Regina Derieva: “I don’t feel at home where I am”

February 3rd, 2014 § 1 comment § permalink

The Russian poet Regina Derieva passed away on December 11. This is her best known poem, in a musical setting I composed for it about five years ago. Performed here, in a first reading, by Maria Matyazowa Milder, soprano, and Arne Johansson, piano, in Stockholm. Thanks to both, and to Alexander Deriev, who organized it. Scroll down for a translation of the poem.

Audio MP3

I don’t feel at home where I am,
or where I spend time, only where,
beyond counting, there’s freedom and calm,
that is, waves, that is, space where, when there,
you consist of pure freedom, which, seen,
turns the crowd, like a Gorgon, to stone,
to pebbles and sand…where life’s mean-
ing lies buried, that never let one
come within cannon-shot yet.
From cloud-covered wells untold
pour color and light, a fête
of cupids and Ledas in gold.
That is, silk and honey and sheen.
that is, boon and quiver and call.
that is, all that lives to be free,
needing no words at all.

tr. by Alan Shaw

There will be a reading/tribute to Regina on Feb. 7 in London.

Regina Derieva (1949-2013)

December 12th, 2013 § 0 comments § permalink

I just received the sad news of the death of Regina Derieva, a wonderful Russian poet with whose works I have been involved over the years as a translator and admirer. Her range was remarkable; she wrote both formal and free verse as well as numerous works in prose.  As a “classical” poet, she was heir to the Acmeists. The religious component in her poetry is strong; she was a convert to Catholicism. For the last decades of her life she lived in Sweden.

She leaves behind her husband, Alexander Deriev, an icon painter and founding editor of the journal Ars Interpres, and a son, Denis Deriev.

From “Winter, Euterpe,” by Regina Derieva

The cast-off remnant of a centaur, on
its pedestal the head sits, turning green,
like Fet’s May grass under its little sun,
with fleeting space around and inbetween.

God doesn’t wonder, was the creature there,
the way the creature wonders about God.
Where you are now, brazen artificer,
creation needs no legs, and goes unshod.

Where you are now, there is no brass in feet,
no steel in voice, or gesture, or endeavor;
only the purest fluff, to every beat
and every breeze ecstatically aquiver.

Tr. by Alan Shaw

Notes on Prosody: numerical classification of rhythms

November 27th, 2013 § 0 comments § permalink

I will be posting more of these “notes” from time to time. They are mostly drawn from old drafts of writings on prosody, but some will be new. This second posting is a continuation of the first. I hope readers will not be too put off by this overgrown thicket of definitions. The aim was to find a more useful and consistent terminology for describing rhythms in the abstract. A lot is borrowed, naturally, from music, but oriented towards a more general application that would encompass verse as well. 

First of all, we will need terms to refer to a rhythm’s basic “count.” Standard terms like binary or duple for rhythms of two, ternary or triple for rhythms of three, quaternary or quadruple for rhythms of four, etc., will be used here, along with the simpler expressions rhythms in or of two, three, four, etc. To these we may add unary to denote rhythms in, or of, one.

Every rhythm, in a sense, has a unary component to it, since this merely denotes the fact of repetition as such. So the term is perhaps of limited usefulness; nevertheless, we will occasionally have need of it to refer to rhythms that achieve their effect by conspicuous repetition of a single element throughout, e.g. a chant based entirely on a refrain.

The number that defines a rhythm’s basic count is called its numerator, on the analogy of a time signature in music, where the number of beats in a measure is given as the upper of a pair of numbers, the lower one (denominator) giving the unit of measurement. We can dispense with the latter: it is a result of the convention of infinite divisibility of time in Western musical practice. In poetry, a lower limit of divisibility is already set, for metrical purposes, by the syllable, and any larger divisions (foot, line, stanza) are more clearly referred to by name.

Rhythms metrically organized on more than one level are said to be nested. The number of levels at which a rhythm is metrically organized is its degree or level of nesting. This is counted inclusively, e.g. a rhythm of four overlying a rhythm of two is nested to two levels.

Nesting may be either multiplicative or additive. In multiplicative procedures, a numerator is multiplied, either by itself or by another, to yield larger metric units.

The ability of a numerator to compose larger units in multiples of itself, as, for instance, quatrains out of couplets or eight-bar phrases out of measures in duple time, gives the degree of multiplicativity of rhythms based on that numerator. .

Unary rhythm is the most multiplicative of all, but in a fairly trivial way, for the same reason that it is trivial mathematics to say that all whole numbers are divisible by one. The most significantly multiplicative rhythms are binary ones, because of the special place two has among whole numbers, as the one that makes all the others even or odd. It has a special relation to the idea of symmetry, being indeed at some level identical with it. But perhaps at least as important, as applied to rhythm, is the fact that multiples of two can yield a maximum of nested levels of rhythm within the narrow range of tempos at which rhythm as such is perceptible to the human organism. Multiples of three, or any higher number, more quickly reach the threshold at which repetitions, being too far apart, fail to be perceived as rhythms.

Three, however, is the next most important number rhythmically, and in combination with two and multiples of two, it is perhaps even more important than it is on its own. The special qualities ascribed to three, aesthetic and spiritual as well as mathematical, need not be pointed out to anyone who has grown up in the Western tradition. It is not symmetrical in the same sense as two, but another kind of symmetry, represented by the image of a triangle, can be felt in it.

If a numerator is not multiplied, or multiplied only by itself, to yield larger levels of rhythm, then the rhythm as a whole is said to be simple. Two, and, to a much lesser degree, three, are really the only numbers usable as numerators for nested simple rhythms. It is quite possible, though, to have simple rhythms that use a higher numerator, and are not nested.

Rhythms that multiply different numerators we will refer to as compound. Examples of compound rhythms in poetry are the French trimètre, which divides the twelve syllables of the alexandrine into three groups of four, and the tétramètre, which divides them into four groups of three.

The terms simple and compound are used somewhat differently in musical metrics. There the first refers to rhythms that are not multiplied at all, and the second to rhythms that are multiplied by three, whatever their numerator. Both terms apply only within the musical bar, ignoring any larger units, as well as any that are smaller than the bar’s “denominator.” In practice, the majority of compound musical rhythms are binary rhythms multiplied by three; my use of the term can be seen as a generalization from that category.

Rhythms may also be nested by being mixed. Mixing is an additive procedure. Different numerators are applied not simultaneously, but in succession. Now, if numerators are mixed randomly, in no particular sequence, they cease by that token to be significant numerators; therefore rhythms that are mixed in a strictly metrical way have different numerators that occur in a regular, predictable sequence. Examples from poetry would include “regular” classical hexameters, consisting of five dactyls plus a spondee, and many stanzaic forms, such as the ottava rima, whose abababcc rhyme scheme gives a line grouping that could be expressed in terms of numerators as (3 X 2) + 2. We will count any mixed sequence as being nested to at least two levels, one for the sequence as a whole, another for its components. These, in turn, may individually contain further levels, as in the compound part (3 X 2) of the last example.

Four has a special importance as a numerator because of its “dual” nature, in several senses. Though it is always more or less felt as the multiplication of a duple rhythm, it can often be perceived as a simple numerator in its own right. As the first power of two, it is unique in this regard. Six is the only other even number that can even be perceived, generally speaking, as a simple numerator, and clearly much less so than four, especially in English-language poetry. Eight will almost always be perceived as two groups of four, or some other nested sequence, whether multiplicative (4 X 2) or additive ( 3 + 2 + 3).

Of course these generalizations are relative, not absolute, and how well they hold will depend on many factors. We can’t deny, for instance, that in languages that base their versification on syllable count rather than feet or accents, higher numerators may often be perceived as such. Since the basic unit is smaller, multiplications of it will stay within a more perceptible range, and even twelve- or fourteen-syllable sequences may sometimes be perceived without being broken down into multiplicative or additive components. Mostly, of course, verse written in such languages does so break them down, and often in a consistent pattern from line to line.

Five and seven are the last numbers we need mention here. Being odd, they obviously can only be broken down additively, and this gives them an asymmetry that none of the lower numbers has. Of course three can be broken down this way as well, but it is most often perceived as simple and, in a certain sense, symmetric. Five is important in English, naturally, because of the prevalence of the pentameter. Seven occurs mostly as a regular additive sequence of 4 + 3.

Instead of or in addition to being nested, rhythms may overlap. In this case there is no overall numerical coordination between them, though there may be moments at which they coincide. An example would be a poem with one rhythm given by its metrical lines, and another by its syntax and phrasing. These two rhythms, unless they happen to coincide perfectly, would overlap.

The properties of numbers can tell us a good deal about the properties of the rhythms they describe. But there is a sense in which, the more completely we can define a rhythm numerically, the less complex it really is. Complexities may in fact be too subtle for analysis, though a person speaking or reading a poem, hearing music, or watching a dance, can readily feel them. From this point of view, we could say that the possibilities of even the simplest unary rhythm are far from having been exhausted.

Griboyedov: a second look

November 26th, 2013 § 0 comments § permalink

In the course of preparing a second edition of my 1992 translation of Griboyedov’s The Woes of Wit, I recently went on Youtube to see what new material might be available there. I wasn’t disappointed. There’s a lot new since last time I looked, most notably the complete 1977 Soviet film version of the Maly Theater’s production of the play. Watching it repeatedly and seeing how different parts are played has been quite a revelation. It’s easily the best of the three versions I’ve now seen (none of them live, though Oleg Menshikov’s video version was basically a recording of his stage production).

The actors playing Chatsky (Vitaly Solomin) and Sofya (Nelly Kornienko) in the Maly’s production were both superb. The latter role is probably the harder to do convincingly. Sofya, Chatsky’s childhood friend, fancies herself in love with Molchalin, her father’s obsequious live-in secretary. The witty, irreverent, and outspoken Chatsky, who loves her himself, is at first unbelieving, and finally, dismayed. It is this that drives the action of the play.

But Sofya is no shallow dupe. D.S. Mirsky in his History of Russian Literature says of her:

She is a rare phenomenon in classical comedy: a heroine that is neither idealized nor caricatured. There is a strange, drily romantic flavor in her, with her fixity of purpose, her ready wit, and her deep, but reticent, passionateness.

There’s the rub: Sofya is mistaken about Molchalin, but her mistake is an honorable one. One must feel, when she defends him in the face of Chatsky’s ridicule, that, but for that mistake, she is entirely justified in doing so. Beyond that, one must be able to see things from her point of view. Chatsky is admirable, intelligent, passionate, but seeing how uncomfortable he makes people, and what eventually happens to him, who can blame her for not wanting to tie her fate to someone like that? That is the way Kornienko, with complete conviction, plays her.

It is wonderful that Mosfilm has chosen to make so many great movies available online. Given that, I can’t complain too much about them blocking the excerpts from two of their unsubtitled films that I put up on Youtube with my own subtitles added. I know they’re just following a general policy. I have, however, received some disappointed queries from people who have tried to view them since then. In the three years that the 5-part Mozart and Salieri sequence from Shveitser’s Malenkie tragedii was viewable, the first part had 6,555 viewers.

Notes on Prosody: rhythm and number

November 25th, 2013 § 0 comments § permalink

The following is drawn from some notes on prosody I began writing some years ago. Prosody, and rhythm generally, has been a central preoccupation of mine, as might be guessed from my domain name, the former name of this website, and many of the articles and posts in it. In this draft I was attempting to clarify some very broad terms that might be applied to a general study of rhythm. To speak of rhythm from the standpoint of psychology or physiology, or musicology or poetics, generally assumes that we already understand what rhythm is. I make no such assumption, and the approach here might be thought of as belonging more to philosophy than to anything more specialized.

Rhythm and number

Meter is the countable aspect of rhythm. If a rhythm has nothing in it that we can meaningfully count, then we generally consider it unmetered.

In order to count, we must regard different things or events as the same. All rhythm involves recurring events. We can thus see how any rhythm involves a sort of incipient counting.

Sameness is of course a matter of degree, and there is often some doubt about which events in a rhythm “count” and which do not. Indeed, a rhythm that is absolutely countable will be monotonous. However, a rhythm that is monotonous on one level may be quite unpredictable on another.

It is hard to say where real counting begins. If there is only one level of repetition, for instance in a steady drumbeat with no accents, then there is obviously no need to count at all. Still, the drummer’s effort to make all the time intervals between beats, as well as the beats themselves, the same, suggests that a subliminal sort of measurement is occuring.

If we add an accent to every other beat, then we clearly have a rhythm counted “in two.” This is usually considered, in music, to be the simplest meter. However, for consistency, it would perhaps be better to consider the first example, the steady beats without accents, to be the simplest. Its “measure” would be an isochronous beat, counted “in one.” To vary the monotony, we could add occasional accents, in no consistently countable pattern. Such a rudimentary “meter” can have a suprisingly lively effect.

The higher the number, the greater the need for deliberate counting. If we enter a room with three people in it, we hardly need to count to know how many are there. If on the other hand there are nine people there, we will have to count to know it.

Other factors may affect the need to count. If we see a row of three windows, at each of which three people are standing, we can appreciate that whole fact in an instant, even if we don’t know that three times three is nine. If the windows, moving left to right, have four, two and three people in them respectively, that situation will probably take a bit longer to register, and be a lot harder to remember.

When we are dealing with events that appear in succession, as we are with rhythm, there is also the factor of speed or “tempo.” In the “midrange” of tempo, where we find – probably not coincidentally – important bodily rhythms like the heartbeat and breathing, the perception of number is most immediate. At much slower tempos we will need to count just to keep track of where we are, and at much faster ones, we will need to slow things down to count at all, as separate events start to merge into a continuum, e.g. a musical tone or a moving picture. It is, roughly speaking, only in this midrange that we directly perceive rhythm at all. Of course what we barely sense, or see only on reflection, can sometimes be as important as what we perceive directly.

It is usual in poetics to distinguish more or less sharply between meter and rhythm. A favorite analogy is of a container (meter) and what it contains (rhythm). It might be better, though, to think of meter as a sort of skeleton of rhythm. A container, after all, is separate from what it contains; a skeleton is part of the whole animal.

If a rhythm can be known without counting, then there is no need to count it. We rarely need to count an animal’s vertebrae or its digits to know what species it belongs to. We may still find it helpful to do so, however, whether to understand its relationship to other species or to explain some aspect of its behavior.

In Western music, with its highly articulated rhythm, it is customary to regard all rhythms as more or less countable. This is partly due to the necessity of keeping different performers in time with each other. The convention is therefore not as strictly observed in solo performances, and in certain kinds of cantillation, for instance, it may be dispensed with altogether.

Western poetry, to the extent that it has divorced itself from music or any kind of coordinated performance, makes no assumption that its rhythms are always countable. If they are, roughly speaking, the poetry is said to be in meter, if not, it is said to be unmetered or “free” verse.

In principle, though, there seems to be no reason why we could not, if we wanted to, consider all poetic rhythms to be more or less countable, if only for purposes of analysis. We might then find it convenient to make use of some conventions borrowed from musical practice.

Seamus Heaney (1939-2013)

September 10th, 2013 § 0 comments § permalink

Following close on the death of John Hollander, the poetry world lost, on August 30, Seamus Heaney. I had no special connection with him, beyond admiring his work, and once obtaining permission to use his remarkable translation of Beowulf for a high school English Lit anthology I was editing (the venerable series it belonged to died soon after, victim of a corporate merger). The translation was originally commissioned by the editors of the Norton Anthology of English Literature, one of whom, the medievalist Alfred David, served as Heaney’s main consultant in matters Anglo-Saxon. David (who as far as I know is still with us) is an admirable poet-translator himself; he translated the three lais by Marie de France in the Norton Anthology, one of which (Chevrefoil) I originally commissioned from him for our own (stillborn) anthology.

There is a lot of Heaney I have not yet read, notably his two adaptations from Sophocles. These are right up my alley, you might say, but my general skittishness about “adaptations” has so far made me hesitate.

John Hollander (1929-2013)

August 18th, 2013 § 0 comments § permalink

Hollander was never less than a skilled poet, and at his best a very fine one. He also had intelligent things to say about the relation of poetry to music, among many other subjects. In the 80s he recommended some poems of mine to the late Ben Sonnenberg of Grand Street, resulting in my first published poems. I met him only once.

NY Times obituary

Oxford Translators’ Coven

August 11th, 2013 § 0 comments § permalink

In June I attended the “translators’ coven” organized under the auspices of the Russkiy Mir Program of St Antony’s College at Oxford. There were about thirty short presentations by Russian-English literary translators, discussing recent or current work. Some 125 people attended the two-day event; many, both presenters and audience, were also in London at Pushkin House for a series of evening readings/discussions the following week.

My presentation was on “translating classic Russian verse drama for performance,” in which I discussed my approach to translating Pushkin and Griboyedov. With me on the drama panel, chaired by Sasha Dugdale, were Lisa Hayden and Noah Birksted-Breen. A full summary of the proceedings is here.

Presentations were mostly informal, with ample time allowed for open discussion. Being a very infrequent conference-goer, I don’t have much basis for comparison, but the general level seemed to me very high. Literary translation tends to be solitary, despite the obvious benefits of collaboration (a point that arose more than once in discussion), and the collegiality of the gathering felt quite remarkable. The socializing around the conference, including a restaurant dinner for about 40 the first night (and a bit of pub crawling afterwards) didn’t hurt, either.

I was only able to attend two of the Pushkin House events in Bloomsbury. The first was devoted to three recent winners of the Brodsky-Spender Prize, Irina Mashinski and Boris Dralyuk for their translation of Arseny Tarkovsky’s “Field Hospital” (First Prize), and Alexandra Berlina for her translation of Brodsky’s “You can’t tell a gnat” (Third Prize). The second night was devoted to Mandelstam. The panel, led by Robert Chandler, included Victor Sonkin, Irina Mashinski, Boris Dralyuk, Alexandra Berlina, and Peter France, several of whose very fine translations of Mandelstam were read alongside other versions for comparison.

Aside from all this, it was my first visit to London in about a decade. I stayed in the East End, in Stepney Green, an area I was not familiar with. The flat where I was staying looked out over St Dunstan’s churchyard (below). The church’s bells (“the bells of Stepney”) are among those mentioned in the “Oranges and Lemons” nursery rhyme about the bells of East London.

St Dunstan's, Stepney

Chinua Achebe (1930-2013)

March 23rd, 2013 § 0 comments § permalink

It happens that I just recently received a newly issued CD from Nigerian-American baritone Odekhiren Amaize of a very fine work he commissioned and performed, based on Achebe’s famous novel Things Fall Apart.

I have read little else of Achebe’s, apart from his infamous (as some would call it) essay on Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, but I well remember the impact the novel had on me when I read it some thirty years ago. The musical setting by Roger C. Vogel is of selected excerpts, chosen in a way that very effectively brought back the story, whose action I didn’t remember well. Highly recommended, as is the novel that inspired it.

A great loss to literature. NY Times obituary.

Two Old Hymns

August 19th, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

Having recently acquired a lute, I have been exploring some previously unknown (to me) corners of Elizabethan song, a very old interest of mine. When I was fifteen, two years into learning classical guitar, I spent the summer at a music professor’s house my parents had sublet in Berkeley. In the basement study I first came across the Davison/Apel Historical Anthology of Music, the Auden/Kallman Elizabethan Songbook, and other treasures, some of which I have to this day (not the professor’s copies, I hasten to add). I spent a good part of the summer sitting in that basement, copying out in pencil onto score paper the tablatures from a facsimile edition of Robert Dowland’s Varietie of Lute Lessons. Those copies (it was before photocopiers were everywhere) I still have too, or most of them.

The music I had some understanding of, having tried to play it on guitar, but the poetry was new to me. I’d had a little Shakespeare in school, but lyrics like “in darkness let me dwell” and “Flow not so fast, ye fountains” were more exciting than anything some English teacher was trying to spoon-feed me, and they came with music besides! Though it was years before I really started singing them.

By that time I was writing poetry myself, and knew enough about it to see that not all Elizabethan song texts were on such a high level. Still the overall level, compared to other periods of songwriting, was high indeed. Dowland has texts that sound like a pastiche of Donne or other well-known poets, and many have suspected that he wrote at least some of his lyrics himself. If so, he didn’t do too badly. What songwriter today would use such models? He may not have been a “real” poet like Campion, but he knew what poetry was.

Still, there’s always going to be a special interest in how lyrics by the top poets of the day were set, or at least you would think so. In fact, many of the extant settings are still surprisingly little known, even after a half-century of early-music revival (or in this case more than a century, since by 1912 Arnold Dolmetsch had already begun building his lutes and viols to explore this very repertoire).

The song I’m going to talk about now is perhaps not a “setting” at all. In fact the words are generally assumed to have been written to pre-existing music. I’m speaking of the so-called “four-note pavan” of Alfonso Ferrabosco the younger (1575-1628), written for viol consort but in recent years also very popular in arrangements for brass, woodwinds, recorders – any kind of ensemble in which a sonorous, closely woven polyphony sounds to advantage. But the song version, on a text by Ben Jonson, seems to have been made by the poet himself.

Here it is, beautifully sung by Jill Feldman (nice images too). I give the text of Jonson’s poem below:

Hear me, O God!
A broken heart
Is my best part.
Use still thy rod,
That I may prove
Therein thy Love.

If thou hadst not
Been stern to me,
But left me free,
I had forgot
Myself and thee.

For sin’s so sweet,
As minds ill-bent
Rarely repent,
Until they meet
Their punishment.

Who more can crave
Than thou hast done?
That gav’st a Son,
To free a slave,
First made of nought;
With all since bought.

Sin, Death, and Hell
His glorious name
Quite overcame,
Yet I rebel
And slight the same.

But I’ll come in
Before my loss
Me farther toss,
As sure to win
Under His cross.

The basis for assuming that Jonson wrote his poem to fit Ferrabosco’s already existing music seems to be the attribution from contemporary sources, presumably quoted or paraphrased in the words that overlay the beginning of the video (if anyone knows more about this, I would be glad to hear about it). But there are a number of intriguing features of both poem and music that suggest to me a closer collaboration between poet and composer. They were, after all, long-term collaborators on a number of masques that Jonson wrote for King James and his court. But I will post my thoughts on this question later. For now it may be of interest to compare this “Hymn to God the Father” with another, much better known one of the same title by John Donne, in a lovely setting by the short-lived Restoration composer Pelham Humfrey (1647-1674), sung here by the incomparable Alfred Deller. Here is the text, with minor textual variants following the sung version:

WILT Thou forgive that sin where I begun,
Which is my sin, though it were done before?
Wilt Thou forgive that sin, through which I run,
And do run still, though still I do deplore?
When Thou hast done, Thou hast not done,
For I have more.

Wilt Thou forgive that sin by which I’ve won
Others to sin, and made my sin their door?
Wilt Thou forgive that sin which I did shun
A year or two, but wallowed in a score?
When Thou hast done, Thou hast not done,
For I have more.

I have a sin of fear, that when I’ve spun
My last thread, I shall perish on the shore;
But swear by Thyself, that at my death Thy Son
Shall shine as he shines now, and heretofore;
And having done that, Thou hast done;
I fear no more.