[continued from posting on 10/17/10]

Improvisational poetry seems to link together the ideas of a poetry of mind-in-its-freedom and a poetry of supplement. Just as the performer, there before you, reaches out in body, sight, and sound, so the experience and focus of poetry for the listener swerves from the semantic to the stylistic, to rhyming, to consonantal and assonantal engagements; the sounds in fact reach you before the sense. The poem itself encourages its melodic components to vie with its semantic ones. Language seems to come from a source other than that of its putative producer. “The act of reciting the poetry that flows immediately to the lips is peculiarly animating” says Mary Shelley in her 1826 work “The English in Italy”: “the declaimer warms, as he proceeds, with his own success, while the throng of words and ideas that present themselves, light up the eyes, and give an air of almost supernatural intelligence and fire to the countenance and person.” That poetry seems to actualize on the lips and in the eyes of the improvvisatore gives a sense of the erotic turn that poetry takes; lovers at first meet with the eye and the lip.

Thus we can say that improvisational poetry paradoxically carries speech away from its useful function as communication. “The Italian improvvisatori pour out, as a cataract does water, poetic imagery and language,” Mary Shelley continues. No image of the improvisation appears more often than that of the fountain or waterfall pouring out poetry and seems to indicate a destabilization of performer, audience, and language itself—in the words of Steve McCaffery about the libidinal in poetry, the “flows and spills and breaks in an unmediated outlay of blind power.” Paradoxically poetry, in this image, has lost its social dimension and reverted to Horace’s loquaces lymphae or “speaking waters” of the mother tongue, more about the sound and onrush of language than its inscripted outcome in words. Related to the place of language past meaning, improvisation as performance can be said to have a fundamentally gestural character. A gesture, says the critic Max Kommerell, as quoted by Giorgio Agamben, “is not exhausted in communication.” In gesture lies “the muteness inherent in humankind’s very capacity for language, its speechless dwelling in language.” Some language cannot be controlled—which may account for its appeal among progressive Romantic poets.

As the cataract falls, it sends up sprays that gleam in the sunlight and fall, fruitfully, to the embankment. These quick gleanings constitute the effect of the outpouring; no matter how tragic the theme (the loss of Eurydice, the death of Hector), the results—oblique and ephemeral—lodge in the observer as instantaneous registers of beauty. A poetry of improvisation embeds these destabilizations in the non-semantic elements of language: not only poetic sound elements—such as alliteration, consonance, and assonance—but repetitions and rhymes.

Susan Stewart helps one understand the importance of rhyme in poetry of improvisation (and helps explain the surprising usefulness of the intricate and lengthy ottava rima stanza) when she said (at the 2006 MLA) that rhyme “seems to come from somewhere else,” that it is “a vector of sound for its own sake that is always latent in every utterance,” and that rhyme can embrace (as it does in Don Juan) a polyphony of languages. To call inordinate attention to sound underscores Giorgio Agamben’s observation that “poetry lives. . .only in [the] inner disagreement [between sound and meaning].” Or, as Dennis Tedlock remarks, from the perspective of ethnopoetics: “If poetry is supposed to belong to the interior of language, as opposed to the exterior realm of referentiality, then there are multiple worlds in which being a verbal artist means pursuing a dual career in poetics and semantics. This does not mean bringing words and their objects into ever closer alignment, but rather playing on the differences.”

Characteristically in the poetry of Thomas Lovell Beddoes, sound and excess dominate, beginning with his first major publication The Improvisatore (1821):

‘Strike,’ quoth the Knight, ‘some simple tune,
‘And veil the words you chaunt aloud
‘Of love, or war, in music’s cloud,’
He said: with finer springing light
To joyous sounds, the songster wight
First tuned his lyre, then danced along
Amid the mazy path of song.

This mazy path of song, produced by an improvvisatore, suggests that meaning or clarity takes second place to sound, which in a sonnet “To Sound” (from the same volume) is called “syllabling,” an apparent reference to a privileging of the signifier. If meaning is considered “essential,” then sound is supplemental or excessive, or—as in another lyric from this group, “To a Bunch of Grapes Ripening in my Window”—a ripening that overflows past the boundary of the grape itself. Like the opening stanza of Keats’s “To Autumn,” the first two-thirds of this poem ripens as pure apostrophe—no sentence, just an “or”-grammar of similes that doesn’t want to end—a poetry of pure supplement imitating in poetry the “pregnant” cluster of grapes itself. The poem ends with a wish for an overflowing of oozings, fumes, and perfumes.

Poetic writing, in other words, not required to hew closely to referentiality, continually and vitally alludes to life beyond the border of the knowable referent—in the spirit of Denise Levertov: while you are reading about x, y is going on somewhere else, even if y is acknowledged only by a surplus of the non-semantic. Along with “sound,” “gesture,” as central to improvisational performance, belongs to poetry’s non-semantic instruments. According to Kommerel again (in an interesting counter-voice to Adorno’s idea that all language in lyric poetry is social) linguistic gesture is “the status of language that is not exhausted in communication and that captures language, so to speak, in its solitary moments.” Such lovely perceptions wake us up to the possibility that communication itself is ideologically overdetermined, that it assumes what good poetry in fact rejects—the idea that all can be known, the ideal of “good faith” communication, that the poem has no motive other than the cheerful transfer of its “message” from one point to that of its recipient. But rather than considering this a tragic or sadistically resistive position, one can welcome poetry’s expansiveness, its acknowledgement that all speech resides in larger contexts. Significantly, the improvvisatori often performed dramas from myth, history, and literature, eschewing the “human scale” of social discourse for these larger-than-life manifestations: Hektor, Pyramus and Thisbe, Orpheus—to name a few. Thus, the ephemeral nature of improvisation, traveling to the heart of poetry in general, turns out to be what is most authentic in poetry. Its presentness (no emotion recollected in tranquility) proposes an ephemerality imbued with electric intensity; for improvisation, to recall Emily Dickinson, is a “forever” “composed of nows,” a rapid series of conscious decisions (improvisations) that display vividly a mind-in-motion, a mind playing lavishly in the presence of the “evidence.” The later British Romantic poets, I believe, understood this, turning to the improvvisatori as a living model for a radical poetics.

The imagery of cataracts and waterfalls seems at odds with the traditional verse form of the improvvisatori, the ottava rima stanza. Yet it apparently suited the improvisor’s moment-to-moment decisions. At the end of the Regency decade the English poets enamoured with the great Italian improvvisatore Tomaso Sgricci tended to attune themselves to the ottava rima stanza. The most famous of these, of course, is Byron: “I never know the word which will come next.” But aside from defining improvisation, as Gioia Angeletti does, in terms of its Latin root, improvisus, as “unexpected” and “unforeseen,” Byron’s use of the stanza allows for other features of improvisation and of a non-utilitarian poetics: digression, repetition, and polyphony—as in this signature instance from Don Juan, Canto One: “But just suppose that moment [the death of Julia’s husband] should betide, / I only say suppose it inter nos. / (This should be entre nous, for Julia thought / In French, but then the rhyme would go for nought.)” Moreover, the ottava rima seems to suit a poetic position within, rather than beyond or above, the world, a stanza capacious enough to take in, he says in Canto XV, stanza 19, “life’s infinite variety,” in its own way exactly what Walt Whitman demands of his democratically pitched free-verse form. This stanza and the following stanza 20, in fact, spell out the poetics of Byronic/Romantic improvisational poetics:

I perch upon an humbler promontory
Amidst life’s infinite variety
With no great care for what is nicknamed glory,
But speculating as I cast mine eye
On what may suit or may not suit my story
And never straining hard to versify,
I rattle on exactly as I’d talk
With anybody in a ride or walk.

Poetry here is not reflection and understanding made in solitude but speculation occurring in the very motions of living and moving in conversation with others. Flaunting the labor imputed to great poetry, Byron identifies the latter more with otium, a kind of endless, wasteful verbal rattling. Rattling, rather than meaning, sound rather than sense, emerges in the next stanza in which he names poetry metonymically as “desultory rhyme”:

Of this I’m sure at least, there’s no servility
In mine irregularity of chime,
Which rings what’s uppermost of new or hoary,
Just as I feel the improvvisatore.

These two stanzas constellate improvisational poetics: focus on the world as various, observed from a mind moving, as Charles Olson said, “from perception to perception,” written in a lively wakefulness but out of ease, offering sounds—rattlings, rhymes, and chimes—as well as the polyphony of other languages, all of which push the poetry and its maker out of a servile, derivative position in society.

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[From The Jigoku Zoshi Hells: A Book of Variations, published in full & just released by Jeffrey Side's Argotist Ebooks at http://www.lulu.com/product/ebook/the-jigoku-zoshi-hells-a-book-of-variations/13227501]

vvvvvThe thieves, the thieves, the lovely thieves are no more.

When a wind blows
in from the sea, a door
swings open & light
white as Hell
nearly blinds us.
Night begins later,
the skin on my fingers
flakes off. A rank wind
shakes the ladders
we climb on,
the earth more distant,
for which we still
hunger, the sea
filling up with our tears,
our voices lost
in the wind.
Thieves who scour
our shores at evening,
whose voices sound under
our windows, whose tears
hide our pain,
cry out with one voice,
past shadows & windows.
one voice for
earth & one voice
for water,
& thieves dressed
like thieves,
a Hell like
no other, a house
overlooking the sea,
on a night
when coins
ring & death
has a voice,
like a thief’s voice,
earth returning
to earth,
then to water,
a voice
thieves dissemble
in dreams.
Thieves & a sea
& a chimney
down which thieves
clamber. More
thieves in the snow,
skin & hair
growing white.
A shadow that thieves
spill like blood,
like the voice
from a stone,
the voice
of the dying.
Thieves & voices,
shore, wind, & sea,
tears & eyes,
fingers spinning
a thread,
in fear of the sky
& the earth,
of thieves
lost at sea,
a grave
& a stone
left for thieves
where thieves
vanish.

A NOTE ON THE PRECEDING. In the 1990s I composed a series of thirty-three “Lorca variations,” drawing vocabulary, principally nouns, from my previously published translation of Federico García Lorca’s early gathering of poems, The Suites. I later made use of this method of composition for homages to Jackson Mac Low, Octavio Paz, & others as a step beyond translation but with an idea of translation – or what Haroldo de Campos called “transcreation” & I called “othering” – as one of the defining characteristics of poetry as a whole. The obvious difference in the variation presented here & in the larger series from which it comes is that I apply the same procedure to an earlier work of my own, The Seven Hells of the Jigoku Zoshi, a suite of eight poems (not seven) drawing themes but not specific images from ancient Japanese painted scrolls of that name & their accompanying verbal descriptions. The first publication of that work goes back to 1962, & it has remained in print for many years now as part of the first gathering of my selected poetry, Poems for the Game of Silence (New Directions, 1971). As with other variations – other translations for that matter – the procedure, if it works, doesn’t so much annihilate the original version as bring it into a new dimension, where both versions can lead an independent if interlinked existence. The fifty year gap between them adds its own strangeness to the mix.

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Edited and translated from Coptic by Rodolphe Kasser, Marvin Meyer, and Gregor Wurst

[The recovery & publication several years ago of the “Gospel of Judas” point as well to the numerous other apocryphal & heterodox, largely gnostic works from nearly 2000 years in the past that now present us, as Pierre Joris & I wrote of them in Poems for the Millennium, with religious & poetic propositions that open up new windows on reality – or reopen old ones. Poetry in this light (we wrote further) appears as a vehicle for keeping alive the insights repressed by religious & other authority systems, or for bringing them forward as a virtual/vital “clash of symbols” (P. Ricoeur) In Elaine Pagels’s idealized view of the matter: “Like circles of artists today, gnostics considered original creative invention to be the mark of anyone who becomes spiritually alive. Each one, like students of a painter or writer, is expected to express his own perceptions by revising and transforming what he was taught. .... Like artists, they express their own insight – their own gnosis (= ‘knowing’) – by creating myths, poems, rituals, ‘dialogue’ with Christ, revelations and accounts of their visions.” The emergence here of Judas Iscariot as a heroic & necessary confidant of Jesus – an outrider/outsider in the fullest sense – is a clue to other views & visions too long in the shadows.

[The full English translation of the “Gospel of Judas” was published by the National Geographic Society, which retains all rights, & can be found & read in its entirety here on the internet. (J.R.)]

JUDAS RECOUNTS A VISION AND JESUS RESPONDS

Judas said, “Master, as you have listened to all of them, now also listen to me. For I have seen a great vision.”

When Jesus heard this, he laughed and said to him, “You thirteenth spirit, why do you try so hard? But speak up, and I shall bear with you.”

Judas said to him, “In the vision I saw myself as the twelve disciples were stoning me and persecuting [me severely]. And I also came to the place where […] after you. I saw [a house …], and my eyes could not [comprehend] its size. Great people were surrounding it, and that house a roof of greenery, and in the middle of the house was [a crowd—two lines missing—], saying, ‘Master, take me in along with these people.’”

[Jesus] answered and said, “Judas, your star has led you astray.” He continued, “No person of mortal birth is worthy to enter the house you have seen, for that place is reserved for the holy. Neither the sun nor the moon will rule there, nor the day, but the holy will abide there always, in the eternal realm with the holy angels. Look, I have explained to you the mysteries of the kingdom and I have taught you about the error of the stars; and […] send it […] on the twelve aeons.”

JUDAS ASKS ABOUT HIS OWN FATE

Judas said, “Master, could it be that my seed is under the control of the rulers?”

Jesus answered and said to him, “Come, that I [—two lines missing—], but that you will grieve much when you see the kingdom and all its generation.”

When he heard this, Judas said to him, “What good is it that I have received it? For you have set me apart for that generation.”

Jesus answered and said, “You will become the thirteenth, and you will be cursed by the other generations—and you will come to rule over them. In the last days they will curse your ascent to the holy [generation].”

JESUS TEACHES JUDAS ABOUT COSMOLOGY: THE SPIRIT AND THE SELF-GENERATED

Jesus said, “[Come], that I may teach you about [secrets] no person [has] ever seen. For there exists a great and boundless realm, whose extent no generation of angels has seen, [in which] there is [a] great invisible [Spirit], which no eye of an angel has ever seen, no thought of the heart has ever comprehended, and it was never called by any name.

And a luminous cloud appeared there. He said, ‘Let an angel come into being as my attendant.’ “A great angel, the enlightened divine Self-Generated, emerged from the cloud. Because of him, four other angels came into being from another cloud, and they became attendants for the angelic Self-Generated. The Self-Generated said, ‘Let […] come into being […],’ and it came into being […]. And he [created] the first luminary to reign over him. He said, ‘Let angels come into being to serve [him],’ and myriads without number came into being. He said, ‘[Let] an enlightened aeon come into being,’ and he came into being. He created the second luminary [to] reign over him, together with myriads of angels without number, to offer service. That is how he created the rest of the
enlightened aeons. He made them reign over them, and he created for them myriads of angels without number, to assist them.

ADAMAS AND THE LUMINARIES

“Adamas was in the first luminous cloud that no angel has ever seen among all those called ‘God.’ He […] that […] the image […] and after the likeness of [this] angel. He made the incorruptible [generation] of Seth appear […] the twelve […] the twentyfour […]. He made seventy-two luminaries appear in the incorruptible generation, in accordance with the will of the Spirit. The seventy-two luminaries themselves made three hundred sixty luminaries appear in the incorruptible generation, in accordance with the will of the Spirit, that their number should be five for each.

“The twelve aeons of the twelve luminaries constitute their father, with six heavens for each aeon, so that there are seventy-two heavens for the seventy-two luminaries, and for each [of them five] firmaments, [for a total of] three hundred sixty [firmaments …]. They were given authority and a [great] host of angels [without number], for glory and adoration, [and after that also] virgin spirits, for glory and [adoration] of all the aeons and the heavens and their firmaments.

THE COSMOS, CHAOS, AND THE UNDERWORLD

“The multitude of those immortals is called the cosmos— that is, perdition—by the Father and the seventy-two luminaries who are with the Self-Generated and his seventytwo aeons. In him the first human appeared with his incorruptible powers. And the aeon that appeared with his generation, the aeon in whom are the cloud of knowledge and the angel, is called El. […] aeon […] after that […] said, ‘Let twelve angels come into being [to] rule over chaos and the [underworld].’ And look, from the cloud there appeared an [angel] whose face flashed with fire and whose appearance was defiled with blood. His name was Nebro, which means ‘rebel’; others call him Yaldabaoth. Another angel, Saklas, also came from the cloud. So Nebro created six angels—as well as Saklas—to be assistants, and these produced twelve angels in the heavens, with each one
receiving a portion in the heavens.

THE RULERS AND ANGELS

“The twelve rulers spoke with the twelve angels: ‘Let each of you […] and let them […] generation [—one line lost—] angels’:
The first is [S]eth, who is called Christ.
The [second] is Harmathoth, who is […].
The [third] is Galila.
The fourth is Yobel.
The fifth [is] Adonaios.
These are the five who ruled over the underworld, and first of all over chaos.

THE CREATION OF HUMANITY

“Then Saklas said to his angels, ‘Let us create a human being after the likeness and after the image.’ They fashioned Adam and his wife Eve, who is called, in the cloud, Zoe. For by this name all the generations seek the man, and each of them calls the woman by these names. Now, Sakla did not com[mand …] except […] the gene[rations …] this […]. And the [ruler] said to Adam, ‘You shall live long, with your children.’”

JUDAS ASKS ABOUT THE DESTINY OF ADAM AND HUMANITY

Judas said to Jesus, “[What] is the long duration of time that the human being will live?”

Jesus said, “Why are you wondering about this, that Adam, with his generation, has lived his span of life in the place where he has received his kingdom, with longevity with his ruler?”

Judas said to Jesus, “Does the human spirit die?”

Jesus said, “This is why God ordered Michael to give the spirits of people to them as a loan, so that they might offer service, but the Great One ordered Gabriel to grant spirits to the great generation with no ruler over it—that is, the spirit and the soul. Therefore, the [rest] of the souls [—one line missing—].

JESUS DISCUSSES THE DESTRUCTION OF THE WICKED WITH JUDAS AND OTHERS

“[…] light [—nearly two lines missing—] around […] let […] spirit [that is] within you dwell in this [flesh] among the generations of angels. But God caused knowledge to be [given] to Adam and those with him, so that the kings of chaos and the underworld might not lord it over them.”

Judas said to Jesus, “So what will those generations do?”

Jesus said, “Truly I say to you, for all of them the stars bring matters to completion. When Saklas completes the span of time assigned for him, their first star will appear with the generations, and they will finish what they said they would do. Then they will fornicate in my name and slay their children and they will […] and [—about six and a half lines missing—] my name, and he will […] your star over the [thir]teenth aeon.”

After that Jesus [laughed].

[Judas said], “Master, [why are you laughing at us]?”

[Jesus] answered [and said], “I am not laughing [at you] but at the error of the stars, because these six stars wander about with these five combatants, and they all will be destroyed along with their creatures.”

JESUS SPEAKS OF THOSE WHO ARE BAPTIZED, AND JUDAS’S BETRAYAL

Judas said to Jesus, “Look, what will those who have been baptized in your name do?”

Jesus said, “Truly I say [to you], this baptism […] my name [—about nine lines missing—] to me. Truly [I] say to you, Judas, [those who] offer sacrifices to Saklas […] God [—three lines missing—] everything that is evil.

“But you will exceed all of them. For you will sacrifice the man that clothes me.
Already your horn has been raised, your wrath has been kindled,your star has shown brightly, and your heart has […].

“Truly […] your last […] become [—about two and a half lines missing—], grieve
[—about two lines missing—] the ruler, since he will be destroyed. And then the image of the great generation of Adam will be exalted, for prior to heaven, earth, and the angels, that generation, which is from the eternal realms, exists. Look, you have been told everything. Lift up your eyes and look at the cloud and the light within it and the stars surrounding it. The star that leads the way is your star.”

Judas lifted up his eyes and saw the luminous cloud, and he entered it. Those standing on the ground heard a voice coming from the cloud, saying, […] great generation […] … image […] [—about five lines missing—].

CONCLUSION: JUDAS BETRAYS JESUS

[…] Their high priests murmured because [he] had gone into the guest room for his prayer. But some scribes were there watching carefully in order to arrest him during the prayer, for they were afraid of the people, since he was regarded by all as a prophet.

They approached Judas and said to him, “What are you doing here? You are Jesus’ disciple.”

Judas answered them as they wished. And he received some money and handed him over to them.

THE GOSPEL OF JUDAS

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As has now been well established, there was during the 18th-century in Italy a popular type of performer of poetry called the improvvisatore and improvvisatrice who could, as prompted, deliver extempore breath-taking sustained ottava rima poems on topics ranging from the glories of Italy to the tragic death of Hector. In the early 19th-century they caught the interests of other Europeans including the English, among whom were Byron and the Shelleys who heard in performance and knew personally the improvvisatore Tommaso Sgricci. These poets responded to performances or reports of performances with poems of their own—alluding to the improvvisatori, ventriloquizing them, quoting the favored stanza of the Italian performers. What was the nature of their interest? My answer falls here on an issue of Romantic poetics: why did some of the so-called late British Romantic poets Byron, Shelley, Keats, Bryan Procter, Thomas Lovell Beddoes, Felicia Hemans, the Coleridge of 1825, and Laetitia Landon all write poems with direct or indirect reference to the improvvisatori and to poetry as improvisation? What was it in the poetry of the improvvisatori that the British poets wished to incorporate or translate into their own, written, poems and to what end?

One could easily imagine—and indeed I initially surmised—that the English poets were presenting a second-order engagement with spontaneity and experience, a reflective and interpretative one, an instance of Friedrich Schiller’s sentimental, rather than naïve, poetry, Wordsworth’s “emotion recollected in tranquility.” In a poem like Hemans’s “The Dying Improvisatore,” for example, the performer speaks from his death bed, mourning the vanishing of his art and livelihood. Besides, how could one actually write that which by definition vanishes with its very speech and gestures? But, in brief, poetry from Romanticism on has found ways of “translating” that essential ephemerality into written equivalents.

Literary history, particularly in recent times, has associated improvisational poetry with Byron’s Don Juan—but dismisses it finally as a wonderful aberration, but hardly anything that one would define as the poetry of Romanticism. I propose, on the other hand, that the above-mentioned poets, of whom Byron was one, in fact attempted to wrest improvisational poetics from the periphery and into the center of Romantic concerns. Other poets and writers of the nineteenth century have turned to the possibility of improvisational poetics in their works: to name a few—Pushkin in Russia, Thoreau in North America, and Adam Mickiewicz in Poland. And with over a century of experiments in improvisation (such as the “automatic writing” of the Surrealists, the aleatory poetry of John Cage and Jackson Mac Low) and the “theory” to go along with them, it now seems possible to begin to describe with greater clarity than ever before the earlier Romantic presence of improvisation. Behind the argument of this paper lies the possibility that improvisational poetics may be defining for “later” British Romanticism.

Traditional notions of Romantic lyric, and lyric poetry in general, encourage a definition of the Romantic response to improvisational poetry as sentimental. Unsung as a kind of zeitgeist poetics for the post-Revolutionary era, Schiller’s distinctions, in On Naïve and Sentimental Poetry, between a poetry of immediacy and one of self-conscious contemplation and recollection quickly became and continues to be for standard literary histories a paradigm for thinking about poetic possibility during Romanticism and on to the poetry of our present. Thus although he associates a self-conscious poetry with the world of Romanticism, I nonetheless find Schiller useful for initiating a discussion about the fate of improvisation in Romantic poetry: indeed, improvisational poetry could be said to fulfill the conditions in the present of Schiller’s apparently irretrievable naïve.

The naïve, according to Schiller, rejoices in the “living presence of the object,” encourages “serene spontaneity” and “the naïve of surprise.” At times it is difficult to distinguish between childish and child-like innocence. In the naïve poem signifier and signified are one. Schiller, describing Homer as, of course, the quintessential naïve poet, observes that his method in the similes is juxtaposition, which he carries out in a “heartless” way, without sentiment. Moreover, Homer and other naïve poets could be considered negatively capable, losing themselves in the referent. The sentimental (emotion-driven) poet, on the other hand, stands at a distance from such “perfection,” dwelling in a state of striving, desiring, and progressing towards what he or she perceives as ideals. Elegiac by temperament, the sentimental poet looks upon the vanished world of the integrated self and nature as something to be mourned but its eventual return in the present in a new more complex form something to be hoped for.

Similar to Schiller in England,Wordsworth, defining poetry as “emotion recollected in tranquility,” sums up the conditions of the sentimental: 1) “emotion”— that is, affect replaces the referent, is at the basis of it, but emotion itself stands at a remove from the present; 2) if the world and the self that produced the emotion define “experience,” then poetry not only refers to experience that has already happened, but it appears in the poem as a recollection: the mental recuperation, the “drama of the lyric subject,” is privileged over the experience itself; 3) similarly a tranquil state is preferred over the startled, emotional, state of encounter with the other. (The naïve poet, says Schiller, by contrast, “runs wild.”) Apparently the predominance of the recollection of “emotion” or affect as a subject for poetry precludes the possibility of a poetry of the referent. When emotion and the drama of the lyric subject flood the poem’s landscape, the world itself, including the world of other voices vanishes.

It follows that the mistake of looking at improvisation through the category of the sentimental—in the works of Schiller, Wordsworth, and their followers—is the assumption of the originary status of the naïve and of improvisation: that either is in some sense “pre”-poetic. Rather a poet of improvisation simply chooses a different emphasis and intention in poetry: that of participation rather than recollection. The politics of a poetry of participation accommodates to the politically radical temperament. Sgricci, who had a reputation of being a scurrilous person and a homosexual, seems to have embraced a social identity of marginality with his performances, as if to insist on a link between his lower and peripheral class and his art. He performed or enacted, through his poetry of participation, the mingling of his lower class with an art pitched to the middle and upper-classes. This disruption of class boundaries redefines and brings into present possibility the problematic notion of the naïve as permanently fixed to an unretrievable past. In Marxist terms, according to Georg Lukacs, the bourgeois “harmonious man” is no longer (if it ever was) available as an ideal of integration and serenity: one needs to write or perform from within the tumultuous, changing present.

It is important for a discussion of improvisatory poetics, however, to realize that proponents for the sentimental in poetry don’t disregard the features of the naïve and the features of the referent; they rather place it in an inferior or distanced relationship to the lyric subject. Some elements of improvisational poetry, such as the participatory and the non-semantic, still reside in a self-conscious, reflective poetry even when they are not prominent. Allen Grossman, for example, observes that every poem of “closure” (poems that feature the growing precision of the drama of the human subject) contains within it at least a moment of “aperture,” in which the poem itself participates in the present, a “now” in which the poem becomes coextensive with the world. And Susan Stewart observes that in lyric poetry in general the sound or music with which lyric has long been identified has become a trace or memory of its original self. Thus the non-semantic elements in poetry remain but at a remove from the semantic elements, those aspects of a poem linked directly to human thought. (On this last point, think of the powerful tendency in criticism—evident in a Romanticism panel at the 2006 MLA--and in teaching to account for the non-semantic in poetry—figure, alliteration, etc.—as instrumental in re-enforcing the semantic, the “meaning-ful.”) An improvisational poetics, that is, reverses the priorities: “the referent” is more important than the speaking subject, the non-semantic more, or at least as, important as the semantic.
The characteristics of improvisation transferred by Romantic poets to their own work include: spontaneity and participation in the present, the stress on the non-semantic elements of language including sound and gesture, the speech of persons other than that of the poet (indeed, the speech of more than one person), and a focus on the mind-in-motion. To elaborate:

1) Improvisational poetry collapses the traditional temporal distance between decisions of composition and their enactment in the poem. As Byron says in Don Juan, “I never know the word which will come next.” Shelley’s word for this is “unpremeditated”: his skylark pours forth “profuse strains of unpremeditated art,” and his Mercury knows “the power of unpremeditated song.” The poem, that is, doesn’t refer to its event but is the event itself.

2) Performance poetry, whether that of the eighteen-century improvvisatori or of poetry slams today, makes its effect upon the audience through sound —consonance, assonance, rhymings — but often such poetry doesn’t serve meaning as much as come in advance of it. The dominant metaphor of cataracts or flowing waters often ascribed (by, for example, Mary Shelley) to the improvisations reinforces this centrality of the non-semantic and erotic elements in poetry; and similarly of its supplemental, even its wasteful aspect with respect to meaning. It works by the force, the sound, the movement of the event, in a way that both improvvisatore or improvvisatrice and audience seemed to stand in its astonished and bewildered grip.

3) The poetry of improvisation links spontaneity with a more various consciousness, with impersonations and ventriloquisms, with quotation and translation in the largest sense of carrying across from other cultures and other subjectivities stories, myths, expressions and idioms. The staggering improvisation in Diderot’s Rameau’s Nephew in which the nephew of the composer Jean Philippe Rameau performs an opera by himself, taking on the various roles as well as the various orchestral instruments, in rapid succession, anticipates the inherently dispersive reach of the improvisational performance. The narrator says after the nephew stops speaking, “Worn out, exhausted, like a man emerging from a deep sleep or a prolonged reveries, he stood motionless, dumb, petrified. He kept looking around him like a man who has lost his way and wants to know where he is.”

The characteristic state of mind of the improvising performer seems identical to that of Keats’s ideal mental stance for “the poet,” thus suggesting the proximity of explicitly improvisational poetry to his own. Keats’s October 27, 1818, “camelion poet” letter not only marvels about the effacement of ego in the presence of other compelling identities but about his response as a person: “When I am in a room with People if I ever am free from speculating on creations of my own brain, then not myself goes home to myself: but the identity of every one in the room begins to press upon me that, I am in a very little time annihilated.” The improvising performer travels so totally to other domains that there’s nothing left of the social self. In its place is the open world, full of dissonance and contradiction, but real nonetheless. Shelley, too, in a contemporary affinity, promoting a kind of performance poetics, calls this gesture of improvisation a “going out of one’s own nature.” In keeping with the loss of the stable selfhood of the poet, it stresses, instead, the mind-in-motion, the mind’s playful, digressive side but also its fundamentally mobile character, the desire of adversarial poets to “unfetter” poems from their conventional form and positioning, and to present a poetry of not so much a subject, an identity, as of a mind-in-motion, fluid, destabilized, and thus, as Shelley said of the West Wind, “uncontrollable.”

The performances of the improvvisatori and, I am arguing, their British Romantic revisionists in written verse were asserting the somewhat paradoxical possibility for a visionary poetry—that the poet insist upon a poetry over which he or she exerts only partial control—similarly in the presence of which the audience/reader experiences an immediacy or flooding of an encounter rather than the room and time to contemplate the poem’s “meaning.” To “know” what a poem “means” is to feel completely secure about the ego’s supreme relationship to it, a kind of sublime disinterestedness. To stand in the presence of improvisation is to submit to a destabilization of the ego, to contract for a mobility in self and the world, a possibility of change and reconfiguration, and to be shown a mind in the midst of decisions at every moment.

[To Be Continued]

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Heriberto Yépez: Re-Reading María Sabina

Posted by Lidya Endzo Kun iLLa On 7:19 AM 0 comments

[Heriberto Yépez is a Mexican poet, translator and essayist, whose writing has been gaining recognition on both sides of the north-south divide. Working from a home base in Tijuana, B.C., he is the author of numerous books in Spanish, and some of his pieces in English have appeared in American magazines like Tripwire, Shark, XCP, and Chain. The essay that follows was written shortly after the appearance of María Sabina Selections in the Poets for the Millennium series (University of California Press, 2003) and was first published by me in Ubuweb Ethnopoetics (on line). Its republication here brings it into the orbit of Poems and Poetics, where it can be read in conjunction, say, with Henry Munn’s “The Uniqueness of María Sabina” and related writings. (J.R.)]

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The UC Press just released María Sabina: Selections (2003), edited by Jerome Rothenberg. I have been a reader of the Sabina world for some time now, but after getting to know this new volume –the best single compilation on her world that I know of – I immediately wonder what other interpretations of her work could appear in Mexico or the U.S. This volume is a gathering of points of view that invites us to start a re-reading of her practice. I take books as provocations, and I think this book should be read that way.

The book includes a very insightful essay by Henry Munn, which gives some hints into some of the cultural meanings of the artifacts enlisted by Sabina in her chants. I think Munn’s piece is the decisive one, apart from the "The Life" which occupies pages 3-79 of the book.

There are also pieces by Anne Waldman (a revision of her essay included before in Fast Speaking Woman), texts by Álvaro Estrada, Pavlovna/Wasson, Rothenberg, Gregorio Regino and an account of the last days of Sabina written by Homero Aridjis (which, btw, I co-translated into English for this assemblage).

Sabina is associated with the counter-culture poetic scenes. That’s one of the reasons why the Mexican mainstream-lit (the Mexican ‘Republics of Letters’ as O. Paz called it) hasn’t paid much attention to her: they see her as an interesting ethnographic phenomenon but not as a poet or verbal artist. And the association with the sixties atmosphere is something Mexican writers don’t want anymore –something which I think they share with contemporary American writers, and so returning to Sabina is something which is risky in terms of literary (little-)politics. Sabina = icon of hippie culture. "Indigenismo".

So I wonder what do Language and post-LangPo writers make of shamanism and María Sabina in particular? Can they create a new approach to her work and shamanism in general -- in relation to the one produced by anthropology or ethnopoetics?

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From my side I have a few comments on current hegemonic Mexican ideas on Sabina, which, I think, derive mainly by whom else but dear Mr. Paz.

In his piece in María Sabina: Selections, Álvaro Estrada –Sabina’s interviewer and translator– comments on the opinion Paz gave after the Sabina oral-biography project:

"On finishing the text I polished it various times before sending it to Gordon Wasson, whom I had met in Mexico City in 1975, and to whom I had promised to send it. (Our initial meeting was in the house of Henry Munn.) Wasson then asked the Mexican poet Octavio Paz for his opinion of the manuscript. Paz expressed his appreciation for the work: he said it was a document with anthropological and human value. Notwithstanding, he suggested that the author eliminate terms and words that didn’t seem in accord with the personality of María Sabina, both in the text and in the translation of the chants. He suggested greater simplicity in the words, and in a letter to Wasson, he said that one ought to give the literal meaning of the shaman’s words without it mattering whether the reader understood them or not".

Is it a coincidence Paz didn’t mention anything about the literary / poetic value of her work, and only mentions her "anthropological" and "human" value? I don’t think so.

I think Paz was denying Sabina’s poetic stature, because he saw her as a sorcerer (in an essay on Breton he describes her as an "hechicera") and just a traditional healer, and not as a verbal artist as well. I think Paz thought Sabina’s poetry lacked the signs of "modernity" or structural complexity. He didn’t look carefully.

Paz's suggestions on eliminating terms and words could be a sign of that. If he saw Sabina as simply a traditional healer, his ideas on her personality were certainly wrong, so his suggestions could be erasing key notions and simplifying them in both the Spanish translation and, subsequently, in the English version. But that’s something which only Estrada could know.

In case Estrada accepted those suggestions, in my opinion he made a mistake, whatever they were, simply because Paz had no real insight into Sabina’s world and wasn’t particularly sympathetic to her as a poet, which she clearly was, even though Paz wouldn’t acknowledge her as one.

Estrada himself is suggesting the firsts drafts of his translation show a more complex Sabina. So I hope one day we can see the first versions of the bio and the chants, or have a second translation of them directly from the Mazatec transcripts.
Who knew Sabina more, Estrada or Paz? I don’t think Paz knew her at all. But Paz's cultural importance could be the reason why Estrada followed his suggestions. But if Paz didn’t consider Sabina a poet and didn’t really know her how could he know what was and what wasn’t in accordance with her ‘personality’?

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Sabina's poetic praxis consisted in a re-reading –not "improvising" (whatever that means)– of a "book": the tradition of Mazatec language. Sabina is quoting. Her chants are a reorganization and a series of personal add-ups, a rewriting of prior quotes and linguistic-patterns. Sabina’s chants are not a practice of spontaneous creation but of reappropriation.

In his key piece ("The Uniqueness of María Sabina") Henry Munn explains how Sabina inherited from her culture a repertory of themes and motifs on which she, as other shamans, based her own individual variations. We cannot forget this if we really want to understand her verbal production.

What this means is that Sabina was a wise-one not because she ate mushrooms and got into trips, but because she dominated a dynamical dictionary of meanings.
She re-produced those meanings in the ceremonies; she rewrote that dynamical dictionary throughout her life. She was trying to revolutionize the praxis. That’s why she even allowed foreigners to participate. She was trying to go beyond. She wanted to open the book. Maybe trying to open the book too much was the reason why her own book fell apart.

Understanding her praxis consisted in quoting means to reestablish the context. Understanding the recontextualization practice she made. Understanding that time was her page. Her chants are the remaking of a cultural history. She was a woman working very consciously in the field of socio-metaphysics.

When she calls herself, let’s say, "opossum-woman" she is not referring to the animal but to a string of myths. Munn (using as sources the books of Carlos Incháustegui) synthesizes how the opossum represents for Mazatecs the power to play dead and gain invulnerability, the task of stealing fire -- which is key because stealing fire creates "culture." So if at first "opossum-woman" can bring images of Sabina identifying with "nature," reading her more carefully brings us to the fact that Sabina's chants are an interweaving of artificial meanings and not an animistic exercise or "flow-of-words" or a simple litany of plants, objects and characters. From the Moon to the Water, Sabina quotes cultural artifacts. Signs-with-histories. She re-constructs the order of words, meanings, contexts, subjects, cultures and things.

When reading

I am opossum-woman

we should read

I am the interplay of nature and culture-woman.
I am the performance-of-death-woman.
I am the recasting-of-myths-woman.
I am the keeper-and-changer-of-the-meanings-of-‘opossum’-woman


Our traditional understanding of Sabina (Paz included) falls very short of what she was really doing. Words for her are a therapeutic instrument and a way to depict visions, but also a self-conscious flesh that remakes and investigates prior texts.

There’s nothing spontaneous, naïve, automatic or unconscious in María Sabina’s poetic praxis. Sabina is not a poet of the unconscious but of self-consciousness itself, a poet of cultural rereading and rewriting.

Sabina represents a critique on those who believe (like Paz and most mainstream poets) that poetry is a voice that comes from nowhere, "inspiration" or the unmediated unconscious, an ahistoric otherness, those who consider poetry is an individualistic practice by essence or solitary compromise. She challenges those who find the idea of having just a single identity possible, of those who try to produce a voice without a context, an impossible purity.

But Sabina's is also a critique on those who believe there can be radical experimentation without healing or see the poet as a sophisticated specialist whose social role is just writing, those who act in the mere sphere of literature and who don’t break up the boundaries that separate the different domains of their own culture. "Poets’" without radical wisdom, wisdom that comes from the roots; "poets" who don’t go to the roots of society, to cure ignorance, sickness, injustice, and poverty.

Sabina was without a doubt a poet. She was not only a poet, but more importantly poetry’s wholeness. Her activity’s goal was totality. She reached for the impossible. Searching for a book-beyond-the-book. Having a new poetic body. Breaking the differences between writing, reading, chanting, talking, dancing, and silence. Removing pain from others. Fighting for the survival of a great culture. Investigating sounds, meanings and languages. Increasing wisdom. Teaching. Being radically self-critical, recognizing when one fails, when one is dying.

Being a writer is easier.

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Poland/1931 and Khurbn: Two Sources

Posted by Lidya Endzo Kun iLLa On 12:08 AM 0 comments
In the course of writing Poland/1931 and Khurbn, having no direct experience of that ancestral world, I drew among other sources on the memories of those still close to me, notably two of my father’s younger brothers, Archie (Aaron) and Avrum Rothenberg. The Polish town from which they came to the U.S. – one in the 1920s, the other via Argentina in the 1940s – was Ostrów-Mazoviecka in its Polish naming, Ostrova among the Jews who lived there. It was located, as I later learned, only 15 miles or so from the World War Two death camp at Treblinka, and all those in my family who hadn’t left Poland before the war were murdered there in the ensuing khurbn. As with other small Polish/Jewish towns (shtetl in Yiddish, miasteczko in Polish), the Jewish survivors assembled a large memorial book, its narratives written in Yiddish by the memorialists themselves. Published in 1960, the book was in my possession when I began Poland/1931 at the end of that decade and was my guide to the town when I went there in the late 1980s. That it included pieces by both of my uncles was also meaningful to me – not writings about the holocaust as such but, like Poland/1931, with the holocaust as the inescapable background. Throughout Khurbn, but in the terminal poem in particular, I tried to emulate their voices as best I could, something evident, I think, in the two pieces that follow. Those pieces, now translated into English by Judie Ostroff Goldstein, are part of an ongoing project that has assembled a remarkable, possibly unprecedented data bank of local records and statistics, or what Ed Sanders, as a resource for “investigative poetry," used to call “data clusters.” The level of secularization and literacy in their accounts is also worth noting, while the fantastic or surreal elements in the ensuing poetry are of course my own doing.

My evocation of the town begins as follows:


What will I tell you sweet town?
that the sickness is still in you
that the dead continue to die
there is no end to the dying?
for this the departed would have had an answer:
a wedding in a graveyard
for you sweet town
they would have spoken they who are no longer among us
& would have shown forth in their splendor
would have danced pellmell
over your stones sweet town the living & the dead together .....

[from “Peroration for a Lost Town” in Khurbn & Other Poems, 1989, reprinted in Triptych, 2007]


ARCHIE ROTHENBERG: THE JEWISH WORKERS’ MOVEMENT IN OSTROVA


I see you, my town, as when I was young… when I ran and played with a hoop from a barrel. A beautiful summer day and so many people are gathered in the market.

What is happening here? The First World War has broken out. Everyone is in terrible spirits. Men are called up for military service. Husbands and sons must leave their families.

The war leaves everyone with scars. In 1915, the Germans arrive. Life returned to normal. The first ray of light tore through the dark.

The first workers' institution is created and named for Bronisław Grosser. The workday is from eight in the morning until eleven, or midnight, as well as after the close of Shabes. There is no time for oneself – only Friday evening and Saturday during the day.

My first experience in the “Grosser-Club”: A gathering of about two hundred workers. Silence. Icchok Aron Sigier reads from Elgin's book: “Ven Kaytn Klingen” [“When Shackles Clank”]. What a holiday atmosphere!

The work expands. Meetings are scheduled more frequently – there are more lectures. Speakers were brought from other cities. The club members made the furniture for the club themselves – benches and tables. The young workers bring new ideas. Every Friday evening there is a social event. New workers join the club.

The young members develop by reading and learning. New institutions are being created. The first meeting of Poalei-Zion [Labor Zion] is held in the library. The organizers were Waldkowski and Tikora.

After that, unions came into being: Osiński and Wengrowicz were the founders. Communal organizations were blooming.

The Bund was the first, to plow up the old and sow new seeds - beautiful sprouts grew. The organizers of the Bund were: Icchok Aaron Sygier, Maier Jakob Sygier, Hilke Piekarz, Mordche Miller, and myself.

Subsequently, the Germans had to make a hasty departure from town. The Bund organizers were called to a meeting at Hinde Piantnica's. There was a message from the Bund Central Committee. The government is going to take up the workers' cause and the Bund must be prepared. This was a very serious meeting and ran very late. We noticed how quiet the streets had become. This is a sign of a new era: the workers' government is born, headed by Maraczewski. The 8-hour workday was introduced. Business had to close for two hours, noon until two in the afternoon, during the workday. A health insurance program was created in the larger cities, which was maintained by the government. The trade union was created – the first secretary is Luria. Preparations were made for the first shoemaker's strike. When the bosses became aware of the impending strike, they prepared a lot of boots ahead of time. Stasz, their leader, contested the demands set forth by the trade union. The strike was declared and there was no money available to help the strikers. A large fair was being held in Zambrów, where the bosses sold their boots. A group of people appeared, dressed as peasants, looked the boots over and cut them up – on the pretext that the boots were made of paper. These so-called peasants returned to the trade union local in Ostrova. The police raided the trade union and all those in the local were arrested. After a long inquiry, which lasted the entire night, they were freed. The bosses came to the trade union local in the morning and gave in to all the demands. The union had won the first strike.

Then began the hard work of organizing one trade after another. The bosses did not create any further problems for the trade union. At the same time, the Bund became involved in cultural activities. During a certain time there was a lot of unemployment. The trade union, along with the bosses, began the workers' soup kitchen at the trade union headquarters. At the first lunch, the bosses also came to eat along with the needy. Tears were seen in many eyes that day. The kitchen existed for only a short time. The bosses could no longer afford to give money. The situation had become very bleak for everyone. The workers were hungry; a tremendous tension was brewing. One Shabes, the boss's cholents were taken from the ovens, by the poor. Those starving were for a moment able to still their hunger. Nobody organized this – it was spontaneous.

The Youth-Movement rebelled against the Bund and took a radical turn. The entire Łomża District Committee of the Tzukunft organization in all the cities left the Bund. The first radical group was founded in Ostrova.

On a beautiful spring day during Passover the first meeting was held in Brok forest. Gathered there were Abraham Perec, Szija Fryd, and a guest from Warszawa. (He arrived at the Nutkiewicz's and Lejbl Krysztal from Łomża). They would set the policy for the radical movement. We were very busy. In a short time we were able to take over the trade union entirely. After a difficult struggle, the Bund had to capitulate and give the trade union over to the radical group.

We brought a secretary into the trade union. We brought a troupe to present plays. Their presentation of Perec Hirszenbejn's “Der Nevole” [“The Infamy”] in the town theatre was a great success. Community work was growing. The young people were enthusiastic and full of new ideas. They felt that maybe this was the beginning, that the day would come when the sun would shine fire red and the workers would all be free!

This is how we lived and hoped. It is so painful to think about what happened to our town, her beautiful forests, the lovely landscape, where our dear ones were so hideously tortured. No matter to which country or city I travel, Ostrova, none can ever take your place.

AVRUM ROTHENBERG: MY SHTETL OSTROW MAZ.

My little shtetl, how should I celebrate your existence? And how should I lament for you? How do I find the strength to bring out your beauty, your joy, your glory, your magnificence and the deep sorrow of your death?

I was young when I left you. I had lived for eighteen thriving springs. You gave us such a rich community. The softness of your earth, the dew in your fields and forests will remain eternal. This is where I lived out my childhood and youth. My shtetl, I see you as when I was a child running around your streets. My childhood came into existence at the same time as the First World War. I remember the first German military airplane flying over our shtetl. Everyone ran out of their houses in fear and raised their heads to the sky; the Germans arrived in the shtetl with their new, strict decrees. Typhus and dysentery epidemics raged. Women and children went into hiding, in order to avoid having their hair cut off. The epidemic raged and there were victims in every second house. The shtetl had an old custom that a poor bride must get married in a cemetery. A couple was found: the quiet, dejected Szepsel vaser treger [water carrier], who rambled, and an old maid, with a hunchback. The entire shtetl went to the wedding in the cemetery.

I see one of my many neighbours: Benjamin the contractor, in whose attic Jehudis lived. She was the oldest Hebrew teacher in the shtetl. She lived with her many grandchildren – orphans of her young daughter who had died. The oldest grandchild Perl, was also a teacher, an old maid, a tall woman with a dark, matte skin, with two burning black eyes in which her entire unlived life, with all her suppressed hopes and longings, were reflected. She was my teacher. Later she became insane and died in the hospital in Warszawa. And next is Mosze Haim the wine-maker – a polite Jew, honest and religious, with a blond beard and gentle, good-natured eyes. His wife would often become crazy during the summer heat and run around the shtetl. He took care of her as a father would a child. On the other side, exactly opposite our window – were Jankele and his wife Zelda. Zelda was always able to hide their poverty. She was always neat, elegantly dressed and wore a wig even during the week. Their son Mosz'ke Gecel, the playboy, before whom everyone in the shtetl trembled, even the Christians, as he could hit back. And here the Jewish, half-assimilated, pharmacist Stasz and his slim, gentle wife from Warszawa. Barely had he seen a bit of smoke from our bakery chimney than he would arrive with a pail of water to put out the fire. He was always afraid of a fire and did everything possible so that there would never be one in his pharmacy. Who does not remember and who did not like Goldsztejn the photographer, who among the Ostrovers would not find themselves in his photographs? There is so much we can write about him.

Goldsztejn, tall, thin with light, bright eyes, always happy and a witticism at every opportunity. He was the only Jew in the shtetl who owned a piano. Thanks to his artistic talent he became the leader of the dramatic troupe, and with his brother-in-law Lejb Kohn, Mrs. Lewita and others, put on plays several times a year and donated the money to the library. Who can forget their offering of “Kasza the Orphan” and a little later Przybyszewski's “Der Shney” [“The Snow”] and Strindberg's “Der Foter” [“The Father”], under the direction of the great artist Jacques Levy, who came especially from Warszawa to direct this play? How could I forget the first time I went to the library to borrow a book? I remember the first librarian, the tall, gentle Chuma Paskiewicz. She gave me my first book. Who could believe the joy and luck of having books to read? The Ostrova library, the pride of all the surrounding villages, became our school, our university; generations were educated and received knowledge through that library. We devoured worldly books and absorbed the Yiddish words in an attic corner or in the woods during the summer, where our parents would not see us. We became acquainted with great thinkers and poets; we were enriched with new worlds, new thoughts, aspirations and dreams. And afterwards, the unions, political parties and youth organizations came to life. New words - new slogans. Great ideas were born. I remember my first time at Poalei Zion, where the older comrades were devoted to education. My first teachers: Ajze Gąsior, Wladkowski, Skóra, Rozenberg – all intellectuals, sons from poor homes. Their lectures for youngsters about literature and political science, etc. opened new worlds for us.

Once, it was decided to hold a demonstration on the first of May. For many months preparations were made in secret, uniting all the parties, including the Polish Socialist Party. This happened in the first year of Poland's independence and freedom. But Piłsudski, with his legionnaires, already had a network of anti-Semitism and brutality ready. The great day arrived. A holiday spirit, with joy and songs in our hearts we left our houses. Everyone went to his party headquarters with a red silk flower in his lapel. Having gone a couple of streets, I came upon the Polish military doctor, who angrily screamed at me: “ You little rat! You already know how to carry a red flower.” With a wild anger he tore off my red flower. My joy was destroyed. My pain was great. I soon arrived at party headquarters. The comrades gave me another flower. The holiday feeling was back. We all stood outside in rows, the older comrades with Gąsior in front, us youngsters – at the back. And we marched to the Promenade garden. There all the parties came together, and we continued on together. But we stopped a couple of streets after the Sadzawke. The police were waiting and our demonstration turned around. This was the only demonstration that ever took place in Ostrova.

Who can forget the promenade streets and the forests? The narrow sidewalk from the jail to the town hall, the Promenade garden, the Sadzawka [pond], wide Warszawa Street, along which extended fields which in summer were full of tall, golden wheat stalks, that protected couples and secret party meetings from prying eyes and from the police.

A little further, on Warszawa Road, before arriving at the large forests, one would go through a young, small forest. There among the young trees stood two small wooden houses used as summer cottages. The owner was a Christian (a coffin maker) with his pretty, young daughter “Jenta” (Why a Yiddish name? Maybe because she spoke such a soft, charming Yiddish).

“Jenta” also owned a swing. On Shabes young men would go there, together with young women, and for a couple of groschen would be able to use the swing for a certain amount of time. There were great experts who would soar high in the air. And from “Jenta's” little forest it is only a few steps to the large, deep forests.

Ostrova's forests who can forget them? On the left side, Brok forest and across on the right side – the Warszawa. This is where we lived during the summer. All our young dreams and our longing for unknown worlds were woven there. There were no words to express our longing!

Yes, you were beautiful and honest, my shtetl. When we went out into the world and lay in small, poor rooms full of nightmarish nights of longing, we were always with you, my shtetl, living with you, walking your streets and forests, tasting your air. You gave us courage and consoled us.

You are not forgotten – my destroyed shtetl.

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Translations from Bengali with commentary & tribute by Aryanil Mukherjee

Binoy Majumdar (1934-2006) was a brilliant, eccentric, obscure and controversial poet whose life and work await chapters of penetrating research. Binoy is an extremely rare poet – it is hard to find a parallel in the western hemisphere. There is an intense purity in his work in which geometry, mathematics, science and logistics couple with a unique lyric genre. Despite being a fine and talented engineer, a brilliant, innovative mathematician, a polyglot ( in all modes of use he was fluent in Bengali, English and Russian) and an even more brilliant poet, Binoy led a rather distraught and disoriented life of extreme poverty and isolation. Failed by one-sided love (for Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak), he lost his mental composure and attempted suicide several times in his life. At times, he would turn violently schizophrenic. In the 1990s, the state government of West Bengal, upon request from his literary comrades, provided some support. It didn't restore his physical and mental health. However, during his stay in the state-run hospital, he wrote a book of skeletal poems - hAspAtAle lekhA kabitAguchchha (Hospital Poems) which won him the prestigious national poetry award (Sahitya Academy Purashhkaar) in the last year of his life. He remained largely estranged and unnoticed outside the teeming ambience of the Bengali poetry scene for decades. Today, however, after his demise, Binoy is beginning to attract a huge following among younger poets.

Born in Myanmar (erstwhile Burma) on 17 September 1934, Binoy moved with his family to West Bengal (India) during the second world war. He was educated initially in the prestigious Presidency College (University of Calcutta) and went on to graduate in Mechanical Engineering from Bengal Engineering College, Calcutta, in 1957. His first book of poems - nakshatrer Aloy (Star Light) was published while he was in his 20s. It was however, his second book, aghrANer anubhUtimAlA (The Feeling Cycle of Autumn), later and more famously republished as phire eso chAkA (Come Back, O Wheel, 1962) that received wide acclaim and gradually, gave Binoy Majumdar a deep engraving on the mantle of Bengali poetry. phire esho, chAkA was written using a profoundly scientific lyric in the form of a journal. This was a collection of love poems dedicated to his contemporary Gayatri Chakravorty (“Chaka”, meaning “wheel” in Bengali, was a funny truncation of Gayatri’s surname).

Critics have pronounced Binoy Majumdar as one of the ablest successors of Jibanananda Das - the poet who revolutionized Bengali Poetry after Rabindranath Tagore. No surprise Binoy drew from bountiful nature, the varied flora and fauna of the riverine Bengal plains. At the same time, scientific objectivism and systematic observation found a firm footing in his unique lyrical voice. His ability to relate via simple laws of physics, the various elements of nature to one another, smartly aided by objectivity and scientific enquiry, makes his poetry absolutely remarkable and unparalleled. His genre of work could be described as a scientific-artistic field journal.

Binoy’s bold and revolutionary depiction of sexuality gives his work another interesting dimension. He abundantly used vivid sexual imagery in a series of poems like Amar bhuttay tel (My Oiled Corn-cob), where he gives an intensely poetic but intricately graphic description of a sexual intercourse. Binoy emphasized the physicality of the process of cohabitation by trying to narrate scientific truth through essentially journalistic observations.

Binoy’s approach to poetry in a certain sense is rather unconventional because his work gives the impression of neutral scientific reportage and is themed on strange natural observations – for example, the changing shape and position of the sun during a solar eclipse. A great poet, left much ignored and unnoticed for the most part of his life, Binoy died in his maternal home on December 11, 2006.

A few complete poems from phire eso chaka ( Come back, O Wheel) - Binoy's innumerably reprinted, redesigned, replenished and refabricated book and his most talked about poetry collection – are translated here

8th March, 1960

One bright fish flew once
to sink back again into visible blue, but truly
transparent water - watching this pleasing sight
the fruit blushed red, ripening to thick juices of pain.

Endangered cranes fly, escaping ceaselessly,
since it is known, that underneath her white feathers exist
passionate warm flesh and fat;
pausing for short stalls on tired mountains;
all water-songs evaporate by the way
and you then, you, oh oceanfish, you...you
or look, the scattered ailing trees
foliaging expansive greenery of the world
churn it up with their deepest, fatiguing sighs;
and yet, all trees and flowering plants stand on their own
grounds at a distance forever
dreaming of breathtaking union.

Translated by Aryanil Mukherjee

27th June 1961

Like wet gorges our feel
limited, confined; valleys, woods and hills
all covered in fog and clouds for the past few days.
Tell me how much of the multitudes of earthly taste
does the failed buds of a cat’s tongue feel ?
Yet all the crisp and subtle, sharp experience,
like flower thorns or the incisiveness of orbits
of distant stars, of the far beyond.
Anyway, despite it, the stupendous air of the sky
not large currents, fluxes with crosswinds.
Unsuppressed by the conflicts of these uncertain
excitement, the pine still grows erect
like true desire, towards a lightening sky.

Translated by Aryanil Mukherjee

1st July 1961

I politely woke up in the morning to a flowering hope.
My future, firmament were lit up
by your talent, preserved like tinned meat.
Nervously, I conjured up a joint meeting of tea-thoughts,
thoughts of fresh air from the eternal summit.
You inexistential, as imaginary as a visual aberration
or maybe extinct, dead.
Or have deserted me like your illegitimate newborn, by the road.
I think of life, after the wound heals
I know it wouldn’t hair anew; pain sits
calm on sorrowed thoughts like a nocturnal fly –
on the way back from hospital, in momentary mind.
Sometimes unawares, I know, the pain will wither
with the falsity of a child urinating in sleep.

Translated by Aryanil Mukherjee

If you never come again

If you never come again, never blow through these steaming regions
like cooling drifts of the upper air, even that absence is an encounter.
Your absense is as of the blue rose
from the kingdom of flowers. Who knows, some day
you may yet appear. Maybe you have, only you are too close.
Can I smell my own hair?
Marvellous sights have been seen.
A full moon was to have risen last night --
only a quivering sickle appeared!
It was an eclipse.

I have given up strewing grain on the ground
to have the birds join me at lunch.
Only when the baby is cut adrift
does it have its free hunger and thirst;
like taking off a blindfold to be confronted with
a curtain, being born
into this vast uterus, lined with a sky porous with stars.

Translated by Jyotirmoy Datta

What is needed is a sudden turn

What is needed is a sudden turn
leaving the swift hand that plucks butterflies out of the air
gaping at a loss.
The others exist pale and ghostly as stars
brought to brief life by a total eclipse of the sun.
But I cannot change my course now; can the leopard
unspin its leap in midair?
Moreover, they may still be wrong. She can yet appear.
Cream rises only if one lets boinling milk stand and cool.

Translated by Jyotirmoy Datta

The pain remained with me

The pain remained with me a long time.
Finally the ancient root was cut --
from immersion I emerged blinking into light.
I am restored to health now though the season is gray.
Surgery everywhere; this tea table was once the flesh of a tree.

Translated by Jyotirmoy Datta

[Binoy Majumdar's photograph: copyright Abhijit Mitra, Kaurab]

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[Writing at the end of the nineteenth century, Lang was more cruel than me in the use of a phrase & concept that characterized a poem & a book of mine with pretty much the same title (A Paradise of Poets, 1999). For other examples of poets calling poets into question, see postings by Julian Beck and Joe Safdie elsewhere in Poems and Poetics. Wrote Tristan Tzara, circa 1920: “The true Dadas are against Dada.” (J.R.)]

We were talking of Love, Constancy, the Ideal. “Who ever loved like the poets?” cried Lady Violet Lebas, her pure, pale cheek flushing. “Ah, if ever I am to love, he shall be a singer!”
“Tenors are popular, very,” said Lord Walter.
“I mean a poet,” she answered witheringly.
Near them stood Mr. Witham, the author of “Heart’s Chords Tangled.”
“Ah,” said he, “that reminds me. I have been trying to catch it all the morning. That reminds me of my dream.”
“Tell us your dream,” murmured Lady Violet Lebas, and he told it.
“It was through an unfortunate but pardonable blunder,” said Mr. Witham, “that I died, and reached the Paradise of Poets. I had, indeed, published volumes of verse, but with the most blameless motives. Other poets were continually sending me theirs, and, as I could not admire them, and did not like to reply by critical remarks, I simply printed some rhymes for the purpose of sending them to the gentlemen who favoured me with theirs. I always wrote on the fly-leaf a quotation from the ‘Iliad,’ about giving copper in exchange for gold; and the few poets who could read Greek were gratified, while the others, probably, thought a compliment was intended. Nothing could be less culpable or pretentious, but, through some mistake on the part of Charon, I was drafted off to the Paradise of Poets.
“Outside the Golden Gate a number of Shadows were waiting, in different attitudes of depression and languor. Bavius and Maevius were there, still complaining of ‘cliques,’ railing at Horace for a mere rhymer of society, and at Virgil as a plagiarist, ‘Take away his cribs from Homer and Apollonius Rhodius,’ quoth honest Maevius, ‘and what is there left of him?’ I also met a society of gentlemen, in Greek costume, of various ages, from a half-naked minstrel with a tortoiseshell lyre in his hand to an elegant of the age of Pericles. They all consorted together, talking various dialects of Aeolic, Ionian, Attic Greek, and so forth, which were plainly not intelligible to each other. I ventured to ask one of the company who he was, but he, with a sweep of his hand, said, ‘We are Homer!’ When I expressed my regret and surprise that the Golden Gate had not yet opened for so distinguished, though collective, an artist, my friend answered that, according to Fick, Peppmuller, and many other learned men, they were Homer. ‘But an impostor from Chios has got in somehow,’ he said; ‘they don’t pay the least attention to the Germans in the Paradise of Poets.’
“At this moment the Golden Gates were thrown apart, and a fair lady, in an early Italian costume, carrying a laurel in her hand, appeared at the entrance. All the Shadows looked up with an air of weary expectation, like people waiting for their turn in a doctor’s consulting-room. She beckoned to me, however, and I made haste to follow her. The words ‘Charlatan!’ ‘You a poet!’ in a variety of languages, greeted me by way of farewell from the Shadows.
“‘The renowned Laura, if I am not mistaken,’ I ventured to remark, recognising her, indeed, from the miniature in the Laurentian library at Florence.
“She bowed, and I began to ask for her adorer, Petrarch.
“‘Excuse me,’ said Laura, as we glided down a mossy path, under the shade of trees particularly dear to poets, ‘excuse me, but the sonneteer of whom you speak is one whose name I cannot bear to mention. His conduct with Burns’s Clarinda, his heartless infatuation for Stella —’
“‘You astonish me,’ I said. ‘In the Paradise of Poets —’
“‘They are poets still — incorrigible!’ answered the lady; then slightly raising her voice of silver, as a beautiful appearance in a toga drew near, she cried ‘Catullo mio !’
“The greeting between these accomplished ghosts was too kindly to leave room for doubt as to the ardour of their affections.
“‘Will you, my Catullus,’ murmured Laura, ‘explain to this poet from the land of fogs, any matters which, to him, may seem puzzling and unfamiliar in our Paradise?’
“The Veronese, with a charming smile, took my hand, and led me to a shadowy arbour, whence we enjoyed a prospect of many rivers and mountains in the poets’ heaven. Among these I recognised the triple crest of the Eildons, Grongar Hill, Cithaeron and Etna; while the reed-fringed waters of the Mincius flowed musically between the banks and braes o’ bonny Doon to join the Tweed. Blithe ghosts were wandering by, in all varieties of apparel, and I distinctly observed Dante’s Beatrice, leaning loving on the arm of Sir Philip Sidney, while Dante was closely engaged in conversation with the lost Lenore, celebrated by Mr. Edgar Allan Poe.
“‘In what can my knowledge of the Paradise of Poets be serviceable to you, sir?’ said Catullus, as he flung himself at the feet of Laura, on the velvet grass.
“‘I am disinclined to seem impertinently curious,’ I answered, ‘but the ladies in this fair, smiling country — have the gods made them poetical?’
“‘Not generally,’ replied Catullus. ‘Indeed, if you would be well with them, I may warn you never to mention poetry in their hearing. They never cared for it while on earth, and in this place it is a topic which the prudent carefully avoid among ladies. To tell the truth, they have had to listen to far too much poetry, and too many discussions on the caesura. There are, indeed, a few lady poets — very few. Sappho, for example; indeed I cannot recall any other at this moment. The result is that Phaon, of all the shadows here, is the most distinguished by the fair. He was not a poet, you know; he got in on account of Sappho, who adored him. They are estranged now, of course.’
“‘You interest me deeply,’ I answered. ‘And now, will you kindly tell me why these ladies are here, if they were not poets?’
“‘The women that were our ideals while we dwelt on earth, the women we loved but never won, or, at all events, never wedded, they for whom we sighed while in the arms of a recognised and legitimate affection, have been chosen by the Olympians to keep us company in Paradise!’
“‘Then wherefore,’ I interrupted, ‘do I see Robert Burns loitering with that lady in a ruff,— Cassandra, I make no doubt — Ronsard’s Cassandra? And why is the incomparable Clarinda inseparable from Petrarch; and Miss Patty Blount, Pope’s flame, from the Syrian Meleager, while his Heliodore is manifestly devoted to Mr. Emerson, whom, by the way, I am delighted, if rather surprised, to see here?’
“‘Ah,’ said Catullus, ‘you are a new-comer among us. Poets will be poets, and no sooner have they attained their desire, and dwelt in the company of their earthly Ideals, than they feel strangely, yet irresistibly drawn to Another. So it was in life, so it will ever be. No Ideal can survive a daily companionship, and fortunate is the poet who did not marry his first love!’
“‘As far as that goes,’ I answered, ‘most of you were highly favoured; indeed, I do not remember any poet whose Ideal was his wife, or whose first love led him to the altar.’
“‘I was not a marrying man myself,’ answered the Veronese; ‘few of us were. Myself, Horace, Virgil — we were all bachelors.’
“‘And Lesbia!’
“I said this in a low voice, for Laura was weaving bay into a chaplet, and inattentive to our conversation.
“‘Poor Lesbia!’ said Catullus, with a suppressed sigh. ‘How I misjudged that girl! How cruel, how causeless were my reproaches,’ and wildly rending his curled locks and laurel crown, he fled into a thicket, whence there soon arose the melancholy notes of the Ausonian lyre.’
“‘He is incorrigible,’ said Laura, very coldly; and she deliberately began to tear and toss away the fragments of the chaplet she had been weaving. ‘I shall never break him of that habit of versifying. But they are all alike.’
“‘Is there nobody here,’ said I, ‘who is happy with his Ideal — nobody but has exchanged Ideals with some other poet?’
“‘There is one,’ she said. ‘He comes of a northern tribe; and in his life-time he never rhymed upon his unattainable lady, or if rhyme he did, the accents never carried her name to the ears of the vulgar. Look there.’
“She pointed to the river at our feet, and I knew the mounted figure that was riding the ford, with a green-mantled lady beside him like the Fairy Queen.
“Surely I had read of her, and knew her —
“‘She whose blue eyes their secret told,
Though shaded by her locks of gold.’
“‘They are different; I know not why. They are constant,’ said Laura, and rising with an air of chagrin, she disappeared among the boughs of the trees that bear her name.
“‘Unhappy hearts of poets,’ I mused. ‘Light things and sacred they are, but even in their Paradise, and among their chosen, with every wish fulfilled, and united to their beloved, they cannot be at rest!’
“Thus moralising, I wended my way to a crag, whence there was a wide prospect. Certain poets were standing there, looking down into an abyss, and to them I joined myself.
“‘Ah, I cannot bear it!’ said a voice, and, as he turned away, his brow already clearing, his pain already forgotten, I beheld the august form of Shakespeare.
“Marking my curiosity before it was expressed, he answered the unuttered question.
“‘That is a sight for Pagans,’ he said, ‘and may give them pleasure. But my Paradise were embittered if I had to watch the sorrows of others, and their torments, however well deserved. The others are gazing on the purgatory of critics and commentators.’
“He passed from me, and I joined the ‘Ionian father of the rest’— Homer, who, with a countenance of unspeakable majesty, was seated on a throne of rock, between the Mantuan Virgil of the laurel crown, Hugo, Sophocles, Milton, Lovelace, Tennyson, and Shelley.
“At their feet I beheld, in a vast and gloomy hall, many an honest critic, many an erudite commentator, an army of reviewers. Some were condemned to roll logs up insuperable heights, whence they descended thundering to the plain. Others were set to impositions, and I particularly observed that the Homeric commentators were obliged to write out the ‘Iliad’ and ‘Odyssey’ in their complete shape, and were always driven by fiends to the task when they prayed for the bare charity of being permitted to leave out the ‘interpolations.’ Others, fearful to narrate, were torn into as many fragments as they had made of these immortal epics. Others, such as Aristarchus, were spitted on their own critical signs of disapproval. Many reviewers were compelled to read the books which they had criticised without perusal, and it was terrible to watch the agonies of the worthy pressmen who were set to this unwonted task. ‘May we not be let off with the preface?’ they cried in piteous accents. ‘May we not glance at the table of contents and be done with it?’ But the presiding demons (who had been Examiners in the bodily life) drove them remorseless to their toils.
“Among the condemned I could not but witness, with sympathy, the punishment reserved for translators. The translators of Virgil, in particular, were a vast and motley assemblage of most respectable men. Bishops were there, from Gawain Douglas downwards; Judges, in their ermine; professors, clergymen, civil servants, writhing in all the tortures that the blank verse, the anapaestic measure, the metre of the ‘Lay of the Last Minstrel,’ the heroic couplet and similar devices can inflict. For all these men had loved Virgil, though not wisely: and now their penance was to hear each other read their own translations.”
“That must have been more than they could bear,” said Lady Violet
“Yes,” said Mr. Witham; “I should know, for down I fell into Tartarus with a crash, and writhed among the Translators.”
“Why?” asked Lady Violet.
“Because I have translated Theocritus!”
“Mr. Witham,” said Lady Violet, “did you meet your ideal woman when you were in the Paradise of Poets?”
“She yet walks this earth,” said the bard, with a too significant bow.
Lady Violet turned coldly away.

* *
Mr. Witham was never invited to the Blues again — the name of Lord Azure’s place in Kent.
The Poet is shut out of Paradise.

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