Friday, August 29, 2008

Aeneid: A Black Swift

I guess I am as fascinated by the things that appear in Virgil in passing as I am by the overall story, for the things I want to comment on are all basically asides, such as this one:

Quick as a black swift darts along through the great halls
of a wealthy lord, and scavenging morsels, banquet scraps
for her chirping nestlings, all her twitterings echo now
in the empty colonnades, now in the brimming ponds.

(Book XII)

I have been watching swifts for years now, ever since I moved to Basel and was turned on to bird watching by my friend Dave, but I have never seen swifts flying inside any "great halls" here. That would be quite a sight!

Poetry-wise, I love the way Robert Fagles enjambs the first "now" here, allowing its meaning to open up in various directions, and allowing the second "now" to focus the meaning of the first "now."

Monday, August 25, 2008

Neil Young in Zurich, Aug. 21

Neil brought his "Electric Band" to Zurich last Thursday and tore the walls down with feedback and beautiful melodies. The sound of his electric guitar gets more complex and subtle with every tour, aging like a fine wine, with new flavors emerging every year, it seems.

The setlist:

1. Love And Only Love
2. Hey Hey, My My
3. Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere
4. Powderfinger
5. Spirit Road
6. Cortez The Killer
7. Cinnamon Girl

Acoustic stuff:

8. Oh, Lonesome Me
9. Mother Earth
10. The Needle And The Damage Done
11. Unknown Legend
12. Heart Of Gold
13. Old Man

Back to the electric guitar:

14. Get Back To The Country
15. Just Singing A Song
16. Sea Change
17. Cowgirl In The Sand
18. Rockin' In The Free World

19. A Day In The Life (The Beatles)


The explosive version of "Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere" ... Neil forgot the third verse of "Powderfinger" and sang the second verse twice ... The wonderfully slow chords of "Cortez the Killer" with the usual gorgeous guitar lines (so gorgeous that it does not matter if one is used to how gorgeous the song is) ... "Unknown Legend," which always grabs me, and was as beautiful as ever ... "Cowgirl in the Sand," with another round of intensely crescendoing noise and melody ... "Rockin' in the Free World," with its ever-present irony overloading when the crowd sings along on the chorus in such a celebratory way, apparently oblivious to the horrors described in the verses, and which took the crescendo of noise one step further ... making me wonder what else could still be done, and then came "A Day in the Life," in which Neil turned an unplayable song into a masterpiece of live performance.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Christ's middle finger

Back in graduate school, I took a three-hour philosophy seminar on Wednesday afternoons one semester. There was always a break after two hours or so, and one afternoon, my friend David and I went to the bathroom. We stood next to each other at the urinals, and then David said, "Look up." I looked up. And he said, "Now you're pissing on your shoes." I looked down. I wasn't pissing on my shoes. I turned to David, and he pointed at the wall, where someone had written "Look up" with an arrow pointing up, and up there it said the bit about the shoes.

I would probably have forgotten the whole thing, but soon after (and I like to think it was the next day), David and I sat next to each other at a lecture on Ulysses, in the middle of which the lecturer referred to the scene in which Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom step out into the night to take a pee. When the lecturer mentioned how they both looked up at the stars, David leaned over to me and said, "Now they're pissing on their shoes." We struggled to contain ourselves, and after the lecture and the Q&A, we explained to the lecturer why we had been choking back laughter during his talk. He said that he would probably never read the passage the same way again!

A few weeks ago, then, I went to the Kunstmuseum in Basel with a visiting friend, and I showed him Holbein's Christ, one of the major paintings here:
I had seen the painting quite a few times (I often show it to visitors to Basel), but I had never noticed Christ's middle finger before: look closely, yes, he is giving you the finger.

Just as that lecturer can't read the passage of Ulysses anymore without thinking of "pissing on their shoes," I will never be able to look at this painting again without a pleasant anachronistic chuckle.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

New Dieter M. Gräf translations

I've got two new translations of poems by Dieter M. Gräf up at lyrikline:

The Pockmarked Man Kills W.

These links get you to the German versions; you then have to click at the top where the English version is linked.

I've got a few more to do for lyrikline in the coming weeks, so if you like these, keep an eye out for more. (Or buy Tousled Beauty and/or Tussi Research!)

Aeneid: Trash Talking

Trash talking, it turns out, is at least as old as the Aeneid (next time I read the Iliad, I'll have to keep an eye out for it). Here's one Numanus, "flaunting his own power to high heaven":

"But you, with your saffron braided dress, your flashy purple,
you live for lazing, lost in your dancing, your delight,
blowzy sleeves on your war-shirts, ribbons on bonnets.
Phrygian women—that's what you are—not Phrygian men!
Go traipsing over the ridge of Dindyma, catch the songs
on the double pipe you dote on so! The tambourines
they're calling for you now, and the boxwood flutes
of your Berencynthian mother perched on Ida!
Leave the fighting to men! Lay down your swords!"

(Book IX)

As Fagles's note says: "In Latin poetry, Phrygian often stands derogatorily for oriental, and thus for effeminate."

It's worth noting that Numanus is promptly shot down by Ascanius with an arrow through his head!

Monday, August 18, 2008

Songs and Poems

I wrote this as a comment on a post on Don Share's blog:

I first started writing poems regularly around 1983 or so, in a free-verse mode under the influence of Denise Levertov (CW teacher at Stanford). And I started writing songs regularly around 1985. For a long time, the two modes were quite separate for me: songs were in rhyme and meter, and poems weren't. In the mid-nineties, though, the boundary began to blur a bit, as I began to write more and more poems in meter (rhymed and unrhymed). For me, now, the only identifiable difference between verse written to be a song and verse that is not going to become a song is simple: if the verses contain a lot of enjambment, it's hard to make them a singable song, because it's hard to write melodies that won't ignore the lineation. But if the verses don't have a lot of enjambment, then they can easily be made into a song, if I find a good melody and chords.

Aeneid: To strike a spark from flint

Achates is first to strike a spark from flint,
then works to keep it alive in dry leaves,
cups it around with kindling, feeds it chips
and briskly fans the tinder into flame.

(Aeneid, Book I, trans. Robert Fagles)

I like reading poetry or other literature from long ago and coming across passages like this, in which everyday activities from the time of writing are described, things that we might know something about (like the lighting of a fire without matches) and sometimes things we know
almost nothing about, like the life of a housewife at the time, as revealed through a description of an early hour of the morning (or late late hour of the night) as the "hour a housewife rises":

that hour a housewife rises, faced with scratching out
a living with loom and Minerva's homespun crafts,
and takes the ashes first to awake the sleeping fires,
adding night to her working hours, and sets her women
toiling on at the long day's chores by torchlight—
and all to keep the bed of her husband chaste
and rear her little boys ...

(Book VIII)

Book V is about the funeral games for Anchises, Aeneas's father, and though I read the book in July, I did think of the Olympics as a descendant of such a description. And then there's this description of Orpheus playing music:

And Orpheus himself, the Thracian priest with his long robes,
keeps their rhythm strong with his lyre's seven ringing strings,
plucking now with his fingers, now with his ivory plectrum.

(Book V)

A better musician than I am, I guess, since I only play with a pick and hardly ever with
my fingers ... :-)

Friday, August 15, 2008

Human Shields on Myspace

I've finally got some stuff on Myspace for the trio I've been working with, Human Shields. Maybe soon we'll even organize a gig! :-)

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Virgil and Horace

Before and after reading the Aeneid at the beach, I read David Ferry's translations of the Odes of Horace. Just as the Aeneid made me notice differences between Virgil and Homer, I noticed one significant difference between Virgil and Horace: while the Aeneid is splendid, I am more a Horatian than a Virgilian. The Odes are closer to me than Horace's friend's epic. Perhaps it's just that the Odes are closer to the dominant mode of contemporary poetry (lyricism) than the Aeneid is (even if I love verse novels).

(And isn't it fascinating how great poets so often come in pairs who knew each other well? Virgil and Horace, Goethe and Schiller, Eliot and Pound, etc.)

Monday, August 04, 2008


One general response I had to the Aeneid while reading it at the beach (in the Robert Fagles translation) was this: I was repeatedly struck by the image of Virgil actually sitting or standing somewhere and writing the poem. In contrast, when reading Homer (whether Iliad or Odyssey), I never had a sense of a person (be it Homer himself or anyone) actually writing the poem.

Of course, this could be just a side-effect of the fact that I know that a historically identifiable person named Virgil actually wrote the Aeneid, while that is not the case for Homer's epics. But I also had the feeling that this had something to do with how the Latin epic reads.

Perhaps this is something classicists have studied: Virgil as a written text vs. Homer as a text composed orally. What struck me most about it, finally, was that Fagles apparently succeeded in translating Homer and Virgil differently enough to create this sensation.