Eye openings, applied aesthetics, and the unhappiness of poets

(This idol – a Calcutta Durga — has not had its eyes opened)


The Manichean book‘s third part — and longest (200 pages) — with the baroque title perhaps best rendered as (bear with me while I am having fun):

A small anthology of poetic mind-twisters;
consisting of
40 problems in the form of poems to be translated
along with commentary showing why the task is impossible
40 solutions of the same problems
in the shape of translations made nevertheless

is perhaps the book’s most useful; and mostly (with the exception of the poems and their translations themselves), generally translatable.  It consist of 40 chapters, each of which consists of three parts:  1) the original poem (in Spanish, German, English, Russian or Lithuanian), 2) a discussion of the difficulty it presents, and 3) its Polish translation.  The discussion is the useful part because it explains Baranczak’s take on the elements of the original poem which make it great.

An unpoetic know-nothing, I find the exercise fascinating:  I read the original, at which point it seems to me anything from O.K. to (ahem) waste of time; then read the discussion, nearly always with a sense of “aha”; and then reread the poem with the discussion in mind.  In general, guided by the comments, I do notice the goodness of the poem on the second rereading.  (For one thing I seem to know how to read it — I mean, where to lay stress, rests, etc.)

It is for me, a kind of Prana Pratishta.


This is a kind of applied aesthetics.

There should really be such a term as applied aesthetics, I imagine:  it would refer to the use of language to describe the good-making (or bad-making, as the case may be) characteristics of a work.  The difficulty of applied aesthetics would appear to be two-fold:  first, the difficulty of knowing what we like (the sound of a musical performance, say, as opposed to the pianists’ body-language, or hair-do, or politics — as explained by Rosen, see this post) — which is a kind of refined power of introspection; and, second, the difficulty of being able to name what we like in precise terms.

This has been lacking in the Avdeeva controversy (see this post):  while several of her critics have been able to name very precisely what they found displeasing about her performance (such as lack of chord differentiation in her performance of x; her pedaling of a specific place of y; her unrestrained use of fortissimo in z; etc.), no supporter of her has yet been able to name a single specific thing s/he liked; thus leaving me with the suspicion that perhaps the theory of educated taste is OK and the debate is really between the more educated taste (that of the articulate) and the less educated taste (of the inarticulate).  (The more articulate invariably seem to be more right).

Now, while I am in principle prepared to believe that we and Avdeeva’s fans are equally educated in the appreciation of Chopin performance and the radical difference between our perceptions of the quality of her work is one of genetic mutation of brains – divergence of DNA, a kind of proto-speciation; which would seem to make our views equivalent and further debate pointless (who’s to say our pleasure is better than theirs?); the lack of specificity in Avdeeva’s defense does make me wonder if their opinions are as valid as ours.  After all, if you cannot say specifically what it is that you like about the performance, I suppose I am free to imagine that you like the outfit?  (Which, incidentally, I did, too, no matter her piano playing).

Of course, the problem is complicated by the fact that most musicians are inarticulate.  How much less can one expect of music fans!


One interesting thing about the experience of reading the 40 Problems is that, even though Baranczak’s presentations do make me realize what is special about poems like Hopkins’ As kingfishers draw fires, dragonflies draw flame (here) or Blake’s Tyger, Tyger or Benn’s Meinen Sie Zurich zum Beispiel; and thus make me appreciate their technical accomplishment, often with a sense of great admiration and pleasure; I am not turned into a poetry reader by it.  I can now see the art of Hopkins, but I still do not see the value of the point he is making.  I mean, come on, “that each thing is what it is and not some other thing”?  This is Dunce Scotus, for Chrissake, isn’t it?  Why is this worth saying, no matter how beautifully?

In the course of the last 15 years I have vastly expanded my appreciation of many arts, often through reference to applied aesthetics (i.e. having someone explain to me why they liked what they liked).  Often I have thereby learned to enjoy arts which had failed to interest me before.  (One of the biggest surprises being film to which for most of my adult life I have devoted no time at all, but which, over the last two years has become and important part of it).  This has raised the frequency with which I experience happiness and therefore greatly improved the quality of my life.

But some arts, I suspect, shall have to remain outside of my range of interests and poetry appears to be one of them.  As I explained to Kate recently, language seems to me an epistemological tool — by which I mean a tool for the discovery of facts; and given that facts are often extremely complicated, the language used to elucidate them must be precise and, for this reason, the simplest possible.  One mucks with its simplicity at his own peril. The proof of this lies in the fact that by and large poets seem chronically unhappy.  This is to be expected, because happiness comes from good cerebration (see this post) and undue pre-occupation with the musical aspects of language at the expense of its semantic content interferes with good cerebration.  Look at the semantic content of poetry:  poets, appear by and large, to be — ahem – tenors.  I mean, seriously, except that they say it beautifully, what reason is there to listen to any poet speak?

For this reason, poetry is perhaps best appreciated in languages which we do not understand:  in such cases, we can appreciate the musical aspects of poetry without falling into the temptation of trying to understand the poet’s argument.

Regarding Das Lied von der Erde


(Special Christmas Issue)


Of all of the world’s musical repertoire, the one work that feels most intimate to me is — very oddly, I admit — Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde.  In part it is on account of the circumstances of my discovery of it, which took place in exile, in America:  I felt deeply unhappy there and the work’s minor key suited the mood.  More:  in the alien setting of the New World, Mahler’s music seemed to me a breath of the old, familiar ways of Mittel Europa:  an unapologetic assertion of high brow culture (elitist, arbitrary) and of the fundamental tragedy of life (depressing).  To assert both simultaneously in the setting of an American liberal art’s college with a victorious football team seemed the very perfection of defiance.

The tragic — perhaps even hysterical — mood of the song cycle also had a therapeutic effect: in it, Chinese poets spoke about their sadness, despair and longing in ways which were both familiar and safe:  familiar because I could recognize their feelings; safe because, after all, they were Chinese, on the other side of the planet, ten centuries ago: like a white man listening to Alabama Blues, I was cheered to know that others had had it much worse.

Perhaps, Das Lied von der Erde also played a role in the shaping of my future:  a fin-de-siecle Viennese work became my introduction to the literature of Tang Dynasty China.  Surely, Mahler’s song cycle has played some role in eventually turning one half of me into a sinologist.

Das Lied has remained with me since.  I listen to it irregularly, in spurts: in good times never, but in bad times — a great deal.  It has been with me through most crises of my adult life and through this association it has become encrusted with memories and meanings, acquiring a depth which it perhaps lacks for other ears.

Small wonder then that this website delights me.  It sets out to trace just how the original Chinese (Tang) poetry became, through a succession of French and German translations — or rather, shall we say, manipulations — the libretto which we know today.

Chew’s paper (linked to from the site, read it here) adds an interesting discussion of this process of translation/transformation.  Though his characterization of Chinese as syntactically loose is typical of the Edenic innocence of native speakers — (not having had to learn the rules of their own language, they imagine such rules do not exist) — everything he says about classical Chinese poetry as deliberately setting out to blow up syntax — in order to introduce greater ambiguity — is correct.  The 20th century turn in western poetry towards the inscrutable — including silly things like refusal to punctuate or capitalize (as Chinese does not) — is an attempt to move in the same direction: to multiply possible interpretations of the text by intentionally confusing meanings. Empson and Reckert* seem to argue as much.  No one has as yet suggested, though, surely, someone should have, that the movement is an imitation of the Tang.

On the other hand, the fact that the European translators of Tang poetry have chosen to infuse it with a burning hysteria which it does not have — the prevalent mood of the Chinese is one of meditative sadness; or to add — Hollywood-like — love interests where there weren’t any (in the Chinese original of Von der Schoenheit, for instance, there is no girl-boy thing, only the very aesthetic pretense of girls’ sadness at their flowers having been trampled by galloping horses) isn’t necessarily an East-West thing, as Chew suggests (i.e. of being untrained in the Buddhist world-view):  it’s just the matter of insufficiently sensitive esoteric antennae of the individuals involved.  Or, perhaps, should we say, of their emotional immaturity?  Adult Europeans can and do — from time to time — reflect on the fleeting emptiness of life.  We, too, can be saddened by trampled flowers.

Recently, a series of unfortunate events has made me revisit Das Lied.  This time I chose to do it differently — and train the full power of file-sharing on the question of interpretation:  I compared different performances — most of which have been unattainable prior to internet.  Some seventy hours of of house-shaking playback later, my chief finding is that Das Lied is easy to blow — and even the great ones, by and large, blow it, Fischer-Dieskau, included.  (Unbelievable!)  I suppose that the intense hysteria of the work creates a powerful temptation to slip into mannerism, to “pull out all stops” (“to charge”, as Polish actors say, meaning, of course, cavalry charge):  which misses the mark and turns the whole thing into a caricature.  Emotional intensity is hard to do well:  good actors know that in acting, the hardest scenes to do are those that involve shouting:  one has to learn how to shout, as it were, quietly.  As a result, my very first recording of Das Lied, (Klemperer, Wunderlich, Ludwig) remains the unapproachable paragon (even if one wishes Ludwig’s voice-coach had insisted on good diction more).

Perhaps this recording constitutes an argument in favor of Apostolic Succession? (Klemperer was Mahler’s student; he conducted Das Lied‘s world premiere, which was, from Mahler’s point of view, posthumous, making Old Otto a kind of Saint Peter).

As is the case with every return to a great classic, my attention this time was drawn to a new, formerly unnoticed aspect of the work. This time the lyrics of the first song, Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde, seemed to jump out at me:

Ein voller Becher Weins zur rechten Zeit
Ist mehr wert, als alle Reiche dieser Erde!

Dunkel is das Leben, ist der Tod!

Das Firmament blaut ewig und die Erde
Wird lange fest stehen und aufblühn im Lenz.
Du aber, Mensch, wie lang lebst denn du?
Nicht hundert Jahre darfst du dich ergötzen!

(See full text and translation here).

While listening, I caught myself doing the math, surreptitiously:  I am indeed not likely to ergötzen myself a hundred years; but even 75 — let us say — leaves a vast stretch of time yet ahead of me: indeed, as long again as I have lived since reaching adulthood.  Plenty of time, then, right?  Further, during the first half of my adulthood (if I am to look at it that way) I have achieved a good deal; perhaps it’s OK to hope that as much yet may await me in the future?  And, while the main achievement of the first half of my adult life was to establish myself economically — earlier and better than most, perhaps — but at the inevitable expense of a lot of deferred satisfaction; the point of this deferral was, of course, that once I arrived at a certain level of comfort, I could stop deferring and — as they say in Detroit — put the pedal to the metal.  And, in a way, this has worked:  here I am on the cusp of the second half of my adult life, ready to party, and with the means to do so.

The future towards which I have been saving, then, is here.

Yet, how miserable the future turns out now that it has arrived!  I can barely walk, so the longed-for and long-deferred mountain expeditions will not in all likelihood be possible; desired women tell me that despite my age I am still attractive and that therefore other women (get it?) will surely fall for me; a bronchial condition means I have had to quit the evil weed; and a fatty liver — wine only sporadically and in moderation.  (Hence the significance of the Trinklied excerpt above:  sporadically does indeed place a serious limitation on one’s ability to enjoy a full beaker of wine at the right time!).  I now realize with consternation that of all the pleasures of my insufficiently sinful youth, I am left with the one I have always liked least — playing the markets!

Is this why I deferred satisfaction for all these years — only to discover that, when I am ready to have it, it is too late?  That I have missed the chance?

I have once written an essay on the third age of woman — the, let us say, 40-55:  the no-longer-nursing-mother but not yet crone.  In the essay, I deplored the absence of cultural role-models for that un-recognized (and longish) age in which women find themselves trapped directionless: an age in which the old models — the pleasures and methods of their youth — no longer work; and yet an age at which they are not yet dead, not yet ready — not yet resigned — to be no more than kindly and ineffectual grandmothers.  An age like mine today: in which the decline in appetites has not yet matched the decline in abilities. I wrote that essay with deep sense of pity, from the perspective of a somewhat younger age, when I still walked, and drank, and smoked, and when desired women were not necessarily different from the available ones .  I had no idea then how quickly — barely half a decade! — my own third age would come. I guessed it would, but I figured I had time to figure out how to deal with it by the time it did.

But here it is and — like all those women whose fate I once becried — I find myself unready.

Now, surely you must agree, Dunkel ist das Leben!


*(Serendipitously, Reckert’s languages are almost all mine).

Some taxonomy of poetry

More on poetry from our Manichean friend, Baranczak.  This is about 20th century Russian poetry, but, it seems to me, has makings of a universal taxonomy of poetry:

As a foreigner, and a non-academic, I am a mere dilettante in the matter of Russian poetry and therefore what I am about to say will be taken as either a fantastic over-simplification; or perhaps a mere truism; yet, I am unable to stop myself from expressing my view on Brodsky’s position within his native tradition, however simplistic or unoriginal.  It appears to me that Russian 20th century poetry, and more precisely, Russian poetry since the decline of  symbolism, has been developing along two trajectories, each operating, as it were, within its own type of diction:  there is the song-lyrical diction (the line of Yesenin); and the declamatory-rhetorical (Maiakovsky).  Each has its own style, its own “performance situation” (chamber/intimate in the former case, stage/street manifestation in the latter); it’s own, so to speak, social functionality.  But Brodsky is equally distant from either one of these styles.  If he has any native precursors in his style of poetry, they would perhaps be — only in part — Mandelstam or Zabolotsky, but in my opinion he was the first to break definitively with both the dominant Russian styles and create his own:  discursive/intellectual.  In poems which seem to me to be most characteristic of him, his aim appears to be not so much to create some kind of lyrical-musical mood, or some sort of rhetorical-agitational effect, but to create a poetic expression which will be perceived mainly as a succession of colliding concepts and ideas.  (Which is perhaps why his poetry seems to lose none of its appeal in silent reading, while that of “singers” and “agitators” does not come into its full except in outloud declamation).  In this sense, the particular classicism of Brodsky owes more to 17th century English metaphysical poetry than it does to his native predecessors.

In which he reveals that he is a Manichean

There is no justification for the creation of a bad poem: it is always better for such a poem not to exist than for it to exist. Bad literature isn’t merely, as a Thomist might say, an absence of good literature; rather, it is, as a Manichean might say, an active presence of aesthetic Evil.

Stanislaw Baranczak, Ocalone w Tlumaczeniu (Rescued in Translation).