Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Prosody: practical hermeneutics

I've always considered 'postmodern critique' with a certain amount of suspicion without ever really considering it with a dispassionate analytical regard. I like Umberto Eco's notion of 'heretical deconstruction' since I came across that reference. 'Postmodern critique' has that same quality of sophism in that it can be seen as 'barbarians at the gate' - ie, as having no constructive intent but only destructive ones.

This species of sophistry is wrong-headed for the precise reason that 'concrete-operational' interpretation of "iconoclasm" is wrong and one needs only to harken back to the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan of recent memory and the burning of the Library of Alexanderia of the more ancient memory to see what I mean.

Years ago I read this very interesting article on Edna St. Vincent Millay in the Harper's Magazine, a poet fully-deserved of the name as far as I'm concerned. The article (too bad I've forgotten who wrote it) talked about the conventional banality and imaginative bankruptcy of free-form poetry and the gall of one of its practitioners belittling the sonnets of the great St. Vincent Millay.

To illustrate an example of the sonnet form - of which St. Vincent Millay was clearly a master on the same rank as Shakespeare - I refer you to one of her's:

Euclid alone has looked on Beauty bare.
Let all who prate of Beauty hold their peace,
And lay them prone upon the earth and cease
To ponder on themselves, the while they stare
At nothing, intricately drawn nowhere
In shapes of shifting lineage; let geese
Gabble and hiss, but heroes seek release
From dusty bondage into luminous air.
O blinding hour, O holy, terrible day,
When first the shaft into his vision shone
Of light anatomized! Euclid alone
Has looked on Beauty bare. Fortunate they
Who, though once only and then but far away,
Have heard her massive sandal set on stone.

The abstract pattern goes like: a-b-b-a, c-d-d-c, e-f-f-e, g-g; while in contrast, a Shakespearean sonnet tends to be: a-b-a-b, c-d-c-d, e-f-e-f, g-g:

Who will believe my verse in time to come,
If it were filled with your most high deserts?

Though yet heaven knows it is but as a tomb
Which hides your life, and shows not half your parts.
If I could write the beauty of your eyes,
And in fresh numbers number all your graces,
The age to come would say 'This poet lies;
Such heavenly touches ne'er touched earthly faces.'
So should my papers, yellowed with their age,
Be scorned, like old men of less truth than tongue,
And your true rights be termed a poet's rage
And stretched metre of an antique song:
But were some child of yours alive that time,
You should live twice, in it, and in my rhyme. (Shakespeare, Sonnet 17)

Both forms have 14 lines and both are capped off with a couplet (g-g), as in

True wit is nature to advantage dress'd;
What oft was thought, but ne'er so well express'd.— Alexander Pope

My aippakuluk and I have a special connection to Shakespeare's Sonnet 17 because both of us have a deep and abiding love for literature and poetry and greatly admire Shakespeare's sonnet form (especially #17). During my courting of her I wrote her a sonnet:

If I were master of space and time between us
I would not change the place nor the second when we met
Like notes of measured music on the clef in sequence
I'd mark the beat with my heart and bated breath
If I should touch one strand of hair and leave the rest untouched
Our lives would change but play their fugue most sad
The snow beneath our feet would then not squish and crunch
And we'd be but ghostly memories our love ne'er had
I would not tempt my God nor fate the hour
Should He or She or It forget a beat
And I should end my days insane and cower
in darkness with only a candle for warmth and heat
A thousand lifetimes I will endure and live
In hope that my heart your love will give.

I forget what year I wrote the sonnet for my aippakuluk though I remember clearly our walk in the snow and my initial reluctance to take a walk in the deep winter cold (it was a bright, sunny and crisp cold day); I'm infinitely grateful I accepted her offer, else I'd never have written the sonnet.

But I digress...

I've been thinking and talking about the notion of 'hermeneutics' quite a bit lately, especially in technical terms of translation of classics into Inuktitut. I happen to think that prosody: noun

  • The patterns of rhythm and sound used in poetry.
  • The theory or study of these patterns, or the rules governing them.

    captures more than just poetic forms but goes into the heart of eloquence and aesthetics of good writing and elocution. Going back to the Moravian translation of the Old Testament (and I haven't really analysed the abstract meter that is used in the translation though I know it definitely exists because I heard the bible read as a child growing up and I took comfort in listening to it read well), the text need not rhyme at all but the mere deliberate intent of capturing a beat and rhythm of delivery makes the text come alive.
    I know that Shakespeare was a true master of the Iambic Pentameter (though not always faithful to the ten syllable form he knew the rules and how to break from them for great effect), and he disgarded rhyme for the beat and rhythm in most of his plays, which in Iambic Pentameter goes like:
    If mu- / -sic be / the food / of love, / play on
    Is this / a dag- / -ger I / see be- / fore me?
    [An] Iambic Pentameter has:
    • Ten syllables in each line
    • Five pairs of alternating unstressed and stressed syllables
    • The rhythm in each line sounds like:
      ba-BUM / ba-BUM / ba-BUM / ba-BUM / ba-BUM

    There are great many other meters that one may utilize. I once read on the translator's notes on the English version of Dante's Inferno where she talks about the choice and use of different meters in her command to make the text come alive in English rather than trying to replicate the original, which does not always work in translation.

    Though I am extremely delighted by the attempts at hip-hop in Inuktitut much of the rap music in Nunavut tends to follow a simple pattern of syllables without much cognition of the infinite variety of meters and rhyme patterns available out there that they could use. The Greenlandic rap music is rather more sophisticated. Even Nunavik rap artists (like AK-47) seem to grasp the concept intuitively if not consciously and the quality of their rhymes show that knowledge/talent.

    I doubt the differences in textual quality (among Kalallisut, Nunavik and Nunavut) I just mentioned have to do with talent, but more to do with the ability to perceive (even subconsciously) and exploit the prosody inherent in the Inuit language. And this cuts right into the heart of differences in education in the three Inuit experiences: where in Nunavut, the educational approach is rather haphazard (at least in terms of Inuktut education), the Nunavik and Greenland experiences are clearly doing something different. I think the issue has to do with the use of narrative and discourse in Inuit languages (ie, comprehension and mastery of grammar - even at the intuitive level) in the two examples, and the learning of spelling and writing words in isolation that is often passed for Inuktitut instruction in Nunavut.



    1. Hello,
      I have been visiting your blog.
      Congratulations for your work!! An interesting and nice blog!!
      Good luck with your blog!
      Greetings from Algarve, Portugal
      Paulo Gonçalves

      I invite you to visit my blog

    2. Hello Paulo Gonçalves,

      wow. it is good to hear from an international reader. thank you for your words and encouragement. I will definitely check out your blog as well. I say: there are no ships in the night in the blogosphere, only fellow-travellers and pilgrims...