Appendices to The Step is the Foot.
Appendix 1 The Pendulum Plot of Philoctetes by Sophocles
Appendix 2 Outback Research Trip
Appendix 3: TRANSLATION: A QUERY
Appendix 4: Developing the madrigal
Appendix 5: Asprezza
Appendix 6: Koans for the Waterfall
Appendix 1 The Pendulum Plot of Philoctetes by Sophocles
This passage from complication to resolution and back again to complication may be described as a Plot of Fortune-Turns. It rests upon the conception of Destiny as blind Fortune, overthrowing without design or motive the finest- drawn schemes: —indeed, the more breathlessly interesting the issue that is changed, the more impressive is the heedless irresistibility of Fortune. It is to be noted, however, that a similar form extends outside Destiny to the sway of events within the region of human will: here also the attraction is felt of the Pendulum Action—the swinging backwards and forwards in the drift of events. The most striking illustration of this occurs, not in Euripides, but in a play of Sophocles belonging to a period when he may well have felt the influence of Euripides. The Philoctetes is a masterpiece of plot. Viewed as a whole it has the highest moral interest: a profound intrigue is encountered by simple trust which completely shatters it. In detail the play exhibits a constant interchange of complication and resolution. Two oracles unite in forecasting the fall of Troy : it can be taken only by the son of Achilles; it must fall by the miraculous arrows of Philoctetes, of which the aim means certain death. But this Philoctetes is a man bitterly injured by the chieftains of the besieging army; he had sailed with them as one of their comrades, and, when smitten through a viper’s bite with a foul and loathsome disease, had been abandoned in the desolate island of Lemnos. At the opening of the play Odysseus—mythic master of all guile—has brought the youthful son of Achilles to Lemnos, and is heard distilling into his unwilling ear the fraud by which he is to gain possession of the archer and his arrows. Neoptolemus is to commence the plot which Odysseus will supplement: as unknown in person to Philoctetes he is to encounter him by apparent accident, and to win his confidence by simulating injuries received from the sons of Atreus, and still more from Odysseus, chief object of the sufferer’s wrath. In regular and interesting stages this intrigue is worked out: the lonely Philoctetes is seen in his misery, the sympathy of Neoptolemus and the Chorus his followers wins the hero’s trust, and the two make common cause against the Greek chieftains and agree to sail to their homes together. Here a new impetus is given to the plot by the finesse of Odysseus, who sends an attendant affecting to be a messenger of warning, with news that Odysseus and his colleagues are about to seize Neoptolemus and Philoctetes, and force them to take part in the capture of Troy:—surely never did intrigue sail nearer to the wind than when Odysseus thus announces clearly his secret scheme as a means of hastening its accomplishment. The trick succeeds, and Philoctetes is for sailing without delay. The very crisis of the intrigue is reached as Neoptolemus, now on terms of comradeship with Philoctetes, approaches cautiously the object of his anxious hope, the far-famed bow :
And may I have a nearer view of it,
And hold it, and salute it, as a God?
Not only does Philoctetes promise this, but, by strange irony of fate, is visited suddenly by an attack of his hideous disease, and himself places the miraculous weapons in the hands of Neoptolemus, that they may not be lost while the sufferer is helpless. Then he falls back in agony, followed by heavy torpor : the Chorus wavering between slumber-spells sung over the unconscious Philoctetes, and whispered appeals to their leader to seize the moment and bear off the bow. For nine hundred lines the intrigue has been making unbroken progress: now the turn in the action begins. When Philoctetes wakes in peace, and is overpowered with gratitude to the new comrade who has not, like all others, deserted him in his affliction, the pure heart of Neoptolemus is touched : he confesses the whole plot, and seems to be casting all the gains of the intrigue away when the torrent of reproaches and picture of the sufferer’s helplessness bring him to the verge of yielding. But the original course of the story is suddenly restored as Odysseus springs from behind a rock: he daunts the youthful Neoptolemus with the authority of the Greek hosts, nay with the authority of Zeus himself, since the oracles seem to give the sanction of heaven to the task of bringing the miraculous arrows to Troy. So firmly established does the intrigue appear by this intervention that Philoctetes in despair is casting himself from the rock, when he is seized and bound; and the success of Odysseus seems to attain yet a further stage when he changes his mind and bids unbind the archer—they can do without him now they have obtained his arrows. But at this height of success the intrigue is dashed to the ground: the reproaches have worked upon the heart of Neoptolemus, and, after an interval, he returns and places again the bow in the hands of Philoctetes, freely and without conditions, while Odysseus after vain resistance finally retires. Even here the action of the play is not entirely exhausted, but seems to take a turn in its first direction as Neoptolemus essays to substitute persuasion for force, and builds up a plea which to the reader seems irresistible : in which indications from heaven, chances of healing, hope of glory, all point in one direction. But even this line of expectation is reversed as Philoctetes, contrary to duty, interest, and gratitude, persists in his enmity to the Grecian leaders, and insists on Neoptolemus’s pledge to carry him home. Neoptolemus obeys, and they are turning their steps to the ship, when the intervention of heaven arrests them, and Hercules descending in glory from the sky bids his arrows be used for their heaven-destined purpose, and works out for his son peace and healing. Thus perfect is the play as an illustration of the Pendulum Plot, with its action swaying from complication to resolution, and back again and yet again forward, until the tangle of circumstances can be resolved only by miracle.
The Ancient Classical Drama: a Study in Literary Evolution, Oxford 1890, Richard G. Moulton, pages 137-140
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Appendix 2 – Outback Research Trip
First published in Issue 34 of Performance Magazine.
DAY 1 (Sunday May 23)
Allan and I get up at 9 a.m. to collect our Budget Bus by 9.30. We drive out along the airport road to the Budget depot. There are no hitches – the bus looks roomy and clean; it’s a 12-seater, so we should have the space to stretch out. Allan drives it back to Media Space while I follow in his battered white ‘chook waggon’ of a Holden. We start packing provisions and sleeping gear. I argue for an embarrassment of blankets where sleeping gear is concerned – the desert can get terribly cold at night: better to carry more than we need than to squabble over who’s got what. We make a list of everything under the sun – including compasses, toilet paper, zoom lenses – and decide to look at our list in Kalgoorlie tomorrow morning, when the full team will have assembled with all the gear from all possible sources. Kalgoorlie will be our last large town before we turn off the bitumen roads in search of the largest flat area in the Goldfields. It’s there that we’ll have to pick up the gas-lamps we still need if we wish to take extended time, open shutter shots of Active Circles being performed at night; the shots we hope will convey our circling – ordinary daylight stills come out as little dots lost in a field and convey nothing. So we plan to try it with five portable gas-lamps. Three which we’ve already got. Otherwise, we’ve chatted about documenting our preparations and our trip out to the salt lakes – Marmion, Goongarrie and Yindarlgooda – but performing in a privacy uninterrupted by either still camera or porta pack. Performance, after all, is its actions, not its documentation.
In the afternoon I sit re-reading the instructions for Active Circles. It’s a performance The Theatre of Mistakes abandoned in 1977 because the company couldn’t find a flat space in England large enough for it. It’s like a game really, the performers forming two radii of a circle which can accelerate towards the centre or towards the perimeter – and when both radii form a single straight line, a new, larger circle can be started, with either end of the line-out as its pivot.
That’s the basic idea – which leads to ramifications too complex to go into here. In the long, hot summer of 1977 we did perform it on Hartley Wintney village-green, which has a sizeable cricket-pitch, as a dance to bring down the rain – or so we told the press! It had to be abandoned after 9 hours though, because performers were beginning to circumnavigate the village during their circling – thus losing sight of each other. However, as we packed it in, the first drops of rain fell – as the Southern Evening Echo duly noted – though the R.A.F Met. office claimed, post hoc, that they knew all along the weather was about to change.
That was the last performance until now. As I glance through the instructions I see quite a few details which date the piece – obsession with extrinsic details, clumsy use of walking backwards, somewhat pretentious choice of the pronouns for signals. I change some of the instructions. Somebody phones. We’re a woman short – and my notes specifically state that the ratio of sexes in the performance should always be N: N + 1 (that is, one more man than there are women, or vice-versa). So Allan rings round frantically in search of one more woman. If we take seven people out into the desert and perform Active Circles as a five performer piece, then we can count on two reserve players at all times, ensuring that everybody gets a two hour break – but if we’ve only two women that’ll mean that the girls never get a break. Finally somebody somewhere in Perth says Yes, she’ll bring a sleeping bag, warm clothing etc. and meet us at Media Space at 7 p.m.
The afternoon goes slowly. Allan and I have loaded all our equipment into the bus. We sit watching the 6 o’clock news. Patsy arrives. Then Pam. But we give up on Martin, Lindsay and Lyn – from Praxis, in Fremantle, several miles away – and take off to Fast Eddy’s for a last hamburger, T-bone or plate of chips. After all, we may not be eating much besides dried lizard for the next few days.
The Praxis crowd join us a few minutes after our return to Media Space. They’re loaded with tents, sleeping gear, provisions; but Martin packs energetically, and we’re off at about 9 p.m. – hoping to reach Boulder, near Kalgoorlie, by 4 or 5 in the morning. Out past the airport again, and then on, and on, five or six hundred ks – negotiating a few low hills, and then the flatness of the wheat belt; ghostly eucalypts; wattles looming out of the red darkness on either side of the practically always dead straight road. Everything more red and green than usual because of the recent late autumn rains –which worry us quite a bit because we’d hate to find our salt lakes filled up with water by the time we get to them. On one side of the road, the pipeline carrying water to the goldfields from the hills accompanies us – its engineer committed suicide when the pipe was completed, because the water arrived in Kalgoorlie a few hours later than expected. The miles of pipeline travel along beside us, meeting as we do the freight train rushing along towards us which takes over thirty seconds to pass, although we’re travelling at 120 ks per hour! A ghost train in the darkness. A road broken only by railway-crossings, corpses of kangaroos – notorious jay-walkers – rare truck-stops and filling stations, and the odd town – Southern Cross, Coolgardie – towns which are one enormously wide main street, hotels of corrugated iron with wooden pilasters in a row along their verandas, the offices of mining companies, an occasional ultra-modern motel.
We pull in for petrol, and take coffee at Yellowdine – in a cafe where a tame wallaby eats the stubs out of the spittoon while his partner, a massive Alsatian, snores by the fire. Above the counter hang dishcloths decorated with Aboriginal scenes: local sacred sites and painted caves. The cafe itself is a sort of painted cave; with murals of Captain Cook, dancing Aboriginals, blacks (or maybe sunburnt convicts) being flogged – the tribal history of an Australian truck-stop: one entire wall covered with visitors’ business cards – real estate, insurance, topless dancers, Praxis Art – everyone passing through.
Outside, the bullfrogs chant through the light drizzle, and an enormous moth the colour of the dirt crawls blearily towards the light of the petrol pumps.
We pile back in. Drivers change. I doze and wake up again, change seats, stare at the ever vanishing, ever approaching, sleek, black tape of bitumen -eucalypts like burnished bronze in the headlamps; giving way to low shrub. We pull into Boulder and knock on Andrew’s door at about 5 a.m. – Andrew and Diana are English friends of an English friend in Perth. They’ve been out here prospecting, and live within a mile of the Golden Mile Mine – the richest goldmine in history; once abandoned, but now being reworked. Diana lets us in and we collapse – on beds, floors, sofas, anywhere. A child starts coughing in the night.
Between 8.30 and 9 in the morning we struggle awake and sip tea. Andrew shows us a nugget of gold flecked with iron ore which he found during his days of serious ‘fossecking’. He keeps it in a battered matchbox. He and Diana live in a dilapidated shack of a house, albeit with a pretty enough veranda. It’s quite ramshackle inside as well – the stuffing coming out of the chairs, the walls much as they found them when they moved in, except for their daughter’s paintings – odd wall-papers, hardboard, unfinished paint-jobs. There’s something rickety about the whole of Boulder anyway. Prospectors don’t seem to care much for material niceties – they’re too busy playing the desert’s version of ‘Lotto’.
Andrew lends us geological maps, a shovel, a prospecting pan, two fine compasses, and advises us against getting lost. We drive off to Kalgoorlie, where I sit in a cafe, writing up the log, while the others grab more breakfast and then hunt up the equipment and provisions we still need: two more lamps with gas canisters, eggs, chops, powdered milk and so on. By 11.30, we’re heading towards Menzies – a desert town with dry lakes in all directions. The shimmering surface of the dead straight road is often only one lane wide, which means that drivers play chicken with approaching cars or trucks, until one or both drive left hand wheels onto the red dirt shoulder,- a wide area on either side of the road, bordered by a wire fence most of the time, either denoting the edge of ‘station’ properties or simply to keep the ‘roos’ off the road – though apparently these have no trouble jumping the fences if they see you coming and feel like commit-ting suicide. Beyond the fence, red gums, scrub, abandoned cars, outcrops, mines – and the occasional corrugated lean to supported by a caravan surrounded by typically Australian junk.
Even though it’s basically a single lane road, widening only on the brows of the hills, there’s so little traffic that the ks fly by and we overshoot our first target – Lake Goongarrie, a relatively small lake between Kalgoorlie and Menzies – and we have to double back. Our maps are either too sketchy to be of much use, or they’re too detailed to be read simply. Anyway, we catch sight of Goongarrie from the road, and pull off to take a look at it. It’s enormous – and would give us a performance circle of about 3 ks in diameter. It’s not covered in salt. An endless stretch of flat red earth. It’s horizon is a mirage. The arms of the lake vanish as they try to encircle it, and the vast table ultimately becomes the sky. Given the rain holds off, this would be an almost perfect site for Active Circles – but it’s decided that we press on and look at Lake Marmion before starting to play, in case it’s even better – it’s certainly going to be bigger; allowing a 10 or 11 k diameter circle of utterly flat ground, according to our maps – an inconceivably large arena. So we pile back into the bus and drive on.
40 ks beyond Menzies, we find Jeedamya and pull off onto a red dirt road towards Lake Marmion. Our destination is still some 45 ks further on, but there’s a ghost town marked on the map – Kookynie – about 14 ks out of our way, so we head for that as an interesting lunch stop. As we drive, we notice how the water from the recent rains is pouring off the bush and along the road.
The sky glitters. The bush is awash, but the water never seems to sink into the hard red ground. Instead, it slides over it, like liquid split on linoleum. Now we find ourselves careering through flash-flooding brooks: one has to accelerate to get through these – orange spray exploding around us, detonated by our impact. A lorry passes us, axle-deep in red mud. Eventually we find out-selves travelling down a river; a river which flows up to the front veranda of the pub in Kookynie – the only building still occupied.
Conservationists may worry about man destroying nature. Kookynie is proof that in the Australian bush it’s often nature which has the better of man. Over-grown, deserted ruins of a shopping precinct; rust eating into old jalopies, cans, oil-drums, girders. It’s all blackened and forlorn – the eject of mining: crumbling man-made hills, like old scabs on the turquoise-green skin of the outback.
In the pub, they advise us against going down to Lake Marmion in anything but a four-wheel drive. Even if we reach this huge lake it will probably be full of water, and therefore useless. So we head back up the river of a road, having opted for Lake Goongarrie after all. At sunset, we find ourselves camped on top of an outcrop overlooking one of the world’s most beautiful performance spaces, and certainly one of its most unfrequented. It’s surrounded by crickets and gum-trees, several ks in from the road. We light a fire, as the clouds pour out of the sky into the dying red glow of the west. Allan builds a hole, fills it with embers and covers it with an old iron mesh we picked up in Kookynie. We bake potatoes and grill chops liberally flavoured with eucalyptus leaf and port. Several of the party, including myself, get very drunk on red wine and port, then bourbon in our ‘Milo’ chocolate night-cap. The evening erupts into opinions which disintegrate into unconsciousness.
I wake up with a terrible hangover to the drumming of rain on my tent. My headache is all the worse for my having slept without a pillow on the hard ground, and my temper isn’t improved by the rain. Luckily the shower ceases after about twenty minutes, but the lake, which was a bone-dry, reddish-grey sheet yesterday, is now like a wet mirror. I manage to stomach a cup of tea but feel too queasy for bacon and eggs; so I wander off to inspect the surface of our performance space. We’ve pitched camp above a sort of inlet, a lagoon of flat sand about the size of a cricket-pitch, which proves hard enough to stand on; but beyond this inlet, the lake proper is quaggy underfoot, and the heels of my shoes give beneath me with every step – which makes very unpleasant walking. Still further out, mud cakes the shoes, and walking becomes a slog. This will never do – but it seems as if it hardly matters, our site is so beautiful. To the left, some sort of Australian wood pigeon croons a chord: its notes are a harmonic – it gives throat to its tune on several levels simultaneously. Then there’s what I decide to call a ‘morse-bird’, because its call sounds like a signal in code. Then the squabbling, grating screeches of the parrots – twenty-eights’ mostly – viridian flittings, tumbling out of the trees. The sky is becoming blue. To the right, there’s a high dune of bright red sand on which the tussocks of scrub stand out turquoise, grey and green after the rain.
Like everywhere else in Australia, the bush is permanently charred – the outback being a phoenix, ever rejuvenated by the fire in which it perishes. It sometimes feels silly to talk about ‘seasons’ here, where so many of the trees lose bark all the time, rather than leaves at a particular time; where there’s always something blossoming at any time, and where everything looks half-dead, half-alive most of the time, instead of either one or the other.
On the dune, red peelings, shards, husks of bark fall from each gumtree onto its black circle of dead leaves, and the burnt remnants of some former tree. The sand vividly red, the dead embers black, the peel grated on top of the embers vividly red again – while the naked orange trunks of the trees reach up out of the centres of these debris strewn circles, wrinkling like human skin at all joints and junctions.
I return to camp, still feeling woozy, sleep for an hour, then walk down with the others onto the sandy pitch below. I suggest a few practice exercises – additive spins, when one revolves for one turn in one direction, two in the other direction, three in the original direction and so on – as a method of unwinding and rewinding when spinning fast in the centre of a circle.
Then everybody in the group pairs off (except for Martin, who is still slightly under the weather from last night), and we try changing instigation of the circles; gyrating at speed, or slowly, in the centre – or walking at speed, or slowly, around the circumference of a circle whose centre is your opposite number – a slow centre causing a fast perimetre, and vice-versa. I then teach everybody the rules of Active Circles, and by noon most of my performers have more or less got the hang of it. We break for lunch and a siesta, during which I write up the log.
After lunch, we venture out further onto the lake, which has dried up considerably in the noonday sun. We try a seven-person circle, talking Martin through the piece, since he’s now recovered. Certain rules are changed, in particular the instructions for what happens after an audible line – denoting the moment when two radii are at 6 o’clock position – is called during a circle walk anticlockwise by the longer radius, with its velocity increasing towards the perimeter.
This particular moment used to lead to the formation of a smaller circle than the one during which the audible line was called – but the formation was achieved in a very roundabout manner. After that audible line in our revised version the performers on the shorter radius arm walk towards and in between those on the longer arm; then the performer at the centre is found by the performer originally at the perimeter of the longer radius singing out A, the performer next to him singing out B and so on, until the central performer is discovered – D in a 7-person circle, C in a 5-person circle. Instead of singing out, those in the line beyond that central performer walk in between those who have sung out, and thus the new (smaller) circle is established – its longer arm stretching between A and D, or A and C, depending on the number circling.
Also, we noted some tentative ratios for the vortex circling – when velocity increases towards the centre:
Performer 1 (gyrating at the centre anti-clock-wise):
Performer 2 (clockwise): 1 full revolution to performer 5’s ¼ circle,
Performer 3 (anti-clock-wise): 1 ½ circles to performer 4’s full revolution.
Performer 4 (clockwise): ½ a circle to performer 5’s ¼ circle.
Performer 5 (anti-clock-wise): moving slowly as the perimeter of that circle.
So to get an audible line from a vortex – always more difficult than a ‘clock-hands’ type of circling
5 walks ½ a circle;
4 walks a full circle- moving twice as fast as 5;
3 walks 1 ½ circles – moving two thirds faster than 4;
2 walks 2 circles – moving ¾ faster than 3;
Poorly expressed, and not particularly mathematical, considering each circle is larger than the next anyhow, but these rules of thumb work well in practice, given a 5 person circle – clockwise and anti-clock-wise, as suggested above, can of course always be reversed.
As the sun goes down we break for ‘tea’, as the Australians call supper, and prepare for our night project. Allan takes a large gas-lamp, a tripod and a camera, and sets up on the highest piece of land overlooking the performance space. Five performers, each equipped with one of the five smaller gas-lamps, perform circling exercises and then specific moves from Active Circles on the flat sands below. Since there are seven of us, we still have one reserve performer, so everyone gets a chance to watch the ellipses of our performance from the higher ground.
I have the sensation that in a small way we are contributing to the universe, as our wheeling lights twinkle below the larger wheel of the milky way; our lamps adding to the general nebulosity.
Inside the performance, during a vortex circling, one gets the impression that this lagoon of sand is a wide shadowy circus ring – all one can see are feet, lamps and the looming and veering shadows.
Working at night with lamps seems to me the best way to perform Active Circles. Only the arcs are visible; nothing distracts from the intention of the work. As Lindsay remarks, the afterimages keep burning in the back of the head. We also try an extended audible line, finishing up on the opposite headland to the camera, where Martin sets a tree alight. This ‘burning bush’ flickers at the far end of our line of lights which continues up into the stars. It keeps flaring and flickering as we make our way back to the tents. We sit chatting around our campfire, some of us even braving the Jamaican Supreme or the rich Muscat wine. There’s still a little Invalid Port left – guaranteed to put one straight into hospital!
Allan tells me that the wrecked, overturned hulks of cars to be seen at intervals beside the roads and tracks are actually repositories of parts – possessions which have become part of Aboriginal culture. They’re useful if something in your own battered vehicle conks out miles from anywhere. A roadworthy assemblage can be built out of spares. These skeletons of autos are often owned by someone in the bush, whose permission must be sought before one can raid the repository for a bolt or a rusted spring. I’ve no wish to repeat my performance of the night before, so I turn in, soberly, at about midnight.
I wake up at 7.30, having slept well, with my head resting on Martin’s spare pillow. Martin himself has slept outside, by the dying embers of our campfire. After a cup of tea, I set off on a two hour walk along the ridge above and to the left of our inlet. I’m dying to see a real live kangaroo in the bush – so far, I’ve only seen them in zoos – and here the ground is littered with ‘roo tracks and droppings. I’m equipped with compass and binoculars, and I head slightly inland. Various birds flutter or glide past me, but otherwise I see nothing but trees: Eucalyptus, olive-leaved with the recent rains, paper-barks, and various low acacias. I climb into the boughs of a gumtree and remain completely silent; scanning the bush with my binoculars. Nothing – only the sound of dangling strips of bark knocking against the trunk in the breeze. The low ceiling strips of bark knocking against the trunk in the breeze. The low ceiling of clouds stretches forever over the low bushland. Each day we have looked up at the sky anxiously. Sometimes it has been blue. Sometimes high cirrus cloud has passed across. With each alteration in the sky the surface of the dry lake changes. Sometimes vanishing into mirage; at other times so clear one can make out the line of the far shore. I think about what we have achieved and about what we have failed to achieve. We’ve not managed to examine how far apart one has to stand before vanishing from sight, or before being unable to hear each other shout. The far reaches of the lake are still too quaggy to be played on. These experiments will have to be carried out on another trip – on Lake Marmion, if we ever get there.
I descend the tree and make my own way down to the lake’s edge, walking back to the camp over its surface. My shoes still sink beneath me on the lake proper, but most of our inlet is now dry and firm. The clouds are clearing – if it remains windy and sunlit, an even larger amount of its surface may dry out; and we could get a decent game of Active Circles by the afternoon. I reach the tents in time for bacon and eggs at about 9 a.m.
After breakfast, I teach my performers a “Table Move without Furniture” on the sand lagoon – we need a change from the circles which we’ll perform for the last time after lunch. In this re-arrangement performance, the performers are themselves the objects that shift through 90 degrees on the axis of the centre of a performance square. We mark out a square 40 feet by 40 feet on the sand, and then bisect each of its sides – giving a square composed of four smaller squares. This is a larger area than I usually use for a Table Move – about twice the size of that used in Table Move solos – but it works well given the enormity of the lake.
First, we try entering the square one at a time, adopting a position, moving through 90 degrees -thus shifting from one of the smaller squares to the next – before another performer enters to take up a position. When all the performers are working in the square, the first one to enter it leaves, and so on-the last to enter becoming the last to leave. People move one at a time, their positions standing out starkly against the far horizon of the flat surface. We attempt the moves again; this time adopting “armature” positions for one cycle, then changing to “supported” positions for a further cycle; one performer serving as the armature supporting another’s position – an armature which will collapse when that supporting performer moves on through 90 degrees, to disintegrate altogether when the armature is abandoned for a supported position. There are some wonderful moments, and since the additive/subtractive nature of the piece allows performers to be their own audience, Allan manages to get some photographs of the culminating moments.
We break for lunch. Lindsay and Martin set off on a walk across the lake, while others sleep and I write up the log. Afterwards, I set out on another stroll, and meet Lindsay and Martin returning – Martin carrying a ladder they’ve found down the shaft of an abandoned mine. There are several of those dotted over the spit of land several ks away – between the lake and the Kalgoorlie/Menzies road. Their names are evocative: Happy Jack, Lake View, Gladsome, Comet Vale, Sand Queen … Mines are marked on the map with crossed pick-axes. Because of their names the goldfields’ maps read like poems. First Hit, the Teutonic Bore, Lake Disappointment, White Quartz Dam, Deadman Soak, Cracky Jack Rockhole – what a country!
We go out onto the lake for our last session of circling, with a seven-person line-out and no witnesses – I haven’t seen humans other than our party since we got here, and I’ve only heard civilization in the far distance – the rare lorry on the road beyond the mines. During this last session we get one wonderful vortex audible line; performed without my needing to shout corrections.
What are we doing, out here in the wilderness, performing for ourselves alone, unable even to document the most exciting moments because all are engaged in the attempt? Is it art? I am reminded of Willa Cather’s remarks in ‘Death Comes for the Archbishop’:
‘When they left the rock or tree or sand-dune that had sheltered them for the night, the Navajo was careful to obliterate every trace of their temporary occupation. He buried the embers of the fire and the remnants of food, unpiled any stones he had piled together, filled up the holes he had scooped in the sand … Just as it was the white man’s way to assert himself in any landscape, to change it, make it over a little (at least to leave some mark of memorial of his sojourn), it was the Indian’s way to pass through a country without disturbing any-thing; to pass and leave no trace, like fish through the water, or birds through the air.’
A fine audible line gives us the radius of a circle so large that performing it takes several of us off the lake into the bush; almost achieving that entropy needed to conclude our game, which ends ‘when players perform a circle so large they remain neither within sight nor sound of each other.’ At least some of us have vanished into the thickets, and our last calls and last glimpses of each other fade as the sun sets over our tends pitched on the outcrop.
Over tea, Lyn suggests that semaphore would be a good way of getting across signals, messages concerning the circle to be performed next, corrections, suggestions and so on-all of which prove necessary to the game but which interrupt the silence of its rotations, and which would become confusing, if not inaudible, when performers were a kilometre or so apart from each other on the widest of dry lakes. Active Circles still has a long way to go. But we’ve finished our performances for this trip; and after supper we drive into Menzies for beers and baths in the one pub.
I play ‘8-ball’ with Lindsay and lose miserably (twice). An unsteady gentleman across the bar is playing ‘How much is that doggy in the window’ on a squeaky mouth-organ. The women wander back into the bar, glowingly refreshed, with wet hair. The drinking continues. Somebody strums a guitar. We sing a dirty version of ‘Daisy’ – all about Daniel. Martin offers the clientele a solo of ‘The Bald-Headed End of the Broom’. Then, as the drinks get downed as fast as they’re shouted, the whole pub starts singing – ‘Halleluyah, I’m a bum’, ‘The Boy from Tunera’, ‘Tipperary’, ‘The Ballad of Ned Kelly’, ‘Irene, Good-night’, ‘A Lovable Lad’, ‘The Goldmine in the sky’, ‘Duncan’. The evening is rounded off by Gene Merwin, the publican and, like Allan, an American, reciting word-perfect the entire ballad of ‘Dirty Dan Mag-roo’. As he recites he seems to me to have turned into a solomnly intense bullfrog. His eyes bulge. He croaks out the last lines with a sincerity terrible to hear. I’ve not come across a publican who recited poetry be-fore. Western Australia is a fine place for surprises. Here, people must create their own culture if they are to have any at all. ‘You’ve been a great audience’, says Gene, pumping my hand as we leave.
The bus lurches off towards the campsite and oblivion, and now I realise that I’ve forgotten to mention what was perhaps the day’s most felicitous incident – at least, from my own point of view. As we rattled towards the Menzies road on the red track leading to it from our inlet, the most stupendous grey kangaroo bounded across our headlamps.
We break camp in the morning, pack the bus, and head on beyond Menzies, another 100 ks or so. Gumtrees dwindle to Mulgar scrub. The straight road travels from one long, low rise to the next. Tracts of turquoise landscape give way to tracts of grey tussocks. We pass an eagle perched on a kangaroo’s carcass, tearing at it, oblivious of the lorry lurching past it, a few inches away. We reach Leonora – a series of humps culminating in one big hump emerging from the middle of a plain covered with low bushes which stretches in all directions -with a few distant hills, like blue smudges, sporadically along the horizon. This particular hump, Mount Leonora, was discovered by the party which set out from Perth in search of Leichardt’s ill-fated expedition (upon which Patrick White’s ‘Voss’ is based).
Nearby is Gwalia, a ghost town surrounding the ‘Sons of Gwalia’ Mine, once the largest after Kai’s Golden Mile, now a series of broken down incidents in the clinker of its own rubble. There’s a Eucalyptus which has grown up through a rusted oil-drum. Perhaps it originally arrived in this barren place as a sapling inside that oil-drum. The drum is older than it; but the tree will survive the drum, which has practically rusted away already. Herbert Hoover erected the towering headframe at the pithead, where the skips once poured out their ore, dragged up 37 levels by a steam winder which is probably the most gigantic piece of period machinery that I’ve ever seen.
Everywhere, there’s red slag, the natural colour of the innards of the earth here, mixed with the dust of rusted things – things fashioned out of corrugated iron mostly-walls, awnings, verandas, roofs – all coming apart at the seams, reached into by the tendrils of plants. Windows with cross-cross wooden lattices now lie flat on the ground among Agave cactus and prickly pear. There’s an empty concrete swimming-pool, once luxurious, now clogged with junk and weeds, which overlooks the unsafe timbers of the headframe; and beyond that, a closed-up hotel and a railway track and the endless miles of the bush fading into the distance.
After yesterday’s considerations -the idea of man being imperceptible in the landscape, of vanishing into it rather than imposing upon it – all this ravaging of the ecology, this upheaval of landscape, should arouse feelings of antipathy and revulsion. Strangely enough, it fails to do so. It’s fascinating. Beauty is operating here too. It’s the beauty of pathos and decay. One’s sensibility becomes attuned to the ingenuity of rust – which can turn a child’s broken toy, a battered clockwork car, into a relic precious as any in a crypt – an object transformed by exposure to a thousand thousand miles of wind and sky. But against the burnt umber of the rust can be seen the beauty of brash silveriness and corrugated flexibility. There’s a sculptor living here – Al Doss is the name above his door knocker – he creates shiny fantasias out of this material which seems somehow particularly vulgar to the European.
Then there’s the beauty of details – of the million and one man-made things brought into this wild place: thermos and saucepan; a pair of furnace bel-lows; wheel-barrows, churns, tweezers, tanks, gears, jack-hammers, pumps, engine-blocks, sieves and sifters, carburettors, intake manifolds, klaxons, spoon-tools, bosses and fillets, pinion patterns, train brake blocks, vacuum cleaners, cash-boxes, curling tongs, scales and mincers, vegetable slicers and irons for various purposes – even one for ironing the billiard table. Knife-sharpeners and polishers, percolators, and, possibly my favourite – the Beehive Sock-Knitting machine.
Just as the Australian Bower-Bird makes a bower of blue objects – from pen-tops to snatches of blue wool-the Australian Homo-Sapiens, both Aboriginal and Caucasian, seem to take pride in gathering a bower of rusted junk about their ‘humpies’ – over-winds, detachable car-bonnets with vintage fluted vents – all seemingly accidental, yet somehow strategically placed. Broken jalopies like beetles un-able to right themselves are balanced upside down on their roofs. Perhaps it’s to get at their differentials – the necessity is a happy eventuality. They look better that way.
There are certainly more possibilities of beauty than have yet been imagined. The hunter, admiring the wild animal, makes as little sound as possible, and leaves little evidence of his passing-for this appeals to an aesthetic sense which has roots in qualities which ensure survival – silence, invisibility, stealth. The prospector stakes out his prospect, thumps with his pneumatic drill, twists and bends his rippling sheet or iron to build a shanty – and this appeals to another aesthetic sense, developed from a need to ensure survival in a money society; valuing ownership, property and exchangeable objects. Both aesthetics have a validity in their own terms. As do artworks which are paintings and artworks which are simply activities.
At last we tire of wandering in this waste-land and head for the flesh-and-blood town of Lonora, where, after a hamburger and coffee, we pile back into the bus and start the long drive home to Perth. Back past Jeedamya, and the dirt-road turn off for Lake Marmion, back through Menzies, past Comet Mine and a glimpse of Lake Goongarrie, through Kalgoorlie to Boulder, where we drop off Andrew’s compasses, maps and shovel. Then we continue past Coolgardie, through Yellowdine with its wallaby cafe, now flaunting a sulphur-crested cockatoo on a perch outside its door, and on towards Perth – towards hamburger franchises, supermarkets and office blocks – ‘slabs of business’ as John Ashbery calls them – entering the world of suburbs and dual carriageways.
We arrive at about 2 a.m., separate, travel to our homes and collapse into our civilised beds. The built-up area surrounding us still seems remote – some-how more alien than the outback.
I dream of the road.
* * *
Appendix 3: TRANSLATION: A QUERY
A review by Anthony Howell of Poem into Poem: world poetry in modern verse edited by George Steiner (Penguin 10/-) first published in Stand 12, no. 2, 1971
For the sake of argument let us say we can do without everything but the masterpiece.
The only valid equivalent of a masterpiece in one language is another in the language into which it has been translated.
Because masterpieces present us with a new, not readily recognizable construct their approach into the limelight tends to be slow. The translation of contemporaries involves the risk that the original work chosen may be slight. This need not matter if the translator is a Baudelaire. But another risk is that the translator may be put off by having a live and possibly irascible original peering over his shoulder.
Producing a masterpiece in one’s own language is a full time task – a particularly difficult task if the gallery of native tradition is as rich as that of England. When engaged on his own poem the writer may alter the sense as he discovers form: with a translation he may neglect form in order to adhere to the sense. If sense is thus sacrosanct he may have opted for a limitation which narrows the play of his native abilities to the extent that a masterpiece must be ruled out.
The modern poet wrestles with words to establish some meaning. He knows that his skill as a wrestler over-rides the demands of a pre-selected sense. Perhaps he ought to know little or nothing of the tongue from which he is translating—then his curiosity is aroused and he translates in order to read the original. This process of translation in order to read comes nearer the struggle in which he is usually engaged. For in order to appreciate the foreign he must find in it some native felicity. Pound, curious, unravelled the Chinese ideogram for autumn and discovered an image. Someone more fluent in Chinese might simply have written autumn. A Frenchman I spoke to recently was excited by the element of the French rapport in the English reporter; an element which I, blinded by a fluency which could only imagine the word in a journalistic context, had quite overlooked.
From all this it may be suspected that if it is a masterpiece the translation will derive from a foreign poem of an earlier epoch, will have been translated by a poet whose skill is at least comparable to that of the original writer, and who may have no equipment to deal with the foreign language beyond his curiosity. Extreme as it is, this point of view is rarely publicized, and it should prove rewarding to examine contemporary translation while bearing it in mind.
In the introduction to his anthology, George Steiner speaks of ‘a characteristic internationalization of the poetic temper … a shared logic of emotion, an agreed code of reference and symbolic device’ among modern poets. This he sees as part of a larger syndrome which has infected other areas of western art:
‘The Javanese tone sequence in a Debussy score, the African mask in a Picasso, the translations of Hindi or Nigerian lyrics into English verse, embody a common appetite for renewal, for the vitalizing shock, and a common guilt towards that which we have too long pillaged or scorned as mere colonizers.’
But with music and painting there is no language barrier. We behold the mask intact—even if the witch-doctor has never stepped out of his village. In the case of poetry we lack the witch-doctor (that is the cultural surround) and the mask has to be re-fashioned in wood from a different tree.
Languages differ as Balsa differs from Ebony: they can never produce an identical mask. It turns out to be easier to re-fashion the witch-doctor—he is human at least—and the new popularity of recital, when a wild eyed poet stands up and harangues the gathering to the accompaniment of saxophones and drums, may currently be the most interesting translation of Nigerian poetry—perhaps it captures the spirit.
Most of Steiner’s translators have avoided contemporary foreign verse, and the major poets among them have done so almost invariably. Eliot’s translations of Perse and the Cornford/Spender collaboration over Eluard are exceptions, and both produce near masterpieces—the translators were also fluent in the foreign tongue. However, in Auden’s version of Akhmadulina, another exception, rhythm and rhyme produce a dampening effect, while the verses lack that apt choice of adjective and elegance of syntax found in his best work. The translation does not stand up to comparison with Lullaby:
‘… Grave the vision Venus sends
Of supernatural sympathy,
Universal love and hope;
While an abstract insight wakes
Among the glaciers and the rocks
The hermit’s carnal ecstasy . . .’
(Lullaby verse 2)
‘… Realms ever denser and colder
Weigh on each brutal shoulder,
But the old wicked visions keep
Visiting them in their sleep . . .’
Where less talented writers in Steiner’s stable attempt the foreign poetry of bygone epochs the results are often interesting—but far from being masterpieces. Robert Fitzgerald’s translation of the Odyssey, well represented, moves with the narrative speed of a thriller and has much the same impact, but it does not enthral, does not incite me to re-read, as does Chapman’s version, which, although lacking the rolling fourteeners of his Iliad, a rhythm like a wave of troops assaulting the reader, has about it a certain stateliness of narration, so that I hear the story and imagine the cultural surround of the original—tinged with the renaissance admittedly. This I re-read not only for the adventures but to capture once more an aura of telling.
Where these writers stick to our own times the results are disappointing. Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard produce translations from modern Greek which deliver the general sense, but they are written, albeit competently, in those loose and prosaic verse forms I have come to recognize as the dull norm; also falling into vagaries of phrase which stop short of delivering their ultimate meaning—‘sweetness filled my mouth/ I stood, a lyre, caressed/ by its profusion . . .’
The finest poems in the anthology appear where a major poet has taken the work of a long dead writer in a language he may not speak with ease and made it into something his own. Rossetti’s Italian poets, Swinburne’s Villon, Yeats’s translations from Ronsard and Sophocles, Pound’s various contributions, Marianne Moore’s La Fontaine: all these tower above the rest, assured masterpieces—while Tom Scott’s Villon is excellent. But why are Synge’s brilliant prose poems from Petrarch missed out? Why include Roy Cambell’s rather poor version of Baudelaire’s A Carrion, when Allen Tate’s version of the same poem exemplifies everything a translation should be in terms of adherence to the sense while remaining one of the finest lyrics of the century? Steiner does include a longer poem of Tate’s—from the Latin—but it is not so arresting as that particular version from Baudelaire. And why are the dates of the original writers not given?
To sum up, though Steiner apologizes for omissions due to lack of space, this anthology seems to contain altogether too much dead wood. But then, I am looking for masterpieces, there is plenty of sound jobbery.
Sentences which would sound too pretentious in prose chopped up and arranged down the page. Moody statements loaded with unspecified premonitions so that one cannot tell the difference between a translation from the Korean and a translation from the German. Arbitrary word juggling in the name of an esteemed Dadaist. Lists beginning with one or other of the personal pronouns. Tedious stammerings of some distant commitment. Excessive use of the copula. These are some of faults to be found in the lazy writing too voluminous to particularize but all finding its way into print somewhere under the excuse of being a translation. The bookshops are crammed with renderings which seem to fulfil no purpose—since they are neither faithful to the original nor poems in their own right, though they use the need to be either as justification for their failings. Sometimes a sort of versified journalism comes across—not as a masterpiece, but as something worth reading. Then descriptions of action are easiest to translate. Very occasionally a poem moves one by its sheer honesty—Roots by Miklos Radnoti, for instance, translated in Stand 11 no. 4. But verse which is a film of events, or simply honest, seems hardly important considering the need for a poetry which is the only possible expression of individual life—the Radnoti translations are a tri-fold collaboration.
I could do with less internationalization if it leads to khaki poetry; if it leads to the neglect of a poetry which is not the vehicle for purposes that can be more solidly realized through other means, but language commanding attention—whatever the thoughts, feelings, actions, intentions—yet at the same time attempting ‘to wed Desdemona to the huge Moor’. Introducing her Selected Poems, Laura Riding describes the crisis facing modern poetry, and then goes on to show how the problem may be shelved:
‘lf poets strain hard enough they must reach the crisis-point at which division between creed and craft reveals itself to be absolute. If, with intuition of final trouble ahead, they slacken the straining to a slow, morally comfortable rate of subsidence, neither they nor their public will feel anything worse to be happening than a tempering of moral intensity to the dignity of advancing maturity.’
This may be true for some of our elder poets: has translation been adopted by our younger poets as their method of shelving the problem?
* * *
Appendix 4: Developing the madrigal
Although I write in many a genre, to be honest
I have never really found my voice.
“Really” – there’s a word you should avoid.
And “to be honest” – that’s an empty phrase.
Like others I have toyed
With sonnets, villanelles, sestinas, every type of form,
But I’m unsure of what I may have actually achieved.
Once I hoped to find a way of writing that was mine alone,
as if I had no choice.
But am I even warm?
I’ve never found that voice.
The phrases that I’ve used are all received.
As if I had no clue,
Were lost within a maze.
But what am I to do?
I wouldn’t have you find me too “inviting”,
Nor should you dismiss me as “absurd” –
And why not take aboard your feedback? Merely a mortal,
after all, and reassured by praise,
But not some lyric bird,
I think I’m unexciting…
And there are times one hears another’s voice
In every line one writes.
I’ve never struck that sheer compelling tone
That conjures out of language something more than words alone.
One read me till the pleasure cloyed and after that
she never chose to read my book again.
Her poetry delights!
And now I hear her voice’s cunning way
Transforming the design
Of every line I’d like to call my own.
She’d read me and re-read me, but I was envious of her,
and rubbished what she had to say.
She read me and re-read me every day,
Or I would bawl my poems down the phone.
She’d listen till her ears were sore, but I’d read more and more
without a single pause or break,
In search of my own voice inside the writing:
A voice I felt should last forever, yes.
But now I must confess
My verse was hard to take.
It could not be enjoyed;
A poet out of touch,
Bathed in another’s lighting.
I never thought this lack of voice would bother me so much.
But she was one who loved me for my words,
One whose words had flavour more distinctive than my own.
Yet I’d disparage what she did, undermine her confidence
and tear her poems down.
So many nimble birds
Fell victim to the winter of my frown
She told herself she’d never write again.
But what was in her could not be dismembered or put down.
The poetry welled up in her, and nothing that I said was going
to stop it pouring out,
Infecting what I wrote
And what I write and may intend
To write tomorrow, yes, I hear her voice in every line.
Call her my muse: my very best being merely an echo
of her far more fascinating note:
A woman once my friend,
To whom I dedicate this serpentine.
The Serpentine is a form developed from the madrigal. The madrigal uses mixed rhythms, trimeter and pentameter (3 and 5 stresses per line), any rhyme scheme, any line order – that is, you can have a couplet of pentameter, then one trimeter line, or any other order. The madrigal as a poetic form was pioneered by Drummond of Hawthornden, based on the pioneering experiments of Della Casa in Italy, and I go into more detail about this in A Paean to the Pioneer of the Madrigal, published in the Fortnightly Review. Note that 5 and 3 are both primes. Mixed metre works well with primes because they don’t divide into each other. The Serpentine extends the concept of the madrigal to include the fourteener (a line with seven stresses) and a line with eleven stresses (twenty-seconds?). So the poet may use 3, 5, 7 and 11 stress lines, in any order with any rhyme scheme. I have called this form a Serpentine, because the prime numbers spiral, so there is something “serpentine” about the form. One can also employ 3, 5 and 7 only – I call this a Lizardite – not quite a Serpentine. These early primes are part of the Fibonacci sequence, which in turn is associated with the golden rule.
Appendix 5: Asprezza
(First published in The Fortnightly Review, 16 Nov 2015)
A Paean to the Pioneer of the Madrigal
“Like the Idalian queen,
Her hair about her eyne,
With neck and breast’s ripe apples to be seen,
At first glance of the morn
In Cyprus’ gardens gathering those fair flowers
Which of her blood were born,
I saw, but fainting saw, my paramours.
The Graces naked danced about the place,
The winds and trees amazed
With silence on her gazed,
The flowers did smile, like those upon her face;
And as their aspen stalks those fingers band,
That she might read my case,
A hyacinth I wished me in her hand.”
Madrigal by William Drummond of Hawthornden
Galileo, apparently, was no slouch when it came to literary criticism. He calls into question the courtly style of heroic poetry derived from Petrarch, as exemplified by Tasso’s Gerusalemme Liberata, where a new rhetorical figure or device is introduced with each line:
“One defect is especially common in Tasso as a result of a great lack of imagination and a poverty of ideas: it is that, as he is often short of matter, he is forced to proceed by piecing together ideas having no dependence on or connection with one another; whence his narrative appears more often like a picture in inlaid woodwork than in oil colours. For inlaid work being a placing together of little pieces of diverse colours, which cannot be joined together or combined so smoothly that their edges do not remain sharp and harshly distinct, necessarily makes the patterns dry and crude, without fullness or relief.”
Elsewhere in his commentary on the poem he observes,
…This great pedant clings to this anchor, that verba transposita non mutant sensum, and takes no account of the dangers; indeed the greater the obscurity, the more beautiful the artifice appears in his eyes…”
Concerning the flow of the narrative that should grease the wheels of the heroic epic Tasso and his emulators are aiming for, Galileo goes on to say, “we may take pleasure in various ‘figures’ in a ballet or in a dancing school; but on the other hand it would seem highly unsuitable if a gentleman on his way to church or to the law-courts were to change his pace every hundred yards or so by cutting one or two capers, leaping into the air, and then proceeding on his journey.”
I glean these gems of perception from The Italian Element in Milton’s Verse – an essay written by F.T. Prince and published in 1954 (and withdrawn from Nottingham City Libraries in 1998 – and probably from other libraries – as being of no relevance to the new millennium).
Taking his lead from Bembo, an earlier literary pundit, Tasso prefers Petrarch – and pure style – over Dante’s robust narration in The Divine Comedy. Bembo advocated a poetry of decorum. To me, it’s the style of the court, versus rapportage, and as such essentially abstract and “mannered.” It’s a style that might have been booted out by republicanism – with the French Revolution ushering in the realism of La Comédie Humaine, but then, in a rakish Bonny Prince Charlie sort of way, doesn’t it re-surface as an emphasis on wordplay, abstraction and the material qualities of the form – rather than urgency of meaning – in the Bohemia of the Salon des Refuses, which paved the way for modernist abstraction?
For all Galileo’s opprobrium, new rhythms and inventive elisions had been introduced that would transform verse making, particularly by Giovanni Della Casa (1503-1556). His verse is distinctive because of his use of asprezza, ‘roughness’ or ‘difficulty’ – which Tasso considers an essential quality for achieving the high style of the heroic epic. Della Casa may be a mannerist poet, and out of fashion today (he wrote an amusing and universally popular treatise called The Galateo – on good manners!), but I find this notion of asprezza intriguing.
In poetry, it denotes a difficulty, even an obscurity in the sense and an equivalent difficulty of disjunctive aspect in the style. Prince elaborates:
“The word asprezza, ‘roughness’, represents one of Tasso’s overriding principles. The style he delineates aims at difficulty. Sense and metre have to be preserved; but all the devices of language and versification described by Tasso are intended to produce a certain difficulty, even an obscurity, in the sense, and an equivalent difficulty, even a roughness, in the sound.”
Roughness or difficulty or sourness. Can it be associated with Shibusa, the notion of roughness in Japanese aesthetics? This is a healthy roughness of texture and a sense of irregular asymmetrical form – which allows the potter to “slip the grid” of some binding overall concept.
Acerbic good taste, this roughness or “effort”, may be contrasted and placed in opposition to sprezzatura – a quality cited by Baldassare Castiglione in his Book of the Courtier, where it is defined as “a certain nonchalance, so as to conceal all art and make whatever one does or says appear to be without effort and almost without any thought about it”. It suggests a certain smoothness in the diction. You can see how Dryden rejects Donne’s harsher tones for increased sprezzatura, nonchalant flow. But perhaps this only succeeds in making his verse more bland. Think of the easy curves – almost a “sweetness” – to be found in English idealised landscape versus the roughness, brooms and buckets as evidence of hard work, to be seen in some Dutch yard painted by Pieter de Hooch. Perhaps what may be required is an equilibrium – a balance to be struck between these forces – not so much in terms of a middle ground as using one to offset the other.
John Ashbery expresses something related to this in a poem about the writing of poetry:
……Now one must
Find a few important words, and a lot of low-keyed,
Dull-sounding ones. She approached me
About buying her desk. Suddenly the street was
Bananas and the clangor of Japanese instruments.
(And Ut Pictura Poesis Is Her Name, from Houseboat Days)
Bembo and Tasso wrote treatises concerning the devices appropriate for a “magnificent” style, and Milton drew on these and on the poetry of Della Casa. Prince mentions a few of these devices: the accumulation of elisions, the transposition of words and phrases, a distortion therefore of natural word order, the suspension of sense, possibly placing the resolution of an idea, its predicate, at the start of the next verse, (Tasso admires Della Casa for “separating the words that are commonly placed together”), and adding into the poem the name of the person to whom it is addressed (a trait that persists in the poems of Frank O’Hara).
Prince shows how, for Tasso, difficulty, or roughness, in the sound of the verse may be “due to accumulated consonants, to the collision of open vowels which must be elided to give an acceptable rhythm, or to the collocation of open vowels which are given their full value… Asprezza ‘is also a common cause of greatness or gravity’, because such effects ‘are like one who stumbles, walking through rough paths: but this roughness suggests I know not what magnificence and grandeur’.”
Another quality to be found in Tasso and Della Casa is the use of complex stanzas, in particular the madrigal form, which Milton developed in his poem On Time :
FLY envious Time, till thou run out thy race,
Call on the lazy leaden-stepping hours,
Whose speed is but the heavy Plummets pace;
And glut thy self with what thy womb devours,
Which is no more then what is false and vain,
And meerly mortal dross;
So little is our loss,
So little is thy gain.
For when as each thing bad thou hast entomb’d,
And last of all, thy greedy self consum’d,
Then long Eternity shall greet our bliss
With an individual kiss;
And Joy shall overtake us as a flood,
When every thing that is sincerely good
And perfectly divine,
With Truth, and Peace, and Love shall ever shine
About the supreme Throne
Of him, t’whose happy-making sight alone,
When once our heav’nly-guided soul shall clime,
Then all this Earthy grosnes quit,
Attir’d with Stars, we shall for ever sit,
Triumphing over Death, and Chance, and thee O Time.
This madrigal-based poem utilises pentameter with trimeter. And look at the ‘difficult’ elision “t’whose”. It also ‘suspends the sense’ to its very last word – so it’s taking its cue from Tasso and Della Casa. But Milton must also have read Ben Jonson’s friend William Drummond of Hawthornden, who, according to Prince, was
“the only poet writing in English who had closely imitated the madrigals and epigrams of Tasso and his followers; Milton was not likely to be impressed by his pedestrian versions of these witty trifles. Yet his own more ambitious use of the form follows its essential features. In both these poems (On Time and At a Solemn Musick) he builds up a triumphant epigrammatic close, which is marked by an Alexandrine; both have an element of ‘wit-writing’, though this is outweighed by a religious gravity and fervour.”
Here, I must part company with Prince. Unlike him, I am no Catholic, and while I admire Lycidas, when it comes to madrigals I yawn at Milton and prefer the ‘wit-writing’ more deliciously revelled in by Drummond.
It seems to me that Drummond is the Della Casa of English literature. He is a poet that I return to again and again, and surely Keats did too?
World, plain no more of Love, nor count his harms;
With his pale trophies Death hath hung his arms.
Thus ends one of Drummond’s sonnets, which is imbued with a melancholy that prefigures Keats. Another one of his melancholy sonnets is a fine version of Statius’s poem about insomnia:
Sleep, Silence’ child, sweet father of soft rest,
Prince, whose approach peace to all mortals brings,
Indifferent host to shepherds and to kings,
Sole comforter of minds with grief opprest;
Lo, by thy charming rod all breathing things
Lie slumb’ring, with forgetfulness possest,
And yet o’er me to spread thy drowsy wings
Thou spares, alas! who cannot be thy guest.
Since I am thine, O come, but with that face
To inward light which thou art wont to show,
With feigned solace ease a true‑felt woe;
Or if, deaf god, thou do deny that grace,
Come as thou wilt, and what thou wilt bequeath,
I long to kiss the image of my death.
But Drummond was by no means an inveterate depressive. He entertained Ben Jonson at Hawthornden when he walked to Scotland, and jotted down the views of this eminent Londoner in conversations to be found in the Oxford complete edition of Jonson which offer a veritable cornucopia of pure chit-chat:
“Being at the end of Lord Salisbury’s table with Inigo Jones, and demanded by my Lord why he was not glad, ‘My Lord’, said he, ‘You promised I should dine with you, but I do not’, for he had none of his meat…He hath consumed a whole night in lying looking at his great toe, about which he hath seen Tartars and Turks, Romans and Carthaginians, fight in his imagination…”
The influence of Della Casa’s devices and Italian theory can be sensed in the following sonnet:
ALEXIS, here she stayed; among these pines,
Sweet hermitress, she did alone repair;
Here did she spread the treasure of her hair,
More rich than that brought from the Colchian mines;
She set her by these muskéd eglantines.—
The happy place the print seems yet to bear;—
Her voice did sweeten here thy sugared lines,
To which winds, trees, beasts, birds, did lend their ear:
Me here she first perceived, and here a morn
Of bright carnations did o’erspread her face;
Here did she sigh, here first my hopes were born,
And I first got a pledge of promised grace;
But ah! what served it to be happy so,
Sith passéd pleasures double but new woe?
The poem starts by naming the person to whom it is addressed. He does it in a very Frank O’Hara way, for he is clearly writing about lovers (like “Flore”in a couple of other poems) and friends (like “Alexis”) – his poet sparring-partner – referring elsewhere to “those madrigals we sung amidst our flocks.” The names are pseudonyms or keys rather than mere classical references. And it is pleasant to think that in all probability Hawthornden was then seen as a writers’ retreat, just as it is in reality today.
One can also get hold of a thread running from the Shakespeare of A Midsummer Night’s Dream right through to Keats in those ‘muskéd eglantines’. Then there is the Drummond trade-mark build-up of nouns – in the eighth line of the poem above – taking words out of their common order. But to get the full Italianate flavour, turn to the poet’s Madrigals and Epigrams. Here we can find examples of Asprezza in English together with most of the devices utilized by Della Casa.
This is a poetry made out of word-music – by which I mean, a music which requires no change in tone, a music made out of words, not notes. Its values have sunk so far under the radar these days that you have to inform yourself as to what these might be (but this was always the case with a poetry of decorum). Drummond’s poetic madrigals should be recognised as masterpieces. Mind you, their decorum is all about literary innovation – he is quite happy for the sense to refer to the snot dripping from Camilla’s nose – in the most perfect style!
But take The Quality of a Kiss:
The kiss with so much strife
Which I late got, sweet heart,
Was it a sign of death, or was it life?
Of life it could not be.
For I by it did sigh my soul in thee;
Nor was it death, death doth no joy impart.
Thou silent stand’st, ah! what thou didst bequeath
To me a dying life was, living death.
3, 3, 5, 3, 5, 5, 5, 5. That’s the stresses per line, the juxtaposition of rhythms characteristic of a madrigal (though the order can be varied). Note the collocation of similar vowel sounds in line 5, the inversion of the rhythm in line 6 that brings two strong stresses together – death, death – in this five stress line, and do recognise the asprezza of line 7 – it is really quite difficult to say, with no stress being placed on the ah.
The more I have got into picking up on these things, thanks to Prince’s perceptive essay, the more they resonate as values to be appreciated. I add them to my list of plastic values in verse making – already I try never to follow a word which ends in an s with a word which begins with another, I take due care balancing definite and indefinite pronouns, I am wary of excessive use of plurals, and where Yeats would repeat a word if he meant the same thing, I am likely to look for an alternative. Many of my younger contemporaries go all out for expressionism and pungency of subject. This leads to an impoverishment of our art.
The choice of three stresses and five is intriguing in the madrigal. Since they are both primes, a doubling of the one does not create the other. This releases a unique interplay. Take Upon a Bay Tree, Not Long Since Growing in the Ruins of Virgil’s Tomb:
Those stones which once had trust
Of Maro’s sacred dust,
Which now of their first beauty spoil’d are seen,
That they due praise not want.
Inglorious and remain
A Delian tree, fair nature’s only plant,
Now courts and shadows with her tresses green:
Sing Iö Paean, ye of Phoebus train,
Though envy, avarice, time, your tombs throw down,
With maiden laurels nature will them crown.
Here again, in the eighth line we get asprezza as a collocation of vowels – as I read it, two I sounds, followed by two E sounds, followed by a final A. I also get an image, and Drummond is a master of images. Madrigals were by tradition often inspired by works of art – one senses that Drummond had made the grand tour, and his imagistic force is best seen in the most anthologised of his madrigals: “Like the Idalian queen…” My guess is that Botticelli’s Primavera was its subject. The imagery is powerful too in his magnificent madrigal-based song, “Phoebus, arise”:
Night like a drunkard reels
Beyond the hills to shun his flaming wheels…
There is also an interesting tension between the clichés of Renaissance usage and what is observed. His poem Upon a Glass begins:
If thou wouldst see threads purer than the gold,
Where love his wealth doth show,
But take this glass, and thy fair hair behold:
The poem continues in this conventional vein, but ends
No, planets, rose, snow, gold, cannot compare
With you, dear eyes, lips, brows, and amber hair.
But he never said the threads of her hair were gold! Is this what Prince means by ‘wit-writing’? This could be interpreted as the play of the mind in a poem – since wit meant ‘mind’ as well as clever quippery. The poems are actually packed with concepts. One senses the desire to break with protocol at the same time as one writes “with decorum”. Let me conclude with a sonnet – Beauty’s Idea:
Who would perfection’s fair idea see,
Let him come look on Chloris sweet with me.
White is her hair, her teeth white, white her skin,
Black be her eyes, her eyebrows Cupid’s inn;
Her locks, her body, hands do long appear,
But teeth short, belly short, short either ear;
The space ‘twixt shoulders, eyes, is wide, brows wide,
Strait waist, the mouth strait, and her virgin pride;
Thick are her lips, thighs, with banks flowing there,
Her nose is small, small fingers; and her hair,
Her sugared mouth, her cheeks, her nails be red;
Little her foot, pap little, and her head.
Such Venus was, such was the flame of Troy.
Such Chloris is, my hope and only joy.
Am I right in thinking this is one of the oddest poems in our language? It feels like a fight between metaphor and clinical description. It touches on the proportions of some antique canon of beauty – but cannot resolve how to describe Chloris, and concludes pretty lamely on a cliché. Nevertheless one senses an intellectual struggle, a willingness to attempt something new. Drummond should be recognised as a pioneer: a poet prepared to experiment in his day, who made the madrigal his own. He is far more than a footnote in criticism devoted to Milton or Jonson. And his willingness to engage with the difficulty of asprezza has only been equalled here in England in more recent times by the poetry of Charles Madge and William Empson.
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Appendix 6: Koans for the Waterfall
With intervals of
Give impetus to
With intervals of
Give impetus to
With intervals of
Quite a change
Spells of cold were
Straits of Dover
Off the Needles.
Off the Needles
Spells of cold were
Quite a change.
What about the
In the Southern
What about the
And pushing up
A ridge of high
We should expect
And pushing up
Give impetus to
I’m sad to say
We should expect
We should expect
Most of the week.
Most of the week
Wind will be slight
Give impetus to
Most of the week
As yesterday was
As thundery as
The Hebrides will
Be sweltering if
As thundery as
As yesterday was.
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