Tag: style

For Whom the Hemingway Tolls


I am reading my first Ernest Hemingway novel. For Whom the Bell Tolls. It is good so far. It takes place in Spain. I have read all of his short stories which I love, never any of his novels. People are shocked to hear this, however it is true. Yes, not even The Old Man and the Sea. I know I was supposed to read that in high school like everyone else. I did not. I am not sure why. His style takes some time to get used to but is a welcome change after the rambling sentences of so many other books I have read lately. Did you know Hemingway stood up at a desk to write? This seems appropriate to me. When you think about it it just seems right.

I went to Hemingway’s grave high in Sawtooth mountains of Idaho once. It is a slab in the ground with his name on it. This also seems appropriate to me. Further on down the road there is another memorial to him, a bust resting on a pillar in the woods, next to a creek. All the lands and people he visited in his life, and he is buried in Idaho. This is all I have to say about Hemingway for the moment.

Elizabeth Bishop, “Large Bad Picture”


Remembering the Strait of Belle Isle or
some northerly harbor of Labrador,
before he became a schoolteacher
a great-uncle painted a big picture.

Receding for miles on either side
into a flushed, still sky
are overhanging pale blue cliffs
hundreds of feet high,

their bases fretted by little arches,
the entrances to caves
running in along the level of a bay
masked by perfect waves.

On the middle of that quiet floor
sits a fleet of small black ships,
square-rigged, sails furled, motionless,
their spars like burnt match-sticks.

And high above them, over the tall cliffs’
semi-translucent ranks,
are scribbled hundreds of fine black birds
hanging n‘s in the banks.

One can hear their crying, crying,
the only sound there is
except for occasional sighing
as a large aquatic animal breathes.

In the pink light
the small red sun goes rolling, rolling,
round and round and round at the same height
in perpetual sunset, comprehensive, consoling,

while the ships consider it.
Apparently they have reached their destination.
It would be hard to say what brought them here,
commerce or contemplation.

~ ~ ~

I recently picked up a copy of Elizabeth Bishop’s Complete Poems, and it has been an incredible read so far. What I especially love about her work is her use of rhyme. She doesn’t draw attention to it the way old poets used to, constructing elaborate mechanisms to build rhyme structures into their poems. Bishop uses her rhymes casually but deliberately, like the way you might crack an egg into a frying pan. Rhyme in this fashion adds another level to the wordplay of the poem, amplifying meaning across words and lines, without erecting an artificial structure to hold the thing up. This is exactly why rhyme is used in poetry and why it is so important, a reason often lost on poets across generations.

Jorge Luis Borges, “No eres los otros” (plus a rant on translations)


No te habrá de salvar lo que dejaron
Escrito aquellos que tu miedo implora;
No eres los otros y te ves ahora
Centro del laberinto que tramaron
Tus pasos. No te salva la agonía
De Jesús o de Sócrates ni el fuerte
Siddharta de oro que aceptó la muerte
En un jardín, al declinar el día.
Polvo también es la palabra escrita
Por tu mano o el verbo pronunciado
Por tu boca. No hay lástima en el Hado
Y la noche de Dios es infinita.
Tu materia es el tiempo, el incesante
Tiempo. Eres cada solitario instante.

And in English, translated by yours truly:

The writings left behind by those whom
Your fears implore won’t have to save you;
You are not the others and you see yourself
Now at the center of the labyrinth woven
By your own steps. The agonies of Jesus or
Socrates will not save you, nor will the
Strength of Golden Siddhartha who,
At the end of the day, accepted death
In the garden. The word written
By your hand or the verb spoken
By your lips, these too are dust. Fate has no pity,
And God’s night is infinite.
Your matter is time, ceaseless
Time. You are each solitary moment.

* * *

It’s a beautiful poem, isn’t it? One of my favorites, in any language. The message in it is very important to me too, which is why I felt the need to put it in my own words, so to speak. The current published translation, though useful as a guide for me and my rusty Spanish, I feel did not do justice to Borges’ simple language. The translator (clearly a poet himself) had really gone all poet-y on it and added a great deal of flowery language that was very obviously not in the original poem. Having a pretty decent understanding of Spanish, I understand that a word-for-word translation is both impossible and unwieldy, and that certain certain changes and assumptions must be made in the translation (notably for this poem, any English version loses the beautiful rhyming in Spanish, such as fuerte/muertestrength/death). But to alter a poem, especially one by a master such as Borges, with your own “interpretation” rather than translation is, frankly, insulting to the author and the reader. It somehow implies that the translator knows more what Borges meant than Borges did. It’s important to understand the poet’s intent and adapt it to your language, but I feel it’s more important to let the work speak for itself with as little manipulation as possible.

Look at the last three lines:

Y la noche de Dios es infinita.
Tu materia es el tiempo, el incesante
Tiempo. Eres cada solitario instante.

I wrote it out almost literally:

And God’s night is infinite.
Your matter is time, ceaseless
Time. You are each solitary moment.

The published translation goes:

And the enduring night of God is boundless.
Your matter is time, its unchecked and unreckoned
Passing. You are each solitary second.

Enduring? Unchecked? Unreckoned? Passing? I don’t see these words in the original. I would assume that if Borges wanted those words included, he would have included them. But hey, maybe this person’s translation is better. I mean what do I know. His is published and mine isn’t. It just seems right to take Borges at face value and not dress it up so much.

Paul Muldoon, “Longbones”


When she came to me that night in Damascus Street
she was quite beside herself. Her father was about to die
and his mirror was covered with a sheet

so his spirit might not beat
against it but fly as spirits fly.
When she came to me that night in Damascus Street

Longbones has driven through freezing rain or sleet
all the way from Lurgan. The Lurgan sky
was a mirror covered with a sheet

or a banner trailed by an army in defeat.
Though Longbones was already high
when she came to me that night in Damascus Street

she immediately shook out a neat
little blue or red cartouche until, by and by,
she had covered a mirror with a sheet

of that most valiant dust. Then she would entreat
me not to leave her, as if I
had come to her than night in Damascus Street,

as if I had asked if I might turn up the heat
and tested if the spare bed was dry
by slipping the mirror between the sheets.

Only when she turned to greet
me, wistful and wry,
that night of nights in Damascus Street,

did I remark on the discreet
blue or red teardrop tattooed under her left eye.
She covered the mirror with a sheet

and whispered, “Come, my sweet,”
in a tone as sly as it was shy:
“Come to me now.” That night in Damascus Street

was the last time Longbones and I would meet.
Only later did it strike me why
she would cover the mirror with a sheet.

Only when I looked back on her snow-white feet
and her snow-white thigh
did it come to me, next morning in Damascus Street,
that she herself was the mirror covered with a sheet.

* * *

I love the rhyming in this poem, and the playful (mis)use of the ghazal form. Things like rhyming and ghazals are just not cool anymore, and this poem is cool. It twists and turns you around so you don’t even know which way is up anymore, and then tells you in the end you didn’t even know which way was up in the first place. “Damascus” is such a fantastic word too.

First and Last: Donald Hall


I thought it would be a fun experiment to post the first and last poems in a particular poet’s “collected works” edition. I guess in my mind posting the first poem – and by first I mean oldest, and by oldest I mean when the poet was at his youngest – and last poem will show some shift in maturity and sensibility, maybe a shift from optimism to crankiness, maybe the opposite, maybe a shift in formality and prosody, or lack thereof – or maybe it’ll show nothing at all, and that will be fine too. Anyway, the first poet I chose is Donald Hall, because 1) I think Donald Hall is great, and 2) it was the book sitting closest to me. Also the title of the book nicely sums up the project here: Old and New Poems. The funny thing is this book hardly finds Donald at the end of his career – this is a midway-point greatest hits collection if anything. Since this book you could argue Hall has only become more popular – only a couple years ago he was made the poet laureate of the nation.

I find the first poem especially serendipitous as we just got finished with an epic baseball game at the park, and I can see a day like this being remembered from old man “to old man” in the future. It’s also funny that the “youngest” poem in the book is about an old man. The second poem is not actually the last poem – I know first post and I’m already breaking the rules – but the last poem is much to long to transcribe here (yep, almost every poem you find here has been typed by hand by me – hardly any of them exist online). The last poem is the morbidly titled “Praise for Death” and is a glorious thing, so do track the book down if you can. I should note that as these last poems were written in 1989 Hall had been diagnosed with colon cancer and so was looking death squarely in the face, which, cruel as it is to say, usually makes for great poetry. So this is the penultimate poem, and still a bit longish itself. You could probably argue that Hall’s most obvious change is from short form to long form poetry. Let’s see what else we find:

Old Home Week

Old man remembers to old man
How bat struck ball upon this plain,
Seventy years ago, before
The batter’s box washed out in rain.

This Poem

This poem is why
I lie down at night
to sleep; it is why
I defecate, read,
and eat sandwiches;
it is why I get
up in the morning;
it is why I breathe.

You think (and I know
because you told me)
that poems exist
to say things, as you
telephone and I
write letters – as if
this poem practiced

One time this poem
compared itself to
new machinery,
and another time
to a Holstein’s cud.
Eight times five times eight
counts three hundred and
twenty syllables.

When you require it,
this poem consoles –
the way a mountain
comforts by staying
as it was despite
earthquakes, Presidents,
divorces, and frosts.
Granite continues.

This poem informs
the hurt ear wary
of noises, and sings
to the weeping eye.
When the agony
abates itself, one
may appreciate
arbitrary art.

This poem is here.
Could it be someplace
else? Every question
is the wrong question.
The only answer
saunters down the page
in its broken lines
strutting and primping.

It styles itself not
for the small mirror
of its own regard –
nor even for yours;
to fix appearance;
to model numbers;
to name charity
“the greatest of these.”

All night this poem
knocks at the closed door
of sleep: “Let me in.”
Suppose all poems
contain this poem,
dreaming one knowledge
shaped by the measure
of the body’s word.

* * *

One thing I notice the older poet writing about more and more is, obviously, death. Hall at this point was older, yes, but not of an age to truly face death – however the world had presented him with this cancer, and thus he was forced to accept death prematurely, only to go on living and writing up until the present day. I can’t imagine the effect this has on a person, but the poetry, just two poems, tells us that the person goes from crisp, somewhat weightless, formal (iambic tetrameter) “poetry’s poetry” based on a simple theme to a more casual and rustic exploration of global, universal themes. Poem not as poem but as container of life. I’ll leave you with that, make of it what you will. My well’s run dry on this post so I’ll be back another time.

Gerard Manley Hopkins, “Harry Ploughman”


Hard as hurdle arms, with a broth of goldfish flue
Breathed round; the rack of ribs; the scooped flank; lank
Rope-over thigh; knee-nave; and barrelled shank –
Head and foot, shoulder and shank –
By a grey eye’s heed steered well, one crew, fall to;
Stand at stress. Each limb’s barrowy brawn, his threw
That onewhere curdled, onewhere sucked or sank –
Soared or sank -,
Though as a beechbole firm, finds his, as at a rollcall, rank
And features, in flesh, what deed he each must do –
His sinew-service where do.
He leans to it, Harry bends, look. Back, elbow, and liquid waist
In him, all quail to the wallowing o’ the plough. ‘S cheek crimsons; curls
Wag or crossbridle, in a wind lifted, windlaced –
Churlsgrace too, child of Amansstrength, how it hangs or hurls
Them – broad in bluff hide his frowning feet lashed! raced
With, along them, cragiron under and cold furls –
With-a-fountain’s shining-shot furls.

– – –

Wow. What an incredible poem. I recently picked up a book of Hopkins’ complete poetry. There isn’t much of it, owing to an incident early in his life where he tossed a great volume of his work into a fireplace. What we’re left with is a strange collection of poetry, a haphazard mix of poetry fragments, translations, long poems in Latin (untranslated, thank-you-very-much Oxford Press! We can’t all read Latin, you guys.), prayers and hymns, ballads in the traditional English style, and verses like “Harry Ploughman,” featuring the meter and language Hopkins is most famous for. Hopkins is the original language poet, a great experimenter long before his time. It’s hard to say what this poem is about, not that poems need to be about anything. The poem is a representation of Ploughman (an everyman-type character) in verse, not so much a story about him, but rather a portrait of him in rough consonants and earthy vowels. This poem gives (or attempts to give) an understanding of the character entirely in the abstract, contained in strings of nearly nonsensical words (“onewhere”?) and half-images. At the risk of sounding too enigmatic, it’s precisely the tongue-twisting nature of this poem that contains its meaning. Like I said, though, the poem doesn’t have to mean anything. It’s simply damn fun to read and play with.

More on G.M. Hopkins here.

Editable offense


I came up with a new phrase yesterday. Drew asked me the correct punctuation when making a list: comma before the and – the much-debated “Oxford Comma” – to make lions, tigers, and bears; or no comma (lions, tigers and bears). I said that while I preferred a comma there, and many people do, an equal number of people prefer no comma, and neither punctuation option is an “editable offense,” meaning that if I were editing his paper, I wouldn’t mark it. (The preceding run-on sentences, however, are certainly editable offenses, although fairly mild. Perhaps an editable misdemeanor.) Drew said he liked the phrase “editable offense,” and at that moment I felt terribly clever.

Of course, this is the 21st century, and nothing is new under the sun anymore. These days a milisecond’s worth of Googling will confirm whether your feeling of cleverness is well founded or not.

My moment of cleverness is, I feel, still intact, but with a few dents to the armor. The search “editable offense” returned some hits, but only a couple pages worth, hardly signaling the robust preexistence of this phrase. And just about every hit was in regard to messageboard moderation; meaning, is saying such-and-such an offense worthy of the poster being “moderated” (the deceptively polite 21st century version of “censored”). I didn’t find anything relating to proper editing however, so I declare myself the inventor of the phrase “editable offense.”