Pendragon Lectures XIV

(XIV)

Overintellectualisation

 It seems that, in poetry terms, being PC means being Politically Correct, & that means liking excessively intellectualised poetry & felling superior about it.

 David Sneddon

So, this is gonna be my last lecture for a while: I did intend doing two years worth, then reduced that to just 18 posts, & now I’m gonna close things up at 14 – at least for a while. We’ve had a good run; I hoped to have introduced two new poetic forms into the English medium – that is the Tamil Kural & my new adaption of the Chaunt Royale; I have unearthed some of the greatest Romantic poetry in a dusty corner of Sir Walter Scott’s long forgotten ouevre; & I have shown how poets have somehow lost their way from the true Parnassian path, replacing meaningful didacticism with a cliquey, post-graduate pomposity that has alienated the common man from the art, as reflected in its ever-dwindling book-sales.

Paul Muldoon
Paul Muldoon

A clear example can be found in an elegy by Irish poet, Paul Muldoon (b.1951, Armargh), called Incantata.

I thought of you tonight, a leanbh, lying there in your long barrow
colder and dumber than a fish by Francisco de Herrera,
as I X-Actoed from a spud the Inca
glyph for a mouth: thought of that first time I saw your pink
spotted torso, distant-near as a nautilus,
when you undid your portfolio, yes indeedy,
and held the print of what looked like a cankered potato
at arm’s length—your arms being longer, it seemed, than Lugh’s.

Even Lugh of the Long (sometimes the Silver) Arm
would have wanted some distance between himself and the army-worms
that so clouded the sky over St Cloud you’d have to seal
the doors and windows and steel
yourself against their nightmarish déjeuner sur l’herbe:
try as you might to run a foil
across their tracks, it was to no avail;
the army-worms shinnied down the stove-pipe on an army-worm rope.

It goes on  – & on – & on – like that for ages & ages & ages. A confusing morass of mimesis that I bet Mr Muldoon doesn’t understand himself. Maybe I’m just to dumb to get it, but poetry should really about the people it speaks to, & especially the language in which the communication takes place – for me, the driving force behind poetry is the living entity that is the language in which it is communicated. If no-one understands it, then what is the point. I must admit, at times in the creation of my epic voice for Axis & Allies, I too have been guilty of over-intellectualisation – but the epic is a different beast than an elegy, & how can we mourn somebody we do not know if we are prevented from making an emotional connection to their spirit through sound & clear imagery.

 

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The next poem is also by an Irish writer of the same era, Paul Duncan (b.1944, Dublin). I’m going to give in full;

I am hiding from my father
On the roof of Joyce’s Tower
In Sandycove.
He is downstairs in the gloom
Of the Joyce Musuem
Exchanging euphemisms with the curator,
The poet Michael Hartnett,
Meteorological euphemisms
Wet & cold for June.

I am standing at the battlements.
I am eighteen years old.
The battle is whether or not
He will buy a copy of Ulysses.
It is a battle about money
But it is a battle alos about morality
Or ‘morals’ as it is called.
It began this morning at the breakfast tabnle
When I asked him for twenty-one shillings
To buy a copy of Ulysses.
He refused on the grounds that on top
Of it being an outrageous sum of money
Which a poorly paid judge could ill afford
It was a notoriously immoral book.
Even the most liberal-minded Jesuits
Had condemned Ulysses
As being blasphemous as well as pornographic.

My mother jumped around form the kitchen sink:
‘Give him the money for the wretched book
And let the pair of you stop this nonsense
For pity’s sake.
Will we ever see peace & sense in this house?’
My father stomred out of the kitchen,
The Irish Independent under his arm:
‘I’ll not be party to subsidising that blackgaurd
Bringing works of blasphemy into this house.
In the year of Our Lord nineteen hundred & sicty-three
I will not be an accessory to blasphemy.’

I caught the 46A bus out to Joyce’s Tower
Newly opened as a museum.
The curator offered to share with me
A carafe of vodka left over
From a literary soiree of the night before.
It was the day after Bloomsday.
Monday, 17 June 1963.
We sat in a compatible silence,
Contemplatively, affably,
Until upheaval of gravel
Eradicated reverie.
I rushed to the door & glimpsed
My father at the foot of the iron steps.
I climbed up to the roof, hoping to hide
From him up there in the marine fog,
Foghorns bleating in the bay.

I hear footsteps behind me, I know it is he.
He declares: ‘I suppose we will have to but that book.
What did you say the name of it is?’
I tell him that the name of it is Ulysses.
I follow him down the staircase & he submits:
Mr Hartness, I understand
You stock copies of a book entitled Ulysses.
I would like to purchase one copy of same.’
‘Certainly, Your Lordship, certainly,’
Replies the ever-courteous, Chinese-eyed curator.
When from his wingbacked chair behind his desk
He takes from a drawer
A copy of the jade-jacketed Ulysses,
The Bodley Head edition,
My father asks him if he would have brown paper
With which to wrap the green, satanic novel,
Make a parcel out of it.
The curator peers into a wastepaper basket
‘Made by the Blind’,
As if peering down into a bottomless lift shaft,
Casts a funicular, questing second glance at my father
Before fishing out crumpled bags of brown paper
Which the night before had ferried bottles of vodka.
He lays them out on the desk top
And smoothes them, taking pains
To be obsequiously
Extra punctilious, extra fastidious.
Formally, he hands it over to my father,
As if delivering to some abstract & intractable potentate
A peace gift of a pair of old shoes.
My father pronounces: ‘Thank you, Mr Hartnett.’
The curator, at his most extravangantly unctuous, replies:
‘Very glad to be able to oblige you, Your Lordship.’

My father departed Joyce’s Tower with the book.
The next day when I asked my mother if she’d seen it
She said it was in their bedroom beside my father;’ sbed.
Her bed was beside the window & his bed
Was between her bed & the wall.
There it was, on his bedside table
Ulysses,
With a bookmarker in it – a fruitgum wrapper –
At the close of the opening episode.
When a few weeks later
I got to reading Ulysses myself
I found it as strange to my father
And as discordant.
It was not until four years later
When a musical friend
Gave me my lessons
That Ulysses began to sing for me
And I began to sing for my father:
Daddy, Daddy
My little man, I adore you.

There’s no accounting for taste, but for me that is one hell of a beautiful poem. There’s even a wee-spot of overintellectualisation going on, as in the big-worded;

As if peering down into a bottomless lift shaft,
Casts a funicular, questing second glance at my father
Before fishing out crumpled bags of brown paper
Which the night before had ferried bottles of vodka.
He lays them out on the desk top
And smoothes them, taking pains
To be obsequiously
Extra punctilious, extra fastidious.

But it doesn’t matter, as the rest of the poem has a beautiful eerie sublimity, that quality so perfectly understood by the first century AD writer Longinus. Here are a few extracts from his great work, ‘On the Sublime,’  as important as any other classical  text on the poetic art.

 Sublimity is an echo of a noble mind… a kind of eminence or excellence of discourse. It is the source of distinction of the very greatests poets & prose writers & the means by which they have given eternal life to their own fame. For grandeur produces ecstasy rather than persuasion in the hearer; & the combination of wonder & astonishment alweqays proves superior rto the merely persuasive & pleasant. This is becasue persuasion is on the whole something we can control, whereas amazement & wonder exert invincible power & force & get the better of heevery hearer… 

All such lapse in dignity arise in literature through a single cause: that desire for novelty of thought which is all the rage today… nothing is so damaging to a sublime effect as effeminate & agitated rhythm, phyrrics , trochees & dichorei: they turn into a regular jig. All the rhythmical elements immediately appear artificial & cheap. Being constantly repeated in monotonious fashion without the slightest motional effect. 

Phrases too closely knit are also devoid of grandeur, as are those which are chopped into short elements consisting of short syllables, bolted together, as it were, & rough at the joins

Zacharias Pearce's Longinus
Zacharias Pearce’s Longinus

Excessively cramped expression also does damage to sublimity. It cripples grandeur to compress it into too short a space. I do not mean proper compression, but cutting up into tiny pieces. Cramping mutilates sense; brevity gives directness. Conversly with fully rextended expressions; anything developed at unseasonable length falls dead

To these scathing comments against poetry  of the unsublime, we can see how the infectiousness of overintellectualisation has spread thoughout the poetical aether in Shelley’s;

There must be a resemblance, which does not depend on their own will between all the writers of any particular age. They cannot escape from subjection to a common influence which arises out of an infinite combination of circumstances belonging to the times in which they live; although each is in a degree the author of the very influence by which his being is thus pervaded. (from the Preface to the Revolt of Islam)

All Im trying to say is that a poet should be striving for sublimity – to say what they have to say with a simplicity & beauty not found in high-minded, cleverly rampant wordplay where no-one has a clue whats going on. So with that, I shall close my lectures (for now) – for I have some composition to do in the far north of Scotland.

Pendragon Lectures XIII

(XIII)

The Tryptych

I should not think of devoting less than 20 years to an Epic Poem. Ten to collect materials and warm my mind with universal science. I would be a tolerable Mathematician, I would thoroughly know Mechanics, Hydrostatics, Optics, and Astronomy, Botany, Metallurgy, Fossilism, Chemistry, Geology, Anatomy, Medicine—then the mind of man—then the minds of men—in all Travels, Voyages and Histories. So I would spend ten years—the next five to the composition of the poem—and the five last to the correction of it. So I would write haply not unhearing of the divine and rightly-whispering Voice, which speaks to mighty minds of predestinated Garlands, starry and unwithering.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

portrait

Between 1999 & 2011 I would say I was active in the creation of an epic poem, entitled Axis & Allies – the latest version of which YOU CAN READ HERE.  The poem began, I would say, in the summer of ’99, when I started work on a poem called Testamundi Imperatrix. I kinda published it myself through the Duke of Edinburgh Awards scheme down Brighton (I was 23), but by the time I’d finished it I was already ready to try something more ambitious.

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The Imperatrix was both a salute to the coming Millennium & a celebration of Britain’s lost empire – Hong Kong had only been handed back to China a couple of years before I composed the ode. It’s form was the same as that used by Keats in his magnificent series of odes of 1819.  He had developed his new 10 line stanza out of the English & Italian sonnet forms, stating in a letter to his brother;

I have been endeavouring to discover a better Sonnet stanza than we have. The legitimate does not suit the language well, from the pouncing rhymes; the other appears too elegiac, and the couplet at the end of it has seldom a pleasing effect. I do not pretend to have succeeded. It will explain itself.

Here is one of Keats’ stanzas from his Ode to a Nightingale.

O, for a draught of vintage! that hath been
         Cool’d a long age in the deep-delved earth,
Tasting of Flora and the country green,
         Dance, and Provençal song, and sunburnt mirth!
O for a beaker full of the warm South,
         Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene,
                With beaded bubbles winking at the brim,
                        And purple-stained mouth;
         That I might drink, and leave the world unseen,
                And with thee fade away into the forest dim:

Like Keats, on completing the Imperatrix, I was enthused to develop a stanza of my own, something more flexible with which to handle the narrative three-part set pieces I was developing in the Imperatrix, as in;

Bede

Twin bearded stars circle a purple sun,
For he who transcended life’s tribalhood,
The first very ven’rable Englishman,
Lies down in his death bed, coughing up blood.

This proud patriot, tho’ pale & sickly,
Who gather’d up the knowledge of the West,
Still fires the flame of learning in his eyes.

“Take up thy pen & ink & write quickly,”
He dictates the last sacred scriptures blest,
Pleads grace & mercy, signs the cross & dies.

Jarrow
729

At some point in October 1999, I decided to write a poem solely on the battle of Waterloo – which celebrates its 200th anniversary this year by the way, & something I have recently began to add to once again. Back in ’99, after sketching with a few ideas for the Tryptych’s infrastructure, I ended up composing the following poem – the first of about 1500 that would be created over the next 12 years as I composed A&A.

Once…Romance, regent ruler of an age,
Dwelt deep in the beatings of great men’s hearts
And conjured the captain that helped to cage
The grand thief of Europe…My tayles lay starts;
He halts his ride
At the edge of tall trees,
Surveys a countryside of swaying yellow seas.

With knowing eyes he scann’d the scene,
“I have seen its like before,”
Then spurr’d his mount past Mont Saint-Jean
To pause upon the contour,
Thereby thro’ blue sky flew, serene,
A Dove from a lovely shore,
On which Wellington, warlord of dead men,
Says, “Swiftly, De Lancey, pass me my pen!”

Unto the Dove the Duke did call
While scribbling down one word…
White wings in fall, how soon the scroll
Tied gently to that bird,
Which flutter’d up to lofty heights where nothing mortal stirr’d.

The Ridge of Mont Saint Jean
1814

From this innocuous peace-time ride across the fields to the south of Brussels,  my Calliopian muse would whisk me through the entire history of warfare, focusing mostly on the Second World war & its aftermath, & ending with the assassination of Osama Bin Laden, whose presence in the public eye coincided with my composition of A&A. A survey of my epic is not the theme of this lecture, however, but instead I am going to elucidate the mechanics behind my invention of the Tryptych, so future ‘form-designers’ can get a feel of the necessary thought-processes.

CologneMED

A Tryptych is a medieval three-part painting, which tells a story of sorts, usually related to Jesus. The three part nature of my Imeratrix stanzas reminded me of this, & also set the standard – I needed to create three ‘staves’ with which to construct my Tryptych.

Head

To begin my Tryptych, I thought there was no better stanza than the heroic quatrian used by Dryden in his Annus Mirabilis poem of 1666;

In thriving Arts long time had Holland grown,
Crouching at home, and cruel when abroad:
Scarce leaving us the means to claim our own;
Our King they courted, and our Merchants aw’d.

These four lines are capable of setting the scene, to which I completed the Stave with a device used by the odes, especially in Wordsworth’s ‘Intimations of Immortality.

There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Apparell’d in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.
It is not now as it hath been of yore;—
Turn wheresoe’er I may,
By night or day,
The things which I have seen I now can see no more

The last three-lines struck me as especially resonant – in particular the closing alexandrine – & after inverting them I found I had a stave both lovely-sounding & aesthetically pleasing. Notice the internal rhymes in the second part of the stave (eye/by).

What is it all for, love & peace & war,
When both the wide way’d Earth & man’s action
Remain as constant as the Northern star?’
Mused three old madonnas down the station;
Their wise old eye
Translates the censor’d news,
Watching the trains pass by pack’d with Sicily’s Jews

Body

In 1999 I was heavily into the Romantic poets, & for my Tryptych’s middle section, I thought the 8-lined Ottava Rima would be perfect, as introduced into the English language by Byron in his epic, Don Juan. A typical Byronic stanza reads;

Her sweet smile, and her then majestic figure,-
Her plumpness, her imperial condescension,
Her preference of a boy to men much bigger
(Fellows whom Messalina’s self would pension),
Her prime of life, just now in juicy vigour.
With other extras^ which we need not mention, —
All these, or any one of these, explain
Enough to make a stripling very vain.

My own version shortened the lengths of the first six lines – reducing them from iambic pentameter’s ten syllables to an 8/7/8/7/8/6 sequence. The sixth line originally had seven syllables, but I found by reducing it to six, its shortening closure set up the final couplet’s pentameter nicely, as in;

He rode his luck to Switzerland,
Compassment the Northern Star,
At Geneva he shook the hand
Of a man named Jean-Francois,
They drove thro checkpoints seldom mann’d
To Perpignan, by car,
Where with a gourd of wine, & quart of cheese,
Young Miguel guides him cross the Pyrenees.

books-low_0

Tail

For the final stave, I thought the primal British ballad stanza would be perfect, followed by a thundering ‘fourteener’ which would both aesthetically support the whole Tryptych, & close off the scene with a fighting flourish. Of this metre C.S Lewis writes;

The medial break in the alexandrine, though it may do well enough in French, becomes intolerable in a language with such a tyrannous stress-accent as ours: the line struts. The fourteener has a much pleasanter movement, but a totally different one: the line dances a jig.

Our Jack is missing, presumed dead!”
The whole street ‘eard ‘er shout,
Base fears that fed on common dread,
Calamity & doubt
Rudely releas’d into the world while scrikin’ ‘er eyes out.

Aesthetically, the Tryptych offers an overall effect as something like a candlestick. It is also reminiscent of an insect, which has a head, body (thorax) & tail (abdomen). Whether I will be the only poet to use the form only time will tell – but for the composition of a lengthy epic I found it perfectly suitable, with its changes in tempo & mood allowing a complete exploration of each historical scene chosen for my materielle.

Pendragon Lectures XII

(XII)
Transcreating Thirukural

Banyan & Margosa are good for teeth
Nalatiyar & Thirukkural are good for tongue
Tamil Proverb

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 As I showed in my last lecture, one of the most interesting avenues a poet may scribble along is the process of recreating creation – transcreation – that is to say the arduous rewording of the great works of ancient masters. This method was the core of the 16th century Renaissance – the new birth – where the lore-caskets of Arabian, Greek & Latin wisdom were studied, assimilated & regurgitated by European writers. A century later came the Georgian translations of Homer’s epics, & more recently Seamus Heaney’s transcreation Beowulf. It is in a similar capacity that I have been engaged on a new version of the Kural of Thiruvalluvar, or as it is more commonly known, Thirukkural. This 2000-year-old treatise on the art of living is ranked as the first book of the Tamils – that ancient, heroic, dark-skinned race that dwells in both Tamil Nadu & Sri Lanka. As I.A. Richards noted, ‘great cultures start in poetry,’ & it is with the Tamils that this is particularly notable. Their literature is held in the national esteem far greater than any other land upon the globe, the writers of which are elevated to the level of saints. Foremost among them is Thiruvalluvar, the creator of the Thirukkural, a timeless text that, as the giant of Tamil studies GU Pope observed; ‘Outweighs the whole of remaining Tamil literature, & is one of the select number of great works, which have entered into the very soul of a whole people & which can never die.’

 

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The thing is, despite its universal brilliance, hardly anyone outside of Tamil Nadu knows about this book. For me, it was the quite unwieldy, clumberous translations into English that formed the problem – dense & wordy phrases that lose the beauty & immediacy of the original. As a poet, & the poet who rediscovered the poem in the post-imperial world, it was a challenge worth rising too. Over the past few decades we have slowly become obsessed with books on self improvement written by an assorted collection of lifestyle gurus. I believe the Kural to be the ultimate self-help book, a treatise on the unchanging realities of human existence, tracing through its pages the outline of an ideal life.

As we stride through the twentieth century, a new culture awaits mankind – that of a unified ‘global village,’ needing its own ‘international literature,’ & the non-sectarian, anti-nationalistic Thirukkural fits the bill astonishingly well. To the Tamils, the Thirukkural is a divine book, but not in the sense of the Koran or Bible, which offer an obstinate outlook on the religious experience. Over the centuries it has been observed that people are more willing to die for their scriptures than to live by them, but the Thirukkural is simply a book to live by, a code of moral conduct to which all creeds, castes & colors can connect, whose lofty idealism has been acclaimed by all the religions of the world. In the words of EV Daniel, “The Holy Kural may well be the meeting ground, the common ground, of all religions.”

Chapter 4 Verse 3

ஒல்லும் வகையான அறவினை ஓவாதே
செல்லும்வாய் எல்லாஞ் செயல்

In every way possible
Practice virtue incessantly

What are the Kural? In Tamil, the word Kural means ‘dwarfish,’ & has been applied to the shortest measure in Tamil poetry – the Kural Venba. This is a couplet of only seven words – four in the first line & three in the second. This curtness insists on an epigrammatic nature of composition, such as the English proverb ‘A stitch in time, saves nine.’ The kural are inherently simple, yet extremely subtle, being very similar to the Japanese Haiku, where ideas & sensations are expressed with a modicum of words. Yet in the hands of Valluvar, through the act of ellipsis, he condenses his world-view into phenomenal couplets that have become became sharpened knives with which to unstitch the fabric of mortal existence & expose it to the world. Or as Archbishop Trench remarked;

 He abounds in short and memorable, and, if I might so call them, epigrammatic sayings, concentrating with a forceful brevity the whole truth which he desires to impart into some single phrase.

What he has achieved is no less than a blueprint for life. & these neat, ordered rows of kural have stamped an order on the chaos of human existence. Or as Reverend P Percival once wrote, “Nothing in the whole compass of human language can equal the force and terseness of the couplets in which the author of the Kural conveys the lessons of wisdom.”

At the feet of Thiruvalluvar - Kanyakumari
At the feet of Thiruvalluvar – Kanyakumari

The legend says that Valluvar submitted his palm-leaf manuscript of his Kural to the 49 Pandits of the second Sangam, the high-browed judges of the Tamil literary establishment, c.100 BC. He found them sat on a raft that floated on the serene waters of the Golden Lily tank, the fabulous centre-piece of the great Meenakshi Sundareswarar temple of Madurai. At first the Pandits initially scoffed at the sage, throwing scorn on the work of an unlearned man from the lower castes. Valluvar remained unphased by their mockery, & simply placed the manuscript on the raft according to the set custom. Much to the Pandit’s astonishment, the raft immediately shrank, ducking these conceited men into the water, & leaving just enough room on the boards for the manuscript. Once on dry land, the sodden scholars recognized through this miracle that the Kural were indeed divine, an opinion that has not changed a single iota for two millennia.

Once the Kural had been accepted by the Pandits of Madurai, its influence penetrated every facet of Tamil society. The common Tamils took this rare blend of vibrant mysticism & pragmatic realism to their hearts, concerning as it does the everyday matters which affected their lives. The Kural was quoted in many early Tamil works, such as the Puranauru & the Manimekalai. It also influenced Kambar’s excellent 13th century Tamil version of the Ramayana, where Rama & his wife Seeta were fully imbued with the moral guidance of Valluvar. Then, in 1272, the poet Parimelazhagar arranged the 1330 kural into the order which the modern world now knows them. They were placed into chapters of ten kural each, which were again divided into 3 sections – the Muppaal – of Virtue, Wealth & Love. The theory is that if these are fully adhered to, then the fourth muppaal – Moksha (salvation) – shall be achieved.

Constantine Beschi
Constantine Beschi

The Kural were first brought to the attention of Europe by a series of missionaries entering Tamil Nadu via Madras (British), Pondicherry (France) & Tranquebar (Danish). The very first translation was in Latin & made by an Italian priest, Father Constantius Beschi, in the early eighteenth century. The next translator was the German AF Cammera, whose work was published in Leipzig in 1803. Then came the French Savant, M Ariel, who released his translation in 1848. It was he who proclaimed the Kural as “One of the highest & purest expressions of human thought.” These men were the pioneers, whose efforts helped to fan the flames of interest in this ancient text, which ever since has burnt fiercer & fiercer. Their efforts in translating Tamil can be compared to the discovery of the Rosetta stone, but instead of using that hieroglyphic key to open the doors of ancient Egypt, they have instead unlocked the wonders of the human soul.

Once the world became aware of these compact distiches of quintessential wisdom, the Kural have been translated into over 6o languages across the world, including 13 other Indian languages. The first English translation was in 1853, by the Reverend Drew, whose work would inspire GU Pope, a gargantuan figure of Kural lore. History now sees George Uglow Pope as the great standard bearer of Tamil, that ‘noble language’ as called it, immersing & devoting his entire life to its study & translation. His first lesson in the language occurred when he was an eighteen-year-old lad in England. Later that year he arrived in Madras & upon first hearing the true beauty of Tamil on the lips of a humble fisherman, he became determined to learn all about the language & to be able to speak it as fluently as a native. He set about meeting the greatest Tamil scholars of the day, & had soon unleashed his genius upon its life-long mission.  By 1840 he was staying at Mylapore, about which he would later write, “While visiting the villages around here, that enthusiasm for the great Tamil poet was first kindled which has been an important factor in my life.”

Within a short time of my learning Tamil, I commenced translating Thirukkural, for the benefit of Europeans,” he said, & after almost fifty years, on September 1st, 1886, he would complete his noble task, which by now he had declared the ‘masterpiece of human thought.’ By February 1893 he would also add an excellent, poetic translation of the Naltiyar to his many achievements in Tamil, which included an unfinished, yet massively comprehensive dictionary of Tamil. For his erudite efforts he was given the honorary degrees by Oxford and Lambeth, & was awarded the much coveted Gold Medal of the Royal Asiatic Society in 1906. After a ‘long and useful’ life of 88 years, he died in 1908, when one of his last requests was to have his tomb decorated with the words, ‘A student of Tamil.’

George Uglow Pope
George Uglow Pope

My own journey into Thirukkural began in February 2002. Two years previously, to celebrate the millennium, the Tamils had erected a giant statue of Thiruvalluvar off the coast of Kannayakamari, India’s most southern point. It was this glorious statue which I first noticed as I arrived at that confluence of the three seas, where the Bay of Bengal, Arabian Sea & Indian Ocean fling their waves at the rocky shore from three different directions. The monument is 133 feet high, representing the 133 chapters of the Kural. The pedestal on which the statue stands is 38 ft high, representing the 38 chapters in the Virtue section of the text. The remaining 95 feet of the statue itself represent the total number of chapters in the second and third parts of the Kural – Wealth & Love. The three parts are also echoed by the statue’s right hand, which has three fingers pointing to the heavens. As I gazed upon the statue, all these nuances the time were unknown to me. Kannayakamari had seen my first steps into Tamil Nadu, & all I had gleaned from this visit was that the man who towered before me was the ‘Holy Poet of Tamil Nadu.’
A few days later I found myself in the great city of Madurai, & it was here that I was first flung into the world of the Kural. In the lanes close to the great temple that forms the cities heart, I came across one of the Manivasagar Pathippagm bookshops that are scattered across Tamil Nadu. These are both publisher & bookseller &one of their publications caught me eye. It was a small red book with the famous image of Thiruvalluvar sitting cross legged in flowing white robes, a pen in his right hand & a scroll in his left. I immediately bought it & rushed back to my hotel. There, as I reclined under a fan to avoid the heat, I plunged into the Kural, a moment that will stay with me forever. I was immediately touched by its beauty & simplicity, & though my young western mind found some of the maxims a little difficult, I felt there & then an affinity for them. The copy I had was the famous co-translation by Reverend Drew & John Lazurus & on that very first evening I transformed two or three of them back into the Kural form. It was a small step on a journey that would take many years, but as I made it I knew that one day I would like to translate the every kural.

Book Market Madurai
Book Market Madurai

On my return from India in April 2002 I tucked my copy of the Kural away in my bookshelf & let it gather dust while I pursued other projects. For the next six years it would intermittently be looked at, at one point forming the bedrock of my own work in the Kural form, the results of which can be seen in the Humanology section of this book. All through these years the dedication I had made to translate the Kural niggled away at the back of mind. At the same time my literary abilities were strengthening, waiting for the right moment, some catalyst to trigger off the resolution of my promise. This came in September 2008, when I was visited by a friend. She had brought along with her a young Tamil, & conversation soon turned to the subject of the Kural. The fact that a non-Tamil could enjoy his native literature quite amazed him, & during the course of our evening together I resolved to once & for all translate the book for my peers.

Two months later I flew to Mumbai & traveled overland to Tamil Nadu. My first port of call was Thiruvannamalai, a bustling town nestled beneath the holy red mountain of Aranachala. It was here that the 20th century Sri Ramana Maharishi had spent most of his life in deep contemplation. A famous Ashram had slowly developed about his mediations, which still thrives to this day, many decades after his death. One part of the ashram houses a library, & it was to its silent desks that I found myself drawn. To my delight there were many books on the Kural, which I plunged within in order to create as exact & enjoyable a rendition of the Kural as possible. While I sat at the long desks there, keeping cool beneath a spinning fan, several hefty tomes spread out before me, I was helped many times by the librarian, Ramesh Babu, who would assist me with the awkward points of classical Tamil.

Tiruvannamalai_Arunachaleswara_temple

I then took to the road, absorbing the Tamil culture & appreciation of the Kural from conversation to conversation. I felt it would enhance my own version if I was to compose along the same roads that Thiruvalluvar himself once trod. From Thiruvannamalai I passed to the famous beach at Mamallapuram, where under the statue of Thiruvalluvar I reached the half-way point in my translation. Next port of call was chaotic Chidambaram & its famous Annamalai library at the university there. Unfortunately the recent terrorist massacres at Mumbai prevented me from using the facilities. Instead I found a municipal library in the town which was quite adequate. My further travels would take me through the watery wonders of the Karveri Delta, the whitewashed former Danish colony at Tranquebar, the multi-templed town of Kumbakonam, the fabulous fortresses of Thanjavur & Trichy, before I found myself on an overnight train heading to Rameshwaram, arriving there early on Christmas Eve. By this point I had almost completed my task & was hoping to finish the Kural over the festive season. However, every hotel on the island was full, & I rather felt like Joseph & Mary as they trawled the inns of Bethlehem looking for somewhere to sleep. This same scene was repeated even 50 miles away in Ramanathapuram, which was full of Gujuratis who would take a fleet of buses down to Rameshwaram to join in the festivities. Eventually, late on Christmas Eve, I arrived in Madurai where I was very much relieved to find a hotel with vacancies.

As I awoke on Christmas Day I was taken aback by the fact that I was to finish my version of the Kural in the same city in which I had first delved into its pages. To do this I found a small, empty shrine in the Meenakshi Sundareswarar temple & went to work to the babble of human voices & jazz-like strains of an Indian trumpet. Six 2-foot tall black statues of gods, each sporting a ‘skirt’ & a garland of yellow flowers, sat watching me as I scribbled frantically. They were joined by a giant wall-painting of the green-skinned Siva & potraits of famous Tamil saints. It was a lovely moment to finally lay my pen to rest in such a place, & as I stepped outside into skintingling sunshine the fact I had just finished the divine Tamil text, in one of the holiest Hindu temples, on the most sacred day in Christendom, was not lost on me at all. In my elation I found the same bookshop where I had originally bought the Thirukkural, & there babbled out my story, on the conclusion of which the bookseller brought out another book. It was the Nalatiyar.

Nalatiyar-The-Naladiyar-Or-Four-Hundred-Quatrains-in-Tamil-Pope-G-U-9788120600232

Up until this point I had known nothing about its existence, but a brief glance at its introductory proverb, which proclaimed it as an equal to Thirukkural, immediately piqued my interest. The timing was also exceptional. Only a few minutes previously I had completed the Kural, & now its sister text was in my hands! I felt the same sensation springing up as I had had on first looking into the Kural, & resolved once more to translate an ancient Tamil text into English. This I commenced as I continued my tour of Tamil Nadu, which passed through salubrious Kodaikkanal, the plains Palani & Mancunian Coimbatore, before reaching the gorgeous tea plantations of the Niligris Hills. It was there, in the remarkable town of Coonoor,  that I spent a lovely two weeks, editing the Kural & translating the Naltiyar. Coonoor was to be my last place of residence in Tamil Nadu & I left that wonderful Indian state in January 2009. With me in my luggage was the same red copy of the Kural I had brought seven years previously. But alongside it now was my own completed version, complemented with a rendition of the Nalatiyar!

Thirukkural is a wonderful book, but to an English speaker it might as well be written in Gaelic. Despite being among the most widely translated texts in the world, outside of Tamil Nadu it is one of the least read. Even the vast majority of the multi-lingual Indians cannot read a word of it. On top of this, to the English-speaking mind, the translations of the Kural we possess are often too wieldy or fanciful to absorb. The most widely known & respected translations in English are the poetical couplets of GU Pope, & the transliterations of Reverend Drew & John Lazurus. I offer their renditions of Kural 36-9 as an example.

The True ‘support’ who knows – rejects ‘supports’ he sought before 
Sorrow that clings all destroys, shall cling to him no more (GU Pope)

He, who so lives as to know Him who is the support of all things & abandons all desire, will be freed from the evils which would otherwise cleave to him & destroy (his efforts after absorption) (Drew & Lazurus)

Similarly, a modern rendition by a native Tamil, Kalaimamani Kalladan, reads; The mind’s nature is to cling to every thing; but that should realize the true thing & cling to it; & that should abandon all desires. If done so, any suffering destined to inflict a person, shall not occur

My own rendition of this particular kural, forced as I was into only seven words, goes as follows;

By choosing true virtue
Bruising ruin debarred

Perhaps it has lost a little in the translation, but the essential essence remains. It has been my intention to create something new from the wellsprings of each kural – not just a vague paraphrase, but a simple maxim for the modern human mind. In order to convey the Valluvar’s magnificent message I felt each kural needed to be immediately understood. One of the chief beauties of the original is the compactness of an individual kural, or as PS Sundram observed, “Its soul is brevity, & with it least is most.”

Thiruvaluvar
Thiruvaluvar

The saint’s succinct & subtle style, operating in such a short space, uses many poetic techniques; from rhyme & repetition, to intricate word-play & clever puns to expose the very heart of his philosophies.  I have attempted to emulate these as best as possible, rendering a version that is as close to the original as possible. This has been helped by the English language, that most flexible & comprehensive of all the modern tongues. At the moment in the world there are 400 million native English speakers – second only to the mandarin of the insular Chinese. However, when you add the billion Indians unified by the English tongue, plus the fact that English is the one true lingua franca of commerce & culture, then it is only right that the ‘global gospel’ of Valluvar should be funneled through the English language into the world at large. As MS Venkatchalam wrote;

It is our bounden duty to make the world realize the richness of Kural & that can be done, only by rendering it into English & thus making it reach all the nook & corners of the world.

Despite Tamil being a beautifully sonorous language, it is extremely complex – a single word may need two pages of explanation. However, one of the traditional strengths of the English language is that by flexing its inherent linguistic muscles it has always been able to adopt foreign lexicon, syntax & grammar, & be strengthened by them in the process. The subtle nuances & inflections of the English language have made it possible to translate the complexities of Tamil – for our words may also be variously expressed, & when placed in combination offer multitudinous shades of meaning. In addition, as a fluent speaker of English I had the relative freedom of Tamil Nadu, where English is widely spoken in the wake of the imperial Raj. I was able to both converse with educated Tamils on the nature of the Kural & form travel arrangements between the widely scattered libraries. In these dusty halls of academe, stuffed with books in both Tamil & English, I discovered many good translations of the Kural which helped me in my task. These include those of PS Sundaram, VR Ramachandra Dikshitar, FW Ellis, VVS Aiyer, Suddhananda Bharati & Kasthuri Srinivasan.

My journey through the kural was the most greatest of pleasures to undertake. For any future poet, during your period of training it is almost a necessity to travel foreign lands Indiana-Jones-stylee in search of obscure yet beautiful poetical texts, in order to enrich your own poetic spirit & through a proper transcreation, the spirit of your native land.

 YOU CAN READ THE FULL TRANSCREATION OF THE THIRRUKURAL & NALATIYAR HERE

Pendragon Lectures (XI)

(XI)

Transcreating  Y Gododdin

Who do you think I have at my elbow, as happy as ever Alexander thought himself after a conquest? No less a man than Ieuan Fardd who hath discovered some old MSS. Lately that nobody of this age or the last ever dreamed of. And this discovery is to him & me as great as that of America by Colombus. We have found an epic poem in the British called Gododin, equal at least to the Iliad, Aeneid or Paradise Lost. Tudfwlch & Marchlew are heroes fiercer than Achilles or Satan

Lewis Morris (1758)

 

The Book of Aneirin
The Book of Aneirin

The transcreation is an important part of any poetical training, when for a briefish period of time a poet enters the very spirit of one of the past masters. The essence of a transcreation is the breaking down of an old text into its composite parts & rebuilding it again in the hope of making something different, something modern, something new. During my own training I have attempted two transcreations; the Kural of Thiruvalluvar & the Gododdin of Aneirin, & it is the latter of these that we shall be looking at in this lecture.

The Gododdin of Aneirin is the first great poem produced in these islands – or at least the first one that survived the ravages of time. It tells the story of a seminal British battle – Catraeth – fought in the year 598 AD, with the Gododdin being a contingent  of warriors from the Lothian region about Edinburgh. Their gruesome fate was discovered in the pages of a single 13th century manuscript, containing poetry penned by the bard Aneirin, an actual eye-witness to the battle. In the poem he tells us that he had marched to Catreath with the British army, & was one of only four survivors of the slaughter. He further describes how he endured captivity at the hands of his enemies, before his ransom was paid by Ceneu, the son of the poet-king, Llywarch Hen.

North_Britain_547-685

Y Gododdin, as it is known in its original language, was – & still is – considered by the Welsh bards as the supreme poem of their species.  It contains many parallels with the other surviving poetic masterpiece of British antiquity, Beowulf :as this poem is the pedigree literary representative of the early English, so Y Gododdin is the clear hallmark of the early Welsh. It is clear that Aneirin’s command of his language could only have come from the Bardic school & its years of intensive training, endless compositive exercises & the memorizing of the vast canon of Welsh poems. But Aneirin must stood out as a special talent, whose masterpiece tells us in the most beautiful fashion of a great meeting of the Kymric nobility, when;

From Eidyn’s fort no force like this e’er flow’d (III-V)

Edinburgh, or Dun Eidyn as the poem names it, was the seat of the Gododdin, a later evolution of the Brythonic tribe the Romans named the Votadini. Their realm sat on both shores of the Firth of Forth, with its southern regions corresponding roughly to the three Lothian counties of modern times. During the Roman era, the capital of the Votadini tribe sat on the summit of Traprain Law, near Haddington in East Lothian. Come the late sixth century, the tribe had moved its main base to the grand volcanic & precipitous crag on which Edinburgh Castle sits today. The lands which the Gododdin controlled lay on the north-eastern limits of a Brythonic world that stretched westwards to the Kingdom of Strathclyde, then turned south through modern-day Lancashire & carried on through Wales & on to Cornwall. The eastern parts of Britain had been settled by the tribes of German warriors known through the collective name of Anglo-Saxons. Since the departure of the Romans they had year-by-year encroached on the territory of the native British, & it was only when the messiah-like figure of King Arthur rose up & inspired his countrymen to battle that the Saxons were stopped in their tracks. The Annals Cambrae tell us that Arthur died in the year 537, after which the unity of the British began to disintegrate. According to the Anglo-Saxon chronicle, ten years after Arthur’s death, the Angles had established themselves on the Northumbrian coast.

A.D. 547.  This year Ida began his reign; from whom first arose the royal kindred of the Northumbrians… He built Bamburgh-Castle, which was first surrounded with a hedge, and afterwards with a wall.

This fortress pressed a sharp dagger point onto the territories of the Gododdin, whose capital lay only fifty miles to the north-west at Edinburgh. Fifty years later, this dagger was picked up by a new & powerful king of the Angles called Aethelfrid, of whom the English historian Bede tells us;

At this time, Aethelfrid, a most worthy king, and ambitious of glory, governed the kingdom of the Northumbrians, and ravaged the Britons more than all the great men of the English for he conquered more territories from the Britons, either making them tributary, or driving the inhabitants clean out, and planting English in their places, than any other king or tribune

Saint Bede
Saint Bede

This brings into perspective how vital the Battle of Catreath was to the Gododdin – a life or death struggle for their very existence against a ruthless enemy whose star was very much in the ascendence. To aid them in their great struggle, the Gododdin called for assistance from their fellow Britons. Aneirin tells us that, in addition to the Gododdin, warriors from all over the Brythonic world fought at Catreath. The brilliance of his poem was soon recognized, when an early 9th century monk called  Nennius lists the five great bards of ‘Y Cynfeirdd,’ those Early Poets of Welsh tradition;

Then Dutgirn at that time fought bravely against the nation of the Angles. At that time, Talhaiarn Cataguen was famed for poetry, and Neirin, and Taliesin and Bluchbard, and Cian, who is called Guenith Guaut, were all famous at the same time in British poetry.

Here we see Aneirin being hailed alongside the most important poets of the Welsh. Roll on a few more centuries,  & medieval poets were to proclaim him a ‘Medeyrn Beirdd’ – King of Bards. The bardic tradition he belonged to is one of the treasures of British history, most of which has been lost to the ravages of time. However, enough of their material has survived to modernity, giving us a good idea of the mindset of these bards, & a healthy picture of their life & times. The poetry is deposited in a number of medieval  literary anthologies known by such delightful names as the White Book of Rhydderch & the Black Book of Carmarthen. Of these collections, there is one tome that concerns the seekers of Catraeth. Known to curators by the unassuming title of ‘Cardiff MS2.81,’ but to the rest of the world as the ‘Llyfr Aneirin’ (The Book of Aneirin), it consists of nineteen sheets of parchment, with the text covering both sides of the paper, giving us thirty-eight pages of beautifully written Welsh poetry. Dated by J Gwenogvryn Evans to the year 1250,  the Book of Aneirin contains four small poems known as the ‘Gwarchan,’ & two different versions of a longer stanzaic poem called ‘Y Goddodin’ known as A&B). When combining them together we obtain 140 stanzas or so of moving & deliciously detailed verse, attributed in their entirity to Aneirin. His poetry was passed down through the oral tradition for many centuries, until the hands of two separate scribes recreated Aneirin’s original words on those 19 sheets of vellum.

By the creation of MS2.81 the language used had evolved in the main to Middle-Welsh. That the poem came to modernity in a medieval dialect has influenced academic dating of the poem. However, portions of the poem contain a much older version of the language, indicating that at least some of the poetry we read today does indeed herald from Aneirin’s time, after which the poem was transmitted through the memories & mouths of bards for many centuries before it was ever written down. Thomas Charles-Edwards stated; ‘The historical arguments, therefore, suggest that the poem is the authentic work of Aneirin; that we can establish the essential nature of the poem from the two surviving versions; but that we cannot, except in favourable circumstances, establish the wording of the original.’

1250908

The nature of YG is elegaic, a series of florid reports upon the heroes who fought & died at Catraeth. Of the 300 men who marched, Aneirin gives us the names of only 90 warriors, less than a third of those who fell, suggesting a great many stanzas are lost to us. Indeed, the abrupt breaking off of the text at the end of page 38 of the manuscript indicates we have lost some of the text forever. What survives is full of vibrant, militaristic bombast, & has been a joy to transcreate. During the process I found that many of the stanzas of the B recension were similar to those found in the A, & I have often merged them into a single stanza, choosing the best passages from each. In addition, I have added select passages from Aneirin’s four Gwarchans & certain passages from the poetry of Taleisin which concern the battle. The final production consists of twelve cantos of twelve stanzas each, bringing an epic framework to the epic material to what is essentially the first epic poem of the British Isles. A similar process had occurred in the 9th & 6th centuries BC, when King Lycurgas of Sparta & Pesistratus, Tyrant of Athens, sponsored new renditions of the Homeric materielle.

I do not speak Old Welsh – or even modern welsh – so to transcreate something in a foreign language the poet must resort to the translations of scholars, & reinstil these often dull versions with the breath of poetry. With the YG I examined the following translations;

William Probert (1820),

John Williams (1852)

WF Skene (1866)

 Thomas Stephens (1888)

Ifor Williams (1938)

JP Clancy (1970)

AOH Jarman (1988)

JT Koch (1997)

 

JT Koch
JT Koch

Throughout my own version I have attempted to furnish the reader with something of the music of the original. The Bardic tradition of the Welsh infused the concept of Cynghanned throughout their poetry – that is the use of rhyme & assonance & alliteration in a harmonious whole – being the MUSIC of poetry as I have discussed in earlier lectures. An example of the practice can be discerned from the following line, ‘Like quaffing liquer mead in laughters midst.’ Listing the individual phonetic sounds & their repetitions we can see how a great deal of music can be obtained from just ten syllables of poetry.

L-3 / K-3 / F2 / M-2 / T-3 / S-2 /IN-2

Another example comes from the line, ‘Clove spear path kinks of light thro phalanx’d foes.’

K-3 / L-3 / F-4 / S-3 / P-2 / TH-2 / N-2

Another mainstay of Cynghanned is the frequent use of end-rhymes. Aneirin was a wonderful exponent of rhyme, as can be seen from an example stanza from YG;

Kaeawc kynhorawc aruawc eg gawr

Kyn no diw e gwr gwrd eg gwyawr

Kynran en racwan rac bydinawr

Kwydei pym pymwnt rac y lafnawr

O wyr deivyr a brennych dychiawr

Ugein cant eu diuant en un awr

Kynt y gic e vleid nogyt e neithyawr

Kynt e vud e vran nogyt e allawr

Kyn noe argyurein e waet e lawr

Gwerth med eg kynted gan lliwedawr

Hyueid hir ermygir tra vo kerdawr

Unfortunately, to keep the correct sense of the poem I have had to dispense with Aneirin’s protracted use of rhyme. Despite this, I believe there is enough Cynghanned latent in the English language to recreate something the atmosphere of Aneirin’s recitations, or as the poet Dafydd Benras gushed in the 13th century;

To sing as Aneirin sang

The day he sang the Gododdin

YOU CAN READ THE FULL TRANSCREATION HERE

Pendragon Lectures (X)

X

Wendy Cope’s Villanelle

 

I am now up in Glasgow enjoying a brief flirtation with Scotland. It was on the way up, gazing on the gorgeousness of the Lake District & Scottish Lowlands, that I realized my initial projection of conducting a 2 year dissertation on the Poetic Art is perhaps a little too much : after all, idleness is the true nurse-maid of poetry. Instead, continuing with the winter’s theme of writing 18-part ‘blockbusters,’ I shall spend the next nine posts trying to wrap up my poetic philosophies at this time. I have already sketched out the plan for the second half of these Lectures, & shall begin with showing how a traditional poetic form, when given proper credence by a modern poet, can produce wonderful effects.

 

b

Wendy Cope is among the heavyweights of British poetry, whose work has a refreshing brevity of wit, sprinkled with some quite resonant observations. With her reputation well established, she was not afraid of attempting an obscure & old form, the Villanelle. Originating in the folk-songs of rural France, it found its modern form in the early 17th century, & later it taken to heart by the British Victorians, the first batch being published in Gleeson White’s Ballades and Rondeaus, Chants Royal, Sestinas, Villanelles (1887). Throughout the 20th century, a few poets had a pop; with Dylan Thomas’ Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night being the most famous;

 

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears,
I pray. Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

The chief elements of a Villanelle are its 19 lines, its rhyming scheme & the use of refrains in the third line of each tercet. The two refrains are also used to conclude the poem in the closing quatrain. Now then, Im going to show you how Wendy Cope handled here experience of composing through the Villanelle.

 

Hugo Williams
Hugo Williams

A Villanelle For Hugo Williams

What can I say? I’d like to be polite
But have you ever seen a villanelle?
You ask me “Have I got the rhyme-scheme right?”
 
Is that a joke? You’re not a neophyte
Or some green-inker who can barely spell.
What can I say? I like to be polite.

No, not exactly, Hugo. No, not quite.
I trust this news won’t plunge you into hell:
Your rhyme-scheme is some miles from being right.
 
What’s going on? I know you’re very bright.
You’ve won awards. You write supremely well.
What can I say? I like to be polite
 
And this is true: your books are a delight,
In prose, free verse and letters you excel.
You want my help with getting rhyme-schemes right.
 
You seem dead keen to master them, despite
Your puzzling inability to tell
Which bit goes where. These lines, if not polite,
Will be of use, I hope. The rhyme-scheme’s right.

 

Not a bad effort, a little bland & a little awkward metrically – but at least, ‘the rhyme-scheme’s right.’ In the same collection in which this poem appeared – Family Values (2011) – there are two more Villanelles; Probably & the most excellent Lissadell, with which I shall close this lecture. Notice how the measure has changed & given the overall effect a lyrical beauty.  For poets of the future, this is a perfect model for how to experiment in a new form. Write a kick-about, cardies-as-goalposts, kinda poem to get a feel for the form, then find your own personal take on it & fill it with your heart’s overflow.

Lissadell

Last year we went to Lissadell.
The sun shone over Sligo Bay
And life was good and all was well.

The bear, the books, the dinner bell,
An air of dignified decay.
Last year we went to Lissadell.

This year the owners had to sell—
It calls to mind a Chekhov play.
Once life was good and all was well.

The house is now an empty shell,
The contents auctioned, shipped away.
Last year we went to Lissadell

And found it magical. “We fell
In love with it,” we sometimes say
When life is good and all is well.

The light of evening. A gazelle.
It seemed unchanged since Yeats’s day.
Last year we went to Lissadell
And life was good and all was well.

Pendragon Lectures IX

IX

Catching the Zeitgeist

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As a never-voter, upon awakening this morning I found myself faced with yet another five years of yet another annoying government & another five years of everybody complaining about them. With my mind tuned to certain frequency at the moment, I thought it would be the perfect occasion to write a second Pindaric Ode of the summer, in which I can direct my thoughts once more into the necessity of social reform. In doing so I will be, as this lecture’s title states, ‘catching the zeitgeist,’ & providing a piece of perfunctory poetry to record the moment for posterity.

Rather like the journalist, one of the poet’s chief functions is to store the living energy of their times in their little word-boxes. Some are set pieces to remember individual moments & events while others are more of a general sweep of the times. Whichever they chose, however, the poet’s task is to surf the zeitgeist & cast the wisest judgement for the illumination of their peers. A classic example is Shelley’s…

 

England in 1819

An old, mad, blind, despised, and dying King;
Princes, the dregs of their dull race, who flow
Through public scorn,—mud from a muddy spring;
Rulers who neither see nor feel nor know,
But leechlike to their fainting country cling
Till they drop, blind in blood, without a blow.
A people starved and stabbed in th’ untilled field;
An army, whom liberticide and prey
Makes as a two-edged sword to all who wield;
Golden and sanguine laws which tempt and slay;
Religion Christless, Godless—a book sealed;
A senate, Time’s worst statute, unrepealed—
Are graves from which a glorious Phantom may
Burst, to illumine our tempestuous day.

 

Peterloo - the inspiration behind Shelley's poem
Peterloo – the inspiration behind Shelley’s poem

 

& here is one of mine written back in 1998

MODERN LIFE

At this stage of mankind’s evolution,
We live in an age of air pollution,
Fat-cats & taxes, taxi fares, faxes,
Serial killers, silky leg waxes,
Condoms, modems, gimmicks, gadgets, gizmos
Two rubber ducks & comic book heroes,
Football, rock & roll, catwalk, movie stars,
Recession, depression & wonder bras,
Four packs & prozac, pylon countryside,
Anarchist daughter, schoolboy suicide,
Just-add-water, slaughter of Mother Earth
Death of religion & occult rebirth,
Not one inch left of this globe to explore,
The whole world itchin’ for a third world war…

I was 22 years old in ’98, & since then my muse has definitely matured somewhat. This leads me to neatly to this morning’s composition, which is in essence a call to boycott the next general election & instead sign a national petition demanding electoral reform. In this topsy-turvy system, the SNP won less than 5 percent of the national vote, & won over 50 seats, while UKIP won over 12 percent of the national vote, & won 1. That’s all we really need to say about how we people are falsely represented in Westminster.

The population of the UK is 64 million, 13 million of which are under 18. That leaves 50 million possible voters, of whom about 35 million voted in the election. So where are the other 15 million voters? These are too apathetic to be interested in a system which they cite as being sterile & full of automons. But with the Tories coming into power with only 11 million votes, a unified course of action could actually democratically overturn our antique parliamentary system. Add to these the millions of disaffected who begrudgingly put their x in a box only to justify the sacrifices our ancestors made in winning the vote, then surely we have a recipe for social change.

It is with all this in this mind that I present;

 

THE GREAT BRITISH PETITION
A Pindaric Ode

The great basic thought that the world is to be comprehended not as a complex of ready-made things but as a complex of processes, in which apparently stable things no less than the concepts, their mental reflections in our heads, go through an uninterrupted change of coming into being & passing away
Friedrich Engels

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I Strophe

England is silent under the same moon,
From the Clydeside to the gutted pits of Wales.
The innocoent mask conceals that soon
Here, too, our freedom’s swaying in the scales.
John Cornford

This toppling Age, this gypsy caravan
Trundles from fields where Aneirin planted
Elms & Oaks honouring divine agencies

Behind, a nation divided, delayed
By progressive politics, let us instead
Close such squabble-beaks & progress simply

Austerity bites as all temperamentally
Ask ourselves a single existential question;
How can Westminster improve our life’s lot?

Of those who voted yesterday
A quarter undecided to the booths
My fractious & incredulous electorate

While down-trodden graduates buffer the Greens
Walking to vote while their bank-slurped bus-fares
Consumed by several salaries of debt

Comblended voices of the Scottish Question
Exterminate an English mandate to rule
Defying domination by dominant parties

A new Enlightenment rejects Westminster
Britain Aye! But not parliocentric
Maikin a stand, uncertain futures fearless

As morning breaks oer London’s Roman streets
On the Clapham Omnibus an ordinary man
Pushes earphones deeper, drowning the ‘Clear Message.’

Out of such a lack of Collegiate respect
Changes come as slight as yellow flames
Genetically spread amidst strawberries

Clouds carry kirk-bells south from Perth
Antique nuraghes surrounding Big Ben
Creak & sway to their giddying clamour.

Hammersmith boatmen recognize the mood
A lady’s bonnet slobbers past the wharf
The factum of thrasonical Suffragettes

At Runnymead the Barons equaled King
At Whitehall the common Man slew him
Between these days seigniors-in-stone upsprung

II Antistrophe

Quale allor ci apparia
La vita umana e il fato!
Quando sovviemmi di cotanta speme
Un affetto mi preme
Acerbo e sconslato
E tornami a doler di mia sventura.
Giacomo Leopardi

While first-past-the-post re-applies for re-election
Our Manifest Destiny mills & grooves
Worn to the bone, the old stone must break

Entrenched in the rudders of our national fibre
The Queen whittles fresh dresses for her speech
While blood-swollen-tick-like the Lords look on

Busy readying new pay-for view expenses
Downing Street’s players prepare for pass-the-parcel
Its prizes; felt demenes for unqualified cuckoos

No Doctor shall dictate to the National Health
No General shall generate sound soldier’s strategies
No Brickie shall build fine, affordable housing

No immigrant shall grant his family asylum
No thespian shall fund the wonders of our stage
No pensioner shall offer hope to old folk

No teenager shall understand his young peers
No traveler shall tend foreign affairs
No reformed convict proudly curtail crime

& worst of all, no Green, duly elected
Shall be allowed into these grave discussions
Of which our childrens’ futures may resent

This is the flaw of of our hoary Star Chamber
& so, in the face of such imminent danger
Of civic rebelliousness, let us all arise!

Yes, let us transcend the chains of our ancestors
&, forging reform, build up our hope’s hub
In the heart of the country, at Dunsop Bridge

Where the disenchanted, disaffected, disenfranchis’d
Turn not to london & its diminishing turn-out
But this sweet glade of epicentral green

If an apathetic country unifies
It can turn all its problems to solutions
& trust its best & honest shepheard-minds

Let us elect an Athenian demaverse
To feel the decisions that really matter
Like making bread & butter free for all
III Epode

 

Then the wastour wrothly castes up his eyen
And said, ‘Thou Winner, thou wricche, me wonders in herte.
What have oure clothes cost thee, caitif, to bye,
That thou shall birdes upbraid of their bright wedes,
Sithen that we vouche safe that silver payen?
Winner & Waster (anon.)

According to these ancyent regulations
In five years time our sword-knot loops renew
Oppressed, as we are, by British History

But yet the future lies a grand unwritten
& if we were to move our signatories
Beside the booths upon Election Day

We’ll place our names upon that perfect page
& tell our Majesties we vote for change
Not those next-door, whose race none wish to run

& if, by then, young William is reigning
Supported by his calm & noble Queen
This country must be landslide-unified

Our Prince bears the wide breadths of humanity
His dynasty secured, his wisening voice
Will apply its regal resonance for all

As one,let us put our pens to paper,
Or type our say through Social Media
Designing lands all manners glad to share

Where civil-servants cry from country-wide billboards,
‘Influence deliverables, the final frontier!
Your voice can change the way we work!’

Empowering people to fend for themselves
Let us devise a better agenda, ‘The New Outreach’
& command every community’s confidence

When signing this petition in all peacefulness,
Let us enter those Gold Ages once again
To ravish life & all its sweet contentment

Wherein the watchers of World shall learn
Once more of Britain’s perfect prediliction
For social evolution, & what’s more

These prosperous, never-happier islands
Shall prove again the inventions of divinity
Lie somewhere in the psyches of her sons

& if this petition doesn’t work…
The next one will…
& if not that, the next…

Pendragon Lectures VIII

VIII

The Four Elements

Forward-thinking-...-Osca-007

In my previous lecture, I chose a certain poem of Sir Walter Scott’s to show how at one point in his career he elevated his voice to the lofty heights of the Calliopean muse. In essence, he created an artificial voice with to which to sing about his subject. Just as a poem’s form can be divided into MEASURE & MOULD, so a poet’s voice is divided into two composite halves; the MOOD & the MUSIC. The Mood is something of a trance which envelops the poet’s as they compose their piece, while the Music is the pure artifice of the poet as they translate their Mood into words. The order would be,

Mood (then) Music (then) Measure (then) Mould

Once the first words have appeared – i.e. the music – they must be organised onto the page in a certain measure, from vers libre to the complex phonetic accention of Spanish poetry. After the Measure, the individual lines will then be organised into the poem’s Mould, giving us the final aesthetically pleasing & sense-stirring soundscape of a poem.

These four individual parts of a poem neatly correspond to the four elements. The Mould, of course, would be the very-solid Earth, the beautiful brick-work which furnishes a poem with its infrastructure. The Measure would be Water, like the Mould it too is of a physical nature, but more pliable, more fluid, & as we follow a line we do indeed flow along its course. The remaining two elements are of the metaphysical kind, with a poet’s Mood being a Fire, which lends the poem its spark of creation & keeps the mind cooking throughout its composition. Finally, we have the Music - Air –  which is filled with the heavenly wind & instrumental breath of a poet’s voice. There is, by the way, a fifth element also – Magic – which only a few poems are ever privileged to possess.

 

GirlWritingThinking

There is a poverty to the art of Poetry in these these our modern days, for many poets have lost not only their form, but also the focus to fully balance & utilise the four poetic elements when writing their poems. Their moods are often confused with the electric static of modern society, leaving us with rather chaotic ramblings that appear to the reader as something of a surrealist painting. In fact, modern art & poetry are have much in common as they reflect our social zeitgeist like cutural bedfellows. Take the following published poems for example.

There is No X on this Map in Any of Its Usual guises

We are marks on this map.
Its vellum was cut
from the finest part
of the last unicorn’s dorsal skin.

No: The horn was broken up
and sold by the carat
when the beast was a foal.

No: The arrow is purely for decoration.

Wait: Lift your left palm.
Under it (a little moist)
is the design of a tattoo
your next lover will acquire
in the first weeks of your courtship
to amuse the man she will leave for you.

Now you see
that it would be prudent
not to mention this map
to those who come after. Or at all. 

Judy Brown (Loudness, 2011)

 

*****

Mhari & Annika

A lot of people listening to it

Have these stripes that belong to different parts of the country then we have twodays dancing festivals & some traditonal festivals & probably since I was five I have gone

My mother was a dancer it was great

It’s probably awful ya

Annika’s English is awful

But it’s poem

He’s going ti make a poem out of it?
How Finnish & Estonian are speaking English” oh my god
I had so much wine
William Letford (Bevel, 2012)

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Hmmm…. interesting musings yes, but is this poetry, or ‘poem’ as Mr Letford inquires? It is definitely not Ozymandias ,by Percy Bysshe Shelley;

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away”.

The difference between the two modern poems & Shelley’s is that our long-dead  Romantic keeps his focus throughout the composition. This was assisted, albeit,  by the fact he was engaged in a sonnet-writing competition with John Keats & Charles Lamb; but this is testament to how focus can propel a poet to the finish line, so to speak, rather than tail off quite bluntly in a drunken haze as did Mr Letford.

thornton-hall-farm-country

Here is a poem of my own, written many years ago, concerning the advent of Spring. After it I shall analyze how each of the Four Elements affected the poem.

*
Spring

Wool white wilderness
Pendle to Chelsea garden
Mist lock’d frost & snow

Beams of warm amber
Penetrate the morning mists
Snowdrops drink the thaw

O trees! Such budding!
Thy delicate bursts of green
Nervous turtleheads

Amidst the celadon buds
The burgeoning woods promise
Their blossoming hues

Pinks & pastel whites
Lend the tender blossoming
Hints of sensual scent

Year’s first warm morning
Lone bee stalks the wilderness
Birds breeze on the wing

Sol gestures higher
Colors surprises the eyes
Spring! She smiles at last

*

Mood / Fire
‘Spring’ is something of an ode I decided to write in order to record the various sights & sensations which the year’s first sensation convoked throughout its three month-course.

Music / Air
With this particular season full of life & promise, I chose my language accordingly, as in ‘first warm morning,’ & ‘burgeoning woods.’ The poem also contains many ‘pastoral;’ moments to help invoke a natural scene, such as when a ‘Lone bee stalks the wilderness,’ & ‘Beams of warm amber Penetrate the morning mists.’

Measure / Water

Although having a preference for syllabic metres, I appreciate the sheer energy & vitality that vers libre has given the Poetic animal. Indeed, it was like an adrenalin injection between the breast-plate into the very heart of the Art. It has won for itself a place at the high table of metre, but as I have already lectured, it is not the boss, only a meter among equals. As for the rest, I shall leave it to Robert Graves, who in a letter to Wilfred Owen during World War One wrote;

Owen, you have seen things; you are a poet; but you’re a very careless one at present. One can’t put in too many syllables into a line & say ‘Oh, it’s all right. That’s my way of writing poetry’. One has to follow the rules of the meter one adopts. Make new meters by all means, but one must observe the rules where they are laid down by a custom of centuries. A painter or musician has no greater task in mastering his colours or his musical modes & harmonies, than a poet.

In my poem, ‘Spring,’ the measure is the Japanese, which alternates syllabic patterns throughout its stanzas, in this case 5-7-5.

Beams of warm am-ber
1         2     3          4     5
Pen-e-trate the morn-ing mists
1       2     3        4       5        6      7
Snow-drops drink the thaw
1            2         3         4     5

snowdrops

Mould / Earth

Continuing with the Japanese theme, the form I chose was the Haiku. The nature of this highly traditional, highly ritualised has always been to record nature & especially the changing of seasons. We shall return to this excellent little form in a future post, but for now let us return to the four elements, of which the Haiku’s ‘Mould’ is one. When offering Spring as an example, I’m not saying my poem is better than Brown’s or Letford’s, but I believe I have achieved more of a concrete effect than their efforts. It is this effect, then, that is crucial, & to a prisoner serving life in a windowless cell, on 23 hour clampdown a day, my poem will be of more service than the tattoo of Judy Brown.

When looking at the hundreds of thousands of post-war poems published across the planet, what the hell are we meant to preserve for posterity. This saturation has diluted the Parnassian waters to such an extent, that almost anything can be petrified on the page & sold as poetry. For example, this is a poem by Linda Chase from the 2002 New Poetries III anthology published by Carcanet.

Last Logging On

It’s a Friday kind of thing
between signing off & signing on –
leaving the office & going home.

Do I mind that you think of me –
that you send me a message saying
I am beautiful?

The word beautiful makes me close my eyes
to remember what it was like. I cant imagine
who has sent this message, nor to whom,

though I know these people well
when they have nothing to say,
Monday to Thursday

*
It’s just not William Blake, is it?

The Tyger

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright,
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare sieze the fire?

And what shoulder, & what art,
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? & what dread feet?

What the hammer? what the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?

When the stars threw down their spears,
And water’d heaven with their tears,
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

tumblr_inline_ml9nlhz3Sx1qz4rgp

 

Or Wordsworth, invoking Milton as he crossed the Thames;

London 1802

Milton! thou shouldst be living at this hour:
England hath need of thee: she is a fen
Of stagnant waters: altar, sword, and pen,
Fireside, the heroic wealth of hall and bower,
Have forfeited their ancient English dower
Of inward happiness. We are selfish men;
Oh! raise us up, return to us again;
And give us manners, virtue, freedom, power.

Thy soul was like a Star, and dwelt apart:
Thou hadst a voice whose sound was like the sea:
Pure as the naked heavens, majestic, free,
So didst thou travel on life’s common way,
In cheerful godliness; and yet the heart
The lowliest duties on herself did lay.

The three modern poems I have included in this lecture a quite symptomatic of the general malaise which has struck poetry in recent decades. These, & vast multitudes of others, are lacking in body; their mould & measure crumbling to dust in our hands. They are genetically defective organisms which should be better left in pickling jars in some research laboratory in the Arizona desert rather than be offered to the public on silver platters. David Sneddon, in his ‘The Trouble With Modern Poetry – a Personal View’ (Sonnetto Poesia, v.9 2010), writes;

I have a love-hate relationship with modern poetry. I don’t speak from ignorance. I have studied it widely. I find the best really very good, but I also find some poets celebrated by the poetry establishment either very patchy or truly awful. Much of what is praised today is the Emperor’s New Clothes, & I wonder if it’s not simply just from the affection & weak-mindedness that some commentators seem to state a love for the dullest of it. And yet, it is considered almost blasphemy to speak out against them. It seems that, in poetry terms, being PC means being Politically Correct, & that means liking excessively intellectualised poetry & felling superior about it.

Saying all this, certain modern minds actually prefer these Pollock-splashes of paint, thus we modern poets should learn how to appeal to such minds – for none may be discluded – by handling the proper sentiment in the most universal fashion; i.e. to blend writing in a modern tone with the music of our ancient art. I guess what Im trying to hammer home is the necessity, not the absolute vitality that poets begin to raise their game, go out & live life, go home & study your craft, & write poetry to be remembered, rather than gaze wistfully at a facebook message like Linda Chase.

Pendragon Lectures (VI)

(VII)
Scott’s Epic Voice

Hark, from yon misty cairn their answer tost:
    “Minstrel! the fame of whose romantic lyre,
     Capricious-swelling now, may soon be lost
Sir Walter Scott – The Vision of Don Roderick

Portrait of Sir Walter Scott

In my last post I mentioned a concept of the Accertamento Grande, which is essentially a process of re-reading the poetry in existence & trying to establish some kind of order or preferment, the most pristeen models through which we can teach our future poets & bards. As an example, in today’s lecture I would like to restore a quite a forgotten poem to the public consciousness. It was composed at the height of the Napoleonic phrenzie, in the summer of 1811, by Sir Walter Scott. Coincidence or not, the poem was divided into the same Spenserian stanzas as those the young Lord Byron was dividing his Childe Harolde’s Pilgirmage, a poem which he gave to his publishers on returning from his European tour in that same year of 1811.

*

In today’s lecture I shall be looking Scott’s ‘Vision,’ from a certain angle, that is the way he managed to fashion a sumblime & excellent rendition of the poetic voice first used by Homer. The rest of Scott’s poetic output is rather insipid: the verse-ballads, while selling extremely well they contain little of the true juices of Parnassus. Of this poet, Walter Bagehot describes an artist who, ‘had no sense of smell, little sense of taste, almost no ear for music (he knew a few, perhaps three, scotch tunes, which he avowed that he had learnt in sixty years, by hard labour & mental association) & not much turn for the minutiae of nature in any way. The effect of this may be seen in some of the best descriptive passages of his poetry, & we will not deny that it does (although proceeding from a sensuous defect), in a certain degree, add to their popularity. He deals with the main outlines & great points of nature, never attends to any others, & in this respect he suits the comprehension & knowledge of many who know only those essential & considerable outlines.’

 

$_35

Not the most complimentary of words – yet as we shall see Scott’s ‘Vision’ at times matches the solemn grandeur of Homer & Dante & especially Milton, whose meter was caught by Scott’s ear & transferred into his own poem. This, ‘The Vision of Don Roderick,’ was printed at Edinburgh by James Ballantyne & Co. in 1811, before Napoleon’s march on Moscow & at a time when he held most of Europe in his clutches – only the Iberian peninsular was proving to be a problem, with the Spanish revolting against Napoleon’s brother’s rule, assisted manfully by the Portuguese & British with the whole confederation led by the Duke of Wellington, Arthur Wellesley. The poem was written to celebrate this great moment, when the British were holding their own against a megalomaniac, led by a true hero in the vein of Achilles or Aeneas. The chief contents are based upon an episode in Ginés Pérez de Hita’s Guerras civiles de Granada, a book which Scot devoured as a boy. The mimesis stored for years in his memory banks suddenly had a channel through which to pour, the force of which elevated Scott’s poetic voice from rustic piper to Olympian bard. Scott’s own introduction reads;

The following Poem is founded upon a Spanish Tradition, bearing, in general, that Don Roderick, the last Gothic King of Spain, when the invasion of the Moors was depending, had the temerity to descend into an ancient vault, near Toledo, the opening of which had been denounced as fatal to the Spanish Monarchy.  The legend adds, that his rash curiosity was mortified by an emblematical representation of those Saracens who, in the year 714, defeated him in battle, and reduced Spain under their dominion.  I have presumed to prolong the Vision of the Revolutions of Spain down to the present eventful crisis of the Peninsula, and to divide it, by a supposed change of scene, into, THREE PERIODS.  The FIRST of these represents the Invasion of the Moors, the Defeat and Death of Roderick, and closes

with the peaceful occupation of the country by the victors.  The SECOND PERIOD embraces the state of the Peninsula when the conquests of the Spaniards and Portuguese in the East and West Indies had raised to the highest pitch the renown of their arms; sullied, however, by superstition and cruelty.  An allusion to the inhumanities of the Inquisition terminates this picture.  The LAST PART of the Poem opens with the state of Spain previous to the unparalleled treachery of BUONAPARTE, gives a sketch of the usurpation attempted upon that unsuspicious and friendly kingdom, and terminates with the arrival of the British succours.  It may be further proper to mention, that the object of the Poem is less to commemorate or detail particular incidents, than to exhibit a general and impressive picture of the several periods brought upon the stage.

EDINBURGH, June 24, 1811.

 

Wellington
Wellington

Here we have an epic tri-parted echo of Dante’s Divine Comedy.  Strangely, Scott thought the poem was a mere ‘Drum and Trumpet performance’ (letter to William Hayley, 2 July 1811), but this reminds us of Virgil, who wanted to throw the Aeniad into the flames, before being persuaded to preserve his epic for the Roman people. In the ‘Vision’, Don Roderick, the last Visigothic King of Spain, descends into an enchanted cave to learn the outcome of the Moorish invasion. This also has echoes of Virgil who sent Aeneas into the underworld to see prophesies upon the Roman Republic.

Scott’s handling of an epic sweep through Spanish history propels his wordsmithery to heights he never before or after got close to. Here are some examples of Scott’s work; a passage from his famous ‘Lay of the Last Minstrel’ & Marmion, followed by a stanza from the ‘Vision.’

They bid me sleep, the bid me pray,
They say my brain is warp’d & wrung
I cannot sleep on Highland brea,
I cannot pray in Highland tongue
But were I now where Allan glides
Or heard my native’s Devan tides
So sweetly would I rest & pray
That Heaven would close my wintry day. Last Minstrel

Not far advanced was morning day,
When Marmion did his troop array
To Surrey’s camp to ride;
He had safe-conduct for his band,
Beneath the Royal seal & hand,
And Douglas gave a guide;
The ancient Earl, with stately grace,
Would Clara on her Palfrey place
& whispered in a  undertone… Marmion

So passed that pageant.  Ere another came,
    The visionary scene was wrapped in smoke
  Whose sulph’rous wreaths were crossed by sheets of flame;
    With every flash a bolt explosive broke,
  Till Roderick deemed the fiends had burst their yoke,
    And waved ‘gainst heaven the infernal gonfalone!
  For War a new and dreadful language spoke,
    Never by ancient warrior heard or known;
Lightning and smoke her breath, and thunder was her tone. Vision

There is no doubt we get a different sensation from reading the first two stanza than the third. They seem different voices, but what has happened is that Scott is speaking with the immortal tones of the epic voice. Similarily, the voice Milton used in his Paradise Lost was different to those used in his Nativity Ode or his Lycidas; Virgil’s Aeneid is different from his pastoral Eclogues & Dante’s Vita Nuova is different from his Divine Comedy. The separating factor is the poet has altered his output in the same way a comedian may don the guise of several different characters during a performance.

A scene from the Aeneid
A scene from the Aeneid

I shall now elucidate more of Scott’s usage of traditional epic themes through stanzas taken from the ‘Vision;

The Epic Hero

Lives there a strain, whose sounds of mounting fire
    May rise distinguished o’er the din of war;
  Or died it with yon Master of the Lyre
    Who sung beleaguered Ilion’s evil star?
  Such, WELLINGTON, might reach thee from afar,
    Wafting its descant wide o’er Ocean’s range;
  Nor shouts, nor clashing arms, its mood could mar,
    All, as it swelled ‘twixt each loud trumpet-change,
That clangs to Britain victory, to Portugal revenge!
The Invocation

But we, weak minstrels of a laggard day
    Skilled but to imitate an elder page,
  Timid and raptureless, can we repay
    The debt thou claim’st in this exhausted age?
  Thou givest our lyres a theme, that might engage
    Those that could send thy name o’er sea and land,
  While sea and land shall last; for Homer’s rage
    A theme; a theme for Milton’s mighty hand
How much unmeet for us, a faint degenerate band!

 

Tribute to Older Epics

Ye mountains stern! within whose rugged breast
    The friends of Scottish freedom found repose;
  Ye torrents! whose hoarse sounds have soothed their rest,
    Returning from the field of vanquished foes;
  Say, have ye lost each wild majestic close
    That erst the choir of Bards or Druids flung,
  What time their hymn of victory arose,
    And Cattraeth’s glens with voice of triumph rung,
And mystic Merlin harped, and grey-haired Llywarch sung?
 

Here, Milton is alluding to the poem Y Gododdin, etched by the 7th century bard Aneirin. On its discovery in the 18th century, a startled Lewis Morris proclaimed to Edward Richard (1758);

Who do you think I have at my elbow, as happy as ever Alexander thought himself after a conquest? No less a man than Ieuan Fardd who hath discovered some old MSS. Lately that nobody of this age or the last ever dreamed of. And this discovery is to him & me as great as that of America by Colombus. We have found an epic poem in the British called Gododin, equal at least to the Iliad, Aeneid or Paradise Lost. Tudfwlch & Marchlew are heroes fiercer than Achilles or Satan

 

The Plea for Immortality

For not till now, how oft soe’er the task
    Of truant verse hath lightened graver care,
  From Muse or Sylvan was he wont to ask,
    In phrase poetic, inspiration fair;
  Careless he gave his numbers to the air,
    They came unsought for, if applauses came:
  Nor for himself prefers he now the prayer;
    Let but his verse befit a hero’s fame,
Immortal be the verse!–forgot the poet’s name!

 

Epic Geographical Sweeps
“Explore those regions, where the flinty crest
    Of wild Nevada ever gleams with snows,
  Where in the proud Alhambra’s ruined breast
    Barbaric monuments of pomp repose;
  Or where the banners of more ruthless foes
    Than the fierce Moor, float o’er Toledo’s fane,
  From whose tall towers even now the patriot throws
    An anxious glance, to spy upon the plain
The blended ranks of England, Portugal, and Spain.

 

Supernatural Agents

  Grim sentinels, against the upper wall,
    Of molten bronze, two Statues held their place;
  Massive their naked limbs, their stature tall,
    Their frowning foreheads golden circles grace.
  Moulded they seemed for kings of giant race,
    That lived and sinned before the avenging flood;
  This grasped a scythe, that rested on a mace;
    This spread his wings for flight, that pondering stood,
Each stubborn seemed and stern, immutable of mood.

Fixed was the right-hand Giant’s brazen look
    Upon his brother’s glass of shifting sand,
  As if its ebb he measured by a book,
    Whose iron volume loaded his huge hand;
  In which was wrote of many a fallen land
    Of empires lost, and kings to exile driven:
  And o’er that pair their names in scroll expand -
    “Lo, DESTINY and TIME! to whom by Heaven
The guidance of the earth is for a season given.” 

 

Heroic Speeches

  That Prelate marked his march–On banners blazed
    With battles won in many a distant land,
  On eagle-standards and on arms he gazed;
    “And hopest thou, then,” he said, “thy power shall stand?
  Oh! thou hast builded on the shifting sand,
    And thou hast tempered it with slaughter’s flood;
  And know, fell scourge in the Almighty’s hand,
    Gore-moistened trees shall perish in the bud,
And by a bloody death shall die the Man of Blood!”

 

Catalogues

From Alpuhara’s peak that bugle rung,
    And it was echoed from Corunna’s wall;
  Stately Seville responsive war-shot flung,
    Grenada caught it in her Moorish hall;
  Galicia bade her children fight or fall,
    Wild Biscay shook his mountain-coronet,
  Valencia roused her at the battle-call,
    And, foremost still where Valour’s sons are met,
First started to his gun each fiery Miquelet.

There are many other stanzas throughout the poem, WHICH YOU MAY READ IN FULL HERE. One of them in particular has the true epic ring;

As that sea-cloud, in size like human hand,
    When first from Carmel by the Tishbite seen,
  Came slowly overshadowing Israel’s land,
    A while, perchance, bedecked with colours sheen,
  While yet the sunbeams on its skirts had been,
    Limning with purple and with gold its shroud,
  Till darker folds obscured the blue serene
    And blotted heaven with one broad sable cloud,
Then sheeted rain burst down, and whirlwinds howled aloud:-

*

Here we have the best example amongst the Romantic poets of the Epic – or Heroic – simile. This is an elaborate piece of showcasing, a wonderful learned little ornament that adds dignity & variety to a poem. Another example would be Milton’s;

                              He stood & called
His Legions, Angel Forms, who lay intrans’t
Thick as Autumnal Leaves that strow the Brooks
In Vallambrosa, where th’Etrurian shades
High overarch’t imbower

*

That Scott mentions Milton a couple of times in his poem & has fashioned a similar sounding epic voice tells us that Scott would have had a copy of Paradise Lost before him as he wrote. This is only natural, for all new poetry should contain the waters of pParnassus, to which is added a poet’s own personal outpourings of fortified poesis. That Scott had Milton before him can be truly discerned from the following two stanzas – where we have Napoleon as the satanic anti-christ attempting to storm Spain, which is portrayed by Scott as another Eden.

*

Who shall command Estrella’s mountain-tide
    Back to the source, when tempest-chafed, to hie?
  Who, when Gascogne’s vexed gulf is raging wide,
    Shall hush it as a nurse her infant’s cry?
  His magic power let such vain boaster try,
    And when the torrent shall his voice obey,
  And Biscay’s whirlwinds list his lullaby,
    Let him stand forth and bar mine eagles’ way,
And they shall heed his voice, and at his bidding stay.

  “Else ne’er to stoop, till high on Lisbon’s towers
    They close their wings, the symbol of our yoke,
  And their own sea hath whelmed yon red-cross powers!”
    Thus, on the summit of Alverca’s rock
  To Marshal, Duke, and Peer, Gaul’s Leader spoke.
    While downward on the land his legions press,
  Before them it was rich with vine and flock,
    And smiled like Eden in her summer dress; -
Behind their wasteful march a reeking wilderness.

*

One of the key components of an epic is its narrator, & Scott plays the role to an almost perfection – perhaps the poem gets lost a little in the middle. The epic voice is an elaborate creature which must be sustained throughout an entire production. Scott’s was a rush job, & unfortunately the poem shows moments of melancholia & dullness –  but the attempt is a noble one & there are genuine moments of clear magnitude, which if sustained throughout the rest of his ouvre, would have placed him at the top of the Romantic tree. With Calliope at the helm, however, despite her brief visitation, Scott’s blood-drenched poem possesses a wonderful music & portrays at all times that ever-present focus of Scott’s powers which produced the ‘Drum and Trumpet’effect he wrote of, which has become in his hands an epic voice. Scott maintains his pitch & rhythm all the way through his poem with perfect uniformity – an excellent performance. It is a little Iliad of regions, wars, & heroes, & should rightly belong to the class of poems called Epyllia, or ‘little epics.’  We are whisked about European history like a ravishing whirlwind, from William Wallace at the Scottish Wars of Independence, with Scott often distilling massive sweeps of time & space into a couple of lines at most.

Childe Harold's Pilgrimage by Joseph Mallord William Turner, 1823.
Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage by Joseph Mallord William Turner, 1823.

With the Vision, Scott is moving his imagination out of Britain onto the European – again a precursor for Byron’s Childe Harolde, whose scenes of continental travel fired the imaginations of a book-buying public trapped on their island by Napoleon’s European blockade. Byron would then go on to fashion his own epic voice, which manifested itself best in his rambling & operatic Don Juan, yet Scott’s ‘Vision’ has primacy & it also raised 100 guineas for the war fund. Written when the real struggle for Europe was about to begin, I believe this piece of poetic propaganda would have inspired the hearts of British Soldiers at the time – I don’t think any man reading it at the time would have failed to have been moved militarily to match the feats of the great heroes of whom Scott’s epic voice had sang.

Pendragon Lectures (VI)

(VI)

Elliot’s Perfect Critic

But you who seek to give & merit fame,
And justly bear a Critic’s noble name,
Be sure yourself & your own reach to know
How far your genius, taste, & learning go;
Alexander Pope

tse[1]

TS Eliot was the last great poet-critic to really get his boots dirty in attempting to fathom the science behind the mystery of the noble art of poetry. He began at the age of 38 years, the same as I, just passed the mid-thirties, when a man’s mind is working at its optimum peak. This was in 1917, exactly a century after Coleridge – the previous incumbent – had produced his remarkable Biographia Literaria.  Elliot admits his own place in the scheme when he writes, ‘Coleridge was perhaps the greatest of English critics, and in a sense the last. After Coleridge we have Matthew Arnold; but Arnold — I think it will be conceded — was rather a propagandist for criticism than a critic, a popularizer rather than a creator of ideas.’ Towards the end of his own essay-writing (1920), all of Elliot’s studies began to distil themselves into his magnificently erratic ‘Wasteland,’ the game-changing poem which went off like a bomb in the cloistered academes of the English-speaking world, & changed the landscape of poetry, & all its conventions, forever. A wonderful description was etched by a certain J.M (Double Dealer 5: May 1923), who described it as ‘the agonized outcry of a sensitive romanticist drowning in a sea of jazz.’

Today I shall be disseminating Elliot’s first two lectures (& introduction) which appeared in his 1921 collection, The Sacred Wood:  The Perfect Critic & the Imperfect Critic. In them, he assimilates & extols the purpose & mechanisms of poetic criticism, which are of great importance to any modern poet wishing to proceed along the deeper channels of the Art. We moderns must all become poet-critics : with the Art full come circle, it is not enough these days to just write the stuff, we must understand everything about it. We are entering a time of judgement, for the grand old gallery which holds the work of our masters is having a massive paint-job. When Elliot says ‘Once a poet is accepted, his reputation is seldom disturbed, for better or worse,’ it is up to us to challenge such a stiff, textbook attitude, & make our own minds up. Some of the longest-esteemed poems may find themselves packaged in bubble-wrap & placed in the cellars, while others may be unwrapped & returned to a place of privilege for the world to admire once again. The Age of the Orcs is over – the time of the Accertamento Grande has come.

During my recent skirmishes with the professors of History across the world (I won 3-0 by the way), I found a similar lazy attitude to the past – that what has written by older scholars is treated as unshakeable dogma & rarely challenged. For the budding bard, you must read everything, & read it with a critical intelligence that widens its abilities with the acquisition of every new poem read. Elliot writes, ‘the new impressions modify the impressions received from the objects already known. An impression needs to be constantly refreshed by new impressions in order that it may persist at all ; it needs to take its place in a system of impressions. And this system tends to become articulate in a generalized statement of literary beauty.‘ It can be said that one’s critical intelligence exists through an excess of study, followed by the establishment of personal taste after later meditations on the subject matter. As a poet, the acquisition of such skills can only be of assistance, as Elliot tells us, ‘when one creative mind is better than another, the reason often is that the better is the more critical.‘Elliot’s statement was improved upon by a real-life critic, Marianne Moore (Dial 70 : March 1921), who wrote while reviewing the Sacred Wood, ‘ the connection between criticism & creation is close; criticism naturally deals with creation but it is equally true that criticism inspires creation.’

During the course of your studies, what you will notice is that each poem contains three basic elements; the poet’s personality, the zeitgeist in which they were writing, & the great tradition of Poetry to which they all belonged. Thus armed, ye future poet-critics will be able to appreciate a poem in its proper context . Although criticism goes above appreciation, to criticize we must first be able to appreciate. Of these three pillars of criticism, the poetic tradition is the most important, when in Elliot’s words we should be able to, ‘see the best work of our time and the best work of twenty-five hundred years ago with the same eyes,’ which he bases upon his own, ‘conception of poetry as a living whole of all the poetry that has ever been written.’ You must see a poet not as a ‘dead poet,‘ but an ever-living entity whose living essence is immortally stored in their individual contributions to the Art. To re-read a dead poet is to resurrect their ghost, so to speak, & to converse with them over a cup of warm ambrosia in your study. This leads us neatly to these wonderful passages of Elliot’s which every poet should learn something of by heart;

Tradition is a matter of much wider significance. It cannot be inherited, and if you want
it you must obtain it by great labour. It involves, in the first place, the historical sense, which we may call nearly indispensable to anyone who would continue to be a poet beyond his twenty-fifth year ; and the historical sense involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence ; the historical sense compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order. This historical sense, which is a sense of the timeless as well as of the temporal and of the timeless and of the temporal together, is what makes a writer traditional.

What happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art which preceded it. The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them. The existing order is complete before the new work arrives; for order to persist after the supervention of novelty, the whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered…and so the relations, proportions, values of each work of art toward the whole are readjusted; and this is conformity between the old and the new.

(The Critic)…will not find it preposterous that the past should be altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past.

To contribute something of our own to the Parnassian stream, we modern poets must interpret the grand tradition in our very own ways.  Elliot tells us we should, ‘write on their plan, it was at least necessary to read and think. No man could be born a metaphysical poet, nor assume the dignity of a writer, by descriptions copied from descriptions, by imitations borrowed from imitations, by traditional imagery, and hereditary similes, by readiness of rhyme, and volubility of syllables.’ That Elliot was a poet of the first rank cannot be denied; The 434 lines of his modernist Wasteland has had as much effect on the world as Petrarch’s sonnets to Laura did in the late Middle Ages. Yet, reading through his essays he soon loses the inspired bardic visions into the Art & descends into the parlor-room conversaziones of Virginia Woolfe’s London set. His essays contain, subconsciously, some of the scurrilous psychopomp of the still-living Freud, & on occasion his writings are overwhelmed by an over-active mind, leaving the reader somewhat floating in the middle of the air, grasping for a rope to reel themselves to safety. Still, at times Elliot’s vision is so penetrating, that his lasar-beam thoughts have cleared the rubble from some of the obscurest caves on the slopes of Parnassus. So, let me now close today’s lecture with this following nugget of Elliot, who definitely had;

The first requisite of a critic : interest in his subject, and ability to com-
municate an interest in it.

Pendragon Lectures (V)

V

A Pindaric Ode

Pindar
Pindar

In my last post I wished to demonstrate that the true raison d’etre of poetry is to spread proper morality throughout humanity. The Poet-Saints of India are a fine & longevous example – such as the sagely Duda Dayal – who often broke through the restrictions of Caste to preach social & religious reform though the medium of song. For myself, as a fellow believer that the poet’s path should be one of a didactic nature, I spent most of yesterday composing a new poem on a topic which I feel quite strongly about. Just as Sidney states that a poet should use an ideal character as the model for his teachings, so we modern poets must utilise the unideal to ward off our children from the many pitfalls of the modern state. These I saw & conversed with in abundance all across my previous city of residence, Edinburgh, which was not the setting of the seminal mid-nineties film, Trainspotting, for nothing. The cheap heroin that flooded the city in the 80s & 90s has had a profound generational effect, & three decades later the consumption of Skag in all its forms is rife throughout Scotland’s capital, & especially in Leith, its old port.

 

A heroin addict in Leith
A heroin addict in Leith

During my sojurn in la ‘Firenze de la Nord,’ with some discomfort I witnessed a number of promising youths have their lives destroyed by this most wickedest of demons; & never having taken the drug myself often wonder’d how it could exert such powerful a force over the human spirit. Thus yesterday, established well-away from Edinburgh’s seedy underbelly, & given freedom to reflect on the matter in the upmost tranquility, I began to write a few lines. These slowly took the shape of a Pindaric Ode, a wee tour-de force into which I could consisely pour a decade of observations & frustrations. Of the form, John Potter in his Archæologia Græca, writes; ‘it was customary, on some occasions, to dance around the altars, whilst they sung the sacred hymns, which consisted of three stanzas or parts; the first of which, called strophe, which was sung in turning from east to west; the other, named antistrophe, in returning from west to east; the other, named antistrophe, in returning from west to east; then they stood before the altar & sung the epode, which was the last part of the song.’

The result I find pleasing, a little aggressive, yes, but Heroin Addiction is something that cannot be treated with kid gloves – ask the long-suffering parents & partners who are forced to endure the tortured wails & infernal screams of their loved ones as they writhe in their shit-caked, sweat-sodden sheets, withdrawing in their cell-like rooms. This, I am afraid, is real-life – & is something that is these days ignored by our poets of the first rate – if indeed these exist –, our poets of the second rate, & by the majority of our poets of the third rate. There is something not quite middle-class enough about such a theme, & unfortunately today’s poetry publishers would never dream of touching such a hot potato, instead diverting the reading public’s attention to… let me for a moment take a random book from my shelf… ah! it is, NEW POETRIES III : AN ANTHOLOGY edited by Michael Schmidt 2002… to… The Radiator in Your Room (Caroline Bird) / Big Blue Sofas (Linda Chase) / The Calligraphy Shop (Ben Downing) &… well, you get the picture.

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Yesterday’s creation also conforms to my newly-forged concept of poetry, that is we have come full circle in the Art & are faced with something of a blank page. It’s basically a case of, ‘Let’s Play!’ lets muck about a bit, see what happens & have some bloody fun for once. The form I have chosen for the occasion is an ancient one, created by the Greek poet Pindar in the 5th century BC to celebrate the victors at the earliest Olympic Games. This is what I call the MOULD. The MEASURE, however, is as modern as it gets, for it is essentially Free Verse, only Free Verse captured within the confines of a tercet stave. Purists on both sides would balk at such a concept, but it is only in such a spirit of re-unification that poetry may gather its forces & move forwards as a stronger being for the betterment of mankind. Overall, however, this hybrid form of mine, this blend of old & new, remains a Pindaric Ode, for it is the structure of the MOULD which pre-dominates the determination of a poem’s form.

Time swings, things change, & nothing is truly impermanent, so in the spirit of those Poet-Saints of India, let us hope that a future reader of my new ode will find a phrase or two embedded in their consciousness with enough alacrity that whenever they are offered a ‘hit’ of heroin, they will point-blank refuse & declare rather bluntly that those fools who stooped to offer them such a filthy, soul-destroying drug, are nothing but…

Junkie Fucks

A Pindaric Ode

29/4/2015

article-2596929-1CD3268C00000578-292_964x643

 

Richard

The bees weren’t safe. 

Sian

What happened to them

Richard

Wiped out by a combination of tiny parasitic mite called Varroa Destructor… I’ve seen it happen all over the world. We call it Colony Collapse Disorder.

 url

 

I : Strophe

 

He tried to tear the horror from himself,

Searching in the sockets of his eyes with needles

Till they burst blood  Euripides

 

      There’s a Junkie Fuck

         Everywhere you look

                                         : in Leith

 

Great Junkie Street

Five-minutes-to-midnight

Zombie-crowded cash-machines

 

Kids like, ‘Where’s-my-crack-pipe?’

Grinnin’ into school

Thinkin’ he was cool

 

  ‘Im never injecting,’ he blusters upsetly

Blazin’ about his Best Friend’s funeral :

At the Wake… to ease his grief… shoots up first time!

 

His crack-whore ‘Wudya,’ works the Leith Links’s edges

A posh-painted Picture pick’d up by drunk dockers

While her daughter chews straws at McDonalds

 

Her looks are fading, she turns to friends

Getting them hooked so maybe they’ll pay

For these needles fresh ‘besties’ dare share

 

           There’s a Smackie Kunt

                  Always on the hunt

                                                : in Leith

 

heroin-addiction

 

II

Antistrophe

 

When I think aboot the future… I’m nae in it. I can see my mither & abiddy I ken, I can see them a’… but I cannae see me

Morna Pearson

 

             There’s a Junkie Worm

                  Every corner turn’d

                                                  : in Leith

 

The Skag is a slippery, shrieking Beast

Cunning as Fox, strong as Lion

Foul as farting Pig

 

Don’t listen to what they say, but how they say it,

Bullshit Defence Mechanism takes control

Insiduous serpent contorting thought

 

As poppy seeds to thick’ning branches grow

This crude oil-slick that brings each death-rush on

More hardens & more blackens punctured veins

 

How the hell can ya call it glamorous?

When glamping means begging up the North Bridge

Contemplating suicide in torn, soggy shoes

 

Viledom’s finest scourge Leith Walk

Piping, ‘We are young… We can handle it…’

‘…We could drop it just like that.’

 

But when they join the clucking Cold Turkeys

& Methadone Monkeys in gibbering clinics

It’s more  { { p e a c e f u l } }  just to try it one last time

 

       There’s a Bag-Head Prick

                      Itching itself sick

                                                 : in Leith

 

heroine pic3

 

III

Epode

 

I’m rather afraid that we’re going to get tough.

The gentlemen of Britain have had e-bloody-nough!

Tony Harrison

 

 

                There’s a Junkie Fool

            Shuffling past yer school

                                                 : in Leith

 

I was twenty-one once,

Busking down Bournemouth

Boozing wi’ beggars

 

I’d follow’d ‘em into a nappy-dirty yard

Watching ‘em cook up their hard-earned stuff

& said, ‘I’ll have a go,’ in all innocence

 

  ‘You don’t wanna try,’ said Feathers,

Do I not?… alright…’ three days later

I found him overdosing in his tent

 

I took his gut-stroke wisdom with me

Tossing Junkie friends from my life

Tough-love, but sanity follow’d

 

Never babysit a Smack-Head!

If you show signs of weakness they will take

& take & take & lie & take & steal & take & scrounge

 

& take & take & lie & steal & take & scrounge & take &…

…when you’ve stopp’d giving they’ll turn round & hiss,

                        ‘I thought you were my friend?’

 

                     There’s a Junkie Fuck

                   Lonely, Soul-less, Stuck

                                                       : in Leith

 

Matt Dempsey