Saturday, November 10, 2018

Favorite Quotations

Some of what follows may be repetition, but a good thing bears repeating, especially in an age when so much bad stuff is prevailing. So what I am discussing and explicating are touchstones and consolations, as far as anything can console and encourage.

Though I consider Guillaume Apollinaire and Jacques Prevert much greater poets, it is one stanza by Louis Aragon that travels with me, and I quote it here, perhaps not entirely correctly, from memory—I am not a very good memorizer.

Mon amour, j’etais dans tes bras.
Au dehors quelqun murmura
Une vieille chanson de France.
Mon mal enfin s’est reconnu
Et son refrain, comme d’un pied nu,
Troubla l’eau verte du silence.

This was written during the Occupation, when people tried to inure themselves  against terrible times, as presumably did the very leftist and quasi-surrealist Aragon, when what this poem says presumably occurred. I translate:

My love, I was in your arms,/ When outside someone murmured/ An old song of France./ My hurt at last recognized itself,/ And its refrain, as with a bare foot,/ Troubled the green water of silence.

What, I wonder, was that old song that had such a great, shaming and redeeming impact on the surrounding silence? The recognition it provokes—that one cannot accept even unspoken Collaboration with the Nazis—stirs up dormant patriotism and Resistance. The allusion, I take it, is to kids on the border of a lake dangling their feet in the water in carefree leisure. But what is that “green” doing there? I assume that it refers to the treasonous allure of resignation. Green can be the peaceable color of standing water, eliciting inaction, however seductive.

But, this being poetry, there is also the matter of sound. In the last line, the ou  and  a and au are dark sounds, with er and e  transitioning to the brightness of u, i. en. and mute e forming a lure toward connivance. That last line is sheer seduction, wrought by alluring music.

Speaking of music, English poetry offers magisterial means for it. This is largely, but by no means solely, so because the poet has such opportunities provided by there being so often a choice between a romance and an anglo-saxon word, on the order of friendly and amicable, lengthy and long, peaceful and pacific, happy and felicitous, murderer and assassin, verity and truth, endanger and imperil, and so on and on. In my book “Paradigms Lost,” I have a whole chapter on that subject, entitled “Sibling Rivalry.”

Even though my favorite poets in English are Robert Graves and Richard Wilbur, let me reach back to a stanza by the melodious (or tuneful) Swinburne. One concluding (or ending) quatrain of his runs, “And the best and the worst of this is/ That neither is most to blame,/ If you have forgotten my kisses/ And I have forgotten your name.”

This I find sublime. Take the wonderful rhyme “this is” and “kisses.” That is a feminine. i.e., bisyllabic rhyme, in pleasing alternation with the masculine, i.e., monosyllabic one, “blame” and “name.” It is good that both sets use rather commonplace words, which still manage to be surprising in context, without having to reach for less plain, more recherch√©, words to create rhyme. This is what makes the artful device of rhyme come across as perfectly natural.

And then we have the powerful idea of something being both best and worst, both good and bad. That is no ordinary insight. Haven’t we all gotten over lost loves, and yet this calming oblivion (or forgetfulness) makes something basically sad livable with. It not only neutralizes our suffering, it also exculpates the one who caused it. We are both equally guilty and innocent in a world where there is no black and white, but rather a merciful (forgiving or at least extenuating) gray. And how the words sing!

In German, one favorite bit of poetry comes from an obscure poem written for Marthe Hennebert, a weeping young working-class girl whom Rilke encountered in the street and proceeded to console by making her his girlfriend. A final stanza runs like this:

Befriedigungen ungezaehlter Jahre
sind in der Luft, voll Blumen liegt dein Hut
und ein Geruch aus deinem reinen Haare
mischt sich mit Welt als waere alles gut.

Appeasements of innumerable years
are in the air, your hat lies full of flowers
and a smell from your pure hair
mingles with world as if all were well.

The scene is as in Seurat’s immortal painting, a Sunday afternoon  on the shore of the Seine, with the poet and his new young mistress enjoying a respite, regardless of other people with the same idea. It is all very idyllic, the flowers obviously purchased as a rich bouquet, and laid on top of the divested hat, yet the scent is coming not from them, but from the beloved’s pure hair. Somehow that wonderfully clean and presumably opulent hair exudes an odor di femina (as Italians would have it), something not shop-bought but, dare one say, naturally erotic.

A terrific effect is achieved by that inner rhyme, “deinem reinen”; not only does it intensify the purity of her hair and so flatter the new mistress, it also speeds up the movement to that terrifying ending despite all these wonders still unable to make the world better.  That “as if” is quietly devastating. But what about “the “appeasement of incalculable years”? A tribute, I suppose, to la Grande Jatte,” that playground for so many folk to indulge themselves as Sunday compensation for  working-class stiffs--no need to evoke the Sondheim musical.
By locating te appeasement “in the air,” Rilke makes its charm truly ubiquitous, as universal as can be, and yet ultimately not enough. Particularly poignant is calling the world, which in German should be “die Welt,” merely “Welt,” something more mysteriously permeating, as “World” is more cosmically overpowering than an ordinary, known, cozy, everyday “the world.” And yet, with all these inducements to happiness, to a dejeuner sur l’herbe almost, it is still only that hapless quasi-world or threatening superworld, too little or too much. Or “ the best and the worst”—and, as it were, no real picnic.

That is one of the great attributes of poetry, the ability to say so much in so little, to which the apt rhyme-scheme also contributes: the effective alternation of feminine and masculine rhymes, concluding with that strong yet deceptive closer, “gut.”

All of this leads me to a powerful, to me saddening, proof of the impossibility, or near so, of translating  lyrical poetry, where so much depends on sound. A marvelous poem by Hungary’s Baudelaire, the fountainhead of its modern poetry, Endre Ady, has a great ending in “Testamentumot, szornyet, irni/ Es sirni, sirni, sirni, sirni.” (Imagine accent marks on the second o and on the capital E, making them, respectively, an English  er and an a as in lake). I have tried in vain to translate the poem into rhyming verse; in prose, that ending translates “To write a testament, a dreadful one,/And weep, weep, weep, weep.” The prime reason for the untranslatability of this crushing distich is those four “sirni”s, comparable to Lear’s heartrending four “never”s. In English, weep and cry are monosyllables, and those do not resonate as horribly as a quadruple bisyllable, pronounced more or less like “sheerni.” Four “weep”s, like four “cry”s, just don’t do the trick.

To be sure, sometimes a not so great poem can be effectively translated; I have, if I dare say so, published a Serbian verse translation of Kilmer’s “Trees” that works as well as the original.

In English, there are single lines of poetry that do the job for me, notably Cummings’s “Nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands” that affects me even without the assist of Tennessee Williams’s famous appropriation of it. And then there is, horribile dictu, Poe’s horrendous “Quoth the raven Nevermore,” the latter owing its immortality through persiflage. Note that the repeated vowel--e in Poe’s raven and Lear’s outcry, like the i in Ady’s sob--add to the quotability, another poetic device that defies translation. Observe the poetic iteration in device and defies.

Still and all, I tend to wonder why these particular quotations come to me the way equally fine verses do not. Add that fact to the mysteries of poetry. As is the force  of compression, say, in that great early English lyric (circa 1530), which  runs: “O Western wind, when wilt thou blow,/ That the small rain down can rain?/ Christ that my love were in my arms/ And I in my bed again?” Or, perhaps even earlier, the Scot William Dunbar’s “Timor mortis conturbat me,” i.e., “The fear of death unsettles me.”

The penultimate and last quotation are less frequent visitors. The former, because it does not apply to my condition; the latter, because it applies all too much. But even as, in the mystery play, Good Deeds accompanies Everyman to his demise, so do these quotations companion me through life. They do not cure, but they do facilitate.


  1. I'm drinking lots of beer so I can't fully appreciate Simon's essay at the moment. I like it though. When Simon talks poetry, people listen. Or, they damn well should.

  2. "Green," as in youthful, innocent, naive, inexperienced? Green water can also be still water hiding who knows what.

  3. Here's a fun quotation I stumbled over yesterday, from 'The Slightly Older Guy' by Bruce Jay Friedman:

    "It may be that you haven't been paying sufficient attention to women in the context of friendship. You may not know it, but women are the best confidantes and will guard your secrets from all but their closest girlfriends. Then, too, they can be counted on to give you the very latest information on What Women Want. And the fact that a female friend will outlive you for an average of seven years means she'll be around to speak highly of you when you're gone."

  4. This quote, from the same book by Bruce Jay Friedman, is good too: “Don’t sulk if [your wife’s] career has blazed on ahead of yours. Count your blessings, tidy up the house, and hope she likes what you’ve fixed for dinner.”

  5. 1) Just going down the essay and wanted to make a few comments. Not really wanting to write full sentences. Pretty lazy. Got lots of cooking to do tomorrow. Need rest. Need pot. Need pots for cooking food, too. Stir brine. Salt, sugar, bay leaf (fresh), sage, peppercorns, garlic. Gotta let it cool down first otherwise you get yourself some nasty bacteria. Pour it in ice water >> dump in Tom cause Tom is the bomb. Do him 24. Thanksgiving menu at Pop's house (all fresh, all homemade):
    Mashed Potatoes
    Sweet Potato Casserole (w/pecans)
    Greenbean Casserole (w/those canned, fried onion thingies)
    Broccoli Casserole (w/Guerrier cheese)
    Cranberry sauce (Homemade w/orange zest)
    Hawaiian Rolls (Yes, straight out of the package, they're good)
    Apple Pie (My wife makes the pies)
    Pumpkin Pie
    Blueberry Pie
    Homemade Whipped Cream

    2) I too enjoy inner rhyme.

    “The ship was cheer’d, the harbor clear’d,
    And every day, for food or play,
    In mist or cloud, on mast or shroud,..
    Whiles all the night, through fog-smoke white,
    Glimmer’d the white moonshine …

    “Why look’st thou so?’—’With my crossbow
    Ah wretch! Said they, the bird to slay…
    Then all averr’d, I had kill’d the bird…
    The fair breeze blew, the white foam flew…”

    (Poe, also a nice example of repetition)

    “For the moon never beams without bringing me dreams
    Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
    And the stars never rise but I feel the bright eyes
    Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
    And so, all the night-tide, I lie down by the side
    Of my darling, my darling, my life and my bride…”

    3) The best poem about silence is "The Sound of Silence." Great poem by Paul Simon with an equally great melody. Is it possible that this song is 55 years old? WOW!

    Hello darkness, my old friend
    I’ve come to talk with you again
    Because a vision softly creeping
    Left its seeds while I was sleeping
    And the vision that was planted in my brain
    Still remains
    Within the sound of silence

    In restless dreams I walked alone
    Narrow streets of cobblestone
    ‘Neath the halo of a streetlamp
    I turned my collar to the cold and damp
    When my eyes were stabbed by the flash of a neon light
    That split the night
    And touched the sound of silence

    And in the naked light I saw
    Ten thousand people, maybe more
    People talking without speaking
    People hearing without listening
    People writing songs that voices never share
    No one dare
    Disturb the sound of silence

    “Fools” said I, “You do not know
    Silence like a cancer grow
    Hear my words that I might teach you
    Take my arms that I might reach you”
    But my words like silent raindrops fell
    And echoed in the wells of silence

    And the people bowed and prayed
    To the neon god they made
    And the sign flashed out its warning
    In the words that it was forming
    And the sign said “The words of the prophets
    Are written on subway walls
    And tenement halls
    And whispered in the sounds of silence”

    © 1964 Words and Music by Paul Simon

    I hope everyone has a good one.

  6. John dissed this song in his review of “The Graduate.”

    1. I know. He's also dissed Mozart on several occasions. Simon doesn't have very good taste (although, some times I think he's being facetious). He's an excellent writer, but his opinions on music, poetry, and film are flawed.

      'Silence' is a universally loved piece of music and poetry, and I think Simon (John, that is) knows that. He likes to shock people with off-the-wall opinions that make no sense, and I like that about him. It's one of his trademarks.

  7. If he was gay
    We'd likely say
    King Tut
    King Butt

  8. I'd like to make an announcement, here. My pecker is shrinking. I need Viagra these days, that goes without saying. Still, I still wonder why my (soft) dick is shrinking. I've never had the biggest pecker in the first place, but now it's getting ridiculous. I only have a dick >> head. There's nothing else there. No Stem hooked to the head. I have only the head of my dick which is attached to nothing except soft tissue.

    My balls are gigantic. I have that in my corner. I feel blessed in the ball department. My ball sack is really big. It's just the pecker part that's super-duper small. Why is my pecker shrinking? I don't know why I'm asking you people. I should be asking a urologist. He'd probably just tell me that's the way it goes. You get older and the penis shrinks up inside your body. You're left with a tiny head stuck to the front of your fat belly. I ate lots of turkey the last few days.

  9. Pop, what you're experiencing is totally normal. Skip the visit to the urologist, he'll only try to push a colonoscopy on you.

  10. I did some snooping around on Guillaume Apollinaire. Never heard of him. I found a few pretty good poems. These are formatted in strange ways but probably won't show correctly here on Blogger. Still, they're enjoyable to read. The first one is called 'The Lady' and it's within the arrows I've typed. I think it has wonderful visuals (especially for a such a short poem) and it makes your mind think about what story is happening outside of the poem proper. I have no idea if this is a good translation, but it seems pretty good to me.

    The Lady

    >>> Knock knock He has closed his door
    The garden’s lilies have started to rot
    So who is the corpse being carried from the house

    You just knocked on his door

    And trot trot

    Trot goes little lady mouse <<<

    The second poem is nice too. It's entitled 'Zone.' It reminds me of T.S. Eliot. It's too long to post here so I'll just leave the link below. This guy doesn't punctuate some of his poems, which is cool. 'Zone' has a great ending.

  11. Dear Mr. Simon:
    Not knowing how else to contact you, or even if this approach will work, I wanted to say that over many years I have read and occasionally reread your book “Paradigms Lost”, always with great pleasure. Recently I acquired a copy of “Dreamers of Dreams”. This morning, for the first time, I read your essay on Dodd’s poem. Thank you for rescuing this fine poem from obscurity. And thank you for the blissful experiences you have given readers with your precise, original, insightful, and beautiful prose.
    Richard Vierbuchen