Monday, March 15, 2010

Famam Librosque Cano

Today, we take a break from book reviews and look at an early poem of Ezra Pound. Its title translates to “I sing of fame and books”: the opening line of the Aeneid (“armam virumque cano”) translates to “I sing of arms and a man”.

Famam Librosque Cano *
by Ezra Pound

Your song?
Oh! The little mothers
Will sing them in the twilight
And when the night
Shrinketh the kiss of the dawn
That loves and kills,
What times the swallow fills
Her note, the little rabbit folk
That some call children,
Such as are up and wide,
Will laugh your verses to each other,
Pulling on their shoes for the day’s business,
Serious child business that the world
Laughs at, and grows stale;
Such is the tale
- Part of it - of thy song-life.


A book is known by them that read
That same. Thy public in my screed
Is listened. Well! Some score years hence
Behold mine audience,
As we had seem him yesterday.

Scrawny, be-spectacled, out at heels,
Such an one as the world feels
As sort of curse against its guzzling
And its age-lasting wallow for red greed
And yet; full speed
Though it should run for its own getting,
Will turn aside to sneer at
’Cause he hath
No coin, no will to snatch the aftermath
Of Mammon
Such an one as women draw away from
For the tobacco ashes scattered on his coat
And sit his throat
Shows razor’s unfamiliarity
And three days’ beard;

Such an one picking a ragged
Backless copy from the stall,
Too cheap for cataloguing,

‘Ah-eh! the strange rare name …
Ah-eh He must be rare if even I have not …’
And lost mid-page
Such age
As his pardons the habit,
He analyses form and thought to see
How I ’scaped immortality.

The first verse is a scoff at cradlesongs and forgettable, entertaining verses that, no doubt, brought their writers ephemeral fame and fortune. Then “behold mine audience” - clearly the audience of weightier poems. In the later verses, the poet is describing his discovery and rehabilitation in future times by his target audience - impecunious, unkempt yet rapt readers of poems (e.g. a penniless student/starving writer living in the Latin Quarter of Paris, like Rimbaud, but only anachronistically).

Without analyzing the irregular rate of rhyming, I particularly like the line “And its age-lasting wallow for red greed // And yet; full speed” (speaking of the world that scoffs at the poor reader in passing as it turns).

(* this poem is from Umbra on Internet Archive.)

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Arcadia, Part I

Arcadia, Tom Stoppard


The set, a 19th century school room in an English manor overlooking a grand park, is shared by 2 sets of characters, living in 1809-1812 and "present day" (presumably 1993, when this play was first published. In 1809, Thomasina Coverly is a precocious genius of 13 being tutored by Cambridge-educated, gentlemanly, Byronic Septimus Hodge, who happens to be friends with Byron. The idealized landscape in which "right amount of sheep are tastefully arranged" is about to be converted into a Gothic, Romantic park with the right amount of failed obelisks and ruins tastefully arranged, against the wishes of Lady Croom, Thomasina's archly witty mother.

In present day, Hannah Jarvis is researching the transformation of the garden and reading through Lady Croom's garden books. Obnoxious researcher Bernard Nightingale is convinced that he has discovered which Byron left English abruptly in 1809-1810. They discuss their passion for researching the "trivial" remembrances of time lost and the "trivial" details of the universe in heated discussions and span topic including the second law of thermodynamics and wikipedia versions of chaos theory and fractals.

After watching this play being performed, I enjoyed it so much that I read the play and was amazed at how engaging and interesting it is. In fact, I thought so much about it that my reflections will have to be divided into (at least) 3 blog posts. Today we will discuss Lady Croom.

Lady Croom:

If there is anything to complain about in this play, it would be that the play is overloaded with overly clever characters. Lady Croom should be, in her own right, a very clever characters, and yet a great deal of the jokes at her expense. Perhaps this is done to emphasize how precocious and brilliant her daughter is. The main laughs comes from the dialogue wherein the title of the play is expressed.

Arcadia is a place is Greece - in Peloponnese - which poetry over the years has turned into an idyllic, pastoral paradise. There is a famous painting by Nicholas Poussin, which I had included here thanks to wikipedia. Several shepherd in a pastoral wonderland have come across a tomb with the inscription "et in Arcadia ego". In Latin, as in Chinese, one of the accepted poetical devices is elision - leaving out a important parts of phrases or sentences, yet with the implicit suggestion that it is there. In this case, the word "sum" has been dropped of the end and the phrase translates literally as "and in Arcadia I am" or, in a more accepted version, "Even in Arcadia, there I am", where the speaker is personified Death. Momento mori (a sort of remember-that-you-will-die type deal).

In protesting the changes to the park that her husband is determined to make, Lady Croom describes her park as being a perfect pastoral scene and correct in sheep distribution. Her translation of the phrase is "here I am in Arcadia" where she means that she is in her garden and her garden is pastoral perfection - Arcadia. Some doubt over Lady Croom's taste, translation and, mainly, her geography are expressed and a page or so later, the accepted translation is given.

But really, Lady Croom is not like any Regency mother I've ever read of - certainly not like one of Jane Austen's mothers. Of course, this play is historical fiction, written from a modern perspective, but it is still surprising to find Lady Croom to be so witty. She is an over-privileged, bored, noblewoman who has enough education to be witty but not enough to be intellectual (and whether she regrets it or not, I'll leave the reader to judge for themselves) and she is given some of the best lines of the play. Whereas Bernard the academic can only say of a botanist who described a dwarf dahlia that he "died in the forests of the West Indies, lost to history like the monkey that bit him", Lady Croom says he "exchanged beds with my dahlia, and an English summer for ever lasting night in the Indies."

Saturday, February 27, 2010

21: The Odd Women

The Odd Women, George Gissing

The Odd Women is acutely aware of misery.

The title refers to unmarried women in Victorian society, when women outnumbered men and had virtually no way of earning a dignified living, aside from making a suitable marriage. Being brought up to be a lady and educated to be a lady, an odd woman could only obtain work as a governess or a companion - both unhappy position. The Bronte sisters wrote volumes on the indignity of being a governess (particularly the whiny one, Anne) and Jane Fairfax's unbearable fate in Emma, which she evades by marrying, is that of a governess.

In the vein of Jane Fairfax and Anne Bronte comes the Madden sisters. Daughters of a doctor who died before purchasing life insurance, they were educated to be ladies. They were taught to read poetry, pour tea, stitch cushions - all in line with the lives of well-to-do ladies. With the death of their father and the end of comfortable income, the girls are packed off to their destinations, based on their abilities. Their numbers are sadly diminished by half through the course of a few years and the remaining ones are Alice, Virginia and pretty Monica. The poor girls try to make their way in life through marriage, alcohol and acute unhappiness.

In contrast to the Maddens girls, the very independent and capable Rhoda Nunn advocates independence of women. She would rather that all girls be equipped for some profession and not be groomed solely for marriage.

I liked this book for the Gissing's social commentaries on the times. He must have sisters because he seems to sympathize with the plight of the girls.

This blog has been sadly neglected for some time. I will try to remedy that with a series of short-ish reviews, starting with this one.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

20: Clara Callan

Clara Callan, Richard B. Wright

I once read a satirical website that boasted a recipe for the composition award-winning literature. It had dictums like "thou shalt sneer at conflict" and "thou shalt commit no plot". I thought it was hilarious, sinister, at the time, distant. Now that I have wasted hours of my life - gone, irretrievably gone like the wind - reading Clara Callan, winner of the Giller Prize and the Governor General's Award for Fiction, I now find new bitter meaning in "suckitudinous" fiction.

Clara Callan has no real plot. The titular character lives in rural Ontario in the 1930s. She is a school teacher living along, unmarried. An odd woman (incidentally have also recently read The Odd Women, a much better read) she loses her belief in religion, is victim to a random, senseless act of violence by a tramp, goes to New York (where sister Nora resides) to get an abortion and returns to Ontario to become more and more eccentric until she meets the man of her dream: a Catholic, married man who regularly cheats on his wife with the odd women - unmarried women who have given up on finding marital bliss, trapped in a mundane experience, alone, unprotected and perfect for him to stalk and meet in movie theatres.

The book is told through letters of Clara to her sister Nora and her friend Evelyn and her diary entries. Sister Nora is a radio actress in New York, a minor celebrity, and is very Sister Carrie. My problem is that it was absolutely dull. Certainly things happen, but there's no connecting theme. Does Clara change at all? I think not. There's no evolution of character. In the beginning, she sees the town drunk wearing her deceased father's donated coat and delights in the sight. In the end, she attends his funeral; distinctly out of place amongst the poor, lewd man's rough, unkempt acquaintances. Even after all that's happened to her, she is still the same and sees things around her the same way. No forward motion. No development.

And all the references to the 1930s (this book was a piece of historical fiction published in 2006) are corny. Old King George died, handsome King Edward abdicated for that crass American woman, that book Gone with the Wind was published and filmed - it was so tacky. I'm reading the volume of Anais Nin from the same period and the way she references things that we now consider to be historically important is altogether different. The feeling I get when I find familiar things that Anais encounters at the time (Otto Rank for example) is vastly different from the same type of thing in Clara's letters - it is not forced or ostentatious or jarring.

And honestly, people with interesting lives don't give vague summaries of current affairs and weather updates in their diaries. In fact, interesting people living dull, sequestered lives don't write about mundane drivel either - like Emily Dickinson, for example. This establishes that Clara Callan has the prize-winning combination of being an uninteresting person living an uninteresting life.

I believe the quote on the back is a good representative of the faults of this book:

"On a winter afternoon when we turn the lights on early, or perhaps a summer day of leaves and sky, I will begin by conjugating the elemental verb. I am. You are. It is."

("Boring," I dare to tag on.)

It's trying so hard to be literary and poetic. It's trying for simplicity (all such simple words) by has no sense of minimalism (why "on a winter afternoon ..." or "summer day of leaves and ..."? Pointless. Just pointless. The extra fragment doesn't all anything; those two things give exactly the same feeling and giving the same feeling twice doesn't make it better. Just more exasperating). Its only real poetic device is the elision of the object: she will begin what by conjugating? Life? Doubting? Writing?

Like this snippet, Clara also tries too hard to be literary and poetic and its only device is the omission of defining moments, character, plot, and meaning. How very suckitudinous.

(By the way, am finally back to blogging after a nice break followed by a deluge of things to do. Will post at least once a week from now on.)