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

Monday, August 1, 2011

Two Parades

1. Republic Day Parade in India

Actually, it was the full dress rehearsal for the Republic Day parade, but it was difficult to imagine the real thing to be much grander or more ceremoniously conducted. Security was fierce -- it was, after all, only a few months after a terrorist attack in Mumbai that in which hundreds died, but the supervision seemed ill-organized and full of holes. All observers, and there were tens of thousands, were to have tickets. Countless security forces, army, police, who knows what, shepherded people around. A great variety of tickets separated those in higher who were allowed into grandstands while common observers took up street-level positions along Delhi’s grand boulevard, the Rajpath. A complex system of color codes indicated not only status but location along the route. We, of course, had no tickets of any sort, having only just heard about this celebration. One gracious officer told us we could go ahead though we lacked tickets. The next said we had to be gone, yet, that said, he ignored us as we proceeded. After some time, during what may have been our sixth or seventh conversation with the authorities, a friendly stranger offered us tickets that permitted us legitimate standing room among the crowds.

First came the regular military display: flyovers, tanks, and marching bands galore, including grandly mustachioed Rajasthani troops, drummers dressed in faux leopard skins, and others in flamboyant costumes such as massive bright turbans topped with even brighter starched fans, others with outsize batons to toss high in the air. One unit played band instruments from the backs of resentful-looking camels; others proceeded on grave elephants. There were several units of tartaned bagpipers. I recalled Malcolm Muggeridge’s line: “The last Englishman will be an Indian,” and wondered if he would be wearing kilts.

Then came floats from each of India’s provinces representing regional culture and economy. One group of tribal dancers succeeded another, each impossibly exotic even, I take it, to the Delhi-wallahs. From this outsider’s perspective, it was more Mardi Gras than Fourth of July. There were huge leering faces, the divinities difficult to distinguish from the heroes of history, tableaux in which half the figures were living, half were dummies. Even what one might reasonably have expected to be tiresome, the floats from bureaucratic government agencies, had their charm. On the float of the rural electrification commission, for instance, there were power lines ending in delighted couples in front of computer screens as though the first effect of peasants’ receiving electric power would be their purchase, not of an electric light, but of a Dell computer. There were no beauty queens but there were cars carrying the winners of the National Children’s Award for Bravery. The viewer could only imagine what they had done, but I have no doubt it was truly heroic.

2. Fiesta for San Juan Bautista

I hadn’t been sure we would make it to Puno, at 12,500 feet on the shores of Lake Titicaca. Demonstrations by farmers wishing to stop large-scale mining which they felt endangered their water supply had closed the roads and cut off the town in the previous week. But a short-term agreement to cease action until after the election had quieted the scene. One evening I followed the sound of pipes and drums to a small church outside of which the band played to a small group dressed some in suits and some in local costume. They tossed multi-colored confetti in the air and set off fireworks. As I stood outside the fence watching an elder man gestured to me to enter. It was the feast-day of John the Baptist. I had seen the church with his name across town on the other side of the square. Someone appeared from inside the church with a basket of ritual bread – I was given a piece. Fortunately no one asked me if I were a Catholic or even a Christian. Youths in tee-shirts and jeans played a dozen pipes while seven drums made up the rest of the band. Next thing I knew a religious image was thrown about my neck by a member of the local St. Anthony of Padua club. Then six men lifted the large wooden frame, and, holding the saint’s image, they set out for his church, music playing all the way, punctuated by occasional fireworks. We walked through the square, past the shattered windows of the Justice Department and the banks. Marching in the middle of the musicians, with the insistent pipes of all sizes, with the drums sounding somehow anxious for all their emphatic punch, one felt that the hearts of the devotees of St. John were beating in unison, even the heart of the interloper who just happened by.

Distant Rhyme in Two Medieval English Lyrics

It is a fundamental paradox of language that, as the Muses told Hesiod, it both lies and speaks the truth, expresses and conceals, represents and obscures. This antinomy is a constant subject for poetic language in particular which is, in Eco's terms, “ambiguous and self-focusing.” Two of the most frequently used devices in aesthetic texts — metaphor and rhyme — mirror this simultaneous likeness and difference. As such they may in their least significant uses merely mark off a text as poetic, but they are more likely to bear considerably more information.

Irregular uses such as “distant rhyme” in which the sound similarities occur separated by many lines of verse present an intriguing special case. Eva Guggenheimer’s Rhyme Effects and Rhyming Figures which finds meaning in inexact correspondences separated by twenty lines of epic verse suggests the attractiveness of the territory, to say nothing of Saussure's fanciful anagrams.) Without attempting any general theory on the specific properties of the phenomenon, I would like to offer a few observations on the use of distant rhyme in two Middle English poems. I have selected one example in which the relevant rhymes occur as part of a regular stanzaic pattern and one in which they do not, and regarding each I comment first on formal properties and second on thematics.

In the well-known “Bitwene Mersh and Averil” the rhyme scheme is ABABBBBC (stanza) DDDC (burden). The C lines here have an obvious structural utility. As the most consistently recurring end-sound of the piece, they bind it together. More specifically, they link each stanza with the burden and relieve the monotony of the series of B rhymes (which have created a situation in which even a non-rhyming line would be acceptable, perhaps even a relief). As a formal element, too, these rhymes raise the historical question of the relation of this sort of lyric stanza to the carol or other dance forms on the one hand and to the processional hymn on the other. Further, and more problematically, this pattern could be treated as an elaboration on the BBBA CCCA AA identified with Moorish poetry in which the A rhymes bind the whole.

Thematically, the rhyme has the definitive effect of returning the subject with an appropriately obsessive chime always to Alisoun. Just as her name concludes each refrain, it is partially contained and thus evoked in each stanza’s end. The specific rhyme words of these A lines explicate as well as buttress the poem’s theme: her “bandoun” is the problem of the poem; “adoun” emphasizes the gravity of the lover's distress; while “toun” strikes me as a throwaway conventionalized choice without specific weight in this instance. “Roun,” the last rhyme, directs attention to the poem as a poem, as though in the completion of the form Alisoun herself has been transcended by the power of language. The tension thus relieved, the piece can end.

In “Worldes blisse, have good day” the rhyme pattern is AABBAABA, CCCCDDC, CCEEEAA. This melodious and complex pattern, while not altogether predictable includes a return at the end of each of the first two stanzas to the rhyme of that stanza’s beginning, and at the end of the third a return to the rhyme of the opening of stanza one. This knits the structure neatly, reproducing the smaller in the larger and defining a pleasant circularity for the whole.

The rhyme words here indeed trace the poem’s development in miniature. The first two A rhymes are imbedded in an apotropaic formula increasing in vehemence from the ironically dismissive “good day” to the command “away.” One might say the day must “away” to clear the ground for the speaker’s meditation.

It is noteworthy that these opening rhymes are spelled (and pronounced?) differently from all the other A rhymes as though the disappearance of the –ay marks the success of the command of lines 1-2. “Me,” the next A rhyme, places the poet's project internally, while “tree” and “three” (evoking the Trinity) announce the subject and means of access. These images are themselves insufficient for his purposes, however, and the second stanza proceeds to the devotional exercise of visualizing the Passion. Its very lack of A rhymes sets it apart as a separate contemplative act. Finally, the likeness in difference between the “thee” which is Christ and the “me” as worshiper encapsulates much of the mystery of Christian myth.

Some Anonymous Middle High German Lyrics

I use the convenient text in Max Wehrli’s Deutsche Lyrik des Mittelalters. Each poem is identified by the number it bears in this collection.

What is happening here?
what’s with these girls so dear?
They want to go loveless, alone,
until hot summer’s flown!

Wehrli tells us that this quatrain, one of the few in German in the 13th century Carmina Burana, is thought to have been performed by women in a round dance. Should this be true, this choral dance of the young reminds the reader of the performative character of much medieval poetry. The fact that one would have assumed the persona to be male further intensifies the playful, teasing, flirtatious tone already underlined by the high temperature. Similar to Herrick’s “Gather ye rosebuds,” the summertime also suggests youth, even life itself. The enthusiastic males are here caricatured by the more cautious females in a sexual tension that pervades human culture and, indeed, manifests in other species as well.

You are mine, I yours,
of that you can be sure.
You’re locked within
under my skin --
the key is lost, my fair!
You’ll have to stay right there!

These twelfth century verses are written at the end of a nun’s highly rhetorical Latin love letter. The reader might reflect on the variety of motives that might have led a medieval lady to take the veil, on the dangers of collapsing all passionate attachment into sexual love, or on the proximity of human and divine affection. Though this question is unanswerable, the poem expresses in the first two lines a reassuring mutuality, only in the next two to employ imagery of domination.

If all the world were mine
from the seacoast to the Rhine,
I’d give it all away
if only England’s queen might lie
in my arms to stay.

Hidden love is fine,
it makes one’s spirit shine.
Love’s what one should chase
And if one’s not love’s servant true
he is no more than base.

This (also from the Carmina Burana) begins with the hyperbolic trope “all the world for love.” The queen is Eleanor of Aquitaine, celebrated for her courts of love and patronage of poets. The use of a pseudonym, though, serves to underline the value of love’s concealment (the adjective in line six is tougen or tugen, defined in Lexer’s lexicon as dunkel, finster, verborgen, geheim, wunderbar). Eleanor’s regal status is a metaphorical compliment. The privacy of love is protected by such use of by-names, though one might assume that in the courtly setting there was considerable speculation about the parties’ identity. At any rate, the intimacy of the relationship can flower when all but the lovers are excluded. The “darkness” and “secrecy” of the boudoir leads to the marvel of love. Love here is the sole criterion for measuring worth: it alone ennobles the lover.

The translations strive to retain the rhyme schemes of the originals, though the rich rhyming of much medieval lyric sounds inappropriate to modern ears. The language is simple, but I won’t detail the inevitable compromises and misstatements entailed by even a modest attempt to reproduce the poems’ original formal patterns.

Notes on Liu Xie

I seek here only to draw attention to the extraordinary 5th century work of Chinese literary theory by Liu Hsieh (Liu Xie), The Literary Mind and the Carving of Dragons. The book is available in translation by Vincent Yu-chang Shih (along with the original text). A more recent version by Yang Guobin using the same title is doubtless more accurate. I had not seen it when I first studied Liu and came upon it only in the final stage of writing these notes. I hope I do not confuse readers by my use of the now accepted pinyin form of Chinese words while also quoting from Shih’s book which uses Wade-Giles.

Though its most recent translator Yang Guobin says The Literary Mind and the Carving of Dragons has “attracted . . . unprecedented interest in the recent decades,” its reputation among Sinologists has not brought non-specialists even the barest acquaintance with its ideas. Rather like the medieval rhetorics of Matthew of Vendome, Geoffrey of Vinsauf, and John of Garland, Liu systematized a theory of literature revering antiquity yet allowing for innovation. He surveyed the nature of literature itself as well as the conventions of his tradition, its genres and figures and the place of the canonized classics.

His work to some extent reflects ideas similar to those familiar in Europe: the distinction between content and form, for instance, suggested by the title, and the Horatian formula of “teach and delight.” His comments on the emotional core of lyric, on style as a mirror of the individual, and on the organic form of a work of art will also sound familiar to Westerners.

Further, Liu agrees with his medieval European counterparts in his understanding of how convention as a dynamic and flexible code facilitates signification, allowing the unique density of meaning in literary discourse. Just as all language depends upon a considerable common base in order to communicate at all and yet allows every utterance to be unique, poetry requires an audience competent in its specific system of convention. For Liu, Lao Zi and Confucius (as well as the “classics” associated with Confucius’ name) provide the base of the literary code, a position similar to that of the Greek and Latin classics in the European literary tradition. Liu’s reverence for these texts is such that he declares that he would write poetry were it not that he could not hope to improve upon the great works of antiquity. In his final chapter (I use Yang’s translation again here) he criticizes contemporary writers, saying, “We are now far removed from the time of the sages, and the ways of writing have degenerated. Writers of rhyme-prose love the exotic and like to use shocking and frivolous language. . . .They deviate ever more from the norm and head towards fallacy and excess.” For him the classics are “the starting point” for any poet. (25)

Yet Liu clearly recognizes the role of innovation. For him, while genre is set, “the very essence of style” is its “adaptability to new modes and cadences,” adding that “only by observing this truth can a writer gallop on a road that does not end in an impasse, or drink out of a spring which is inexhaustible.” (232) Just as Geoffrey of Vinsauf wrote of Poetria Nova, saying that literature must constantly rejuvenate itself, Liu says literature “renews itself from day to day.” (236) His 45th chapter surveys Chinese history indicating how the work of every era reflected the historical conditions as “the process of transformation circles endlessly.” (344)

Liu can perhaps point out a new solution to the problem of language’s mimesis. He explicitly denies the adequacy of language yet avoids the opprobrium of Plato’s “imitation of an imitation.” His chapter on Imagination (shensi) recalls Longinus yet cautions “The subtle meanings beyond our thought and the profound inner workings of the heart inexpressible in words are not to be reached with language; here one should know enough to halt his brush.” (220) And, even more clearly, “words do not completely express ideas; it is difficult even for the Sage to find it otherwise. If one’s knowledge is by nature limited to the capacity of a jar or tube, how can he be expected to offer all the general principles?” (6) Finally, in his postscript (omitted from Shih’s version) he notes “Language cannot exhaust meaning.”
This limitation is, however, illusory because, as his first chapter makes clear, for Liu literature reflects the Dao. A successful work, one which is “true” will necessarily arise from this universal principle. The legendary figures who established literature “drew their literary embellishments from the mind of Tao.” (12)

This entails a profound realism and a dedication to truth. The word wen refers to literature as in the book’s title, but also to patterns of any sort. Beasts have patterns in fur or feathers, heavenly bodies in their revolutions, and humankind, too has patterns in mind which may be made concrete in poetry. Indeed, none of the other patterns that indicate the beauty of the cosmos could be perceived without mind, and humans uniquely possess mind. Just as all natural phenomena have characteristic patterns, man, as a signifying animal, creates symbolic patterns in art such as literature generated by his own nature. In this way even poems which fail to perfectly represent reality, precisely and accurately represent human nature and thus arise from the Dao. As the book’s opening words declare, wen is as old as creation.

The parallelism so characteristic of Chinese poetry, far from being ornamental, as it often seems in Cicero, reproduces for Liu the creative dialectic most familiar as yang/yin. According to Liu just as “nature, creating living beings, endows them with limbs in pairs” the mind, creating literary language “organizes and shapes one hundred different thoughts, making what is high supplement what is low, and spontaneously producing linguistic parallelism.” (270) Thus for him what might seem an artificial literary convention is instead altogether natural.

He does not distinguish between poetry and philosophy, saying that “words with pattern indeed express the mind of the universe. The sage is the poet, and poetry, no less than plants and animals, is among the “natural, organic expressions of the divine.” (10)

Three Poems from Peru

Andean Day

The Urubamba rushes toward its end
without the slightest care for what’s to come.
A solitary piper on a dust-
filled street in town puffs out his fate – it’s gone.
Big-kerneled corn grows dry and strong in sun –
Take some to save against what jars may come.
A bowl of coca leaves can soften some
the stones and bones of every passing hour.
Thin air sublimes my thoughts and makes them rare,
for heaven tells no more than these high peaks.

Red plastic bag like refuse marks the chicheria,
its benches half the width of my behind.
This shed I think was built in just a day –
a few good kicks would turn it to debris,
and yet I think the place must serve up hope.
I’m seated with the rest to seek my share.

A chicheria is an unlicensed establishment
selling the indigenous people’s homemade
beer, usually based in corn.

Altiplano Scene

Alpaca shepherd spins out yarn, one eye
upon his beasts. That turning spool reflects
all other turnings great and small and thus
he keeps his balance on this turning globe.