Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
is available for $16.00 from FootHills Publishing, P.O. Box 68, Kanona NY 14856 or see www.foothillspublishing.com.

Tourist Snapshots is available for $8.95 from Randy Fingland, CC Marimbo, P.O. Box 933, Berkeley CA 94701 or see www.ccmarimbo.com.

Dada Poetry: An Introduction was published by Nirala Publications. It may be ordered on Amazon.com for $25 plus shipping. American buyers may order a copy from me for $23 including shipping.

The other books are also available from the author William Seaton. Write seaton@frontiernet.net.

A categorized index of all work that has appeared on this site is available by looking under the current month in the Blog Archive section and selecting Index.

This site is listed in BlogCatalog and
Literature Blogs
Literature blog

Thursday, March 1, 2018


The index now features hypertext connections. Simply click on any title below to read it.

Though this listing serves, I think, a clear purpose, not every posting falls easily into the categories. One essay might equally be placed under literary theory or medieval texts while another might fit under memoir, politics, or travel. Translations with comment might be either criticism or translation. Poke around a bit.

The categories are:

1. speculative, familiar, performance pieces, and other essays

2. literary theory

3. Greek texts (and a couple of Latin)

4. medieval texts

5. other criticism
A. 16th-19th century
B. 20th century to the present
C. Asian texts
D. songs
E. Notes on Recent Reading
F. Rereading the Classics
G. Every Reader's Poets

6. translation

7. poetry

8. politics

9. memoirs

10. travel

1. Speculative, familiar, performance pieces, and other essays
Agnostic Credo and Vita (October 2015)
Axiology and Subjectivity (October 2014)
Annual Report (August 2014)
Beards (December 2013)
Biking (November 2009)
Biking as a Spiritual Discipline (April 2017)
Cell Phones (June 2017)
Cookbooks (April 2014)
Dead Reckoning (February 2011)
Deer (December 2012)
Documents of the first Surreal Cabaret (March 2012)
Documents of the second Surreal Cabaret (June 2012)
Documents of the third Surreal Cabaret (October 2013)
Documents of the fourth Surreal Cabaret (July 2014)
Documents of the fifth Surreal Cabaret (February 2015)
Drugs and Religion (June 2016)
Dust: a meditative riff (November 2009)
Food for the Gods (December 2011)
Hippie (April 2011)
Immortality (July 2012)
Iowa Communards (December 2011)
A Library’s Commonplaces and Curiosities (May 2011)
The Mannerly Hedonist (February 2013)
Notes and Inserts (June 2016)
Polka (November 2012)
On Pronunciation and Pedantry (September 2015)
In Praise of Bias (November 2014)
Still Biking (November 2012)
A Structural View of Certain Oracles (August 2015)
Supermarkets (October 2010)
Taking Off (November 2009)
This and That (September 2017)
Walking the Via Negativa (February 2018)
Worn Tools (June 2013)

2. Literary theory
Afloat on the Ocean of Words (April 2016)
Allusion (March 2015)
Art and the Marketplace (April 2010)
False and Homophonic Translation (March 2018)
The Familiar Note in Poetry (January 2017)
The Formation of a Christian Rhetoric (April 2011)
How and Why to Signify (July 2011)
Idea of Comedy (January 2012)
The Inconsequential Bayonets of Art: Militant Rhetoric and the Avant-Garde (May 2010)
Lament for the Loss of the Avant-Garde (March 2010)
Millenarian Rhetoric and the Avant-Garde (August 2010)
On the Proper Ends of Literary Study [James Seaton] (July 2014)
Placing the Popular in the Structure of Literature (October 2010)
The Pleasures of the Familiar in Literature (June 2016)
Poetry Amid the Fierce Chaos of the World (December 2009)
Prof. Wellek, Prof. Leavis, and Prof. de Man (December 2015)
The Question of Literary Value (August 2014)
A Range of Visual Poetry (December 2017)
Riddles and Poetry (March 2015)
The Signifying Monkey Talks Literature (April 2010)
Some Notes Toward a Theory of the Avant-Garde (October 2013)
Sontag's "Against Interpretation" (September 2016)
Sweet Treason: Translating Lyric Poetry (November 2009)
Thoughts on Mythology (March 2013)
Transformation of Convention (August 2013)
What is Poetry? (February 2012)
Winged Words: Notes on the Oral Performance of Poetry (May 2010)

3. Greek texts (and two Latin)
Aphrodite’s Bed: Love in the Homeric Hymn (August 2010)
The Birth of Erato: Lyric, Vision, and the Spread of Writing (January 2010)
Dionysos and the Pirates (February 2012)
Ekphrasis in Apollonius: Jason's Cloak (May 2017)
Gorgias (February 2010)
Hermes and the Art of Poetry (March 2013)
Longinus' Sublime (May 2012)
Notes on Pan (June 2014)
Oedipus and the Meaning of Polysemy (July 2011)
Pindar's Athlete in Pythian 8 (January 2018)
Poetry's Long Memory [Horace] (July 2016)
Professors Kick the Willy Bobo [on Athenaeus] (December 2009)
The Role of Rhetoric in Theocritus (February 2011)
The Role of Wine in Nonnus' Dionysiaca (February 2016)
Sappho’s Holy Tortoise Shell: Eros and Poetry in Ancient Greece (December 2009)
Seneca the Elder (March 2010)
A Skeptic's Faith [Sextus Empiricus] (January 2015)
Two Passages from Marcus Aurelius (June 2011)
The Web of Myth in the Hymn to Heracles (June 2012)

4. Medieval texts
The Aesthete of Desire: Lancelot and Courtly Love (July 2012)
The Aesthetics of Ambiguity in a Medieval Lyric (December 2012)
Aesthetic Principles of the Middle English Romance (July 2010)
Appropriation of Biblical Narrative in Patience (February 2013)
Bernart and the Music of Ideas (September 2016)
The Buddha in Europe: the Apologue of the Man and the Unicorn in Barlaam and Ioasaph (January 2011)
Chaucer’s Version of the Golden Age (June 2011)
A Conventional Ending in a Middle English Romance (September 2011)
Courtly Love in Romance of the Rose (August 2012)
Distant Rhyme in Two Medieval English Lyrics (August 2011)
The Early English Carol (June 2010)
Geoffrey of Vinsauf (April 2010)
Figures of Love in Lydgate's Temple of Glas (January 2014)
Functions of Alliteration in Thirteenth Century Lyrics (February 2011)
Hypermetric Lines in Beowulf (January 2011)
An Introduction to the Troubadours (January 2010)
Mechthild von Magdeburg (July 2010)
A New Look at Jaufré: Amor de Lonh as Criticism (December 2010)
Odin and Poetry (December 2015)
Openings in the Middle English Romance (July 2010)
The Pearl-Poet’s Use of Link-Rhymes (November 2011)
Phonetics and Semantics in the Last Line of Beowulf (March 2011)
Piers Plowman and the Man in the Moon (October 2011)
The Prima Etade of Literary Ambition [Petrarch] (March 2011
Transformation of Convention in Early Minnesang (April 2011)
Two Early Ballad Tales of Robin Hood (October 2014)
William IX (September 2010)
Who is Piers Ploughman? (June 2013)

5. Other criticism

A. 16th-19th century
Ambivalence in Thomson's The Castle of Indolence (March 2012)
The Archaeology of Gray's "The Progress of Poetry" (November 2017)
Baudelaire's "Painter of Modern Life" (July 2017)
Big Bill Otter's Sprees and Frolics (November 2013)
A Decadent's Dilemmas [Dowson] (March 2015)
Does Crabbe Look Forward or Back? (February 2016)
Dolce's Aretino (September 2015)
The Double Plot of Salem Chapel (December 2016)
Gascoigne's "Notes of Instruction" (September 2013)
Godwin's Theatre of Calamity (September 2015)
Herrick the Divine (August 2014)
Irving's Soft Romanticism (September 2017)

Keats' "Thing of Beauty" (November 2016)
Marius the Epicurean as a Modern (April 2015)
Moby Dick and the Density of the Aesthetic Text (January 2016)
"Monk" Lewis, Mr. Coleridge, and Popular Taste (July 2015)
A Note on Dryden and "Dramatick Poesy" (September 2012)
A Note on Radcliffe's The Italian (October 2012)
Pierce Penniless (May 2013)
The Play of Convention in Shakespeare's Sonnet 153 (April 2017)
The Problem with Swinburne (June 2015)
Rimbaud's Use of Montage (October 2016)
Shelley”s “Ode to the West Wind” as Structuralist Charm (May 2011)
Sir Thomas North's The Moral Philosophy of Doni (September 2013)
The Skeptico-Semiotico-Mystic: Carlyle's Sartor Resartus (June 2015)

Skepticism and Poetry in Keats' "The Eve of St. Agnes" (February 2015)
A Structural View of Meredith's The Ordeal of Richard Feverel (June 2017)
The Texture of Traherne’s Religious Thought (October 2010)
Thematic Continuity and Development in the Poetry of Christopher Smart: the Jubilate Agno and the Minor Poems (November 2010)
Thomas Love Peacock and the End of Poetry (August 2017)
Travelers [Marco Polo, Twain, Robert Byron](April 2012)
Trollope's Appeal (December 2012)
Two Notes on Hawthorne's Blithedale Romance (July 2014)
The Use of Nostalgia in Eliot's Scenes of Clerical Life (August 2015)

B. 20th century to the present
Another Look at The Seven Lively Arts (June 2013)
Apologia for a Fondness for Pound (November 2012)
Are Uncle Tom's Children Bound by History? (April 2014)
The Artist as Demiurge: Seligmann on Space (December 2017)
Banjo (March 2017)
A Brief History of Negritude (February 2017)
Burns' and Lovick's Vietnam (November 2017)
Comics (February 2010)
Conrad's Shadow-Line (June 2014)
The Critical Palimpsest: Black African Literature through White American Eyes (January 2010)
Dada in America (April 2012)
Eisenstein's Strike and the Problem of Realism (April 2013)
Epiphanies in Dubliners (May 2016)
An Explication of Stevens' "A Primitive like an Orb" (October 2017)
False Translations (August 2016)
The Fetish of the Primitive in Twentieth Century Art (April 2015)
A Few Films (November 2016)
A Few Proletarian Writers (March 2012)
Flash Reviews of Thirty African Novels (November 2011)
Flyin’ with the Muses: Kirpal Gordon’s Eros in Sanskrit (May 2011)
Hell's House (November 2013)
Kerouac’s Weakness and Strength (January 2011)
Kurt Seligmann's Moderate Surrealism (November 2016)
Kurt Seligmann and the Poets (October 2017)
Kurt Seligmann's Riddlesome Symbols (March 2017)
The Last Poets (March 2016)
The Legacy of the Beats (March 2014)
The Lyricism of the Ugly: Celine's Mort à Crédit (December 2014)
The Man with the Golden Arm and a Friend with Six Seeds (January 2014)
On Marinetti's Avant-Garde Fascism (September 2017)
Norris's Visionary (March 2018)
Onitsha Market Literature (February 2015)
Pig and Possum Teach Poetry (May 2014)
A Poem by Theodore Roethke (September 2011)
The Power of Picasso's Sculpture (November 2015)
Remarks on the Grassroots Poetry Scene (July 2017)
Saki's Novels (April 2015)
Sartre's "Black Orpheus (February 2017)
Some Poetry Reviews (December 2012)
Sound Poetry and Edith Sitwell's Facade (July 2013)
Tristan Tzara, Poet of Manifestos (February 2018)
Two Graffiti (May 2011)
A Very Funny Fellow [Lev] (May 2012)

C. Asian texts
Friendship and Romance in Ming Stories (February 2014)
Han Shan (December 2010)
Journey to the North (December 2013)
Liezi (October 2012)
Lu Xun (October 2010)
Monkey Rides Again (January 2013)
Notes on Liu Xie (August 2011)
Tang Stories (April 2016)
Theme and Tone In Kokoro (September 2016)
A Tibetan Novel (March 2017)
The Trials of Lady Ochikubo (April 2014)
The View from a Ten-Foot-Square Hut [Chomei] (February 2018)

D. songs
Blind Willie Johnson Preaches (May 2017)
Bukka White's Limpid Lyric Clarity (November 2017)
"Down the Dirt Road Blues" [Charley Patton] (October 2011)
Fishing Blues [Henry Thomas] (October 2015)
Foggy Dew as Symbol (July 2012)
The Heart of the Blues [Robert Johnson] (January 2018)
The Imagery of Hokum Blues Songs (July 2015)
"Lady Maisry" (November 2013)
"Moon Goin' Down" [Charley Patton] (May 2013)
The Mule in Blues Imagery (August 2017)
The Paraklausithyron Blues (May 2016)
"The Red Rooster" [Willie Dixon] (March 2014)
Robert Johnson and the Devil (September 2012)
Skip James' Blues Imagery (May 2015)
“Spoonful” and the Accretion of Meaning (December 2012)
"The Three Ravens" (August 2013)
Trinidadian Smut (April 2016)
Truckin' (November 2014)
“Walkin’ Blues” [Son House] (December 2011)

E. Notes on Recent Reading
Notes on Recent Reading [Melville, Greene, and Whalen] (September 2011)
Notes on Recent Reading 2 [Crane, The Crowning of Louis, Thornlyre] (October 2011)
Notes on Recent Reading 3 [Kipling, San Francisco Mime Troupe, Lynn’s Tao-te-ching] (November 2011)
Notes on Recent Reading 4 [Sarah Scott, de La Fayette, Wharton] (January 2012)
Notes on Recent Reading 5 [The Deeds of God in Rddhipur, Burney, Cooper] (January 2012)
Notes on Recent Reading 6 [Jewett, Addison, Crabbe] (February 2012)
Notes on Recent Reading 7 [Nabokov, Austen, Grettis Saga] (April 2012)
Notes on Recent Reading 8 [Bakhtin, Lewis, Brown] (May 2012)
Notes on Recent Reading 9 [Plutarch, Tacitus, Williams](June 2012)
Notes on Recent Reading 10 [Voltaire, France, Dryden](July 2012)
Notes on Recent Reading 11 [Wright, Kerouac & Burroughs, Gilbert] (August 2012)
Notes on Recent Reading 12 [Huxley, Norris, Dōgen](September 2012)
Notes on Recent Reading 13 [Mirabai, Wood, Trocchi] (November 2012)
Notes on Recent Reading 14 [Algren, Hauptmann, Rolle] (January 2013)
Notes on Recent Reading 15 [Hemingway, Orwell, Gaskell]{February 2013}
Notes on Recent Reading 16 [Howells, Ford, Mann] (April 2013)
Notes on Recent Reading 17 [McCarthy, Chang, Snorri](July 2013)
Notes on Recent Reading 18 [Radcliffe, Stendhal, Erasmus](October 2013)
Notes on Recent Reading 19 [Powers, Zhang Ji, Vietnamese folk song] (February 2014)
Notes on Recent Reading 20 [Rowe, Stevenson, Issa] (May 2014)
Notes on Recent Reading 21 [Fussell, Mahfouz, Watts] (August 2014)
Notes on Recent Reading 22 [Waugh, Belloc, Okakura] (October 2014)
Notes on Recent Reading 23 [Naipaul, Dinesen, Spillane] (January 2015)
Notes on Recent Reading 24 [Fielding; Izumo , Shōraku, and Senryū; Plath] (June 2015)
Notes on Recent Reading 25 [Baskervill, Gissing, Capote] (July 2015)
Notes on Recent Reading 26 [Tuchman, Premchand, Cocteau] (November 2015)
Notes on Recent Reading 27 [Forster, Sackville-West, Capote] (January 2016)
Notes on Recent Reading 28 [Verne, Waley, Hurston] (March 2016)
Notes on Recent Reading 29 [Achebe, Jewett, Villiers de l'Isle-Adam] (October 2016)
Notes on Recent Reading 30 [Bradford, Scott, Marquand] (April 2017)
Notes on Recent Reading 31 [Marlowe, Trollope, p'Bitek] (August 2017)
Notes on Recent Reading 32 [Morrison, Cary, Kawabata] (October 2017)
Notes on Recent Reading 33 [Tourneur, Peacock, Greene] (December 2017)
Notes on Recent Reading 34 [Hawthorne, Huncke, Bentley] (January 2018)

F. Rereading the Classics
Rereading the Classics [Burton] (November 2011)
Rereading the Classics [Gogol] (August 2012)
Rereading the Classics [Goldsmith] (December 2016)
Rereading the Classics [Kleist] (February 2012)
Rereading the Classics [Montaigne] (December 2013)
Rereading the Classics [Rabelais] (December 2011)

G. Every Reader's Poets
Every Reader's Blake (May 2017)
Every Reader's Herrick (December 2015)
Every Reader's Hopkins (May 2016)
Every Reader's Milton (January 2017)
Every Reader's Pope (May 2015)
Every Reader's Shelley (November 2014)
Every Reader's Skelton (March 2016)
Every Reader's Wyatt (December 2014)
Every Reader's Yeats (January 2015)

6. Translation
Alkaios' Happy Hour (January 2017)
Becher's "Someone Stands Up" (October 2012)
Christian and Dedicatory Epigrams from the Greek Anthology (March 2010)
Emmy Hennings (February 2010)
Emmy Hennings Poems (More from Die Letzte Freude) (November 2010)
Erotic Old English Riddles (March 2018)
Four Poems from the German of Richard Huelsenbeck (January 2010)
Four Quatrains by Wang Wei (January 2013)
Hans Arp (April 2010)
The Homeric Hymn to Dionysos (February 2012)
Horace I.21 (July 2016)
Hugo Ball (July 2010)
Hymn to Aphrodite (August 2010)
Hymn to Heracles the Lion-Hearted (June 2012)
Hymn to the Night [Novalis](March 2012)
Hymn to the Night II [Novalis] (July 2012)
Hymn to Pan (May 2014)
Leonidas of Tarentum (May 2010)
A Mixed Bag of German Translations (August 2014)
Rimbaud's "The Lice-Pickers" (March 2014)
Seven Poems from Léon-Gontran Damas (February 2017)
Some Anonymous Middle High German Lyrics (August 2011)
Three Horatian Odes (November 2012)
Translations of William IX (September 2010)
Wordsworth Speaks German (July 2011)
Yet Two More Versions of Wang Wei (June 2011)

7. Poetry
African poems (August 2010)
Domestic Incidents from the Life of the Lama Swine Toil (June 2017)
How to Be a Poet (June 2010)
The Liturgies of the Lama Swine Toil (September 2012)
Mexican poems (September 2010)
Poems from New Mexico (July 2010)
Poems from Turkey (June 2010)
Produce poems (May 2010)
The Soap Opera of the Pair Who Forgot Themselves, but only Temporarily (August 2012)
Some Sonnets (April 2010)
Three Poems from Peru (August 2011)
Two Lyrics on Death from Central America (January 2012)

8. Politics
Black Lives Matter (August 2016)
Economic Democracy (July 2013)
The Fiftieth Anniversary of the Port Huron Statement (June 2012)
Hard Rain Still Fallin’ (September 2010)
How to Get Serious about Fighting Crime (January 2010)
Local Politics (May 2015)
In Memory of a Generation's People's Heroes (October 2015)
Occupy Wall Street (November 2011)
The Role of Higher Education (November 2010)
The Socialist Martin Luther King (February 2016)
The Triumph and Tragedy of Revolution (December 2016)
Two Exemplary Anecdotes from the Sixties Student Movement (September 2013)
Utopia (November 2015)
Voluntary Poverty (October 2011)
Why I am a Socialist (March 2010)

9. Memoirs
Baby Boomer Reads the Beats (April 2012)
A Brief Literary Life (September 2012)
A Garland of Greek Professors (December 2010)
A Glimpse of Robert Bly (August 2012)
Grandparents (December 2009)
High School (August 2014)
Hip Poets of Seventies San Francisco (January 2011)
How I Came to Work at Scott Foresman (July 2017)
How I Was Hired to Teach in Nigeria (May 2011)
IWW (April 2011)
March in Cicero (December 2009)
A Memorable Roomer (June 2014)
My Most Politically Active Year (February 2011)
Nova Academy (March 2011)
Pestering Allen [Ginsberg] (March 2012)
Poetry on the Loose (September 2011)
A Scholar's Debut (October 2012)
Sherman Paul (August 2016)
Suburbanite in the City (November 2010)
Tim West (March 2013)
VISTA Trains Me (June 2011)

10. Travel
Arrival in Nigeria (August 2015)
Acadiana [Lafayette, Louisiana] (May 2010)
An Armenian Family in Bordeaux (December 2014)
Carnival [Portugal] (May 2012)
Cookie Man [Morocco] (October 2011)
Creel (October 2010)
Dame Fortuna in Portugal (May 2012)
Dinner with Mrs. Pea [Thailand] (April 2013)
Election Day in Chichicastenango (January 2012)
An Evening in Urubamba (July 2011)
Festival in Ogwa [Nigeria](January 2011)
On the Ganges' Shore (August 2013)
The Guru of Guinness (July 2016)
Haarlem (July 2010)
Hitchhiking in Algeria (September 2010)
Hitchhiking in France (January 2014)
Hungarian Food (December 2010)
Introduction to Tourist Snapshots (June 2010)
Jemaa el Fna (December 2010)
Knee-deep in History [Vietnam, Cambodia] (February 2014)
Najibe’s Stories (September 2011)
Nigerian Names and Vehicle Slogans (March 2011)
A Palm Wine Shack [Nigeria] (December 2011)
Portraits from a Floating World: Anonymous (October 2016)
Portraits from a Floating World: Najibe and Sandro (February 2010)
Portraits from a Floating World: Gahlia and Jack (June 2010)
Portraits from a Floating World: Leslie Spector and Pa’ahssyzy (August 2010)
A Problem on the Border [Algeria] (June 2011)
A Reading in Kathmandu (November 2009)
Sacred Space as Sideshow [Prague] (February 2010)
St. Joseph’s Day at the Laguna Pueblo (April 2011)
A Stroll around Lake Bled (May 2013)
Strong Stuff [Marrakech] (October 2012)
Tetouan (November 2010)
The Theory of Souvenirs (April 2012)
A Trip to India (January 2016)
Two Parades [India and Peru] (August 2011)
The Valley of Beautiful Women [Eger, Hungary] (March 2010)
Vignettes of Sunny Nigeria (March 2011)
A Waterfall near Marrakech (February 2011)

False and Homophonic Translation

There are endless challenges for the literary translator apart from the certainty that the product will never be flawless. [1] Some versions strive for literal precision while others seek more freely to capture an effect analogous to that of the original. The extreme of the first sort is the old Loeb Library’s facing translations which, for all the Victorian fustian of the older volumes, serve well as a crib of the original. The second sort might be represented by Pound’s versions of Li Bai or Robert Lowell’s “imitations.” Most literary translators situate themselves somewhere between.

Some works presented as translations, however, present an entirely different set of questions. One sort of false translation is the poem presented as a translation for which no original exists. In the trans-European trading about of narratives during the Middle Ages, a text not infrequently claims to be a translation of an earlier poem. If that source is unknown, it can be impossible to determine what, if anything, the present work owes to prior models. At times the assertion that the poet is merely transmitting an older story rather than composing altogether afresh is designed to enhance the received value of the work (though for moderns a claim to originality is privileged). Joseph Smith, for example, claimed to have “translated” the Book of Mormon.

In order to attach bardic significance to his work in the proto-Romantic moment James Macpherson published what purported to be the works of the legendary Ossian yet which was largely original. Since exoticism served the emerging Romantic sensibility as well as antiquity, William Thomas Beckford’s claimed his Vathek to be translated from an unpublished Arabic manuscript. Whether readers did or did not believe the source was other than English scarcely matters: the same semantic implications exist in either case.

Ezra Pound’s “Papyrus,” while shaped by scholarly publication of finds such as the Oxyrhynchus papyri, also valorizes the Modernist qualities of fragmentation.

Too long…

Though evoking antiquity and Sappho in particular (who mentions a Gongula), Pound’s one syllable first line implies the entire reverdie tradition of the Middle Ages. The two-syllables that follow echo the complaint continuous in poetry from the Bible [2] to the “Hesitation Blues,” and the three-syllable final line (drawn out in languid longing) is a name liquid on the tongue. The pretense of translation justifies the elliptical syntax and places the object of desire impossibly distant in time and place.

Doubtless the grandest monument on the shelf of translations without originals is Armand Schwerner’s The Tablets which purports to be a translation with commentary by a “Scholar-Translator” from ancient Sumero-Akkadian cuneiform. Rather like Carlyle had done in Sartor Resartus or Nabokov in Pale Fire this strategy purchases ironic distance and indicts the authority of the single authorial subject, refracting a multiplicity of possible attitudes and interpretations of experience. This is hardly the place for an exposition of this ambitious poem which, according to those who saw him, remains far less marvelous on the page than when performed by the author.

A second variety of false translation, unknown to me before the twentieth century except in brief, usually jocular, phrases is the type called "allographic translation", "transphonation" (in French) "traducson," or, most commonly “homophonic translation.” In this process the “translator” renders the sounds of a poem’s language in something close to the same sounds in a target language with no regard for the original meaning. Such “translations” have appeared for the last sixty years. The tradition is generally dated from the versions of Catullus published by Louis and Celia Zukofsky between 1958 and 1966 and collected by Cape Goliard in 1969, though these in fact represent a compromise between a reliance on sound alone and a conventional translation.

A few examples will suffice to illustrate the Zukofskys’ method. Here is the Latin followed by Celia Zukofsky’s literal translation and then the semi-homophonic version in their collection.

Catullus 112

Multus home es, Naso, neque tecum multus homost qui
descendit: Naso, multus es et pathicus.

Much a man you are, Naso, and that you much a man it is who
comes down: Naso, much you are and pathetic/lascivious.

Mool ’tis homos,’ Naso, ’n’ queer take ’im mool ’tis ho most he
descended: Naso, mool ’tis – is it pathic, cuss.

A Latin-derived word like “descend” passes between the languages with at least some semantic relevance (including useful hints of obscenity), but most words are not similarly accommodating . Even were it lacking the enigmatic “mool,” this translation clearly veers in the direction of gibberish. For instance, the concluding “cuss” seems wholly reliant on sound. Yet, for the reader familiar with the original and perhaps for others as well, the Zukofsky rendering can seem oddly effective. The slangy tone of the Zukofsky certainly mirrors the colloquialism of the original, and even its sniggering indecency seems to have a place.

A slightly longer piece may provide a better measure. Here the Latin is followed first by a plain prose translation by Leonard C. Smithers (1894) and then the joint Zukofsky rendering.

Catullus 70

Nulli se dicit mulier mea nubere malle
quam mihi, non si se Iuppiter ipse petat.
dicit: sed mulier cupido quod dicit amanti,
in vento et rapida scribere oportet aqua.

No one, says my lady, would she rather wed than myself, not even if Jupiter himself sought her. Thus she says! but what a woman says to a desirous lover ought fitly to be written on the breezes and in running waters.

Newly say dickered my love air my own would marry me all
whom but me, none see say Jupiter if she petted.
Dickered: said my love air could be o could dickered a man too
in wind o wet rapid a scribble reported in water.

Here again the anchorage in meaning the Zukofskys retained affords their verse a weird aptness, with new elements added through the “mistranslation.” For instance the repeated use of “dickered” in the place of forms of dicere suggests the repeated if minor squabbles of a couple and the transformation of a form of petere (to ask, seek, pursue) as petted suggests intimacy. The garbled syntax could be thought to represent the addled lover’s mind.

Yet the choices seem sometimes almost arbitrary. In accordance with their mixed mode of work the Zukofskys were satisfied to begin with “newly” solely because it sounds like “nulli” and to end by simply translating Catullus’ final acqua as water, there neglecting the sound altogether.

Since the Zukofskys’ Catullus was published, it has received negative reviews from Classicists and markedly mixed reviews from poetry journals. Paul Mann undertakes to speak for the majority when he says, “For most translators, the name Zukofsky represents a scandal. It is a name better left unspoken, and when it is spoken, it signifies grotesque infidelity, gratuitous distortion, the deliberate abuse of a poem for the translator’s own aesthetic satisfaction.” According to his account the “only” readers who “respond sympathetically” to Zukofsky’s book are those “devoted” to his “overwhelmingly difficult” poetry in general. [3]

On the other hand, to Curtis Faville “Louis Zukofsky's Catullus stands as one of the major works of literature of the 20th Century, right alongside Ulysses, “The Waste Land,” Mrs. Dalloway, Spring & All, Harmonium, The Naked Lunch, Light in August; in other words, in the company of those works which propose revolutionary, new paradigmatic conceptions of form and method.” [4] With only a bit more modesty on behalf of his poet, Peter Quartermain calls the book “one of the most imaginative and resourceful texts produced in English in the last half of the twentieth century.” [5]

To my knowledge no one has followed the Zukofskys’ method since. Yet a more extreme if less demanding procedure of homophonic translation which wholly ignores the signification of the original text, following only its sound, has become nearly commonplace. In Charles Bernstein’s widely used The Practice of Poetry, he recommends so “translating” a work from a language of which one is ignorant. Bernstein has himself essayed homophonic translation in his “From the Basque” and “me Transform – O!” [6]

Not surprisingly, others among the so-called Language poets, whose goal seems at times to make poetry as boring as possible, have taken a fancy to this procedure. Among the more widely known examples of homophonic translation is David Melnick's treatment of the opening of the Iliad in which Homer’s first words become "Men in Aida” (the title of the 1983 book). [7] Ron Silliman composed a new Duino Elegy under the title “Do we know Ella Cheese?” that opens

when itch scree
hurt as much

Then how's their angle
or known gun?

Honky sets selves,
his name a eye nor much.

Plows lick answers . . . [8]

In these examples sound is not only foregrounded; it is given unlimited license. Thus the author may arrive at a text through a process little different from free association. The words of an original in a different language serve as a basis for generating random meaning amid a constantly changing vortex of half-meaning, mistaken meaning, and willful defiance of meaning.

Homophonic translation spread into popular culture briefly with the 1956 publication of James L. Chace’s Anguish Languish (English Language) which was read on television by Arthur Godfrey and published in several daily newspapers as well as in Sports Illustrated. Most of Chace’s pieces were English-to-English (called by some “homophonic transformations) such as his retellings of “Ladle Rat Rotten Hut,” “Guilty Looks Enter Tree Beers,” and “Oiled Murder Harbored.” He does, however, also offer two French songs: “Freyer Jerker” and “Alley Wetter”:

Fryer Jerker, Fryer Jerker,
Dormer-view? Dormer-view?
Sunny lay martini!
Sunny lay martini!
Drink, drank, drunk.
Drink, drank, drunk.

Alley wetter,
jaunty alley wetter,
Alley wetter, shutter plumber ray.
Shutter plumber railer tat
Shutter plumber railer tat
Ale a tat, ale a tat
Ale a tat, ale a tat
Alley wetter, jaunty alley wetter,
Alley wetter, shutter plumber ray.

With a similar emphasis on humor and ingenuity, Luis d'Antin van Rooten published one of the most striking tours de force of homophonic translation, a sizable Mother Goose collection titled Mots D'Heures: Gousses, Rames: The D'Antin Manuscript. It is clear that van Rooten, unlike Chace, sought to maintain some syntactic plausibility in his version. [9]

Humpty Dumpty
Sat on a wall.
Humpty Dumpty
Had a great fall.
All the king's horses
And all the king's men
Couldn't put Humpty
Together again.

Un petit d'un petit
S'étonne aux Halles
Un petit d'un petit
Ah! degrés te fallent
Indolent qui ne sort cesse
Indolent qui ne se mène
Qu'importe un petit
Tout gai de Reguennes.

A child of a child
Is surprised at the Market
A child of a child
Oh, degrees you needed!
Lazy is he who never goes out
Lazy is he who is not led
Who cares about a little one
All happy with Reguennes

The most accomplished works of homophonic translation seem clearly limited to the realm of novelty, seeking to impress the reader with their wit and ingenuity and, in fact, with their oddity more than any other characteristic. The difference in literary value between Zukofsky’s Catullus or Pound’s “Papyrus” and the mass of utterly forgettable compositions by so-called experimental writers who keep pursuing the same, now traditional, avant-garde techniques is unmistakable. In spite of the mysteriously compelling appeal of dreams to the dreamer, they seem to be, alas, composed for an audience of one, for very little is as boring as another person’s dream. Elementary school students now compose exquisite corpses (after their unit on haiku, perhaps) which have precisely the appeal of those by celebrated poets who write in French. Tzara’s “Dada Manifesto on Feeble & Bitter Love," which prescribes the cut-up method for generating text, is itself a satisfactory poem. What results from following its instructions will, unfortunately, not be. Does anyone feel pleasure at the prospect of a half hour of Jackson MacLow? Does even Gary Sullivan read flarf? Is it produced only to annoy others?

The fundamental problem of all aleatory methods is that they remove intention from composition. Intention may be mistaken or twisted or self-deceiving or vicious, but it must be present to generate meaning. A sunset may be beautiful, but it is not a work of art because it lacks intention. Significance arises only in the interpretations of nature, not in its creation. I am not thinking here of authorial intention as the “correct” reading of a poem or story. [10] As Blake knew, the author may not know a new work’s potential. In fact the writer makes many revelations to readers without knowing what is going on. Yet there is some impulse of desire, some feeling of a moment, some shade of affect preserved in every work of art. The arts’ unique role arises from their ability, unshared with other artifacts, to render the evanescent gossamer of human consciousness in permanent form. The random generation of words can produce only an arid sham, what a cheeky child might call “the Avant-garde Emperor’s New Clothes.”

One might proceed further yet afield from literary translation as it is generally understood. What implications might lurk in Borges’ discussion of translations from Tlön, in my friend Bob Lundy’s painstaking and elegant transcriptions of glyphs of his own invention, or in Christian Vander’s lyrics for the French rock band Magma couched in the non-terrestrial language of Kobaïan.

A few conclusions are available, though, concerning the value and the limits on value of pretended translation and homophonic translation. Pretending a work is translated even when it is not is a specific move to add semantic elements to the field including associations with the supposed original. This move is neither more nor less valid than many other means of thickening meaning in the aesthetic text. The practice of homophonic translation, on the other hand, is capable of little beyond a few comic touches and an opportunity to display cleverness. [11] Both share with conventional translation the potential to stimulate the writer to move in directions otherwise unlikely.

1. This is only a more pointed version of the imperfection of all texts. See my “Sweet Treason” in Dada Poetry: An Introduction or on this website for a fuller treatment of conventional translation.

2. See Habakkuk 1:2, Psalms 13 and 35, Revelations 6:10, etc.

3. Translation Review, Volume 21-22, Issue 1, 1986, “Translating Zukofsky's Catullus” pp. 3-9.

4. http://compassrosebooks.blogspot.com/2009/02/louis-zukofskys-catullus-new-york.html

5. Stubborn Poetries: Poetic Facticity and the Avant-Garde, University of Alabama,p. 60.

6. The influential journal of translation Circumference features such homophonic translations regularly. See Horáček, J. "Pedantry and Play: The Zukofsky Catullus." Comparative Literature Studies 51.1 (2014): 106-131. Bernstein also composes in semi-gibberish, notably in “Johnny Cake Hollow.”

7. The opening scene is in a gay bathhouse. Melnick’s version of the first three books of the epic were published under the title of Men in Aida by Uitgeverij (The Hague and Tirana 2015).

8. First published in Roof V in 1978. The German is “Wer, wenn ich schriee, hörte mich denn aus der Engel/ Ordnungen? und gesetzt selbst, es nähme/ einer mich plötzlich ans Herz.”

9. Among the work’s admirers was Marcel Duchamp. The success of Mots D'Heures spawned first a later volume using different rhymes by Ormonde de Kay titled N'Heures Souris Rames (Nursery Rhymes), published in 1980 which includes “Signe, garçon. Neuf Sikhs se pansent” (“Sing a Song of Sixpence”) and “Hâte, carrosse bonzes” (“Hot Cross Buns”). The next year Mörder Guss Reims: The Gustav Leberwurst Manuscript by John Hulme appeared.

10. With the publication of their influential essay “The Intentional Fallacy” in The Sewanee Review in 1946, authors W.K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley questioned further the value of searching for authorial intention while others, while such a search is essential for others, such as E.D. Hirsch and M. A. Abrams.

11. In this they resemble other “constrained writing” techniques such as those favored by the Oulipo group. One work of this sort is Georges Perec ‘s full-length novel La Disparition (The Disappearance) which nowhere contains the letter e.

Erotic Old English Riddles

The numbers assigned below are those of the chief editions of the 10th century Codex Exoniensis.

Muir, Bernard J., ed. (2000). The Exeter anthology of Old English poetry: an edition of Exeter Dean and Chapter MS 3501 (2nd ed.). Exeter: University of Exeter Press. ISBN 0-85989-630-7.

Krapp, George Philip; Dobbie, Elliot Van Kirk, eds. (1936). The Exeter Book. The Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records. III. New York: Columbia University Press. ISBN 0-231-08767-5.

Riddles are very close to the wellsprings of poetry; art is play, after all, and figurative language a sort of riddling, while the pursuit of mysteries is commonly the business of literature. Though one sees few explicit riddles in contemporary poetry, quasi-riddling processes involving puns, double meanings, and ambiguity are common.

Among the body of extant Old English riddles are a group with sexual themes. Since erotic topics are often described with euphemisms and indirection, their association with riddles seems altogether natural. Whereas early editors like Frederick Tupper and Alfred J. Wyatt found these texts to be an embarrassment evidencing “low” folk origins, many moderns find these pieces among the more entertaining and revealing of the hundred or so riddles extant in the Old English corpus. These poems afford rich data for the diachronic study of human social relations as well as the synchronic study of psychology. Here, however, I will provide only translations, limiting my comment to a few incidental notes. As these poems, like the others in the codex vary considerably in quality, and some bring significant textual problems, I will translate only a few of what seem to me the best.

Modern readers may find it odd that Leofric, Exeter’s first bishop, would have donated to the cathedral library a manuscript containing poems with sexual content. Of course the fact is that without the intentional though often idle notations of non-religious poems by those in religious life, we would lose much secular medieval poetry. While moderns are prone to consider censorship of sexual materials to be most likely, authorities have shifted their attention over the centuries. In early times religious heterodoxy was most often suppressed, whereas later political dissent became the primary target. Primarily in modern times has sexual and scatological material attracted the surveillance of church and state.

These poems seem struck with amazement at the energy and power of sexuality. The author’s ponder the marvel in particular of the genitals’ erection. This simple wonder seems to me the essential theme of the poems. Poetry can often renew one’s view, providing a fresh take on a familiar sight. Here is perhaps a particular case, the easier to execute because of the powerful hold that sexuality has on the mind of our species.

In the main I have striven to maintain something close to the Old English pattern of an alliterative three stress line with variable numbers of syllables, but these versions are rough and lack, I am afraid, the propulsive swing of the originals.

Riddle 74 (K & D 25)

I am a wonderful whatsit, bringing women such joy!
Serving all hereabout, I harm no one
in the city except a certain slayer.
Based in a high bed, my bend is up,
somewhere below I seem shaggy. Sometimes
a delightful daughter dares to seize,
licentious lady lays hold of me,
rushes my red self, wrings my head
Fixes me fast till she feels me for sure.
The wavy-haired woman, her eye grows wet.

The ordinary view of this poem is as a double entendre, meant to suggest an obscene answer while also fitting a proper one. The latter in this case is an onion, growing planted in a bed, upward, sometimes red, and causing tears when cut. In this view the poem resembles the child’s riddle of our own time: “What does a woman do sitting down, a man does standing up, and a dog on three legs, for which the “innocent” answer is “shaking hands.” A similar contemporary riddle is “what goes in hard and dry and comes out soft and wet” for which various innocent answers – chewing gum, pasta, a sponge – are available. Some analysts argue, however, that the poem allows only the sexual answer. For me the conflation of vegetative and human fertility suggested by the possibility of the plant as an answer is attractive.

75 (K & D 44)

Sublime it swings by some man’s thigh,
covered by cloak, cloth cut in front,
rigid and robust it rests in good spot
When the youth his own tunic hoists,
lifts over his knee while that known hole
he seeks to find with the head of what hangs,
the hole has often filled with his long length.

Here one finds bravado of “The Big Bamboo” variety. The adjective wrætlic in the opening phrase is defined as “artistic, ornamental, curious, wondrous, rare.” The figure is paralleled in a number of blues songs, including Clara Smith’s “Mean Papa, Turn in Your Key.”

76 (K & D 45)

I’ve thought of some thing that thickens in its spot,
swelling and stretching and growing so great!
When a lady lays hold of the boneless bit
with her proud hands, that prince’s daughter,
the sight of its swelling she covers with her skirt.

Sleepy John Estes sings “Now what you going to do babe : your dough-roller gone/ Go in your kitchen : Lord and cook until she come home.” (from “The Girl I Love, She Got Long Curly Hair”)

80 K & D 37)

I beheld the thing, its belly was in back,
filled out so full, some fellow served it,
a powerful person, and much it passed,
when what filled it flew from its eye.
It need not die, when it has nothing left,
When it gives to another, it comes right back.
Happy to its heart, its spirit recurs.
It makes a son it is its own father.

Muir 74 (Krapp and Dobbie 25) proposed non-sexual answer: onion
Muir 75 (Krapp and Dobbie 44) proposed non-sexual answer: key
Muir 76 (Krapp and Dobbie 45) proposed non-sexual answer: bread dough
Muir 77 (Krapp and Dobbie 545) proposed non-sexual answer: churn
Muir 79 (Krapp and Dobbie 62 proposed non-sexual answer: helmet or shirt
Muir 80(Krapp and Dobbie37) proposed non-sexual answer: poker
Muir 81 (Krapp and Dobbie 87) proposed non-sexual answer: borer

Norris’s Visionary

Page numbers refer to the Riverside edition from Houghton Mifflin.

Theoretical statements of naturalism tend, like those of other schools, to overstate their innovations for polemical reasons. Thus Zola’s novels are in general more conventional than the reader of his essay on “The Experimental Novel” might expect. Americans influenced by Zola, such as Hamlin Garland and Frank Norris, enlarged on certain openings in their master’s original concepts, justifying new narratives shaped by realism, romanticism, and local color, as well as by naturalism. While to some extent this “softening” of naturalism was an inevitable response to the nature of the aesthetic text and the demands of readers, such a mixture also sometimes produced anomalies and dissonance. In Norris's The Octopus the character of Vanamee neatly epitomizes this contradiction which weakens rather than strengthens verisimilitude and the construction of theme.

Zola’s 1893 essay “The Experimental Novel” [1] outlines what the author claims to establish “a literature governed by science” (similar to the “higher critics” treatment of Biblical studies or Marx’s aim of rendering history). According to Zola naturalism “is an inevitable evolution” which “replaces purely imaginary novels by novels of observation and experiment.” The author confidently declares his new “experimental novel” to be “a consequence of the scientific evolution of the century.” He there maintains that the new type of fiction resembles “experimental medicine” in that it “adheres to no . . . doctrine nor any philosophical system.” To him “naturalism is not a personal fantasy, but . . . the intellectual movement of the century.” He insists “there is an absolute determinism in the existing conditions of natural phenomena” and objects to “imbecile arguments, about the impossibility of being strictly true, about the necessity of arranging facts to produce a work of art of any kind.”

He claims for literature a role precisely parallel to that of science. “The intellectual conquest of man consists in diminishing and driving back indeterminism, and so, gradually, by the aid of the experimental method, gaining ground for determinism.” For him “idealistic novelists deliberately remain in the unknown, through all sorts of religious and philosophical prejudices.” All such ideas are equally juvenile wish-fulfilment based on “the astounding pretense that the unknown is nobler and more beautiful than the known.” Thus romanticism is merely “ravings,” and “our age of lyricism” a “romantic disease.” A writer who does not rely on the scientific experimental method just as it is practiced in a laboratory inevitably finds himself among “the follies of the poets and the philosophers,” one of “the idealistic writers, who rely upon the irrational and the supernatural.”

Yet Zola is aware that the analogy between experimental science and fiction is imperfect. He must acknowledge that literature is in part an individual expression of a specific author. He defensively claims that literature “does not depend merely upon the author,” as “the personal feeling is but the first impulse.” Style, the unique fingerprint of each author is discounted. “Rhetoric, for the moment, has no place here. Let us first fix upon the method, on which there should be agreement, and after that accept all the different styles in letters which may be produced, looking upon them as the expressions of the literary temperament of the writers.” Again, Zola concedes aesthetic values, but only in a subordinate, in fact adventitious, role far from his view of narrative as a laboratory experiment.

The very starting point of Zola’s theory is the attempt to assimilate art to science. For this reason his naturalism ignores the definitive traits of the aesthetic text, among them the valorization of beauty (and its “lesser” cousins entertainment, sentiment, humor and thrills). Acknowledging the individuality of form and style, he regards these as trivial. While admitting that, traditionally, “form is sufficient to immortalize a work,” he reduces this effect to mere display: “the spectacle of a powerful individuality reproducing nature in superb language will interest all ages.” He associates a nebulous “genius” with all the elements of a novel that do not exist in his scientific model: affect, theme, and form. “Not only is a writer’s genius to be found in the feeling and in the idea a priori but also in the form and style. ”For his naturalistic novel, the writer’s desiderata are those of most non-aesthetic texts. “The excellence of a style depends upon its logic and clearness.” (How could any reader of Shakespeare persuade himself of such a formula?)

Hamlin Garland ‘s version of naturalism, which he called “veritism,” was far more nebulous. He defined his own practice of “realism (or veritism)” as “the truthful statement of an individual impression corrected by reference to the fact." [2] The new element is the term “impression,” influenced by painters of the day. Years later he described his notion of “veritism” as distinguishing him from the followers of Zola. Again calling himself an “impressionist,” he noted that imitation of reality required “verification,” obtainable by “comparing impressions” over a period of time. He was at pains to call for a wholesome, Whitmanic” “normalcy and decorum,” distinguished from the depictions of the underclass associated with “Zola and certain of the German novelists.” [3]

Frank Norris made his eclecticism explicit. He wrote, in fact, “A Plea for Romantic Fiction” [4] calling for “romanticism and not sentimentalism.” With a sneer at popular novelists, he says that while “sentiment will be handed down the scullery stairs” romance can be more than “a conjurer’s trick-box, full of flimsy quackeries;” it can be “an instrument” by which one may penetrate “down deep, into the red, living heart of things.” He maintains his loyalty to his master by asserting that Zola is “the very head of the Romanticists.” Pure realism is “harsh, loveless, colourless, and blunt,” capturing “only the surface of things.” To him romance is required for both emotion and themes in literature. Nature itself is unfeeling, very likely absurd. Only with the human connection, with “Romance” can the reader receive “a complete revelation of my neighbor’s secretest life,” dealing with “hopes and fears,” “joys and sorrows.” Romance “can teach you” “a nobler purpose and a mightier than mere amusement.” “To Romance belongs the wide world for range, and the unplumbed depths of the human heart, and the mystery of sex, and the problems of life, and the black, unsearched penetralia of the soul of man.” The terms “black” and “unsearched” indicate that this realm is a mystery, presenting the sort of material the aesthetic text is uniquely fit to interrogate.

For all of his gestures of obeisance toward Zola, Norris mixed romance, realism, and naturalism with considerable abandon. The Octopus, the first volume of a projected Epic of Wheat, unfinished at Norris’ death, certainly exhibits grand ambitions. Norris aimed at producing what his poetical character Presley could not -- the epic of the West, spectacular as the landscape, inscribed with all the tumultuous history of the region. For all the well-defined, idiosyncratic characters, his use of capitalized words -- Wheat, the People, and others -- implies the aim of writing something transcending individuality, and anticipates, for instance, Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath.

Norris recurs to the theme of his characters’ passivity, their thorough subjugation to fate. Not only the trains and the harvesting equipment, but the very process of economic production itself is figured as a monster, barely controllable, as likely to threaten its human managers as to reward them. Even the fields of cultivated wheat are imbued with animation and even with a sort of enlightenment for Norris: what was “these heated, tiny squabbles, this feverish small bustle of mankind, this minute swarming of the human insect , to the great, majestic, silent ocean of the Wheat itself!” Men are “mere gnats in the sunshine,” while the Wheat is “wrapped in Nirvanic calm . . .alone with the stars and with God.” (307)

When Presley has an audience with the rail executive Shelgrim, the business man disclaims all personal responsibility for his actions and for those of his corporation. He insists that “railroads build themselves . . . The Wheat grows itself . . . You are dealing with forces, young man, when you speak of Wheat and Railroads, not with men.” (395) and admits that he could declare bankruptcy, give up business, but even that drastic action would have no effect as another man would instantly arise to take his place and his profits.

Here the book's political theme collapses. Though the entire story is built of details that demonstrate the viciously rapacious nature of capitalism, and the utterly amoral behavior of businessmen, Shelgrim is here allowed to get himself off scot-free. In fact his plot is sentimental and sensational in its indictment of the corporation, with such passages as Hilda’s descent into prostitution and her mother’s starvation presented in a chapter which alternates sketches of her agony with Presley’s experience of a lavish dinner filled with exquisite plates and precious remarks. The rough and ready honor of the ranchers of which Magnus Derrick is the most pronounced example contrasts dramatically with the lack of scruples of Behrman, Shelgrim, and their henchmen.

Yet Norris’s hero is staggered and silent upon being told by a CEO that that the evil-doing of the ruling class is as inevitable as the movements of the heavenly spheres. Of course, no radical challenge is represented in the novel apart from the ranchers’ ill-organized vigilantism and the ultra-left anarchist Calaher, the bar-owner. The farmers are hoodwinked in their amateurish attempt at working corruption for their own benefit and they then fail in their first and only armed confrontation, and the anarchist is condemned outright.

I need not detail other factors that weaken the political-economic theme of the novel such as the use of an anti-Semitic stereotype in the villainous S. Behrman. [5] Further, many plot details in this novel, generally considered to be realistic or naturalistic are overdetermined by the political theme or implausible. How could the ranchers think that their nomination of Lyman Derrick, son of a prominent anti-railroad activist, would evade notice from the trust? It is a remarkable coincidence, even in the smaller society of turn-of-the-century San Francisco, that Presley knows socially the very people who are stealing from the ranchers with whom he is staying. Shelgrim’s ironic death, buried under wheat in the ship’s hold, is unlikely, but so is the whole notion that this particular ship, the very crop over which the principals have been contending, is being sent by the vacuous charity ladies to India.

The problem is epitomized in the character of Vanamee, a mystic figure without parallel in Norris’s other work. Vanamee is gifted with extrasensory powers. Further, he seeks and achieves a visionary state on which Norris leverages the entire thematic weight of his epic of the West. Vanamee blunts the social theme of the plot by assimilating the injustices of society (which are presumably, in theory at least, soluble through collective action) to those which are inevitable for every individual: mortality and the loss of love. When Vanamee manages to coax forth, in imagination at least, a reunion with his lost beloved or at any rate a glimpse of her daughter (her offspring, her karma, her immortality) in the growing wheat, he is vouchsafed an answer satisfying to his quest. His ultimate success is foreshadowed early in the book when her memory conjures up an officially capitalized (so the reader knows it is real) “Something.” (109) He need only recognize that he has already conquered “Death.”

As the ranchers’ case seems less and less viable, and their dispossession approaches inexorably, Vanamee finds peace again through his magical experiences. In “The Wheat! The Wheat!” he feels the mighty potency of a vegetative élan vital sufficient to sustain him. “Life out of death, eternity arising from out dissolution. There was the lesson. Angéle was not the symbol, but the proof of immortality. The seed, dying, rotting and corrupting in the earth, rising again in life unconquerable, and in immaculate purity. – Angéle dying as she gave birth to her little daughter, life springing from her death.” Death is swallowed up in Victory.” (269)

It is only this supernatural revelation that governs the book’s conclusion. Contrary to all the data of the sprawling Western story, flying in the face of the ruination of all the good and the system’s consistent favoring of the prosperity of the wicked, Norris is yet capable of telling the reader as the book closes, “truth,” it seems, “will, in the end, prevail, and all things surely, inevitably, resistlessly work together for good.” (448) It is difficult to see how this sentiment would prove much succor to the evicted farmers and their families. The fact that Norris, lacking a socialist alternative, was obliged to turn to metaphysics for optimism itself indicates the desperation of his case. His inclusion of a character with extra-sensory powers is, in a way, a poignant proof of the failure of the real world to offer much hope.

Norris is a powerful realistic writer. His association with muckrakers and his research into actual history of the San Joaquin Valley and the grand Cinerama-like scope of his Western epic command attention. His stories, while often overdrawn, are engaging. For me, his combination of naturalism and romance in The Octopus results in weakness both in the historical anti-monopoly theme and in the metaphysical one.

1. I quote from Belle M. Sherman’s translation published by Haskell House, New York, 1964 which is available online at Marxists.org. While the reader unfamiliar with naturalism might take the word “experimental” in Zola’s title to refer to literary innovation in general, in fact Zola meant to establish fiction on a specifically scientific basis, similar to medical experiments. His model is not a novel or earlier work of literary theory, but rather an exposition of scientific method, Claude Bernard’s Introduction à l'Étude de la Médecine Experimentale.

2. See “Productive Conditions of American Literature," Forum 27 [Aug. 1894] and “Local Color in Art” from Crumbling Idols.

3. Letter of February 14 1939 to Eldon Hill in the Hamlin Garland Papers, the Doheny Library, University of Southern California.

4. In The Responsibilities of the Novelist and other literary essays (NYC Doubleday) 1903.

5. None of the historical persons suggested as models for Behrman were Jewish. Doubtless Norris’s most egregious character of the sort was Zerkow in McTeague. Norris was influenced by Darwin and Spencer and his professor Joseph LeConte, the theistic evolutionist. His racist views, not only on Jews, but also regarding “darker” races, are offensively evident today. It is significant that such gross stereotyping was sufficiently normative when the book was published that years passed before the author’s anti-Semitism attracted comment.

6. Similarly in Chapter 19 of Grapes of Wrath Ma Joad offers a hopeful note. "Why, Tom - us people will go on livin' when all them people is gone. Why, Tom, we're the people that live. They ain't gonna wipe us out. Why, we're the people - we go on." Surely there is no sense apart from wish-fulfilment in which “them people” (the oppressors) will vanish while “the people” will finally enjoy their long-delayed victory. For the Steinbeck of that era, though, signs of political progress were apparent in spite of a system of oppression.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

The View from a Ten-Foot-Square Hut

The title of Kano-no-Chomei’s Hojoki, an early thirteenth century work in cadenced prose rich in figures of speech, might be translated "writings from a ten foot square hut.” It belongs to the genre zuihitsu or "pen at will," suggesting something of an informal subjective essayistic sketchbook. The profound sonority of the opening words survives in the translation by Yasushiko Moriguchi and David Jenkins.

The flowing river
never stops
and yet the water
never stays
the same.

Foam floats
upon the pools
scattering, reforming,
never lingering long.

So it is with man
and all his dwelling places
here on earth.

The rest is an explication, providing vivid images to reinforce this generalization. First, the author recounts numerous disasters that befell Kyoto during his lifetime: fire, flood, hurricane, disease, earthquake, and the human upheaval caused by the relocation of the capital to Fukuyama (now part of Kobe). The implication is that such cataclysms are particularly dramatic incidents of the constant instability that Buddhism teaches characterizes all things. Though Chomei had been a prominent official from an important family and had achieved success, for instance in placing his poems in the collection issued by the emperor himself, he had also suffered the sort of reversals common to the less aggressive or less fortunate in the highly competitive courtly society of Heian Japan. In his fifties, he became a monk and retired to a hermitage, eventually occupying the "ten foot square hut" of the title. Remarkably, his consciousness continued to turn upon itself, and even in the first portion of the essay, he looks directly at our common human portion, devoid of supernatural consolation, and at himself, and declares his uncertainty with candor, noting in an early passage:.

People die
and are born –
whenc e they came
and where they go,
I do not know.

More dramatically, at the very conclusion, rather than suggesting his sage serenity, Chomei radically questions the trajectory of his life. He contemplates his own attachment to his shack and even asks himself, “Has your discerning mind/ just served to drive you mad." Suddenly this medieval East Asian writer seems very intimate and modern.

In Moriguchi and Jenkins’ edition Chomei's prose has been broken up into scattered free verse phrases which seem almost justified by the ephemeral impressionistic tone of the content. Less happy, though less important, are Michael Hoffmann's illustrations meant to be reminiscent of sume-i. I confess, though, that these, as well as the wide open poetic style, seem designed to appeal to today's Western quasi-Buddhists and to me as one them and thus I suppose it is that I write this essay. One may suspect, though, that both the editorially introduced verse form and the washy illustrations evolved at editorial meetings with the primary purpose of plumping the insubstantial book up to the point it could be perfect bound.

In the moralizing middle portion the writer wonders how and where to live if one wishes peace. Here is the same philosophic ideal pursued in ancient Greece, wisdom defined as how to live a good life. The point about time’s unceasing Heraclitean flow is simple and straightforward, one of the most familiar topoi in East Asia as in Europe. The opening of the roughly contemporaneous Heike Monogatari which traces the warfare of the Taira and Minamoto clans, the very sort of struggle that upended Chomei’s world, uses a four-character expression from the (apparently Chinese) Humane King Sutra that became proverbial and which applies well: "the prosperous inevitably decline,”

In this same section Chomei raises political complaints on behalf of the poor but his motive may be more personal disappointment than compassion for all sentient beings. His own career frustrations doubtless influenced his views which often seem to reflect more the jaundiced view of the disillusioned member of the higher echelons than a righteous crusader for justice. The author does not suggest any possible reform or solution. The ruling class’s oppression of the less powerful is merely an example of how life is fundamentally unfair, all but unlivable. Here is less a radical social justice critique than a recognition of suffering that leads as it did for Buddha to the quest for enlightenment

Yet the author remains, after decades of meditation, suspended over the existential abyss. Among his dark thoughts, he declares his "heart is soaked in sin." In what way does he differ from a seventeenth century Puritan agonizing over the uncertain state of his soul? Perhaps less than we expect. If it seems less profound and poignant to imagine Jonathan Edwards wondering if he had lived a good life and admitting, "To these questions of mind/ there is no answer," it may be that we are selling Jonathan Edwards short.

At any rate Hojoki provides contact with a view with which many today are sympathetic, though I have yet to hear of members of the ruling class living in a single room with a dirt floor. The fact that such renunciation did happen in China and in Japan is one measure of the sophistication of those cultures, and the fact that one such moderate ascetic felt no more confident about his pursuit of enlightenment than the reader may indicate that certain human problems are insoluble, though they reward such precise exploration as Chomei has left us. In his Hosshinshu, a book of stories of recluses, Chomei distinguishes the hijiri, the true holy men, from tonsiesha, those who aspire but in some degree fall short, as well as from the inja who withdraw from society but pursue art as semi-secular aesthetes rather than single-mindedly seeking enlightenment. If this last category proved to be the highest the author reached, surely the vast majority of his readers will be, if anything, even less ambitious, yet even a dilettante at both poetry and meditation may still admire the beauty and drama of the record of Chomei’s life.