Lope de Vega describes the birth pangs of his love songs

Soneto I

from Rimas (1602)

by Lope de Vega

Versos de amor, conceptos esparcidos
engendrados del alma en mis cuidados,
partos de mis sentidos abrasados,
con más dolor que libertad nacidos;

expósitos al mundo en que perdidos,
tan rotos anduvistess y trocados
que sólo donde fuistes engendrados
fuérades por la sangre conocidos:

pues que le hurtáis el laberinto a Creta,
a Dédalo los altos pensamientos,
la furia al mar, las llamas al abismo,

si aquel áspid hermoso no os aceta,
dejad la tierra, entretened los vientos,
descansaréis en vuestro centro mismo.

Sonnet I

[translated by DK Fennell]

Verses of love, spattered conceptions
spawned by my anxious soul,
breached from my burnt-out sensations,
more in pain than freedom born;

orphans in the world where you’ve wondered
helpless, so worn out and misunderstood
that only where you were gestated
would your blood relatives know you:

Seeing that you plunder the Labyrinth from Crete,
from Daedalus his exalted inspirations,
the rage from the sea, the blazes from hell,

if that pretty little snake doesn’t take you,
leave the earth and amuse the winds,
you will rest where you belong.

The rhetorical gimmick of using the roots of a word to make a point about what that word is describing is a worn out device.  It’s both pedantic and puerile.  But since writing poetry is both things, and translating poetry is even more so, I will indulge it to explain my view of translating poetry.

To translate comes from roots meaning to bring across.  But because poetry itself is liquid and the only translating tools are, at best, leaking vessels, it is not possible to bring the thing whole from one language to another.  (Anyone who doubts this should read a Nabakov translation.)

At one time it was thought that rendering a foreign poem into English required preserving the rhyming scheme (or creating an analogous one).  This attempt is presented with the obstacle that most European languages have more rhyming possibilities than English.  English does not have a store of verbs that use the same regular endings when conjugated.  Plus the stems of English words are borrowed from so many disparate sources that rhyming becomes tricky.

Others try to transfer the metrics in some fashion, but that runs into similar problems.

In both cases, in any event, a contemporary reader feels something of a discomfort, because he has been so accustomed to free verse.  On top of that, the word choices in English are artificially restricted when rhyme schemes or metrical patterns are required.

I have always thought the meaning is the essential element that translators should convey.  Secondarily visual images ought to be conveyed.  And so in these translations I will concentrate on word choice and secondarily on a rhythm that most closely conveys what I conceive to be the poet’s tone.

In this poem the use of words for physical conception and birth as an extended metaphor for the creation of his love song comes through, in my view, more clearly if I reject the goal of attempting to replicate the very strict and mellifluous rhyming of Lope de Vega.  English doesn’t have the words to do both.

In any event, the very best way to experience the aural beauty of the original poem is simply to read it aloud.  It is not difficult to quickly learn the basic principles of pronunciation and accent of most European languages.  And as Ezra Pound points out in the ABCs of Reading, you don’t need to know the meaning to appreciate the aesthetics of a poem in a foreign language.  In some cases it is easier.  With a translation that conveys the sense, together with the experience of reading the original, you have the best way possible to achieve a “bringing across” of a foreign poem.

Abbey Lincoln after Two Decades

Almost 23 years ago I attended a concert at the Universal Jazz Coalition, then in what looked like an abandoned warehouse in SoHo. It was a tribute performance by Abbey Lincoln to Billie Holiday. At the time, I was really stunned by the performance. It came about as close as I could imagine to the emotional impact of Holiday at top form. Lincoln didn’t try to imitate Holiday, of course. She was in her late 50s then, and age was beginning to take a toll on her voice –- in the upper range her throat constricted and she had difficulty staying on pitch (using vibrato to help stabilize her). But quibbling is silly. When Abbey reaches for a high note and you’re afraid she won’t make it, your heart stops. And that’s part of the effect. Her voice was like a belt of Scotch, an acquired taste, but once you acquired it, you drink nothing else. And the huskiness reminded one of Holiday late in life—when the bruisings of a very hard life left their toll on the voice (and undoubtedly deeper).

It would be almost impossible for a competent jazz group and above average singer to turn the Billie Holiday stem-winders into a bad show. But Lincoln did more than that. She could turn the old Tin Pan Alley favorites into works of art. (Note I did not say “minor” works of art.)

I was able to verify this because I happen to have both volumes of Enja’s recordings of the concert. And I listened to them again after a long while.  And I’ll probably listen to them a couple of more times today.

There is a section right before the instrumental interlude before the intermission (the end of the first disc), where she sings “Lover Man,” “These Foolish Things,” and “I’ll Be Seeing You.” For these 15 minutes she elevates 20th Century, bourgeois, romantic love into an experience worthy of the highest artistic probing. At the risk of sounding like a sentimentalist, if you can listen to that stretch without misting up, you must be either a Gen-Xer or a hedge fund manager.

Musicologists of our age, hundreds of years from now, will have the opposite problem of contemporary musicologists studying, for example, the Italian Renaissance. We have limited material, and the trick is to figure out why it was considered good then, and why it should endure now. Now we have unlimited amounts of sound; in the future they will have to cull from the mounds of dross what should endure. I hope somebody has these Enja discs then, and they have the means to play them. I have no idea what they will think of them. Perhaps they will think that we were frivolous fools, obsessed with “love” and ignored all the problems of hunger, ignorance, pestilence. Or perhaps they will think we had no taste. They will have to dissect the elements which we take for granted. And they will never be “in the moment,” as they say. And they might not even find it important music. But if you spend an hour and a half now listening to it, I promise you won’t be sorry.

After listening to the music, I thought I’d look up what happened to the sidemen. Harold Vick, the tenor saxophonist who provides compelling obbligato and dream-like solos in the vocal breaks, I had known of for a long while, but had never been a particular student of. I now am shocked to find he died a week after the concert. The soulfulness of that tenor now has added depth. Vick came from the same town in North Carolina that Monk came from. He studied with his uncle Prince Robinson (an early tenor, but a fixture on some of my favorite big bands). Vick became a hard bopper, but retained that “thick” tenor sound of R&B players (he played with such groups during college at Howard), which is undoubtedly how he became associated with the Blue Note label.

The pianist James Weidman, who played several well constructed solos on the Lincoln album, particularly on Waldron’s “Soul Eyes,” I’m happy to find is still performing, mostly as a sideman. He had been with Lincoln from the early 80s to the early 90s, and reunited with her in the 2002 Jazz at Lincoln Center Abbey Lincoln “Anthology.” Drummer Mark Johnson stayed with her for a little bit longer, and went on to play with Geri Allen, and others including Wallace Roney (where he played on Tony Williams’ drum kit).

The strangest course was followed by bassist Tarik Shah. Shah evidently pursued martial arts (considering himself something of a ninja), while continuing to perform bass. In May 2005, Shah was arrested in New York in a sting to uncover Al Qaeda sympathizers. Originally there was some supporters claiming that this was hysterical overreaction by counter-terrorism police. But there were apparently tapes capturing him saying some really ugly things.

It seems that Shah’s father had been a follower of Malcolm X, and Shah himself became a Muslim as an adult. Perhaps this was a natural progression for a kid who listened to Cannonball Adderley. And perhaps it led to dalliances with radical Muslims. Or perhaps he was merely a troubled braggart goaded by overly “enthusiastic” agents. It will take some time before we will be able to evaluate all the ugliness of “law enforcement” of the Bush-Ashcroft-Gonzalez-Chertoff era. There are articles on the Web describing some of the evidence against Shah; it’s all too dreary for me to review now. Or even to link to.

But I find it difficult to understand, how (if indeed it’s true) the bassist at the Jazz Coalition, who performed so strongly on “God Bless the Child” and “Don’t Explain” and was so sensitive on Lincoln’s torch song renditions, could have ended up claiming that he could smile and then strangle a little girl. Perhaps it’s because I’m a decadent “idealist.” Perhaps art and morality have no correlation.

All I’ve found out is that nearly 20 years to the date of the Abbey Lincoln performance Shah was sentenced to 15 years in prison for “terrorism.”

The 2 Most Influential Works of English Non-fiction

Perhaps in no other living language than German have seminal non-fiction works flourished as in English.  (I limit the observation in this way to exclude scholarly or ecclesiastical Latin works from the mix.)  Why that is the case I don’t pretend to know.  But if you consider the works of Keynes, Bertrand Russell, Orwell, Wiliam James, Herbert, Spencer, Emerson, Bentham, Jefferson, Paine, Blackstone, Locke, Hobbes, Bacon, More, and many others, you see that it would be foolish to pick out the two most infuential works of English non-fiction.

Quickly occupying the field where angels fear to tread, let me suggest them: Darwin’s On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection … (1859) and Smith’s An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776).

I suspect that there would be near-universal agreement with the selection of Darwin’s work.  As a work of pure argument, it is breath-taking:  superbly constructed, intellectually honest, supported by meticulously selected details from seemingly unrelated fields, and written in that patient Victorian style (now an acquired taste for most, who consider it plodding) with old-fashioned respect for the intelligence of the reader.  As for the thesis, it presents one of the most elegant theories ever proposed for any field.  It is of the kind that once you see it, you understand its novelty, its predictive power, its testability.  And you wonder why you hadn’t seen it before.

I won’t dwell on Darwin here because he demands careful and many looks.  I will, however, suggest one thing:  his theory is itself partially an outgrowth of the other work I selected.  In fact, a case can be made that the intellectual river from Smith to Malthus to Darwin is the reason the English and not the Germans came on natural selection as a mechanism for change.  And that is because Darwin could see that groups behaved in certain ways as a result of the cumulative actions of individuals, acting for reasons of individual interest and not to conform to an ideal imposed by categorical thinking.  Germans, who possibly had the more careful scientists and more wealth of biological detail, were mired in the thinking of Hegel, whose approach dominated fields well beyond the metaphysical and whose hold lasted a long time and with wide berth.  You need only read Alexander Herzen’s memoirs to see Hegel’s hold on liberal and revolutionary thought in Russia in the 19th Century.  (Herzen is a project for a later post.)

Smith would perhaps be less universally regarded as presiding over Hobbes or Locke or Paine.  It is true that post-Reagan conservatives in the US regard his observations about self-interest as being the supreme touchstones of moral philosophy, more trenchant than the maxims of either Jesus or Kant.  I suspect, however, they came to this position not so much from considering Smith’s argument, but rather from consulting their own greed first and looking up supporting quotations later, most likely from quotation lists.

Smith’s work was published just as the Age of Revolutions was beginning.  Although he was routinely quoted in newspapers and pamphlets in America during the founding period, and while his approach to trade meshed entirely with the interests of American merchants aroung the turn of the 19th Century, his entire framework was not immediately accepted as a whole, nor did it provide any step in the chain leading to the various revolutions around the world or even help inflame them.

The odd thing about the reception of the original framework for classical free market thinking is that it was not adopted by the conservatives of the time or the monied classes or the aspirants to wealth creation.  Alexander Hamilton, the original hero of the American right wing, and the person most credited by them for creating the American economy and the original proponent of high finance capitalism, never bought into the Smith approach.  In fact, in his Report on Manufactures (1791) (a later (1913) Senate printed version is digitized by Google here) expressly adopts the approach of Jean-Baptiste Colbert, finance minister to the Sun King, whose protectionism and subsidies to domestic manufacturing were among the chief evils that Adam Smith sought to combat.  It is an interesting side note to see how Hamilton’s approach became a pillar of the Republican Party’s orgin and later political dominance in the US, until it was ultimately rejected by them.  (The hard right now calls it socialism.)  That history of an idea shows how the interests of a social class can dispose of its intellectual foundations as easily as the Soviet Union used to dispose of the history of its former supporters.

What is relevant to Smith’s importance today, is not so much how it was treated at the time, nor how it provided cover or impetus for particular policies, but rather how it explains the inevitable spread of “liberal” capitalism, despite the consequences.  And the key to that is found in the first chapter of Wealth of Nations.  Much like Darwin’s work, which begins with the fancy pigeons, Smith’s work starts off with a part usually ignored and, when not, often ridiculed — the example of the pin makers.  How that relates to my point will be left to a later post.