Saturday, January 31, 2009

Centennial of Futurism

It's been a hundred years since an Italian poet named Marinetti dropped his Futurist manifesto all over Milan. Poetry is commemorating it, only half-seriously, by having a lot of poets write their own manifestos of Whateverism. I, on the other hand, am commemorating it with the following excerpt from GK Chesterton's shrewd and amusing essay, 'The Futurists.' (That guy has something for everything...)

It was a warm golden evening, fit for October, and I was watching
(with regret) a lot of little black pigs being turned out of my garden, when the postman handed to me, with a perfunctory haste which doubtless masked his emotion, the Declaration of Futurism. If you ask me what Futurism is, I cannot tell you; even the Futurists themselves seem a little doubtful; perhaps they are waiting for the future to find out. But if you ask me what its Declaration is, I answer eagerly; for I can tell you quite a lot about that. It is written by an Italian named Marinetti, in a magazine which is called Poesia. It is headed "Declaration of Futurism" in enormous letters; it is divided off with little numbers; and it starts straight away like this: "1. We intend to glorify the love of danger, the custom of energy, the strengt of daring. 2. The essential elements of our poetry will be courage, audacity, and revolt. 3. Literature having up to now glorified thoughtful immobility, ecstasy, and slumber, we wish to exalt the aggressive movement, the feverish insomnia, running, the perilous leap, the cuff and the blow." While I am quite willing to exalt the cuff within reason, it scarcely seems such an entirely new subject for literature as the Futurists imagine. It seems to me that even through the slumber which fills the Siege of Troy, the Song of Roland, and the Orlando Furioso, and in spite of the thoughtful immobility which marks "Pantagruel," "Henry V," and the Ballad of Chevy Chase, there are occasional gleams of an admiration for courage, a readiness to glorify the love of danger, and even the "strengt of daring," I seem to remember, slightly differently spelt, somewhere in literature. The distinction, however, seems to be that the warriors of the past went in for tournaments, which were at least dangerous for themselves, while the Futurists go in for motor-cars, which are mainly alarming for other people. It is the Futurist in his motor who does the "aggressive movement," but it is the pedestrians who go in for the "running" and the "perilous leap." Section No. 4 says, "We declare that the splendour of the world has been enriched with a new form of beauty, the beauty of speed. A race-automobile adorned with great pipes like serpents with explosive breath. ... A race-automobile which seems to rush over exploding powder is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace." It is also much easier, if you have the money. It is quite clear, however, that you cannot be a Futurist at all unless you are frightfully rich.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Wanted: Silicon Valley Poet Laureate

Quick. What rhymes with Clara?

Yogi Berra.

Father Junipero Serra.

The goddess Hera?

It's time to get your assonance in gear because the Arts Council Silicon Valley is searching for the first-ever poet laureate of Santa Clara County. It's a sweet gig: to elevate the status of poetry in the valley, a place far more famous for high-tech than haiku.

I found this hilarious article in the Mercury today. What do you say, dear Readers? Should I run? I am a model candidate! 1. I have lived in Santa Clara County all my life. 2. I have published ONE POEM in a Real Magazine, and I have been recognized with ONE PUSHCART NOMINATION (poetic fame is so relative, you know). 3. Diversity is fine by me. 4. I have shown my passion for engaging in civic discourse about poetry by writing this blog.

Duties of Santa Clara County Poet Laureate

1) Represent Santa Clara County and the art of poetry through outreach related to poetry

2) Present appropriate works at the annual State of the County ceremony and at least four selected County-sponsored events, dedications, or memorials per year

3) Act as a resource for poetry and literary activities of the Santa Clara County Library

4) Participate in National Poetry Month events and activities

5) Undertake a project that will make poetry more available and accessible to people in their everyday lives

The Poet Laureate will receive a modest honorarium.

It sounds like the Poet Laureate will actually have to produce a substantial amount of public occasional verse. (This is not required of the US Poet Laureate!) And that honorarium is only $4000 for two years. It will be interesting to see who they get.

If the official poet of Santa Clara County ends up immortalizing home, sweet home in a poem, so much the better. The result might be a sonnet that captures the pulse of life here in the valley. Might we suggest: A Valediction Forbidding Blogging? To His Soy Mistress? Ode on a Grecian URL?

"Right now there are many local poets writing about the valley, about the transition from agriculture to technology and our changing status in the world," Jones notes. "I think the great Silicon Valley poem is still out there."

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Someone is trying to make music somewhere with a pair of wooden spoons on an oil drum.

Wow, the inaugural poem was not as terrible as I expected it to be. It was still incredibly dull. But there was potential for hilarious and orotund badness! Oh well. Maybe next time.

Elizabeth Alexander showed the entire nation just how impoverished American poetry has become. If anyone was unaware that our poets are often rewarded for flatness, slackness, and a regal disregard for the ears of their audience, they were sadly enlightened on Tuesday.

And I'm not impressed by the pleas for lenience I've been hearing. Aretha Franklin and Yo Yo Ma are artists, and they performed. They fulfilled expectations. Elizabeth Alexander was supposed to be on the same plane, but she was not. This is the paradox of American poetry today: it has become a profession, and it has become disgracefully unprofessional.

She had her work cut out for her. She even put in a stitch or two:
Say it plain: that many have died for this day.
Sing the names of the dead who brought us here,
who laid the train tracks, raised the bridges,

picked the cotton and the lettuce, built
brick by brick the glittering edifices
they would then keep clean and work inside of.

This was the only relevant section in the entire poem! It's like Alexander was going along, tossing stuff out there, and then she thought: "What's really poetry-worthy about this occasion? That America has finally elected a black man to the presidency, that this resonates with our history--that it evokes our worst war and our most shameful crimes, but also our bravery, the bravery of individuals, the indestructible beauty of words uttered by Lincoln and King; that there is vindication here, that it is worthy and fitting to honor our ancestors who suffered so much--yeah, I guess you could look at it that way. I'll throw in a reference to that."

"Say it plain, that many have died for this day." This proposition should have been the heart of Alexander's poem; the beat and impulse of it. Instead, it was more like an awkward appendix. The poem should have been a musical but focused lyric, sure of its theme, disciplined in sticking to it, conscientious as a good movie about setups and payoffs. Instead, it languished under poetic pork and earmarks. And as for meter...

What depressed me most about "Praise song for the day" was the revelation that it was not meant to be free verse. It was supposed to be iambic pentameter. The transcript looked like this, but the formal print version looks like this. If you read the latter carefully, you can see the pentameter; but the rhythm was hardly perceptible in performance. The meter is just a shape, not a sound. One news source described it as "free verse iambic pentameter," which is like saying "crimson green" or "Chardonnay ale"--but unfortunately accurate.

And any poet who writes a line like "Love that casts a widening pool of light" for a powerful politician should be ritually expelled from the College of Bards. Finis.

Now, as to the inevitable challenge: "Why don't you try it and see how easy it is?" I was actually starting to take notes for my own effort, but frankly I have not been inclined to praise Obama even obliquely and in jest since he restored government funding for abortions in foreign countries. My last comment on this little affair: the poet and the president deserve each other. But I'd rather listen to Alexander's poetry all day long than hear some of the news that is coming from Washington now.

Adam Kirsch
Steven Colbert
The Guardian

Monday, January 12, 2009

Sunday, January 11, 2009

ode on a german um?

Recent keywords that have brought people to my blog:
- ode on a german um by keats
- orberg lingua latina cheat (Oh no you don't!)
- limericks about keats
- a funny poem about bailout (Try this.)
- chuck norris christmas poem
- dylan thomas, fairy rings to the moon (Dylan
Thomas's initials are so appropriate
- iambic pentameter feels weird (Weirder than this?)
- "if you were meant to be a writer you would already be writing Catholic fiction" (Ouch.)
- golden compass keats poem
- jabberwocky in latin hassard dodgson (That was your lucky day...)
- keats in latin (Sorry. I'll try and get around to that.)
- vergil in quenya (Maybe later.)
- paradimethylaminobenzaldehyde (Excuse me?!)
- poems about march for life
- snow gods
- tennyson pigs fly ("And all thy bacon sizzled unto me.")
- the oroma in ancient egypt (what's an oroma?)
- worst cento peoms done (Hey, don't look for them *here*!)
- "dance of vowels and consonants"
- per amica silentia lunae
I will be sure to take all of this into my consideration when I blog. Also, I resolve to blog more about WH Auden. (Nearly half of the searches were Auden-related.)

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Starry Kalends

I just remembered another New Year's poem, this one by Hopkins. It happens to be my favorite of all the Latin poems that he wrote. It starts out as a description of Orion on a strangely warm night, the first of January; and it turns into a prayer for a good new year. I included the image of Van Gogh's "Starry Night" because Hopkins' vision has an uncanny resemblance to it! The moon's overbearing light tries to block out the stars, but they shine out anyway; their "soft glory" comes and goes and they almost seem to whirl like pinwheels in the wind.

Miror surgentem per puram Oriona noctem,
Candida luna licet
Adstet et exiguis incumbat durior astris
Nec simul esse sinat.
Verum hic Orion miror quam crescat in altum et
Quam micet igne suo,
Non suus aetherium quem purpurat impetus, itque
Molle reditque decus:
Quin versare aliquos septena cacumina ventos
Turbine posse putes.
Miror item suaves adeo spirarier auras
Egelidumque Notum
Atque hiemem tantum primasque tepere Kalendas
Quas novus annus agit,
Namque ab eo qui jam pulcerrimus occidit anni
Dicimus ire dies.
O Jesu qui nos homines caelestis et alta haec
Contrahis astra manu,
Omnia sunt a te: precor a te currat et annus:
Is bonus annus erit.
Omnia sunt in te: nostrum vivat genus in te,
Quod tua membra sumus,
Omnes concessas inquam quot carpimus auras
Suspicimusque polum.
Gratia deest sed enim multis: ut gratia desit,
Omnibus alma tamen,
Alma etiam natura subest, cui tenditur ista
Provida cunque manus.

The meter is the same as in Horace's "Diffugere nives," and "Miror surgentem" is also a poem about the end of winter. Neither poem, though, is a joyous hymn to spring. Horace says that even though spring is here now, winter will be back again, and in the end we're dust and shades. Despite the green unfading beauty of its opening, Horace's ode is all about giving up hope. Hopkins' poem, on the other hand, is an explicit "act of hope." The sense of spring is much more fragile: one day of unseasonable warmth in January is an aberration; it isn't going to last. But Hopkins has this stubborn idea that a warm New Year's Day may augur a good new year, and he prays to Jesus for this: "precor a te currat et annus: / Is bonus annus erit." There is a switch back into a minor key when Hopkins says sadly that "Gratia deest sed enim multis" - many people have no gratitude for the air and the sky and the earth in general - and then it ends with that "authentic cadence" that Hopkins loved: "Omnibus alma tamen, / Alma etiam natura subest, cui tenditur ista / Provida cunque manus." "Even so, kind nature is still there for everyone, nature to whom that provident hand is stretched out everywhere." (Someday I should try to make an actual poetic translation of this poem. It easily becomes flat and inaccurate in English.)

So I think that this will be my prayer for the new year:
O Jesu qui nos homines caelestis et alta haec
Contrahis astra manu,
Omnia sunt a te: precor a te currat et annus:
Is bonus annus erit.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Gazing upon all the pleated skirts that the world doth hold

Ah, the pleasures of Bluefly and Google Image Search! My generation lives everywhere, all at once, which is what makes us so "appealing, highly promising — and also radically vulnerable," according to U. of Virginia professor Mark Edmundson. His essay in the Chronicle Review made me think about the way I have been living my life, and I was a little surprised to see just how different I am from his students. The things he talks about resonate with me, to be sure; but I think I have a different attitude about them than his students do. Yes, I'm addicted to the internet, and I know what it's like to wish for ten impossible things before breakfast; but my vision of happiness has always had something quiet, closed in, and unchanging about it. Studying abroad is good - especially if a close friend is with you. An overnight train from Marseille to Lourdes, no luggage with you but a water bottle and a bag of Italian pastries - that's an Experience, but it's all held together by the hot croissant at the station, eaten very slowly as the sun rises. In my (possibly perverse) little world, you crawl through a half-drowned cave system to find one small chamber with gypsum flowers glinting on the ceiling, you go sailing for the night watches, and you go There mainly so that you can go Back Again. This a fancy way of admitting what most of my readers know already: that I'm not one of the double-majoring, Red Bull-drinking, mission-tripping, super-connected young graduates who are profiled in that article. (Okay Mom, you can stop laughing now.) Really, sometimes I wish I were! I would get so many things done! But I'm not, so I might as well enjoy my odd way of doing one thing at a time.

"Dwelling in Possibilities" is just one of five essays from the last year that Santiago Ramos thinks are keepers. You can find the others in his post on the Image blog. I wouldn't have found some of these if I hadn't read it. Thanks, Santiago!

Poems for the New Year

I like "The Darkling Thrush" myself. Thanks, Dylan!