Friday, June 29, 2012

The Whole Tamale

The Seer of Cleveland asks, "It seems to me that an interest in or association with William Burroughs ties together much of America's avante garde writing. Do you know if RAW and Burroughs were friends, or if they ever corresponded? Do you know of Burroughs read RAW's work?"

Bob knew Bill Burroughs. They hung out at the Democratic Convention in Chicago in 1968 along with Allen Ginsberg. They sat in a bar discussing The Cantos. Bob Wilson and Bob Shea included both of them in Illuminatus! Bob told me Burroughs thought it appropriate that the great epic poem of the 20th century ended in fragments.

(ASU bought Burroughs' papers in 1983. I used to hang out in the Special Collections room of the ASU library going through them. I remember reading a cut-up Burroughs did of Canto I.  I met Burroughs in the Special Collections room on October 23, 1985, when ASU bought the papers. I found him the most intimidating person I ever met.) (I found Roscoe Mitchell almost as intimidating, and I found Richard Bandler intimidating in a different fashion. I trouble getting Burroughs or Mitchell to talk, but I felt like Bandler could see right through me.)

I talked with Burroughs about Robert Anton Wilson and Philip Jose Farmer, and he nodded his head and said he had read them, but not much else.  I certainly did not find him garrulous.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Beats me. I feel it done to me and weep.

Dr. Johnson asks, "Q: What are some of your ideas about reading poetry in translation? When I read Dante or Rumi, it's always a different English translation, and they always give a slightly different vibe from the previous translation. How much do you think is missed by reading a writer in translation? Thanks, I'll hang up and listen to the response on the air...I should add I'm a first time listener, long-time caller."

This seems like asking a virgin to describe sex.  I can barely read German, and I have less skill with Latin.  I've "read" some Goethe and Rilke, etc., in German and then read the English translations.  I have some sense of the music of German poetry, but I can only understand a word here or there in the German.  I've read even less Latin poetry.

1)  I initially have a Poundian response to this.  One can see poetry using the tools of melopoeia (sound), phanopoeia (images), and/or logopoeia (the play of words), etc.  One can translate melopoeia only in spurts (according to Pound), but one can translate a great deal of imagery (phanopoeia).  Logopoeia seems even more difficult to translate.  I've read and loved a lot of Pound's translation and those he recommends (Arthur Golding's Ovid, etc.).

2.  Rumi brings up the special problems of esoteric meanings, sufic, etc.  I don't claim to understand those esoteric meanings or how to translate them.  I think of the great bumper sticker, "God said it; I believe it; That settles it."  I find the Bible difficult to understand in English, and I have no understanding of the original languages, in their esoteric or exoteric meanings.

3.  I've become more agnostic about translations.  Read whatever works for you.  Two and a half years ago some tenth graders said they wanted to read Dante, so we put together a reading group.  I immediately thought in Poundian terms and thought of using either the Dent or Binyon translations.  My old copy of The Portable Dante had the Binyon translation, so I told them to buy The Portable Dante.  I didn't realize the more recent editions of The Portable Dante used the Mark Musa translation, who translated the poem into blank verse, which I suspect would have horrified Uncle Ezra.  Well, some kids had already bought the book when I discovered this, and it looked like both of the translations Pound had recommended had gone out of print, so I decided to go ahead with the Musa translation, and I ended up really enjoying it.  In fact, when a passage of Musa's translation of the Purgatorio really moved me, I thought I'd look up Binyon's translation to find an even better version of it, and I found the Binyon version a little old fashioned and less effective.

Monday, June 4, 2012

The Unacknowledged Legislators of Humanity

Dr. Johnson asks, "NOW: to poetry: what, to you, would be some ways of demarcation between prose and poetry? I remember sitting in a bar in a run-down industrial area of LA, very late one night, and I was 22 or so, and a guy who described himself as a "bum" but was clearly a genius, laid out a very good case for Shakespeare's plays being "poetry," for Pynchon's novels as "poetry," for Nietzsche as "poetry," und so weiter. This very expansive model or poetry has always stuck with me. What seem your thoughts?"

Well, folks like Shelley discuss this a lot.  I tend to think of stuff marked "poetry" as poetry, especially stuff not in paragraphs.  Following Korzybski one can define poetry1 as stuff written with purposeful line breaks, stuff not written mostly in paragraphs.  (Admittedly, people like W. C. Williams Incorporated paragraphs of "prose" into their poetry, but those "paragraphs" make up a minority of a "poem" like Patterson.)

Poetry2 would follow Pound's definition of literature as language charged with meaning, great literature as language charged with meaning to the maximum extent.  Shelley, etc., liked to think of Plato as "poetry" in this sense.  Shakespeare switched between poetry1 and prose, but one could model it all as poetry2.  One could certainly model Pynchon and Nietzsche as poetry2 (even though Pynchon embeds some poetry1 amongst his "prose").

Operationally, I tend to read poetry1 out loud with no music playing; I tend to read prose silently, often with music playing.  I will sometimes read Finnegans Wake out loud, but I don't mind if I have music playing.  I tend to think the rhythms of music distract me from the conscious rhythms of poetry1.  "Prose" uses what Pound calls melopoeia, but to a lesser extant then poetry1, for the most part.