Thursday, February 23, 2006


Julia Stein on 19th century California poets

A couple of great articles by poet Julia Stein in her blog California Writer--

On John Rollin Ridge;

and on Ambrose Bierce and Edwin Markham.

It looks like these are the first two in a series of articles she's doing on the topic.

Monday, February 13, 2006


Recommended reading, 3

Another short list of some of the reading I've found worthwhile recently. (I use a flexible definition of "recently.")

Collected Poems by Don Gordon, edited by Fred Whitehead, published 2004 by University of Illinois Press. Don Gordon (1902-1989) was one of the legendary "Marsh Street Irregulars," the loose circle of poets and artists who gathered around poet Thomas McGrath in Los Angeles in the 1950's and 1960's. Gordon's poems speak with a clarity and tension, and a relevance to the world, that combine the most effective qualities of early 20th century modernism, the Proletarian literature movement of the mid-20th century, and the probing intellectual inquiry prevalent in much American poetry in later years. Thomas McGrath described him as "One of the best of the revolutionary poets." The Collected Poems includes an ample biographical and critical essay, a bibliography, notes to the poems, and a bibliography of Gordon's works. I will write at greater length about Don Gordon's poetry in a future post.

Gypsy Cante: Deep Song of the Caves, selected and translated by Will Kirkland (1999, City Lights Books). The songs and poetry of the Gypsy or Romany people of Spain provided a vast wellspring source and sense of direction for much of the Spanish poetry of the 20th century, particularly for the incomparable Federico Garcia Lorca. Lorca, among others, wrote and spoke much of the Spanish cante jondo ("deep song") tradition, of which the lyrics in this collection form a part. This is a work of earnest scholarship. drawing short song lyrics from a variety of sources, covering a period of some 200 years or more. Kirkland includes the original Spanish of each selection (sometimes in a more or less phonetic transcription of a local dialect), and some background information on some of the more renowned singers of cante jondo, various styles of song and performance, and the broader history and traditions behind them. Kirkland's English translations, though not everything I would hope, are quite readable. Kirkland also includes a bibliography of works about cante jondo and flamenco, and a discography of recordings. This is an essential collection.

The Whole Song: Selected Poems by Vincent Ferrini (edited by Kenneth A. Warren and Fred Whitehead, published 2004 by University of Illinois Press) makes available work by a poet whose poetry has endured relative obscurity for too long. These are poems of a tough, spare, critical mind, often dealing with the life and psyche of the town of Gloucester, Massachusetts where Vincent Ferrini has lived much of his life, and where he was a long-time friend -- and sometimes spirited adversary -- of that other poet of Gloucester, Charles Olson. Over the years Olson and Ferrini carried on a sporadic and sometimes oblique dialogue with each other in their poems. Vincent Ferrini's poems are sometimes formidable, requiring effort to find one's way through fragmented syntax and assembled bits of idea and image. They are invariably worth the effort. Always underlying the poems, sometimes emerging into full light, sometimes more subtly, are Ferrini's deeply rooted left-wing working-class politics. The book includes a highly useful introduction, notes to the poems, and bibliography.

Open Gate: An Anthology of Haitian Creole Poetry edited by Paul Laraque and Jack Hirschman, translated by Jack Hirschman and Boadiba (Curbstone Press, 2001). An excellent selection of poets and poetry providing a stunning view of the life and culture of the Haiti. Among the 40 or so poets included are Paul Laraque, Joj Kastra, Jan Mapou, Lenous Surprice, Denize Lotu, Patrik Silven, these among many; most of the poets were previously unfamiliar to me. Whether speaking of the difficult realities of life in the modern world, or denouncing imperial conquest, or whispering love, or murmering sorrow, this is a gathering of poems thoroughly infused with a politically conscious outlook on the world. Includes the original Haitian Creole poems along with the English translations.

Finally this time, two books by poet Doren Robbins: Driving Face Down (Lynx House Press, 2001) is a wonderful collection of Robbins' poems, rich with evocations of the grit and texture of daily modern life, poems of warmth and compassion and political engagement, written with an invigorating clarity. ** And, Parking Lot Mood Swing, aptly subtitled Autobiographical Monologues and Prose Poetry. Ranging from lightly surreal insanely funny to intensely charged with reality, the written pieces here could constitute a map of the varied and rapidly changing textures and frequencies of the world in contact with human senses as we edge into what is, in some calendars, the 21st century. The titles of the individual prose pieces give a provocative sense of the flow of the book: Chaucer's Quill, Sappho's Libido, Frida Kahlo's Eye Brows; Dealing with the Insomnia Surf; Beating the 1968 Draft; Pantagruel Antigruel; At Polly's Famous Pies; Whitman, Artaud, and the Punk Nation; Green Torso; The Dog's Robe; My Broccoli Life; just to name a few. ** I seek out and read whatever I can find by Doren Robbins. His work is essential. Read him.

That's all for right now. As always, I'll say more about the above poets as soon as I have a chance, and will list more good reading somewhere down the road.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006


Northern light

I don't remember now when I first heard of the Kalavala, the epic poem of Finland. It was many years ago, and it was years after that before I found a translation into English, and more years before I read any of it. At its best the Kalavala is a stunning, breath-taking work, overflowing with mystery and marvel, steeped in the mythologies and traditions of Finland.

The Kalevala was compiled by Elias Lonnrot in the early 1800's as he traveled around the countryside of Finland (through regions in what is roughly, on modern maps, eastern Finland and far northwestern Russia) gathering folk songs and folk poetry. He eventually set about the project of assembling the huge amount of material into something like a long coherent narrative, or really several somewhat connected narratives.

(There should be an umlaut over the first "o" in Elias Lonnrot's last name -- I haven't figured out how to do umlauts or accent marks yet in html, so Lonnrot's name, and the names of several characters in the Kalevala, will be missing umlauts here.)

All of the Finnish (or Finnish-American) people I've talked with say that the best English translation of the Kalevala is by Eino Friberg. All quoted passages here are from an edition of Friberg's translation published originally in 1988 by Otava Publishing Company, Ltd., in Helsinki.

The epic begins with the birth and adventures of Vainamoinen, one of the central mythical heroes of the poem, himself a poet, whose mother was Ilmatar, "the virgin of the air."

So at length she then descended
To the seawaves down below,
To the open clear sea surface
Out upon the open ocean.
Suddenly a storm wind blew,
Out of the east an angry blast
Blew the water to a foam
Heaving up the rollers high.
By the wind the maid was rocked,
On a wave the maid was driven
Round about the blue sea surface
By the whirling whitecaps lifted
Where here womb the wind awakened
And the sea-foam impregnated.
For 700 years, according to the narrative, Ilmatar drifted on the ocean, carrying the unborn Vainamoinen in her womb.

Then she fell to weeping softly,
Said a word and spoke out thus:
"Woe is me, the water-wanderer,
Luckless girl, misfortune's child!
Now already I'm in trouble,
Shelterless beneath the sky,
Ever rocking on the seawaves
To be cradled by the wind,
To be driven by the billows
On these far-extending waters,
Endlessly repeated billows. [...]"
The Kalevala is not a military epic, not a narrative of battles, in the manner of the Iliad or the Song of Roland. The episodes in the Kalevala recount strange encounters in the wilderness with beings human and non-human, mortal and supernatural; lengthy scenes of talk between the characters in the stories; occasional harrowing exploits of courage and adventure; often with a robust good humor. A characteristic brightness runs throughout the poem, along with an almost offhand acceptance of the most astonishing occurrences; these alongside whispers and secrets, love and longing, jealousy and death, all set against the vast forboding gloom of the far north.

The third section, or runo (a Finnish word for "poem" -- standard editions divide the Kalevala into some fifty sections) describes an encounter on the road between Vainamoinen and the younger, somewhat unruly Joukahainen. Joukahainen taunts and challenges Vainamoinen, doubting the latter's unearthly powers. This leads to a kind of singing contest -- singing, here, being a way of invoking things into being in the world, a magical calling or incantation.

Then old Vainamoinen sang:
Shook the earth, the lakes splashed over,
And the copper mountains quivered;
Cliffs were cracking, boulders breaking,
On the shore the stones were splitting.
He enchanted Joukahainen:
Sprouted saplings from his shaft-bows,
Willow bush upon the hames,
Sallows at the end of traces.
Then he sang his guilded sleigh
To a dead pine in a pond,
And bewitched his beaded whip
To a reed upon the shore.
Then the white-blazed horse he charmed,
Charmed it to a spotted rock
On a bank beside the rapids.
Sang his golden-hilted sword
Into lightning in the sky
And his decorated crossbow
To a rainbow over water.
Then he sang his feathered arrows
Into swiftly swooping hawks,
And his hook-jawed hound he turned
To a flat stone on the ground.
One of the central incidents in the Kalevala is the forging of the Sampo by the smith Ilmarinen. The Sampo is a vaguely described somewhat mysterious object, perhaps roughly the size of a kettle; apparently a grinding mill of some kind, with magical powers. Ilmarinen spent three days making it in his forge.

Thereupon smith Ilmarinen,
The eternal hammerer,
Rapped and tapped, rat-a-tat-tat,
Clinking away with a clank, clank, clank--
Deftly built the Sampo mills:
On one side a flour mill
And a salt mill on the second,
On the third a money mill.
The new Sampo then was grinding,
With its ciphered cover spinning;
Ground three binfuls every morning:
First a bin of things to eat,
Next a bin of things to sell,
Last a bin of things for home.
Moving throughout the Kalevala are glimmers of an ancient world, a world of fires in the night, bottomless blue lakes, a world in which all things manifest living spirits. The life and traditions of the Saami people, one of the peoples indigenous to the northernmost regions of the world, are never far from the surface in the poem, and in places come fully into view. A section toward the end of the poem describes a ritual performed for hunting a bear, in which Vainamoinen chants a song to the bear, or the spirit of the bear:

Little Otso, woodland apple,
Honeypaw, you dear stout fellow,
When you hear this good man coming,
Hear me stepping softly near you,
Knot your claws up in your fur
And your teeth inside your gums
So that they can do no harm
Even when you're on the prowl.
Oh my bearkin, you my only,
Honeypaw, my little beaut,
Just lie down on turfy tussock,
Go to sleep on a lovely rock
Where the tall pines sway above you
And you hear the fir trees humming.
There, my Otso, roll about,
Twist and turn, my honeypaw
Like a hazel grouse on her nest,
Like a wild goose in her brooding.
The Kalevala is a sea and sky of wonders without end.

* * * * * * *

The Eino Friberg translation (accompanied by beautiful color illustrations by Bjorn Landstrom) may be difficult to find, and the price may be a little forbidding. (I found my copy at a large discount in a used book store in St. Paul.) A more affordable and more easily available edition is the translation by Keith Bosley, published by Oxford University Press. Though lacking the lyrical grace of the Friberg translation, Bosley's version is nevertheless quite readable modern English, and conveys the basic weave of narratives effectively. Both editions include informative introductions and highly useful endnotes.

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