Saturday, March 28, 2015

Two Vernal Verses for the Turning of the Year

Here's a pair of poetic fragments for everyone shiveringly awaiting the arrival of meteorological spring:

Gone is the winter of my misery,
My spring appears; O see what here doth grow!
                  --Sir Philip Sidney, Astrophil and Stella, no.69

If it's ever spring again,
       Spring again,
I shall go where went I when
Down the moor-cock splashed, and hen,
Seeing me not, amid their flounder,
Standing with my arm around her;
If it's ever spring again,
       Spring again,
I shall go where went I then.
                                          --Thomas Hardy

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

BEOWULF, translated by Seamus Heaney

Seamus Heaney was one of my favorite contemporary poets, and I've long considered his 'bog people' poems of the 1970s ("Punishment," "Bog Queen," etc.) among the strongest English-language poems of the past 50 years. Imagine my disappointment, then, when I finally read his translation of Beowulf and found it largely unimpressive. Oh, there are some very good lines, some places where Heaney pulls marvelous modern poetry out of the old Anglo-Saxon. Heaney's "havoc in Heorot and horrors everywhere"(l.594) probably can't be bettered; there's a wonderful harsh music in the alliteration, and the vowels seem to gasp at the carnage they signify. Similarly, Heaney has his horde of slaughtered sea monsters "...sleeping / the sleep of the sword..."(l.565-6), a phrase that sings like sunlight on calm water, despite its surely deliberate echoing of a modern cliché, "the sleep of death." But elsewhere in Heaney's translation, this sort of thing ceases to be an echo and becomes a blatant tendency to translate Anglo-Saxon verse into contemporary American cliché. At lines 26-27, for example, Heaney tells us "[Scyld] was still thriving when his time came / and he crossed over into the Lord's keeping." Questionable Christianization aside, that 'when his time came' is a vapid 20th-century funeral home euphemism, and Heaney's 'crossed over' is even worse, making the Beowulf poet sound like a Californian guru of the afterlife. Later, Heaney has Hrothgar refer to Aeschere as "my right-hand man"(l.1326), a truly jarring anachronism, akin to having Hrothgar call him 'my main man' or 'my soul brother.' These examples leapt out at me, but Heaney's text is riddled with flat, uninspired, and/or clichéd lines. So I can't agree with Andrew Motion's blurbed contention that Heaney "has made a masterpiece out of a masterpiece." At times, in fact, Heaney has taken the first major work of English literature and turned it into a bit of a mess.

What is the best modern translation of Beowulf? This is not a rhetorical question; the four translations I've read over the years have failed to impress me as poetry, and I would sincerely like to learn of a better one. I've sampled Tolkien's, but it seems too pedantically literal, a donnish crib. Maybe now, almost a generation after Heaney's attempt, it's time for another poet to try her hand. Someone needs to build a better Beowulf. Famous Seamus seems to have left the job undone.

THE CITY AND THE CITY by China Mieville

China Mieville (he's a Brit; the name signifies French ancestry, hippie parents, and a guarantee that Americans will think of Moby Dick the moment they see his name on a dust jacket) possesses one of the most impressive imaginations in contemporary SF. Anyone who has sampled even a bit of his Bas-Lag trilogy (Perdido Street Station, The Scar, Iron Council) will not soon forget his weird inventions and uncanny ability to leap inside the perceptions of nonhuman characters. In The City and the City--best pigeonholed as an SF police procedural, the subgenre that includes Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and Soylent Green ("It's PEOPLE!")--that imagination is wonderfully displayed in the central conceit, two mutually antagonistic cities occupy the same physical space and citizens of each are socialized to 'unsee' buildings and people in the other, even when those buildings abut their own or those people pass them on the sidewalk. It's a fantastically suggestive idea, worthy of Calvino or even Kafka, and Mieville milks it marvelously. This conceit is also by far the best thing about the novel, and therein lies the work's weakness. In sharp contrast to the originality of its setting, The City and the City's characters are flat, its plot formulaic (and as such, a bit too predictable), and its prose rarely rises above the average level for its genre(s). There were several sentences in which an obviously tortured syntax left me wondering if Mieville was writing deliberately 'badly' in order to defamiliarize the language of his text as a parallel to his defamiliarization of our world in his topolganger (his coinage, and a good one) cities. This may have been his intention, but my margin of readerly doubt measures the distance between intention and execution. If linguistic defamiliarization was his target, he didn't quite hit it here. But it's clear that Mieville is damn good, and his writerly craft is still on the up escalator. When he reaches the top, watch out.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Three Kinds of Imagination

A few months ago while I was skim/skip-reading Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, that 1980s nerd favorite now almost forgotten (even I, once a card-carrying 80s nerd, had all but forgotten that I still owned a copy), it occurred to me that we might classify imaginations, specifically artistic imaginations, into three categories. Loosely analogizing these categories to art-historical periods, I will call them Classical, Baroque, and Mannerist.

Classical imaginations tend toward simplicity, austerity, elegance. Think of the exquisitely balanced compositions of Poussin's Madonna of the Steps or The Judgment of Solomon, the supersmooth abstraction of Brancusi's Bird in Flight, the stripped-down staccato prose styles of Hemingway or James Ellroy (in Hemingway's case, stripped-down from the lush baroque overplus of Henry James's prose), or the epiphanies of beauty teased out of ordinary pots and pans in Chardin's still life paintings.

Baroque imaginations tend toward complexity, contradiction, even hysteria. We find this tendency in the style of Henry James's fictions and in the matter of Thomas Pynchon's, in Picasso's wildest cubist and surrealist flights, in the overwhelmingly elaborate Capella Sistina in the church of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome, in the enormous, mind-boggling ceiling painting on the vault of St. Ignazio di Loyola (also in Rome), in the impressive authorial outpouring of imaginative gusto in China Mieville's Perdido Street Station.

Mannerist imaginations tend toward paradox, frustration, impasse. Here we find the inescapable nightmares of Kafka's Metamorphosis and The Trial, the ice-blue untouchable eroticism and interpretive impenetrability of Bronzino's Allegory with Venus and Cupid, the no-exit tragedy of a depressive consciousness spinning round and round itself in  David Foster Wallace's "The Depressed Person," "Good Old Neon," and much of Infinite Jest; M. C. Escher's inescapable etchings, and the impossible paintings of Rene Magritte.

These are but three kinds of imaginative tendencies. There are many more possibilities (depressive, comic, tragic, etc.), and none of these categories should be taken as anything more than a fuzzy, loose, contingent kind of intellectual shorthand. Powerful imaginations tend to dissolve such categories and set all pigeonholes aflame.