Original poem

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Some time ago, while taking a walk in a natural setting, I was seized by an irrational impulse — Poe would call it the “Imp of the Perverse” — to rid myself of my iPhone by hurling into a creek, or dropping it into a clear pool, and watching to see how long it would take for those glittering gem-like app icons to wink out of existence.

Like most healthy people, I have a love-hate relationship with technology, and I wish humanity would make greater attempts to question its utility. The romantic movement was a reaction against industrialization; I hope a new and similar movement will someday take hold in our digital age. There needs to be a backlash on technology’s dominance over our lives and a rediscovery of what it means to be human.

Anyway, this was a poetic attempt on this theme. I don’t know what I’m doing, but I do enjoy the idea of using traditional poetry to address modern subjects. Thanks for visiting!

Rumble Over the Rubaiyat

(This post is part of my ongoing amateur exploration of the Rubaiyat. You might want to check out some of my other posts first)

In the nostalgia section of a local bookstore in Austin, Texas, I came across this …

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It should be entitled: “Why everything about Fitzgerald’s Rubaiyat is wrong.” It was published in 1967, so perhaps some of the issues it raises are closer to being resolved. Or perhaps scholars have ceased to care: the Rubaiyat fad is over. Graves teams up with Omar Ali-Shah, a Persian scholar, whose family owns the manuscript that serves as an earlier and therefore allegedly more accurate source.

I read two of Graves’s most popular works of historical fiction:  I, Claudius and Claudius the God (both of which I would recommend if you’re curious about Roman history). Graves (1895-1985) was a poet, scholar, writer and translator, WWI soldier and author of many works.

Yet all his formidable achievements make his assault on a poetic phenomenon and its author seem petty. Palpably angry, Graves and Ali-Shah share a clear agenda: to reclaim a work that has been done a disservice at the hands of an inept translator, who has not only mangled the words, but warped the very meaning of Omar Khayyam’s spiritual poetry, which is steeped in Sufi mysticism:

“For four generations, indeed, by an evil paradox, Omar Khayaam’s mystical poem has been erroneously accepted throughout the West as a drunkard’s rambling profession of a hedonistic creed: ‘let us eat and drink for tomorrow we die.’ Khayaam is also credited with a flat denial either that life has any ultimate sense or purpose, or that the Creator can be, in justice, allowed any of the mercy, wisdom or perfection illogically attributed to Him; which is precisely the opposite view to that expressed in Khayaam’s original.”

What about all the references to wine and drinking? Well, they can be explained by way of subtle Sufi metaphor: it’s only a figurative drunkenness that Khayyam speaks of — what he is really referring to is the intoxication of divine love. I’m not sure I buy it. The co-authors make some valid points — especially about the liberties Fitzgerald took —  but nevertheless, their petulant tone and personal attacks undermine their argument. If you read between the lines, it’s also not clear that their premise is even accepted by a majority of scholars in the field.

I fear that interpreting Khayyam is as fruitless as interpreting Jesus. I could plunge into a study of early Christianity, learn ancient Greek, and still not arrive at definitive answers. Turning to existing authorities, I would encounter a range of biases — can scholars of religion truly be dispassionately objective? It seems everyone wants to claim Khayyam, be it Epicurean Englishman, mystic Sufi, or angry atheist. And Khayyam’s skepticism of religious authorities is apt to raise the hackles of pious Muslims and uptight Christians alike. It makes me throw up my hands in despair!

The biggest argument I can make against “The Original Rubaiyat” would infuriate this sincere, if overzealous duo: Fitzgerald is more fun. I don’t care about poetic credentials — or even accuracy! — Graves’ translation can’t compete! A cook doesn’t get points for accurately following the recipe of an ancient chef: diners only want to know if it tastes good now. Millions and millions of people ordered the Fitzgerald special. Sure he left out a lot of ingredients, and added some of his own, but people are still savoring his dish.

Poetry’s Decline and Irrelevance

Jeremy Paxman says poets must start engaging with ordinary people

I came across this report in The Guardian, a British newspaper I hold in great esteem, because they do actual investigative journalism.

This June 1, 2014 article features statements made by broadcast journalist Jeremy Paxton, known for his provocative interviewing style. Because I live in the U.S., I don’t know who he is, but he seems well-known in the U.K. (I watched entertaining YouTube clips of him tenaciously hammering away at his evasive guests. He is rather persistent.) It  is with pleasure that I learned of his call for poets to be held to account.

At Man Verses Poetry, my staff and myself respond to modern poetry with indifference, if not outright hostility. Correction: I don’t have a staff. I also make no claims to be an authority on poetry, but like Paxman, I believe all artists should be held accountable for their work.
Yes, sometimes art is not appreciated because the common people are Philistines — I get that. But then again, sometimes a form of expression is justifiably marginalized because it is no longer relevant, and its existing practitioners are feeble and inept. The limited encounters I’ve had with modern poetry have convinced me that most of it lacks power and vitality — or even discipline in its creation.

                                        If it weren’t for its tell-tale layout
                                        on the printed page, a reader might not even be aware
                                        that what they’re reading
                                        is poetry.
                                        There are no rules anymore,
                                        artistic expression
                                        without limits and
                                        without structure

The reasons for poetry’s decline merit further investigation. But to speculate: for one thing, every form of art has its heyday. It arrives, it flourishes, it declines. Sure, it might linger, settling into senescence, but the enthusiasm and tradition that sustained it has faded. Classical music peaked, and so did jazz.  Television, video games, animation and comic books, on the other hand, are forms of cultural expression on the ascendancy. Where readers once became lost in a novel, viewers now binge on a season of television episodes over a weekend. And while I maintain that TV shows rely heavily on titillating sex and/or violence to attract viewers, their plot structures and characters have become more complex and compelling. (And of course, you can argue that sex and violence have always had a place in the arts.) Cartoons and comic books, once only considered suitable fare for children, have graduated to a higher level. Fifty years ago, no one predicted the “graphic novel.” And finally, video games have come a long way since Pong, and they are evolving beyond providing mere adrenaline thrills.
This brings me to my next bit of speculation (which owes a debt to Neil Postman),  and that is this: visual language is becoming more important than the written word. The written word, in turn, is responsible for poetry’s decline, for it displaced a previous oral tradition in which poetry flourished. Rhymes, chants, stories and proverbs are helpful to memory in a world where there are no books to consult. And books lose primacy when you can simply google or watch a YouTube video. Again, the visual is pushing aside the written, which replaced the oral. Of course, all three will remain with us, but the visual predominates. People don’t quote poems anymore, they quote lines from movies. Visual images form our cultural frame of reference: even if you don’t watch television shows, you are familiar with their names and main characters.
Another example: A coworker of mine, over 10 years younger than myself, liberally infuses her blog posts with GIF files. She’s employing visual references to popular movies to make her points. If she was a writer from 100 years ago, she might make passing references to Greek myths, with the assumption that her audience is familiar with them. This is no longer the case. If Americans know about Greek myths at all, its likely due to watching Clash of the Titans.
None of this is necessarily cause for despair. The Internet will become faster; pixel density will increase. Myths will be forgotten. The children will stop learning cursive, just as they have stopped learning Greek and Latin. In lieu of this, however, they will be fluent in computer code, design apps in middle school, and change the world in their own way.
I also believe they will return to poetry. Just as the Romantic movement reacted against the dehumanizing aspects of the Industrial Revolution, I do believe another movement will emerge to counter and resist the dominance of technology in the digital era. People will want to break free from their screens, and return to things that matter —  it’s already happening.
We  just need leaders to show the way. And we need the modern poetasters to try harder.



The Curse of the Great Omar

The Harry Ransom Center in Austin, Texas, has one of the largest collections of Rubaiyat-related materials in the world. But there is one book it doesn’t have: The Great Omar, a specially crafted edition whose covers are embedded with 1,050 jewels. This dryly informative video delivers quite a jolt when the fate of  this unique book and the man who made it are revealed.

rubaiyat - vedder

Elihu Vedder, an American artist, was the first illustrator of the Rubaiyat.