Saturday, July 10, 2010

Good "primitive" writing

I don't, as a rule, feel comfortable judging modern poetry written in foreign languages; some of it -- Montale, Szymborska, a lot of French stuff -- comes off in English, given the right translator, because the "sensibility" fits into the English tradition; but the bulk of it doesn't work and you wouldn't expect it to. It's odd how different foreign folk poetry is in this regard. For instance I'm pretty confident that this is a good poem, even though it seems to have been translated indifferently:
I want to sing to the memory of my beloved father
who gave me a beautiful, special cow
so I could walk slender-hipped like a handsome prince
before my unjust murder.
(It gives me "the shudder.") This poem/fragment is from the folk tradition of the Batwa, a tribe formerly known as the Pygmies (a deeply necessary bit of rebranding); but this is basically irrelevant to its merit and it could have come from any pastoral tradition. Something similar seems true of this bit from Sappho:

Hesperus, you bring back again
What the dawn light scatters,
Bringing the sheep: bringing the kid,
Bringing the little child back to its mother.
"Hesperus" isn't the operative word. This is all a little puzzling on the face of it, because one's appreciation of these poems seems to have nothing to do with the way they were meant to be appreciated; certainly many of them were lullabies or festival songs, and we're not appreciating them as such. I can think of four sorts of resolutions:
  1. Pleistocene hunter-gatherers. This would presumably go along the lines of "what we're hard-wired to find affecting hasn't changed much over the years; people like poems about cows and farmers and basic universal things; a lot of modern work just consists of running away from our real propensities." This line of argument seems unhelpful: if the hard-wiring has to do with content, the argument is false as there are tons of examples of extremely dull pastoral; if it's about style, it's vacuous as it doesn't explain what it is about the style.
  2. Conditioning. People "appreciate" poems for being like other poems they appreciate. A few primitive poems have come down to us as examples of what is "great"; we have been told to appreciate Sappho and the ballads, so we tend to appreciate things that bear a family resemblance. I believe there is something to be said for this, but it leaves "the shudder" unexplained: what causes, and what constitutes, the emotional response we have learned to have when reading these poems? Taste might begin in snobbery, but it ends in delight; the snobbery doesn't explain the delight.
  3. Imposed richness. People who've read much, of literature or of history, have minds that are teeming with associations for common words. Modern work that is boring is so because it forces the associations in stock ways; primitive work is interesting because it's a relatively blank slate, but with enough pegs on it that one isn't entirely free-associating, and the multitude of associations you pile onto a simple description gives the description a sort of intellectual iridescence, a shimmer of schlock, which makes it pleasing. This seems like the correct way to think about the Greek Anthology, the "Imagists" and e.g. Pound's Chinese poems, and maybe also about Empson's theories of ambiguity.
  4. Flattening and distancing; accidental "wit." The Batwa poem works partly because it has juxtapositions that are jarring and unexpected, like cow -> slender-hipped -> prince -> murder. While these might not have been jarring in context, this is irrelevant because we're not reading the poem in context. A generic estranging feature of primitive work is the flattening of hierarchies and registers, the less "developed" hence less ossified state of language and thought; one might find this exciting because it comes off as transgressive even if it wasn't meant that way. (A corollary would be that it's hard to judge ancient work even remotely objectively, as the bits that we find most arresting are in a sense historical artifacts.)


zbs said...

Resolution number three is the most satisfactory, but then would seem to be more general than this example. The genre/cultural context of the primitive poem is important, sure; but it is not all-important. Dante continues to readable without a comprehensive grasp of the philosophy of Aquinas, etc.

Zed said...

I think a modern reading Dante would be a lot closer to the originally intended reading (the borrowings from Aquinas are not always _allusions_) so this puzzle isn't as severe. I would say (3) applies mostly to primitive work because it contains less information about how it's to be read, so one is freer to freight the words with meanings that are not "really" there. A poem like Ben Jonson's "Elegy" is a lot harder to do this with, it is a much more deeply embedded artifact.