Men in Aida

In 1983 poet David Melnick reinterpreted the first book of Homer’s Iliad by brutely understanding the spoken Greek as English, producing a bathhouse farce:

Men in Aida, they appeal, eh? A day, O Achilles.
Allow men in, emery Achaians. All gay ethic, eh?
Paul asked if team mousse suck, as Aida, pro, yaps in.
Here on a Tuesday. “Hello,” Rhea to cake Eunice in.
“Hojo” noisy tap as hideous debt to lay at a bully.
Ex you, day. Tap wrote a “D,” a stay. Tenor is Sunday.
Atreides stain axe and Ron and ideas’ll kill you.

In 2015 he published two more books, in each “hearing” Homer’s words as English. He calls it Men in Aïda.

A British Limerick

A young man called Cholmondeley Colquhoun
Kept as a pet a babolquhoun.
His mother said, “Cholmondeley,
Do you think it quite colmondeley
To feed your babolquhoun with a spolquhoun?”

(Via Willard R. Espy.)

Stop and Go,_Paris_7_April_2014_003.jpg
Image: Wikimedia Commons

In the mid-1990s Jacques Jouet introduced “metro poems,” poems written on the Paris Métro according to a particular set of rules. He explained the rules in a poem:

There are as many lines in a metro poem as there are stations in your journey, minus one.
The first line is composed mentally between the first two stations of your journey (counting the station you got on at).
It is then written down when the train stops at the second station.
The second line is composed mentally between the second and the third stations of your journey.
It is then written down when the train stops at the third station.
And so on.

The poet mustn’t write anything down when the train is moving, and he mustn’t compose anything when the train is stopped. If he changes lines then he must start a new stanza. He writes down the poem’s last line on the platform of the final station.

Jouet’s poem was itself composed in the Métro, according to its own rules. Presumably this type of writing could be done in any subway, but Marc Lapprand notes that the Paris system supports it unusually well: It’s dense, with 368 different stations, including 87 connecting points (or 293 nominal stations, including 55 connecting points) and a fairly short distance between them (543 meters, on average). The average run between two stations in Paris is a minute and a half, which means the poet has to think quickly in order to keep up.

Levin Becker, who tried the technique for his book 2012 Many Subtle Channels, found it surprisingly challenging: “It constrains the space around your thoughts, not the letters or words in which you will eventually fit them: you have to work to think thoughts of the right size, to focus on the line at hand without workshopping the previous one or anticipating the next.”

In April 1996 Jouet wrote a 490-verse poem while passing through every station in the Métro, following an optimized map laid out for him by a graph theorist. “At the end of those fifteen and a half hours,” he wrote, “I was very tired.”

(Jacques Jouet and Ian Monk, “Metro Poems,” AA Files 45/46 [Winter 2001], 4-14.)

Sound and Sense

In this passage from Tennyson’s Morte d’Arthur, the mail-clad Sir Bedivere carries his wounded king down to a lake by a narrow path along a cliff:

Dry clash’d his harness in the icy caves
And barren chasms, and all to left and right
The bare black cliff clang’d round him, as he based
His feet on juts of slippery crag that rang
Sharp-smitten with the dint of armed heels —
And on a sudden, lo! the level lake,
And the long glories of the winter moon.

“This passage is particularly interesting in the sudden change from the harsh imitative sounds describing the trip itself to the peaceful passage, dominated by liquids and nasals, representing the arrival at the shore,” writes Calvin Brown in Music and Literature.

He gives two examples of poets attempting to imitate musical timbres. Detlev von Liliencron’s Die Musik kommt describes the progress of a military band through a little German village:

Klingling, tschingtsching und Paukenkrach,
Noch aus der Ferne tönt es schwach,
Ganz leise bumbumbumbum tsching,
Zog da ein bunter Schmetterling,
Tschingtsching, bum, um die Ecke?

And the first stanza of Paul Verlaine’s Chanson d’automne famously imitates a violin:

Les sanglots longs
Des violons
De l’automne
Blessent mon cœur
D’une langueur

In The Craft of Translation, John Biguenet writes, “English simply has no matching nasal sounds in words that would convey the meaning, unless we turn to trombones, and then we have changed instruments.”

Truth and Purity

In 2014 England’s University of Sheffield unveiled “the world’s first air-cleansing poem,” four stanzas by literature professor Simon Armitage that are printed on a 10-by-20-meter panel coated with particles of titanium dioxide that use sunlight and oxygen to clear the air of nitrogen oxide pollutants.

“This is a fun collaboration between science and the arts to highlight a very serious issue of poor air quality in our towns and cities,” said science professor Tony Ryan, who collaborated on the project. “This poem alone will eradicate the nitrogen oxide pollution created by about 20 cars every day.”

Armitage said, “Poetry often comes out with the intimate and the personal, so it’s strange to think of a piece in such an exposed place, written so large and so bold. I hope the spelling is right!”

The Ur Sonata

Kurt Schwitters composed this poem in 1922 to show that musical form can be applied to language. The poem consists of four movements (with a cadenza in the fourth), as well as an overture and a finale. Like music it introduces and varies themes — the first movement, in sonata form, develops four main subjects; the largo and the scherzo both have an ABA form; and themes from the first movement reappear in the scherzo. But fundamentally it’s a work of language rather than music — the performer is speaking rather than singing.

“In the first movement I draw your attention to the word for word repeats of the themes before each variation, to the explosive beginning of the first movement, to the pure lyricism of the sung ‘Jüü-Kaa,’ to the military severity of the rhythm of the quite masculine third theme next to the fourth theme, which is tremulous and mild as a lamb, and lastly to the accusing finale of the first movement, with the question ‘tää?'”

Schwitters said he included a written cadenza for those who “had no imagination,” but he preferred that the performer improvise based on the piece’s themes.

In a Word

v. to prepare or apply oneself

adv. elegantly; cleverly; ingeniously

n. utter perfection

n. a great or wonderful thing

A villainous Nazi named Roehm
Was searching for rhymes matching “poem.”
Then, chortling with glee,
Stated that he
Had found one at last. “That’ll show ’em!”

— J.M. Crais