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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Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Transformation of Convention

This is the beginning of my Transformation of Convention in the Medieval European Love Lyric. I hope to shed light on the problem of literary novelty by demonstrating that literary convention is used equally by those who employ recognizable convention and by those who defy, twist, or alter them. The establishment of a convention creates an instant potential for its repetition, but also for its inversion or twisting or omission. Two hundred years of Romantic criticism has obscured the fact that it is through convention and play with reader expectations that the semantic density of the literary text is enhanced.

Though this introduction is almost wholly theoretical, I am posting at the same time an example of the transformation I describe in the discussion of the English folk song “The Three Ravens.”



The dialectic between tradition and innovation in literature is little understood, though it stands at the heart of many critical disputes of the present day and has often been similarly important in past centuries. Very frequently the staging ground for the erection of literary barricades, the consistent centrality of the question is indeed more revealing than many of the positions partisans have taken up around it.

Harold Bloom when he speaks of the "anxiety of influence" as the major generative force as well as the major blocking force in literary production is unusually subtle in recognizing the complementary attraction and repulsion of the past, though the emotional weight which he assigns to either may be more historically or idiosyncratically limited than he admits. Such effective associations, though, are virtually universal when discussing literary convention. Critics, poets, and reading audiences have typically chosen a single alternative, championing either tradition or innovation with a passion that has been fruitful in terms of poetry, practical criticism, and connoisseurship, but which has shed little light finally on the construction of sound principles of literary theory. With sometimes eloquent error or partial vision, readers and writers have devalued one end or the other of the spectrum of conventionality and in doing so have misrepresented the text.

Highly conventional texts are demanded by the audiences for oral and popular genres. Whether one thinks of the preliterate forms of epic poetry or of the mystery or “romance” novel of modern mass culture (not to mention non-literary forms such as African sculpture or Christmas tree decoration), highly conventional adherence to tradition is demanded of the artist. One may trace the theoretical justification for such an insistence in “high art” through critics such as Pope, Arnold, and Curtius.
However, since Romanticism, the impulse to privilege the new has been dominant in educated circles. Writers otherwise as different as Wordsworth, Pound, and Shklovsky have elaborated both theory and practice around this preference.

While the contention has produced a healthy polemicism (it is, after all, the original “battle of the books”) and has formalized a convention of literary history itself manifested in concepts like the canon and the avant-garde, it has led also to distortions. While it has opened the possibility for new modes of reading and writing, it has also created confusion about the very nature of the aesthetic text.

Meanwhile, in critical discussion in general, where theoretical distinctions are often not finely drawn or closely examined, certain elements from each party's attitude may be conjoined in an unselfconscious manner. Thus, a critic may seek initially for sources and influences with the assumption that these provide the credentials for "importance" and the encoding of meaning, and then in direct commentary on the text write as though what really distinguishes a major work is originality, irony, and innovation. Such habits of critical reading can never address such fundamental questions as how to deal with partially conventional ideas and verbal patterns which twist and play upon familiar models without reproducing them; what links exist between convention and genre or convention and literary value; and what, in the end, constitutes a distinctly literary convention.

The mélange of theories and non-theories around the question of the aesthetics of convention has shaped the evaluation of entire genres and periods. For instance, Manly's celebrated essay on “Chaucer and the Rhetoricians” not only determined several generations’ view of the Latin rhetoricians but also did much to set the terms for the appreciation and evaluation of Chaucer’s poetry. The common dismissal of most Middle English romances as poor and derivative work in spite of their demonstrable popularity and cultural significance is only a particularly clear case of the usual treatment accorded oral and popular genres. The prejudice against highly conventional works, though, extends as well to certain highly learned forms such as neo-Latin and Hellenistic poetry.

The taste for convention as a self-justifying value is similarly strangely split between the most vulgar and the most sophisticated. Thus a reader of limericks will insist to the same extent as fanciers of fugues on a predetermined pattern and tone, and the writers of bumper stickers as more constrained than Elizabethan sonneteers in their choice of patterns for their wit.

In the realm of academic scholarship, a commentator may do nothing more than point out analogues, parallels, precedents, and imitations, especially in the more abstruse disciplines such as classics. An unreflecting mixture of attitudes is evident in a fine practical critic such as Peter Dronke when he first dignifies a text with a traditional background in order to obtain it a hearing and then insists on the free and spontaneous play discernible within the apparently highly determined form without sorting out what effects either sort of relation to tradition might have or examining how adherences and departures from audience expectations function and interrelate.
The fact is, of course, that every instance of language and certainly every literary artifact is at once conformist and nonconformist. If an utterance did not conform to prior patterns at all it would be incomprehensible, or — more likely -- it would be interpreted by readers who perceived a pattern of their own invention. The fact that every context
and occasion is different guarantees that there can be no two wholly identical utterances. But this does not eliminate the questions under discussion by putting all verbal texts into a single homogeneous category. Both relatively familiar and relatively unfamiliar language are forms of verbal technology which have been exploited in different ways by their practitioners and consumers. Some of the functions for texts require material closer to one end of the spectrum and some to the other.

To move toward a more precise definition of these mechanisms is the object of this study, but some outlines of the uses of the two extremes are well-known. The concept of verbal economy as used by Lord and Parry could be applied as well to eighteenth century nature poetry, say, though this genre is certainly not oral. (See Alfred Lord, The Singer of Tales, Chapter 4.) Nonetheless, if formulae and repeated phrases reoccur with lesser frequency in James Thomson than in the epic texts, they are considerably more common than in some other genres. Pattern-shattering individualist visions have gained greater currency since the eighteenth century, and today every poet is expected to speak with a unique voice. Even this recent emphasis on self-conscious rebellion, however is rendered problematic as the gestures of surrealism rapidly become clichés, and the new theory which had arisen on the cutting edge of critical thought degenerates or matures into a predictable reflex (the received, “right” reading).

The theory and practice of literature in the European Middle Ages provides particularly useful material for the investigation of the problem of convention. Although the frequently expressed respect for “auctoritas” is consistent with the assumption that medieval literature is predominantly stereotyped and thus most often of little literary value (a claim made with audacious irony by Eco in The Role of the Reader). it has also long been a received idea that modern lyric poetry may be traced back through the dolce stil novisti and the Minnesänger to the troubadours. Medieval vernacular love poetry is surely one of the most highly conventional bodies of texts imaginable with its limited lyrical and melodic repertoire and its frequently recurring dramatic scenarios and sentiments. Even the idea of romantic love which is sometimes described as an invention of the Old Occitanian poets has been amply shown by Lewis and Dronke and others to have world-wide distribution as well as classical and Christian antecedents in the European cultural sphere.

Nevertheless, there is also a strain of radical formal experimentation through its history which attracted Pound to Arnaut and Walther von der Vogelweide and which led Paul Blackburn to translate the Provençal verse into emphatically colloquial and loosely structured American idiom, indeed, the poets themselves often speak of singing “a new song” or of the need to say something never before said and all but inaccessible to language. It is the contention of this study that the conservative and revolutionary elements of early vernacular lyric poetry are not simultaneously present by chance. Rather, each enables the other.

The apparent contradiction is mediated by the peculiar nature of literary intertextuality. The relations between a given poetic line and other lines that resemble it (which may come either before or after it in time) are invariably productive of meaning, resulting in a greater capacity for information in each phrase as the words bear not only their immediate “literal” meaning, but also their meaning in relation to other similar passages. The significance the text would convey in isolation (in practice an impossibility) is compounded and enriched by its connections with other words, sentiments, movements, and eras. Such intertextuality is inevitably present, but it is even more prominent when poets learn from the masters of a previous generation, from canonical texts digested in school, or from a particular model adopted by the young artist.

A strong tradition, then, cannot fail to make the semantic code denser, more conflicted, and ambiguous, more interesting and poetically “true.” It “thickens the plot,” and the verbal play that results is a highly important aspect of poetic practice, often recognized and elucidated in specific passages, but rarely investigated in theory. As well as foregrounding the formal aspects of poetic language (as, in the simplest case, certain locutions will immediately signal the competent audience that a given text is, in fact, poetry), intertextuality allows for the expression of content which would otherwise be inexpressible. Were this not the case, literature would be indistinguishable from non-aesthetic texts in terms of semantic efficiency, and it would be justifiable only as entertainment. The creation of meaning that is not susceptible to prose paraphrase has characteristics of a game, but the object is neither simple mystification nor ornamentation. Rather, it is the only means of formulating specifically literary statements whose unique capabilities justify literature's claim to cognitive utility.

This is, of course, far from an original view. Indeed, if it is substantially correct, it could not be wholly original, any more than the figures of the poets. Concepts very close to those suggested above are prescribed in the major works of the leading literary theoreticians around the time of the first European vernacular love lyrics to have survived. These were the Latin rhetoricians, notably Geoffrey of Vinsauf, Matthew of Vendome, and John of Garland. Though sometimes maligned as authors of recipe-books for hacks, as guides for those whose poetry aspired only to be acceptable, they were, in fact, quite conscious that to genuinely cultivate the tradition it was necessary to prescribe both tradition and innovation. Their techniques for thus increasing the efficiency of the verbal code include the catalogues of tropes and recommended descriptive and narrative practices derived from respected ancient authorities, but, at the same time, they advised using these with changes, tricks, deviations, with the end in view of “rejuvenating” language (though the term is Geoffrey’s, the concept is common to all three). Even in the lists of tropes, which seemed to grow with each compilation and which became truly unwieldy by the Renaissance, even there, where the charge of empty decoration is most close to valid, they were attempting the systematization of poetry's technical toolchest. For the most part, their strategies required words to bear new shades of meaning and old formulae were turned to new uses.

A closer examination of their work will establish the basis for an accurate understanding of the nature of convention in the Middle Ages, an understanding that will elucidate many of the questions commonly debated in critical discussion today. The practice they suggest is fully realized in the work of writers such as William IX and the early Minnesänger. It is no less evident in the medieval practice of prosody, in the use of such tropes as hyperbole, and in such topoi as the Natureingang. A rudimentary scheme of possible variations on the reverdie, for instance, might include these:


Spring is here, and I am in love.
Spring is here, and my love is even grander than nature.
Spring is here, yet I am loveless.
It is winter, yet my love keeps me warm.
It is winter, but I am chilled by lovelessness.


In fact, these formulae are highly simplified. The medieval poems provide all these options and a good many more with subtle elaborations, allusions, and contradictions, and the literary lineage continues through Eliot’s cruel April to the present. Each of those employing a convention do so not to replicate an earlier author, but to add a new layer of meaning to the palimpsest of language and to further refine the representation in words of human consciousness.

The Three Ravens

“The Three Ravens” is one of the most well-known ballads in English tradition. The oldest text was published in 1611 in Melismata, Thomas Ravenscroft’s collection that preserved many otherwise ephemeral songs, where it is included in the “Country Pastimes” section next to a version of “Froggy Went A’Courtin’.” [1] The song is doubtless far older, however, and includes patently non-Christian elements. Its age is not its only mystery. One can only guess to what extent Ravenscroft may have, like Burns and Grimm, altered his informant’s text. The haunting charm the poem elicits in listeners and readers is in part due to a calculated semantic indeterminacy.

There were three rauens sat on a tree,
downe a downe, hay downe, hay downe,
There were three rauens sat on a tree,
with a downe,
There were three rauens sat on a tree,
They were as blacke as they might be.
With a downe, derrie, derrie, derrie, downe, downe.

The one of them said to his mate,
Where shall we our breakfast take?

Downe in yonder greene field,
There lies a Knight slain under his shield,

His hounds they lie downe at his feete,
So well they can their Master keepe,

His Hawkes they flie so eagerly,
There's no fowle dare him come nie

Downe there comes a fallow Doe,
As great with yong as she might goe,

She lift up his bloudy head,
And kist his wounds that were so red,

She got him up upon her backe,
And carried him to earthen lake,

She buried him before the prime,
She was dead her self ere euen-song time.

God send euery gentleman,
Such haukes, such hounds, and such a Leman.


The ravens loom darkly over the opening scene. Though crows and ravens have acquired various associations, they belong most commonly and intimately to the battlefield and to death. The opening words of the Iliad evoke the horror of human suffering through the birds that feed on corpses. The Hindu Shani whose vehicle is a raven is younger brother of Yama, god of death. The birds are a momento mori, reminding all of a common end in dissolution, yet in this song they are unable to eat the flesh of the fallen knight. His hounds and hawks act as protective spirits, guarding his body until it can be safely removed [2] by the principal agent of his salvation, the faithful, pregnant doe. A good deal of discussion has centered on whether the doe, hounds, and hawks are pre-Christian deities, enchanted humans, or simply symbolic representation of a man’s lover and friends or underlings, but the question is immaterial. The poem is a poignant wish-fulfillment which presents ideals of love and devotion, suggesting that these ideals may ameliorate or even – as in Christian readings – transfigure the hard facts of mortality with which the scene opened. The closing lines imply both the desirability of such a victory over death and its uncertainty. Within the brief compass of the aesthetic text, the order of nature, the necessary linkage of death with life, of being eaten with eating, is suspended. The diner’s pleasure and satisfaction require the prey’s fear and horror, but within the poem the reader, in a simple instance of sympathetic magic, can feel, like the knight, exempted from death’s horrors, particularly if the song is done to a fetching melody.

Scott, in his Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, reprints “The Three Ravens” noting as “a singular circumstance, that it should coincide so very nearly” with a song he had collected in his own day called “The Twa Corbies.” He describes it as, not a “copy,” but a “counterpart” of the older song.

The Twa Corbies
As I was walking all alane,
I heard twa corbies making a mane;
The tane unto the t'other say,
“Where sall we gang and dine to-day?”
“In behint yon auld fail dyke,
“I wot there lies a new slain knight;
“And nae body kens that he lies there,
“But his hawk, his hound, and lady fair.
“His hound is to the hunting gane,
“His hawk to fetch the wild-fowl hame,
“His lady's ta'en another mate,
“So we may mak our dinner sweet.
“Ye'll sit on his white hause bane,
“And I'll pike out his bonny blue een:
"Wi' ae lock o' his gowden hair,
“We'll theek our nest when it grows bare.
“Mony a one for him makes mane,
“But nane sall ken whare he is gane:
“O'er his white banes, when they are bare,
“The wind sall blaw for evermair.”

“The Twa Corbies” clearly plays on the expectations created by “The Three Ravens.” The knight’s allies – hound, hawk, and lover – have abandoned his body, allowing access for the birds to enjoy a “dinner sweet.” While his life may be over, they are busy with their own domestic arrangements, and anticipate ornamenting their nest with his blond hair. Whereas the knight in the earlier poem was laid to rest in a reassuring ceremony, this one will lie alone, unknown, the wind whistling through his skeleton.

This cynical, ironic puncturing of the sweet solace delivered in the “Ravens” version suggests an entirely harsh and materialistic world with no saving grace whatsoever. The mention of “hause bane,” a survival in dialect of the Old English banhus, evokes that earlier era’s stern stoicism in facing straight-on the all-but-unendurable facts of life. As Bryhtnoth says in the "Battle of Maldon," “Resolve be the firmer, heart more ardent, and spirit stronger, as our strength fails!” Here it is fortitude and a wry acceptance that redeems the human in the face of the ultimate certainty of defeat.

Such a reversal is, however, by no means the only possible variation spawned by the song. In 1930 in Avery County, North Carolina Mellinger Edward Henry recorded Mary Franklin singing “The Three Black Crows.” [3]

There were three crows sat on a tree, Old Billy McGaw McGee!
There were three crows sat on a tree,
Old Billy McGaw McGee!
There were three crows sat on a tree,
And they were black as crows could be,
And they all flapped their wings and cried,
“Caw! Caw! Caw!”
And they all flapped their wings and cried,
“Caw! Caw! Caw!”
“What shall we have for bread to eat?” Old Billy McGaw McGee!
“On yonders hill there lies a horse.”
Old Billy McGaw McGee!
“We'll perch ourselves on his backbone,
And pick his eyes out one by one;"
And they all clapped their wings and cried,
“Caw! Caw! Caw!”
And they all clapped their wings and cried,
“Caw! Caw! Caw!”

In this song the motif has become burlesque. [4] Though the birds still perch on the bones and pick out the eyes, the knight and his aides are absent. With their repeated caws and their manic wing-flapping, they seem slightly absurd. If the scene is still somewhat macabre, it is in the ridiculous manner of Addams or Gorey, more Bride of Frankenstein than the original. Mockery and laughter and averting the gaze from the more painful eventualities here provide relief from life’s pain. Considered in connection to the two earlier texts, the knight might be thought to be more powerfully present by being unmentioned, as though a human casualty would be too painful an image to evoke. In a sense, the knight’s disappearance is the most potent sign of how disturbing a specter he is. The silly nonsense song may bear the heaviest emotional freight. Is there not something chilling about that final “caw”?

All these songs in their different ways testify to the human yearning for a peace all-but-unattainable in this world. Each with a distinctive tone and theme represents an aesthetic strategy to salve the psychic sores while providing entertainment to beguile the hour. Each employs the same conventional representation of the tragedy of mortality: a knight cut down in his prime, lying exposed and helpless in the first two, and conspicuously missing in the third.







1. “Three Blind Mice” may also owe its survival to its inclusion in this section of Ravenscroft’s book.

2. Similar to, for instance, the torngak of the Greenland Inuit.

3. Later published in Henry’s Folk Songs of the Southern Highlands.

4. Albert B. Friedman in his The Viking Book of Folk Ballads of the English-Speaking World attributes this song to the minstrel stage, but gives no details.

On the Ganges' Shore


With even the most detailed directions, we could never have found our guesthouse on the Ganges’ shore by ourselves. A young worker from the Sita Guesthouse on the Chausadi Ghat where we had booked a room met us on the nearest street large enough to accommodate traffic other than on foot or hoof. (Plenty of motorbikes zoom through the narrow lanes, but they don’t really belong there.) We moved rapidly through one turning after another, passing a variety of little shrines, many Shaivite, with fresh offerings around the lingams. In a short time I gave up trying to set mnemonic markers so I could find my way back and simply followed my guide to the banks of the slow, dark, impassive Ganges.

When we met the proprietor of the Sita, he proudly informed us that his late father had been a distinguished astrologer who boasted among his clients the actress Goldy Hawn. He ran off to fetch a scrapbook with photos confirming this connection to celebrity before showing us to our room. When we pointed out a few small insects in the bedding, he enthusiastically declared, “No problem, no problem at all!” and shouted orders at one of his workers who presently appeared with a spray can of insecticide which he applied liberally enough to create a noxious poisonous cloud. “There! Okay, now, no?” he confidently asked.

Whether wisely or not, we accepted the room. It had a balcony over the river and a side view facing a dormitory for some faction of holy men. We were to see them at all hours doing domestic chores like washing clothes and cooking. It mattered little that our modern sink simply drained onto the floor, thus teaching the hand-washer to lean well forward in an effort to avoid splashing one’s trousers.

Varanasi is without doubt a spiritual center of Hinduism, but I learned that does not necessarily lend to its appeal as a holiday destination. “Why would you go there?” an Indian-American friend had asked, “You go to Varanasi when it’s time to die.” The fact is that the burning ghats where cremations are performed leave most visitors surprised not to be more disturbed. Perhaps even the visiting skeptic is influenced by the general spectacle of religiosity, played out at all hours on every side. The constant crowds of saddhus, devotees bathing in and drinking the murky water, masseurs, yogis, both for hire and self-absorbed, diviners of various stripes (some sheltered in permanent little shaded seats to receive hopeful customers), pilgrims, musicians and chanters, apes and cattle, all create an otherworldly atmosphere in which any manifestation of mortality short of a ravening Kali with a girdle of skulls is likely to seem digestible, even one’s own poor vulnerability. Then there are the touts and beggars. Now and then a haunting flute melody would rise from the path along the river’s side. There was no telling whether the tune arose from an enlightened ascetic who had trekked down from the mountains or a hustler hoping to gather a few coins by selling cheap pipes.

Even apart from the constant scene along the river’s edge, there was no lack of action. The rhesus macaques whom I had previously associated primarily with their beneficent role in the polio research of my childhood leaped from building to building seeking freshly offered edibles at the many shrines or a bit of tasty trash. On the rooftop restaurant of the Sita one worker stood by at all times with a stick to prevent the animals from snatching the dinners from in front of guests. After dark, we heard them thrashing around on our balcony.

The tourist and the devotee alike can experience an epitome of the Ganges’ symbolic potential every evening at the Dasaswamedh Ghat where an elaborate ceremony is held, lasting perhaps an hour and a half, and featuring fire, incense, bells, juggling, chanting, a row of seven simultaneous officiants, and music in various tempos. In this spot Brahma himself is said to have performed the archaic ten horse sacrifice detailed in the Vedas and described in the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. The present-day ceremony, called the Ganga Aarti (Ganges Perfect Love) is a full-blown spectacle. As mendicants and holy men circulate, congregants clap their hands with the music; they pray; at times they raise their hands, fingers wide, and wave, looking like nothing so much as a Pentecostal service. People place votive candles in small boats of folded paper and set them floating in the river, so that, after a time, a veritable flood of luminous desire illuminates the water’s path downstream. Praise of Agni, the god of fire and twin of Indra, opens the first hymn of the Rig Veda. His transformative flames were considered to transmit sacrifices to the divine world, and the use of fire as a route to god flourishes here nightly.

After a time the casual visitor to Varanasi may find the powerful odors of the city -- incense, cremation, excrement, cooking, sharp chemical scents and soft floral ones, charcoal and rot – to be too much, particularly in concert with the incessant cries, shouts, songs, and chants. Our own remedy was to catch a pedicab to Sarnath, on the city’s outskirts, the Deer Park which was the site of Buddha’s first sermon to the five bhikkhus. The pandaemonium of Varanasi vanishes in this airy and quiet area frequented only by monks and pilgrims. The visitor notices, though, that the hovels of the destitute still line the approaches to the temples, monasteries, and colleges, most of which are walled off and set back from the road, surrounded by green lawns and gardens. The fabulous mythology of the Hindu pantheon, the phantasmagoric sights of the holy city, the most potent of sights, sounds, and smells, all can seem in memory a lurid dream, though a dream dreamt only yesterday.