Straight Tip to All Cross Coves

March 30, 2012 § Leave a comment

Suppose you screeve, or go cheap-jack?
  Or fake the broads? or fig a nag?
Or thimble-rig? or knap a yack?
  Or pitch a snide? or smash a rag?
  Suppose you duff? or nose and lag?
Or get the straight, and land your pot?
  How do you melt the multy swag?
Booze and the blowens cop the lot.

Fiddle, or fence, or mace, or mack;
  Or moskeneer or flash the drag;
Dead-lurk a crib, or do a crack;
  Pad with a slang, or chuck a fag;
  Bonnet, or tout, or mump and gag;
Rattle the tats, or mark the spot
  You cannot bank a single stag;
Booze and the blowens cop the lot.

Suppose you try a different tack,
  And on the square you flash your flag?
At penny-a-lining make your whack,
  Or with the mummers mug and gag?
  For nix, for nix the dibbs you bag
At any graft, no matter what!
  Your merry goblins soon stravag:
Booze and the blowens cop the lot.

It’s up-the-spout and Charley-Wag
  With wipes and tickers and what not!
Until the squeezer nips your scrag,
  Booze and the blowens cop the lot.

– François Villon
translated by William Ernest Henley

A translator’s dilemma: Villon writes a boisterous ballade stuffed with 15th century French slang that is now, due to the intervening five centuries, obsolete and esoteric. Does the translator choose to honor the definitions of the dusty jargon, rarely straying from his crib, or does he turn the thing into a playpen and go for the atmosphere and flavor of the original even if it means ignoring word-for-word translations?

There are various linguistic quandaries that arise from this situation. Language is filled with piths and pits and parts of words that only native tongues feel; a crib of De bonne doctrine a ceux de mauvaise vie is possible, but it really isn’t a translation of the poem, since the poem depends upon the tone and attitude of the slang. But stray too far from the original and the poem is more “in the spirit” than it is a true translation.

Smartly, Henley translated Villon a step away from the French. Having worked on the seven-volume Slang and Its Analogues Past and Present, he had the vocabulary to produce something with the original’s spunk, even if purists would question his word choice.

Here’s the first stanza of the same poem but translated more literally by Henry de Vere Stacpoole:

Ye who be smugglers of papal bulls,
  Or cheaters at dice, whatever be ye —
Coiners who risk life and limb like fools,
  Then boil in hot oil for their felony,
  Traitors disloyal — ye know who ye be —
Stealers of jewels, of perfume and pearls:
  So where goes it all, that ye get in fee?
All to the taverns and to the girls.

Not nearly as good, is it, even if it’s technically a more “accurate” translation? Henley’s still sounds modern even if the slang isn’t.


Small Song

March 26, 2012 § Leave a comment

The reeds give
way to the

wind and give
the wind away.

– A. R. Ammons

A moment of insight, a wisp of wordplay, a perfect title.

the Akond of Swat

March 23, 2012 § Leave a comment

Who, or why, or which, or what,                     Is the Akond of SWAT?

Is he tall or short, or dark or fair?
Does he sit on a stool or a sofa or chair                 or SQUAT,
                                                                     The Akond of Swat?
Is he wise or foolish, young or old?
Does he drink his soup and his coffee cold            or HOT,
                                                                     The Akond of Swat?
Does he sing or whistle, jabber or talk,
And when riding abroad does he gallop or walk      or TROT,
                                                                     The Akond of Swat?
Does he wear a turban, a fez, or a hat?
Does he sleep on a mattress, a bed, or a mat         or a COT,
                                                                     The Akond of Swat?
When he writes a copy in round-hand size,
Does he cross his T’s and finish his I’s                   with a DOT,
                                                                     The Akond of Swat?
Can he write a letter concisely clear
Without a speck or a smudge or a smear                or BLOT,
                                                                     The Akond of Swat?
Do his people like him extremely well
Or does they, whenever they can, rebel                   or PLOT,
                                                                     The Akond of Swat?
If he catches them then, either old or young
Does he have them chopped in pieces or hung        or SHOT,
                                                                     The Akond of Swat?
Do his people prig in the lanes or park?
Or even at times, when days are dark                     GAROTTE,
                                                                     O the Akond of Swat!
Does he study the wants of his own dominion?
Or doesn’t he care for public opinion                      a JOT,
                                                                     The Akond of Swat?
To amuse his mind do his people show him
Pictures, or anyone’s last new poem                        or WHAT,
                                                                     For the Akond of Swat?
At night if he suddenly screams and wakes,
Do they bring him only a few small cakes                or a LOT,
                                                                     For the Akond of Swat?
Does he live on turnips, tea, or tripe?
Does he like his shawl to be marked with a stripe    or a DOT,
                                                                     The Akond of Swat?
Does he like to lie on his back on a boat
Like the lady who lived in that isle remote,              SHALOTT,
                                                                     The Akond of Swat?
Is he quiet, or always making a fuss?
Is his steward a Swiss or a Swede or a Russ             or a SCOT,
                                                                     The Akond of Swat?
Does he like to sit by the calm blue wave?
Or to sleep and snore in a dark green cave              or a GROTT,
                                                                     The Akond of Swat?
Does he drink small beer from a silver jug?
Or a bowl? or a glass? or a cup? or a mug?             or a POT,
                                                                     The Akond of Swat?
Does he beat his wife with a gold-topped pipe,
When she lets the gooseberries grow too ripe          or ROT,
                                                                     The Akond of Swat?
Does he wear a white tie when he dines with friends,
And tie it neat in a bow with ends                           or a KNOT,
                                                                     The Akond of Swat?
Does he like new cream, and hate mince-pies?
When he looks at the sun does he wink his eyes      or NOT,
                                                                     The Akond of Swat?
Does he teach his subjects to roast and bake?
Does he sail about on an island lake                       in a YACHT,
                                                                     The Akond of Swat?
Someone, or nobody, knows I wot
Who or which or why or what                          Is the Akond of Swat!

– Edward Lear

So many questions and not one answer! The exotic sounding Valley of Swat and its quixotic Akhoond must have baffled Victorian England when both were mentioned in a news item in The Times of India. Lear, according to his notes, was prompted to write a poem in response.

“The Akond of Swat” seems to go on forever and gets progressively weirder and more violent as it unloads its 23 stanzas. The Akhoond, as Lear imagines, likes to beat his wife and kill his people and is prone to whims of fancy food and eccentric fashion.

And yet, we don’t know what the real Akhoond was like. Lear didn’t know. Swat remained a far-off place to Lear who, despite his vast travels abroad, never visited the area. But in his imagined whimsy, Lear describes every despotic leader from King Lear (no relation) to Kim Jung-Il.

The capitalized words are meant to be shouted out by a chorus. Interaction for the proletariat?

Poem Recognizing Someone in the Street

March 19, 2012 § Leave a comment

e   y   ?   h
e   ?   h   e
h   e   y   !

– Aram Saroyan

Saroyan modulates three letters and two punctuation marks to turn the most quotidian of events into a sparkling and surprising play of language.

One can buy Complete Minimal Poems, which contains this poem and is neither complete nor, at almost 300 pages, very minimal, from Ugly Duckling Press.

the Song of Wandering Aengus

March 17, 2012 § Leave a comment

I went out to the hazel wood,
Because a fire was in my head,
And cut and peeled a hazel wand,
And hooked a berry to a thread;
And when white moths were on the wing,
And moth-like stars were flickering out,
I dropped the berry in a stream
And caught a little silver trout.

When I had laid it on the floor
I went to blow the fire a-flame,
But something rustled on the floor,
And someone called me by my name:
It had become a glimmering girl
With apple blossom in her hair
Who called me by my name and ran
And faded through the brightening air.

Though I am old with wandering
Through hollow lands and hilly lands,
I will find out where she has gone,
And kiss her lips and take her hands;
And walk among long dappled grass,
And pluck till time and times are done,
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.

– W. B. Yeats

Myfanwy at Oxford

March 15, 2012 § Leave a comment

Pink may, double may, dead laburnum
  Shedding an Anglo-Jackson Shade,
Shall we ever, my staunch Myfanwy,
  Bicycle down to North Parade?
Kant on the handle-bars, Marx in the saddlebag,
  Light my touch on your shoulder-blade.

Sancta Hilda, Myfanwyatia
  Evansensis — I hold your heart,
Willowy banks of a willowy Cherwell a
  Willowy figure with lips apart,
Strong and willowy, strong to pillow me
  Gold Myfanwy, kisses and art.

Tubular bells of tall St. Barnabas,
  Single clatter above St. Paul,
Chasuble, acolyte, incense-offering,
  Spectacled faces held in thrall.
There in the nimbus and Comper tracery
  Gold Myfanwy blesses us all.

Gleam of gas upon Oxford station,
  Gleam of gas on her straight gold hair,
Hair flung back with an ostentation,
  Waiting alone for a girl friend there.
Second in Mods and a Third in Theology
  Come to breathe again Oxford air.

Her Myfanwy as in Cadena days,
  Her Myfanwy, a schoolgirl voice,
Tentative brush of a cheek in a cocoa crush,
  Coffee and Ulysses, Tennyson, Joyce,
Alpha-minded and other dimensional,
  Freud or Calvary? Take your choice.

Her Myfanwy? My Myfanwy.
  Bicycle bells in a Boar’s Hill Pine,
Stedman Triple from All Saints’ steeple,
  Tom and his hundred and one at nine,
Bells of Butterfield, caught in Keble,
  Sally and backstroke answer “Mine!

– John Betjeman

“Myfanwy at Oxford” chimes with the people and places of a halcyon era. Always a name-dropper, Betjeman invites Freud and Kant and Tennyson and Joyce to swing through the sunshine on the lap of a golden girl bicycling through the campus grounds. The sonic joy of the landscapes whooshing past (“Bells of Butterfield, caught in Keble”) must match the joy in the poet’s fluttering heart. That Betjeman’s love for Piper was ultimately unrequited (she would become a notable art critic and marry another man) makes the poem that much more poignant, a schoolboy’s dream suspended in amber.

High Renaissance

March 12, 2012 § Leave a comment

‘Nomine Domini
None of these prelates can
Manage your name.

Change it. Appeal to their
Sign it “El Greco.” I’ll
Slap on a frame.’

– George Starbuck

Thanks to English prosody, a six-syllable word is almost always double-dactylic; stresses shimmy into their appropriate positions based on a word’s syllable count (compare op-er-a to op-er-a-tic). Anthony Hecht and John Hollander must have known this linguistic trick when they invented the double-dactyl in the late 60s — the rules call for a single six-syllable double-dactylic word in the antepenultimate line. And George Starbuck must have known that a name like Theotocopoulos practically demands its use in the form.

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