Thought Trafficking

6.47am and the sun is not yet up
September 28, 2009, 12:51 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

I should have mentioned in the last post that the above poem is in alexandine meter (that is, 12 syllables to a line with a pause after the first six) with an AABB “rime plate”. I made no attempt to reproduce this.

There are few things that are better than good tea and granola in the fish-light of pre-dawn. I hope that everyone slept soundly.


Là-bas fuir
September 28, 2009, 3:21 am
Filed under: academese, Uncategorized | Tags: , , ,

One more thing. After trying to explain a few things about Mallarmé as quickly as I could to several acquaintances the other night, I recommended his poem, “Brise Marine”, as a good place to start with his poetry, as it is one of the poems that I started with and has stayed my favourite. After that, I decided to try translating it, and then I decided to post it here.

Feel free to comment or suggest alternatives. This is only a rough draft and a crude one at that, more literal than I would like. Eventually, I hope to end up with a translation of the poem that I am satisfied with. First, the French:

La chair est triste, hélas! et j’ai lu tous les livres.
Fuir! là-bas fuir! Je sens que des oiseaux sont ivres
D’être parmi l’écume inconnue et les cieux!
Rien, ni les vieux jardins reflétés par les yeux
Ne retiendra ce cœur qui dans la mer se trempe
O nuits! ni la clarté déserte de ma lampe
Sur le vide papier que la blancheur défend,
Et ni la jeune femme allaitant son enfant.
Je partirai! Steamer balançant ta mâture,
Lève l’ancre pour une exotique nature!
Un Ennui, désolé par les cruels espoirs,
Croit encore à l’adieu suprême des mouchoirs!
Et, peut-être, les mâts, invitant les orages
Sont-ils de ceux qu’un vent penche sur les naufrages
Perdus, sans mâts, sans mâts, ni fertiles îlots…
Mais, ô mon cœur, entends le chant des matelots!
And now, first attempts:
This flesh is sad, alas, and I've read every book.
To flee! To steal away! There where I sense that the birds are inebriated
to be between the unknown seafoam and the skies!
Nothing, not the old gardens reflected by my eyes
will restrain this heart already wet with the sea,
oh nights! not the empty clarity of my lamp
on the empty page that whiteness defends
and not the young woman nursing her child.
I will away! Steamer with your pitching mast
hoist your anchor for an exotic nature!
An Ennui, grieved by cruel hopes,
still believes in the supreme adieu of a waving hanky!
And perhaps these masts, inviting storms,
are those that the wind tilts towards shipwrecks
lost, with neither masts nor fertile isles...
But, oh my heart, hear the song of the sailors!

Le vide papier que la blancheur défend
September 28, 2009, 2:27 am
Filed under: academese, knitting, outside, wanderlust

I am sitting in the kitchen, books on Mallarmé all around me, watching the reflection of the sunset in the trees. A semi-circular flock of birds just passed in front of the moon, a moon that is half-full or maybe even gibbous. It will be easier to tell when the sky darkens.

Fall arrived with the wind a couple of nights ago, and I obligingly began to knit my first pair of mittens, noting to a friend that I had graduated from sweater-gloves (arm warmers) to mittens when I moved back to the prairies. These first mittens are a lively green in a soft, fat, single-ply wool, mitered and long enough to fit down the cuffs of my coats.

This weekend I very nearly drove down to Bellingham for a concert. I didn’t, couldn’t, but the temptation was palpable. I could taste the air, was planning the trip out loud for several hours, could see the trees and the way the sun is on the ocean. The very next night, driving home from an opening at the art gallery where I used to work, the moon (smaller than it is today) was tempting me to drive all the way down to Milk River, down to the farm. At night, in the living room facing the Sweetgrass Hills, I can see the fat old stars even with my glasses off. I wanted to test the sky from a different latitude. Before I can really give in to this wanderlust, however, I need to finish this project.

One of the larger questions on my mind right now is: do I want to go back to grad school? Do I want another degree? Is it practical? Do I care if it is practical? I think that my frustration with my current project colours all of these thoughts. I am tired of explaining myself. I am tired of being uncertain as to whether I am “getting it wrong”, or whether I am just studying something that is so obscure that few people have the background to be able to discuss it without a lot of explanation. Something stronger is maybe in order: I hate explaining myself. Maybe it’s that I have a lot of questions and not a lot of ways to answer them. When asked what I am studying, I have almost got it down to a sentence or two: nineteenth century French poetry and its relationship to music. Which rings false to me, so I rephrase it for myself: the aesthetic theory (/attitude) of Stéphane Mallarmé, specifically with regard to music, and the success (/failure) of Pierre Boulez’s work, Pli selon pli, to translate this attitude. Mallarmé’s attitude towards music was ambiguous – he at one envied music’s capacity for wordless expression of an idea and it’s esoteric notation and pooh-poohed it as non-signifying and unspecific. Poetry, he felt, was above music (as an art) because it could suggest a thing, allude to an idea without mentioning it and yet still conjure something more specific. It could still be sure of communicating in something that an observer could hope to pinpoint and perhaps interpret, whereas music could allude and and suggest all it wanted, without necessarily convincing, without specifically evoking. That said, when he speaks about music or about poetry, you can’t be sure that he is talking about music (as we refer to it) or poetry (as we refer to it); he might be using a more archaic acceptation of these words. Music, as in mousike (from Greek), as in inspired by a muse. Poetry, as in poiesis, to make. The poetry and music he refers to he would consider as derived from the same orphic source but even as two faces of the same coin, they are separate. By this point in the explanation, eyes have glazed over.

I have narrowed my interests to two concepts specifically. First, performance and performativity. According to Barbara Johnson, poetry – Mallarmé’s poetry, at any rate – can be considered performative because it isn’t simply describing something, it is doing. It is poiesis, it is making. That is to say, a performative utterance is an utterance that literally performs the action contained within it: I declare war. It isn’t simply a description or a statement. Mallarmé’s poetic language is creative: the poem is bringing something into being, and not simply describing an individual or a place. He imagines a discontinuity between the speaker and his words; poetry is emitted from the poet when he is brutally punched in the stomach. The words are, at once, naming and exhibiting the thing that they describe and so she is sign and referent and thus independent of the kind of reality we may imagine the poem to take place within. The words at once distance themselves from these expectations and create something new. In this way, his poetry is performative. I’m not even sure that I understand this transposition, and so explaining it feels like having teeth pulled. Having read a great deal of Mallarmé over the past two years, however, I feel that there is something to it. Poetry, or at least his poetry, is not subject to the kinds of conventions, the kinds of categories that we usually employ when parsing the grammars of speech and prose.

Hopefully, if the above has even a small gleaming of sense, you can see why music – the idea of music, not necessarily the reality of it – appealed to Mallarmé. He also felt that words and writing were taken too easily, too lightly by the reading public. Anyone literate might open a book, read the words, and be satisfied that they have understood its contents. A musical score, however, must be interpreted, and that interpretation must be taught and practiced. In many ways, Mallarmé’s conception of music is (as Edward Lockspeiser would say) utter nonsense. Musical literacy really isn’t that far off from other kinds of literacy. But music remained more of a notion him than a concrete reality that had systems, a grammar and notation and literati of its own.What he appreciated, I think, was the performance – the audience and the ceremony of a musical performance, the idea of a studied interpretation.

The other concept that interests me is, loosely, mimesis. I’m still trying to grasp this one, but Derrida’s article “Economimesis” is what got me thinking about it. What I gleaned from that article was that mimesis should not be considered an imitation of one thing (I use that term very loosely) by another: mimesis is the imitation of the source of inspiration. That harkened back to a line from “Richard Wagner: Rêverie d’un poet français” : “Tout se retrempe au ruisseau primitif: pas jusqu’à la source.” Wagner’s music was in some ways flawed or devalued due to the fact that he was simply imitating the ancient myths, replaying them, not drawing on a more ancient well-spring of inspiration; he was re-presenting what had already been presented. Mimesis, then, is the attempt at seizing the idea – in Mallarmé’s case, the object that he refuses to name and will only allude to.

What this means more concretely is that I would like to evaluate the success or failure of Boulez’s work according to that mimetic criterion: is Boulez simply transcribing the meter of Mallarmé’s poems the way he sees them? Setting a poem to music? Or is he grasping Mallarmé’s intent? Re-presentation, or re-creation? This includes the attitude towards the interpreting public (the audience) and Boulez’s ideas of what performance is or can be juxtaposed with Mallarmé’s. If Mallarmé saw Wagner as terrorizing his audience, what would he say of Boulez? If Mallarmé sought consonance and sonorous fluidity in his work, what would he say of Boulez’s dissonant, modern sound? Does this even matter? What is “the matter”: the aesthetic idea behind the work, or its delivery to a waiting mind? In this way, the question of mimesis (in this case) flows into the matter of performance/performativity.

If you have read this far, or skipped this far ahead, I hope that you can understand why I hate explaining this. I come up with more questions every time I do and end up following tangents down dead ends. I know that my interpretations of these concepts are flawed and incomplete, but the more avenues I follow, the further I spiral out of control, and so I am forced to tighten up, to pull my limbs back in and make do with simpler explanations.

The other problem (what, another one?) is that this-all seems very much like navel-gazing. Who cares if Boulez’s interpretation is proper to Mallarmé, aesthetically. It exists. It is performed, it is heard. Mallarmé is dead. But I think that the questions are relevant. These artists and their works are experimenting with boundaries in their own, perhaps dated or quaint, ways. Daniel Oster says that thought Mallarmé’s work is generally considered esoteric, hermetic and inaccessible, Mallarmé is one of the most exoteric poets he has read: he is begging to be interpreted, demanding further consideration and hoping for a kind of cooperation. How does this attitude compare with, for instance, Ann Liv Young’s treatment (/abuse) of her audience? Or the audience reaction discussed in this article: ? Mallarmé’s art isn’t raising a moral issue, but an artistic one. It is perhaps the degree zero of this question, before it takes on a moral or social character.

I don’t have much of a conclusion here. I could just say that I don’t believe in conclusions – zing! – but that would seem a cop-out. Maybe I will re-read this tomorrow to see if it still makes sense to me, edit it later. I hope I will. For now, back to trying to write about this whole mess, but in French. Allons-y!

“I could spend my entire life portraying such a landscape.”
September 18, 2009, 5:15 pm
Filed under: listening, living, music

The mailman is still wearing shorts, but it is coming on fall. Of course you know that; the equinox is in a few days.  The trees are breaking out in a kind of sunny yellow acne. And a bird just bounced off of the window and then skittered away and took off again, confused.

“Meanwhile, here we are, usually forgetful, occasionally aware.”

-Charles Le Gai Eaton

As if the picture of this guy wouldn’t predispose me to like his music:

At first I was wary of his voice, raspy and a little reedy. A couple of songs was enough to convince me, though.

The anarcho-syndicalists of the ukulele world
September 17, 2009, 6:45 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , ,

Are you having a good day? Well, you are now.

September 14, 2009, 4:24 pm
Filed under: listening, outside | Tags: ,

This is very worthwhile, I feel:

In addition…

here we go

Time to begin the long division
September 13, 2009, 12:18 am
Filed under: at fault, being selfish, living

Alberta takes me on physically. The water changes my hair; the air changes my skin; the space changes the way I want to move. These things I like. Living in different places we are full of possibilities, shedding snakes or moulting birds. We are free to rediscover old habits, if we choose. It isn’t a reinvention – the same beast is still underneath. Just re-decorating.

I have a problem with words. The cadence of English isn’t natural to me. As evidence: I mispronounce a great deal of words, words from biopic to archipelago (I say bi-AH-pic and arch-i-pel-AH-go), out loud, and even more in my head. Taxonomy, for instance, I think of as “taxi-NO-me”. Until I was in late elementary school, I thought that the word “item” was pronounced “in-team”. Don’t ask me where I got that from. It’s like there’s a rhythm there, but my heart is out of step. I feel like I’m skipping rope or playing to a metronome and I never quite make the entrance on time. Theories have been offered up – French immersion schooling at a young age or reading the word over and over again without saying it, but I don’t think that these are really adequate excuses. Plenty of others have cleared these same hurdles with enviable grace and style.

I am unable to pay attention to products, things produced, finished things, these days. My focus turns to the sound, the feeling of the instrument that produces. The weight of the piano keys, the Bb that won’t sound properly, the swish of the spinning wheel, scraping a wooden spoon on a bowl, listening to something over and over without being able to write about it. These things probably seem unconnected. Maybe this is paralysis; maybe not. I spent much of last year frustrated with the unending unraveling of a finished product, like an unhealthy obsession with one’s own digestive system. Now I’m trying to watch and listen, and it’s a terrible thing. The details are enough to crush you under their combined weight. Crush you lovingly, crush you with the sound of a clarinet against a voice or some fibre pulling away from your palm. Crush you under a word, the combination of two or three words, before you can turn them inside out to find out what they mean. Not that it isn’t valuable to be able to hold something up to a light, to learn to explain it. But to impose rhythm on what is raw, to pronounce awkward syllables with fluidity, to stitch it all up, it is also to be beholden to an expectation of sense, common or otherwise. Maybe I say all this to explain that I like the cookie dough better than the cookies.

Some days, I don’t want to know why it is I love what I love.

Some days, I don’t even want to finish my thought.