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September 25, 2009

The Footballer's Wife and the Astronaut

A while back I mentioned that the Poetry Subject Index for Carpe Diem had been updated. Carpe Diem is a Latin idiom that translates into English as "seize the day." It’s an exhortation to live life to the fullest. In life and in literature we often admire people who lived large and made a lasting impression. We may idolize them and celebrate their accomplishments and the lasting impact they have had on the world around us. From this, perhaps, we get the term celebrity.

A celebrity is someone who has gained fame - become widely known. Here in the 21st century, the standard for fame falls a little short of Homeric. In fact, the standard seems to sink lower on a daily basis as the media search moves from A-list to B-list to Z-list personalities in an effort to keep our multitudinous communications channels filled with something. In fact, most of them have notoriety rather than celebrity - fame for behaving badly (infamy, in fact).

There is another Latin idiom, Ubi Sunt, or "where are they" - where have the great ones gone, those men and women who seized the day, lived in the moment and did great things. We see this concept used in life and literature too - nostalgia for our heroes and icons of days gone by. This is a very bittersweet concept, especially in the case of those whose lives were short. This is also a very ancient concept - the Greeks celebrated the memory of their short-lived heroes with 'heroic' epithets (from the Greek epitheton) or iconic descriptions. If you have read any of Homer's epic poems  - the Iliad and the Odyssey, or even the later Aeneid by Virgil - you know of the swift-footed Achilles, clever Odysseus, Ajax the great, bold Diomedes, Hector tamer of horses, and of course Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world.

So what put me on this tack today? The Footballer's (soccer player's) Wife - a well-structured ubi sunt song by Amy MacDonald. My son Nick gave this music to me over the summer. The wistful tone in MacDonald's voice is very well suited to the lyrics, which say, in part,

Oh Mr James Dean, he don't belong to anything
Oh he left before they could get him
With their ways, their wicked ways

Oh Marilyn Monroe, where did you go?
I didn't hear all your stories
I didn't see all your glory

But the footballer's wife tells her troubles and strife
I just don't care in the end
Who is she to pretend
That she's one of them?
I don't think so
And the girl from that show
Yes the one we all know
She thinks she's some kinda star
Yes you know who you are
I don't think so, I don't think so

Oh Ginger Rogers, Fred Astaire
Won't you dance for me cos I just don't care
What's going on today
I think there's something more, something more

She rails effectively against today's pretenders to celebrity, 

Oh I don't believe in the selling of your glories
Before you leave this life, there's so much more to see
I don't believe this is how the world should be

As counterpoint - I listened to a talk this week by poet, photographer, mechanic, surgeon, farmer, entrepreneur, parent, astronaut and former fellow Lexington, Kentucky native Story Musgrave - a man with six children, seven graduate degrees, and a very compelling biography. He also has a story that still has "more to see" at age 74. His very appropriate first name is shared by his youngest child, daughter Story, age 3. There's a poem in there, somewhere.

September 15, 2009

The Mysterious Mr. Grimald

I am in the middle of a project to transcribe and ‘translate’ and annotate a selection of works by Nicholas Grimald. The more I learn about him, the more mysterious he becomes. Grimald was one of only three poets credited by name in the first edition of Tottel’s Miscellany in 1557 – the first published anthology of English verse, along with Thomas Wyatt (“the elder”) and Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey. Wyatt and Howard were well-known persons of their time period, and history has well established reputations as important and influential poets, but who is this Grimald person?

Grimald was unusually well represented in the Miscellany – with 40 pieces in the first ‘A’ edition. Why so many? One school of thought is that it was actually Grimald who edited the collection for Richard Tottel the printer. At the time the collection was published, he was the only one of the named poets still living – Thomas Wyatt died in 1542 and Henry Howard was beheaded in 1547, one of many casualties of the paranoia of Henry VIII.

Also mysteriously, all but 10 of Grimald’s works were eliminated from the second, ‘B’ edition of the Miscellany. Those that remained were identified only as a group by ‘N.G.’, and in later editions, not identified at all.

Several reasons have been proposed for this – ranging from the fact that Grimald was a commoner and not a member of court, to his association with an out of favor Protestant bishop (Ridley) during a time of resurgence of Catholic power under Queen Mary I. The N.G. might well ahve stood for something more like persona non grata.

He was really better known as a translator than a poet. He is also somewhat of a dark figure – he recanted his faith to save his own head from the chopping block – literally - and at least one source suggests he turned traitor to his friends and ratted them out to the Catholic authorities – with dire consequences. The Tudor penchant for beheadings continued unabated under the reign of ‘Bloody’ Mary with something like 800 more victims.

Another theory is Tottel decided that in such turbulent times it was better to take a more anonymous approach to both the authorship and subject matter (the individuals who were the objects of the poems) in the Miscellany. With all the affairs and intrigue (and machinations, murder and mayhem) at court, perhaps the fewer names named, the better. Even the respected Thomas Wyatt saw his name first altered to “the elder” after his son’s role in a rebellion against Queen Mary, then effaced altogether.

As reading material, Grimald’s works can be tough going at times. There words are often unfamiliar. The spelling archaic and sprinkled with regional quirks. And the poems are, after all, nearly five centuries old – written half a century before Shakespeare’s plays. His unusual word order and frequent classical allusions can sometimes puzzle a modern reader (even one armed with the 1928 “Glossarial Dictionary”).For all that, I was amused to find that one of Grimald’s pieces was actually set to music in the 19th century.

Take a look at, (and if you can, read aloud) some lines sampled from Grimald’s works. I have modified these for the most part to current spelling. Notice the flowing alliterations of many lines in The Garden,

THE issue of great Jove, draw near you, Muses nine:
Help us to praise the blissful plot of garden ground so fine.
The garden gives good food, and aid for leech's* cure: [doctor]
The garden, full of great delight, his master doth allure.
Sweet salad herbs be here, and herbs of every kind;
The ruddy grapes, the seemly fruits be here at hand to find.
Here pleasance* wanteth not, to make a man full fain**: [pleasure… willing]
Here marvelous the mixture is of solace, and of gain.
To water sundry seeds, the furrow by the way
A running river, trilling down with liquor, can convey.
Behold, with lively hue, fair flowers that shine so bright:
With riches, like the orient gems, they paint the mould* in sight. [soil]
Bees, humming with soft sound, (their murmur is so small),
Of blooms and blossoms suck the tops, on dewed leaves they fall
The creeping vine holds down her own bewedded elms:
And, wandering out with branches thick, reeds folded overwhelms.
Trees spread their coverts wide, with shadows fresh and gay:
Full well their branched boughs defend the fervent sun away.
Birds chatter, and some chirp, and some sweet tunes do yield:
All mirthful, with their songs so blithe, they make both air and field.
The garden it allures, it feeds, it glads the sprite*: [spirit]
From heavy hearts all doleful dumps the garden chaseth quite.
Strength it restores to limbs, draws, and fulfills the sight:
with cheer revives the senses all, and maketh labor light.
O, what delights to us the garden ground doth bring?
Seed, leaf, flower, fruit, herb, bee, and tree & more than I may sing.

By the way, here are a few unedited lines from another poem by Grimald:

So foon doo thee conftrayn enuyous fates?
Oh, with that wit, thofe maners, that good hert,
Woorthy to lyue olde Neftors yeres thou wert.
You wanted outward yies : and yet aryght
In ftories, Poets, oratours had fight.
Whatfo you herd, by liuely voyce, expreft,
Was foon repofde within that mindefull breft.

Or, in modern spelling:

So soon do thee constrain envious fates?
Oh, with that wit, those manners, that good heart,
Worthy to live old Nestor’s years thou wert,
You wanted outward eyes: and yet aright
In stories, Poets, orators had sight.
Whatso you heard, by lively voice expressed,
Was soon reposed within that mindful breast.

All for now,


September 03, 2009

E.L. Doctorow on the Radio

Of the 30+ text collections at The Other Pages, many are unique. One of my favorites was brought to mind this afternoon while driving home from work. E.L. Doctorow was doing an interview with Melissa Block on NPR, discussing his new book, Homer & Langley. While the book has an interesting premise, I was taken with some of Doctorow’s comments about writing. In particular about how you get started.


He said: “I could not have done this book had I not found the first line for it: ‘I'm Homer, the blind brother,’ and once I had that it was a way of breaking into the story.”


When Michelle asked him why that was so important, he continued: “The first lines of a book are very crucial, usually, for the beginnings of books. They give you the voice. They imply the kind of texture the text will have. And, in effect, they are the acorn from which the oak grows. They Predict. You can find the entire book in that first line.”


This is a great unsolicited advert for collection # 26 – Good Starts. I had seen many first-line indices for poetry, but none for books – so I started one some time ago: http://theotherpages.org/quote-26.html


Here are a few new ones – starting with a batch by Doctorow himself – and he definitely shows a wide range of voices in his opening lines – though he seems to have a preference for character narration:


I'm Homer, the blind brother,
Homer & Langley, E.L. Doctorow, 2009


In 1902 Father built a house at the crest of the Broadview Avenue hill in New Rochelle, New York.
Ragtime, E.L. Doctorow, 1975


Startled awake by the ammoniated mists, I am aroused in one instant from glutinous sleep to grieving awareness; I have done it again.
World's Fair, E.L. Doctorow, 1985


He had to have planned it because when we drove into the dock the boat was there and the engine was running and you could see the water churning up phosphorescence in the river, which was the only light there was because there was no moon, nor no electric light either in the shack where the dock master should have been sitting, nor on the boat itself, and certainly not from the car, yet everyone knew where everything was, and when the big Packard came down the ramp Mickey the driver braked it so that the wheels hardly rattled the boards, and when he pulled up alongside the gangway the doors were already open and they hustled Bo and the girl upside before they even made a shadow in the darkness.
Billy Bathgate, E.L. Doctorow, 1989


They were a hateful presence in me.
Loon Lake  by E.L. Doctorow, 1980


The Man from Bodie drank down a half bottle of the Silver Sun's best; that cleared the dust from his throat and then when Florence, who was a redhead, moved along the bar to him, he turned and grinned down at her.
Welcome to Hard Times by E.L. Doctorow, 1960


People wouldn't take what Martin Pemberton said as literal truth, he was much to melodramatic or too tormented to speak plainly.
The Waterworks by E.L. Doctorow, 1994


The date was April 14, 1912, a sinister day in maritime history, but of course the man in suite 63-65, shelter deck C, did not yet know it.
Devil in the White City, Erik Larson, 2003


Hador Goldenhead was a lord of the Edain and well-loved by the Eldar.

The Children of Hurin, J.R.R. Tolkien, 2007


Hapscomb’s Texaco sat on Number 93 just north of Arnette, a pissant four-street burg about 110 miles from Houston.

The Stand, Stephen King, 1978


“Oh my God!" my friend Arnie Cunningham cried out suddenly.

Christine, Stephen King, 1983

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