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Ekphrasis

Egret/or Heron

 

Yesterday as I walked alongside Lake Champlain, I came upon a Great Blue Heron, fishing in a tidal pool near the shoreline. I stopped and watched for a while, and then walked on. Walking on, I thought to compose a simple haiku-type poem to memorialize the incident -- dwelling inland now, I sometimes long for Salt-meadow; Ocean. The heron took me back. This is what I came up with at first:

 

Great Blue Heron in a tidal pool
Hunter or fisher
Which are you?

 

That's 17 syllables, as in traditional Japanese haiku, though my poem does not reflect the pattern of 5-7-5-syllable lines. But my first thought, walking along, was to strengthen "in a tidal pool", and quickly came up with "stalking a tidal pool". I'm not sure I finally like that substitution, but it works for the moment:

 

Great Blue Heron stalking tidal pool
Hunter or fisher
Which are you?

 

All the while as I walked, I was counting syllables on my fingers, to make the traditional 17 syllables of the Japanese haiku. And as I counted syllables, it occurred to me that the Japanese pattern doesn't always translate very well into English. Even so, I decided to try shaping my poem to the traditional Japanese form, thinking that might impart a measure of clarity via line or word breaks that my original poem was lacking. One version based on the 5-7-5 pattern might then be:

 

Great Blue Heron stalk
-ing tidal pool hunter
or fisher which are you?

 

I liked this version a little better. Heading back to my office along Pine Street, I walked by a print shop, Queen City Printers Inc., and I thought - there's a good title for my haiku, but changing "inc" to the homophone "ink" I came up with, Queen City Printers Ink! With that, I thought of a book I have on my shelf called Ink on Paper, a set of lovely poems by John Wilson, college instructor, and member of the creative writing faculty at UC Santa Barbara. It occurred to me that there might be a "heron" poem in Wilson's book, so when I got back to my office I pulled the book off the shelf. And indeed there was such a poem. Here is the relevant verse, though Wilson's bird is an egret (a bird very much alike to a heron):

 

Poise,
directness, vigilance —

An egret
Cocked in the reeds

Absorbed in its own stillness,
A straight line of soaring geese.

 

In fact, Wilson is reacting to a drawing of a heron by the Chinese artist Tan-an, which is in the collection of the Tokyo National Museum. I couldn't locate that particular image online, so I've provided an alternate image above which closely resembles the one that's reproduced in Wilson's book.


I like Wilson's poem better than I do mine, but mine is just a note taken while walking, in order to capture the Great Blue Heron experience; Wilson's is a well-crafted poem that conveys something of the manner and spirit of the bird. It is not haiku.

 

But there's more, of course, on this subject of syllables in Japanese haiku, versus syllables in American or English-language haiku. David F. Schultz characterized this difference in a blog post several years ago. Here's an excerpt from that post, which can be found at https://davidfshultz.com/2017/12/17/5-7-5-haiku-form-strengths-and-weaknesses:

 

After discussing the differences in Japanese and English sound systems and the rhythm of haiku, Higginson makes a compelling case that the best phonetic English equivalent of the haiku form is successive lines of 2, 3, and 2 accented syllables, for a total of 7 accented syllables (and roughly 12 syllables overall, including the unaccented syllables). This would "approximate the duration of Japanese haiku", establish similar rhythmical proportions, and yield a similar "sense of rhythmical incompleteness" that is characteristic of Japanese haiku. (This latter point recognizes that the English poetic tradition, with deep roots in iambic verse, and in particular iambic pentameter, creates a sensation that the poem should continue after the final line in a 2/3/2 accented pattern, leading to a feeling of openness.) ["Higginson" refers to William J. Higginson, The Haiku Handbook]


Schultz glosses Higginson by noting that traditionalists among English language composers of haiku may nevertheless cling to the 5-7-5 form, producing perfectly fine haiku. But Higginson offers another approach to my poem, so that the question arises, how would I shape my poem to fit the English-language format of haiku, according to Higginson's criteria? — keeping in mind that Higginson's formula pertains to stressed rather than unstressed syllables. Schultz provides an example of a basic 2-3-2 form, all stressed syllables:

 

bus stop


cold dark night


rainstorm

 

So how would I re-do my heron poem according to Higginson's formula? Here's one possibility:

 

Blue Heron
Hunter or fisher
One or two

 

I like this version too!

 

Note that the second syllable of "heron" in line one is unstressed so that what is ostensibly a three-syllable line doesn't offend the 2-3-2 stressed-syllable format; the second syllable in "hunter" and "fisher" is also unstressed, adding up to three stressed syllables for line 2 (but is "or" stressed or unstressed?). All of which is to say by way of conclusion that the formula is a guide, not a rule!

 

One more thing, by way of memory. Way back in the late 1980s I had a gig teaching public speaking and writing to MBA students enrolled in the Communication Program at the Wharton School. In one class I had a number of students from Japan, some of whom were reluctant to speak in front of the class. Thinking to make it easier for them I asked them to read haiku from a book of Japanese haiku, with the poems transliterated, then translated into English. Here's an example of what I mean, taken from Bashō's Ghost by Sam Hamill:

 

Ki no moto ni

shiru mo namasu mo

sakura kana

 

As it happens this poem was written by Bashō himself. Notice that the syllables of the transliterated Japanese conform to the 5-7-5 pattern. (Note too that the English translation given below does not.) In case of interest, here's the translation of Bashō's poem as rendered by Hamill:

 

From all these trees--

in salads, soups,

   everywhere--

cherry blossooms fall

 

The students proved themselves good sports; they all got through the exercise, some of them even coming up with their own English translation of the assigned poem. And their audience was enthusiastic and supportive. It was only later that I realized I'd posed a daunting challenge — the transliterations were confusing, and weren't much easier for them than just reading the English version! With benefit of hindsight, I understood that I might have offered the poems in the original kanji!

 

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Rodin and Apsara

Cambodian dancer, with study of joined hands. Plate 308 from Auguste Rodin, Drawings and Watercolors by Antoinette Le Normand-Romain and Christina Buley-Uribe

 

Work on this post has proceeded slowly, but since learning that Auguste Rodin had witnessed Cambodian dancers perform at Marseilles on the occasion of the Colonial Exposition of 1906 in that city, I'd decided to look into it and pick out some threads to follow. I hadn't known that Rodin had been exposed to this deeply affecting cultural tradition; prior to that serendipitous encounter at Marseilles he had no knowledge of it. Moved and inspired, the great artist made a number of pencil sketches of the dancers in situ, applying color afterward. I gather that Rodin made more than 30 drawings of the dancers, along with several portraits of King Sisowath: members of the dance troupe were part of an extensive entourage accompanying the Cambodian king on his official visit to France that year.

 

Cambodian dance is deeply implicated in the mythology of the Khmer people, as attested by the sculptural friezes adorning the ancient temple walls at Angkor, and on temple sites and artifacts that pre-date the Angkor era. It's been argued that Khmer dancers are associated with fertility rites, perhaps especially in the earlier period (prior to the 6th century of the Common Era). But there is an interesting association as well with the widespread mythic phenomenon of dragon killing (in Khmer culture the dragon is represented by the nāga).  


According to Paul Kravath, a scholar of Cambodian dance drama,

 

At the bottom of the sea a great nāga serpent stretches the entire forty-nine yards of this mythical ocean... Above this, the nāga appears a second time -- a convention suggesting a later action -- supported by two groups of figures. On the left are ninety-two yakkha (ogres) pulling on the head; on the right are eight-eight deva (gods) pulling on the tail. The nāga, the most frequently used oldest Khmer symbol of the earth's forces, is wound around the stone, mountainlike seat of a four-armed deity. The effect of the resultant churning is seen along the top of the carving: thousands of flying dancers emerge from the ocean's foam.

 

Calvert Watkins has traced a fundamentally significant world myth in his book, How to Kill a Dragon; I wonder whether the Khmer version, with celestial dancers (apsara) and nāga serpent at its core, may correlate with the general framework of the dragon myth, though it seems that Kravath spins the story differently. But my purpose is not to explicate Khmer myth in any detail, but rather tease out some possible implications of Rodin's encounter with Khmer dancers at Marseilles. This will likely entail further consideration of Khmer dance, alongside a glancing look at Japanese Nō theater. Needless to say, the influence of Asian art on Western culture during Rodin's lifetime is large; the subject vast.

 

A word about my personal involvement with Cambodian dance and dancers. I began working with members of the Khmer community sometime around the year 2000, when I was hired by an arts agency in the Washington, D.C. area to help make meaningful contacts within the diverse cultural communities there. At some point, I wandered into a Cambodian dance practice at one of the local community centers in Northern Virginia, chatted with the parents in attendance that day (the classes were partly intended to introduce young American-born Khmer to essential elements of Khmer culture), and after many more visits I'd established strong relationships with community members, and with the dance instructors – all of the latter widely known within the Khmer diaspora, some whose original training was with the Royal Cambodian Ballet in Phnom Penh, a prestigious company and training center associated with the royal palace. Several of these dancers had defected some years earlier during a performance tour of the USA. I subsequently studied Khmer language at Madison, Wisconsin over two consecutive summers, and have maintained relationships with members of the Khmer community since that time.

 

Cambodian dance is ritualized and patterned, with gestures, postures, and movements well-established and formalized through the centuries. Dancers convey meaning, emotion, and narrative through facial expression, and through highly stylized gestures and movements -- of the whole body, but perhaps especially by means of the hands and feet. In classical Cambodian dance, the narrative component of the dance has its source in the Reamker, which is regarded by some as the Cambodian version of the Ramayana. While there are significant correspondences between the two, the Khmer version is distinctively Khmer – much as the dance itself is distinctive and independent from classical Indian dance, despite similarities and early scholarship arguing for the derivative nature of the Khmer tradition.

 

I feel that anyone who encounters Cambodian traditional dance for the first time will be overtaken by the beauty, the intricacy, and the skill of the dancers, and will readily appreciate the challenges they face incarnating the spirit of the characters they portray. The dancers are assisted in this by their traditional costumes, which serve as guideposts to the characters, and perhaps especially by the intricate and beautifully crafted crowns and masks, which are made by one of the master dance instructors in D.C. (who was a prominent member of the dance company at that time).

 

When considering which direction to take for this post, I wished to understand why Khmer dance may have mattered so much to Rodin at that point in his career (which had been languishing). I don't know that I can provide that understanding here except in a rather perfunctory way. But the Rodin material was suggestive, and I found myself thinking of other cultural traditions, such as Cambodian shadow theater, Japanese Nō theater, and even traditional Hawaiian concepts of cultural knowledge and transmission.

 

Khmer dance is indeed akin to Cambodian shadow theater – the dancers wear elaborate, highly stylized costumes and crowns (and sometimes, masks too); they move with precision but always according to an established or routinized system; they enact traditional narratives, in many if not all cases based on the Reamker. Perhaps especially, they affect to achieve an otherworldly, suprahuman effect. The  shadow theater animators must also dance, as they contrive to make the shadow puppets dance, all action taking place behind the white screen. Both traditions date to the pre-Angkor era; both are sacred to the Khmer people; both are accompanied by the classical pin peat orchestra, consisting of an array of traditional Cambodian instruments. And both are very popular with tourists! According to puppet explicator Kenneth Gross, the shadow animator translates their own "thought, will, gesture, and voice" to the puppets, and these are "made visible the more strongly for his invisibility, showing us gods, demons, ghosts, giants, and warring clans and nobles." Strong magic indeed! And an apt descripton as well of what the living dancers can achieve.

 

How then does Camdodian dance differ from Cambodian shadow theater? There are many points of convergence, but what are the differences between the two traditions? There are historical explanations for the rise of shadow theater, linked to the fate of the living female dancers at Angkor -- with shadow theater created to provide ritual enactments in their absence. As such the two traditions may be fundamentally the same. In any case, women have played important and varied roles for the Cambodian king. Zhou Daguan, a Chinese merchant who visited Cambodia in 1295 C.E., observing the royal dancers, reported in his Record of Cambodia that,

 

In the eighth month there is an "ailan", a dance that selected female dancers perform daily in the palace. There are boar fights and elephant fights as well, and again the king invites foreign envoys as spectators. Things go on like this for ten days.

 

Women might also function as musicians, or as part of the royal guard:

 

I stayed for a year of so, and saw him [the king] come out four or five times. Each time he came out all his soldiers were gathered in front of him, with people bearing banners, musicians, and drummers following behind him. One contingent was made up of three to five hundred women of the palace. They wore clothes with a floral design and flowers in their coiled-up hair, and carried huge candles, alight even though it was daylight. There were also women of the palace carrying gold and silver utensils from the palace and finely decorated instruments made in exotic and unusual styles, for what purpose I do not know. Palace women carrying lances and shields made up another contingent as the palace guard. Then there were carts drawn by goats, deer, and horses, all of them decorated with gold.

 

This aspect of women's roles, where they participate in the protection of the king, was attested centuries later, at the time that Rodin observed the Cambodian dancers at Marseilles. During his sojourn in France, King Sisowath was attended by Xavier Paoli, who served as a sort of interlocutor for the king. In his book My Royal Clients, a memoir recounting many years of service to royals from around the world, Paoli focuses attention on perceived gender ambiguity of the dancers:

 

Sisowath's dancing girls are not exactly pretty, judged by our own standard of feminine beauty. With their hard and close-cropped hair, their figures like those of striplings, their thin, muscular legs like those of young boys, their arms and hands like those of little girls, they seem to belong to no definite sex. They have something of the child about them, something of the young warrior of antiquity and something of the woman. Their usual dress, which is half feminine and half masculine, consisting of the famous sampot worn in creases between their knees and their hips and of a silk shawl confining their shoulders, crossed over the bust and knotted at the loins, tends to heighten this curious impression. But, in the absence of beauty, they possess grace, a supple, captivating, royal grace, which is present in their every attitude and gesture.

 

To my knowledge the dances were traditionally performed only by females, who played either male or female roles as needed. Over the course of centuries and likely due to historical contingencies, male dancers were integrated into the performances -- though even today women dancers may assume either male or female roles (sometimes depending on availability of male dancers).

 

I've continually strayed back into a discussion of Cambodian dance, but before closing this post I want to suggest additional connections of possible interest. Having mentioned Japanese Nō and Japanese aesthetics earlier in this post, I want to return to them now, as a means of closing. In his influential essay A Tractate on Japanese Aesthetics, Donald Richie discusses the aesthetic concept of yūgen, which I believe may be relevant to the foregoing discussion of Khmer dance. Richie suggests that,

 

As a quality yūgen is now mostly associated with the No drama, with a veiled nature seen through an atmosphere of rich if mysterious beauty. Here the yūgen is defined by the dramatist, actor, and aesthetician Zeami Motkiyo (1363-1443) as combining the yūgen of speech, the yūgen of dance, and the yūgen of song. The actor must (in the Rimer and Yamasaki translation) "grasp these various types of yūgen within himself." No matter the character (lord, peasant, angel, demon), "it should seem as though each were holding a branch of flowers in his hand. He should offer this fresh, mysterious reality."

 

Zeami Motkiyo was perhaps the foremost exponent of Nō theater in Japan; his treatises on Nō are foundational. In "Teachings on Style and the Flower", Zeami employs a version of the Socratic method, casting his lesson as a dialog between master and student:

 

Question: What is the relation between movement and text in a nō performance"
Answer: That matter can only be grasped through intricate rehearsal. All the various kinds of movement in the nō involved in the performance depend on the text. Such things as bodily posture and carriage follow from this, as well. Specifically, one must project feelings that are in accord with the words being spoken…As the body is used in the service of all that is suggested by the text, these gestures will of their own accord constitute the appropriate acting style. The most important aspect of movement concerns the use of the actor's entire body. The second most important aspect concerns the use of the hands, and the third, the use of the feet. The movements of the body must be planned in accordance with the chant and context expresses in the nō text. It is hard to describe this effect in writing. It is best to observe and learn during actual rehearsals.
When one has practiced thoroughly with respect to the text of a play, then the actor's chant and gesture will partake alike of the same spirit. And indeed, the genuine union of music and movement represents a command by the actor over the most profound principles of the art of the nō. When one speaks of real mastery, it is to this principle that one refers. This is a fundamental point: as music and movement are two differing skills, the artist who can truly fuse them into one shows the greatest, highest talent of all. Such a fusion will constitute a really strong performance.

 

These comments may apply equally well to Cambodian dance, where there is a shared emphasis with Nō theater on expressive use of the hands and feet, on the close alliance of music with movement, and on the seamlessness between the dancer's body and the performed or enacted text. As with shadow theater, the key element of performance in these traditions hinges on the dancer's (or the actor's) ability to embody character and text, and convey these to the audience. Zeami concludes that,

 

After all, the actor who has mastered the means to realize his text and to fuse music and movement, he will have learned how to give a strong performance and how to give that performance the quality of Grace as well. He will truly be a masterful performer.

 

So what does all of this have to do with Auguste Rodin, apart from the transformative experience of witnessing Cambodian dance at Marseille in 1906? In a piece she wrote in connection with a Rodin exhibition at Phnom Penh in 2007, Penny Edwards, a scholar of Cambodia, noted that,

 

For Rodin, the dancers fused all he admired in classical statuary with the enigma and suppleness of the Far East. They were fragments of Angkor "come to life" - the living incarnation of an apparent contradiction that remained a central preoccupation of his work: that of "motion in stillness." In his artwork, this fascination merged light, fluid strokes in diverse media in a bid to capture light through experimentation with color tints. These features are all hallmarks of the 150 sketches that emerged from Rodin's trip to Marseille.

 

Indeed, Rodin's biographer Frederic Grunfeld quotes from Rodin's own correspondence to amplify this point:

 

But after a few days the dancers had to return to Marseille to fulfill the rest of their engagement. "To study them more closely I followed them to Marseille," Rodin told Mario Meunier. "I arrived on a Sunday and went to the Villa des Glycines [to see the dancers]. I wanted to get my impressions on paper, but since all the artists' materials shops were closed I was obliged to go to a grocer and ask him to sell me wrapping paper on which to draw. The paper has since taken on the very beautiful gray tint and pearly quality of antique Japanese silks. I draw them with a pencil in my hand and the paper on my knees, enchanted by the beauty and character of their choric dances. The friezes of Angkor were coming to life before my very eyes... I loved these Cambodian girls so much that I didn't know how to express my gratitude for the royal honor they had shown me in dancing and posing for me. I went to the Nouvelles Galeries to buy a basket of toys for them, and these divine children who dance for the gods hardly knew how to repay me for the happiness I had given them. They even talked about taking me with them."

 

In his essay, Donald Richie cites Arthur Waley's definition of yūgen, which he says means "what lies beneath the surface", which Richie glosses as "the subtle as opposed to the obvious; the hint, as opposed to the statement." This suggests a connection to a book I've been reading, called Power of the Steel-Tipped Pen, which examines Hawaiian indigenous knowledge as collected and preserved by two native writers in the early decades of the 20th century. Here is a brief passage, first in Hawaiian then in English translation, which briefly addresses the key concept of kaona, which may reflect the Japanese concept of yūgen in conveying the cultural values of "understatement" or "intimation":

 

O ka olelo Hawaii me ke kaona o kona manao, ka pookela o na olelo i waena o na lahui o ka honua nei, ma na hua mele a na kupuna e ike ia ai ka u'i, ka maikai o ke kaona o ka manao, aole hoi e like me ko keia au e nee nei, he hoopuka maoli mai no i ka manao me ka hoonalonalo ole iho i ke kaona.

 

The Hawaiian language with the kaona of its meanings is the finest of all languages among the peoples on earth; the beauty and the excellence of the kaona is seen in the song lyrics of its ancestors; not like it is today, where the meaning is just said with no hiding of the kaona.

 

It strikes me that the dynamic interplay between revealing and concealing, which the Ancient Greeks would define as aletheia, or truth, is a most important function of art -- of art with deep cultural resonance and especially, of art with mythical associations. I'll leave it there for now.

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The possibility of writing

Printer's tray, Cuneiform Press postcard

 

Still struggling to form and finish the next post (following on from the post dated 2 September) I'm once again resorting to interpolating a poem here, complementary to the poem I published last month (23 September). In fact I see both poems, each a poem in progress, as two parts of a single, longer poem, or as two closely interrelated poems. As with the previous poem, I'll continue to work on this one here, in the more or less public space of this blog. In the spirit of the relationship between the two I've altered the title of the previous poem -- or provided a title: the September poem is now, "The possibility of memory", with the current poem titled "The possibility of writing".  I'll see where that goes. Meanwhile, I think that both poems are grappling with the writing process; with crafting, rather than with inspiration, since neither is inspired in the usual sense of that word.

 

The possibility of writing

 

[first line?]

A clutch of elk

A forest door

Light tilting against

A thickening sky  

The gloaming

Tentative then

      Flaring

Touching nose flank tail

Elk growling at low thrum

"Indefiniteness is an element

Of the true music"

      says Spicer

The poet

 

Dreaming

Riding

Bareback through the forest

I taste the trail in my mouth

And I think to write this down      

 

Walking the streets

Shadows stippling the sun

I'm a cotton weevil

Caught in a loose cotton weave

Unbuttoning one ear

I listen for the congregate elk

      

Chiseled from the glowing rod         

      heated shavings  

      swarming

Coalescing into letters

      clustering

      just enough

To make one sentence

      maybe

 

The press goes

Clacketyclacketyclack

Crowding my dream

Planetesimals whirr the dark

Seventeen billion

     aggregate spheres

Formed from superheated metal

Seventeen billion

      trees

In a red-shifting forest

Our names carved

      into this

      one tree

 

 

 

 

 

["clutch"?] of elk

rim of light

forest lane

printing press

etc.]        

 

 

 

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The possibility of memory

William Blake, I want, I want

 

 

It's been some time since my last post, due mainly to distractions precipitating from the steep learning curve of pollinator gardening. Not having anything else in hand at the moment, I'll resort to publishing a poem I've been working on (and which I'll continue working on here). I realize that this stratagem may disappoint an imagined reader, but as they say, there's nothing for it just now.

 

I don't know where this poem of mine came from, or where it may be going. But the proximate impulse to make this post arose from reading a book of poems by Marilyn Hacker. Her poem is titled Ghazal — no subtitle, though other poems in the book employ that term. Which book, by the way, is A Stranger's Mirror (W.W.Norton & Company, 2015). Here are the first two stanzas of Hacker's poem:
 
She took what wasn't hers to take: desire
For all that's not her, for what might awake desire.
 
With it, the day's a quest, a question, answered where-
Ever eye, mind lights. Desire seeks, but one can't seek desire.

 
These closing thoughts on desire echo the closing thoughts of my poem, which I think is about memory, or about time. I hadn't seen Hacker's poem till now, had been working on my poem, off and on, for months, with those closing lines there from the first roughed-out draft; from the epiphanic moment, as it were.
 
Hacker's use of enjambment in Ghazal is seamless, unlike my own trials with that literary device. I'd suggest however that there's otherwise little connection between the two poems, apart from twinning the ego as both subject and object -- without knowing what that might mean, in my case. Anyway, here's my poem:

 

The possibility of memory

 

Sitting on the red sofa
I'm way out in time
Years ahead of now
Spooling a nostalgia thread

 

     Arrives a shifting awareness

     Sifting a foreshadowing dread

 

Riffling the signatures
of a revenant tome
Gingko weaving sunlight

Through the chain lines

Seed pod and leaf blade
mottle my raveling hands

 

Picking up the phone, your voice

A shaft of audible dust
Traces a Ley-line through 

Lanes of enigmatical stars

 

Did I miss the launch
That carried you and the others away?
Did I drift through yet another apocalypse?

 

Living long with Gingko
You may choose memory
But will memory
Choose you?

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"Jinrickshaw"

"The Tree" by James Reaney, Poetry Magazine December 1969

 

As with all of my posts, this one has been difficult to pin down, though the underlying subject of this post is pastiche and related matters. Looking over previous entries on this blog I see that much of what I publish is an assemblage of fragments, loosely strung together, with connections strengthened by a gradually emerging narrative arc. And as with all posts on this blog, the underlying factor, the urgrund, is very broadly the search for a subject within a given post, that would link with other posts to ultimately form an interrelated whole.

 

In this case, the originary spark was provided by my reading of a small portfolio of "emblem poems" published several decades ago. According to the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, emblem poems were popular in the early modern, or Renaissance period, though my exposure to them was much more recent, courtesy of Poetry Magazine, who published a selection by a Canadian poet called James Reaney. These poems are interesting because they combine writing with drawing, and in a general sense they correlate with a previous post that focused on poetry and collage.

 

One of Reaney's emblem poems is reproduced above, and is one of four such poems published in the December 1969 issue of Poetry Magazine. I especially like this poem for it's incorporation of singular or separate signs into a meaningful whole, and for its cosmic reference point. Interestingly, and perhaps appropriately given the subject matter of "The Tree", Reaney is described as a "mythopoet" in a recent issue of PN Review (#219, 2014) by the Canadian poet Amanda Jernigan, who writes:

 

There are critics for whom mythopoetry is, if anything, a was: a short-lived literary movement that grew up here in Canada under the influence of the mythopoetic criticism of Northrop Frye, and died out when its chief practitioners – Macpherson and James Reaney (1926–2008) are the two most often cited – went on to other things. In the May/June 2013 issue of PN Review, Evan Jones called me, only half-jokingly, the last of the mythopoets: 'the only heir to a tradition that was once central and has now died out'.

 

My feeling is that mythopoetry remains relevant, often appearing when poets seek greater depths of meaning. In fact, we needn't reach all the way back to Robert Duncan, or further back to Yeats, Eliot, or Auden, to locate this persistent relevance. As Susan Howe observed in a recent collection of essays (The Quarry, 2015):

 

Poetry is an incessant amorous search under the sign of love for a remembered time at the pitch-dark fringes of evening when we gathered together to bless and believe.

 

What does Howe suggest poetry is? Myth? Storytelling? I'll leave that question aside for now. But moving on I'd say that in my practice I tend to blur the categories. For example, to my mind the emblem poems may be akin in a very general way to the broadside ballads that emerged within the early print tradition in Europe. They tended to incorporate images or drawings of various kinds onto a broad sheet covered with printed text. For their part the emblem poem may pose difficulties for the anthologist; broadsides are simpler to reproduce and thus may appear more frequently in compilations of the period. The broadsides valorized text over image, whereas the opposite may be the case with the emblem poems (though Reaney does good work in giving equal status to each). Thinking further with the assistance of Reaney's poems, I realize that the extended word definitions culled from etymologies, such as by W.W. Skeat, might function in these blog posts as emblems — blocks of print assembled originally to form a definition, but capable of producing an image when displayed on the page in other contexts. See for example Skeat's definition of the word "emblem":

 

EMBLEM, a device. (F.,-L.,-Gk.) In Shak. All's Well, ii.
i . 44. O. F. embleme,' an embleme ;' Cot. Lat. emblema, a kind of
ornament. Gk. ξμβλημα, a kind of moveable ornament, a thing put
on. Gk. έμβαλλειν, to put in, lay on. - Gk. έμ = εν, in; and βάλλειν,
to cast, throw, put. See Belemnite. Der. emblemat-ic, from Gk.
stem έμβληυατ- ; emblemat-ic-al.

 

It's difficult to think of this entry as constituting just a text; it's a multilingual assemblage of abbreviations, punctuation marks, and signs that collectively compose an image, rather than a text per se. Compare this with Brewer's entry for this word in his Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, which is more precisely textual:

 

Emblem. A symbolical figure; a picture with
a hidden meaning which is "cast into" (Gr. em,
in, ballein, to cast) the visible device. Thus, a
balance is an emblem of justice, white of purity,
a sceptre of sovereignty.
Some of the most common and simple
emblems of the Christian Church are:
A chalice. The eucharist.
The circle inscribed in an equilateral triangle,
or the triangle in a circle. To denote the coequality
and co-eternity of the Trinity.
A cross. The Christian's life and conflict;
the death of Christ for man's redemption.
A crown. The reward of the perseverance of
the saints.
A dove. The Holy Ghost.
A handfrom the clouds. To denote God the
Father.
A lamb, fish, pelican, etc. The Lord Jesus
Christ.
A phoenix. The resurrection.

 

Having raised the issue of pastiche and imported a Renaissance era literary form into this discussion, I want to reach a little further for additional, possibly provocative parallels. In a recent book titled Inky Fingers, Anthony Grafton argues that early printing (15th-16th centuries) involved a hands-on interplay between scribes, printers, and scholars. In fact, he suggests that the postmodern sensibility and practices of contemporary scholarship may have been foreshadowed by close interactions between scholars and printers during the Renaissance. A reviewer of his book (Erin Maglaque, New Review of Books July 2021) notes that,

 

He had begun it by citing Macrobius: 'In this Book all is mine, & Nothing is mine. Omne meum, nihil meum.' Pastorius meant that by assembling bits of the old, he had created something new. It took considerable intellectual discernment – and long, cramped hours of reading and notetaking – to create a masterpiece that was at once his own and a compilation of others' writings. The Bee Hive exemplifies what is so puzzlingly postmodern about early modern textuality: it was both individual and collective, unique and pastiched.

 

"Pastiched" is the key word here, but I want to move on, for now. Erin Maglaque very conveniently (for my purposes) mentions Pastorius. "Pastorius" is Daniel Francis Pastorius, leader of the Germantown community, which was formed in the late 17th century just outside of Philadelphia. (I've written about this community in previous posts, focusing on Johannes Kelpius (the Latinized form of the person otherwise known as Johann Kelp), founder with other Pietists in 1694 of a small utopian community on the banks of Wissahickon Creek, in close proximity to Germantown). Thinking about the Wissahickon Creek area I'd add that the first paper mill in North America was established close by to the Kelpius site (a little further south on the Wissahickon) by the Rittenhouse family, who also were emigrés from Germany, and who settled near Philadelphia during this period. Kelpius was spiritual leader of his small group; he composed as number of hymns which are among the first written in North America. (Note that the issue of "firsts" is very much of dubious value, and is notoriously difficult to establish and pin down.)

 

I'll wrap this up with a puzzling quote from Bee-Hive (Pastorius hyphenated the title), which I believe remains a little-known classic of early American literature. (Parts of the book are excerpted in The Multilingual Anthology of American Literature, edited by Marc Shell and Werner Sollors). In their selection, Pastorius provides the following description of his work, situating that work, by the way, within the overarching domain of pastiche:

 

Whereas many prefer meer Rick-shaws beyond Solid meats, I had rather choose to set before them the dainties of other men, than the coarse food of mine own.

 

Bee-Hive has been dated to around 1696, so this brief description is fascinating; it's firstly a neat summary of Pastorius's intention in compiling his "Common-place" book, which was done principally for the edification and moral instruction of his sons. But note that Pastorius, writing at the close of the 17th century, uses the word "Rick-shaw"  — whereas the OED provides no examples for this word in English prior to the 19th century! The OED explains that the word is an abbreviated form of an earlier word, "Jinrickishaw", which means much the same thing — a conveyance on two wheels pulled by a person. The OED provides an etymology by way of translation: "Jin man + ricki strength, power + sha vehicle." The OED further notes that the word was "First used in Japan c. 1870 but now common in other parts of the world." It may be worthwhile exploring Pastorius's curious usage at some other time. Note, however, that he wrote in multiple languages -- German, Latin, English, and more. Was the word in use among German speakers much earlier than it was used by English speakers? (The word does not appear in my copy of the Langenscheidt Compact German Dictionary.) Was the rickshaw, as we understand the term, in use in Japan or elsewhere in Asia prior to the 19th century? Note that the OED associates the word Jinrichshaw with Japan, whence it spread elsewhere. What are the origins of the word "rickshaw?" What did this word mean to Pastorius? His usage appears to vary from the meaning we nowadays assign to that word.

 

One more thing — how is it possible that I've brought this post around to yet another discussion of word definitions and word origins?

 

More later…

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