More of That Henri Chopin Fellow

Here is a video of the late Henri Chopin, about whom I wrote two posts ago, performing at a poetry festival in Berlin.  From what I can decipher, there is no sort of verbal expression in the piece, leading me to wonder if it can even be included in the umbrella term that is “poetry.”  This concern is a difficult one to crack–while poetry is typically regarded as a literary form, there must be a reason that fans and critics alike categorize Chopin’s work, even pieces that do not exhibit explicit literary characteristics, in such a way.  I can’t offer a definitive answer on how to resolve this problem.  It is creative output like Chopin’s that shifts traditional artistic definition and shakes the foundations on which our understanding of art rests.  Who is to say that age-old definitions cannot be amended?  And do the stipulations of various art forms stem from the critic’s desire to simplify and dissect?  These are some interesting questions to consider.

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Food for Thought

This blogging project is tricky, and I must admit that I have not been on top of my game.  Keeping up with the constant flux of the internet has never been my forte (or of great interest to me, for that matter), so attempting to keep a consistent written record in this venue has presented quite the challenge.  Add to this dilemma the fact that I am a full-time student taking a rigorous course-load in the humanities, and that leaves me little time to scour the web for hours at a time in pursuit of the hottest new poets and poetic trends.  I want to do justice to this blog, I so earnestly do, but I definitely have some hurdles to jump.

Also, I should mention that I am always (unless time constraints get the best of me) a perfectionist when it comes to writing.  If I feel that my writing is lacking inspiration, readability, and, above all, that ineffable quality that good writing effortlessly exhibits, I shut the computer, put down the pen, impatiently hurl scraps of paper into the nearest recycling been.  This all-or-nothing philosophy is incredibly detrimental to the good of my work and sanity, but I can’t shake it.  And it’s a vicious cycle–if I am feeling bad about myself and the work I am producing, I continue to put out more awful writing or simply give up.

It is for these reasons that I am especially grateful for Joe Weil and his article “Overcoming Writer’s Block” on THEthe Poetry Blog, which I thankfully discovered as I was perusing the internet for topics for this blog.  Weil’s piece is a must-read for writers of all kinds, especially those of my sensibility.  It’s humorous but also insightful and painfully on the nose.  My favorite tip of his for fighting the dreaded writer’s block?

“Write anyway. Do a dry fuck. Feel miserable. Luxuriate in the ether of your own self disgust. Become an enemy of writing who is forced to pretend you ‘love’ writing… Learn to write when you don’t feel like it. Stop expecting it to ‘fulfill’ you or please you. I would rather have a wild lover over me right now, her hair whipping my face, her voice wailing in throes of passion at my tender ministrations, but it takes a lot more effort to get that than it does to write–at least for me. I mean, you have to look good. You have to smell nice. You have to be attractive. You have to have a reasonably clean car. In order to write, all you have to do is press keys down with your fingers, so I write. It does not depend on any sentient being other than myself. Thank God.”

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More Than Meets the Eye

My friend Adrian recently introduced me to the work of Henri Chopin, a twentieth century French poet and musician, via the artist’s spoken word poem “Cantata for Two Farts and Juan Carlos I.”  Chopin is known for his avant-garde “poesie sonore” aesthetic, in which he embraces lo-fi recording techniques to create a raw and primitive rendering of his written text.

Poetry is an art from that is traditionally experience visually, a slave to the page.  Although sound poetry is an established and appreciated means of transmitting a text, it is by no means the standard.  The experience of absorbing a poem visually is of a very personal nature–when a set of words is placed in front of a reader’s eyes, the interpretation rests at his or her discretion.  When a poem is performed, however, the reader is granted less autonomy in this sense–the speaker makes choices that dictate elements such as tone that invariably dictate  understanding.  This quality is not negative or limiting; it simply makes for a different sort of experience that is grounded more in instinct that intellect.  Sound poetry frees the text from the text itself.

Listening to “Cantata” allowed me to come to realizations of this sort.  The main refrain of the poem consists of the phrase “Si je pouvais penser librement, je vous dirais que…,” which in English translates to If I could think freely, I would tell you that. Throughout the nearly twelve minute piece, Chopin makes use of repetition, distorted vocals, gunshot-like sound effects and textual overlay to capture the apprehension and anxiety that the words themselves denote.  He is stumbling over language, unable to think freely and, consequently, unable to speak clearly.  These choices result in an acutely visceral experience of Chopin’s poem, one that would hardly be possible from a reading of the text alone.

“Tout sera bien,” the artist recites at the end of his piece in a newfound state of calm.  Everything will be okay.  And we, as listeners of the poem, are relieved to hear this proclamation.  The aural and emotional journey on which “Cantata” takes us demands this sort of catharsis.

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The Pervasiveness of Poetry

In “Poetry for Everyday Life,” a mind-opening article in the Op-Ed section of April 11’s New York Times, David Brooks details the prevalence of poetic language in our everyday life.  Metaphors pepper our thinking and color the way we communicate with one another.  “We just use […] metaphors as a way to capture what is going on,” Brooks notes.  “In his fine new book, ‘I is An Other,’ James Geary reports on linguistic research suggesting that people use a metaphor every 10 to 25 words.  Metaphors are not at the rhetorical fringe of how we think, Geary writes.  They are at the very heart of it.”

I think it’s great that this apparent poetic spirit, however accidental it may be, is implicit in our day-to-day social exchanges.  Due to the fluid nature of its form, poetry takes on a variety of manifestations, and this flexibility has the potential to ameliorate the creativity and eloquence of our communication on a regular basis.  Poetry’s ability to transcend the individual, to articulate an otherwise self-contained thought in a way that makes its import all-embracing, is wonderfully conducive to the effective transmission of ideas.  And because poetry has typically been regarded as “high art” and consequently inaccessible to the masses, it pleases me to know that the masses are, in fact, more literary than they have been accustomed to believe.

The sort of “poetry” that Brooks discusses in the article, however, seems more trite than enlightening.  While metaphor allows us to illustrate our thinking and structure it in a way that is universally understood and relatable, the proliferation of clichéd language is, well, hardly something that literary-minded folk would appreciate.  “Pedestrian poetry” can certainly do us some linguistic good, but not if it becomes too pedestrian.  If the use of simple metaphor becomes the norm, the meaning of the metaphor, and the clarity it effectively produces, may be lost.

Check out another reader’s response to the article here.

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The Merits of the Tweet

April is National Poetry Month!  And although I wrote about my qualms with Twitter’s newfound literary pulse a few weeks ago, I must admit that I am quite pleased with the website’s participation in the monthlong celebration.  The Academy of American Poets is devoting its Twitter feed to a series of guest poets, one each day, who have free reign to publish their writing and insight on the page for 24 hours.  This format allows visitors to garner a relatively thorough and nuanced sense of the poet at hand in a way that is different from reading her work directly, granting them an intimate view of the writer’s voice, internal monologue, and the forces that influence her daily.  I am especially excited for the April 28th edition of the feed, when Oberlin Creative Writing professor Kazim Ali is scheduled to give Twitter a try.  This project, by allowing each poet to Tweet freely (but also exclusively, with the focus being solely on poetry), broadens the inherent limits of Twitter’s format and is a positive step in the website’s current involvement in the literary sphere.  And what’s best is that these poets are contemporary, working in the now!  What a great means of publicity for them and exposure for people like me.

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Translation Update!

In my March 18 post, I wrote about a project I was undertaking for my Comparative Literature class, a translation of Guillaume Apollinaire’s poem “Le Pont Mirabeau.”  In it, I discussed the problems I encountered regarding faithfulness to the text.  Should I stay true to Apollinaire’s precise syntax and vocabulary in rendering the text from French to English, I pondered, resulting in a nearly verbatim translation that would likely prove clumsy in the second language? Or should I pursue what translation theorists term a “free translation,” maintaining the general ideas and emotions captured in the original work but with more linguistic and literary license?  Ultimately I chose the latter method, and I am quite satisfied with my results (see the original French text here for reference):

The Mirabeau Bridge by Guillaume Apollinaire; Translated by Emily Schkolnick

Under the Mirabeau Bridge the Seine River runs,
As does our love.
Why must it remind me
Of the joy that comes after the pain?

The night comes and the hours go by,
The days pass but here I remain.

Hand in hand we stand face to face
While underneath the bridge,
Our arms entangled
Like those everlasting waves that pass.

The night comes and the hours go by,
The days pass but here I remain.

Love leaves us
As swift as this flowing water.
Love leaves us,
Because life is short
And hope is violent.

The night comes and the hours go by,
The days pass but here I remain.

The days pass and the weeks do as well.
Neither this lost time,
Nor these failed loves, will return to us,
Under the Mirabeau Bridge where the Seine River runs.

Would Apollinaire approve of my efforts?

I took liberty with form, adding punctuation (the original poem is devoid of nearly any punctuation) and altering the form of the stanzas to reflect more accurately the flow poem’s French iteration.  I knew that I would not be able to capture the rhyme scheme prominent in the original French, but I still wanted to maintain the melody that the perpetual rhyme establishes.  The most effective change I feel I made was changing the refrain from “The night comes and the hours go by / The days pass but here I remain” to “The night comes and the hours go by / The days pass but here I abide.”  By rhyming this couplet, which appears three times throughout the poem and establishes consistency and reinforces the overarching sense of the poem, I believe that I was able to convey the original fluidity of the poem.  I took some other liberties, such as allowing the words “pass us by” to occupy their own lines within their stanza, to imitate the waves of the Seine that Apollinaire references, and indenting specific lines to guide the reading of the poem.  I do not feel like poetry is an impenetrable art form after all.

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Is Nothing Sacred?

I am a bit taken aback by “The Rise of Twitter Poetry,” a New York Times feature from the newspaper’s March 19th publication.  In it, writer Randy Kennedy discusses the recent boom in literary expression on the social networking website, whose template limits its users to a mere 140 characters to publish their day-to-day observations, desires, witticisms, and gossip.  The possibilities for “self-expression” on Twitter are limitless.  This website knows no bounds.

But just because Twitter is an accessible medium for this so-called self-expression does not mean that the material published on it can or should be considered legitimate art. Kennedy writes, “For much of Twitter’s life, the idea that its 140-character structure could be a crucible for a new kind of ambitious writing has been, more than anything else, a punch line […] But there’s evidence that the literary flowering of Twitter may actually be taking place. The Twitter haiku movement—’twaiku’ to its initiates—is well under way. Science fiction and mystery enthusiasts especially have gravitated to its communal immediacy. And even litterateurs, with a capital L, seem to be warming to it.” So someone can be the next great American author because they decide to churn out a biting 129 words while sitting on their toilet at four in the morning?

I hate to sound this bitter and negative about the ever-changing iteration of publishing and writing on the internet. I am sure that there are plenty of great thinkers and writers capable of being published in the “real,” tangible world who simply write on Twitter in the spirit of accessibility and convenience.  And maybe the inherent confines of the website, including its 140 character limit, will help people articulate themselves in a new way and push the limits of language.  Says Kennedy, “The linguist Ben Zimmer said he thought the growing popularity of the service as a creative outlet could be ascribed to the same ‘impulse that goes into writing a sonnet, of accepting those kind of limits.’”

So Twitter may be the sonnet and represent the cutting-edge of the literary form, and those who “tweet” may be the next Shakespeare. But this exaggeration is unlikely, and I am uncomfortable with the”literary” turn contemporary society is taking, one that the internet inspires.  Is nothing sacred anymore?

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