A Moment

Here is my take on this week’s poetry rehab prompt. https://wordpress.com/read/post/feed/31982590/787692747

A moment

is a movement

with the v for violence and vengeance

eroded out of it

by time.

*

A moment

is the smallest speck

of time

capable of tilting the scales

of evil and good.

*

A moment

exists

in memory only:

the opposite of uprising;

a reckoning of events.

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Forward–For the Love of Prepositions Part 4

This week’s prompt https://wordpress.com/read/post/feed/31982590/781704537 inspired me to produce a fourth installment of my ongoing series of etymological-poetic musings on English prepositions, which could, at a stretch, be construed as some kind of exercise in prose poetry and also ties up with previous posts on political and linguistic themes.

Back and forth

Between them, ‘back’ and ‘forth’ and the various other prepositions, particles, compounds, suffixes, adjectives and nouns related to them (backwards, forwards, behind, in front of, front, from, frame, for, fore-, before, after, aft, pre-, per-, pro-, para-) cover a lot of ground.

The difference between that which lies before one and that which lies behind, between movement forwards and backwards, is not as clear-cut as it might seem and, historically, people often confuse and switch the two.

For example, which direction does time run in? The prevailing metaphor in modern English is that of moving forwards from the past through the present into the future. We have our futures before us and our past experiences lie behind us. But there are also vestiges of the opposite metaphor. The temporal prepositions ‘before’ and ‘after’ suggest that the past is in front of us, the future behind. Imagined spatially rather than temporally, this makes sense. We can have knowledge of the past, as if it stretched out before our eyes, whilst the future remains hidden, tucked out of sight behind us. Time moves forwards through us from the future into the past, while we move backwards through the flow of time.

Walter Benjamin’s famous image of the ‘Angel of History,’ inspired by a Paul Klee painting and conjured up shortly before Benjamin fled Nazi-occupied and collaborationist Vichy France and ended up committing suicide in Spain, suggests something of this gloomier pre-modern view of time. “The… face [of the Angel of History] is turned towards the past. Where we see the appearance of a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe, which unceasingly piles rubble on top of rubble and hurls it before his feet. He would like to pause for a moment… to awaken the dead and to piece together what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise, it has caught itself up in his wings and is so strong that the Angel can no longer close them. The storm drives him irresistibly into the future, to which his back is turned, while the rubble-heap before him grows sky-high. That which we call progress, is this storm.” –Walter Benjamin “On the Concept of History” http://members.efn.org/~dredmond/ThesesonHistory.html (English translation) http://www.mxks.de/files/phil/Benjamin.GeschichtsThesen.html “Über den Begriff der Geschichte” (Original German version)

I shall return to this idea later in this essay, but for now shall leave it hanging in the air.

*

A particularly intriguing branch of the family of English words related to ‘forward’ revolves around the word ‘frame’. Frame originated first as a verbal form (‘framian’) of the Old English preposition ‘fram’, which evolved into Modern English ‘from’. ‘Framian’ originally meant something similar to ‘forward’ as a verb today, in the sense of ‘advance, further or promote,’ but gradually narrowed in use to come to signify the preparation of materials for building, whence the nominal use (as in ‘timber frame’ ‘framework’ ‘picture frame’, and ultimately ‘mainframe’) was derived. By extension, the term is common in Renaissance English (as readers of Shakespeare and Donne will be aware) to refer to the physical material structure of the human body. It was also at this time that the range of connotations of the verb began to extend back into the mental sphere, coming to mean ‘plotting, planning, or devising’ in an intellectual sense, narrowing in use, once again, thanks to the popularity of hard-boiled detective fiction in the 1920s and 30s to refer more specifically to ‘plotting to ensure that an innocent party is accused of a crime.’

‘Framework’ has recently become a buzz-word in bureaucratic and business circles in relation to strategic planning. Its etymological connotations neatly combine the idea of solid preparation with that of forward movement through time into a rosier future.

The idea of progress, which Walter Benjamin implicitly critiques in the above quotation, has become the ideological touchstone of our age, perhaps even more so than in the late 19th century, to which our times bear more than a passing resemblance. By a happy etymological accident, the Latin-derived ‘pro-‘ prefix has come to combine a sense of favorability and forward-thrusting movement (implicit for example in ‘project’, explicit in ‘projectile’).

I have often argued in print and in public and private conversations that the Zeitgeist tends to dwell emotionally and rhetorically on that which it most lacks. Our current obsession with children and childhood (verging on hysteria, overprotection and a pandemic Peter Pan complex), for example, reflects the regrets of an ageing population, just as mawkish Victorian attitudes towards children reflected the challenge of a growing population with high rates of infant mortality, poverty and economic abuse. Likewise, our modern-day obsession with nature—including more intangible concepts such as ‘authenticity’—reflects the fact that most of our natural environment is now irrevocably degraded and lost and that moral stances of the past have been eroded by cynicism.

The chirpily positive attitude with which we are all encouraged nowadays to face the future (See Barbara Ehrenreich’s excellent Smile or Die: How positive thinking fooled America and the World http://www.amazon.com/Smile-Die-Positive-Thinking-America/dp/1847081738 ) also clashes starkly with the reality of an increasingly socially reactionary and economically regressive world and growingly insurmountable demographic, economic and environmental challenges. The smiley face is mocking and ironic.

This prevailing spirit differs from the Utopian mindset of times gone by in so far as Utopians envisaged a quantum-leap or great leap forward into a largely unimaginable, often impossibly idealistic, but always undoubtedly far superior future realm, while we incline blithely to assume that a constant drip-drip of production of ever smarter apps will gradually lead to a better future, as surely as the value of our houses and the returns on our stock options will continue to rise.

Careful observation of discourse and changes in language use can help us to detect—like canaries in a mine—the ways in which everyday rhetoric works to deny reality (to put it in Freudian terms) or generate false consciousness (to put it in Marxian ones).

The fossilization of psychoanalysis and Marxism into their own perverse ideologies has not helped the cause of those of us who pursue the truth from the side of resistance to the status quo that has come metaphorically and somewhat demeaningly to be equated with ‘the left’. “Denial” is an unhelpful abstract term based on poor translation across various languages and a history of Prussian and scientific pomposity: ‘turning a blind eye’ might be a more apt turn of phrase. “False consciousness” likewise has a very negative, condescending and, ironically, alienating, feel to it: fantasy, ‘jam tomorrow’ or ‘pie-in-the-sky’ might be more useful down-to-earth alternatives. I am a strong advocate of ‘working-class language’ being used more to ‘frame’ ‘big ideas’.

The élite language of business, bureaucracy, politics and journalism merits a kind of very close analysis that goes far beyond the essentially snobbish backward-looking and prescriptivist armchair grammarian’s mockery with which it is usually critiqued, even in the supposedly ‘high-brow’ or ‘quality’ press.

The epidemic use, for example, of the term ‘going forward,’ where, not so long ago, ‘in the future’ or ‘from now on’ would have sufficed, suggests that the people speaking (almost always people in an assumed position of power) have some control over the future and subtly implies that the future will invariably be better–change is always good; it is always ultimately for the good if someone moves (or steals) your cheese. However, such a shift in language also betrays a deep anxiety as to whether either of these assumptions are in fact the case. This is ‘false consciousness’, ‘fantasy’, ‘pie-in-the-sky’, a form of ‘magical thinking’ that evokes a world in which our will alone, armed with the right apps, can always overcome the inevitable onslaught of unpredictable events. It is a world of fairy stories and Marvel comics, bearing little resemblance to a real world beset by conflict and defeat.

‘Aspiration’ is another much-employed political term that points conveniently vaguely forwards towards a brighter future and economic betterment, whilst turning a stubborn blind eye to facts on the ground. It suggests the possibility of incrementally improving the lot of all—as if with a nice yoga-like series of in-breaths and out-breaths—but ignores the radical structural flaws of a prevailing social and economic system that can only be corrected by fundamental change. ‘Hope’ is the even more anemic, if more emotive, cousin-phrase preferred by incrementalists on the left.

We need to think forward, but also to think back, and, perhaps above all, to think about what these metaphors of backwards and forwards really mean and why. And ditch them, if necessary. We need to think in a truly historical fashion, as Walter Benjamin suggests with his haunting image of the Angel catapulted ‘back to the future’ or ‘forwards to the past’ by a blast, perhaps especially on this anniversary of the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which Benjamin did not live (perhaps did not wish to live) to see.

[Previous posts in this series on the etymology, poetry and politics of English prepositions can be consulted at

https://oudeis2005.wordpress.com/2015/08/06/for-the-love-of-prepositions-part-3-the-f-words-of-and-off/

https://oudeis2005.wordpress.com/2015/07/07/for-the-love-of-prepositions-part-2-by/

https://oudeis2005.wordpress.com/2015/06/15/for-the-love-of-prepositions-part-1-at/

Couldn’t

One of the most interesting features of this process of posting poems online is to be able to observe which receive a lot of welcome attention from fellow poets and fellow bloggers and which do not. Blogging, like poetry, is a necessarily Narcissistic activity. I have been pleasantly surprised that poems I imagined to be slight or somewhat offensive have garnered so much positive feedback and online support.

My poems have many not necessarily mutually compatible facets and I like to work in a variety of styles. One of these is an avant-garde Dada-inspired manner that challenges conventional notions such as self-expression, internal consistency, and authorial control. It is interesting that these have generally received the least positive response or simply gone unnoticed by my peers, although my most liked and commented on online poem so far is (much to my surprise) “Stuff stuffed in a Drawer,” https://oudeis2005.wordpress.com/2015/03/04/writing-201-poetry-task-8-drawer/ which combines Dadaist dogma with apparent personal revelations.

I started experimenting with such poetry in the late 1980s, inspired by Tristan Tzara’s ‘How to Write a Dadaist Poemhttp://www.writing.upenn.edu/~afilreis/88v/tzara.html and the largely defunct but much mourned do-it-yourself punk ethos in popular music. I aimed to extract material from a wide variety of sources—children’s school projects (Drawing Maps), jurisprudential records (Knee Damages), and even a Jane Austen novel (Emmagrams). These early experimental poems were deliberately lost, by leaving the original on a photocopying machine and frivolously gifting all remaining copies in my possession to fleeting lovers and seeming friends. At the time, I, somewhat pretentiously, felt this to be an interestingly self-deconstructive act.

I was interested, back then, in remaining broadly faithful to Tzara’s arbitrary method, but also adding a degree of form, derived from Hebrew acrostic poetry and the unintended poetry of the alphabetical arrangement of items in a catalogue—I was working as a librarian and compiling indexes for a publishing company at that time. I was also interested in assuming some degree of authorial control. I selected the fragments of text, not entirely randomly, but as I pleased, like someone picking blackberries from a hedge, and I deviated at times, although not often, for aesthetic reasons, from the self-imposed formal rule of arranging these snippets in strictly alphabetical order.

In the late 1980s, this was a painstaking process—a thankless labor of love. No software eased the path. I teased the text out from physical books, organized it into alphabetical order in notebooks, and typed the final version up haltingly on an old Remington typewriter I had inherited from my wannabe novelist mother, through ink-drenched ribbons that were forever wearing out and becoming increasingly difficult to acquire. I was especially interested in the fact that such creations depended more on manual labor than inspiration and was spurred by the thought of the digital drilling my mother must have been forced through, in the 1950s, as one young woman among many in a typing pool.

I stopped producing this kind of writing for various reasons, some personal, some practical, some historical. My acrostic Dadaist poems were routinely dismissed in the poetry workshops I attended, while even slightly more confessional work received great praise. I eventually gave up on it altogether and retreated into a more confessional conventional mode.

The kind of avant-garde poetry that I had been trying to create in the late 1980s had, besides, become much easier to produce, almost throwaway, with the advent of the word processer, macros, hypertext and the Internet; word clouds, corpora and chic data presentation software. My modest Dadaist project was at once cowed by this and spurred by a realization that this aestheticization of text and fetishization of technology was not the direction in which I wanted to go.

Google has perhaps come to my rescue in this regard.

Google attempts to anticipate your search by filling in the first letters or words you type, helpfully or not, with those that have been keyed in most prevalently by people around the world. I find this both creepy and inspiring. It combines, at a keystroke, seemingly magical high-tech with a punk-like shift to the vernacular and re-evaluation of poor taste.

Taking Google’s ‘cold reading’, akin to that of a cheap psychic, and combining it with personal choices, a formal framework, and aesthetic judgment, I am now trying to use this resource to produce avant-garde poems similar to some extent to those I labored to create in an age before we were all jumbled up online. I have already posted one such poem on this blog https://oudeis2005.wordpress.com/2015/03/15/burning-questions/

The following poem takes up Andy Townend’s ‘couldn’t’ prompt for this week’s Poetry Rehab https://wordpress.com/read/post/feed/31982590/775617764 to produce a pseudo-random take on the theme. The tag ‘couldn’t’ preceded by a variety of pronouns was searched on Google and the most commonly occurring phrases recorded by autocomplete, with a certain leeway for the poet, noted and arranged in alphabetical order, according (first) to the pronoun and then the verb following the modal ‘couldn’t’. See also my ongoing research on the history of English modal verbs https://oudeis2005.wordpress.com/2015/03/22/modal-verbs-over-time/

This at once laborious and flippant process I like to think produces interesting aesthetic effects. But that is for others to tell.

Couldn’t

He couldn’t get it up

I couldn’t agree more

I couldn’t ask for more

I couldn’t become a hero

I couldn’t care less.

*

It couldn’t be better

It couldn’t be done

It couldn’t happen here

It couldn’t just happen.

*

She couldn’t change me

She couldn’t say no

The one who couldn’t love

*

They couldn’t organize a piss-up in a brewery

We couldn’t create a new partition

You couldn’t see me.

For the Love of Prepositions Part 3: The F-words–‘of’ and ‘off’

This is the third in my ongoing series of etymological/poetic posts on modern English prepositions, a subject for which I have always harbored a peculiar passion. For previous posts see https://oudeis2005.wordpress.com/2015/07/07/for-the-love-of-prepositions-part-2-by/ and https://oudeis2005.wordpress.com/2015/06/15/for-the-love-of-prepositions-part-1-at/ It is important for aspiring poets to study not only the polysemy but also the historical undertow of words. This is particularly true of those that are often dismissed by teachers as ‘little’, ‘functional’ or ‘grammar’ words and hence go overlooked. It is, to my mind, precisely the judicious use of such nuts and bolts of language that distinguishes greatness from mediocrity.

According to most counts, ‘of’ is the third or fourth most frequent word in the English language. This is largely a result of its increasing use to form the genitive, a habit that began when Old English, with its genitive inflexions, began, in the aftermath of the Norman Conquest, to coexist with Old French, in which de had long since taken on this role. Although de is, ironically, related etymologically to to not of

‘Of’ has undergone much erosion over the years. From Old English ‘aef’ to ‘of’ to ‘o’ to a bare schwa (more frequent in US English) and is increasingly coming to be replaced by the use of a noun as a qualifier, especially in bureaucratic and journalistic language (e.g. ‘newspaper language’ rather than ‘the language of newspapers’).

Ultimately ‘of’ derives from Germanic and Latin ‘ab,’ cognate with Ancient Greek apo-, which is also the conjectured proto-Indo-European form, with a stronger sense of ‘away’.

‘Off’ is exactly the same word as ‘of’, except with added emphasis, and dates back to the early period of Middle English. The spelling results from that beautiful tendency in post-printing press written English to double up consonants at the end of the word, especially if the word begins with a vowel/zero consonant or if it is a monosyllabic proper name (e.g. egg, ill, odd, add, Webb, Cobb, Clegg). I believe that this derives from an eminently practical need to fit letters onto the printed page and to provide a more pleasing shape for the reader’s eye. “Wel” and “od” would look, well, odd, in the middle of an English sentence.

“Off” is replete with negative connotations. The various expletives that over the years have appeared before it, “fuck, piss, sod, bugger,” are so many place-holders; it is the ‘off’ that delivers the rebuff, the éminence grise that arranges an array of thuggish verbs to effect the hit. ‘Game over’ is a subtle exhortation to continue playing; “(Turn that fucking) game off!” leaves us in no doubt as to what we are expected to do. Words that end in /f/ tend to be rough.

In the vast array of idioms and phrasal verbs it has commandeered, ‘off’ can signify ‘leaving’ (“I’m off”), ‘rotting’ (“The milk has gone off”), ‘shedding’ (“cast off”), ‘de-activation’ (“turn off”), ‘cancellation’ (“The bets are off”), ‘completion’ (“finish off”), ‘irrevocable beginning,’ (“set off”, in at least two separate senses) ‘severance’ (“cut off”), ‘distortion’ “off-color”, ‘deviance from the norm’ (“There is something off about him”), ‘repulsion/rejection’ (“put off”, “shrug off”) or ‘casual self-gratification’ (“jerk off”, “sound off”). Often it can convey the sense of all of the above in one biting phrasal verb. It fizzles like gunpowder in a firework.

It hovers between the status of preposition, adverb and adjective. Can even be used as a verb, has even coaxed verbs into its orbit and partially digested them, as in “doff”. It is a preposition on the up and, flick-knife always at the ready, not in a nice way. There is always something faintly distasteful about “off”.

“Of,” however—the gentler older sibling—rhymes with ‘love’ and bonds people, places and things together, rather than cutting them off. Sadly, it is perhaps less interesting for that and this may well tell us much that we do not wish to know about ourselves as human beings.

Paraklausithyron–Poetry Rehab 101–Partition

Paraklausithyron is a term used to refer to Ancient Greek and Latin poems based on the conceit of a jilted lover complaining to his mistress’s locked door as if it were a human gate-keeper. Sextus Propertius, in poem 16 of his first book of elegies, inverts this trope and gives voice to the door.

Translating Propertius is a long-standing project of mine. I feel that his ironically political elegies, overshadowed by recent wars and scarred by romantic strife, speak to our own age in a special way. I have already posted one of my older attempts to translate him on this blog https://oudeis2005.wordpress.com/2015/06/09/poetry-rehab-101-away. I wrote a lot of Propertius-based poems at the time of the 2003 Iraq war.

This is a new ‘translation’ of Propertius I.xvi that I knocked off tonight in response to Andy Townend’s Poetry 101 rehab challenge prompt on the theme of Partition. https://wordpress.com/read/post/feed/31982590/769502657

My work in this medium tends to employ a chorus of voices, not all of them very nice—most of them, in fact, not very nice at all. I feel, therefore, that I should both apologize to those who may be offended by them, pleading that they are not my own, and, at the same time, plead my right (duty even) to include disturbing voices in my verse.

Propertius himself liked to play with quotations within quotations, one character quoting another quoting another, creating a sort of disturbingly distorted discursive hall of mirrors. I try to echo this in my own take on his work.

Paraklausithyron (after Propertius I.xvi)

My old door, once thrown open in joy

for heroes returning home from wars

or wept on by red-handed servant-girls

leaving in disgrace, is now battered

at by belligerent drunks, the stoop

littered with used condoms, needles and cans.

*

The whore on the third floor is beyond

redemption, the screeching arguments

& cars parked outside blaring out rap

worse than the smut you see these days on TV.

*

“You got some nerve, you fucking tight-assed

cold-hearted bitch, shutting me out.

I’ll thump you down. Daddy gonna bed down

here in the snow, rain twinkling in the streetlamp

lit night, cuddling a gun, listening out

for your shrill hinges’ creak. I’ll knock over

the nosey cow peeking out, slip through

the crack, up the stairs, shouting, dissing

you. You melt, sugar, at the sound

of Daddy’s voice & don’t mind that I

knock you about a bit for your own good;

turf the sissy boy you’re shacked up with

out, in my blizzard-of dreams. It’s you

door-keeper, nosey cow, I blame,

as the dawn chorus starts up

& the hangover kicks in; you who

can’t be won over with cheap perfume

or a punch. I sing to you

with the rhythm of a pneumatic drill

digging up the street.”

*

I poke my nose through

the crack in the chained door

& dial 911 again, wondering

about the girl upstairs,

what I could have done,

where it all went wrong.