Saturday, April 29, 2006

"The Master said: 'Lead them by political manuevers, restrain them with punishments: the people will become cunning and shameless. Lead them by virtue, restrain them with ritual: they will develop a sense of shame and a sense of participation." (The Analects of Confucius, trans. very very well by Simon Leys)
A conversation from days long past.

ODIOUS (musing): You know, Gerard Manley Hopkins is probably the least aptly named poet ever.

PECULIAR: Hmm. [A pause.] I suppose we don't really know about Longfellow, do we?

This is of course unfair to Mr. Hopkins, who was capable of superior and moving verse. His verse punches above its weight: he loads more emotional mass onto single words than most poets can manage to get in an entire sonnet. Consider, for example, his "As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies dráw fláme" (the stress marks are the poet's own):
As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies dráw fláme;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves—goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I do is me: for that I came.

Í say móre: the just man justices;
Kéeps gráce: thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is—
Chríst—for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.
And to add further power to his verse he developed what he called "sprung rhythm". With sprung rhythm a single syllable can act as a foot, and "two or more stresses can come running". Like children's songs ("One, two/Buckle your shoe", or "Baa, baa, black sheep"), single syllables get the same weight as poetic feet.

John Fraser has an essay on reading Hopkins.
So far as I have been able to figure out, to appreciate Hopkins’ poems one needs to grant him, without further question, certain basic facts about his own verse.

At bottom, this comes down to saying that once one has determined, on the basis of some unambiguous line or set of lines, what basic number of main stresses a line in that poem should contain (five? six? four?), one must then go through the poem line by line and mark that number of stresses, and only that number of stresses, in each line.
I don't believe that this statement is perfectly true, but it is an eeriely powerful way of hearing Hopkins' poetry. And even more than most poets Hopkins must be heard. If you didn't, may I suggest reading the poem quoted above aloud?

To me the heavily accentual nature of this poetry recalls Old English verse, where the unstressed syllables are more or less ignored in measuring the line. And Hopkins can achieve the same clean, strong verse when he is at his peak:
I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-
dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird,—the achieve of; the mastery of the thing!

Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!

No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermillion.
(Like I was going to talk about Hopkins without quoting "The Windhover"! You read that aloud, I hope?) But there's a reason sprung rhythm never caught on. For all the power it can convey, it often lacks what Hopkins called "counterpoint". It's hard to depart rhythmically, and thereby convey any of the sensations clever poets can, in a poem without an established rhythm. If Pope could use a lot of what Hopkins had, Hopkins might have learned a bit from Pope's "An Essay on Criticism":
When Ajax strives some rock's vast weight to throw,
The line too labours and the verse goes slow;
And too often Hopkins is read as though every line laboured. His sprung rhythms is read as spondee upon spondee, and the verse... drags. It is not for nothing that Aristotle called the iambic meter the meter of movement. Without it, ecstatic moments can be conveyed, but a developed, continuous sense of motion is nearly impossible.

Robert Frost has said that "All that can be done with words is soon told. So also with meters— particularly in our language where there are virtually but two, loose iambic and strict iambic." It's not that poets cannot compose in other rhythms; it's that the readers won't hear it. Blake falls victim to this:
When my mother died I was very young,
And my father sold me while yet my tongue
Could scarcely cry 'weep! 'weep! 'weep! 'weep!
So your chimneys I sweep, and in soot I sleep.
I defy anyone to read the third line except as "'weep-weep! 'weep-weep!'". And Hopkins can fall just the same. The verse is exquisitely metered, so to speak; the reader's ear is unprepared for it, and so the verse fails. And when, as Hopkins' often does, the verse depends on an immediate emotional movement, the reader is left dissatisfied. That is, I am left dissatisfied--this is, of course, a confession of the weakness of my own ear for poetry. I should additionally confess than I am hammered on sake, and while discoursing on poetry in such a state has the approval of the classicists, it does make proofreading rather difficult.

UPDATE: Changed slightly for sobriety.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Who amongst us has never made this mistake?

Rhetorical; please don't tell me how much smarter you all are.

Monday, April 24, 2006

We attended the Best of the Banff Mountain Film Festival a few weeks ago, and there was a terrific short entry (Special Jury Award) which I have just discovered online. It's called Balancing Point, and any attempt to describe it would damage its delightful first impressions. I'll just say it's a nice combination of magic and humour, very clever, took a lot of effort, and is the best six minutes of free entertainment I've seen in a while. Check it out, you won't be sorry.
For those of you with British Isles ancestry, here's a fascinating online tool: the Surname Profiler. It shows you the geographic distribution of a surname in England, Scotland and Wales in 1881 and 1998. My maternal ancestors, the Adam family, knew where the came from:

Odious' tribe hales from balmier climes:

(Hat tip: Laputan Logic.)

Update: Damn! The maps won't display in proper arrangement in some browsers. Anyway, the first is Adam 1881, second is Adam 1998, third is Odious' family 1881.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Saturday, April 15, 2006

I've finally done some long overdue spring cleaning on the Peculiarities section of the sidebar. AfricaPundit, alas, is long defunct; we can only hope for his return. The Head Heeb is still going strong, but I seldom check him; he's still a worthy blogger, though. Renee Perelmutter has been very little active of late, but she remains something too good to give up on (remember her Bulgarian dragons?).

New additions include SummitPost, the Wikipedia of mountaineering; the indispensible Languagehat; Jabal al-Lughat, an excellent blog on Middle-Eastern liguistics and esoterica; and three sites of semi-abstract landscape art. Enjoy!


Friday, April 14, 2006

I have been in the restaurant business for some little time now, and I've worked with some cooks who knew their stuff. Men who could have thirty entrees coming and going, AC[lightning bolt]DC raging in the background, people shouting orders from every angle, and make it all add up to perfection. Men with, as they say, chops.

So when I encounter pettifoggering incompetence in checks and a white coat, I make discreet inquiries. And I invariably find that said walking, shouting, waste of two feet of counter space is a recent graduate of one of the "culinary institutes" which have been springing up like twisted, urushiolic weeds.

I can only imagine the life of these graduates before they found their calling. Lying on the couch in their parents' basement, dreaming of a land of Cocaigne with rivers of Mountain Dew and Cheeto-trees, inhabited entirely by girls -- gone wild! And as they lift one orange-powdered finger to check out the blocked soft-core pr0n channel for a breast or maybe an elbow, there it is: Destiny. An ad telling them that they too can have a career, be respected, even worshipped. In two years, they shall be one of the elite, a fire-breathing no-holds-barred chef de cuisine with a tall hat and a knife almost large enough to compensate for Nature's cruellest jest.

I do not know if these institution teach micro-managing and dim unpleasantness masquerading as a "firm hand". It may be that the sort of person attracted to this life possesses the necessary qualities from birth; that the statistics are simply the result of self-selection. I myself believe that both nature and nurture play their parts. Some are born self-serving, incompetent, lazy, rigid, stupid, and bullying; some have self-service, incompetence, laziness, rigidity, stupidity, and a bullying spirit thrust upon them. Doubtless it is drilled into them at everyone else in their kitchen will be just as fumble-fingered and thieving as they, and so cannot be trusted to boil spit.

But: I am not some n00b, to be screeched at. I know kitchens, and I know how to fit myself into them so that this machine can sing. I have put in my time, so when some two-years' study -- who not only doesn't know from monter au beurre but who couldn't pour Pinot Blanc from a boot if the instructions were on the heel -- gets in my face, the only thing keeping them from being taken apart piece by piece, cleaned, dressed, and wrapped neatly for display is my innate good humor. Said humor is just about dried up.

So culinary institute grads, just out of school and looking for work: I am sorry that you were lied to. I am sorry that instead of the five star French restaurant in which they assured you they could find you a place you ended up here. But so help me God, if you get uppity with me one more time, you will find out how fast I can put you down. Right out of school you are not an asset. You are worthless. Nothing you do could not be done as well and faster by a well-trained chimp, except PETA would get ticked off. So please, for both our sakes, stay out of my way.

P.S. Why, yes, I do blame Anthony Bourdain.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

This one's for Peculiar: a nineteenth-century nursery rhyme of Southern England.
Baby, baby, naughty baby,
Hush, you squalling thing, I say;
Hush your squalling, or it may be
Bonaparte will pass this way.

Baby, baby, he's a giant,
Tall and black as Rouen steeple;
And he dines and sups, rely on't,
Every day on naughty people.

Baby, baby, he will hear you
As he passes by the house,
And he limb from limb will tear you
Just as pussy tears a mouse.
"Giant" and "rely on't"? My rat rhymes look better and better. And no, there's not prawn nor shrimp to this one. My source is Roy Adkins' Nelson's Trafalgar.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

The truth, hidden before all ages, revealed from everlasting: The goat is on the pole.
Just returned from V for Vendetta, which Mrs. Peculiar and I both enjoyed quite a bit. It's good fun, "Penny for the Guy" is an excellent line of pre-combat superhero banter, and lots of British public edifices explode in time with Tchaikovsky. It sure does make one wish to cry revolution upon the fascist, dissent-crushing cabals currently destroying the world's liberties, by whom I mean, of course, yes you gussed it, Tony Blair and the E.U.

While we're on the subject, here's how all you Roman Catholics out there can join in the festivities next Guy Fawkes' Night:

Why not get the baking enthusiasts in your family (i.e. the girls) to make a House of Parliament out of gingerbread? Find pictures of these exquisite gothic buildings on the Internet, and make the best copy you can, lovingly adding details with icing, perhaps even forming a tiny King James I out of marzipan. Unveil it at the outset of tonight's family dinner-or at a gathering of friends. As dinner unfolds, tell the story of Guy Fawkes and his friends—then for dessert take the gingerbread parliament outside, stuff it with M-80 fireworks, and blow it all to hell.
Returning to the movie, I did note a rather remarkable piece of product placement. Should we all take Dell at their word and henceforth consider them the official computer of dystopian fascist regimes?