Over at In The Middle, Eileen Joy wrote about writing history on the Middle Ages and using Joan Retallack's essay "The Poethical Wager" as a way of thinking about ways of thinking. I probably should have linked to this when I first read it. But it's nice to know that I am not the only person who has considered the one in the context of the other!

Ad Infinitum offers up a little gem in one of its footnotes. It's by Hugh Primas of Orleans, a twelfth century writer. He summarizes the Bible in two hexameters:

Quos anguis tristi virus mulcedine pavit
hos sanguis Christi mirus dulcedine lavit.
"Those whom the serpent's venom filled with its dire magic, these Christ's astonishing blood washed in sweetness." More or less. Notice how each word in the first line is paired with a word in the second line. Obsessive rhyme was big in the Middle Ages, but this is the first time I've seen it pushed this far. And it's still in hexameter.

Anyone want to take a stab at pulling off something similar in English?

Curtis Faville wrote a long response to a post I made a while back where I disagreed with him about the relative values of poetry as it occurs on the page vs. poetry as it occurs in a reading (or as it occurs in other situations, I suppose). It's what I'm tracking with the spoken vs read tag.

Ultimately, I suspect Curtis and I are going to have to agree to disagree. Curtis finds it disturbing "the idea that great, or good, poetry must be suitable for the audible voice", and I do too. But I also find disturbing the idea that great, or good, poetry must be suitable for the page; I find disturbing the idea that it must be suitable for contexts (of time, space, culture, audience, whatever) other than the one it is presented (or, even, appreciated) in. I find disturbing the idea that poetry has "inherent merit", although I like the slant rhyme of the phrase. I find disturbing the idea that poetry needs to be boiled down to an essential mode of production, that anything other than "one person producing a text" should be brushed away, should not "amount to very much in the last analysis"; I find disturbing the idea that there should be a last analysis, that this analysis, the analysis that a reader is engaging in on this interaction with some poetry, is somehow always already deficient, not matching up to a teleologically driven last analysis. And Curtis doesn't seem disturbed by any of this.

I also find disturbing throwing around a phrase like "the greatest writers of the 20th Century", which seems riddled with many problematic assumptions as to what greatness is, how it should be universal, how it should be lasting (and point towards that last eschaton of analysis?), and how its effects must be documentable, and...well, anyway, that's a different issue, perhaps for another day.

It says it on the sidebar, and I'm probably going to drop you an e-mail about it soon enough, and you're probably on the Spare Room mailing list, but I'm going to tell you again, here:

I'm reading for Spare Room one last time before moving to Toronto, and I would like you to be at this reading. Also, attendance is mandatory. (Which, in less fascist terms, means that if you are a Portland-area poet with some affiliation to Spare Room, whether loose or tight, please let me know as soon as possible if you won't be there, because I'm writing the poetry for the reading as if you will be there, and by not being there, you will break my reading.)

Details: Saturday [SATURDAY] June 21, 7:30pm, Concordia Coffee House (on Alberta), $5 suggested donation. Reading with Sarah Mangold, which makes me think I shouldn't have to stress the mandatory nature of attending.

Lisa Radon read tonight (accompanied on percussion by Tim DuRoche). She's been writing through manifestos, using various art (& dance, &c.) manifestos as source materials to pull pieces from.

As she read, I realized that manifestos use the word "no" far more often than most genres of writing do, which Lisa later confirmed. And I began to wonder if you could do some sort of measurement, figuring out the frequency range of the word "no" in manifestos compared with other genres of writing. Then you could see whether this frequency range could diagnose a manifesto. Or, you could just call any piece of writing in which the word "no" appears that frequently a manifesto. (Perhaps a law code would have the word "no" even more often, on the far side of the manifesto range, but maybe not! Someone should crunch those numbers. If I were going into grad school for English, that's the sort of project I would want to work on.)

. . .

Joseph Noble also read tonight. He's been writing poems riffing off various aspects of Orson Welles. One thing that interested in him about Welles is that so many of his works were taken away from him and finished by others. The Magnificent Ambersons, for instance, notoriously was reedited, with forty-odd minutes of material cut and an entirely new ending shot. And this calls into question the nature of authorship; film is a medium where many creators are needed to make one piece, but Welles's films end up pushing this idea even further.

After the reading I suggested to him that he have someone else finish up his poems -- without getting any authorship credit, perhaps nothing more than a special thanks. He would give up the final say as to the shape and content of his poems, which would be published under his name. Maybe his publisher could decide who would do the final edit. Poetry perhaps suffers from the opposite problem that film does -- it usually comes off as being entirely the work of one author, as being totally auteurist. I don't know if he will use my idea or not, but if he does, I hope he doesn't credit me (and I hope it takes a good long while before people connect it with this blog post).

I'm reading Ad Infinitum, a biography of Latin (in a history sense, more than a linguistic sense), and it includes a bit of an eleventh century erotic "Cambridge song" (the full poem is available in Latin here). The following lines struck me:

Quid iuvat differre, electa,
que sunt tamen post facienda!
"What good is it to put off, O my chosen one, what will have to be done later!" That's more or less a typical gloss. But that "que" threw me for a second -- that's a relative pronoun ("quae" in Classical Latin), and because of its placement it first seems to refer to the "electa", the chosen one, but it turns out it's referring to the things that need to be done.

Latin has a quirk where singular feminine nouns and adjectives can sometimes look like plural neuters. This (to oversimplify things) is why Romance languages only have masculine and feminine nouns, even though Latin also had neuter ones -- the neuter nouns were either eventually read as masculine (a typical neuter -um ending is not too far from a typical masculine -us ending, especially once you start leaving off that last syllable) or, if they were usually plural, then they were read as feminine (a typical neuter plural -a ending looks very much like a typical feminine ending -a!). And, as I mentioned, the relative pronouns are the same. So this allows for some occasional ambiguity.

The "que sunt ... facienda", "what must be done", can't be feminine singular, however, because "sunt" is plural. If it were "que est ... facienda", it would be "O my chosen one, who must be done". (I'm pretty sure that naughty sense of "doing" someone translates, but I don't own a copy of The Latin Sexual Vocabulary, alas. Not yet.) Still, that misreading echoed for me.

And it made me rethink "electa". Earlier in the poem the narrator refers to the woman he's wooing as "soror electa", "chosen sister", and so of course when "electa" recurs a few lines later, it first seems as thought it's being used the same way. And of course it's set off by commas, to indicate that speaker is addressing the person he's speaking to. You, dear Reader, understand how that works. Except I suspect there weren't commas in the original manuscript! They are usually added by later editors trying to make a more readable version. So, perhaps the "electa" is not the singular feminine chosen woman, but the neuter plural things that must be done, that it doesn't help to delay! Something like this:
Quid iuvat differre electa
que sunt tamen post facienda!
"What good is it to put off the things which have been chosen which will have to be done later!" There is some grammatical slippage here between the woman that the narrator has chosen and the deeds that they "have to" do together; has he chosen the woman, or the acts? There is no clear way to decide (although the contemporary use of commas forced the editor to decide, to disambiguate the text); it's not even clear that, ultimately, it matters to the narrator. She is being grammatically objectified.

This sort of play, which takes advantage of the multiple meanings available through use of certain grammatical features of a language, is something that occurs far less frequently than I'd expect in Latin poetry. It seems to happen more the further you get away from the "pinnacles" of poetry -- Vergil seems to avoid ambiguity on principle rather than embrace what it can express. And I'm not sure whether the ambiguity here is intentional or not (I haven't looked at the rest of the poem that closely, to see if the poet makes a habit of it). But I sure do get excited when I find an example of productive ambiguity!

Robert Rauschenberg = Genre bet: Car or brush?


Ѭ is a letter in Old Church Slavonic. In some fonts, it looks like a cat. Meow. It represents the sound that "ion" would make if you read "lion" as if it were French, which, in this case, it is.

. . .

That's all I have for today; I'm still getting over my sickness. I thought for a few moments that it might be fun to have a "Ask a cranky poet" type column, maybe something along the lines of The Ethicist, but who even has questions for cranky poet types? But I wouldn't think people would have questions for ethicists either.

Anyway, if anyone asks a question, I'll try to answer it. Otherwise I'll keep offering the occasional gleaning.

. . .

Ѭ. Meow.

I only claimed to offer a crib in my last post, not a translation. And yet...

In his translator's note to Jacques Derrida's Archive Fever (Mal d'archive), Eric Prenowitz makes a cheeky claim: Being the reader of a translation is like being a little Jewish baby boy receiving his circumcision.

Or at least, if the translation is from a language that you can't read. Because, as Derrida points out in the book (which, it turns out, is as much about Freud's Jewishness and his circumcision as it is about archives), the circumcision is contract entered into by someone who is not able to sign his name, who doesn't have the ability to evaluate what he's getting into. Likewise when you read a translation, "you read something you cannot read, in any case something you will not have read once you are done reading. Like an infant who can neither comprehend nor respond." (106) And yet there is something authoritative or authoritarian about the translator, foisting this upon you...

Actually, you know what? This analogy is pushy, strained, and flawed, and it places the translator in the role of G-d in an egregiously tacky way. We had a fun few seconds with it, but maybe let's pretend this never happened. (Even though, you who perhaps have read the book will notice, I am archiving that it did happen. Teehee!)

vir facie, mulier gestu, sed crure quod ambo,
jurgia naturae nullo discrimine solvens,
es lepus, et tanti conculcas colla leonis.
--Ennodius, c. 500
So, I cannot make sense of this poem. Or, I can make sense of it. It seems totally clear. I feel like I "understand" it. I think about it. I tell people about it, and have done so for the year or so that I've known about it. It stays with me, and makes appearances in my life at the nicest moments. It is a good friend. But I don't really have a context for it, and I don't know how or why it was written.

Also I can't translate it. I can crib it, and I can point out some of what is going on in the poetry, but I can't reforge it in English. Except I'm pretty happy with "You're a rabbit" for "es lepus". So, two words down. (Update: Although technically a lepus is a hare, not a rabbit. I was always told they were the same thing, and certainly Bugs Bunny cartoons agreed, but apparently not.)

Ennodius was a Gallo-Roman bishop around 500 and is mostly remembered for some theological writing and for leaving a bunch of letters that offer historians information on some of the political and religious issues of the time. And he wrote some poems, including some Martial-like epigrams, and I suppose this poem is one of them. I found it in Thomas Stehling's Medieval Poems of Male Love and Friendship, though you could argue that this poem maybe doesn't strictly fit that title. Stehling also published a translation, but it was really a crib.

(There's a nice comment on that Amazon page, by the way.)

Here's my stab at a crib:
A man in your appearance, a woman in your gestures, but in between your thighs, a bit of both, / resolving nature's quarrel by ignoring any distinction, / you're a rabbit, and you trample the throat of such a big lion.
One doesn't expect sixth century bishops to write epigrams praising the ability of hermaphrodites to destroy gender binaries and overpower nature itself! And I might be too stuck in my twenty-first century mind, but poem seems entirely positive about it! This is what I don't understand.

Anyway, I'm going to think about this for a few more years while I'm in grad school. I should go look up a few more of his epigrams. Or more references to rabbits vs. lions in late antiquity/early medieval times. Hey, let me get back to you.


Template based on one by GeckoandFly which was modified and converted to Blogger Beta by Blogcrowds.