First Choral Ode from Norma Jeane Baker of Troy (a translation of Euripides’ Helen) by Anne Carson
[enter Norma Jeane as Mr Truman Capote]
I am my own chorus.
I think of my chorus as Mr Truman Capote.
He was a good friend, he told me the truth. You’ll never admit it when you’ve made a mess,
he said to me once
and that was true.
I can still hear his funny little girl voice – Truman
had a voice like a negligee, always
slipping off one bare shoulder,
just a bit.
And he hated melodrama,
though he loved to quote poetry – highbrow stuff –
here’s one he says is about me –
by Stevie Smith (it’s called ‘Persephone’):
I am that Persephone Who played with her darlings in Sicily Against a background of social security.
Oh what a glorious time we had. Or had we not? They said it was sad. I was born good, grown bad.
And isn’t that how it always starts, this myth that ends with the girl ‘grown bad’?
She’s in a meadow gathering flowers
twirling her own small sunny hours.
When up rides a man on black horses.
Up rides a man in a black hat.
Up rides a man with a black letter to deliver. Shall I make you my queen?
She’s maybe 12 or 13.
is the story of Helen,
War is the context
and God is a boy.
Oh my darlings,
they tell you you’re born with a precious pearl.
it’s a disaster to be a girl.
Up came the black horses and the dark King. And the harsh sunshine was as if it had never been. In the halls of Hades they said I was queen.
[exit Norma Jeane as Mr Truman Capote]
Anne Carson is working on sonnets to perform in Iceland later this year.
Anne Carson: First Choral Ode from ‘Norma Jeane Baker of Troy’ (a translation of Euripides’ ‘Helen’) via the London Review of Books app
Extraordinary that the writer – Louise Labé – died in 1566 (From Modern Poetry in Translations Advent calendar ):
Kiss me again, kiss me, kiss me more:
Give me one of your most mouth-watering ones
Give me one of your most smouldering ones
I’ll repay it with four, hotter than any embers.
Weary, you say? Here, let me find a cure:
I’ll give you ten, all different, of rare softness.
Then as we mix up happiness and kisses
We two will please each other at our pleasure.
Now you and I will live our lives twice over
Once inside our self; once in our lover, and
Love, if I dare think this thought aloud,
Living in reserve makes me impatient:
How will I ever satisfy my ache,
Unless I rouse myself to seek, astride.
Who could resist the sonnets of Louise Labé? The tone of voice is immediately compelling, weighing face-to-face directness with fully rounded wit. These are poems which speak to everyone – candidly assertive, warmly human – as if five hundred years were nothing.
Louise Labé’s life – like the lives of so many women of talent – has frequently received more attention than her work. It has been shaped into a scandal (she was a courtesan), a legend (she rode to war), and most recently, a sham (she was a man). But perhaps she was just born in the right place at the right time: to an enlightened father who gave her access to the same education (fencing, riding, poetry, other languages) as her brothers; in Lyon, thriving cultural crossroads of the Renaissance.
The importance and pleasure of the work, notably the 24 Petrarchan sonnets she published alongside her Débat de folie et d ’amour, in 1555, seem indisputable, at least. Labé’s language is limpid, uncluttered; each line often a unit of sense, a clear foil for the aural underpinning of the logic, or argument, of its sonnet: rhyme, alliteration and assonance chime and fuse with unmistakable authority.
It seemed to me that I needed to hold onto, or recreate, that clarity, and cohesion, if I was to have any chance of capturing the bravado and enterprise of the sequence as a whole. These twenty four sonnets explore the way the imagination unlocks sensual pleasure; they enact, through form, an elusive reciprocity; they reclaim ringfenced areas of language and culture.
In short, Louise Labé rewrites the male Petrarchan tradition, giving it a blast of positive, debunking energy, a strong female voice and an intelligent physicality.
It’s the Dream
Translated from the Norwegian by Robert Bly
Some poems become touchstones, words you carry with you and turn over and over in your mind. This is one of mine from Norwegian poet, Olaf Hauge. He’s worth seeking out.
It’s that dream that we carry with us
that something wonderful will happen,
that it has to happen,
that time will open,
that the heart will open,
that doors will open,
that the mountains will open,
that wells will leap up,
that the dream will open,
that one morning we’ll slip in
to a harbor that we’ve never known.
A world without poetry would be a dire thing indeed. From Dylan Thomas’s famous villanelle Do not go gentle into that good night to Shakespeare’s famous love sonnet parody, Sonnet 130, the forms of these writings, just as much as the words and phrases, have become a large part of literary history and culture.
As well-known as these intricate styles may be, over many centuries the people of Wales developed a unique set of patterns all of their own. Unlike most English language forms, these focus on the sounds produced within a line and the echoes left after, rather than just on the words themselves.
In total, there are 24 Welsh poetic forms and four metres. The forms have a tendency to be quite short – an Englyn Milwr, for example, was a form used by soldiers to send short messages home during World War I. Sometimes referred to as a British haiku, every verse is composed of three lines, each seven syllables long, all of which rhyme with each other. Though the expressive lines do lend it certain similarities to the Japanese style, the Englyn has a very Welsh identity. Rhyme is an integral aspect of Welsh poetic forms and so, unlike the haiku, each of a verse’s three lines is monorhymed, that is they end in the same rhyme.
To create and maintain harmony within a line, strict Welsh metres, known as “cynghanedd”, are used. The cynghanedd have more in common with music than traditional poetry, and like a piece of music it is made up of more than just one note. In fact, in order to fully appreciate a line of cynghanedd you should read it aloud and listen to the layers of sounds that roll off the tongue.
They achieve this lyrical metre by practising something called “consonantal harmony”. This is unique to Wales because the language effortlessly uses cynghanedd in everyday life: consonantal repetition is part of the landscape of the Welsh language.
A line of cynghanedd is written with an invisible break or caesura in the middle that divides the line, for instance: X X X | X X X X. The cynghanedd is traditionally made up of seven syllables, so here “X” represents each syllable in a line.
Welsh is a heavily syllabic language with the stress usually falling on the penultimate syllable. Take this line from Fern Hill by Dylan Thomas for example, where the “th” and “s” make up the harmony:
“Though I sang in my chains like the sea.”
As Welsh can be a tricky language to master, this example is included despite the fact that Thomas’s knowledge of the cynghanned is debatable. Still, the line is a strong if unintentional example of the metre. A true Welsh language cynghanned example for comparison would be the following, from Dic Jones’s poem Cefn Gwlad:
“I fyw yn glos wrth gefn gwlad”
Translated into English, the line reads, “To live close to nature”, which doesn’t have quite the same effect.
There are four types of cynghanedd or metres: lusg (echoing harmony), draws (bridging harmony), sain (sonorous harmony) and groes (criss-cross harmony). Although they achieve the metre in different ways, their principles are basically the same: the consonants that appear in the first part of the line must appear in the same order in the second, as shown above.
History through verse
These forms remain widely popular in Wales, but to understand why such complexity is necessary, it is important to understand where the poetic forms and metres originate from: they are intrinsically intertwined with the Welsh language. As Welsh developed so did they, coming into their own particularly during the 12th century.
Poets who had mastered the cynghanedd during this century were hailed as “pencerdds”, chiefs-of-song. It would take approximately nine years to master the forms and metres required. In recognition of his position, the pencerdd was granted a special chair in the royal court. There were other poetic positions within the royal household, too, such as bardd teulu – poet to the household – an officer of the court tasked with the duty of performing his work to the queen. The lowest position was that of the musician, the cerddor.
All of these roles had one very important function: they were chroniclers and archivists. It was their responsibility to ensure that the great feats of the king and all his battles were remembered and recited long after he had passed. Reading and writing was enjoyed by a privileged few which made passing down stories a tricky profession. The repetition of sounds in the cynghanedd ensured the poetry was memorable.
The way that the metre forms each poem connects it almost exclusively to the Welsh language: it would be very difficult to recreate the same harmony and balance between a line’s consonants in English or any other language in exactly the same way.
Welsh poetic forms and metres are grandiloquent, challenging and dense, which is great for praising a king and narrating stories. Modern poetry has moved beyond this form-led poetry to a more open style – after all, not many want to read a poem where they can guess the next rhyme – but these poetic forms and metre still have their place in the country. Each year, the words and lines of these poems are brought to life at the National Eisteddfod music and poetry festival, which remains a large part of Welsh culture.
The modern expectations of English poetry have changed, but the centuries-old Welsh poems emphasise that their writing is an ancient craft, and can bring life to the tales of times long ago in a way no other tongue ever could.