the Mad Gardener’s Song

April 25, 2013 § 1 Comment

He thought he saw an Elephant,
That practised on a fife:
He looked again, and found it was
A letter from his wife.
‘At length I realise,’ he said,
‘The bitterness of Life!’

He thought he saw a Buffalo
Upon the chimney-piece:
He looked again, and found it was
His Sister’s Husband’s Niece.
‘Unless you leave this house,’ he said,
‘I’ll send for the Police!’

He thought he saw a Rattlesnake
That questioned him in Greek:
He looked again, and found it was
The Middle of Next Week.
‘The only thing I regret,’ he said,
‘Is that it cannot speak!’

He thought he saw a Banker’s Clerk
Descending from the bus:
He looked again, and found it was
A Hippopotamus:
‘If this should stay to dine,’ he said,
‘There won’t be much for us!’

He thought he saw a Kangaroo
That worked a coffee-mill:
He looked again, and found it was
A Vegetable-Pill.
‘Were I to swallow this,’ he said,
‘I should be very ill!’

He thought he saw a Coach-and-Four
That stood beside his bed:
He looked again, and found it was
A Bear without a Head.
‘Poor thing,’ he said, ‘poor silly thing!
It’s waiting to be fed!’

He thought he saw an Albatross
That fluttered round the lamp:
He looked again, and found it was
A Penny-Postage-Stamp.
‘You’d best be getting home,’ he said:
‘The nights are very damp!’

He thought he saw a Garden-Door
That opened with a key:
He looked again, and found it was
A Double Rule of Three:
‘And all its mystery,’ he said,
‘Is clear as day to me!’

He thought he saw an Argument
That proved he was the Pope:
He looked again, and found it was
A Bar of Mottled Soap.
‘A fact so dread,’ he faintly said,
‘Extinguishes all hope!’

Lewis Carroll

From Sylvie and Bruno, the last of Carroll’s major works. The poem, whose stanzas appear throughout the novel, suffice as structure to that dreamwork.


Fisches Nachtgesang

July 28, 2012 § Leave a comment

⋃ ⋃
− −
⋃ ⋃ ⋃ ⋃
− − −
⋃ ⋃ ⋃ ⋃
− − −
⋃ ⋃ ⋃ ⋃
− − −
⋃ ⋃ ⋃ ⋃
− −
⋃ ⋃

– 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 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?

the Mouse’s Tale

January 27, 2012 § Leave a comment

– Lewis Carroll

Happy birthday, Reverend Dodgson! Barring George Herbert’s “Easter Wings“, this is probably the earliest example of concrete poetry in English. It is rather amazing how many of the 20th century’s art and literary movements Carroll either influenced or foresaw — dada, surrealism, futurism, pop art, postmodernism, absurdism. The term “concrete” wasn’t coined until the 1950s, when the de Campos brothers of Brazil wrote its manifesto and pioneered the form.

Martin Gardner, in his Annotated Alice, suggests that Carroll’s idea for the poem may have come from Tennyson:

Tennyson once told Carroll that he had dreamed a lengthy poem about fairies, which began with very long lines, then the lines got shorter and shorter until the poem ended with fifty or sixty lines of two syllables each.

Tennyson forgot the poem when he awoke, which is a shame, because I’d love to read it.

Below is an early version of “the Mouse’s Tale” written out by Carroll, a tail that doesn’t end in death.

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