Meeting a Poet

This weekend I met a fascinating gentleman by sheer chance when I visited a bookstore in Austin, Texas, specializing in rare, out-of-print and antiquarian books.

It’s not every day that you meet a British scholar of Germanic Languages and Literature. If I believe Wikipedia, he will be 87 this year. I hesitate to mention his name because he seems too distinguished to be the subject of one of my blog posts, and it’s not like he agreed to an interview. His letters, including correspondence with well-known figures, are archived at the Harry Ransom Center. (Julia Childs, for example, according to someone present.)

Anyway, he was a soft-spoken, white-bearded gentleman with a cane and a British accent who had studied at Oxford.  To an audience of two booksellers and myself, he read a passage from a poem he had translated. It was by the Roman poet Catullus, and he drew attention to the subtle sexual references, smiling and gently laughing in a most amiable fashion. One bookseller was seeking his signatures for two copies of his work.

The good professor’s own poetic efforts never attracted the recognition he sought to attain, and I could tell he had some regret. Earlier in the conversation, he lamented the Austin Symphony’s decision to collaborate with slam poets, which immediately won me over. I told him how impressed I was to learn of his presence in the Harry Ransom Center, and I stifled the urge to Google him on the spot.

“I mean, the Harry Center!  They have a lock of Milton’s hair. I saw Aldous Huxley’s manuscript of Brave New World there. That’s good company.” I would say it’s somewhat similar to being filed away in the Smithsonian. (I was sensitive enough not to use the phrase “filed away.”)

After some talk about Germany, Nietzsche came up in conversation. I pointed out that Nietzsche wanted to be a poet. Thus Spake Zarathustra, I said, had some poetic passages; he thought the book was pompous, to which I quickly nodded in agreement. (When you write a philosophical manifesto in the imitative style of a Biblical prophet, you can’t help but come off that way.)

I told him I went through a phase of reading Nietzsche, and that I have a book containing a selection of his letters. I confessed I hadn’t really read it, just paged through it, and purchased it after coming across one letter where Nietzsche thanks his mother for sending socks and sausages. It’s funny to contemplate the great Zarathustra, the herald of the coming Übermensch (Overman, or Superman) thanking his mom for a care package.

Well, it turns out the good professor had translated that very book! He took no offense. It’s great to meet a serious scholar who doesn’t take himself too seriously. I hope I can see him again.

Stephen Colbert and Finding your Voice

http://www.colbertnation.com/the-colbert-report-videos/425530/april-16-2013/caroline-kennedy

I was pleased to see this!

The comedic and the poetic are cousins, and Colbert’s enthusiasm reaffirmed my committment to this new blog. I used to perform stand-up comedy, and since I’ve let that go, I’ve been trying to fill the resulting void. Colbert’s recital of poetry and interview with Caroline Kennedy about her book, “Poems to Learn by Heart”  hit me like a good omen.

One comment of Colbert’s that stuck with me is when he said (in a radio interview, perhaps on Fresh Air): “I’m not a comedian, I’m a character.” This resonates with me: my best moments on stage occurred in the guise of a character.

I also recall the words of Lenny Bruce: “I’m not a comedian, I’m Lenny Bruce.”  The successful artist must be willing to find his voice, his persona, his signature style – no matter what. Otherwise, he will remain a mediocrity. A successful mediocrity, perhaps, but he will never set himself apart.

Everyone has limitations. Conan O’Brien noted that it would be absurd for him to play a comedic actor in a romantic comedy, Jon Stewart feels like a failure in the realm of movies, and comedian Mark Maron invigorated his career when he turned to pod-casting.

One thing that intrigues me is when genius strays from its realm of talent, only to fail utterly. I love the German philosopher Nietzsche and I love the writer H.P. Lovecraft, but they both failed at writing poetry. It was not meant to be.

We mock celebrities when they fail in a new endeavor: an actor who tries to sing, a singer who tries to act, etc. Consider the reverse: the unsuccessful artist who doesn’t try anything new, but had untapped potential elsewhere. Maybe the struggling comedian would have excelled at acting.  Maybe the bassist in the band who excels at marketing could be making big money — promoting better talent.

And then there’s Mitch Hedberg, who illustrates the need to stay the course and resist being led astray:

“As a comedian, I always get into situations where I’m auditioning for movies and sitcoms, you know? As a comedian, they want you to do other things besides comedy. They say ‘alright you’re a comedian, can you write? Write us a script. Act in this sitcom.’ They want me to do shit that’s related to comedy, but it’s not comedy, man. It’s not fair, you know? It’s as though if I was a cook, and I worked my ass off to become a really good cook, and they said “alright you’re a cook… can you farm?”

Hedberg found his calling, but what if you’re residing in the wrong slot, in the wrong niche? Perhaps you need to create your own niche, because the pre-exisiting ones can’t contain you. Perhaps you are complacent with average competence — when you could be shining with greatness!

One example: Early in his career, Jim Carrey excelled at impressions. He made very good money in Vegas, but after a while, he knew he was stagnating. So he stopped doing them, cold turkey. Someone remarked – Why would you stop?! That’s like cutting off your right arm! To which he replied – I’ll just learn to use my left. (I’m paraphrasing.)  He didn’t settle, he deliberately chose to innovate.

I hate when people say, “Don’t ever give up! If you believe in it, it will happen.” This is a pile of bullshit, with some corny kernels of truth mixed in. I’ve watched people attempt stand-up comedy for years, slogging away at open mics, and going nowhere. Some of it has to do with their work ethic: they think that merely appearing at open mics is enough. Well, a body-builder doesn’t win competitions by relentlessly entering them and displaying himself on stage, he wins by working on his body of work in private, outside the limelight. Nearly all comedians could benefit immensely by increasing their writing output. They complain about it all the time: “I’m so tired of my jokes!” (I know I did.) But then there are people who I instinctly know will never be funny! They aspire to attain a character trait they admire, because that trait is nearly absent from their personality.

I believe in the virtue of persistence – very much so.  Don’t give up, yes. But after a some hard work, step back and assess. Occasionally you need to shift gears, branch out, try new things. You will fail, perhaps spectacularly. But it could be that you’re failing now. You’re trying to farm on land in a desert, when you should be drilling for oil. You need to tap that.

Donne Deflowers Virgin

John Donne (pronounced “done” as in “well done, sir”) will be making some regular appearances here at Man Verses Poetry.

He’s old school —  1572-1631 — and a bit of a challenge at times for the modern reader. He’s also known for his love poetry and is considered the founder of the metaphysical school.

Thumbing through my copy of his selected works, I came across this passage that I starred in pencil a long time ago:

“Thy virgin’s girdle now untie,

And in thy nuptial bed (love’s altar) lie

A pleasing sacrifice; now dispossess

Thee of these chains and robes which were put on

T’adorn the day, not thee; for thou, alone,

Like virtue and truth, art best in nakedness;

This bed is only to virginity

A grave, but, to a better state, a cradle;

Till now thou wast but able

To be what now thou art; then that by thee

No more be said, I may be, but I am,

Tonight put on perfection, and a woman’s name.”

I believe this is a photograph taken of a port...

Donne: I don’t just get physical, I get metaphysical. I like my women like I like my truth: naked.

x

From Epithalamions

Advice for Poets

John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester

John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, 17th century rock star poet

If you have any interest in writing poetry, here are a few words of advice from Lord Rochester:

“To write what may securely stand the test

Of being well read over, thrice at least,

Compare each phrase, examine every line,

Weigh every word, and every thought refine,

Scorn all applause the vile rout can bestow

And be content to please those few who know.”

This is a small excerpt from An Allusion to Horace. The 10th Satire of the 1st book.

More on that later.

The Fool Rushes In…

Alexander Pope (21 May 1688 – 30 May 1744) is ...

Alexander Pope (21 May 1688 – 30 May 1744) is generally regarded as the greatest English poet of the eighteenth century, Painting by Michael Dahl. He couldn’t be reached for comment. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

CORRECTION:

Earlier, on MVP:

“Honestly, I don’t know much about Pope, but I will post more as I continue my research. Most of us, however, are familiar with his memorable line, “For fools rush in where angels fear to tread.” Yes — he said that.”

Turns out I made a mistake! My second blog post is subject to my first correction! I extend my apologies to my two loyal readers!

While researching Pope’s An Essay on Criticism in the Encyclopaedia Brittanica Online (I got a free 7-day trial), I came across this:

“The work’s brilliantly polished epigrams (e.g., “A little learning is a dang’rous thing,” “To err is human; to forgive, divine,” and “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.”)  while not original, have become part of the proverbial heritage of the English language.”

So Alexander Pope did not formulate these sayings – he just popularized them in An Essay on Criticism, published when he was 22 years old. I will attempt to improve my fact checking. Thank you for your patience.

Your humble and obedient servant,

MVP

“To err is human; to forgive divine.”

“Fools rush in where angels fear to tread”

“A little learning is a dang’rous thing.”

Who am I to Write a blog on Poetry?

I’m not an academic. When I viewed some blogs by English professors with intimidating credentials and published works, it threw light on the naked inadequacy of my authority. Who am I to write a blog on poetry? I’m not an expert.

But then I convinced myself that this is a strength. You see, there is a problem with academic writing: much of it is deliberately obscure, excessively abstract, and intended for too narrow an audience.

Am I just being a dismissive? No – let me explain. A good writer’s goal is to convey ideas with force and clarity. This is not the agenda of the academic — his first priority is to prove his authority. And one of the best ways to convince others of your intellectual heft is by displaying your erudition with language that is maddeningly hard to follow. Granted, you may be wrestling with complex ideas – but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t strive for elegant simplicity.

Of course, I’m generalizing about a group and a tendency I’ve observed, but it’s an insidious influence that seeps into their writing style and poisons their ability to communicate. Lost in their own language, they wander so far into a thicket of abstractions that I’m not convinced they even know where they are going. The German philosopher Nietzsche sums it up another way: “They muddy the waters to make them look deep.”

The German philosopher Nietzsche sums it up best:

“They muddy the waters to make them look deep.”

He was referring to mystics, but he might as well refer to academics. This is not a blog for academics. This is a blog for the educated layman. I admit my amateur status, and though I want to be your guide, I confess a lot of the territory is unknown to me – but that’s what makes it exciting. I have the time and energy to scout ahead a few miles ahead for you, and point out the sights, and you get to sit back and enjoy. Let us explore together.

Exhibit A:

“…like Blake, Shelley is always alert to the combative possibilities of interweaving an antinomian rhetoric with a dialectic that exposes the inadequacies of both the orthodox in morality and religion and any position that seeks merely to negate orthodoxy by an inversion of categories.” — Harold Bloom, from The Visionary Company: A reading of English Romantic Poetry

Surely there’s a more straightforward way he could have made his point…

17th Century sex poetry

Thomas Otway, a dramatist  whom Lord Rochester befriended in 1675, wrote “The Enjoyment.” I urge you to enjoy his sexy little poem, with its references to “dying” (a metaphor for orgasm).

         THE ENJOYMENT

                         I.

Claspt in the arms of her love,

In vain, alas! For life I strove;

My flutt’ring spirits, wrapt in fire,

     By love’s mysterious art,

Borne on the wings of fierce desire,

     Flew from my flaming heart.

                        II.

Thus lying in a trance for dead,

Her swelling breasts bore up my head;

When waking from a pleasing dream,

     I saw her killing eyes,

Which did in fiery glances seem

     To say, Now Coelia dies!

                        III.

Fainting, she press’d me in her arms,

And trembling lay, dissolv’d in charms;

When, with a shiv’ring voice, she cried,

     Must I alone, then, die?

No, no, I languishing replied,

     I’ll bear thee company.

                        IV.

Melting our souls thus into one,

Swift joys our wishes did out-run:

Then launch’d in rolling seas of bliss,

     We bid the world adieu;

Swearing, by ev’ry charming kiss,

     To be for ever true.

Release The Kraken – Part 1

The Kraken… The word itself — its harsh consonants, its Norwegian etymology, its association with tentacled monstrosity, watery depths and doomed sailors, carries spell-like power.

At least it did until Clash of the Titans hijacked these associations within the pop culture consciousness. The only thing more impressive than its 1981 stop-motion animation was its disregard for mythological storylines.

Let me express my contempt! First: the Kraken is a creature from Norway! What is a legendary Norwegian monster doing in a movie set in the mythological world of the Greeks? Where is the respect? That’s like inserting hobbits in a Harry Potter movie! Second, it doesn’t remotely resemble a cephalopod.

That said, I admit that Clash of the Titans thrilled me as a boy. I still remember when the gate, with its sea-moss encrusted mystery, lifted. The idea of a barred gate hidden under the waves, ready to unleash a monster unto the world, was as potent and original as the creature itself: a dripping collosus with four sinuous arms topped with grasping claws. What a sight! Not to mention the dead, unblinking eyes in that giant, aquatic ape head. Original, yes. But not a Kraken.

The Kraken is surely inspired by the giant squid. Richard Ellis’s book “The Search for the Giant Squid” examines the mythology in detail. I just pulled it off my shelf and came across this footnote:

“The Norwegian word kraken is popularly believed to be derived from a word that means ‘uprooted tree,’ from the similarity of the body and arms of a giant squid to the trunk and roots of a tree, but Jan Haugum, a Norwegian biologist and linguist, has explained to me that the old Norwegian word made its first appearance in Pontoppidan’s 1775 work [The Natural History of Norway], and was used to mean nothing more or less than a “sea monster.” Kraken, by the way, is plural; the singular is krake.”

Footnotes can be fascinating. Anyway, all this serves as a long-winded introduction to a poem by Tennyson.

                       THE KRAKEN

Below the thunders of the upper deep;

Far far beneath in the abysmal sea,

His ancient, dreamless, uninvaded sleep

The Kraken sleepeth: faintest sunlights flee

About his shadowy sides: above him swell

Huge sponges of millennial growth and height;

And far away into the sickly light,

From many a wondrous grot and secret cell

Unnumber’d and enormous polypi

Winnow with giant fins the slumbering green.

There hath he lain for ages and will lie

Battening upon huge seaworms in his sleep,

Until the latter fire shall heat the deep;

Then once by men and angels to be seen,

In roaring he shall rise and on the surface die.

                                                x

Next Week: The Origin of Cthulhu – Inspired by Tennyson?

English: Alfred Tennyson, British poet

English: Alfred Tennyson, British poet (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Caine reads Kipling

Traditional poetry is not all love, daffodils, and nightingales. It can on rare occasions offer solid practical advice, as in Rudyard Kipling’s “If–”

These four lines especially resonate with me:

“If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim,
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same…”

I came across this reading by Michael Caine. He delivers the poem without hamming it up, letting the words speak for themselves. Well done sir.

Rudyard Kipling – If – Michael Caine