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.

 

 

 

 

 

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.

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.

On The Satisfactions Of Verse

My late wife used to describe me as a combination of a poet and an engineer.   She was right.  Sometimes, for me, the sense of having created art is the primary motivation; and sometimes, the process of writing a poem has its own rewards; its own satisfactions; its own frustrations.

For example, I imagined the following little verse as a story poem — the protagonist visits his aged parents in order to convince them to move to some sort of care facility.   At the time I wrote the first version, some years ago, i created a rough draft, divided into stanzas  that told the basic story.   Then I added a new challenge — a complicated rhyme scheme.  I added the complication for two reasons, one good and one bad.  The good reason was that I felt that by making the rhyme scheme complicated I would disguise the fact that the rhymes existed — always my ideal when i was using rhymed verse to convey an idea, a message, or a strong emotion.  The bad reason was that, as often happens to me, the technical challenge got in the way of the story I was trying to tell, and I ended up with a satisfying rhyme scheme, but a muddied story.

The version that follows is the usual compromise; the story I was trying to tell is much clearer, but I had to give up some of my favorite lines., and the rhyme scheme is simpler and more obvious.

Tired and frail, the old house stood,
With termites eating at the wood.
I walked through the door.

Too well I remember my sense of despair
On seeing them still living there,
Bereft, bewildered, and ignored.
I had come to ask them to move out,
The proper thing to do, no doubt.
Did I want to succeed?

I sat, and listened to the past.
Agreed, that it had past too fast
— My obligatory deed.

Age resembles poverty —
A kind of blameless misery
Insufficiently deplored.

Because my aged parents couldn’t cope,
My talk of care homes gave them hope.
They walked through the door.

 

Plainsong v 2

Years ago, when I was at Rice, I had a roommate named Fred who was very musical — he played the piano and guitar  and had a powerful but sweet tenor voice.   One evening, he claimed to me that he could sing anything, absolutely anything.  I challenged him and offered a textbook øn differential equations.  He opened it, and immediately began to sing the text beautifully, turning phrases like: ” the partial of y with respect to the partial of x” into lovely sounds.

I thought of Fred when I wrote the following song/poem.  It is meant to be sung (or chanted) aloud.

PLAINSONG

Once, I sang,
And the people came,
And they smiled at me and said:
“Sing, sing some ore.”

No more song.
My voice has lost its music,
And now the people are
Deaf, deaf to me.

I cannot hum.
Life has a hum
I cannot hear, or understand.
Noise, noise to me

I need song.
I must find a way
To rejoin that harmony
Lost, lost to me.

Old. Grown old.
Oh tell me, God
Why life must needs be linear?
Bend, bend a little.

I’ll be a child!
A child can laugh, a child can cry
If I can cry, the I can
Sing, sing some more.

My Father’s Face

I wrote the first version of this poem around twenty years ago in San Antonio, Texas. My late wife, a city councilwoman at the tine, was attending a National League of Cities convention, and I had accompanied her.

My father and stepmother drove up for the day from their home in Kingsville, about 180 miles to the south.   I hadn’t seen him for the best part of a year, and I was shocked by the change. True, he had grown more and more sedentary since he retired, but, despite some heart trouble, he had always seemed vigorous and healthy. He was almost eighty now, and for the first time he looked his age. His gait was halting; he needed a cane; and he seemed to have lost his interest in life’s pleasures.

The poem is a sonnet, the form that I usually turned to in those days to document troubling emotions. I was trying to understand what was going on.   What I didn’t know until after he died a few years later was that his heart condition was much more serious than he had been letting on to the family. (My father was a master of denial).   What I didn’t suspect until I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, was that he may have shared the condition. The “sudden, pointless stops” described in the poem were one of my major symptoms before I received treatment.   It would have been just like my father to notice new symptoms in his body and never bother to tell his doctors.

 

MY FATHER’S FACE

My father’s face looks like a rumpled sock;
His feet are slippered; in his hand a cane.
His gait is slow, with sudden, pointless stops.
I cannot watch him without shock.
“I’ve chosen this,” I expect him to explain.
Instead, he finds the nearest chair, and plops.
And I think: “Is this my fate? To live by pill?”
“To sit and wait for passing time to kill?”

And yet, when he begins to think,
I see the brilliant person that I knew.
When ideas clash, he does not shrink
From combat; he takes the field anew.
And when he looks at death, he does not blink.
He faces it; considers it his due.