December 13, 2011

Christopher Logue (1926-2011) R.I.P.

(c) Jackson, Getty Images
I was saddened to recently learn that the British poet, Christopher Logue, died on December 2, 2011.  On December 10th, The New York Times ran a terrific obituary for Mr. Logue, and I've included a link to it here.  My first encounter with Logue's poetry occurred during my literary exploration of the various translations of Homer's The Iliad.  In fact, since 1959, Christopher Logue has been working on his interpretation or adaptation of significant portions of The Iliad, using his spare, but image-rich poetry to retell this great classic.

If you're looking to acquire all of Mr. Logue's 'Iliad' poetry, here is what you'll need to find--
War Music--An Account of Books 1-4 & 16-19 of Homer's 'Iliad' (1997);
All Day Permanent Red--The First Battle Scenes of Homer's 'Iliad' (2003); and
Cold Calls--War Music Continued (2005)
These three volumes of poetry are shelved with my seven different translations of The Iliad, and with Alice Oswald's Memorial (written about here) and David Malouf's beautiful novel Ransom.  They most certainly do all belong together on the shelf.

If you're interested in learning more about Christopher Logue, his poetry, and his 'Iliad' project, you might be interested in reading my review and assessment of All Day Permanent Red--The First Battle Scenes of Homer's 'Iliad' Rewritten here.  While a mere fifty pages in length, this thin volume holds some amazingly powerful poetry.  It proceeds relentlessly at near breakneck speed, and leaves the reader panting and gasping for air about an hour later as the last page is turned.

Somehow I think recounting Logue's portrayal of the Myrmidon's bearing the dead body of their comrade-in-arms, Patroclus, is appropriate--
"Starred sky. Calm sky.
Only the water's luminosity
Marks the land's end.

A light is moving down the beach.
It wavers. Comes towards the fleet.
The hulls like upturned glasses made of jet.

Is it a god?

No details

Yet.

Now we can hear a drum.

And now we see it:
Six warriors with flaming wands,
Eight veteran bearers, and one prince,
Patroclus, dead, crossed axes on his chest,
Upon a bier.
Gold on the wrists that bear the prince aloft.
Tears on the cheeks of those who lead with wands.
Multiple injuries adorn the corpse.
And we, the army, genuflect in line."

(War Music, pages 196-197)
Requiescat in pace, Mr. Logue, your voice will be missed.

***

November 29, 2011

Adventures in My 'Mother Tongue': Middle English--Part 2

For the past few weeks I have been having an absolute ball teaching myself to read and comprehend the literature written in Middle English.  Middle English (ME) is the form of English that was commonly used, both spoken and written, in Britain from about the time of the Norman Conquest in 1066 until about 1500 A.D.  ME, like present day English, is an amalgamation, or blending, of Anglo-Saxon (i.e., Old English), Old Norse, Old French, and many Latin 'loan words'.  As with most languages, ME is a language comprised of dialects, and five major dialects have generally been identified.  Probably the best known writer during this time was Geoffrey Chaucer (1343-1400), and his works are written in the southern dialect, and specifically that dialect classified as "East Midland", and it was this dialect that became somewhat standardized over time and used throughout Britain.  In contrast, the Arthurian epic alliterative poem, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, that I have been slowly translating was written in the northern, or "West Midland" dialect, and shows a much closer relationship to its Anglo-Saxon and Welsh roots in Old English.

The ME alphabet is largely the same as that used by present day English, with the notable exception of a couple of additional characters that were in use through much of the ME period.  The first character is the "yogh", and is depicted with the Ȝ, and can indicate the sound of the letter 'y' or the consonant grouping 'gh' like in 'knight'.  In the ME alphabet the Ȝ or ȝ is found between 'g' and 'h'.  The other character commonly used in ME is "thorn" and is indicated by the character Þ and þ, and represents the consonant grouping 'th' like that in 'that', 'this', 'other', or 'the'.  The letter þ is located immediately after the letter 't' in the ME alphabet.  Believe it or not, with time it becomes pretty easy to read the original ME and make the translation mentally.  Apparently, there is a bit of a movement afoot to try and bring back the Ȝ for use in present day English as it has a much more explicit usage for that particular sound and consonant grouping.  There's also still a bit of the ME character "thorn" or þ sneaking about even today.  When you see a sign like "Ye Olde Book Shoppe" above your favorite bookstore, that "Ye" is actually "þe" (i.e., "the").  The early scribes hand-wrote the "thorn" symbol much of the time such that it looked like a "y".  Grammatically it makes much more sense that the sign would read "The Olde Book Shoppe" too.  There's a nifty bit of trivia for you!

The spelling and pronunciation of ME is fascinating too.  It really is largely phonetic, and spelling seems to have been somewhat variable among dialects and usage.  Bear in mind that for much of the time that ME was prevalent that it really had much more in common, from a pronunciation perspective, with continental languages like French, Italian, and even the liturgical Latin.  However, during the 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries there occurred what is known as the "Great Vowel Shift" in English.  It was largely this change in the spoken values of the long vowels that marked the transition from Middle English to Modern English.  Generally, the long vowel sounds in ME were as follows:
/a:/ as in modern 'father'
/ε:/ as in French 'bête' ('open e', roughly as in modern 'there')
/e:/ as in French 'thé' ('close e', roughly as in modern 'say')
/i:/ as in modern 'see'
/Ɔ:/ roughly as in modern 'broad' ('open o')
/o:/ as in French 'eau' ('close o', roughly as in modern 'go')
/u:/ as in modern 'do'
So, you can really see that things have changed a lot from the days of Chaucer or the anonymous Gawain-poet and the English that they spoke, read and wrote to that which we read, write and speak today.  Once you become used to the sounds of the Middle English vowels, particularly the long vowels, in use prior to the Great Vowel Shift, you're well on your way to at least grasping the basic gist of ME. 

It is has been quite fascinating to see so many words that we commonly use in present day English are there in ME.  They are maybe just a little 'camouflaged',  but the meaning can generally be ferreted out.  I have found that it really, really helps to read these passages aloud, especially on those sections where I am kind of stuck. By simply reading it aloud, you can sometimes 'hear' the meaning of the word.  I know, it sounds crazy, but it does work.  Having a good glossary doesn't hurt either.

Here are two lines from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight that may help illustrate some of what I am referring to with respect to the phonetic nature of Middle English--
"He sperred þe sted with þe spurez and sprong on his way,
So stif þat þe stone-fyr stroke out þerafter."
(Lines 670-671)
The literal translation--
"He spurred the steed with the spurs and sprang on his way,
So vigorously that the stone-fire [sparks] struck out thereafter."
At first glance the two lines appear to be fairly wonky and unintelligible.  But if you kind of puzzle on them for a few moments and then slowly sound them out things start becoming more clear.  Interestingly enough, even in translation the alliterative poetic scheme of the lines are largely maintained (i.e., the 'sp' sound of the first line, and the 'st' sound of the second line).  I am nearly 600 lines into the poem and my vocabulary and understanding of ME grammar has markedly improved.  I find that I am not referring to the glossary nearly as much as I did early on in the project.

So, you ask, precisely why am I translating Sir Gawaine and the Green Knight?  First, I am using the exercise of translating the poem from the Middle English text as a learning tool to actually teach myself Middle English (the autodidact that I am).  Second, I have read five different translations of the poem, and they are all quite different, and some are clearly better than others, and I'm very interested in better understanding why there is this great disparity in translations of the poem.  Finally, I not only want to be able to read Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales and Troilus and Criseyde in the original Middle English, as well as all of the works of the Gawaine-poet, but I'd also like to use my knowledge of Middle English as a spring-board to learning to read and understand Beowulf in the original Anglo-Saxon, i.e., kind of keep working my way back in time and language.

I plan to do some more postings associated with my 'Sir Gawaine' and Middle English experiences over the next few weeks.  I would like to do a post that critically compares and contrasts the major translations of this important Arthurian epic, and what I liked and disliked.  I also hope to share some of my own literal translation of the poem from the Middle English text and subsequent interpretation into something that is meaningful and relevant, yet respectful of the original intent of the anonymous Gawaine-poet in the late 14th century.  At my present rate of translation, it looks like it will take a couple of months to complete the literal word-for-word translation.  The harder task, I think, will be the line-by-line reinterpretation of the poem, and I anticipate that this phase of the project will take many months.  The project has been a blast so far, and I am thoroughly enjoying working on it a little bit each and every day.

In summary, if you think you might be interested in learning more about Middle English--and I hope that some of you will be--I'd like to provide a brief reading list that might make it more fun for you.  You might consider looking into the following books and reference materials--

Middle English:
A Book of Middle English, Third Edition, by J.A. Burrow and Thorlac Turville-Petre, 2005.
An Introduction to Middle English, Simon Horobin and Jeremy J. Smith, 2003.

Geoffrey Chaucer:
The Canterbury Tales, by Geoffrey Chaucer, edited by Jill Mann, 2005.
Troilus and Criseyde, by Geoffrey Chaucer, edited by Andrea Denny-Brown, 2005.
A Chaucer Glossary, by Norman Davis, Douglas Gray, Patricia Ingham, and Anne Wallace-Hadrill, 1991.

Sir Gawaine and the Green Knight:
Sir Gawaine and the Green Knight, Middle English text, edited by J.R.R. Tolkien and E.V. Gordon, 1925; second edition edited by Norman Davis, 1967.
Sir Gawaine and the Green Knight, translated by J.R.R. Tolkien, 1975.
Sir Gawaine and the Green Knight; Patience; Pearl, translated by Marie Borroff, 2001.
 Sir Gawaine and the Green Knight, translated by W.S. Merwin, 2002. 

***

November 20, 2011

A Bit of Prose on Prosody--Part 1: The Structure of Poetry--Meter & Line

'News Flash!'--I like poetry.  That certainly won't come as much of a surprise to any even casual readers of ProSe.  In fact, I tend to view poetry as the highest literary art form.  While I can honestly say that I always 'liked' poetry, even as a grade-schooler, it wasn't until I really started reading and studying poetry that I truly began to love poetry.  I currently have something around 100 volumes of poetry, including a few anthologies, sitting on my bookshelves.  I tend to read as much poetry each week as I do other literary forms.  While it isn't particularly popular in the realm of the book-blogosphere, I like to post poems that I like or describe poets and their works that I have recently discovered.

As some readers are aware, I recently started a regular weekly project featuring the poetry of Emily Dickinson (see my postings associated with The Dickinson Project), and in those postings I describe and discuss not only her beautiful poems, but also try and focus on Dickinson's interesting poetic techniques, as well as the craft of poetry itself.  I am also getting set to start another regular weekly project focusing on the 154 sonnets written by William Shakespeare.  I am very excited about both of these projects, as they involve two poets that are especially near and dear to my own heart.

It struck me though, that it might be useful to spend a little bit of time and talk about the "science and art of poetry"--also known as Prosody.
"prosody 1. the science or art of versification, including the study of metrical structure, stanza forms, etc. 2. a particular system or style of versification and metrical structure."

(Webster's New World Dictionary, Third College Edition, 1988)
So, the remainder of this post is going to 'wax prosodic' and discuss some of the primary elements associated with prosody.  It is my hope that by having a better understanding of some of the terms and definitions associated with the different types of poetry, the structure of a poem, as well as the craft of poetry itself will help some readers gain a new appreciation for this beautiful literary art form.

Simply put, I would define a poem as an arrangement of words in a rhythmic fashion that expresses one's thoughts, feelings or ideas, and often incorporates the use of meter, metaphor, and may involve the use of alliteration, rhyming or other schemes.  I'm quite sure that there are other (and probably better) definitions of what a poem is out there, but this will suffice for my purposes.

I think that the logical place to start is with the structure of a poem.  A poem is generally comprised of lines of words arranged in such a fashion to take advantage of latent rhythms associated with the syllables and stresses in those words.  This gets us to meter.  Meter can be thought of as the quantitative measure of the rhythmic quality of the line of poetry being looked at, and is really just the organized succession of syllables at quasi-regular intervals in the line.  The unit of measure is known as the metrical foot.  The foot is typically associated with the accented syllable, and the number of feet in a line then yields the meter used in that line.  For example, five feet in a line of poetry is known as pentameter, and is a very common form in English poetry.  Homer's ancient Greek sets up well for hexameter, i.e., six beats-per-line, and this was what Homer used for The Iliad.  Not that I would know first-hand, but apparently it is fairly difficult to translate the poem from the original Greek and present it in hexameter in English.  Anyway, it is theoretically possible that one could have poems written in monometer, dimeter, trimeter, tetrameter, and so forth.  The old Norse and Icelandic 'saga' poetry (e.g., Poetic Edda) is a pretty good example of poetry that was largely written in tetrameter, i.e., four-beats-per-line, and it is generally often alliterative too (more on that later).  Generally though, the poetry that an English-speaking reader will commonly encounter today will include the following metrical types: no meter (i.e., free verse), tetrameter, pentameter, and hexameter.

I also want to spend a moment or two on the different types of metrical feet that one can encounter being used in poetry.  It gets a little complicated here, but bear with me and I'll do my best to make sense of it all.  Apparently, there are twenty-eight different types of metrical feet that have been utilized in poems written over the ages.  Fortunately, in the English-language poetry that is typically written and read there are five types of poetic feet, and include the iamb, anapest, trochee, dactyl, and spondee.

An iambic metrical foot is the most common foot, and consists of two syllables, a short or unaccented syllable followed by a long or accented syllable.  For an example, I am going to use the first line from John Keats' Ode to a Nightingale--
"My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains"
The bolded words, or letters, indicate the stressed syllables.  As we have five unstressed/stressed pairs in this line of poetry, we are looking at a classic example of "iambic pentameter".  See, its not so hard.

An anapestic metrical foot is made up of two unstressed or short syllables followed by one long or accented syllable.  Here's an example you'll quite likely recognize--
"Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house"
Again, the bolded words or syllables indicate the end of the anapestic foot; and as we have four anapests, this is a line of "anapestic tetrameter".

The trochee, or trochaic, metrical foot is simply the long or accented syllable followed by the short or unaccented syllable.  The Dies Irae of the Latin requiem mass is a great example of the use of trochees--
"Dies irae, dies illa"
So, what we have here is an example of "trochaic tetrameter".

The dactyl, or dactylic metrical foot, is comprised of three syllables, the first of which is the long or accented syllable, followed by the two short or unaccented syllables.  A commonly used example of the use of a dactylic metrical foot is Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's poem, Evangeline--
"This is the forest primeval. The murmuring pines and the hem locks"
The first five metrical feet in the line are dactylic, with the last dactyl followed by a "spondee", which is our final 'foot' to be defined.

A spondee is a metrical foot with two long or equally accented syllables, e.g., "bread box" or "shoe shine".  Given the nature of a spondee, it really makes no sense to actually construct a poem made up entirely of spondees.  Typically, spondees are used in an anapestic metered poem, and can emphasize or enhance the meaning of words in a line.  Here's a one-line example of the use of spondees from Tennyson's In Memoriam: A.H.H.--
"When the blood creeps and the nerves prick"
Well, this is probably enough for now.  I hope that this very brief description of poetic meter and the more commonly used metrical feet was interesting, and may be useful as you read the next poem that you encounter.

I do hope you'll stay tuned, as I plan to cover "stanzaic" and "verse" forms and some other interesting poetic schemes and techniques in my next posting.

For those of you getting an early start on the Thanksgiving holiday, please travel safely and have a wonderful holiday.  I hope you are able to get some good reading in, and throw that volume of Keats or Tennyson in the book-bag too.

***

November 16, 2011

Review: "Memorial" by Alice Oswald

Here we are just a few days removed from "Remembrance Day" (UK) and "Veteran's Day" (US), and somehow it seems highly appropriate that I have just finished reading a new book-length poem entitled, Memorial: An Excavation of the Iliad, by the British poet, Alice Oswald.  Oswald's poem deeply affected me in a fashion similar to that that has occurred upon each of my visits to the Vietnam Memorial on the Mall in Washington, D.C.  Now, let me see if I can explain why.

First of all, let me make myself clear, that while war, it seems, is a necessary evil and has been with us since the dawn of Humanity, this post is not about the morality, or immorality, of war.  What I want to briefly focus on is the human cost, and how that cost is recorded and remembered, i.e., memorialized.  Many countries have special days that commemorate their war dead, battles won, or wars fought.  Most countries have physical monuments or memorials too, from the small monuments in village squares or parks, to those grand and elaborate national monuments typically found in capital cities.  There's another type of memorial that some of us encounter through the course of our lives, and that is through the literature we read.  For example, many of us have read Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage, or Willa Cather's One of Ours, or Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front, just to name a few; and they all, to one degree or another, describe the horrors and futility of war, and memorialize, if you will, its impacts upon the combatants.  Over the ages, poetry has also been effectively utilized in a similar fashion, and one of the very first poems to deal directly with war and its costs is The Iliad by Homer.  This is the subject of Alice Oswald's poem, Memorial.

The poem starts with eight pages of a list of names--214 names--all in uppercase.  This is a listing of each death described by Homer in The Iliad and presented in the chronological order in which it appears in the poem.  It is staggering to slowly come to the realization that Homer has described 214 individual combat deaths through the course of nearly 16,000 lines of poetry.  To see that long list of names, on page after page after page, could not but help instantly transport me to the National Mall to stand in front of the Vietnam Memorial looking at the chronological ordering of the 58,272 names (all in uppercase too) of those who lost their lives during the Vietnam War from 1959 through 1975.  Oswald's listing of these names, one after the other, is an incredibly powerful and visceral mechanism for instantly engaging her reader.  There's none of the bickering between Achilles and Agamemnon here, the speech-making of Odysseus, or even the divine intervention of the gods.  Nope, Oswald instantly starts the reader off with the stark and undeniable cost of that messy little war on the Trojan Plain--in human lives.
PROTESILAUS
ECHEPOLUS
ELEPHENOR
SIMOISIUS
LEUKOS
DEMOCOON
DIORES
PIROUS
PHEGEUS
IDAEUS...
And on and on it goes.  After the list, Ms. Oswald moves straight into her poem, and what she has done is eloquently embrace and adapt Homer's vignettes of information that he provides in the poem about many of the men that are killed.  A poignant example of the grace and sensitivity that Oswald brings to telling the story of these dead men is in the first one--
The first to die was PROTESILAUS
A focused man who hurried to darkness
With forty black ships leaving the land behind
Men sailed with him from those flower-lit cliffs
Where the grass gives growth to everything
Pyrasus  Iton  Pteleus  Antron
He died in mid-air jumping to be first ashore
There was his house half-built
His wife rushed out clawing her face
Podarcus his altogether less impressive brother
Took over command but that was long ago
He's been in the black earth now for thousands of years
Whew!  In twelve concise lines we see a man with a life in a pastoral land that was his, he had a house (half-built), and a wife, and then he sailed off to war with his men and his brother.  And then he is dead.  Sounds eerily like the story of the men that sailed off and then participated in the Normandy Invasion on D-Day, and now lie in the earth near the Omaha Beachhead.

Oswald's Memorial respectfully, even reverently, yet relentlessly brings the reader front-and-center with each of the deaths in Homer's epic, through the slaughter that Diomedes wreaks upon the Trojans in Book 5; the death of Zeus' beloved son, Sarpedon, at the hands of Patroclus in Book 16, quickly followed by Patroclus' own death; and culminating with the last death, that of the Trojan great, Hector, killed by Achilles in Book 22.  In between these more 'famous' deaths are all of the others, one after the other, after the other.  Also, in an effort to provide a momentary respite or interlude from the carnage of killing and death, Oswald has masterfully utilized her own version of Homer's similes.  These similes, always presented twice consecutively, give the reader a well-needed moment for pause and internal reflection.  At times, Oswald's lines of poetry are humorous, and then others are unbearably sad.  This is, I think, a poem about life at the moment of death--a celebration of the life, and a memorial to the death.  Oswald herself says that the poem is like something "from the Greek tradition of lament poetry", and that her poem presents The Iliad as "a kind of oral cemetery...an antiphonal account of man in his world."  Maybe it is fitting that I close this review with the death of Hector "Breaker of Horses"--
And HECTOR died like everyone else
He was in charge of the Trojans
But a spear found out the little patch of white
Between his collarbone and his throat
Just exactly where a man's soul sits
Waiting for the mouth to open
He always knew it would happen
He who was so boastful and anxious
And used to nip home deafened by weapons
To stand in full armour in the doorway
Like a man rushing in leaving his motorbike running
All women loved him
His wife was Andromache
One day he looked at her quietly
He said I know what will happen
And an image stared at him of himself dead
And her in Argos weaving for some foreign woman
He blinked and went back to his work
Hector loved Andromache
But in the end he let her face slide from his mind
He came back to her sightless
Strengthless expressionless
Asking only to be washed and burned
And his bones wrapped in soft cloths
And returned to the ground
Just as Homer lovingly describes the intimacy of the feelings between the Trojan husband and wife (Book 6), Oswald's modern verse reinterprets those hopes, desires, and fears within Hector's death scene in a few starkly spare lines in such a fashion that one almost feels as though you are standing there witnessing his last living moments.  It is powerful stuff!  This is experiential poetry in the truest sense, as Oswald forces the reader to confront one of the primary elements of The Iliad--Men killing, and Men dying.

I have a shelf that contains seven different translations of Homer's The Iliad, as well as the three thin volumes of Christopher Logue's brilliant poetic reinterpretation (discussed here), and David Malouf's gorgeous little novel Ransom (reviewed here).  Alice Oswald's beautifully moving poem, Memorial, will be joining that company, as a monument to those 214 men who died on the Scamander Plain nearly 4,000 years ago.  Somehow, I think Homer would see this as quite fitting.

Memorial
By Alice Oswald
Faber and Faber Limited, 2011.
84 pages.

***

November 15, 2011

The Dickinson Project--Poem No. 657

I dwell in Possibility--
A fairer House than Prose--
More numerous of Windows--
Superior--for Doors--

Of Chambers as the Cedars--
Impregnable of eye--
And for an everlasting Roof
The Gambrels of the Sky--

Of Visitors--the fairest--
For Occupation--This--
The spreading wide my narrow Hands
To gather Paradise--

This is an interesting little poem that has always appealed to me.  The first couplet gives away the subject of the poem--Poetry--which, in Dickinson's opinion, is a fairer House than Prose.  Personally, I agree with her.  I think most people would think that a writer has more latitude and flexibility in plotting and being descriptive with prose, so Dickinson plays on that perception with her description of her 'House' with all of its windows and doors.  In other words, Dickinson, through her poetry, chooses to let us in in through the poem's 'windows' into her soul; or, she can effectively block us with a 'door' of her own construction (or, even by living as a recluse?).  Conversely, a 'door' is also an entrance, isn't it?  It is another way that Emily lets us into her 'House'.  Although it may take some work, our access depends upon our interpretation of Emily's poem, line-by-line, and word-by-word.  It is, after all, her 'House'.

In the second stanza she describes the overall architecture of her 'House'.  It isn't made of brick or clapboard.  No, Emily uses Cedar, a very long-lasting aromatic smelling wood.  The Gambrels, or roof, of her house is the ever-expansive and infinite Sky.  I think she's hoping that her poetry may live a long life, and that the 'Possibilities' of her poetry are as infinite and expansive as the sky above.

The last stanza, to me, speaks to her having moved in, and made herself at home in her 'House'.  She is the Poet, and any Visitors that she receives are those entirely receptive to poetry, i.e., they are the fairest, in her opinion.  Finally, I love the image created with the concluding couplet, that of Emily's use of her Hands/to gather Paradise to her through the crafting of her lines of poetry.  Each time I finish reading this poem I'm left with a sense of 'admiration'.  Admiration for what she's created in these 12 short lines, and also the recognition of how much she admires the craft of poetry.

This poem, No. 657 in Thomas Johnson's 1955 edition of The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, is thought to have been written by Emily sometime around 1862.  This is also poem No. 466 in Ralph W. Franklin's Reading Edition of The Poems of Emily Dickinson (1999).  From this point forward, I will reference both the Johnson and Franklin numbers for the poems, as many readers have one, or both, collections of her poetry.

Finally, I want to briefly mention the photograph that I've attached to this posting.  This is a photograph I took of Willa Cather's house in the tiny prairie town of Red Cloud, Nebraska.  I thought it appropriate to use a photograph of the house of a famous American writer of prose to illustrate and accompany one of the works of one of America's greatest poets.  My oldest daughter, Amber, and I enjoyed an incredibly fascinating day touring all of the Cather sites in and around Red Cloud, and visiting Willa's house was one of the high-points.  Oh, and do 'click' on the photograph and avail yourself of the larger view.

***

November 14, 2011

Thoughts on My 2012 Reading List...

It seems that the book-blogosphere is all abuzz right now with everyone writing about their upcoming reading challenges for 2012.  This is truly a wonderful thing, as I am seeing a lot of folks making commitments to read some really great stuff.  I think that challenges can be a very intelligent way of providing a reader with the incentive and motivation to tackle a book, or books, that one might normally shy away from, for whatever reason.  I also think that these challenges are a great example of the role book-blogging plays in the on-line world of social media.  For example, I love paying attention to the books that many of my fellow bloggers are reading and reviewing.  Frankly, it has been through my experiences with my own blog, and all of the blogs that I follow, that I have not only greatly expanded my own reading horizons, but made some wonderful new friends.  So, toward the end of 'expanding my reading horizons', I have been giving a lot of thought to what is going to be included on my "2012 To-Be-Read" list.  Please bear in mind that this list is in a state of flux, and that there will likely be some additions or subtractions, but here's what I've come up with so far--

Ancient Greek and Roman Literature
The Iliad, Homer, translated by Anthony Verity, 2011.
The Iliad, Homer, translated by Richmond Lattimore, revised and reissued, 2011.
Parmenides and Empedocles: The Fragments in Verse Translation, translated by Stanley Lombardo, 1982.
Metamorphoses, Ovid, translated by Stanley Lombardo, 2010.
Tales from Ovid, translated by Ted Hughes, 1999.
The Oresteia, Aeschylus, translated by Peter Meineck, 1998.
If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho, translated by Anne Carson, 2003.
Sappho: Poems and Fragments, translated by Stanley Lombardo, 2002.
Four Plays by Aeschylus that I have yet to read (i.e., The Persians, Seven Against Thebes, The Suppliants, Prometheus Bound).
Some, or all, of the comic plays of Aristophanes.
Six Plays by Euripides that I have yet to read (i.e., Andromache, Bacchae, Hippolytus, Ion, Iphigeneia in Tauris, and Medea).

Medieval Literature
Le Morte d'Arthur, Sir Thomas Mallory (the Winchester Manuscript).
The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer (Middle English edition, Penguin Classics).
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Anonymous, translated by W. S. Merwin, 2004.
The Death of King Arthur: A New Verse Translation, translated by Simon Armitage, 2011 (the Alliterative Morte d'Arthur).
The Inferno, Dante Alighieri, translated by Stanley Lombardo, 2009.
Decameron, Giovanni Boccaccio, translated by J.G. Nichols, 2009.
The Mabinogion, Anonymous, translated by Sioned Davies, 2008.
The Kalevala, Anonymous, translated by Keith Bosley, 2009.

William Shakespeare
Hamlet
King Lear
Macbeth
Troilus and Cressida
Henry IV, Part I
Henry IV, Part II
Henry V
Richard III
Coriolanus
As You Like It
Merchant of Venice
Midsummer Night's Dream
Much Ado About Nothing
Tempest
Winter's Tale
The Sonnets and Poems

American Literature
The Life of Emily Dickinson, Richard B. Sewall, 1976.
Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman.
Moby-Dick, or, The Whale, Herman Melville.
The Reef, Edith Wharton.
The Naked and the Dead, Norman Mailer.

British & European Literature
Idylls of the King, Alfred Lord Tennyson.
Jamaica Inn, Daphne du Maurier.
The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, 2002.
Les Miserables, Victor Hugo, translated by Julie Rose, 2008.
The Complete Poems of Anna Akhmatova, translated by Judith Hemschemeyer, 2000.

So, there it is, my initial thoughts on my proposed reading list for 2012.  I have already signed up for two reading challenges that I think will help me stay focused and on-track with my readings goals.  The first is the Back to the Classics Challenge--2012 hosted by Sarah at Sarah Reads Too Much.  You can go here to read more about this challenge and my selections.  The second challenge I'm taking up during 2012 is hosted by Jean at Howling Frog Books and is the Greek Classics Challenge--2012, and you can read more about this challenge here.  Finally, given all of the Shakespeare that I am planning to read, I am going to formally join Risa at Breadcrumb Reads and her Reading Shakespeare--A Play a Month In 2012 challenge.

Along with my own continuing projects of featuring the poetry of Emily Dickinson and the sonnets of William Shakespeare, I am really excited about the reading I have ahead of me in 2012.  How about you?

***

November 13, 2011

Greek Classics Challenge 2012

I've found a challenge for 2012 that is right in my 'wheelhouse'!  Jean at Howling Frog Books (what a great name for a blog!) has created the Greek Classics Challenge 2012.  The goal is to challenge yourself to read some of the great plays, poetry, and literature of the ancient Greeks.  If you're interested, I encourage you to go and visit her website here and you can sign up too.

My goal during 2012 is to read at least one work per month, and that would put me at the "Thucydides Level".  As it stands, I have several plays by both Aeschylus and Euripides yet to read, and a new translation of Aeschylus' The Oresteia, by Peter Meineck, that I plan to read (my sixth or seventh different Oresteia, I believe).  I'm going to use the challenge to explore the comic plays of Aristophanes, and the poetry of Sappho, Empedocles, and Parmenides, as they're all new to me at this point in time.

I also have two translations of The Iliad on the TBR shelf that I want to read in 2012.  One is a brand new translation by Anthony Verity (Oxford University Press, 2011) that was published in late-October.  The other Iliad I have is a reread of the newly released revision of Richmond Lattimore's 1951 translation.  This has a new Introduction, wonderful maps, a superb glossary, and is a beautifully hard-bound edition from the University of Chicago Press.  I am very much looking forward to reading both of these translations.

I hope to see some of you joining us in this challenge too.  I, for one, can't wait for the discussions to begin!

November 12, 2011

Adventures in My 'Mother Tongue': Middle English

Okay, a question for you.  How many of you, in the course of your reading, enjoy encountering new words, or are curious about the origin of specific words and how they are used?  As many of you may be aware, I am continually fascinated by language, and especially the English language--my 'Mother Tongue'.  Toward this end, I decided to do a posting that looks at an earlier form of English known as Middle English that was generally in use from about the time of the Norman Conquest in 1066 to about the end of the 1400s.  I am currently reading the alliterative poem, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, that was written by an anonymous poet in the late 14th century, and is just over 2,500 lines written in Middle English.  Actually, I am reading three different translations in a side-by-side fashion.  The first is by J.R.R. Tolkien, and was completed in the early 1950s according to his son.  The second translation is by Marie Borroff, and was published in 1967.  Finally, I am reading Simon Armitage's recent translation completed in 2007 (cover attached at right).  Each of the translated poems preserves the structural organization and alliteration of the original, and yet they are all somewhat different from one another; which is certainly to be expected when dealing with different translators and differing poetic perspectives.

What has really been the fascinating aspect of my reading of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight though has been my careful reading and analysis of the original Middle English text.  I have been slowly, but steadily, poring over it and endeavoring to literally translate it word-by-word.  The Armitage translation presents the original Middle English text on the left-hand page, and his translation on the right-hand page.  Seamus Heaney did this type of presentation with his magnificent translation of Beowulf from the original Anglo-Saxon (Old English) text.  Anyway, by using the three translations that I have, a big fat Webster's dictionary, and several on-line resources, I have gotten through about sixteen pages of the Middle English text.  I'm having a blast too!  This is like a seriously cool puzzle, and is hugely challenging.  I am already getting a decent handle on vocabulary and I'm beginning to figure out the grammatical rules of the road for this beautifully archaic version of English.  I'm not going to belabor the point, but just go ahead and share a bit of the poem and corresponding translation.  So, here is the third stanza from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight--
This kyng lay at Camylot upon Krystmasse
With mony luflych lorde, ledes of the best,
Rekenly of the Rounde Table alle tho rich brether,
With rych revel oryght and rechles merthes.
Ther tournayed tulkes by tymes ful mony,
Justed ful jolile thise gentyle knightes,
Sythen kayred to the court, caroles to make.
For ther the fest was ilyche ful fiften dayes,
With alle the mete and the mirthe that men couthe avyse:
Such glaum ande gle glorious to here,
Dere dyn upon day, daunsyng on nyghtes;
Al was hap upon heghe in halles and chambres
With lordes and ladies, as levest him thoght.
With all the wele of the worlde thay woned ther samen,
The most kyd knyghtes under Krystes selven,
And the lovelokkest ladies that ever lif haden,
And he the comlokest kyng that the court haldes.
For al was this fayre folk in her first age
on sille,
The hapnest under heven,
Kyng hyghest mon of wylle;
Hit were now gret nye to neven
So hardy a here on hille.
Okay, now the Modern English translation by Marie Borroff (1967)--
This king lay at Camelot at Christmastide;
Many good knights and gay his guests were there,
Arrayed of the Round Table rightful brothers,
With feasting and fellowship and carefree mirth.
There true men contended in tournaments many,
Joined there in jousting these gentle knights,
Then came to the court for carol-dancing,
For the feast was in force full fifteen days,
With all the meat and the mirth that men could devise,
Such gaity and glee, glorious to hear,
Brave din by day, dancing by night.
High were their hearts in halls and chambers,
These lords and these ladies, for life was sweet.
In peerless pleasures passed they their days,
The most noble knights known under Christ,
And the loveliest ladies that lived on earth ever,
And he the comeliest king, that that court holds,
For all this fair folk in their first age
were still.
Happiest of mortal kind,
King noblest famed of will;
You would now go far to find
So hardy a host on hill.
I chose Ms. Borroff's translation because it really is, in my opinion, the most literal.  You can get a pretty good sense of the Middle English with a line-by-line comparison with her modern translation.  Tolkien's translation is quite literal too, but is perhaps a bit more poetic and lyrical.  Armitage's translation, while preserving organizational structure and alliterative style, does deviate rather significantly from a literal representation of the poem.  I'm not saying that there's anything wrong with that at all, I'm simply pointing out the differences in the translations that I am studying.  I have translations of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight by Burton Raffal and W.S. Merwin coming in the mail too.  So, you can see that I am truly trying to experience the poem from many different poetic perspectives.  Right now, though, I am just concentrating on trying to gain a better understanding and appreciation of the original Middle English text.  After I've 'conquered' Sir Gawain and the Green Knight I plan on tackling Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales in Middle English, and forego reading a modern translation.  Wish me luck!

I hope you have enjoyed this brief visit to an earlier time in the history of our wonderful language--English!

November 11, 2011

Veteran's Day--"And There Was a Great Calm" by Thomas Hardy

'And There Was a Great Calm'
(On the Signing of the Armistice, November 11, 1918)

I
There had been years of Passion--scorching, cold,
And much Despair, and Anger heaving high,
Care whitely watching, Sorrows manifold,
Among the young, among the weak and old,
And the pensive Spirit of Pity whispered, "Why?"

II
Men had not paused to answer. Foes distraught
Pierced the thinned peoples in a brute-like blindness,
Philosophies that sages long had taught,
And Selflessness, were as an unknown thought,
And "Hell!" and "Shell!" were yapped at Lovingkindness.

III
The feeble folk at home had grown full-used
To "dug-outs," "snipers," "Huns," from the war-adept
In the mornings heard, and at evetides perused;
To day--dreamt men in millions, when they mused--
To nightmare-men in millions when they slept.

IV
Waking to wish existence timeless, null,
Sirius they watched above where armies fell;
He seemed to check his flapping when, in the lull
Of night a boom came thencewise, like the dull
Plunge of a stone dropped into some deep well.

V
So, when old hopes that earth was bettering slowly
Were dead and damned, there sounded "War is done!"
One morrow. Said the bereft, and meek, and lowly,
"Will men some day be given to grace? yea, wholly,
And in good sooth, as our dreams used to run?"

VI
Breathless they paused. Out there men raised their glance
To where had stood those poplars lank and lopped,
As they had raised it through the four years' dance
Of Death in the now familiar flats of France;
And murmured, "Strange, this! How? All firing stopped?"

VII
Aye; all was hushed. The about-to-fire fired not,
The aimed-at moved away in trance-lipped song.
One checkless regiment slung a clinching shot
And turned. The Spirit of Irony smirked out, "What?
Spoil peradventures woven of Rage and Wrong?"

VIII
Thenceforth no flying fires inflamed the gray,
No hurtlings shook the dewdrop from the thorn,
No moan perplexed the mute bird on the spray;
Worn horses mused: "We are not whipped to-day";
No weft-winged engines blurred the moon's thin horn.

IX
Calm fell. From Heaven distilled a clemency;
There was peace on earth, and silence in the sky;
Some could, some could not, shake off misery:
The Sinister Spirit sneered: "It had to be!"
And again the Spirit of Pity whispered, "Why?"

(First published in Late Lyrics, by Thomas Hardy, 1922)

***

November 10, 2011

Veteran's Day--11/11/11

On July 28, 2014, it will have been exactly one-hundred years since the beginning of the First World War.  This great war--"The War to End All Wars"--ended on the 'eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month' of 1918, and of the 70 million combatants involved in the four years of conflict, more than 9 million were killed!  My grandfather, a young U.S. Army officer, served with General Pershing's army in France in 1918, and I can remember him telling me stories about watching aerial dogfights between German and Allied airplanes.  He didn't talk much about any of the on-the-ground fighting that he experienced though.  I served in the United States Coast Guard from 1973 through 1977, and my oldest stepson is currently a Sergeant First-Class in the United States Army, and has done tours of duty in both Iraq and Afghanistan.  On this Veteran's Day, I ask you to remember the millions who've served their country, and especially those who've paid the ultimate price.  In turn, I salute and honor your family members and friends who have served, or are now serving our country in our nation's armed forces.

Great Britain paid a particularly high price during the First World War.  Virtually an entire generation of young Englishmen were killed, maimed, or were psychologically damaged during the four years of that horrific great war.  Many young British writers and poets were among those who enlisted and served their country, and many did not return.  For example, Hector Hugh Munro, better known as the author, 'Saki', an acknowledged master of the short story genre, was killed in action on November 13, 1916, during the Battle of the Somme.  Another young British officer, Charles Sorley, was killed in action at the Battle of Loos, in France, on October 13, 1915.  Found among Sorley's personal possessions following his death was the following poem that he had written--
When you see millions of the mouthless dead'
When you see millions of the mouthless dead
Across your dreams in pale battalions go,
Say not soft things as other men have said,
That you'll remember. For you need not so.
Give them not praise. For, deaf, how should they know
It is not curses heaped on each gashed head?
Nor tears. Their blind eyes see not your tears flow.
Nor honour. It is easy to be dead.
Say only this, 'They are dead.' Then add thereto,
'Yet many a better one has died before.'
Then, scanning all the o'ercrowded mass, should you
Perceive one face that you loved heretofore,
It is a spook. None wears the face you knew.
Great death has made all his for evermore.
Poignant to the point of being almost painful and hauntingly beautiful, this sonnet seems to me to be written in Homeric style.  Toward this end, have another look at the poem's Line 10--'Yet many a better one has died before.'  This is a direct allusion to a line in Book 21 of Homer's The Iliad when Priam's son, Lycaon, begs Achilles for mercy on the battlefield, and Achilles replies, Even Patroclus died, a far, far better man than you (Translation by Robert Fagles, Book 21, Line 120).

Charles Sorley may have been brutally killed on the battlefield, but his words live on in his eloquent poem, and his poem makes us recall all of those killed on the field of battle over the ages--even back as far 4,000 years to Homer's descriptions of the combat deaths of Patroclus and the young Trojan Prince, Lycaon.

***

A Poem for the Day: "In the Forest" by Anna Akhmatova

(c) Peter Cairns
In the Forest

Four diamonds--four eyes,
Two of the owl's and two of mine.
Oh, frightful, frightful the end of the tale
About how my bridegroom died.

I lie in the grass, it is damp and luxuriant,
My words unconnected sounds,
And above peers such an important,
Attentively listening owl.

The fir trees hem us in,
Over the sky--a black square.
You know, you know, they killed him,
My oldest brother killed him--

Not in a bloody duel,
And not in battle, not in a siege,
But on a deserted forest pathway
When my bridegroom was coming to me.

(1911)

***
 
Another poet that I'm choosing to feature on A Poem for the Day is the Russian Modernist, Anna Akhmatova (1889-1966).  I have always loved her poetry and have a 'chunkster' volume of her poetry, The Complete Poems of Anna Akhmatova, translated by Judith Hemschemeyer (Zephyr Press, 2000).  I love poets that tell a story with their poetry, and Akhmatova is good for that with In the Forest.

On its surface, In the Forest is a dark, forbidding, and tragic little poem, and just a little bit creepy too.  It leaves the reader with an unsettled feeling and wanting to know more.  I simply have to think that this poem is the result of an old Russian or Ukrainian folk-tale that Anna heard, or knew of.  It just has the feel of something out of Grimm's Fairy Tales.  There may even be a political or artistic undercurrent running through the poem too, I just don't know at this point.  This was written in the last years of the Czar's rule, which was a period of growing political unrest in Russia.

In 1910, Anna Akhmatova, in conjunction with the poets, Osip Mandelstam and Sergey Gorodetsky, formed the Guild of Poets (also known as the Acmeist movement; from the Greek word 'acme' = the 'best age of man'), a loose confederation of poets that met and discussed their art-form in "The Stray Dog Cafe" in St. Petersburg.  These poets were interested in promoting the actual craft of poetry rather than the inspiration or mystery behind the poem, and in using "concrete" themes rather than the nebulous or "ephemeral world" of the Symbolists.

I plan to post and discuss more of Anna Akhmatova's poetry, as well as more information about her life, and how the Russian Revolution in 1917 and subsequent life in Soviet Russia influenced her poetry over the course of the rest of her life.  For example, in 1921, her former husband, Nikolay Gumilev, was executed for ostensibly being part of an anti-Bolshevik conspiracy.  Anna, and her son, Lev, were persecuted by Soviet authorities until well into the 1950s when the Soviet literary establishment finally began to recognize her importance as a poet.  Anyway, more to come over the next few weeks about this fascinating woman and wonderful poet.

Finally, the beautiful portrait of Anna Akhmatova that I have attached to this posting was painted in 1914 by Nathan Altman (1889-1970), a Russian avant-garde artist.  Altman, like Akhmatova, was born in what is now the Ukraine, and attended the Art College in Odessa.  In 1910, Altman moved to Paris and studied art with other Russian expatriate Russian artists (e.g., Marc Chagall, Vladimir Baranov-Rossine, Alexander Archipenko, et al.).  One can certainly see the influences of Cubism in Altman's painting of Akhmatova.

***

November 8, 2011

The Dickinson Project--Poem No. 1463

Hooded Visorbearer
Our next poem in The Dickinson Project is one of my favorites.  It is a richly complex little gem that really works well on several levels.  Not only does it evoke some beautiful visual imagery, but it is also a bit of a 'head scratcher' too with its enigmatic couplet ending the poem.  This is an excellent example of Emily Dickinson's amazingly powerful control over her use of words.  Here is Dickinson's poem, No. 1463--
A route of evanescence
With a revolving wheel--
A resonance of emerald,
A rush of cochineal--
And every blossom on the bush
Adjusts its tumbled head,--
The mail from Tunis, probably,
An easy morning’s ride--
In thirty-five words, Emily has 'painted' a picture of a hummingbird every bit as grand and magnificent as that of her artistic contemporary, Martin Johnson Heade (attached at upper right).  I love her choice of words in the poems, as they give the reader the sense of rapid motion, bright color, a momentary microcosm of the natural beauty in her backyard, or even your own backyard.  Another Dickinsonian trait is her use of alliteration.  An "alliterate" poem is a poem that contains the repetition of an initial sound, usually of a consonant or cluster, in two or more words in a line or succeeding lines.  In this poem there are three different sets of alliteration occurring.  Obviously, the easy one to spot is using the letter "R" with Route, revolving, Resonance, Rush, and Ride.  Then there's Blossom and Bush, and in the seventh line, we find the word tum-b-led.  Finally, in the last two lines we have Mail and Morning's.  This is one terrific alliterative poem!

I think the other nifty quality of this little poem is that her choice of words enable the reader to easily visualize and almost experience the hummingbird's whirring motion and frenetic darting from flower-to-flower with her use of the words, Evanescence, Revolving Wheel (the rapidly revolving wings), and then Rush.  It is all so transitory, just like a hummingbird's presence.  Also, note that Emily reinforces these qualities of the little hummingbird with her use of the indefinite article "A" to lead each off.

I have to say that the last two lines are still a bit of an enigma to me.  I have puzzled over this couplet forever it seems, and I'm still really no closer to convincing myself of precisely what she is alluding to here.  I have commonly heard that because the hummingbird is moving so fast on his "route", going from flower-to-flower, that he's like a postman, and that he's bringing the mail from a far, faraway place.  But why "Tunis"?  Again, I have heard it speculated that Emily is giving a nod to her favorite playwright, Shakespeare, and his play, The Tempest, as a place so faraway that 'Claribel' cannot receive a note from her father 'Alonso' (The Tempest, Act 2, Scene 1).  Well, I guess it sounds as good as the next theory.  I'd love to know your ideas on this couplet.

Finally, I want to just spend a moment and give you a bit of background on the painter, Martin Johnson Heade (1819-1904), who painted "The Hooded Visorbearer" that I've attached above.  Johnson Heade is generally considered a painter of the "Hudson River School", although there are those who think he didn't focus enough on painting landscapes like others in the school.  Johnson Heade was obviously fascinated with hummingbirds as he created many, many paintings that included them, and took trips to Central and South America to paint exotic species of hummingbirds in their native habitats.  He has a connection to Emily Dickinson too!  Johnson Heade had a young and very beautiful protege, Mabel Loomis Todd, who studied art under his tutelage.  During the summer of 1882, Mabel Loomis Todd and her husband, David Todd, went to Amherst, Massachusetts, where Mabel eventually entered into an adulterous affair with Emily's older brother, Austin Dickinson.  Apparently, Johnson Heade even went up to Amherst later that summer to try and convince Mabel to end the affair, but to no avail.  Following Emily's death in 1886, Mabel Loomis Todd helped Thomas Wentworth Higginson edit Emily Dickinson's poems for publication.  If you're interested in more of this story, I highly recommend Christopher Benfrey's wonderful book, A Summer of Hummingbirds--Love, Art, and Scandal in the Intersecting Worlds of Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, & Martin Johnson Heade (The Penguin Press, 2008).

***

November 6, 2011

Attending a Reading & Book-Signing with Stephen Mitchell and "The Iliad"

My wife, Susan, and I spent a lovely day in downtown Pasadena yesterday.  The weather was gorgeous with temperatures in the mid-60s.  Much of the afternoon was spent in Christmas shopping for our grandchildren in the many shops and stores along Colorado Boulevard.  As much fun as the shopping was (actually, it was kind of fun ;-), the high point of the day was attending a reading and book-signing at Vroman's Bookstore featuring Stephen Mitchell and his new translation of The Iliad.  It started at 6:00 p.m. and concluded about 7:30 p.m.  Counting Susan and I, there were probably 20 of us in attendance for the reading and discussion.


Photo by John D. Fellers
Mitchell started off with three readings from his translation.  His first reading was from Book 6 (Lines 394-502), and is the beautiful passage recounting the meeting between Hector and his wife, Andromache, and their little baby son, Astyanax.  This intimate marital interlude covers the full range of human emotion, including: love, grief, fear, sorrow, and even hope for the future for their little son.  Mitchell pointed out that what makes these 100 lines, or so, so extraordinarily amazing is that this poignant passage is about the enemy.  Homer is very careful to make his reader conscious of the fact that the cost of this war is a heavy burden for both Greek and Trojan, and that the Trojans are human beings with lives and loves just like the Greeks and even the readers themselves.

The second reading was an interesting choice, and came from Book 18 (Lines 455-597).  This section describes the god of Fire, Hephaestus, crafting the new shield for Achilles.  These nearly 150 lines are what Mitchell interestingly refers to as the "world's first movie", as the crippled blacksmith god lovingly tells the whole saga of human life in minute detail in the bronze, gold, tin, and silver as he fashions the shield.  To hear Mitchell read these lines aloud really brought home to me the poetic beauty of The Iliad, these lines, and especially the musicality of Mitchell's wonderful translation.

The final selection that Mitchell read was from Book 24 (Lines 458-522), and is arguably one of my favorite passages in the entire poem.  This scene describes the meeting between the Trojan king, Priam, and Achilles.  This occurs late at night when Priam comes to the Greek camp in an effort to ransom the corpse of his dead son, Hector.  These sixty-four lines are truly some of the most emotionally powerful lines in the history of poetry and document the state of grace that both men are finally able to attain whilst surrounded by the savagery and brutality of a war of absolute destruction.  I find myself shedding tears each and every time I read this section of the poem, and it was no different when listening to Stephen Mitchell reading it aloud to all us.  Even though these lines are loaded with the pathos of profound grief and no hope for the future of either man, there is the salvific quality of the two men--enemies in this war--being able to find the humanity in one another and reaching that state of grace together.  This is truly amazingly beautiful poetry.

Mitchell entertained questions and answers about his translation for half-an-hour, or so.  Even 'your's truly' piped up with a couple of questions.  I asked if he would tell us a bit more about the process he utilized in translating from the Greek text, and how he made decisions on not including sections of the text that were believed to have been added much, much later in the history of The Iliad.  I also asked Mitchell about his choice of the 'five-beat' meter that he used in constructing his English translation.  He talked about how other translations just didn't sound right to his ear, and that he wanted to see if he could come up with a meter and rhythm that could effectively tell Homer's story, but would still work poetically and musically in English.  It was his experience, and I believe to our long-term literary benefit, that his pentameter lines satisfy on both counts.

I must confess that even though I already had a copy of Mitchell's The Iliad sitting on my bookshelf at home, I purchased another and had Stephen Mitchell inscribe the title page to me.  It has become an instant treasure, and one that I hope to pass on someday to one of my children in the hope that they too will come to love this poem as much as I do.  Also, I will probably try and find some deserving soul to pass on my other copy of Mitchell's beautiful translation.  It seems to me that there's something fitting about sharing Homer with friends and family.

Of course, I couldn't walk out of one of the Los Angeles area's finest independent bookstores without buying some other books!  I bought myself a beautiful edition of Shakespeare's Sonnets and Poems (the Folger Shakespeare Library edition, and annotated as well).  I also bought an edition of Shakespeare's play, A Midsummer Night's Dream (the Royal Shakespeare Company edition published by The Modern Library).  All in all, a perfectly lovely day and evening!


***

Review: "The Songs of the Kings" by Barry Unsworth

I have just finished reading The Songs of the Kings by Booker Prize winner, Barry Unsworth.  This is an eloquent and powerfully written novel that is quite thought-provoking on several levels.  The novel was published in 2003, and I have to wonder if there was an external motivation behind Unsworth's writing of the novel than simply writing a good story?  More on that in a moment though.  First, I think it will be useful to provide a brief bit of background on a few important aspects of Greek mythology that bear on the plot of the novel.

Okay, so I need all of you to dredge up and recall some of the bits and pieces of Greek mythology that you've run across in the course of your life.  First, the "Judgment of Paris", where Paris (son of Trojan king and queen, Priam and Hecuba) selects Aphrodite as "the most beautiful" among the three goddesses, Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite.  In return, Aphrodite rewards Paris (the sycophant that he is) with the ability to 'seduce' and carry off Helen of Sparta, the wife of Menelaus, king of Sparta, and the brother of Agamemnon, the king of Mycenae.  Second, as part of the agreement behind Helen choosing which suitor to marry, her father Tyndareus evoked a pledge from all of her suitors that they would rally and stand behind whoever her eventual husband was if there was ever any "future threat to the marriage".  The suitors--pretty much all of the Greek chieftains--so pledged, and Helen then selected Menelaus to be her husband.  Now, fast forward about ten-years, and along comes 'pretty-boy' Paris, and Helen elopes with him and off to Troy they go.  It is safe to say that this action probably qualified as a "threat to the marriage" of Helen and Menelaus.  Consequently, the Greeks rally their forces, under the command of Agamemnon, and set off to destroy Troy and 'rescue' Helen from the 'lecherous' clutches of Paris.  The Greek fleet sails to its initial rendezvous point on the east coast of Greece, to a little fishing village known as Aulis.  This is where Unsworth picks up the tale in The Songs of the Kings.

Unsworth's book is a story in five acts, and must be a nod to the structure typically utilized by the ancient Greek dramatists. The Greek fleet is trapped at Aulis by contrary winds and weather conditions, and the army, and its chieftains, are getting restless and losing their will to carry the fight to Troy.  In Unsworth's novel, we read of a cabal of the senior Greek leaders, instigated and led by Odysseus (he brings new meaning to the term "Machiavellian"), that begins to develop a conspiracy that will compel Agamemnon and Menelaus to irrevocably commit to the War with Troy.  Using intrigue, deception, selective interpretation and misinformation, the conspirators convince Agamemnon that Zeus requires the sacrifice of his eldest daughter, Iphigeneia; and that with her sacrifice, the weather conditions will change and the Greek fleet can set sail.  At first, as one can well imagine, Agamemnon is horrified at the thought of having to offer up his child as a sacrifice to the gods.  Odysseus and the other conspirators determinedly continue to brow-beat and cajole Agamemnon into doing the right thing for Greece and restoring its national honor.

The Greek leaders, in the novel, are really more like a gang of Wall Street CEOs, all trying to exert their own influence and power and looking to acquire more treasure, honor and glory.  Morality and principles mean little to nothing to most of them.  Unsworth's portrayal of Agamemnon, Menelaus, Odysseus, and Achilles is unflattering at best.  These are vain-glorious men who care little for anything or anybody if it doesn't benefit them in the long-run.  Unsworth satirically plays off of many of the personality traits that can be gleaned from Homer's portrayal in The Iliad and The Odyssey, or of the later Greek playwrights like Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides.  For example, there is Agamemnon, the thuggish control-freak; Menelaus, the weak-willed cuckold; or Odysseus, the clever and manipulative talker; or Achilles, the sulking glory-hound dilettante; or the two Ajaxes, Big and Little, both just brutish homicidal maniacs.  The one character that sees through the conspiracy is Calchas, the foreign-born priest of Apollo.  He knows that this is all a terrible fabric of lies, but feels powerless to stand up to the conspirators.

In the 'second act' of the book, the conspirators have finally succeeded in convincing Agamemnon that he is really left with no choice, and that he must sacrifice his daughter for the national good.  He is told that in the long-run the poets will sing his praises for the courage he showed in reaching this difficult decision.  Unsworth even creates the character of a blind bard, or "singer", who the conspirators use to disseminate their lies and misinformation in his songs and poems that recites at the soldiers fires at night.  If a story is told a certain way long enough, it becomes true.  The conspirators understand the use of the media and religion in getting 'the facts' out there for the masses.  Now, the entire army knows that Agamemnon must sacrifice his daughter to propitiate the gods and create the favorable conditions necessary to prosecute the war.

Unsworth also takes the reader back to Mycenae in the novel's 'third act' and spends several chapters introducing and developing the characters of Iphigeneia and her maid-servant, Sisipyla.  After getting to know Iphigeneia, the reader can't help but become more and more horrified at the impending doom that seems to face this likeable young woman.  I need to mention too that Iphigeneia is also a priestess for the goddess Artemis (the twin sister of Apollo, and goddess of the hunt, wild animals, goddess of childbirth, and the protector of all young living things, animal and human).  Iphigeneia has been trained in this role by her mother, Clytemnestra, Agamemnon's wife and the Mycenaean queen.  The horror just continues to mount when a delegation from Agamemnon shows up in Mycenae with the news that Iphigeneia must travel to Aulis in order to be married to Achilles.  Of course, Clytemnestra and Iphigeneia think this is wonderful news, as Achilles, the son of a goddess (Thetis) is also the champion of the entire Greek army.  The reader knows though that this is all just a ruse to get Iphigeneia to Aulis.  I felt utterly helpless as I read about this lovely young woman happily packing her wedding trousseau and preparing for the trip to see her father and to meet her betrothed.

You'll have to read the 'last act' of the novel to find out how it ends.  There's an intriguing twist that had me holding my breath as I read the last 50 pages of the book.  Iphigeneia and her maid, Sisipyla, have arrived in Aulis, and the tension among all of the characters was palpable and thick enough to cut with a bronze sacrificial knife (pun thoroughly intended).  At this point in the book, that old adage "the train has left the station" really applies, as things said, and things done are virtually irrevocable at this stage in the plot.  This knowledge, on the part of the reader just adds to the theater and drama of Unsworth's tale.

As I read this brilliant little novel there were a couple of observations that jumped out at me.  First, this book could have been an almost line-by-line script for the Bush Administration's run up to the war with Iraq.  The twisting and manipulation of facts by Odysseus and the other Greek chieftains in the novel eerily reminded me of the "weapons of mass destruction" issue and all of the speeches given by the President and members of his administration as the case for war with Iraq was constructed.  Secondly, I think Unsworth is also telling the story of the dangers of religious and gender persecution here.  Remember that Iphigeneia is a priestess for the goddess Artemis--an archetypal 'Mother Goddess'.  The Greek army's chief priests all serve Zeus, the Father of the gods, and are vocal proponents of the patriarchal system that was becoming widespread across the Bronze Age Mediterranean region.  These priests needed to eradicate the last vestiges of the worship of the Mother Goddess and the female deities.  By labeling Iphigeneia as a "witch" and then publicly killing her as a priestess of Artemis powerfully symbolized asserting their strength and control.

After making these observations while reading Unsworth's novel, I wondered if I was simply over-reaching and reading more into this than Unsworth intended.  I immediately read Euripides' last known play, Iphigeneia at Aulis (probably written about 404-402 B.C.E.).  Upon finishing it, I have to say that it is my opinion that Unsworth has done a terrific job in his novel at portraying the pathos, drama, intrigue, and humanity depicted in Euripides' powerful play.  Unsworth's novel makes us a party to the conspiracy, makes us feel the overwhelming guilt of a father who knows he is doing wrong, and makes us, in a somewhat voyeuristic fashion, a witness to a victim unwittingly proceeding down the path to her Fate and Destiny.  This is a story about decision-making that spirals out of control and the far-reaching consequences that affected not only the primary protagonists, but the Mycenaean empire, Troy and the Trojans, and even reaches out and touches all of us in our own time--i.e., the Iraq War.  Like Sophocles' great play, Antigone, Euripides' play and Unsworth's novel are hard-hitting examples of people placed in extraordinary and desperate circumstances requiring moral courage and the adoption and adherence to principled positions.  The failure to find that courage or the failure to stand up in the face of tyranny or persecution can have devastating consequences.  This, ultimately, is the message of Euripides in his play, Iphigeneia at Aulis, and in Barry Unsworth's beautiful novel, The Songs of Kings.

The Songs of the Kings
By Barry Unsworth
Hardcover
Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 2003, 341 pages.
From my personal collection.

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Recommended Additional Reading:

Iphigeneia at Aulis, by Euripides
The Greek Myths, by Robert Graves
The Oresteia, by Aeschylus
A Dream of Fair Women, Alfred Lord Tennyson (the 1842 version of the poem).

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November 4, 2011

Back to the Classics Challenge--2012

I was inspired by fellow book-blogging friend, Jillian, over at A Room of One's Own to participate in a year-long reading challenge during 2012.  The challenge is the brainchild of Sarah at Sarah Reads Too Much, and is entitled "Back to the Classics Challenge--2012" and involves nine categories of reading to be accomplished between January 1, 2012 and December 31, 2012.  I actually think the discipline required of me to participate in this challenge will cause me to finish reading a couple of novels that I have been putting off for aeons.  Also, I have some other great works of literature that I want to read, and planned to read in 2012, so they just really mesh well with this challenge.  If you're interested in participating in Sarah's challenge, I urge you to have a look at this posting.

Here are the nine categories--
  1. Read any 19th Century classic work;
  2. Read any 20th century classic work;
  3. Reread a classic work of your choice;
  4. Read a classic play;
  5. Read a classic work of fiction that is a mystery/horror/crime;
  6. Read a classic romance
  7. Read a classic that has been translated from its original language into your language;
  8. Read a classic work that is an award winner; and
  9. Read a classic that is set in a country that, in all likelihood,  you will not visit during your lifetime.
And here are my choices--
  1. Moby Dick, or, The Whale, by Herman Melville (1851);
  2. The Naked and the Dead, by Norman Mailer (1948);
  3. Les Miserables, by Victor Hugo (1862), Translated by Julie Rose (2008);
  4. A Midsummer Night's Dream, by William Shakespeare (late-1590s);
  5. Jamaica Inn, by Daphne du Maurier (1936);
  6. The Reef, by Edith Wharton (1912);
  7. The Inferno, by Dante Alighieri (circa 14th century), Translated by Stanley Lombardo (2009);
  8. The Name of the Rose, by Umberto Eco, Translated by William Weaver (1980), PEN Translation Award Winner; and
  9. Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoevsky (1880), Translated by Richard Pevear & Larissa Volokhonsky (2002), PEN Translation Award Winner.
I'm actually quite excited to get started on this list!  I'm also glad that I am using this challenge to finally compel myself to read (actually,  finish would be the operative term here) Moby Dick and The Brothers Karamazov.  I am really looking forward to taking on Dante's Inferno, as I already had planned to tackle it in 2012.  The coming year is also going to be the year in which I discover, or rediscover, many of Shakespeare's plays.  Anyway, lots of good stuff to look forward to here!  Have a great weekend, and Happy Reading!

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November 3, 2011

Literary Blog Hop, November 3-6, 2011


The "Literary Blog Hop" is a monthly feature of the ladies over at The Blue Bookcase.  I think this is the only meme that I still try and regularly participate in.  The questions are always thought-provoking and tend to contribute to my overall desire and efforts to becoming a better writer, reader, and blogger.  I genuinely hope that Christina, Connie, and Ingrid continue to support this meme going forward.  Anyway, this month's question is the following--
"To what extent do you analyze literature?  Are you more analytical in your reading if you know that you're going to review the book?  Is analysis useful in helping you understand and appreciate literature, or does it detract from your reading experience?"
This question does sort of fall right in my 'wheel-house', as I really have become an analytical reader over the years.  For me, this has been a learned behavior too.  First, I have to say that I have been a voracious reader from the very first moment I learned to read.  Having said that though, it wasn't until much later that I ever really gave any thought to what or how I was reading.  I was, I guess, more of a 'qualitative' reader, in that I either liked the book, or I didn't.  It was probably in college where I first learned to approach my reading experience in a more analytical fashion, and this was probably more a function of having to actually identify the important stuff and understand it well enough to write a paper and/or pass a test.  Even though I was a geology major, I took history and English classes too, and I learned how to become a more analytical reader and a critical thinker (and I think that analysis goes hand-in-glove with critical thinking).

With that bit of background out of the way, here are my answers to Christina's questions. I think I pretty much analyze and think about everything I choose to read these days.  If a book has an Introduction, I read it.  I read and consider footnotes and endnotes.  I'm an inveterate scribbler, and am always underlining key sentences, or making marginalia notes.  I tend to write brief notes about important topics, issues, plot points, character assessments, and so forth, on an end page at the back of the book.  I use these notes and marginalia when assembling my review of the book (either here on my blog, or on my Goodreads page).  I avidly look for literary connections and relationships in what I am reading, which has allowed me as an individual reader to begin weaving, if you will, a tapestry of the literature I've read from the ancient classics to the great authors and poets of our modern times.  I'm now able to read Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain and 'hear' the gentle strains of Homer and The Odyssey singing to me.  This simply would not have been possible fifteen or twenty years ago.  Each book would have stood on its own, and I probably never could have made the connection.

The ability to analyze what I'm reading, and discern overall authorial intent, has absolutely increased and intensified my overall reading experience and enjoyment.  When I do find an author I like, I tend to immerse myself in their works and read as much of their oeuvre as is practicably possible.  I have done this with Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy, Charles Dickens, George Eliot, the ancient Greek classicists, A.S. Byatt, Stephen Erikson, Cormac McCarthy, Robert Jordan, J.R.R. Tolkien, and so many other wonderful authors.  Now I know why these are considered the authors of great literature, and generally I can tell you why in each instance.

As a final example of the empowerment that a reader can get from literary analysis and critical thinking, I'll use my experience with A.S. Byatt's beautiful novel, Possession (one of my all-time favorite novels!).  The first time I read the novel, I skipped reading the epigraphs leading off the chapters in their entirety, and in most cases skimmed or ignored all of the poetry embodied within the text.  In other words, I casually discarded 25-30% of the entire book!  Amazingly enough, I still really liked the book!  I picked it up again a few years later, and started over.  I dug into it with a passion, and ended up 'deciphering' and understanding the mythology that Byatt was putting forth, and how it related to the novel's plots and characters, and her views associated with academic research and literary criticism.  Because of this extra effort on my part, Byatt has become one of my favorite modern authors.  More importantly, I gained an undying love for much of the poetry of the Victorian Era, particularly that of Christina Rossetti, Alfred Lord Tennyson, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning--and it was Byatt that led me there!  Again, all of this simply could not have been possible a few years ago, as I wasn't reading analytically, and I certainly wasn't engaging in any critical thinking.  Now, I go into a new book with my eyes wide open and my brain switched on, and what a difference it makes!

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