Fisches Nachtgesang

July 28, 2012 § Leave a comment

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– Christian Morgenstern

Christian Morgenstern’s “Fisches Nachtgesang” is a piscine paradox: a concrete poem rendered in abstract shapes, a sound poem with no discernable sounds, a foreign-language poem that needs no translation, a metrical poem consisting of nothing but metrics that many New Formalists will no doubt never identify as a metrical poem, or even a poem at all.

The title translates to “Fish’s Nightsong”. The poem consists of alternating lines of macrons and breves, the marks of scansion in Latin and Greek poetry, reimagined as both the shimmering scales of a sleeping fish and musical notations. How wonderful to turn something consigned to the paper oceans of Classics scholars into a watermark of whimsy. The scansion marks split the poem into one of sound and one of shape.

A song at night might be a lullaby. If the macrons go thump in the night, and the breves consign a consonantal thm to their repertoire, then we get this percussive berceuse: thump-thm-thm-thump-thump-thm-thm-thm-thm-thump-thump-thump-thm-thm-thm-thm and so on. Crescendo, diminuendo, terraced dynamics. It is the fish’s heart beating, an ambient underwater soundscape, a song hummed through puckered lips, and ultimately, with no words to anchor the symbols, no sound at all. The scansion symbols are variable; one can assign any sound or instrument to them and all that remains constant is the pattern of stress they impart. Morgenstern indicates no actual sound, and the stress marks wait for a reader to come along and give them meaning. It is similar to looking at a real fish below real water and not being able to hear the swish and bubble of its aquatic world from one’s stance on shore. The sound exists beyond the water and must be imagined.

Likewise, the shape of the fish remains just out of view. The macrons and breves cluster in a vaguely fish-shaped form. They show a fish in abstract with all its details lost in the murk. The breves look like fish scales of a child’s drawing and the macrons might be crude renderings of horizontal fins, but lines are not connected to form a solid figure. Again, the reader must fill in the blanks himself.

Morgenstern wrote “Fisches Nachtgesang” in 1905 at the beginning of a century that would upheave the definitions of literature and art. Some critics may dismiss his poem as a textual trick, nice enough, but not poetry. But consider the use of the macrons and breves. These symbols, particular to the study of prosody, root the poem in the tradition of Latin and Greek poetry from which all other literature in the Western canon blooms; and Morgenstern, confronting the enormity of the canon behind him, baits the future with a little fish dreaming its silent song, the tune yet to be invented.


the African Lion

July 20, 2012 § Leave a comment

To meet a bad lad on the African waste
  Is a thing that a lion enjoys;
But he rightly and strongly objects to the taste
  Of good and uneatable boys.

When he bites off a piece of a boy of that sort
  He spits it right out of his mouth,
And retires with a loud and dissatisfied snort
  To the east, or the west, or the south.

So lads of good habits, on coming across
  A lion, need feel no alarm
For they know they are sure to escape with the loss
  Of a leg, or a head, or an arm.

– A. E. Housman

The moral of the poem is that the virtuous end up only slightly better off than their vile counterparts. Compare to Belloc’s “Jim“.

I Wish You a Wave of the Sea

July 11, 2012 § Leave a comment

Fretting my heart as you pedal your bicycle,
Perdita, once I called, Perdita, twice I called.
Pretty as paint and as cool as an icicle,
  Perdita Simmons!

Shall I tell how we met under fortunate auspices?
Presuming a bottle of Spanish Don Horsepiss is
Fortunate… This is not one of my coarse pieces,
  Perdita Simmons.

Syllables shimmy as sonnets assemble
Themselves in a shadowless summer a-tremble —
A ten-guinea ticket for Merton Commem Ball
  With Perdita Simmons.

Daddy’s a saurian Cambridge historian.
Mummy’s more chummy. She’s tweedy and Tory and
Hunts and what-have-you. So very Victorian
  Is Perdita Simmons.

Thus Mainwaring, tall dark and rich, with a glance as much
As to say, My dear boy, I don’t fancy your chances much
I know Perdie of old, and she doesn’t like dances much,
  Doesn’t Perdita Simmons.

Perdita’s hair ruffles fairer and tanglier,
Perdita’s grin makes my ganglia janglia,
Perdita’s uncle owns half of East Anglia,
  All for Perdita Simmons.

Mainwaring’s plan is for getting a leg over;
Wait till she’s plastered (the bastard!), then beg of her.
No go. (Ho-ho!) Now his face has got egg over.
  From Perdita Simmons.

Oh, how spiffing! (She talks like a school-story serial,
While my lexical style is down-market and beery.) All
Love is insane and remote and ethereal
  And Perdita Simmons.

As we’re pounding the ground in a last hokey-cokey, dawn
Fingers to constables, hauling of chokey-borne
Mainwaring, pissed as a rat on the croquet lawn.
  Sweet Perdita Simmons.

Half-asleep, climbing from Headington Hill, at the crest of it
Sickle moon, scatter of stars and the rest of it,
In my hand one small hand (and this is the best of it)
  Of Perdita Simmons.

Perdita murmurs, You’ll do for a poet.
And kisses me carefully twice, just to show it.
Nobody knows what love is. But I know it.
  It’s Perdita Simmons.

– John Whitworth

Pretty Perdita thwomps menacing Mainwaring with an egg, dances until dawn, then gets whisked away by a poet-narrator who decorates his tale with triple rhymes and a meter that is very much like a wave of the sea. The three characters may have their own love triangle, but my favorite ménage à trois is the trifecta of auspices, Horsepiss is and coarse pieces from a poem stuffed with inventive rhymes.

the Heavy Dragoon’s Song

July 6, 2012 § Leave a comment

If you want a receipt for that popular mystery,
  Known to the world as a Heavy Dragoon,
Take all the remarkable people in history,
  Rattle them off to a popular tune.

The pluck of Lord Nelson on board of the Victory
  Genius of Bismarck devising a plan —
The humour of Fielding (which sounds contradictory) —
  Coolness of Paget about to trepan —
The science of Jullien, the eminent musico —
  Wit of Macaulay, who wrote of Queen Anne —
The pathos of Paddy, as rendered by Boucicault —
  Style of the Bishop of Sodor and Man —
The dash of a D’Orsay, divested of quackery —
Narrative powers of Dickens and Thackery —
Victor Emmanuel — peak-haunting Peveril —
Thomas Aquinas, and Doctor Sacheverell —
  Tupper and Tennyson — Daniel Defoe —
  Anthony Trollope and Mister Guizot!

Take all of these elements all that is fusible
  Melt them all down in a pipkin or crucible
Set them to simmer, and take off the scum,
  And a Heavy Dragoon is the residuum!

If you want a receipt for this soldier-like paragon,
  Get at the wealth of the Czar (if you can) —
The family pride of a Spaniard from Aragon —
  Force of Mephisto pronouncing a ban —
A smack of Lord Waterford, reckless and rollicky —
  Swagger of Roderick, heading his clan —
The keen penetration of Paddington Pollaky —
  Grace of an Odalisque on a divan —
The genius strategic of Caesar or Hannibal —
Skill of Sir Garnet in thrashing a cannibal —
Flavour of Hamlet — the Stranger, a touch of him —
Little of Manfred (but not very much of him) —
  Beadle of Burlington — Richardson’s show —
  Mister Micawber and Madame Tussaud!

Take all of these elements all that is fusible
  Melt them all down in a pipkin or crucible
Set them to simmer, and take off the scum,
  And a Heavy Dragoon is the residuum!

– W. S. Gilbert

Essentially a list of mostly obscure historical figures, “the Heavy Dragoon’s Song” can be found in Patience, one of the less popular Gilbert and Sullivan operas. Even without Sullivan’s music, Gilbert’s patter song sings and skips and scatters names along the page; it almost works better without musical accompaniment because the lines already have an obvious meter and the reader can stop and swish the sounds around in the mouth (“The dash of a D’Orsay, divested of quackery” has a light almond taste that deserves to be savored). Gilbert was the master of the triple rhyme, an art that is, alas, dying.

“If you are squeamish”

July 1, 2012 § Leave a comment

If you are squeamish

Don’t prod the
beach rubble

– Sappho
translated by Mary Barnard

I went to the beach today and utilized this advice to the utmost degree.

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