Hurting today. Suicides, a fresh conversation about depression that still isn’t the needful one, more black men gunned down in this our police state (it is a police state for brown boys). Less Greek and more raging, then writing, today. Maybe that’s the plaintive answer to “why ever poetry?” Because as much as today hurt, as a poet I can ask myself “how can I use this?” even as the feelings are overwhelming. There’s an outlet and a purpose, albeit manufactured with effort.
Also feeling grateful today that I feel part of a community of people to whom I’m responsible for responding clearly and with nuance when the world happens. Posted on Facebook tonight because I needed to respond somehow–and even though it’s the no-man’s land of social media, I felt connected to the writers pouring out words on the interwebs today.
The old anger is fresh today and it’s asking “why poetry? How, in this godforsaken world of ours?” I can’t put words to it. I have my doubts, as do all the faithful. A few attempts at an answer:
(1) Poetry, practiced right, is a running towards and not a seclusion from the world. It is absolutely not and cannot be direct political action or social change (and I’m not up to debating you on that today, just bear with me). But it can be a channel for anger that would otherwise simply make the piston waffle around furiously aimless. It is not a vehicle for making others see more clearly, but it is a step forward from stewing in emotions that would otherwise overwhelm the poet or narrow the poet’s world.
(2) I’m going to feel the anger and the hurt and the hopelessness anyway. If I write them down, they become choate (or less inchoate). Refined anger is more useful anger, even for a definition of useful limited to “actionable.” Distilled hopelessness takes up less space in the brain. At the same time, poetry is less pernicious than overt rationalization in how it lets us precipitate out a feeling for later consideration, rather than insisting the feeling doesn’t or shouldn’t exist.
(3) Practicing poetry is hard enough that it takes up at least a small part of my store of attention that would otherwise be spread thin over all the solid reasons not to value the world we have. It lets me actively call out one evil–though only to myself and for my own useless benefit–instead of throwing up my hands in the general direction of all of them. It thus gives practice in seeing into an evil in search of understanding. That practice might be important at some crucial instant, though probably not in my lifetime. The thin hope of this potential use is enough of a reason to keep practicing poetry and it is a value I can see, though the smallest thing.”
My recitation today went off pretty well. I love Eric’s challenge to always take an opportunity to perform seriously–not ever to make half-assed use of language, if you want to be serious about poetry. It pushed me to really get into the head of Sappho’s speaker and make sure my recitation was reflecting the meaning of the Greek, instead of being content with reciting without knowing the meaning fully. Performance nerves got in the way a bit, but I think I gave a dramatic spin to at least a few parts…
My favorites are the shift from “tas emas audas aiosa peloi“, where the participle is present and the peloi fills out the progressive aspect, to the dramatic (loose sense) aorist of “eklues” beginning the next line; the light, one might boldly say winged, touch of the light syllables “pter’ ap'” describing the sparrows in contrast with the long sounds of the (smushed together–technical term) “wranwther-os dia messw”; the running together of the plaintive question “tis s’ w Saph’ adikeiei;”; the forthright closing plea, “summachos esso.”
I recited with understanding and performance work one of my favorite Sappho poems in the original Greek! Grinning so hard. This is, I think, a kind of pride baby-queer Jamie would adore, and more jaded queer Jamie can still dig, parades be damned.
A few awesome things that happen to one as you get into the “head” of a new language or author–as discussed over beer and Korean food with Justine and Rey:
*When Rey or I have a particularly impossible time with a passage of Lucretius, both of us will check out an English translation. Especially for the passages where it seems the difficulty is all vocabulary–the purple-wreathed hegemon exulting in Arabian myrrh, or whatever. The really awesome thing about consulting a translation is that its poverty compared to the original actually HELPS you understand the original. I’ve had numerous times when, reacting to a translation of a passage I wasn’t quite getting, I have an intuition “that isn’t quite what was being said,” even though I was unsure what was being said in the Latin, and then I’m able to reverse-engineer my understanding to get closer to the Latin through precisely where the English translation seems to fail. So I don’t only get to appreciate and remember why it’s so important to be able to read the original, but the liberties of the translation, which might frustrate me or be sad in some contexts, actually end up strengthening my relationship with the source language. (And yes, I do think of it as a relationship…language is my first and best mistress…)
*I can’t wait for the frustration and joy of starting an author we haven’t read in the Greek program, having the familiar “WTF DO I REALLY KNOW ANYTHING ABOUT THIS LANGUAGE?” feeling–then gliding right past that shit and getting into the flow of that author. It’s so life-affirming, since the thought processes and stylistic taste of the new author gets in your head, fucks with you, and stays with you.
*Trying to puzzle out a few lines from a Greek “papyrus” in the paleography lecture made me proud of my progress in Greek. With no word divisions, I could still with my group get most of the 10 lines, and I was making judgements *based on knowing Greek morphology*, like “this is more likely a finite verb than a participle, so that’s probably an “ntai” ending and not “nta.” Sometimes I find, for example, paleography in Middle English tiresome. Because I know much of what I’d expect the Middle English to be, and I think it’s more a feeling of getting the manuscript to match something I already have in my head of what the possibilities are. With Greek (and I assume with other of my non-native languages), I feel closer to the text and language per se, since I bring fewer assumptions about what the forms “should” be. It also feels good to feel my understanding of Greek morphology increasing as I make hypotheses about what forms something could be–especially when you can still recognize the part of speech or ID the form a verb that isn’t in your lexicon. So Greek Paleography can increase my feeling of competence and it makes morphology come alive as something that really helps you, whereas English paleography doesn’t seem to change my understanding of English as much. Then again, I just haven’t done enough English paleography 🙂
*Sight translating has been going really well. I have wild conjectures, I make silly week 1 mistakes, but the Greek comes to make sense in a much shorter time than I would’ve imagined, even though I knew the same thing happened to me with Latin. I love the concrete and immediate sense of accomplishment of getting through a Greek passage at sight–and I love that in our Aristotle elective, the literal Greek is making enough sense to us quickly enough that we get to dive into the commentary and talk about concepts — it’s been too long! Funny, though, that I didn’t miss philosophical and conceptual debates about what a text means that much. Translation itself and sticking real close to the language really is my jam.
*Separately–I am a poet who loves language itself, for itself. Language could be one of the things “good according to itself” for me, per Aristotle. I love how my relationship with language is stronger than “I like the sounds of this” or “these lexical items are striking,” but it’s really based on grokking the syntax and structure, and how different languages allow speakers and writers to have different effects on their audience by playing with different expectations. For example, it’s definitely changed the way I think about style to read Ciceronian Latin and get viscerally the effect that an inflected language with flexible word order can have via periodic sentences. Like music–suspension and resolution, when you get participles giving background, cum inversum, relative clauses filling in more detail, then suddenly, blissfully, the finite verb…
As Rey said, the more you get into languages, and every time you start a new language, everything is strange, wonderful and frustrating…and the world just gets richer and richer and stranger as you learn more languages. If everyone needs something to hope for in order to live–and I think we really do–the promise of getting to deepen my relationship with language as a lifetime avocation is a hell of a saving hope.