Inside Whales and Lofts, Part 1

Let me momentarily make this place act like a regular blog and remark on a few things I’ve run across trying to do — or avoid doing — new work. Warning: these are not necessarily mainstream things of interest to most people, even people who read blogs about various poetry combined with a variety of original music.

While not sleeping one night this week I ran into an essay masquerading as a book review written by George Orwell at the end of the 1930s: Inside the Whale.  As per the dangers of doomscrolling, it was not the right piece to run into while trying to fall back to sleep. It’s long, covers a bunch of ground, and since it is Orwell it contains a lot of pithy observations and things that incite one to consider not merely what Orwell believes, but what you, yourself believe.

It starts off reviewing a book by the American writer Henry Miller that was already several years old. Or rather, it makes motions like it’s going to take on that task. Orwell tells you little specifically about what’s in Miller’s book, and he speaks of it and it’s outlook in alternatively dismissive and “it’s better than some” statements. Orwell concludes that, whatever the book’s failures and omissions, that Miller’s novel has stuck with him, and that its subjective effects on a reader might be worthwhile.

Then a full-fledged essay breaks out: a meditation on the changes he observes in the literary scene from the 20s to the 30s of his 20th century. In doing so, Orwell also is quite subjective, compressing the wide range of these two important decades with broad characterizations, summations that have the virtue of vigor. Orwell’s overall judgement is the 20s were an explosion of free expression and expansion of subject matter, and then the following 30s had taken a wrong turn into political statements and advocacy. Orwell’s historical summary is one that others have made as well, and as with all such “spirit of the age” high-level views, it can be contradicted by considerable examples of those who didn’t follow the big titles over their decades.

In my middle of the night reading, I found this wrong-turn judgment odd. Writers who avoided political stances or opinions? Orwell would never have been on such a list! He’s remembered specifically as a life-long critic writing on political ideas and operations. This verging-on-hypocrisy stance, similar to pundits and any odd people with Internet access criticizing actors, artists, and writers for expressing political opinions,* can be made rational if one extracts from his argument the more distinct point he’s making: that the expressed political stances and opinions opposed are wrong and based on falsity. But within this essay that point seems less clear, it’s more about the demonstrated failure of that art-for-political-change effort in the 30s leading Orwell to suggest that it’s likely/arguably the better of limited choices to simply write about ordinary life in a way that avoids any evidence of political thinking.**

I’m around twice Orwell’s age when he wrote this essay, and to the glowing 21st century screen I was reading him on, I talked back to him that he had just discovered a universal truth I’ve written here several times: All Artists Fail. Betting odds calculated from a past performance tout-sheet are not a singular reason to not attempt something in art — the odds are always against success in art, that’s partly why we revere it.

Two small things in Orwell’s long essay remain for me to note. There’s an anecdote of Miller meeting Orwell as Orwell was about to embark on his sojourn into the Spanish Civil War. Miller, Orwell says, told him he was crazy to put himself in harm’s way, and then gives Orwell a warmer jacket better than the meager suitcoat he was wearing. That act, that tiny scene, is Orwell demonstrating his point that ordinary life closely observed may illuminate more than many grander political statements. And the other, more poetry related, has Orwell go on this short aside about the American poet Walt Whitman:

It is not certain that if Whitman himself were alive at this moment he would write anything in the least degree resembling Leaves of Grass.  For what he is saying, after all, is ‘I accept,’ and there is a radical difference between acceptance now and acceptance then. Whitman was writing in a time of unexampled prosperity, but more than that, he was writing in a country where freedom was something more than a word. The democracy, equality and comradeship that he is always talking about are not remote ideals, but something that existed in front of his eyes. In mid-nineteenth-century America men felt themselves free and equal, were  free and equal, so far as that is possible outside a society of pure communism. There was poverty and there were even class-distinctions, but except for the negros there was no permanently submerged class.”

Taken in — as we might well in our age — as statement to be evaluated from a woke (or waking) political outlook, this has so many howlers and hold-my-artisanal-higher-hops-content beverage potential Tweet-takes! Start with the “Leaves of Grass  are always greener on the other side” view of America in general. Thanks, I guess, for the “negros” exception that is altogether too large and horrible for a sub-clause. No mention of the state-side colonialism regarding indigenous peoples. And, wait a minute, women! Orwell’s “America men” freedom isn’t just accidental language-convention-gendering in historical context. I could go on, with anti-immigrant prejudices galore, and….

But. What Orwell is demonstrating here, intentionally or not, is that Whitman painted a plausible reality, containing vivid details of ordinary, mundane reality, of an America that supplanted those things, where open desire, freedom, and comradeship existed in plus and overplus. Did Whitman fool the wily Orwell into thinking that was actually, abundantly so in the years before and during an American bloodbath, or is Orwell suggesting, however inadvertently, what art can try to do, and while failing and retrying, help to accomplish?

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I sometimes misread the “darling buds of May” as the “daring buds of May.”  These seem so strange, so alien, as they emerge.

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This is enough for a Part 1, but rest, and only later think about this: can your art spur on change — or rather, not just urge it on with the spur and the whip, but with the portrayal of where we must go in a hurry?

As to music, here’s another audio piece you may have missed, using a 1920 poem by German Anarchist writer Erich Mühsam that I translated into English. This post from last July tells what I learned about Mühsam’s life and that of his mentor who first published the poem, Gustav Landauer. In the post, there’s a Whitman connection. Player gadget below for some of you, or if you don’t see that, this highlighted hyperlinkwill play the audio piece.

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*The hypocrisy of that is: the pundits most often have no more skin in the game in these matters than some artists; and that the ordinary Internet people, who often wish to self-proclaim their ordinariness, may have by definition no more expertise than another person whose job it is to observe and extract transmittable reality.

**Small, dear, peripheral, and personal aside here. Anaïs Nin was the writer specifically noted as existing inside the titular whale, Jonah-like, in the essay — and so, in Orwell’s judgement, then beneficially cut-off and protected from politically-charged writing. My late wife was once writing an article for a national “woman’s publication” on the cultural phenomenon of journaling, circa 1979. In a phone call discussing her sources for the article, her editor suggested she could setup an interview with Anaïs Nin. When the call ended, she and I had the writers vs. editors conspiratorial laugh over that unintentionally Ouija-level suggestion, as Nin was then two-years dead.

Revisiting Stones Under the Low Limbed Tree, and what’s fair in song-making and translation

Many of the visits to this blog are not you, the regular readers who are reading this fresh post, but views of some older posts via a search engine. A gaggle from Google have come recently to a post from a year ago which doesn’t feature one of “Poetry’s Greatest Hits,” though it does use, in a way, the words of one of America’s most loved poets, Robert Frost.

Here’s a link to that post.  I looked at this post, and I’m not sure what brought it to increased attention, though after re-reading it today, I complemented my past self — who I alternately think is wiser or more foolish than the current occupant of my consciousness. I thought I did a good job of describing how we as writers may improve our work through revision, even though the example I used in the post was my own revision, for my own parochial reasons, of the words of a recognized great poet.

I do that sort of thing to the Greats from time to time — as recently as the last post here with a simple addition of a line as a refrain from a poem by Robert Browning, or more extensively with my extension and relocating a poem by Du Fu that many liked last winter, or further back with a piece of Rupert Brooke’s that became one of the most listened to pieces in the history of this project. I usually feel ambivalent when I do this. At the least, I try to warn you when I intentionally go beyond the original text. In each case above, the author’s dead, there can be no personal hurt or slight for them to feel, but with this project I do take on some duty to the text the author wrote. Have I cheated at my task? Am I dishonoring their work?

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How is this photo connected to today’s post? I don’t exactly know. So what should some translator do when asked to present it in their language?

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I’m wrestling with these matters currently with another translation in process,*  a prose-poem by Arthur Rimbaud, particularly with a common issue I come upon in translation: how much did the author intend to be mysterious, and how much did they (or their ideal, likely contemporary reader/listener) understand to be clear in their original language? With translation, one can’t avoid substituting your own words, and likely things like word-order, idiom, and so forth — that’s inescapable, inherent in the task.

In the case of this poem by Frost, my recasting wasn’t so much for immediacy of meaning, or to make an image clearer to our time and place; but to make the poem more sing-able, to fit and obtain impact in a conventional song performance. Yet, the song that I made of it was not very popular with listeners here. When I looked today, it appears that nobody that has visited the post this month has listened to the performance.

Again, complementing my past self, the one I feel I can more often judge objectively; I think I did a pretty good job of the song I derived from inside Frost’s poem “Ghost House” and retitled “Stones Under a Low-Limbed Tree.”  My vocal (often a weak point) was passable — though I idly wish for “cover versions” by a legitimate vocalist for pieces I write and present here — and the rest of the audio piece works well.

So, here’s that audio piece, being presented again for your listening judgement and plausible pleasure. The player gadget should be below, and this highlighted hyperlink will also play it in a new tab if the player doesn’t appear on your device or reader.

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*Following the practice of Robert Okaji, I’ve taken to casting some of my alterations or freer translations as “After a poem by…” — another way to deal with this, though it doesn’t remove all the questions I ask myself.