Monday, September 1, 2014

A Poet Of The Thirteenth Century

Jorge Luis Borges

Un Poeta Del Siglio XIII 

Vuelve a mirar los arduos borradores
De aquel primer soneto innominado,
La página arbitraria en que ha mezclado
Tercetos y cuartetos pecadores.

Lima con lenta pluma sus rigores
Y se detiene. Acaso le ha llegado
Del porvenir y de su horror sagrado
Un rumor de remotos ruiseñores.

¿Habrá sentido que no estaba solo
Y que el arcano, el increíble Apolo
Le había revelado un arquetipo,

Un ávido cristal que apresaría
Cuanto la noche cierra o abre el día:
Dédalo, laberinto, enigma, Edipo?

Presenting this poem in the original Spanish - or Argentine, which perhaps isn't quite the same: a dialect of Spanish, dare I suggest? - is not an example of showing-off, for in truth I understand the words of this poem as little as I imagine most of you, my readers, and I am likewise dependent on the translation; to the degree that I often wonder if "translation" isn't an inaccuracy, an over-statement, and that what is really being presented is merely an imitation, a cover-version if you like, a new poem rooted in the source-poem, offered in an alternate tongue. 

Every word, after all, is simply a permutation of letters, and letters are as inanimate as blocks of metal on a printer's anvil. Use, on the other hand, gives each word a spark of individual existence, imbues it with cultural life and makes of it something specific; and we, the users, attach values accordingly. But each word, in each language, has a very different cultural life, and therefore a very different value becomes attached.

The letters C-O-N, for example, which in English represent trickery and duplicity, a form of cheating; the same letters in Spanish, presumably from the Latin, form the conjunction "with"; in French they describe the female pudendum and colloquially constitute an obscene insult. The words, the letters, themselves are quite innocent, but we impose upon them our moral attitudes with our cultural semiotics. (Yet one more reason why the banning and burning of books is so absurd). And what if I had chosen for my example the word "amor", which is "amour" in French, "amore" in Italian, something utterly different when named as Love in English, and stunningly beautiful, completely adorable, especially what look like eyes, in Burmese, provided that you only look, and do not try to touch the letters with your mind (her name is hkyithkyinnmayttar)


Words change with time as well as geography. When we, today, use the descriptive term "quaint" - what more innocuous adjective is there? – we are using the same word that Chaucer used frequently in his Canterbury Tales; but the word has evolved considerably since his time, when it too described the female pudendum. Today there are two words, the innocuous adjective that has retained the mediaeval spelling; the mediaeval meaning that has acquired a modern spelling, the same one, as it happens, as the French C-O-N. 

Why am I saying this? Because the cultural life of every word remains specific to time, people, place, and I am presenting here a 20th century poem in Argentine Spanish about a 13th century poet who used the very specific Florentine dialect of what was not yet Italy but no longer Etruria; and both of them using an identical form, introduced, as I shall explain shortly, in Ladino Hebrew, by a Sephardic Jewish writer, from the world of Moorish Moslem poetry in the very specific dialect known as Vandalusian Arabic (Granada as opposed to Cordoba or Toledo), in which he had learned it. No deployment of language (I was going to write "no usage of words" but that would be insufficient) is more specific, more fastidiously selected, than that of poetry. So, in translating poetry, it is not enough merely to transfer the language; one has somehow to transport an entire culture across the great divides - divides equally of time, language and geography.

I have therefore presented this poem, both in its original 1920s Argentine Spanish, and in a 1990s English translation, so that the reader may sense for himself those rhythms, cadences, nuances, subtleties, sonorities, yes and the silences as well, which even the most valiant translation cannot hope to capture. 

And as to the poem itself. 

The moment is historic - in retrospect, of course: no moment is ever intrinsically historic. The introduction of "la sonnetta" - the "little song" - into European literature (who but Borges would ever have thought to commemorate it?). And very specifically the Italian sonnet, which is not yet the Petrarchan sonnet, but still more demanding than the future Elizabethan sonnet (which was itself a development of the Irish Spenserian sonnet), as demanding as that might be (students may find an excellent cheat-sheet explaining the differences by clicking here).

The form of Borges' poem derives, inexorably, from the content: it would have been absurd to honour the invention of the Italian sonnet in any other form but an Italian sonnet. Yet the subject, the poet ... Borges never names him, perhaps because he just assumes that we will know, perhaps because it really doesn't matter who the poet was, or the theme of his labour on this occasion, or where it took place, or even when, or how successfully? What matters is the invention, the introduction, of that "archetypal thing", which surely is as much "a poem by Borges" as it is one by - whoever; because the poem about the poem and its labouring poet, is it not simply a reflection in the mirror? Is it not really a poem about Borges?

Intentionally or not, the poem nonetheless tantalises with the question that I have declared irrelevant in that last paragraph: who was the unnamed poet?

You, I am certain, as I did, have assumed that it was Dante, Durante degli Alighieri to give him his full name (1265-1321 to save you looking these irrelevancies up), the author of that astonishing extended metaphor which Boccaccio insisted on renaming "The Divine Comedy". It is entirely possible that Borges made the same assumption, but given the breadth and depth of his scholarship in all matters poetical, I suspect he knew the rather more obscure truth, but chose not to show off, as I am about to do.

From the Machberot of Manoello Giudeo (1265-1328)

The sonnet, as hinted above, in fact came into European poetry by way of the Hebrew and the Arabic, introduced by one Immanuel of Rome, or Manoello Giudeo as he was known by those who kept his secret Judaism company, almost anonymous today in the Jewish let alone the non-Jewish world, though it is unlikely that any Jew who has ever been to synagogue is unfamiliar with his most famous poem, a digest of the complexities of Maimonides' "Thirteen Principles of Faith" into the language of Everyman, and known as the "Yigdal".

Immanuel spent much of his life in Moorish Spain, from where he also brought a form known in Arabic as the "makama", which he renamed in Italian as the "meliza", and taught that too to Dante. It seems a very simple form, but it broke all the traditions of rhymed poetry, by employing a formal chronological narrative to give it unity of structure, and within that structure granting itself enormous freedom, constantly changing style and tone, mixing verse with rhymed prose, sometimes frivolously comic, at others deeply spiritual, intensely serious, self-consciously intellectual, and always full of wise saws and witty epigrams, while combining knowledge with anecdote. Cervantes would later prosify it into "Don Quixote" - three full centuries later, when the form was already long established. Established thanks to Dante, in whose hands it became the "Vita Nuova", his first great work before the Divine Comedy, a work so new, so innovatory, people simply called it "la novella – the novel" - and the neologism stuck.

That Immanuel also taught Dante the sonnet cannot be confirmed, but it seems extremely likely, given their relationship, and the degree to which the sonnet "took off", particularly in the hands of another of Dante's guides and fellow Guelphs, Guittone d'Arezzo. Giacomo da Lentini is credited with its invention, but in fact he was adapting into Italian what he had learned from the Trovères, the Troubadours of southern France, and they in turn had learned it from the Moors of Spain, their Arabic route paralleling Manoello's Jewish one. But the very first sonnet to appear in Italy preceded Lentini; it can be found, with a variety of other Arabic and Hebrew forms which European poets did not choose to take up, amongst the "piyyut", the liturgical poetry, of the Day of Atonement; and the first of those in sonnet form was by Manoello Giudeo.

When Dante died, Manoello was devastated. There exists an exchange of sonnets between him and the poet Bosone da Gubbio, mourning and commemorating Alighieri. And when Manoello himself lay dying, da Gubbio and Cino de Pistoia sat, metaphorically, at his bedside, and exchanged sonnets of the same order, placing him alongside Dante as an equal: an over-statement, 
unquestionably; the quality of his writing is not in the same league as Dante's. This, for example,

                     The Virgin's Lament

                     My breasts are firm, my hair is grown, yet here
                     I sit alone in nakedness and shame
                     My poverty makes suitors hide in fear.
                     Head of the Feast of Mourning is my name.
                     How can my heart be joyful when I've not

                     One bit of silver, gold or bronze? What art
                     Could win a man for me, when all I've got
                     Is three older sisters and a wailing heart?
                     Suitors! I can't say if the fire will fill me,

                     Or Time the traitor treat me well enough.
                     My years on locust-wings fly ever faster.

                     What's more, the elders' words do worse than kill me

                     For "she who dies a virgin is cut off,
                     And has no portion in the world hereafter."

(the English translation of the Borges is by Alexander Coleman for the Penguin edition; the English translation of the Manoello is by A.Z. Foreman)

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