Learning language, learning poetry

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Metaphor is defined [by Aristotle] in terms of movement.
Paul Ricoeur, The Rule of Metaphor: Multi-Disciplinary Studies of the Creation of Meaning in Language (Robert Czerny, trans., University of Toronto Press, 1984)

Yesterday’s fresh inch of snow and cold temperatures overnight gave everything a sparkle this morning as the sun rose into a cloudless sky. I remembered my niece Eva’s first use of metaphor at the age of 2 years, 9 months. She had just begun speaking semi-coherently the summer before, when she was in Honduras, and had a very limited vocabulary of mostly Spanish words. One night, during a prolonged Christmastime visit, her grandpa showed her the stars. She always accompanied him to the compost heap/wildlife feeding area after supper, taking out the scraps from the kitchen. It was an exceptionally clear night, and the stars were beautiful; Eva practiced saying “estrellas,” which tripped off her tongue with surprising fluency.

The next day dawned equally clear, and as Eva was riding on my shoulders up to her grandparents’ house for lunch, she surprised me by pointing at the ground and yelling, “Estrellas!” I looked. She was pointing, of course, at the sparkles in the snow.

I don’t suppose this sort of thing is too uncommon. It makes sense that facility with metaphors would be a normal part of language acquisition, since analogic or metaphorical definitions are common for many words (and are probably essential for abstract thinking; all of mathematics is based upon the ability to analogize, for example). Learning a new word involves figuring out the extent of its semantic coverage. In the case just described, was this really an example of the conscious use of metaphor? Perhaps, instead, it was simply an attempt to figure out whether “estrellas” meant solely “sparkly things in the sky,” or if it also included sparkly things elsewhere.

One way or the other, I would like to think that this kind of active, joyous measuring of the world through spoken language is fundamentally poetic. This is the argument Heidegger makes in his essay on a theme from Hölderlin, “‘…Poetically Man Dwells…'” To Heidegger, the comparison of sky with earth is an integral part of this measure-taking. “The upward glance spans the between of sky and earth.” It encompasses “everything that shimmers and blooms in the sky and thus under the sky and thus on earth, everything that sounds and is fragrant, rises and comes – but also everything that goes and stumbles, moans and falls silent, pales and darkens.” The poet does not merely describe such sights, but “calls … that which in its very self-disclosure causes the appearance of that which conceals itself, and indeed as that which conceals itself. In its familiar appearances, the poet calls the alien as that to which the invisible imparts itself in order to remain what it is – unknown.” (Albert Hofstadter, trans., Poetry, Language, Thought, Harper, 1971.) In other words, in her making-strange the poet merely testifies to the ultimate unknowability of everything language seeks to measure and describe.

I remember how fascinated Eva was with birds that year. It helped that her daddy was an ardent birdwatcher, I suppose. But more than that, I think birds appealed to her because they were small and quick, always in motion – just like she was. Her word for bird(s) was “Pio!” and she used it constantly – hardly a bird escaped her attention as we walked around the farm. One evening, we gave her a ballpoint pen and a pad of cheap paper and encouraged her to draw. She would put the pen on a blank page, move it rapidly in circling, sweeping strokes, turn the page and do it again. The pad quickly filled up with actionist creations that had little to do with representational sketching. After a while, one of us asked her what she was doing. “Pio!”

By sheer serendipity, one or two of them did end up looking like birds. I saved one that bore an uncanny resemblance to a resplendent quetzal. I wish I’d saved the whole pad.

This is not a test

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I have always resented serious personality tests and laughed off the not-so-serious ones. Why would anyone want to put themselves in a box like that? And in the same vein I have been extremely intolerant of astrology.

So you can imagine my consternation upon discovering this description of my birth sign, which comes closer to describing my inner motivations and temptations than anything I’ve ever seen. Joe at The Soulful Blogger writes,

“Pisces is linked to the archetypes of the mystic, the poet, and the dreamer. It is the sign most closely connected with all that dissolves the ego’s false sense of being ‘real.’ Its goal is the realization that what is most real is not the self or the world that we usually take to be real, but reality is inextricably linked to consciousness itself. Pisces aims for the realization of a universal oneness.

“The shadows of Pisces are numerous, for the higher that consciousness climbs, the greater the potential for destruction. Pisces aims to dissolve the ego through transcendental awareness, yet if the individual is not ready for these lessons of awareness, then the self may be dissolved through other means. Pisces is connected with escapism and all manner of destructive addictions. Pisces is also linked to delusion, flights of fantasy, pointless daydreaming, self-sacrificing martyrdom, and a tendency to become unhealthily unmeshed in drama and chaos.”

Yep, that’s me. Sheesh.

Always get a second opinion . . .

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All these female helpers: not only fetch and dis but muse, angel on the shoulder, the better half. Williams’ “beautiful thing.” I don’t believe a word of it, much as I might want to. Because the whole time the real women have been stitching together their own versions of events. These days, scores and scores of women poets are saying things that are truer (or at least more interesting) than the old and shopworn Truths of the Great Thinkers. What might they have to say about the Well of Urd? Here’s Lucille Clifton, who composed poems in her head for fifteen years before she ever sought publication:

i am accused of tending to the past
as if i made it,
as if i sculpted it
from my own hands. i did not.
the past was waiting for me
when i came,
a monstrous unnamed baby,
and i with my mother’s itch
took it to breast
and named it
History.
she is more human now,
learning language everyday,
remembering faces, names and dates.
when she is strong enough to travel
on her own, beware, she will.

(quilting: poems 1987-1990, BOA EditionsLtd., 1991)

And here is the white working-class poet Mary Fell, in her very first book:

THE PRACTICE

We lived on Winter Street. Bricks escaped from factory walls, distraught. Ours was a building with too many corners. Families got lost and were never heard from again, small names gathering dust or pinned to the wallpaper like religious medals, their blue ribbons fading.

Every step shook plaster from the ceilings. We carried it into the street on our shoulders. Whole rooms blew away by morning. Old aunts went on shopping trips and never returned. Dishes vanished as we ate breakfast. My own mother disappeared into her bedclothes one day, thinking she was better off.

All my life it’s been like this. I tell you, there’s no sense believing what you see. I learned early to practice not being fooled.

(The Persistence of Memory, Random House, 1975)

And the gifted storyteller Naomi Shihab Nye, in “Telling the Story,” reports:

I answered a telephone
on a California street.
Hello? It was possible.
A voice said, “There is no scientific proof
that God is a man.”
“Thank you.” I was standing there.
Was this meant for me?
It was not exactly the question
I had been asking, but it kept me busy awhile,
telling the story.

Some start out
with a big story
that shrinks.

Some stories accumulate power
like a sky gathering clouds,
quietly, quietly,
till the story rains around you.

Some get tired of the same story
and quit speaking;
a farmer leaning into
his row of potatoes,
a mother walking the same child
to school.
What will we learn today?
There should be an answer,
and it should
change.

(Words Under the Words: Selected Poems, Eighth Mountain Press, 1995)

Diagnostic test of certain hypotheses about the Old Norse worldview, with the able assistance of Dr. Williams

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“Rigor of beauty is the quest. But how will you find beauty / when it is locked in the mind past all remonstrance?”

And so I’ve been tracing threads through books and on the web, through bad translations and worse. Weighing the scholar’s no-more-than against the modern enthusiast’s no-less-than. The Christian clerics who wrote down virtually everything we know about pagan thought were already unthinking it, whether they intended to or not. They wrote dom and thought legis – or apocalypse. They wrote Hel and thought of the rack for heretics, the fire for wizards and dissidents. But is it possible that the unwashed, drunken tribesmen of northern Europe, violent bastards as they were, knew a thing or two that we would do well to remember? Is it even possible to re-member it, or are we doomed to embroidery? Some say my ancestors believed something along these lines:

The descent beckons / as the ascent beckoned / Memory is a kind / of accomplishment / a sort of renewal / even / an initiation, since the spaces it opens are new places / inhabited by hordes / heretofore unrealized, / of new kinds – / since their movements / are towards new objectives / (even though formerly they were abandoned)

And yes, one could reach deep into the gone-before to learn about the apparent necessity of the just-now. But it isn’t gone, exactly – it is simply beyond alteration. And as such, it serves as a mirror for the could-be and the should-be.

My surface is myself. / Under which / to witness, youth is / buried. Roots? // Everybody has roots.

Mirror, mirror, I call you Weird. Urd. Wisest of the three sisters who guard the deepest of the three springs that water the roots of the ash tree Yggdrasil, sustainer of the worlds. Water still enough to reflect clearly but never stagnating, renewed continually from the ground and from the sky.

. . . grubbing the page / (the burning page) / like a worm – for enlightenment // Of which we drink and are drunk and in the end / are destroyed . . .

Old words from dead tongues: ORLAUG: “Personal destiny”? Not so immutable. “Well-being”? More portentious than that. NORN: “Goddesses of Fate”? Not goddesses. Not Fate. DISIR: “Guardian angels”? Not by a long shot. The word means women. And while they may be invisible, when they show themselves they are solid presences.

Who are these people (how complex / the mathematic) among whom I see myself / in the regularly ordered plateglass of / his thoughts, glimmering before shoes and bicycles? / They walk incommunicado, the / equation is beyond solution, yet / its sense is clear –

FYLGJA: “Fetch,” itself nearly an obsolete word. The one that follows. The double-which-may-be-animal-but-is-usually-woman. VALKYRJA, HAMINGJA: More supernatural women. Impossible now to sort out which were synonyms, which were regional variants, which were inherited from the ancestors (both male and female lines), which died with the death of their human charge, which accompanied it to which of multiple afterlife destinations. In the sagas, when a man meets a strange and beautiful woman who somehow reminds him of himself, that is the signal to turn fey (another nearly obsolete word). To go forward into death with eyes wide open.

Haunted by your beauty (I said), / exalted and not easily to be attained, the / whole scene is haunted: / Take off your clothes, / (I said) / Haunted, the quietness of your face / is a quietness, real . . .

But it is true, they fear / it more than death, beauty is feared / more than death, more than they fear death

The fetch is steadfast, but sometimes a bad man’s dis may work his doom. The disir are zealous for justice. According to one theory, they are Freya’s equivalent of the valkyries. But what about this doom? It seems it is not unalterable, it can be commuted in some circumstances. From the tapestry of Urd a seer or seeress can undo a few, critical threads.

Not prophesy! NOT prophesy! / but the thing itself!

Even Ragarnok, the doom of the Aesir, is a beginning as well as an ending. Fenrir is in some sense only

A tapestry hound / with his thread teeth drawing crimson from / the throat of the unicorn

What can we know? Snorri calls Odin the All-father, but he is flesh-and-blood, no Yahweh. He is a trickster, a shapeshifter, a supernatural being who is himself on a quest for wisdom. For poetry he turned into a serpent, slept with a giantess, risked his life. For the mead of poetry, which tells the truth through riddles and by rearranging the order of things.

. . . A poem is a complete little universe. It exists separately. Any poem that has worth expresses the life of the poet. It gives a view of what the poet is . . .

Q. Aren’t we supposed to understand it?

A. There is a difference of [sic] poetry and the sense . . .

Q. But shouldn’t a word mean something when you see it?

A. In prose, an English word means what it says. In poetry, you’re listening to two things . . . you’re listening to the sense, the common sense of what it says. But it says more. that is the difficulty.

For wisdom one time he plucked out one of his eyes, and another time he sacrificed his whole body, hung himself from one of the limbs of Yggdrasil and later returned to life, less like Jesus than a magician who, instead of a rabbit, pulls himself out of his hat.

The (self) direction has been changed / the serpent / its tail in its mouth / “the river has returned to its beginnings”/ . . . the all-wise serpent

Odin too has his fylgjur, the twin ravens named Thought and Memory. Every morning they fly all over the earth gathering news: like the raven of Moses, except that they return each evening to give a report, like the Biblical dove.

A voice calling in the hubbub (Why else / are there newspapers, by the cart-load?) blaring / the news no wit shall evade, no rhyme / cover. Necessity gripping the words . scouting / evasion, that love is begrimed, befouled . / . . . begrimed / yet lifts its head, having suffered a sea-change! / shorn of its eyes and its hair / its teeth kicked out . a bitter submersion / in darkness . a gelding not to be / listed . to be made ready! fit to/ serve . . .

Enlightenment is never final. Nothing is ever final, over, finished for good. Instead, renewal and a return to wholeness through a weird undoing:

The descent / made up of despairs / and without accomplishment / realizes a new awakening : / which is a reversal / of despair. // For what we cannot accomplish, what / is denied to love, / what we have lost in the anticipation – / a descent follows, endless and indestructible .
__________

All quotes are from William Carlos Williams, Paterson (New Directions, 1963), itself a montage of quotes, a tribute to the burning library of the mind as much as to the river and the falls and the many-voiced hypostasis called Paterson, NJ.

Portrait of a bard

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What is the proper role of a poet? What can the public recitation or performance of poetry accomplish at its best – and at its worst? These questions have been popping up in posts and comment boxes in recent days, especially at Ivy is Here and The Middlewesterner (where I haven’t been shy with my own 2 cents). Antonio Savoradin and The Cassandra Pages have also had some interesting thoughts on public recitation and whether or not performing is a necessary part of the contemporary Western poet’s bag of tricks.

This post is not intended to answer any of these questions, but to raise further complexities.

“It is difficult for the Western world to understand the vital importance that the [Maninka] bard has in initiating, mediating and terminating acts,” writes Charles Bird in the introduction to The Songs of Seydou Camara, Vol. I: Kambili.* “The bard is the master of the word and words are considered to have a mystical force which can bring supernatural energies to bear. These energies can both augment and diminish a man’s power to act. In this context, the bard’s responsibility for controlling words is extremely great.”

In his introduction to the portion of the Kambili epic excerpted for Oral Epics from Africa (J. W. Johnson, T. Hale and S. Belcher, eds., Indiana U.P., 1997) – an indispensable anthology for students of world literature – Bird includes a lengthy portrait of the epic’s narrator, Seydou Camara, which I’d like to quote from. As a hunter’s bard, Camara is not a member of the griot (jeli) caste; doubtless one could find a more typical example of a West African bard from which one could perhaps draw some conclusions about the Role of the Poet in Traditional Societies or some such. But every society is different, and every great singer or poet is supremely atypical. Nevertheless, paying attention to the vital poetic traditions of sub-Saharan Africa should give us some indication of what kind of power was once available to poets and singers among, say, the ancient Celtic, Pictish and Germanic peoples of northwestern Europe. Charles Bird writes,

“When the recording of Kambili was made in the spring of 1968, Seydou [Camara] was about fifty years old. He had begun playing indigenous instruments of the Wasulu region [of Mali] as a young boy and had shown considerable promise, particularly on the dan, a six-stringed lute. He began his interest in the donsonkoni, the hunter’s lute-harp, through his initiation and extensive interest in the Komo [secret] societies of the Wasulu region. In his early twenties, he was conscripted into the French army and went to serve in Morocco with the Free French Forces during World War II. After the war, he transferred to the Civil Guard in Mali and was stationed in Timbuktu, where he married his first wife, Kariya Wulen. While in Timbuktu, according to Seydou, he was poisoned by his enemies in the local community, the result of which was what we would probably call a nervous breakdown; Seydou was possessed by jinns. As a consequence, he was dismissed from the service and returned to his native village. Under the care of the famous Kankan Sekouba, Seydou gradually regained his health and devoted himself exclusively to playing the hunter’s lute-harp, serving as a singer for the Wasulu hunters and as a bard for the Komo society. By 1953 he had developed his art to such an extent that he drew the attention of the influential deputy, Jime Jakite. Jakite brought him to a major political rally in Sikasso, where Seydou won the hunters’ bard competition, which elevated him to national celebrity.

Speaking is not easy;
Not being able to speak is not easy.
I’m doing something I’ve learned,
I’m not doing something I was born for.

“He recorded a number of songs for the national radio and his voice was frequently heard on Radio Mali’s broadcasts when I was in Mali in the mid-1960s. When I first met him, Seydou earned his living performing for hunters and their associations at their festivals, funerals, weddings, and baptisms, traveling to many of the towns in southern Mali: Segu, Kutiala, Sikaso, Buguni. He got little for his services, usually receiving a worosongo, the price of kola nuts (about 500 to 1,000 francs, between one and two dollars), a traditional gift usually given as a greeting gesture. He performed whenever and wherever he could, often up to twenty times per month.

“The most important part of Seydou’s poetics was rhythm. He created his lines, unfolded his narratives against the rhythm of his donsonkoni, which itself was dependent on the forceful drive of the iron rasp scraper, among whom the best were his wives, Kariya Wulen and Nunmuso. Seydou’s apprentices played the bass lines on their donsonkonis and Seydou played across the top. Seydou laid his language over the top of this as if his voice were the lead instrument in the ensemble, sometimes locked into the rhythm, sometimes in counterpoint, sometimes somewhere in between . . .

“Seydou was always enigmatic to me. He was a consummate musician. I have yet to hear another lute-harp player with the mechanical mastery, rhythmic drive, and lyrical lilt that Seydou gave his music. To some, Seydou was like a court jester, a buffoon. He loved to clown, to tell off-color jokes and stories that made his audience roar with laughter. Seydou loved women. He had two wives and would have had many more if he could have afforded it. He liked booze of all kinds and he could frequently be found at the local millet beer hall when he had a few francs in his pocket. He would say, from time to time, that he was a Muslim, but he loved to ridicule the Muslim clergy, whose hypocrisy he saw as ludicrous. I never did see him pray . . .

“To others, Seydou was like a priest. His services for the hunters were often of ritual nature, singing songs that empowered his hunter clients to overcome the obstacles of the bush and the wild game they sought to kill. On a number of occasions when I was sitting in his hut talking or listening to him play, a hunter would come in with dried or smoked parts of an antelope as Seydou’s part of the kill. He sang the songs that calmed the unleashed spirits of these slaughtered beasts . . .

“To some, he was a traditional medicine man. His tiny hut was crammed full of powdered roots, leaves, dried unidentifiable animal parts and bones. He had a steady stream of clients to whom he delivered medicines for such ills as menstrual cramps or examination anxiety. He cast divination stones to guide people on new voyages, marriages, business ventures, and hunts. I was in awe of Seydou’s effortless expertise and the efficacy of his arts. I came to see Seydou as my protector. In a place full of things I didn’t and perhaps couldn’t understand, Seydou was always there with talismans, poultices, incantations, and divinations, assuring me that I would be all right.

“The extended text which follows is from the end of the epic [Kambili].

A hunter’s death is not easy for the harp-player, Allah!
A hunter dies for the harp-player.
A farmer dies for the glutton.
A holy man dies for the troubled.
A king dies for his people.
To each man, his funeral song, Kambili.
And should an old bard die,
Call out the hourglass drummer,
Call out the iron rasp scraper,
Call out the jembe drummer.
Have them sing my funeral song.
To each dead man, his funeral song, call Kambili!

“Seydou Camara died in his village, Kabaya, in 1981.”
__________

*This mimeographed volume was issued by the African Studies Center at Indiana University in 1974; no subsequent volumes ever appeared. This is a rare example of an English translation of a West African hunter’s epic (another is the book Hunters and Crocodiles by Gordon Innes and Bakari Sidibe, published by Unesco in 1990; more material is available in French). Its extensive endnotes also have strong ethnographic interest, again because almost all the good studies of Malian (Maninka, Mandinka, Malinke) peoples are in French.

Rocks of ages

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Kurt at Coffee Sutras ruminates on the Daoist image of the uncarved block in the context of a quote from William James: “The mind, in short, works on the data it receives very much as a sculptor works on his block of stone,” etc. It’s true that Laozi, in particular, returns again and again to the uncarved block as a symbol of nameless, uncreated perfection. Power is most concentrated when it is whole, undifferentiated, when it dwells in wu-wei, which means something like “without self-conscious intent.”

In the annals of comparative religion one does encounter such a thing as an aniconic image. These differ from the power objects of animism (which may include uncarved blocks and other natural or naturalistic objects) chiefly in the way they are viewed: through the mirror of iconic or iconoclastic worship. The Kaaba stone at Mecca is one such: an aniconic focus of worship for a religion that is officially iconoclastic.

The foregoing represents my own reflections (take with requisite lump of rock salt). Anthropologist C. J. Fuller, in his masterful treatment of village religion in India, The Camphor Flame (Princeton U.P., 1992), gives a couple more examples. Some of the lingas in Shaivite temples are uncarved rocks, he says, and various natural objects are considered images of divinity among Vishnu worshippers as well. “In the category of aniconic images,” Fuller writes, “we can also place the unhewn or perhaps roughly etched stones, sometimes painted red, that serve as little village deities’ images throughout India; they are housed in crude shrines or left standing under a tree or in open air. These stones serve exactly the same function as the sculpted images and lingas found in larger temples, even though they do not fit the classical iconographic rules. The same applies to other representations . . . Pots in particular, when filled with water in which a deity’s power has been installed, are often used as the functional equivalents of sculptured mobile images at little deities’ temples.”

Fuller goes on to discuss the relationship between deity and image, but I’ll save that for another time. I was struck by this passage because I came across something rather similar in popular Japanese religion. Throughout Japan, one sees simple roadside shrines where the stone images are often so worn down by the elements they appear to be nothing more than uncarved, oblong rocks. Popular religion in Japan is – or was – a highly syncretic blend of native animist, Chinese, and Hindu/Buddhist beliefs. The roadside shrines are part of an attempt to placate or ward off the wandering spirits of those who die far from home, and are thus deprived of the usual 49 years of memorial services by their descendents. Such services are a prerequisite to an individual soul’s ultimate dissolution in the ancestral collective unconscious – a kind of uncarved block.

With Japanese roadside shrines, the superficial mythos is Buddhist. These are shrines to a boddhisattva (Jizô) whose duties include the rescuing of lost spirits and the harrowing of Hell. A related myth (I think Chinese in origin, but possibly Hindu and almost certainly augmented by native beliefs) is the fear of hungry ghosts – spirits which are not fed and therefore turn malevolent, quite regardless of the personality of the deceased. Thus the roadside shrines are generally kept well supplied with ripe reaches, pomegranates and the like. In practice, these shrines become a reliable source of provender for an especially dangerous, unpredictable wight whom the Japanese strive to placate whenever possible, and otherwise ward off through a variety of means: the gaijin, or foreigner.

Being quite besotted with Daoism at the time I was in Japan (1985-86), it occurred to me that the stone boddhisattvas were attaining a perfection of sorts as the paint wore off and the features wore away. This is not, however, as whimsical as it might seem. The Zen-inspired rock gardens of Kyoto are justly famous as outstanding exemplars of an aesthetic that strongly favors the aniconic image. And they point to a praxis which intends, as Kurt suggests, the recovery of an original simplicity.

After eons of practice in sitting,
having long cut
their ties with the parent rock
the local stones lose
all protrusions, their mass
shifts outward, toward rumps
& bulbous crowns. No one
believes in reincarnation here.
Eternity means: bodhisattvas
aren’t born, they’re made.
What stone wouldn’t trade
the bliss of final extinction for
a red cloth bib,
three walls & a roof,
a begging bowl that holds
one whole peach?

(From “Footprints of the Buddha,” which is included in my unpublished manuscript Spoil. Click here for the .pdf.)

I don’t know why I didn’t think of this before, but probably the most important parallel here is with the traditional Japanese Daruma doll. This is a legless, armless figure with a bald head and a big, shit-eating grin. The doll is so designed that it always returns to an upright position now matter how hard you push it over. I believe this is supposed to inculcate cultural values of persistence in the face of adversity, or something. At any rate, Daruma is none other then Bodhidharma, the Buddhist saint who introduced Buddhism to China, subject of countless Zen koans. According to the hagiography, Bodhidharma meditated in a cave for years until he achieved enlightenment. In folk belief, Daruma sat so long his arms and legs atrophied. Popular religion is always so much more interesting than the official kind!

UPDATE
Lots of great essays on rocks and stones this month at the Ecotone wiki.

Found poem

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Cleland, a Democrat, had
some criticism for Chambliss.
“For Saxby Chambliss,
who got out of going to Vietnam
because of a trick
knee, to attack
John Kerry as weak
on the defense of our nation is like
a mackerel in the moonlight that
both shines and stinks,”
he said.

(from an AP article by Nedra Pickler)

Slow life

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Here’s another example of an article from the popular press that uses the potential for apocalypse (“huge tsunamis, runaway global warming, and extinctions”) as the hook. But it turns out that many researchers are skeptical about the most drastic claims, feeling that the potential of massive, microbial belches to alter the earth’s atmosphere may be completely overblown. In my view, just as with the recent Science Times article on cosmology, the “gee whiz” aspect of this story is way more compelling. One third of all life on earth, measured by biomass, may occur beneath the seafloor, in the so-called deep biosphere. This life consists of archaea and primitive forms of bacteria: microbes for which oxygen is poison, because they evolved before the existence of green plants. The final paragraphs of this article are worth quoting in full. From the cover story of the March issue of Discover magazine, “20,000 Microbes Under the Sea,” by Robert Kunzig:

“The researchers found microbes in all the sediments they examined. There were more under the coastal waters of Peru than in the open Pacific; more near the seafloor than 1,400 feet below it. But there were intact microbes everywhere. In the upper layers, typically, they were reducing sulfate; in the lower ones they were making methane; and in between they were oxidizing methane.

“The existence of the deep biosphere is established – but it remains an astonishing paradox. ‘From all we understand about the energy requirements just to stay alive, it’s much higher than the energy they have,’ says Barker Jørgensen. If the deep microbes spend as much on maintenance as the surface microbes do, he says – repairing radiation damage to their DNA, keeping their membranes intact – they should have nothing left for the microbial prime directive: divide and multiply. Barker Jørgensen’s expedition looked for some new energy source in the sediment, some exotic new combination of fuel and oxidant, and found none.

“[John] Parkes thinks the microbes’ secret is their slowness: ‘These things are dividing every thousand, every ten thousand, every hundred thousand years. There’s nothing to eat them; bacteria near the surface have to grow fast because they get eaten by protozoa and ciliates, but we’ve not detected those kinds of organisms in the subsurface. So bacteria there can concentrate on maintenance, rather than wasting energy on division.’ And they must have lived long enough and divided often enough and mutated often enough to evolve through natural selection, because they are well adapted to their environment. Parkes has found microbes in deep sediments that grow best at precisely the pressure at which he found them. ‘They are responding at geological timescales,’ he says. ‘That’s the fascinating thing.’

“Microbes living under the seafloor today, Parkes speculates, may have survived the growth and splintering of continents, the opening and closing of oceans; they may have been buried, subducted, frozen in hydrate, and spat out of a mud volcano, only to be buried, subducted, and spat out again. While we were waiting for our evolutionary fast lane to be paved, racing through all of human prehistory and history in the time it takes one of them to divide once, they have been living in time with the planet’s deepest, slowest rhythms. They have been living almost like rock, which is precisely what made them so easy to miss. They have always been there, from our deepest past, but only now have they fully penetrated into our awareness. Given their collective influence, it’s about time.”

Poetry or vomit?

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In the course of some research this morning for a possible blog post on Indo-European concepts of fate, a note on a website led me back into one of my all-time favorite works of literature, Egil’s Saga.

I was also reminded of Egil, and the poet-protagonists of other sagas (especially Gisli and Gunnlaug Serpent-Tongue), a week or two back by an essay of Eliot Weinberger’s that referenced the extreme complexity of oral composition by Old Norse poets. The essay, called What Was Formalism?, concludes with a detailed description of the eight-line stanza form that Egil specialized in.

“Viking formalism meant, for example, that to write a mere epitaph of ordinary statements and sentiments for a tomb – such as ‘Here lies a warrior famed for his virtue. Denmark will never know a more honorable sea-captain, or one stronger in battle’ – one began with a common stanza form, such as the dróttkvatt.

“This stanza form had eight lines, broken into two half-stanzas of four lines, each expressing a single thought, that were, in turn, divided into two couplets. Each line had six syllables; only three could be stressed (and Old Norse, as one can imagine, had genuine stresses). The first line of each couplet had to have two stressed syllables that began with the same sound, which was also the sound of the first stressed syllable in the next line. (The other stressed syllables could not be alliterate.) The two stressed alliterative syllables in the first line could not rhyme; but the first stressed alliterative syllable in the second line had to rhyme with another syllable in the same line to which it was not alliterative.

“The word order was completely unlike that of prose. For example, the structure of a normal prose sentence of 16 words (taking 1, 2, 3, etc., as the words in their proper prose order) looks like this in a relatively simple half-stanza:

2 4 5 3
1 8 9 6 7
12 10 13 14
11 15 16

“In a more complex poem, poetic syntax is further stretched by fragmenting and reassembling the clauses. For example, back to the sea-captain and the first half-stanza. (‘Here lies a warrior famed for his virtue . . . ‘) The poet employs a kenning, or epithet, for warrior (‘the one who carried out the work of ížrudr, goddess of battles’), and the whole sentence reads literally: ‘Under this mound is hidden the one who carried out the work of ížrudr, goddess of battles, whom the greatest virtues accompanied; most men knew that.’ (Though the Old Norse only has 15 words.)

“The poem (keeping the literal English prose syntax) breaks this into something like:

Under this mound / whom the greatest
most men knew that / virtues
accompanied / the one who carried out the work of ížrudr
goddess of battles / is hidden

” The pattern of clauses is:

1 3
4 3
3 2
2 1

“This was merely a tombstone epitaph, not a particularly memorable poem. It was written, as all poetry was, in a single line. (The ragged right-hand margin is a by-product of the availability of cheap paper.) There were no spaces between the words. The form of the poem was musically, not visually, evident – and evident to all its readers or listeners – and was only one of many such forms, most of them even more complex.”

What Weinberger fails to mention is that verses were typically composed in one’s head, ideally off the cuff; they were written down only to preserve them or to enhance their power. As in many other cultures where poetry is or was highly prized, strong memories and performative skills continued to be emphasized long after the introduction of writing systems. (Think of the classical Arabs and the Chinese.) It is not that Norse poets were illiterate – in fact, their skill in rune-carving was an integral part of their mastery of word-magic, as the following excerpt from Egil’s Saga demonstrates. This is the translation by Kneva Kunz in the massive, single-volume collection The Sagas of Icelanders (Penguin, 2000). Kunz’s translations of the verses in particular are an improvement over earlier English editions. Minimal notes explaining the kennings appear in the margin to the right; here, I’ll put them in brackets immediately following each verse. From Chapter 44:

“Bard told Egil to stop mocking him and get on with his drinking. Egil drank every draught that was handed to him, and those meant for Olvir too.

“Then Bard went up to the queen and told her that this man was bringing shame on them, always claiming to be thirsty no matter how much he drank. The queen and Bard mixed poison into the drink and brought it in. Bard made a sign over the draught and handed it to the serving woman, who took it to Egil and offered him a drink. Egil took out his knife and stabbed the palm of his hand with it, then took the drinking-horn, carved runes on it and smeared them with blood. He spoke a verse:

“I carve runes on this horn,
redden words with my blood,
I choose words for the trees
of the wild beast’s ear-roots;
drink as we wish this mead
brought by merry servants,
let us find out how we fare
from the ale that Bard blessed.

[ear-roots: part of the head; their trees: horns]

“The horn shattered and the drink spilled onto the straw. Olvir was on the verge of passing out, so Egil got up and led him over to the door. He swung the cloak over his shoulder and gripped his sword underneath it. When they reached the door, Bard went after them with a full horn and asked Olvir to drink a farewell toast. Egil stood in the doorway and spoke this verse:

“I’m feeling drunk, and the ale
has left Olvir pale in the gills,
I let the spray of ox-spears
foam over my beard.
Your wits have gone, inviter
of showers on to shields;
now the rain of the high god
starts pouring upon you.

[ox-spears: drinking-horns; rain: i.e. of spears, perhaps of poetry (or vomit?)]

“Egil tossed away the horn, grabbed hold of his sword and drew it. It was dark in the doorway; he thrust the sword so deep into Bard’s stomach that the point came out the back. Bard fell down dead, blood pouring from the wound. Then Olvir dropped to the floor, spewing vomit. Egil ran out of the room. It was pitch-dark outside, and he ran from the farm.”

I’m fascinated especially by the suggestion that poetry is something thrown up. The context here is a feast attending a religious celebration, to which Egil and his friends were not invited until the king intervened. Hence the hostility, of course, and hence also the irony of “inviter of showers.” This phrase, in fact, would seem to have a third layer of meaning, since the celebration was the disablot, or winter-time sacrifice to the disir (fates or personal guardians). Vomit as well as blood may have been a sacrament. A further irony is that, through his prowess with drinking, versifying and fighting, Egil “tempts fate” in the most audacious way – and thus serves the “the high god(dess)” far better than the ill-fated Bard.

The ancients attributed powers of inspiration to mead and any other alcoholic drink made with honey.* In fact, in Norse mythology, poetry itself is a form of mead, originally concocted by dwarves from the blood of a wise man. Odin, the patron of poets (and wise men) stole it from the giants in a way suggesting the involvement of other fluids, as well. He turned himself into a serpent, entered the bedchamber of the giantess Gunnlod, and seduced her into giving him a drink of the mead of poetry. Instead of a mere sip, however, he drank all of it in three great gulps, turned into an eagle and flew back to Asgard where he showed off his new prize/skill – that is to say, he spat it up. According to a Medievel Icelandic treatise on poetics, Snorri Sturluson’s Poetic Diction (Jean Young translation), “It was such a close shave . . . that he let some fall, but no one bothered about that. Anyone who wanted could have it; we call it the poetasters’ share.”

This belief forms the background here and in many other passages: Egil composes best under the influence.
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*Assuming that the translation is accurate, the drink here was probably an ale-mead hybrid called in later times a braggot, which any homebrewer can approximate with a mix of medium-dark malts, four pounds or more of honey per 5-gallon batch, and a strong Scottish ale yeast. This is a highly inebriating, not to mention nutritious, brew.

Three days of ignorance and lectures

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Back in the days of my mis-spent youth, my idea of fun was fairly conventional. Woodstock’s “three days of peace and music” sounded like a pretty good time. Now, as a sign of how much I have embraced what Epicurus would have considered life’s superior pleasures,* here’s an example of the sort of thing that really turns me on. Yesterday, I got a really nifty, full-size poster featuring the artwork of Remedios Vara, a kind of 20th-century Hieronymus Bosch: his “Spiral Transit.” (The .pdf doesn’t really do it justice.) The poster is an advertisement for a free, three-day conference on The Ethics and Epistemologies of Ignorance, sponsored by – no kidding! – the Rock Ethics Institute at Penn State. It promises “A multidisciplinary dialogue exploring the ethical, political, and epistemological implications of the conscious and unconscious production of ignorance as it impacts practices of domination, exploitation, and oppression.” Bitchin’, dude!

A look at the program reveals plenty of rockin’ sessions. You can groove to talk-fests on “Obesity” as Ignorance: Medical Ideologies and the Fat Acceptance Movement; Schooled in Silence — Panel Presentation; White Identity, White Ignorance; Willful Ignorance: The Blissful Addiction; Aestheticed Ignorance; Farming Made Her Stupid; The Entwined Ignorance of Oppressor and Oppressed; Computers, the Production of Ignorance, and the Ecology of Knowledge; Untitled; etc., etc.

I’ll go nuts with all the concurrent sessions – like trying to decide which stage to go to at Lollapalooza! My mind is already boggling. If I’m lucky, this rockin’ conference will reduce me to a state of utterly blissful stupefaction, if not catatonia. (But if it rains, we’ll all be inside. No actual mud to wallow in, alas.)
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*”The flesh receives as unlimited the limits of pleasure; and to provide it requires unlimited time. But the mind, intellectually grasping what the end and limit of the flesh is, and banishing the terrors of the future, procures a complete and perfect life, and we have no longer any need of unlimited time. Nevertheless the mind does not shun pleasure, and even when circumstances make death imminent, the mind does not lack enjoyment of the best life.”
– Epicurus, Principal Doctrines