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I meant to post this yesterday, but life got, as they say, Life-like. Sorry. Anyway, a bibliography of anthologies of bad poetry.

The Stuffed Owl, ed. D.B. Windham Lewis & Charles Lee (London: 1930) - The classic, with excellent commentary, a wicked index, and an admirable focus on Name Poets being bad on off days (the title is from a Wordsworth sonnet). Organized chronologically by poet. Its main weakness is a tendency to extract even from short poems, and it doesn't extend past Tennyson. Has been in print more or less continuously on both sides of the Atlantic, and so a copy should be easy to find.

The Worst English Poets, ed Christopher Adams (London: 1958) - A slim but choice volume, including several selections I've not seen elsewhere. Organized thematically. Main weaknesses are its slimness and indexlessness. As far as I know, never reprinted, but occasionally can be found used. (My copy was culled from a Texas county library.)

Pegasus Descending: A Book of the Best Bad Verse, ed. James Camp, X.J. Kennedy, & Keith Waldrop (New York: 1971) - Intended as a sequel to TSO, it has very little overlap and extends the selection into the 20th century, but does not always manage to pull off its snark with a straight face. Organized thematically. Intermittently reprinted, can be hard to find.

The Joy of Bad Verse by Nicholas T. Parsons (London: 1988) - Not an anthology but more of a study, but there are many excellent samples to back up his analysis. Eight chapters are devoted to various thematic aspects of badness, followed by a dozen case-studies of bad poets; an appendix gives more extended samples and suggestions for group readings. Parsons did extensive research for this one, and it shows -- many gloriously atrocious poems appear here for the first time since their original publication. Its main weakness is that it is not an anthology, but regardless this is the second most-important of these books to have, after TSO. As far as I know, this was never reprinted across the Puddle, so it can be difficult to find outside of the UK.

Very Bad Poetry, ed. Kathryn Petras & Ross Petras (New York: 1997) - A very weak culling: there's hardly anything that is not in TSO, usually as even briefer extracts, and much of the commentary was digested from same. Organized alphabetically by poet. Mentioned mainly because it's relative recent vintage makes it easy to find.

The World's Worst Poetry: An Anthology, Stephen Robins (London: 2002) - A decent selection, and extracts sometimes extend beyond what TSO gives; it is clear, also, that Robins has studied Parsons carefully. The title is, however, overheated, as it sticks strictly to English and misses some of Adams's best stuff. Organized alphabetically by poet. Also never, that I know, reprinted across the Puddle, but its recent date makes it relatively easy to find.

Teen Angst: A celebration of REALLY BAD poetry, ed. Sara Boyne (New York: 2005) - Not a general anthology: all selections were submitted by their authors at least ten years after writing them as a teenager. As such, it is a good sample of what real teens really write about -- and how they really write. As such, it's a must-have as research material for YA authors, but the rest of us can probably made do with the website these were reprinted from.

Honorable mention goes to B Is for Bad Poetry by Pamela August Russell (New York: 2009), a single author collection. Most of Russell's efforts are not nearly as entertainingly bad as an average page from any of the above, but there are a few excellent gems. A sample:
The Perfect Love Poem

Every time
I see your face
it reminds me
of you.

And that's all I have for this week. I hope you've enjoyed reading these posts as much as I've enjoyed writing them.

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[personal profile] lnhammer
So, I hear some of you ask through the ether, what's the appeal of bad poetry? I confess I don't have a clear answer here -- nor, apparently, do most of the critics and editors who write about the stuff. (Defenders of "good bad movies" have a similar problem.) But I do have a couple thoughts.

One possible reason is the amusement of seeing language handled that badly. Whether this is more closely related to the appeal of watching a disaster unfold or the appeal of watching people fail, I cannot say. Possibly the latter -- certainly, there are poems that deserve to be set alongside the Fail Blog. But there's also something of the same startled recognition that particularly mangled Engrish evokes, here divorced from some of the guilt because this sort of bad poetry is, in fact, perpetrated by fluent native speakers.

But another part of it is the wonder of "Don't these people realize how bad they are?" This gets into tricky territory. It's not like many (most?) of the poets didn't get feedback. Some, we know, dismissed the barbs of critics under various headings such as "jealous of my accomplishments," "misunderstood my genius," "yes but I'm popular so neener-neener" and so on. McGonagall is particularly interesting, as he made something of a living from recitations where he was routinely pelted with rotten veggies, with every apparent sign that he considered the filled theaters a sign of his popularity. It's been speculated that was all a sort of performance art, but if so, he managed to keep a remarkably straight face about the whole thing -- as did all his critics. The alternative is, however, that he had a thick skin and powers of self-delusion worthy of the great Emperor Norton.

Or maybe we're just all being ironic hipsters/post-modernists/whatevers. Though I'm skeptical of that, given you can find essays on the appeal of bad poetry going back to the turn of the 20th century, when what modernists there were were all pre- and the hipsters were all Decadents. But the ironic zeitgeist certainly hasn't hurt the appeal.

For me, at least, there's an element of "There but for the grace of competence go I." This is why I sometimes emphasize the object lesson aspects -- "Don't do this." But that's is certainly cannot explain the glee a deliciously incompetent poem inspires in me.

Those of you who enjoy bad poetry -- why?

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[personal profile] lnhammer
William Topaz McGonagall (1825-1902) was a Scottish weaver, actor, and poet universally regarded as one of the worst poets of the English language. It can be debated whether he is the very worst ever, given some of the competition, but he's my nomination, if only because he's the most entertainingly bad. The combination of technical incompetance, in particular his complete deafness to meter and his distortions of syntax perpetrated solely to reach the most thumpingly obvious rhymes, and banal sentimentality reaches almost sublime levels. It is very, very hard to deliberately write this bad. I know -- I've tried, and come not even within hailing distance of the disasterousness of his poetry.

But enough praise -- let's cut to the chase. As a sampler, I give you his most famous work in context: an inadvertant trilogy of poems about the Tay Railway Bridge. They are best read out loud, especially in a group -- a Scottish accent is not required but a good one adds to the effect. Keep in mind as you read these that they are attempting to be fully regular iambic lines. The titles link to texts with commentary and further reading.

The Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay (1878)

Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay!
With your numerous arches and pillars in so grand array
And your central girders, which seem to the eye
To be almost towering to the sky.
The greatest wonder of the day,
And a great beautification to the River Tay,
Most beautiful to be seen,
Near by Dundee and the Magdalen Green )

The Tay Bridge Disaster (1880)

Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay!
Alas! I am very sorry to say
That ninety lives have been taken away
On the last Sabbath day of 1879,
Which will be remember’d for a very long time )

An Address to the New Tay Bridge (1887)

Beautiful new railway bridge of the Silvery Tay,
With your strong brick piers and buttresses in so grand array,
And your thirteen central girders, which seem to my eye
Strong enough all windy storms to defy.
And as I gaze upon thee my heart feels gay,
Because thou are the greatest railway bridge of the present day,
And can be seen for miles away
From North, South, East or West of the Tay
On a beautiful and clear sunshiny day,
And ought to make the hearts of the “Mars” boys feel gay,
Because thine equal nowhere can be seen,
Only near by Dundee and the bonnie Magdalen Green )

For more like this, your one-stop shop for all things McGonagall is McGonagall Online, provided to us gratis by an editor of just one of the many editions of his poems -- peruse at your

As a follow-up, I'll ask the obvious -- what's your favorite McGonagall poem? In the interests of full disclosure, mine is Description of New York.

(BTW, in case you're wondering, Minerva McGonagall was indeed named after him, but not for his poetry. So was the battle poet of the Nac Mac Fleegle, and for the poetry.)

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[personal profile] lnhammer
I have what has sometimes been described[1] as an unfortunate taste for bad poetry. I relish it the way some people enjoy bad movies or bad novels. I'm talking about the sort of stuff where, if you meet a line like Of compost shall the Muse disdain to sing?[2] the answer will invariably and unfortunately be No.

And just as there are qualities of badness that make something a "good bad movie" enjoyable, or as TV Tropes puts it So Bad It's Good, so for poetry. The best bad verse reaches beyond the creator's abilities. Ye average teen angst verse has nothing on William McGonagall — of whom more anon. Mere technical incompetence is not enough, however. There must be more.

Such as bathos — the "art of sinking," as Pope & Co. called it. High-flown imagery soaring into a mundane thump is a wondrous thing.
But ah! when first to breathe man does begin
He then inhales the noxious seeds of sin,
Which every goodly feeling does destroy
And more or less his after-life annoy.[3]

And then there's disjoints between style and substance:
"Lord Byron" was an Englishman
    A poet I believe,
His first works in old England
    Was poorly received.
Perhaps it was "Lord Byron's" fault
    And perhaps it was not.
His life was full of misfortunes,
    Ah, strange was his lot.[4]

Victories of sound over sense:
In the music of the morns,
Blown through Conchimarian horns,
Down the dark vistas of the reboantic Norns,
To the Genius of Eternity,
Crying: "Come to me! Come to me!"[5]

Tin ears:
When I came to the little rose-colour'd room,
   From the curtains out flew a bat.
The window stood open: and in the gloom
   My love at the window sat.[6]

Underbaked diction:
And now, kind friends, what I have wrote,
   I hope you will pass o'er,
And not to criticise as some have done
   Hitherto herebefore.[7]

Overheated diction:
"Ne'er will I quit th' undeviating line,
Whose source thou art, and thou the law divine.
The Sun shall be subdued, his system fade,
Ere I forsake the path thy fiat made;
Yet grant one soft regretful tear to flow,
Prompted by pity for a Lover's woe,
O grant without revenge, one bursting sigh,
Ere from his desolating grief I fly—
'Tis past,—Farewell! Another claims my heart;
Then wing thy sinking steps, for here we part,
We part! and listen, for the word is mine,
Anna Matilda never can be thine!"[8]

Unfortunate kennings:
Would any feather'd maiden of the wood,
Or scaly female of the peopled flood,
When lust and hunger call'd, its force resist?
In abstinence or chastity persist?[9]

Incompatible metaphors:
Life scums the cream of Beauty with Time's spoon[10]

Depleted banalities:
                                        Still I toil.
How long and steep and cheerless the ascent!
It needs the evidence of close deduction
To know that I shall ever reach the height![11]

And thundering bores:
Thus, if a Government agrees to give,
Whenever Public Companies are formed,
To each a dividend—say, six percent
Per annum ... [12]

Before exploring the swamplands for more, be warned: ye average volume of bad poetry has a higher body count than a teen slasher flick, deployed to even less emotional effect. Yes, there are volumes — poeple collect this stuff. The above are all culled[13] from The Stuffed Owl ed. by Wyndham Lewis and Lee, which is one of the essential collections for aspiring poets — as object lessons, if nothing else. I'll compile a bibliography in a later post.

But as for what makes bad poetry so attractive -- that, I'm on less clear ground. I hope to explore the topic later this week.

Does anyone else have a taste for bad poetry? What are your favorites?


Note and Citations:
1. By me.
2. James Grainger, The Sugar Cane.
3. Robert Peter, On Time, Death, and Eternity.
4. Julia Moore, Lord Byron's Life. The quotes are original; ditto the grammar.
5. Thomas Chivers, The Poet's Vocation.
6. "Owen Meredith" a.k.a. Robert Bulwer-Lytton, Going Back Again. This is not the Bulwer-Lytton you're thinking of but rather his son.
7. Julia Moore, The Author's Early Life. She gets double-duty in this sampling because she comes up a lot in bad verse lists.
8. Robert Merry writing as Della Crusca, The Interview. The supposed speaker was in her mid-forties, and had not yet met the poet in person.
9. John, Lord Hervy, Epistle to Mr. Fox, from Hampton Court. The authorship is almost as boggling as the lines themselves — a young poet telling his beloved "the birds and fishes do it, so why can't you?" can be forgiven, where by "forgive" I mean "publicly and thoroughly mocked," but this is a Lord Privy Seal writing to his middle-aged friend.
10. Margaret Cavendish, A Posset for Nature's Breakfast.
11. Joseph Cottle, The Malvern Hills.
12. George Everleigh, Science Revealed — which, as as you can tell from this extract, is a work of natural theology.
13. Much like predators cull the weak from the herd.
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[personal profile] lnhammer
The Making of a Sonnet, ed. Eavan Boland & Edward Hirsch. Large and diverse, and especially good on 20th century experiments.

The Oxford Book of Sonnets, ed. John Fuller. This is smaller and was economically constrained to include fewer 20th century sonnets, but otherwise manages a greater variety. It's also only general anthology I've met that acknowledges the role of women poets of the late 18th century in the revival of the English sonnet, even if the selection of their poems is still thin.

Complete cycles: the best sonnet cycle in English is Sidney's Astrophel and Stella (original spelling). The next-best Elizabethan cycle would be Drayton's Idea; two good Victorian cycles are D.G. Rossetti's The House of Life and C. Rossetti's "Monna Innominata." For contemporary cycles, I'm especially partial to Hacker's Love, Death, and the Changing of the Seasons; if the form used in Hollander's Powers of Thirteen counts as a sonnet (and this is highly debatable, though it's certainly a sonnet-analog of roughly the same size), I like that as well.

And fwiw, in The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, the articles "Sonnet" and "Volta" were especially useful to me this week.

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Sonnets are one of the great cultural exports of Italy, up there with pastas and perspective drawing -- modern poets have written sonnets in most languages that use rhymes, ranging from Icelandic to Chinese. Here's one from one of the most influential Modernist poets worldwide, Marie Ranier Rilke. Note that it's not a love sonnet, except insofar as Rilke always wrote about philosophy as if it were love.

Confession: I wanted to pick something from Sonnets to Orpheus, but there are no English translations in the public domain in the States and my German's too rusty for the task, so I'll just link you do a couple different versions, the last of which compares several translations -- and post here instead a famous one from 1907:

Archaïscher Torso Apollos

Wir kannten nicht sein unerhörtes Haupt,
darin die Augenäpfel reiften. Aber
sein Torso glüht wie ein Kandelaber,
in dem sein Schauen, nur zurückgeschraubt,

sich hält und glänzt. Sonst könnte nicht der Bug
der Brust dich blenden, und im leisen Drehen
der Lenden könnte nicht ein Lächeln gehen
zu jener Mitte, die die Zeugung trug.

Sonst stünde dieser Stein enstellt und kurz
unter der Schultern durchsichtigem Sturz
und flimmerte nicht wie Raubtierfelle;

und bräche nicht aus allen seinen Rändern
aus wie ein Stern: denn da ist keine Stelle,
die dich nicht sieht. Du mußt dein Leben ändern.

translation by Jessie Lemont )

While I have questions about this poem, they aren't about sonnets per se so I'll leave it -- and this week -- at that. Though I should put together a for-further-reading post for tomorrow.

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[personal profile] lnhammer
Enough theoretical discussion -- back to the love poems. Here's one by one of the better love poets of the last century.

What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why,
I have forgotten, and what arms have lain
Under my head till morning; but the rain
Is full of ghosts to-night, that tap and sigh
Upon the glass and listen for reply,
And in my heart there stirs a quiet pain
For unremembered lads that not again
Will turn to me at midnight with a cry.
Thus in the winter stands the lonely tree,
Nor knows what birds have vanished one by one,
Yet knows its boughs more silent than before:
I cannot say what loves have come and gone,
I only know that summer sang in me
A little while, that in me sings no more.

Do you have a favorite love sonnet?

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[personal profile] lnhammer
There are many ways to build larger structures out of sonnets -- at least as many as there are of building sonnets. The classic example is, of course, a sonnet sequence, in which individual poems are snapshots from a larger story -- though sometimes, as with Shakespeare, the story may be so diffused or confused as to be impossible to make out. But the units can be bound more tightly, to the point that any given sonnet is not readily detachable as an independent poem. One formal way is in a corona or "crown" of sonnets, in which the last line of one is repeated as the first of the next. The classic form of crown has seven sonnets, but fourteen-sonnet versions can also be found -- and for bonus points, there's the sonnet redoublé of fourteen in which the repeated lines form a fifteenth sonnet (here's an example).

The consensus seems to be that a corona's units are still sonnets even though they're almost never reprinted separately. But you can also in effect use sonnets as stanzas, in which case the issue is even less clear, a classic example being Shelley's "Ode to the West Wind." Here's another:


Lift up thy lips, turn round, look back for love,
    Blind love that comes by night and casts out rest;
    Of all things tired thy lips look weariest,
Save the long smile that they are wearied of.
Ah sweet, albeit no love be sweet enough,
    Choose of two loves and cleave unto the best;
    Two loves at either blossom of thy breast
Strive until one be under and one above.
Their breath is fire upon the amorous air,
    Fire in thine eyes and where thy lips suspire:
And whosoever hath seen thee, being so fair,
    Two things turn all his life and blood to fire;
A strong desire begot on great despair,
    A great despair cast out by strong desire.


Where between sleep and life some brief space is,
    With love like gold bound round about the head,
    Sex to sweet sex with lips and limbs is wed,
Turning the fruitful feud of hers and his
To the waste wedlock of a sterile kiss;
    Yet from them something like as fire is shed
    That shall not be assuaged till death be dead,
Though neither life nor sleep can find out this.
Love made himself of flesh that perisheth
    A pleasure-house for all the loves his kin;
But on the one side sat a man like death,
    And on the other a woman sat like sin.
So with veiled eyes and sobs between his breath
    Love turned himself and would not enter in.


Love, is it love or sleep or shadow or light
    That lies between thine eyelids and thine eyes?
    Like a flower laid upon a flower it lies,
Or like the night's dew laid upon the night.
Love stands upon thy left hand and thy right,
    Yet by no sunset and by no moonrise
    Shall make thee man and ease a woman's sighs,
Or make thee woman for a man's delight.
To what strange end hath some strange god made fair
    The double blossom of two fruitless flowers?
Hid love in all the folds of all thy hair,
    Fed thee on summers, watered thee with showers,
Given all the gold that all the seasons wear
    To thee that art a thing of barren hours?


Yea, love, I see; it is not love but fear.
    Nay, sweet, it is not fear but love, I know;
    Or wherefore should thy body's blossom blow
So sweetly, or thine eyelids leave so clear
Thy gracious eyes that never made a tear—
    Though for their love our tears like blood should flow,
    Though love and life and death should come and go,
So dreadful, so desirable, so dear?
Yea, sweet, I know; I saw in what swift wise
    Beneath the woman's and the water's kiss
    Thy moist limbs melted into Salmacis,
And the large light turned tender in thine eyes,
And all thy boy's breath softened into sighs;
    But Love being blind, how should he know of this?

Au Musée du Louvre, Mars 1863.

When sonnet-formed units are integrated this tightly into a unified work, are they still sonnets? Can you have a poem of poems? or is the set definted to not include itself?

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[personal profile] lnhammer
Before going on to other formal variations, a glance another metrical experiment that brings up the question of topic. This one has of course nothing to do with romantic love -- which would be odd indeed for a devout Jesuit priest to write about.

It is sometimes tempting to claim that if the sound of a Hopkins poem does not move you, you have no soul. I don't, mind you, but it is tempting. Read this one aloud, especially if you haven't before. A windhover, by the way, is a type of small falcon usually called a kite, for its hovering in the wind over the downs, and sillion is a dialect word for a furrow. Note again a classic volta, one drawn even more sharply than either Petrarch's or Sidney's.

The Windhover
To Christ our Lord

I caught this morning morning's minion, king-
    dom of daylight's dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
    Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
    As a skate's heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
    Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird, –- the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!

Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
    Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!

    No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
    Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermilion.

More or less five feet per line, depending on how much you agree with Hopkins' own analysis of the meter, but definitely not iambic -- and yet I'd argue it still is quite recognizably a sonnet. Compare to his "Spelt from Sibyl’s Leaves," a more extreme metrical experiment that doesn't feel sonnet to me, despite the orthodox rhyme and volta -- plus others such as such as "God's Grandeur" (fairly orthdox), "I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day" (the darkest of his dark sonnets, and an object lesson in how many spondees you can substitute and still count as iambic).

Are there any subjects you consider particularly inappropriate for a sonnet -- whether because it's unsuitable to the form, or the form won't suit it, or whatever?

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[personal profile] lnhammer
The line-length for sonnets is usually the default line-length for the language it's written in -- hendecasyllables in Italian, alexandrine in French, iambic pentameter in English, and so on. Usually, but not always, and just as poets have always played with words, so they have with forms. Phillip Sidney's cycle Astrophel and Stella was experimental in so many ways, above and beyond the obvious one of being the first sonnet cycle in English: not only does the opening play merry heck with the conventions of renaissance rhetoric, it's in hexameter:

Loving in truth, and fain in verse my love to show,
That the dear She might take some pleasure of my pain:
Pleasure might cause her read, reading might make her know,
Knowledge might pity win, and pity grace obtain,
    I sought fit words to paint the blackest face of woe,
Studying inventions fine, her wits to entertain:
Oft turning others' leaves, to see if thence would flow
Some fresh and fruitful showers upon my sun-burned brain.
    But words came halting forth, wanting Invention's stay,
Invention, Nature's child, fled step-dame Study's blows,
And others' feet still seemed but strangers in my way.
Thus great with child to speak, and helpless in my throes,
        Biting my truant pen, beating myself for spite,
        "Fool" said my Muse to me, "look in thy heart and write."

What line-lengths and meters other than iambic pentameter do you consider acceptable in a sonnet? Do the lines always have to be the same length? Can you provide examples?

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[personal profile] lnhammer
Sonnets were for a long time strongly identified with the Petrarchan tradition, and even now the form can have connotations of love poetry despite extensive proof that it's useful for a two-part argument of a certain size on any subject. Not to mention, there's quite a few sonnets having nothing whatsoever to do with Laura in Petrarch's Canzone. But to start us off, an actual Petrarchan sonnet, with a more-or-less literal translation (cribbed together from ponies and rusty Spanish) plus a much freer by the poet who introduced the form to English. Note, btw, the classic volta.

Una candida cerva sopra l'erba
verde m'apparve, con duo corna d'oro,
fra due riviere, all'ombra d'un alloro,
levando 'l sole a la stagione acerba.

Era sua vista sí dolce superba,
ch'i' lasciai per seguirla ogni lavoro:
come l'avaro che 'n cercar tesoro
con diletto l'affanno disacerba.

"Nessun mi tocchi" al bel collo d'intorno
scritto avea di diamanti et di topazi
"libera farmi al mio Cesare parve."

Et era 'l sol già vòlto al mezzo giorno,
gli occhi miei stanchi di mirar, non sazi,
quand'io caddi ne l'acqua, et ella sparve.

Literal rendering )

Wyatt's rendering )

Leaving aside the all-too-obvious fact that I am not the poet Sir Thomas Wyatt was, this does raise questions of just how valid adaptations and imitations are as translations and of the role of either in the adoption of forms across languages -- but since this is not translation but sonnet week, I'll set those aside (after linking to this discussion of translations of another Petrarch sonnet by the first two poets to use the form in English). Though doing so leaves me with no question for discussion on this one. Oops. Well, maybe you guys can think of something to ask me. Or we can return to the meta question of what defines a sonnet.

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[personal profile] lnhammer
I'm [personal profile] lnhammer, and I'll be hosting a week on sonnets.

You can find as almost many definitions of a sonnet as you can prosodists: fourteen lines, rhyming, yadda yadda. "Rhyming," yes, but exactly how is not important. In fact, historically a particular rhyme scheme has never been a defining characteristic of sonnets -- the now-standard abbaabba octave of the various Italian schemata wasn't introduced until a generation after the form was invented in the early 13th century (using abababab).

The closest thing to a definitive marker is 14 lines containing an asymmetric two-part structure with a "turn" of thought, volta in Italian, slightly more than halfway through, most orthodoxly giving it a 8+6 structure (as emphasized by Italian rhyme schemes) but sometimes moved a line or two in either direction. But even that definition can be carped at, given that Elizabethan rhyme schemes with their final couplet often suggest using a 12+2 argument.

But enough of that. This week I'd like to explore some other aspects of sonnets -- starting with my next post later today.

Until then, though, a question: how do YOU define a sonnet?

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[personal profile] lnhammer
While it is tempting to pick a relatively easy translation tension, such as word order versus order of images, I think it is time to tackle the infamous pronoun problem and the related issue of context. Here's a particularly knotty one, one that would be even worse were it not for its complicated textual history.

Kokinshu #35 is from book 1, in the section of plum blossom poems. To explain the difficulty here, I need to lift up the hood and show the details of how to unpack a Japanese poem. Or at least how I do it, which as you've seen is often at length, and immodestly long posts go under a modesty cut. )

And that's it for me this week (unless someone really wants that word-versus-image-order post). I hope I've managed to convey something of the fun of translation, and the beauties of classical Japanese poetry -- or if not, that I was at least entertaining. And I leave you with a question: which of the above versions is "correct," and why?

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[personal profile] lnhammer
We know very little about Ono no Komachi aside from that she was active in the middle of the 9th century and the subject of later medieval legends about her as a hardhearted beauty. Based on a body of 22 poems reliably attributed to her, she's considered one of Japan's greatest woman poets, noted in particular for her passionate love poems and her technical mastery, especially at using words with multiple meanings.

That last requires some comment. Brief discussion of ways of doubling meanings, including one unique to Japanese, ) by way of context. As for the poem: this is again from book 2 of the Kokinshu, in a section about flowers fading in late spring, and like Tomonori's poem, it also represents her in One Hundred People, One Poem Each. The headnote claims the topic is unknown.

hana no iro wa
utsurinikeri na
itazura ni
waga mi yo ni furu
nagame seshi ma ni
    This flower's beauty
has faded away it seems
    to no avail
have I spent my time staring
into space at the long rains

So about those double-meanings? Let me count the ways -- and the compromises. ) And even then, I'd still want footnotes.

Incidentally, if you ignore or overlook all the double-meanings, it's relatively easy to read the poem as a single, simple statement (for example, a descriptive bit about flowers fading in the rain). One that gets it very, very wrong. Which may, when coupled with its reputation, go a long way toward explaining why this is one of the most translated poems of any language. If you're interested in a detailed analysis of several English versions, and how they do or do not get it right, I recommend Joshua Mostow's excellent discussion in chapter 3 of Pictures of the Heart: The Hyakunin Isshu in Word and Image (link is to Google Books version).

Technical details aside, double-meanings appear in poetry in every language, of course. Can anyone recommend translations that manage to reproduce, either directly or by other means, double-meanings of the original?

lnhammer: lo-fi photo of a tall, thin man - caption: "some guy" (Default)
[personal profile] lnhammer
Ki no Tomonori is best known today as one of the four editors of the Kokinshu. His birth date is unknown, but he died before the collection was completed around 905 CE. In his day and for a few centuries afterward, he was considered a major poet, writing works that struck a fashionable balance between a courtier's smooth wittiness and an elegant manner.

One reason his reputation declined is that tastes changed, as open wit was devalued in favor of emotional depth and subtle allusion. Another is that he was, in fact, not a very original poet: I've seen him use only a single image or conceit I haven't met somewhere else in the works of his predecessors or contemporaries, and that's in a thoroughly mediocre poem. What he excelled at, more than anyone of his time, was making it sound beautiful. Or to put it another way, his poetry is good in precisely those ways that do not translate well.

Here is his most famous poem, chosen to represent him in One Hundred People, One Poem Each. It is from book 2 of the Kokinshu, a spring poem with the topic "Written on cherry blossoms falling."

hisakata no
hikari nodokeki
haru no hi ni
shizugokoro naku
hana no chiruramu
    Gentle light shines down
from the eternal heavens,
    so on this spring day
why do the cherry blossoms
scatter with such restless hearts?

A transient footnote. )

The main difficulty here is what makes this his best-known work -- the original is absolutely lovely, quite possibly the most beautiful poem in the Kokinshu in terms of sound and rhythm and their play with the sense of the words. Something of the effect can be half-glimpsed by noting the interplay of syllables beginning with h and k. The only thing one can do is polish, and polish, and polish until the translation gleams with its own reflected grace.

I cannot claim I've succeeded at that, but I am pleased I managed to shape the progression of vowels, rising high and back in the mouth until dropping to the low front with the final line's restless hearts. This is only a pale imitation of the original's effect, but it's something.

So here's a question: can anyone recommend translations from any language that reproduce the aesthetic, and especially sonic, effects of the original poem?

lnhammer: lo-fi photo of a tall, thin man - caption: "some guy" (Default)
[personal profile] lnhammer
The Kokinwakashu ("Collection of Old and New Japanese Poetry"), or Kokinshu for short, was the first imperially commissioned anthology of poetry in Japanese, compiled around 905 CE by a panel of four leading young poets of the day. This was a cultural watershed -- it firmly cemented the reputation of Japanese as a valid language for poetry, as opposed to the Chinese in vogue for the prior century and a half, and it set what was acceptable in terms of diction, subjects, and images for court poetry (and by omission, what was not acceptable) for the next thousand years minus a couple decades.

Background notes on the collection, verse form, Japanese grammar, and the collapse of ambiguity (if not civilization itself). )

For what it's worth, my philosophy of translation is to render my best understanding of the original's sense while reproducing as much as possible of the poem's quality and structures -- sonic, linguistic, rhetorical, and so on. This involves not only interpretation, but trade-offs. For example, the normal sentence order of Japanese is almost, but not entirely, the complete reverse of English. This means that in a literal prose paraphrase of a poem that's one long clause, the nouns, verbs, and adjectives are in the opposite order in English from the original. If the sequence of images these substantives call up is not important to the poem's effect -- for example, if the mainspring of the poetry is a witty metaphor -- then this reversal does no real damage. But if the images form a careful progression, such as sweeping from a wide scene down to a small detail, it is probably better to maintain that sequence as best as possible, at the expense of breaking up the smooth swoop of a single clause.

Trade-offs. Just like in any poem, or any other work of art.

For this week, I've chosen three Kokinshu poems that highlight different problems of translation. I'm afraid there's far more prose than verse in these posts -- partly because the poems are so small, but mostly it's that it takes a lot to unpack these lovely puzzle-boxes that are Japanese verse. Starting on the next rock, coming tomorrow.

Until then, for discussion: those of you who translate, what is your philosophy/practice? What do you focus on the most?

A modest footnote )

lnhammer: lo-fi photo of a tall, thin man - caption: "some guy" (Default)
[personal profile] lnhammer
Hi, I'm some guy named Larry, your host for the week. My focus will be on translating poetry, illustrated with some of my own. My basic thesis is that yes, it is indeed possible to translate a poem, but that the process is subject to the same compromises between sound, form, content, structure, image, trope, and so on as in an original poem, only even more so.

My current obsession* is Japanese, which I've been learning for a couple years now -- both modern and classical languages, which are roughly as different as modern English and Chaucer's dialect. For the past year and a half, by way of practice, I've been working my way through the Kokinshu, a poetry collection compiled at the start of the 10th century -- posting drafts in my DW and compiling revisions in my LJ starting here; the latest versions are also available in a free ebook (ePub only, sorry).

The translations I plan to discuss this week are all from this collection; two are also in One Hundred People, One Poem Each, an anthology compiled a couple centuries later, which I've translated in full. Even more than the Kokinshu, this collection is part of the canon of classical literature, being required reading for Japanese high school students. As a result, it's been multiply translated -- which means it's relatively easy to check my work against other versions. (BTW, if anyone can comment on or correct my interpretations, please do -- I'm very much just a journeyman at this.)

But enough about me -- on the next rock, some background on Japanese poetry and language.

* In the past, I've also translated Spanish and Latin.



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February 2017



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