My First Double Dactyls

In the past, I have posted about double dactyls here and here.

In 1966, or 1967, When Hecht and Hollander published their book of Double Dactyls, Esquire magazine held a competition where readers could submit their own double dactyls.   I wrote the three that follow, but I didn’t have the courage to submit them.

Jiggery-Pokery!
Wilt-the-Stilt Chamberlain
In real life is really
About five foot two.
He dunks ’em because of his
Superplasticity,
So eat all your spinach,
It could happen to you.

Higgledy-Piggledy!
Romeo Montague
Parting with Juliet
Did, in a word,
Call it “sweet sorrow” so
Oximoronicly,
Thunderous silence was
All that was heard.

Higgledy-Piggledy!
Andrès Segovia
Told a young student
To pick out a tune.
After a bar, he cried:
“Misericordia!
“And Madre de Dios!”,
I should play the bassoon!”

 

NOTES:

Wilt Chanberlain (known as “Wilt the Stilt”) was the greatest basketball player of that (and probably any) era.
Andrès Segovia was a famous Spanish classical guitarist.
Superplasticity means extraordinary ability to stretch.
Misericordia is the Latin for Mercy.

 

 

 

More on the Influence of Form

Not long ago, I posted about the influence that poetic form has on the effect of a poem.   At that time I said that I intended to do further experiments with translation of a poem from one form to another.   Here is my next attempt.

The starting point is a light verse I posted almost at the beginning of this blog.    The original is a Shakespearean sonnet, which may be thought of as a sequence of seven couplets.   The first translation is a series of seven cinquains; the second is a series of seven haikus.  I will provide a  brief analysis at the end.

Consider, friend, the paradox of life:
It’s all you have, and all you’re sure to lose.
All that you do – grow up, pick out a wife,
Owes more to Chance than I, for one would choose.
Fear not! The answer is Philosophy.
And if, at that, your heart fills with gladness,
Remember that all thought is Sophistry,
And thought is the certain way to madness.
These days, with all there is that’s puzzling,
I think as little as I can.
I work with my hands! That’s the only thing
That fits with God’s simple, earnest plan.
I work hard, and for relaxation, I
Try to pass camels through a needle’s eye.

(The last couplet is an irreverent reference to Matthew 19:24)

Translation into Cinquains:

My friend,
Consider the
Paradox of life; it’s
All you have and all you surely
Will lose.

All that
You do – grow up,
Meet someone and marry,
Owes more to Chance than I, for one
Would choose.

Fear not!
The answer is
Philosophy, and if,
At that, your heart fills with gladness,
Beware.

All thought
Is Sophistry.
So stop thinking so much,
For thought is the certain way to
Madness.

These days,
With all there is
That’s puzzling, I try
To think as little as I can,
Or less.

I work
With my hands, the
Only thing that fits God’s
Simple, earnest plan for we puny
Mortals.

I work
Hard, and when I
Relax, I try to pass
Camels through upright needles by
The eye.

 

Haiku translation:

Consider, friend the
Paradox of Life – all you
Have and all you’ll lose.

All that you do in
This life owes more to Chance than
I, for one would choose.

Fear not, the answer
Is Philosophy, which may
Fill you with gladness.

But remember, all
Thought is sophistry, and thought
May lead to madness.

These days, with all of
Life’s puzzles, I try to think
So very little.

I work with my hands
That’s the only thing that fits
With God’s simple plan.

And for relaxation, I try
To pass camels through the eyes
Of my needles.

 

All three versions say essentially the same thing, but the effect each has is different.   To help understand this, a little background on the various forms will help:

The Shakespearean sonnet has 14 ten-syllable lines (occasionally a syllable may be dropped for effect ) which rhyme according to the pattern :abab cdcd efef gg

Each five line cinquain has the following (unvarying) syllabic pattern:

2 syllables
4 syllables
6 syllables
8 syllables
2 syllables

Each three line haiku has the following (unvarying) syllabic pattern:

5 syllables
7 syllables
5 syllables

In summary then, each couplet of the sonnet has (usually) 20 syllables; each cinquain has 22 syllables and each haiku has 17 syllables.   I believe the difference in the number of syllables is the primary cause of the difference in effect.   The original sonnet is full of intellectual wordplay and has in the end a slightly off-putting comic effect ( off-putting because you ave to work too hard).  Some of the individual cinquains do a better job than the original couplet, of delivering meaning; others have a prosaic quality, because of the extra syllables.  Overall, the cinquain version is noticeably less cohesive.  The haiku version, on the other hand, feels more cohesive, but its oracular quality  (due in part to fewer syllables) dampens the humor.

 

 

 

 

 

My Introduction to Politics – Part One

I don’t remember not being able to read.   I do have a clear memory ( I was two or three) of being lifted up and placed in the center of a big bed — covered in one of those old-fashioned bedspreads with raised embroidery.   My father surrounded me with what seemed like a sea of comic books and told me to learn to read them.

And learn I did. I’m not sure how I did it — I have no memory of anyone sounding out letters for me.  I could tell you that I seem to remember words being spelled out for me, but I can’t be sure it isn’t an invented memory, created as I try to puzzle out this question…in any event , it doesn’t have the same clarity in my mind as the being placed on the bed memory.   My best guess is that, with help from my parents, I matched the pictures to the words.

Flash forward a few years.  It’s 1950, and I’m in New Orleans on a  trolley with my father.  he’s taking me to a drugstore near the Tulane University campus, where he’s a graduate student in mathematics.  I’ve received a few dollars for my sixth birthday, and I’m to be allowed to spend it on comic books — Donald Duck and Little Lulu are my favorites.  We get off the trolley after a short ride, and I’m left by myself for a while to look through the comic books — I call them “funny books”, like everyone else in that part of the world at the time.   My eye is caught by something anomalous sitting in the nearby magazine racks, along with Time and Life, and The Saturday Evening Post.

It’s a strange little book, shaped like one of today’s paperbacks, entitled “POGO” with a drawing of a winsome possum on the cover.  When I opened it up, it was filled with comic strips organized into stories that seemed to have more of a point than I was used to in the Sunday comics, home to Prince Valiant (boring) and Li’l Abner (often funny, but also often boorish – not that i knew what boorish meant in those days).  Howland Owl, Albert the Alligator and Pogo the Possum seemed much more, well , human, than Scrooge Mc Duck.    Then there was Wile E. Coyote.  Even at the age of six, I could tell that there was something wrong with the way he wanted to run the swamp.  It would be a few years before i realized that he looked just like  Senator Joe McCarthy…

(To be continued)

Is Your Mother Home?

In 1952, my family moved to the upper floor of a house at 1412 North St in Beaumont, Texas. As was common in Gulf Coast homes of the period, the house had ceiling fans in every room (except the bathroom), and a screened-in sleeping porch at the front. My four-year-old sister and I were given beds at either end of porch, and our parents had a bedroom at the back. It wasn’t much, but it was all a Professor of Mathematics with a family could afford in those days.  Almost every night, after my sister was asleep, and I was tucked in for the night, my mother used to come, and sit on my bed, and sing to me.

Her singing set off a complicated set of reactions in me. I liked the attention, but even as a child I could tell there was something wrong. Part of it was that she couldn’t carry a tune, but there was something else, an odd sensation that she was not really in the same room as me.It was many years before I realized that she was drunk.

My mother was many things: a talented actress who could command an audience even in minor roles, a splendid card player who was also the best chess player in our family, and a hopeless alcoholic who gave herself over completely to the bottle as she entered middle age. The following poem is about this last aspect of her character, but my memories of her better side linger as well.

 

“Is your Mother home?”−
I want to please -− always, always.
So I agree to look.

My Mother’s bedroom door is open wide;
From the hallway,
I see her asleep upon her bed,
Her hair and clothes in disarray.

I step inside and glance around –
An ashtray with a butt still smoldering,
Empty wine bottles lined up neatly on the bedside table,
An alarm clock ticking mercilessly.

I sigh, and breathe the smoke-stale air.
Outside, a branch scrapes against her window.
I find it comforting.

For a while, I listen to her gentle snores.
Then I return to my Mother’s bridge class−
Four bewildered women
Standing by the oil stains in the carport.

“She’s not feeling well,” I tell them with a grunt,
And close the door firmly, to their dismay.

I am only fourteen;
They will forgive me.

Going Deeper

It has been a while since I’ve published a poem on this blog, and there is a reason.   I’ve been preparing myself to write about more serious personal issues.

About a year ago, I had a profound, life-changing experience. I went on a two-day retreat in which I did nothing but eat, sleep, and read and reflect on my friend Cathy Wild’s forthcoming book − Wild Ideas: Creativity from the Inside Out

For years, I had been aware of a significant weakness in all my creative endeavors: an inability to face directly the frightening memories that shaped my childhood and young adulthood. As a result, almost everything serious that I wrote – especially my one novel and most of my short stories − seemed incomplete, as though I always chose to leave the wrong things out.

As I read Cathy’s book of wise guidance and personal insight, I experienced something I had never experienced before – a conversion, a blossoming of faith. I finally accepted that my deepest secrets, secrets I used to hide, were a source of creative power. And in accepting that, I accepted myself.

In the near future, I will post a poem I’ve written about one of those deep secrets – my mother’s alcoholism.   More work about that and other secrets will follow.

 

The Influence of Form

I have written about my approach to translation from one language to another here.  Recently, it occurred to me that recasting a poem from one form to another in the same language is also a form of  translation. Let me illustrate.

In April of this year, I posted my translation of the introduction to Baudelaire’s Flowers of Evil.  The fourth stanza reads as follows:

The Devil holds our puppet strings,
He leads us through the murk and mire
Nearer to Eternal Fire
And makes us like disgusting things.

This simple verse  is shaped by my stated goal, which was to preserve the sense and the rhyme scheme of the original French.   But suppose we decide to express the same concept in another form , say, a cinquain.  Then we get this:

The Devil’s
Fingers pull our
Strings; he make us like the
Vilest things; he carries us down
To Hell.

By eliminating the requirement to preserve the rhyme scheme and changing the form of the poem, we have lost some detail, but we have gained a more natural progression of ideas.

At some point in the future, I intend to do further experiments with this kind of translation.