — icy weather for Jaufré, acceptance of the frustration of an unsatisfying love for Johnson. [15]

The ambiguous value of Johnson’s bird, which represents on the one hand the possibility of lyric liberation and its unattainability, lying beyond the poet's grasp, is conveyed by the ironic contrast between “whistle” and “sing” and by the driving ferocity with which the line is delivered. When the line is repeated, the tension intensifies by repetition alone, but also by the sinister disappearance of the ego in the “I” of the second line. Having emphasized the psychic cul de sac against which the bird is impotent by the first two lines, the poet concludes with the balanced paradox of the third line. The rhyme with which it ends promises a harmonious resolution, but its superstitious vagueness (“thing”) and defensive retreat into cliché contrast dramatically with the potential of “sing.” Thus there is no resolution to the problem apart from what is unstated here and unstated in Jaufré but implicit in both, that the poem is the product of the contradiction the poet experiences, that the poem is an assertion of ego against all previous poets and
an attempt to magically harmonize the contradictions of experience by orchestrating them in language. [16]
The ambivalences I have been tracing represent reactions toward a quantity I called X. It displays both a positive and a negative face and could most broadly be identified with the dualistic structure of thought itself. Just as the cosmos was created by separating polar opposites, whether light and dark, land and sea as in Genesis, or antimatter and matter as the scientists tell us, the world of dualities generates also pain and pleasure, life and death. As the man tries to charm love from it, the poet tries to charm a poem. Thus, having passed from a consideration of content to one of structure, I have returned to thematics, now defined as the binary organization of thought. In this sense the poem’s concerns are epistemological.

Approaching from a different direction altogether, one may also trace the events and relationships suggested by the sound of Jaufré's poem and investigate the implications of the sound patterns.[17] The stanza has seven lines of eight syllables each, rhyming ababcca. In some manuscripts the poem ends with a three line tornada. This in itself suggests an exposition tending toward a pattern of resolution for the whole. Within the stanza the rhyme scheme would cause the first four lines to cohere and the last three, though the unrhymed last line must stand to some extent alone. Thus the verbal foundation for each statement in the poem decreases: from four to two to one line and then vanishes completely, making way for the next stanza which will prove equally unstable. [18]

A source of regularity that flows against the trend of the diminishing line groups is the end rhyme where it does occur. Since the end rhymes knit otherwise unrelated portions of the text, they tend to increase order and coherence. The end words in this stanza are may, lonh, lay, lonh, clis, albespis, gelatz. The first and third lines have unobtrusive and commonplace sounds, while the second and. fourth highlight the unusual and thematically central lonh. Lines five and six end in a sound which does not attract attention, though the three syllables of albespis prepare the way for the cynical and odd gelatz that ends the stanza. The rime riche on lonh is the only appearance of the on sound except for embronx in line five. Thus, just as in Robert Johnson’s blues pattern, the rhymes lead one to look for a problem (lonh, line two), which is restated in a more intense form (lonh, line four), and which then concludes with a wholly new element which remains for the present ambiguous in implication. One is impelled toward the next stanza for further information.

The first line flows decorative idyllic way, its 1’s and n’s lulling the reader, but these sounds leave by mid-stanza, though both return at the end. So they reinforce the ambivalent pattern of flight and return with renewed vigor. As for vowel sounds, the a’s dominate the first line and e’s the second; the pattern precisely repeats in lines three and four. In the last three lines, though, the two vowels occur in a balanced static pattern. The nasalized sounds which were identified with the nut of the mystery lonh, are repeated in the rhyme words of Iines two and four, yet are absent from the last line.

Is the dilemma resolved or is it merely kept at bay? The center line, stuffed with consonants, slows to make a statement of the problem being processed, but its shape is so very elegant that it implies that the problem cannot be devastating.

The penultimate syllable of every line of the stanza has the vowel sound e. This subtle effect is at once a bearer of an absolute drumbeat of regularity and a representation of the distance between desire and fulfillment, a sound, that holds itself back just before the end.

In reviewing the sound patterns, harmonious patterns include the shrinking size of the syntactical unit, the unfamiliarity of the sounds in the last line, and the inconclusiveness of the penultimate e's. Contrary to these elements are the predictably returning stanza form, the symmetrically returning 1’s, and the dependability of the e’s. The evocation of ambiguity is not, then, limited to the words’ meaning in the poem, but also includes their sounds.

What does the balance of these patterns suggest about the nature of poetry? The same concept that the muses were enunciating when they told Hesiod they could both lie and speak the truth, the same as Prometheus had in mind when he said that in his agony he could neither speak nor be silent. Though the poet cannot dissolve the distress, he can assume magical control over it and act out its subjugation once it is rendered in a form available to manipulation. He presents even intractable elements of his situation in forms that are apparently “tamed,” though neither sounds nor idea can be wholly tamed; that is, neither will cease generating problems, but this is precisely the energy that moves the poem forward.

To cast a poem, however, the poet must first conduct his own work safely through the gauntlet of paternal tradition, what Bloom calls the paternal/prenatal/protonomic. Though the materials of art may react ferociously against one another, their field of play is reduced to an arena of graceful and melodic piping in relation to the world beyond the work of art. This is true even for an artist like Robert Johnson in whose recordings the enacted tension is so great it is as though the man sang by grinding his teeth. In Jaufré’s poems the differing requirements of convention produce a surface more cosmetically calm, but with a calmness profoundly ironic. For this canso is evidence to the reader of what he already knows, that only in struggle, in the no man’s land between silence and speech, can language turn on itself and make a poem.



1. The complex love Jaufre expounds provides one of several “germinative moments” for this poetry. Another is found in the highly economical statements of riddling as in several poems of William IX, old English riddles, etc. At times both the richness and the red herring of erotic associations are removed and the contradiction appears bare, as in Zen koans.

2. Very briefly, one might note the biographical approach to be characteristic of earlier critics. Grace Frank (“The Distant Love of Jaufré Rudel,” MLN 57, 1942, p. 528) reads the poems as allegories of a desire to go to the Holy Lands, while Carl Appel (“Wiederum zu Jaufre Rudel," Archiv für das Studium der Neueren Sprachen und Literaturen 107, 1902, p. 138) took their true object to be the Virgin. To my mind the
most sophisticated formulation is that of Leo Spitzer (L'amour lointain de Jaufré Rudel et les troubadours, Chapel Hill, 1944). Spitzer provides meaningful parallels for certain troubadour expressions in the writings of St. Bernard and explicates both as evidence for the “paradox of love,” combining an ego-aggrandizing wish to possess with a devotional, self-debasing impulse.

3. This is attempted in a rudimentary way in Wilhelm's Seven Troubadours (University Park, Pennsylvania; 1970), though there the intent is only to dispose of more unlikely hypotheses.

4. Rupert Pickens in his edition of The Songs of Jaufré Rudel (Toronto, 1978) provides in his introduction an original rationale for the acceptance of a polymorphous text. Not only is he critical of the generally accepted search for a single authoritative reading; he is also interested in the text's subsequent mutation through emendation and the like, regarding even changes that are definitely not the original author's intention as possible "improvements", and the text that results is to him deserving of critical attention qua poems regardless of authorial intention.

5. Perhaps the very violence of this yoking is itself salutary. The surprise we expect each text to show in reaction to the other may shake loose certain rarely questioned assumptions and allow us to come up on ourselves unawares.

6. Alan R. Press, Anthology of Troubadour Poetry (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1971), p. 18. The text of Jaufré’s poem which I am using is from this edition, though it lacks the tornada, which may be found, for instance, in that of Thomas G. Bergin, Anthology of the Provençal Troubadours (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1973).

7. See the thorough discussion of nature values in the alba in Jonathan Saville, The Medieval Erotic Alba: Structure as Meaning (New York: Columbia University Press, 1972).

8. Among the possible extensions of the situation in erotic psychology would be sado-masochist lovemaking, yogic sex without orgasm, infantile longing for the remote and all-powerful mother.

9. A specifically poetic example of this association is in the rather sham use of the word "metarsios"by Pindar to describe the poet in inspiration.

10. This is, of course, very familiar. One might think first of Greek divination and of the Holy Ghost.

11. Though the identification is a commonplace, I would like to mention two especially intriguing examples: first, the complicated metaphor of the Falkenlieder of Minnesang and second, the negative form of the type -- the poet as absurd chicken in the film of Der Blaue Engel or in Neidhart von Reuental’s “Sinc an, guldin huôn, ich gibe dir weize.” Here not only the plumpness of chickens makes them ridiculous and even hateful, but also their economic use as food source which compels their keepers to view them with contempt.

12. I am thinking here specifically of Bloom’s discussion, toward the end of Kaballah and Criticism (New York: Seabury Press, 1975) and of de Man's in Chapter 8 of Blindness and Insight (New York: Oxford Press, 197l).

13. The song is recorded on Robert Johnson: King of the Delta Blues Singers (Columbia Records CL l654), side 2, track 4. The recording was made in 1937. Unable to obtain a transcript- of the text, I simply copied the words from the record. The only transcription of which I am not entirely certain is the exclamation in the last line which may be slightly misrepresented by my rendering “boy.”

14. Often early troubadour poets will explicitly claim to be making a new song, or a new sort of song. One example among many is William IX's “Farai chansoneta nueva.” Similar claims occur in many traditions, including archaic Greek and ancient Hebrew.

15. Johnson deals frequently, even obsessively with themes of diabolism. Compare his “Me and the Devil Blues” or “Hellhound on my Trail” on the same record cited above.

16. The very blues form, with its repeated first line of the stanza and the rhyme
that ends the second line, implies this sort of pattern. See below for its likeness to the stanza-tornada system in Jaufré.

17. The same sound analysis could be set forth for Johnson's work, of course, as
well, but I will not delineate its details here not only for reasons of space, but because, having a recorded performance of the poem enormously complicates the task of understanding in ways irrelevant to Jaufré for whom we can have no such recording.

18. The same obvious pattern is expressed in the modulation of end-line punctuation, from rest to half-rest, and in the enjambement or lack of it.

19. There are not only four l’s in the last line as opposed to three in the first, but also the end position implies by its geography on the page a greater weight, a solidity of conclusion, just as the end of a line does in a lesser way, and the of the work as a whole in a greater.

Han Shan

This is another period piece from the 70s. The loose syntax shows my breathless enthusiasm, yet the fracture of the era is evident as America’s brief intoxicating glimpse of one variety of liberation/enlightenment faded. I continue to think Han Shan is beautiful, though the Chinese critics don’t rate him so high on their charts, and I continue to relish early Gary Snyder but not late.


O.K., the definitions in the column are sometimes a little fuzzy, but for me Gary Snyder's translation of Han Shan is a classic. I became a missionary of it upon a first reading, xeroxing copies to give friends and reading it aloud to whomever let me. It's true, it's beautiful, and it's not even as pretentious as those adjectives lead you inevitably to expect, and that only because of a heap of worse poetry going back to the Greeks.

We know really that the splendors promised in our highest moments are identical with the world we see every day, but the thought is so commonplace itself that it loses competition for attention to more bizarre notions like money, astrology, and your choice of illuminated master. So here's a poem that does what Chinese poetry does so well, simply describing the world and thus setting out a hundred implications to drift into increasing complexity and finally duplicate the cosmos itself. And for someone proud not to be a magician that's a great stunt. But the stories recounted about Han Shan at the beginning of the work are hardly of the striding on the clouds and eating only light and air variety. They are both marvelous and ordinary, like today.

The prose is irresistible and the message divine. I won't begin to tell these things second-hand because they'd hardly stay the same. But it's clear that Han Shan couldn't have written his introduction himself with any grace, so it’s fortunate that he had an ideally respectable straight man to do it for him. And the flatness and humility of this man’s tone could silence a gabbling room: "I hold to the principle of the Buddha mind. It is fortunate to meet with men of the Tao, so I have made this eulogy." And this from the governor of a state! Greek generals (classical, not modern) and Imperial Chinese bureaucrats teach us it's possible to be civilized and at the same time shove the world through its more sordid changes.

The exteriorized mind. As Snyder says "When he talks about Cold Mountain he means himself, his home, his state of mind." And that, of course, is only part of the projection. As I said, the implications float outward. The first poem begins, “The path to Han Shan's place is laughable/A path but no sign of cart or horse. Converging gorges — hard to trace their twists . . .” “Body asking shadow, how do you keep up?”

What does this remind you of? It's the solid base in culture that informed their poetry all the distance from that great inventory of images, the I Ching to the present day of Mao who can write of a million willow leaves, red blossoms flying through the air, and spring wind.

This reclamation of nature’s astonishing code builds a structure of parts that is dynamic as it contains tension, and yet balanced at least enough to believably hold together. Like all the finest metaphors, its strength is precisely the ability to extend meaning to so many possibilities with affect and conviction. Effortlessly, gracefully, even through messy situations and sadness. How many spiritual leaders, for instance, have written cleanly about their attachments like Han Shan on his feelings of grief at the death of friends. Or about his pleasure in things as they are. Spontaneous and refreshing. But the strongest point is that he is always realistic. Never a hint of magic or the delightful fairy tale symbols that make Zhuang Zi illuminated with playfulness and elegance like a late Roman poet dealing with mythology. Never any promises. Just things as they are. And yet, the quiet certainty that occasionally wells up and shines numinous through the lines.

His was a fantasy life come true, living among the rocks on wild greens and roots, scrawling poems on the wall when he couldn't help himself. But he was not only real and most likely really lived as we are told, but he was only one of the magnificent series of Chinese mad and holy men who didn't trifle with asceticism or tantric elaborated system or Japanese/Tassajara hierarchy master and devotee life but simply went out and captured perfection direct. Took it by surprise or perhaps it was waiting on the other side of the veil, equally eager to pounce on Han Shan and embrace him with recognition.

It's a fatal style for poets to read because it’s so fine and final, so powerful with image and ultimate in concerns that it makes less ambitious work difficult. But it's also the easiest style to fuck up, like free verse. (Does this term still exist? Does anyone think any verse is free?) Such freedom imposes the heaviest responsibilities.
Snyder since Han Shan has taken another route and seems to be losing his reliance in observed images and patterns and sound systems and relying more — to the detriment of his work — on pat ideological contained statements which may be true and massive but are not therefore poetry. I'm thinking of the “Revolution in the Revolution in the Revolution” and suchlike. A lot of Turtle Island, unfortunately. It's a sort of poetry that might work if he were Alexander Pope maybe. Or if these symmetric revelations were funnier, or ironic, curving back to make fun of themselves. But no, unfortunately, they tend in the direction of the satisfied monks so absurd in the tales of Han Shan.

Make no mistake, I feel that Snyder is one of the best poets now writing with an exquisitely acute ear in his most careful cadences and with his eye on the roof of the world. But he'd better watch out. A hundred satoris don't guarantee good sense tomorrow morning.

A Garland of Greek Professors

I have altered a few details and, regrettably, the names, though the originals seem to convey wonderfully apt impressions of their bearers. In spite of what may seem a corrupt taste for oddity, I have no wish to discomfit these men should they go innocently googling themselves. I respected them all for their learning and I owe to them any modest competence of my own. The most unlikely name, though, that of Prof. Oliver, is genuine and has long been on the public record.


I studied Greek in college with the intention of reading the ancient poets, but along the way I also came to know the extraordinary world of classical scholars. Departments of Greek and Latin Classics are now out-of-the-way corners of academia, yet the surviving programs maintain rigorous standards nonetheless and a blissful conviction that historical philology is a promising route to enlightenment. Students of the history of higher education will know that, whereas Latin and Greek constituted for centuries the central core of the European curriculum, such studies are rapidly vanishing from even some first-rate universities. The textbook I used – Allen’s from 1916 – was the first American beginning Ancient Greek book for college students. The introduction bemoans the fact that, “regrettable as it may seem,” increasing numbers of students come to university without any Greek whatever.

My first Greek professor, J. R. H. Ayckbourn, was a sober man. His sole eccentricity consisted in buttoning only the lowest button of his suit jacket. Since he had an exceedingly tall and slender figure with a billiard ball head, this lent him the appearance of always falling forward, but in fact he managed to remain upright better than some colleagues.

Another professor in the University of Illinois Classics Department was Revilo Oliver, whose name is a palindrome. Despite this peculiarity, Oliver had a distinguished early career, including a dissertation on a Sanskrit text and a Guggenheim fellowship, but he then came out as what can fairly be called a Nazi. A founder of the John Birch Society (though he was later expelled, probably the only person the group ever found too reactionary), along with his scholarly work, he produced dozens of polemical books with titles like Our Jewdicial System. During my freshman year he embarrassed the university by expressing satisfaction at Kennedy’s assassination, thus obliging civil libertarians to support him in the cause of academic freedom when critics called for his dismissal.

In those days, the department at Illinois also included Prof. Scheetz whose taste for gay s/m activities led a student who frequented the same social circles to retail the following anecdote: “You know that wild thunderstorm the other night, lightning flashing, high winds, a real downpour. Right in the middle of it I ran into Prof. Scheetz, dashing down the street in his bare feet. I said, ‘Sir, whatever are you doing out on a night like this?’ He gazed back with wild enthusiasm: ‘Looking for a downed wire.’”

Prof. Seneca Biblonides of the University of X was an enormous albino, maybe 6’6” and 300 pounds, who paced about holding his Greek text an inch from his face as he taught. It was Prof. Biblonides who, when I gave him some of my Sappho translations to review, told me that he really had neither interest nor knowledge about literature. I could only contemplate the lifelong dedication to the study of Greek and Latin by one with so little curiosity about what was actually written in those languages.

Henri “Bobo” Laurent with whom I studied for years with one other scholar, went through mysterious phases in which he would gain and lose hundreds of pounds. When he was relatively thin, he would park his Harley outside and come to class in black t-shirts and jeans; when he was heavy, he invariably appeared in suit and tie. When not engaged in research -- Laurent had a book about classical influences on Jerry Siegel, the writer of Superman comics -- he liked to paint lovingly detailed pictures of Superman in full regalia.

The students, too, were a colorful crew, though with no place here, apart from what this account, I suppose, implies of at least one whimsical temperament.

Jemaa el Fna

Though the name is sometimes translated as “assembly of the dead,” Marrakech’s main square, the Jemaa el Fna, is, in fact, teeming with life. Before us passes a glass case cart with great wheel-like flatbreads, while a bearded blind beggar led by a small boy chants his appeals for alms, and a bit of a crowd gathers around a man on whose mat are displayed an egg, some herbs, and a desiccated lizard. The water-man with his leather bag and gala costume seems lost and bewildered. Two ladies’ black veils make them look like mischievous conspirators as they exchange confidences.

Even now, early in the morning, the sound of drummers pulses under a wailing pipe. From the direction of the souks comes Arab pop music playing a more festive and soaring soundtrack, but one no less melancholy in its disarming moist blues vulnerability. A madman passes laughing as his eyes look inward.
The crowd has swollen around the man with the mat.

Someone slips a snake about my neck – the specter of greed!

We meet Hassan in a café on the margin of the square and order mint tea. A grizzled old man passes before our table moving smoothly, seemingly just above the ground. Hassan hails him, tells us that he and his brothers had performed with this man in the deep south where the elder had at the time been considered a great singer. He had looked after the Hakmoun boys like a father, arranging for their rooms and seeing that they ate well. The man looks back blankly. His eyes are glazed. He remembers nothing. He holds a used pair of high Italian-style shoes he had meant to sell in the street. His chin is frosted with whiskers, his mind far off somewhere. He wears two grey-striped djellabas in the afternoon sun under a thick brown one. Finally, he seems to remember just a bit. Suddenly Hassan offers him 150 dirham for his ring. Hassan tells us it is very powerful, although the stone is lost. Having known this ring during his childhood, he has no doubt. It will bring strength of will, success, it is a treasure to acquire if only to pass it on to his son Jamel. “Such a ring,” says Hassan, “is all but unobtainable in these days.”