Wednesday, July 29, 2009

what a difference a word makes?

I thought he said:

give you guitar lessons?

but what he really said was:

Do you give guitar lessons?

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

milton and the Nipple nazi#2

If Milton is rendered into prose, does that mean, somewhere, there is a Finnegans Wake for dummies? Even now is someone plodding through Ulysses reducing it to “Everyday English”; the literary equivalent of “Rory Gallagher for Easy Guitar” or “Jimi Hendrix in Three Chords”. The thought of a prose version of Milton has been nagging at me all day. It’s like studying Jane Eyre by watching the BBC version and thinking the book is then unnecessary. (There are times when the Eyre Affair or the awful film version of the Dumas Club are entertaining in their own right. There are times when Meatloaf the band is essential listening. So I’m not saying that we should only have the most difficult and the rest is dross. There are filmed versions of Jane Eyre which are excellent films. But the novel they ain’t. ) In Thom Gunn’s poem “Expression” the narrator has been reading “The poetry of my juniors”. “It is very poetic poetry” says our narrator, who heads for the art museum, not knowing what he’s looking for until he sees “an Early Italian Altar Piece’. “the sight quenches, like water after too much birthday cake.” Which is a what Heaney calls, somewhere else, a “mind clearing simile”. Listening to Bach’s partitas for solo violin, or his Cello Suites. Or reading Joyce after listening to the Tv/radio presenters…Like wading though so much “poetic poetry” to find the pure drop. In Zbnigiew Herbert’s “Why the Classics.” if art for its subject will have a broken jar a small broken soul with a great self pity what will remain after us will be like lovers weeping in a small dirty hotel when wall paper dawns.'   As Mr. Cogito says in his envoy: 'repeat humanity’s old incantations fairy tales and legends for that is how you will attain the good you will not attain repeat great words repeat them stubbornly like those who crossed a desert and perished in the sand.'  A literary education should be about creating choices. But I don’t see how you can explain why some people think poetry is worthwhile if you turn it into prose so they can read it like a newspaper. How does anyone develop generic competence (in this case the skills, knowledge and reading practices called on when reading poetry) if they don’t engage with poem as poem?

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Milton and the Nipple nazi

Milton and the Nipple Nazi is an article on the rendering of Milton's paradise lost into prose. You can read it


I agree with her, about the Milton. I'm no in a position to comment on the nipple nazi. If you need a prose gloss for a poem, you aren't reading the poem.
(I'm Old! I'm allowed to say things like that. I can grumble about people who feel the need to "modernise" medieval texts to "make them relevant' and laugh rudely at people who say traditional songs have no "contemporary relevance". ) It's funny how certain texts get an off putting reputation. I was put off Milton by having to read Samson Agonistes for A level. It wasn't difficult: it just wasn't interesting for a seventeen year old. Satan in hell would have been a very different proposition.

But what's frightening (he grumbled on in his old man grumblings) is the idea that instead of saying to an undergraduate: make the effort, it may hurt, you may fail, but you're not going to learn anything unless you make a sustained effort, someone goes to the lengths of writing a prose translation to save the poor darlings the trouble.

Milton might be boring; like Wagner, there are great moments lost in hours of sludge; he may make your teeth ache ideologically and theologically; his god is smug and unloveable and his devil fascinating; but difficult to read? Compared to what?

oronyms and mondegreens curiouser and curiouser

‘…The columnist Jon Carrol has called a mondegreen, after his mis-hearing of the folk ballad “The Bonnie Earl o’Moray”;
oh ye hielands and ye lowlands
Oh where ha ye been?
They have slain the earl fo Moray
And Laid him on the green”
He had always thought the that the lines were “they have slain the earl of Moray, and Lady Mondegreen”. (The language instinct. Pinker 1994)

However, at :

I find the following:

A series of words that result from the mishearing or misinterpretation of a statement or song lyric; for example, "I led the pigeons to the flag" for "I pledge allegiance to the flag."
The term mondegreen; representing a series of words resulting from the mishearing of a statement or song lyric, is generally attributed to Sylvia Wright, who is credited with coining the neologism in a 1954 Harper magazine column. Ms. Wright was not pleased to discover that for many years she had misunderstood the last line of the first stanza in the Scottish folk ballad "The Bonny Earl of Murray", which is written as:
Ye Highlands and ye Lawlands,
Oh! Where ha'e ye been:
They ha'e slain the Earl of Murray,
And they laid him on the Green.

Ms. Wright misheard this stanza as:

Ye Highlands and ye Lawlands,
Ye Highlands and ye Lawlands,
Oh! Where ha'e ye been:
They ha'e slain the Earl of Murray,
And Lady Mondegreen.

From the disappearance of Sylvia Wright's tragic heroine, Lady Mondegreen, came the term for describing many unconventional interpretations or understandings of oral repetition, usually in the form of song lyrics.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Bard Of Erin #2(Thomas Moore, Leofric, Godiva etc)

Like all good biographies, this one exposes the problem of the art.
At its heart, there is an assumption there is a knowable subject and certain sources can reveal it. A literary Biography has to be more than a chronology. We want to know the links between life and works, what drove this writer, what made him or her who they were. But what does it mean to recreate a character? What does ‘who they were” mean? Was the Thomas Moore Byron knew, the same as the one known to Powers or Bessy? Was one version any more “authentic” than the other?
How much of a life leaves any kind of public trace? Imagine your life reconstructed from the available evidence? How revealing would that evidence be?
Since a biography is based on the availability of certain types of records and certain assumptions about them, it’s why there are fine biographies of the Romantic poets, many nineteenth century writers, and then up to about the end of the first half of the twentieth century. It will be interesting to see how or if the literary biography will survive the death of print culture. Will future biographers cull face book for information?
Letters, journals, press cuttings, comments by and comments about, gossip in print: the nineteenth writer lived in a torrent of printed words. But where these are missing, even literate subject s fall into a black hole. Kelly ruefully points out that in the early years when Moore is in Ireland, and not writing to his mother and friends who lived there, it’s difficult to know what was going on. We still don’t know why Byron did a runner, though each generation is ready to offer a possible solution. Even so short and so scrutinised a life’s as Keats has blanks in it that raise tantalising questions about the type of person he might have been.
The further back you go, the harder it is to find anyone. The less they are royalty or involved in “the major events of the day” the harder it gets. There are numerous biographies of Shakespeare, but little is known about him. Go beyond that and you’re in the dark ages in more ways than one. The trace that even royalty left in the Anglo-Saxon period is slight; it takes decades of devoted research through charters to find a signature in a witness list to say that (if the charter is genuine) x was in Y on this particular date. With royalty there’s an outside chance that a chronology is possible. But character? Personality? Their thoughts about what was going on? To answer the question: what were these people like? Forget it. Step off the royal podium and chances are they are just a name. Godgifu, wife of Leofric of Mercia. Leofric is almost absent from the chronicles; a few events, a few signatures, some donations, a role in someone else’s miracles. His wife gets her own entry in Domesday Book, is remembered for her generosity to some religious houses and as the woman who rode naked round Coventry.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

a bad attack of rabid punes

In Disc World, Death is fascinated by humans, and one aspect of humanity he’d like to participate in but consistently fails is the ability to make puns, or punes as he sometimes calls them.
Shakespeare loved Punes, in fact he’s been criticised for never passing up on the opportunity to make one. Punning taken to the limit is called Finnegans Wake. And if it was good enough for those two, I don’t need to apologise for liking them.

One type of pun now has a name: an oronym. Strings of sound that can be carved in to words in different ways. Dictionaries are silent on the matter but the example everyone seems to give is:
The stuffy nose can lead to problems
The stuff he knows can lead to problems.

However, my favourites are bilingual..the famous Mots d’Heures: Gousses, Rames
Even if you don’t speak French reading the following in your best fake French accent and thinking of well known nursery rhymes should make the joke obvious:

Un Petit d’un Petit
S’etonne aux halles
Un petit d’un petit
Ah! Degres te fallent .

So the challenge is to write something in English that has one sense and yet its sound creates another…

A lisp oak “Hein he Dead you
Too old Me Four Play sure
After six You will Act if it
He’s leaping.”

Hurm…might take some time here.

Bard Of Erin

Bard Of Erin
(The life and times of Thomas Moore: by Ronan Kelly).
Kelly’s first book, and an enviable start. It’s unfair to compare him to Holmes, but apart from the absence of a bibliography, he’s done a fine job. (Why would anyone publish a biography without a bibliography? How can someone like me plunder it for further reading if it ain’t there to plunder. And yes, there are pages of notes and their sources but that is not the same thing!)
Names accumulate their own bits and pieces and Moore is linked in odd ways to odd things in my memory. I had to wade though them while reading.
1) Primary school singing lessons, when we listened attentively to a radio broadcast with our “Booklets”, learning to sing “The Meeting of the Waters” and “The Minstrel Boy”. My introduction to The Irish Melodies. Their plastic paddy element makes me uncomfortable, as does the overt sentimentality, reinforced by what of think of as the John McCormack style of singing they induce. They are drawing room songs and the distance between the ugly realties of history and the glossy words is perhaps too great. But I like some of the lyrics he wrote. Like Campion’s or Dowland’s lyric writer’s, they work as song lyrics in ways they can’t on the page.
2) The Muldoon reading Byron’s “My boat is on the shore/my bark is on the sea/but before I go Tom Moore/ Here’s a double health to three”. While this is one of the great friendship poems, since I heard it, Byron has an Irish accent. This does weird things to Don Juan and seems beyond incongruous.
3) Bloom’s Joke about Tommy’s roguish statue wagging its finger over the meeting of the waters…the urinal is gone but the statue hasn’t. Nor has Kavanagh’s poem about it.
4) His roles as both the recipient of some of Byron’s best letters and as chief villain of Byron biographers for his participation in the burning of the famous autobiography, and his fudging some of his sources in his own, equally famous biography.
5) Martin Simspon's arrangement of "Believe me if all those endearing young charms".

Kelly writes well. The narrative keeps going, the discussion of the works, most of which I knew very little about, is enough to make me think I should read Lalla Rookh and maybe find a copy of the Byron Biography. He can turn a phrase neatly, with what his subject would have described as wit.
He doesn’t fall into the trap of expecting his subject’s politics to be either easy to label nor does he feel obliged to hammer Moore or to sit in judgement on him. He records his opponents’ comments and leaves it to the reader. There’s enough information for a range of reactions.

Why people expect a man’s political opinions at seventeen to be unchanged at forty seven is something I don’t understand, but it belongs with the school of commentators who would damn Galileo’s cringing from the instruments of the inquisition from the safety of their computer screens.

Given the lack of drugs, scandal or an early death, Moore's not a dramatic subject for a biography. Given his almost complete disappearance from the poetic canon most readers are unlikely to be familiar with his poetry either. So it’s worth being reminded of the huge advance for Lalla Rookh ($3000 pounds) and its popularity. Or that he could be spoken of as being equal to Byron (as well as Rogers, Bowles and Scott at a time when no one was bothering too much about Shelley and Keats). (I confess to being jealous of his advance for Lalla Rookh. 3,000 pounds. Forget fiddling with relative prices and calculations for inflation etc …3,000 pounds today would be more than acceptable as an advance for a poetry book. Please.Thank you)

Moore appears as a hard working, professional writer though obviously a bit vague at the contractual end of the business. Like Coleridge, he knew he had to worship the giants bread and cheese, and while he lacked STC’s brilliance he certainly outdid him in terms of work ethic and, perhaps more painfully, in finishing projects. The fact that he was a happily married man and took his family responsibilities seriously almost counts against him . A kind man, a nice man, a good fellow. Far better to be mad bad and dangerous to know. Of all the romantics he sounds like one of the few I’d like to have round for dinner on a regular basis.

Part of the strength of the biography is the way it effortlessly evokes that strange world of talkers and scribblers. The poets, many of whom have been forgotten despite their popularity, dining out on their reputations, gossiping about lady d-, trading epigrams and insults which lead to farcical duels with unloaded pistols at dawn, journalising and letter writing, taking off on grand tours to see the appropriate sights and have the appropriate reactions, keeping the local whores in business, while sloshing the local wine and dashing off another three volume poem for the lady readers at home. It’s the sheer volume of words that is astonishing. Byron's letters take up twelve. And that's the ones that survived.

This is getting too long. Moore later.

Friday, July 3, 2009

shake hands with the devil#2

Blues Guitar players in the delta went to the crossroads at midnight and traded soul for the ability to play. If you were poor and desperate it seems like a reasonable deal. Though I’d stipulate that I had to sound so good people didn’t say: hey, you sound just like Martin Simpson….

The folk story versions usually have the clever peasant or the dumb peasant’s clever wife outwitting the devil. (Martin Carthy’s “devil and the feathery wife” being a fine example)

But the literary paradigms are less interesting. Faust is simply greedy and we all know he’s going to get screwed at the end. He simply isn’t likeable and his actions are petty. There’s something adolescent about his bargain: Gimme Everything: NOW! (and why Helen of Troy? Leaving aside the problem of whether ideals of beauty in 13th century BC Greece are yours, after the novelty wears off how is Helen of Troy in a penthouse in Paris any better than Helen of Totnes in a bed sit in Brixton?) Anyway.

Enter Maturin. Another Irishman. The names dominate 19th century gothic: Maturin, Le Fanu, Stoker. The latter is the best known but the other two are as good as he is and Le Fanu is easily the better writer. Which raises the question: Why is Dracula so popular: the Wanderer is a more interesting character and Carmilla the better vampire story? And why did th eirish get so drawn to this genre?

There’s phds in there somewhere.

Anyway, Melmoth. The twist; the Wanderer can save himself if he can find someone else so desperate that they will take on his bargain. So Melmoth haunts mad houses and prisons, the starving and desperate, the love lost and forlorn… and everybody turns him down. Like stoker’s Dracula he is “off stage” for most of the narrative, and like Dracula, he gains in mystery and force from that. Like Dracula, the end is anti climatic.
The narrative progresses through a series of nested stories.

So first some attempt to set them out.
The frame itself is straightforward.
A) John Melmoth goes to his uncle’s house.
B) Uncle dies.
C) Jm inherits house. Stays there. Reads garbled narrative.
D) One stormy night watching a shipwreck he is rescued by the Spaniard, Moncada
E) Who tells him his story over a number of days.
F) The Wanderer appears, cuts short the story telling, and dies.

But in this are embedded other stories, each of which obviously pre-exists the main time frame.
(E) Moncada tells his own story up to the point where he is saved by the Jew and is asked to read another story.
E1Moncada beaks his own story, which is never resumed, to tell John Melmoth this story of Imalee up to her first death on the island. Then the story appears to break but actually continues. Imalee, now Isadora, re-encounters the Wanderer and their story continues up to the night of their “marriage” when the story once again breaks.
E2 Moncada, still narrating the story he read, introduces the story of Imalee’s father, Don Francisco’s, journey. Although ostensibly the same story as E1, the break is such that it becomes a separate sequence. This story is itself broken:
E3 The stranger at the inn tells Don F the story of Guzman and the Walbergs. The Don continues his journey, gets lost and meets the Wanderer..
E4 The Wanderer, in an attempt to save Imalee from himself, tells her father the story of the Mortimers, which itself is broken by
E5 The narrative of the priest who tells of Melmoth’s first death and hints at a Faust like bargain.
E4 finishes with the father missing the point.
E6 Because Imalee’s father is dense the Wanderer now tells the father the father’s story.
E1 resumes the night after the marriage and continues until Imalee’s death in the hands of the Inquisition.
F) Cuts short the story telling. The Wanderer tells in the present something of his story and the book comes to an end.

In terms of narrators and audiences it is superficially complicated; John Melmoth is Moncada’s audience, but in e2, 3, 4 and 6 the audience is her father. In e5 the story is told by the priest to Elaine in a story told by the wanderer to the father which is being told by Moncada to John Melmoth in a story written by Maturin to me……