The Conversation Continues
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To return to my December 2002 Barbaric Yawp interview with John Berbrich, click here.
To read our original 2001 interview, click here.
William Michaelian: Okay. We were talking about competition and the unpredictable nature of evolution and art. J.B., you mentioned the almost demented obsessions of true artists, or a certain class of true artists, and how these obsessions can attract an audience and disciples. Iím wondering, what is your definition of a true artist? And what do you mean by classes?
John Berbrich: What I meant by class was really a loose way of saying a small percentage ó meaning that a small percentage of artists would be included in this class or category. Iím speaking loosely because I have no idea of the actual figure or ratio. A true artist is a tough beast to define, and I have no ready answer. I always equate an artist with obsession, obsessed by his art. In this sense an artist cannot help himself, must write, draw, sculpt, play the guitar. Again, going back to the idea of the Muse ó I can see where it would come from. An ordinary human produces superhuman creations. Itís a great explanation: possession by a god. Of course mastery of an art can be taught, but it always seems that somehow an artist is special due to some mysterious internal quality, not because of certain acquired skills. I almost want to say that a true artist cares nothing for the applause of others, but Iím not sure that is true. Letís say that an artist makes things and that a true artist makes mysteriously special things. Howís that? The more I say the more wrong Iíll be.
William Michaelian: I know what you mean. There is that feeling, isnít there, that the more you talk about things like this, the more it feels like youíre beating upon them with crude instruments. And yet talking about them does shed light. About the applause, I think in most cases true artists do care, but that the applause is of secondary importance. In other words, they pursue their art for artís sake and because art is their work, not because they are seeking recognition. But there are those who pursue both simultaneously, and who seem to feed on the circus aspect of it all. Or it might just seem that way to an observer. In cases where fame is involved, I think some artists create a character they pass off as themselves and give the public an illusion in self-defense. Obsession ó itís hard to imagine an artist who isnít obsessed by his art, even if heís the cool, level-headed type who always measures before he cuts. And youíre right about skill. There are countless skilled practioners who will bore your socks off. Real art takes something more, much more.
John Berbrich: Nicely summed up. Youíre quite right ó talking about these esoteric matters does illuminate certain points, even if it feels like youíre trying to walk up an icy hill in roller skates. Hereís another gem from that Cirino poetry book, an entire poem:
for Jeri Lynn
You tell me you dream in triptychs.
To the left, a noon meadow,
Vast expanse of shadowed greens.
In the middle, a myriad of crows,
Dervishes above the grass. The last
Contains me, leaves of poems in my hands,
Reading aloud, with thousands
Of black birds and jubilant light
Whirling in exaltation.
William Michaelian: Ah, yes. Imagine entering an old church and discovering Cirinoís triptych behind the altar, just as heís described it ó full of life, depth, and possibility, and changing before your eyes. You would be hushed by the mystery of it all. Very nice. Thank you. Letís see. This is from Glossolalia, poems 2002-2003, published by Pygmy Forest Press. How does one get in touch with Mr. Cirino?
John Berbrich: His address is 685 Ninth Street, Springfield, Oregon 97477. Phone # (541) 345-9635. Here is an excerpt from a prose poem. When I read it, Willie, I thought of you.
ďAm I lost because Iíve studied too much, read too many books, lived in a world of ideas and not things? I can still say both infinity and zero are one. I can think for myself but am not of the world. At first I went to the cafe and sipped espresso. Then I followed women down alleys. I was allowed into opium dens, and for years I could only dream. Now Iíve come to the edge of the woods. Unlike cities, there are no roads to follow, not even a path.Ē
This excerpt is from a poem entitled The Perplexity of One Who Knows Nothing. Iím not making a bad joke. Everyone experiences, or should experience, times of complete bewilderment, when nothing makes any sense. You, my shaggy friend, are perceptive enough to be aware of this state and honest enough to admit it.
William Michaelian: Well. Thatís very nice of you to say. Yes, I am well aware of the feeling. And Iím grateful for the experience. I pity the poor soul who is so insulated, whose shell is so hardened by fear and the mirage of knowledge that he no longer hears life knocking at his door. Meanwhile, Iím liking Cirinoís writing more and more. I think Iíll drop him a line and buy a copy of his book. After that, weíll let nature take its course. I wish you were here. We could go pay him a visit. Ah, well. All in due time, I suppose. Meanwhile, how are things coming with Ulysses?
John Berbrich: Iím up to around page 340. The fellows are all in the bar whooping it up. This scene is like 50 pages & is hilarious. I find it difficult sometimes to talk about the book, because so many of its gems are one-liners which really arenít funny out of context. All I can say is ďRead it yourself.Ē The Forum seems to be slowing down. Nearly everyone has dropped out, or at least they had when I last visited a couple of days ago. Too bad. I was hoping for some lively dialogue, like in the book.
William Michaelian: Me too. I canít help wondering if our enthusiastic responses are what drove the others away. My guess is that theyíre used to a more structured approach. I think weíve pointed out some interesting things and made some valid points, but of course conversation is a two-way street. Youíre certainly right about the one-liners. Every time I sit down with the book, it brings a smile to my face. It is a rich reading experience. I read the bar scene a couple of days ago. It only gets better. Are you reading anything else? Iím slowly picking my way through another issue of Rain Taxi, reading a review here and there.
John Berbrich: Oh, yes ó Iím reading a few other things, bits of this and that. A few large works are waiting on a shelf to be read, but they will wait right there until Ulysses has been completed. Yes, perhaps we are a bit too enthusiastic. Sometimes I feel like weíre a couple of stoned young punks whoíve wandered mistakenly into a stuffy university cocktail party. Or barbarians stumbling into a conclave of academicians. Thereís no need for us to fight, but they turn trembling in fear.
William Michaelian: Well, there is safety in structure, I guess, but it seems so contrary to the book at hand. Ulysses makes me want to celebrate. For instance, while reading yesterday evening, I encountered yet another dramatic shift in language that is Biblical, powerful, and poetic, yet still full of humor. The meaning of the book is cumulative: the snowflakes continue to fall; taken individually, they are beautiful; seen together they change the entire landscape ó mental, physical. Itís so much like getting to know a person, slowly, over time. And I feel that is whatís happening with Ulysses and Joyce.
John Berbrich: Iím anxious to finish it and anxious to read it again. Iíll let those snowflakes settle and I wonít break out the sand trucks and snow plows. The roads will fill with beautiful snow, snow flat and pristine, snow swirled here and there into fantastic shapes by the wind. Youíll look out the window and see animal tracks. Of course we need to shovel a path to the pub.
William Michaelian: Definitely. And thatís where weíll find the author, seated at the piano with his pint close at hand, singing melancholy, warm, and wise. Happy faces, warmed by firelight and stout. In one corner, a group of worried students desperately trying to explain to each other what it means. Says one, ďItís hard to think with that lunatic singing all the time. And look outside ó itís starting to snow. Itíll be a mess getting home.Ē Behind them, the publican smiles.
John Berbrich: We need a good-looking barmaid. I thought Bloom would exhibit a greater preoccupation with the ladies than he has heretofore shown. That section back some 200 pages was amazing, with Bloom ruminating on curves and womenís shapes. He drags in several goddesses and the graceful lines in marble and wood. I mean, he notices women, but doesnít seem to be absolutely fascinated with them. Although Iím less than 1/2 way done, and the sun is just now setting.
William Michaelian: Ah. I know just where you are. I must say, this is one of the longest literary days on record. Iíve been enjoying that aspect of the book. And Bloom is really amazing. He is one thing to himself, another to the Dubliners who know him, and yet another to the reader ó repulsive, though by no means entirely so, and yet painfully familiar. Iím sure even Joyce was surprised by the character he created, and which must have helped create itself along the way. Another thing that interests me about the time element is that it took Joyce several years to write Ulysses. Imagine writing about a single day, while in your own life the years are going by, with their trials and tribulations, births, deaths, joys, disappointments. Some of those changes would have to influence and be reflected in your writing.
John Berbrich: True. It seems as though youíd be constantly re-reading and adjusting the prose to keep the action and the characters consistent. Youíd need to begin with a strong vision of what you wanted to do. But maybe geniuses donít have to resort to such pedestrian measures, I really wouldnít know. I canít imagine working for years on a single project without getting distracted and sidetracked. Like I said, that initial vision would have to be very strong to sustain you through such a tremendous amount of creative work. I mean, did Joyce know exactly what he was getting into when he undertook this project or did he just sort of stumble into it, his vision sharpening the further he went?
William Michaelian: Unless he said somewhere himself, weíre not likely to find out. Even when writers talk about these things, you have to take them with a grain of salt. Iíve asked the same questions about War and Peace, and other masterpieces. Itís possible that the general tendency towards fragmentation you mentioned some time back comes into play. Tolstoy, Joyce, Dostoevsky, Hugo, Shakespeare, Cervantes, etc., were of a very different time. Think of Dostoevsky, and how he wrote Crime and Punishment. As he finished each chapter, he sent off his only copy to be published, leaving him only with his memory to rely on and the material in his head. It called for some real mental organization. Of course, it also has to do with an artistís temperament ó the nature of his genius, if you will. The person capable of bringing off a gigantic work might have trouble writing stories or poems. Or he might need to take time off and write stories and poems in order to keep his sanity while his larger work is under way. And then, as I said, circumstances also have their say. And it must be remembered that understanding itself is a fluid, growing thing. What an artist learns along the way will also be reflected in his work ó or it might be what drives him to begin his next work, which he is sure will be better than the one before.
John Berbrich: Speaking of geniuses, Nancy & I attended a recital at Potsdam State two nights ago ó nine pieces strictly for trombone, one of which was written by Beethoven, an indisputable genius. I was amazed at all the various moods one can wrench from only trombones. The Beethoven piece was entitled ďDrei EqualiĒ and was first performed at the composerís funeral. ďDrei EqualiĒ is a stately, somber elegy, a fitting musical farewell.
William Michaelian: I love Beethoven. How long is ďDrei EqualiĒ? Were the musicians from Potsdam, or were they also from neighboring schools? Hmm. He was a trombonist passing through. Not quite as poetic as a painter passing through. But a lot better than a dentist.
John Berbrich: Ah, Villie, alvays mit der jokes. Und zo many kvestions! Ahem, okay. ďDrei EqualiĒ is constructed of three short sections. The whole thing canít be longer than ten minutes. ďDreiĒ is ďthreeĒ in German, I know that much. ďEqualiĒ I donít know. About the musicians, well ó within Potsdam State University can be found the Crane School of Music, where hundreds of students are enrolled for expert musical training. The students are excellent, let me tell you. A Crane graduate is singing w/ the New York Metropolitan Opera right now. Crane has a complete symphony orchestra, as well as a variety of specialists, like the two-dozen trombonists. They play two or three performances per week. By the way, the ďDrei EqualiĒ was played by only four trombones.
William Michaelian: Very interesting. I had no idea Potsdam State had such an impressive program. But that isnít surprising, since I know nothing about the place ó in fact, didnít even know it existed until you mentioned it awhile back. Crane, huh? Must be named after Derek Crane. . . . Okay, so itís not funny. All I can do is try. And Iím delighted to hear you speaking such fluent German. It adds to your drei humor. Equali, I believe ó for I had two years of German in high school ó is the plural form of equal, although it sounds awfully Latin. But I didnít have Latin, and my teacher was an Armenian named Ray, and poor old Ray couldnít wait to get out of town, which he did not long after I graduated. Speaking of Latin, Joyce uses plenty of it in Ulysses, doesnít he? The book is a regular Latin sampler. Youíll be glad to know that I faithfully read those parts, even though I donít understand them. I think I understand them in another way, though. They always seem to make sense rhythmically and musically. Then again, maybe Iíve convinced myself of this to keep from feeling completely ignorant.
John Berbrich: I do the same thing, reading anything an author throws at me, whether itís Latin, Greek, Chinese, pseudo-Martian, whatever. I figure there must be some reason for the polyglot and I just play along. As you say, we might understand something in some way other than linguistic. And I love to listen to someone talk in a foreign tongue, even if I have no idea what is being said. Iím always amazed that these people seem to know what they are saying and so do others. Itís just a bunch of sounds.
William Michaelian: They donít realize that, of course. Poor souls. The sad thing is, they even think they understand each other. Oh, well. Say ó didnít you mention Vachel Lindsay some time back when we were talking about the venerable Wallace Stevens and W.C. Williams? I read an interesting article about him yesterday. I had no idea he was such a performer. Apparently, he held audiences spellbound with his voice and delivery, even the crusty old intellectuals of England. Born in 1879 in Springfield, Illinois, committed suicide by drinking Lysol in 1931.
John Berbrich: I didnít know about the Lysol, although I had heard about his traveling poetry show. Yeah, I guess he was quite something. Iíve read only a tiny bit of his poetry, but love that mumbo jumbo hoodoo voodoo poem. Itís got a beat like someoneís pounding on a drum, which of course someone probably was.
William Michaelian: That is, if he didnít supply the effect with his voice. Hereís a snippet from one of his performances:
Fat black bucks in a wine-barrel room,
Barrel-house kings, with feet unstable,
Sagged and reeled and pounded on the table,
Pounded on the table,
Beat an empty barrel with the handle of a broom,
Hard as they were able,
Boom, boom, BOOM,
With a silk umbrella and the handle of a broom,
Boomlay, boomlay, boomlay, BOOM. . . .
And hereís a quote about how he grew to regret the showmanship:
ďI persuaded the tired businessman to listen at last. But lo, my tiny reputation as a writer seemed wiped out by my new reputation as an entertainer.Ē
Interesting character, wandering the country and selling his poems on the street. Thereís nothing quite like the direct approach.
John Berbrich: Thatís the hoodoo voodoo poem I was talking about. Great use of percussive language and CAPS for emphasis. The thing is that only several types of poetry are effective for this kind of street-level broadcast. Short nature poems and lyrics are entirely out ó they must be read over and savored. Also out are poems with an acrostic effect, like some of Poeís, where the first letter in the first line and the second letter in the second line and the third letter in line three and so on . . . put them together and they spell a name or key-word. One could not possibly catch this during a performance, but of course it is hoped that there is more to the poem than this sort of trick.
William Michaelian: Sometimes there is, sometimes there isnít. Sometimes the trick becomes so important that any chance at depth is left behind. Then again, there are plenty of short ďthoughtfulĒ poems that sound good, but are merely clever ó as if the poet has a very high opinion of himself, but in fact is hiding behind the words and is unable to let down his guard.
John Berbrich: Yes, Iím thinking of the generations of ďdifficultĒ poems spawned by T.S. Eliotís erudite masterpieces. I still receive poems like this, filled w/ sesquipedalian words, obscure references, & not much else. Maybe the poet really is trying to get at something & has something important to say, but without annotation Iím lost. I simply donít have the time or patience for that sort of thing. Mostly it all sounds like a lot of noise & smoke.
William Michaelian: Well, if it drives you away, thatís basically what it is. It has failed in its mission to communicate. And then there are a lot of poems that are technically fine, but cold enough to snuff out a candle. The words are there, they make sense, and yet they seem to bear no relation to one another or to anything larger. Itís hard to explain. There is something studied about them, as if the poet is trapped inside the walls of his knowledge. Have you read any of Kerouacís poems?
John Berbrich: Actually very few. Iíve read two of his novels and heard recordings of some haiku, but precious little else. You?
William Michaelian: Just recently, as a matter of fact. Our youngest son bought a book of his poetry a few weeks ago ó Book of Blues, published by Penguin. Itís very jazz- and blues-influenced, and contains long poems like ďSan Francisco Blues,Ē ďRichmond Hill Blues,Ē ďDesolation Blues,Ē and ďOrlanda Blues,Ē to name a few. I read ďSan Francisco Blues.Ē Itís divided into eighty overlapping ďchoruses,Ē which are spontaneously written and make you feel like youíre with him on the street. Most are about twenty lines or so, and the lines appear on the page pretty much as they were scrawled into his little notebooks. Hereís what he had to say about the approach:
ďIn my system, the form of blues choruses is limited by the small page of the breastpocket notebook in which they were written, like the form of a set number of bars in a jazz-blues chorus, and so sometimes the word-meaning can carry from one chorus into another, or not, just like the phrase-meaning can carry harmonically from one chorus to the other, or not, in jazz, so that, in these blues as in jazz, the form is determined by time, and by the musicianís spontaneous phrasing & harmonizing with the beat of the time as it waves & waves on by in measured choruses.
ďItís all gotta be non stop ad libbing within each chorus, or the gig is shot.Ē
By and large, the system works. Some choruses are more clearly focused than others, but they all add to the effect and contain a lot of good observation. They definitely keep you reading; few stand completely on their own, which is fine, since that wasnít what he was after. You can tell how serious he was about what he was doing, just as he was serious with On the Road and his other prose works. I read On the Road a few years ago, and also Dharma Bums and Big Sur. Theyíre good books, fueled by drugs and booze and his desire to make something musical and big.
John Berbrich: I really enjoyed the first half of On the Road. The second half of the book was marred by the unfortunate presence of the Dean Moriarty character, an irresponsible loser. I was hoping for more hard edges and was disappointed with that character. I didnít care for The Subterraneans much. The book was nothing more than a stumbling boozy drug-haze. I do think that Kerouac was a sensitive and intelligent artist. The bits Iíve read of his journals are riveting, and memorable. The Great American Adventure, 1950ís style. I need to read more of his poetry.
William Michaelian: I donít see his poetry as top-tier stuff, but itís still interesting and worthwhile. Itís the same with the prose. There are great passages and moments in On the Road and in some of the others, but ultimately he was done in by the booze and drugs, eaten up from the inside. Didnít do Moriarty-Neal Cassady much good either. Or did it? Either way, they were part of the fabric. Kerouac definitely added something, and whatever came next was a little different as a result. I do remember seeing some TV footage of him being interviewed by some sane and sensible person. He was at least semi-drunk, thin and drawn, and completely out of place. It was sad.
John Berbrich: Yeah, his candle flamed brightly, but it burned out fast. Canít have everything. Those Beat guys remind me of the Surrealists in that itís fun just reading about them. I visited Jasonís Moodle, and I see that heís tired of the lack of participation. Even if you hate a book or donít understand it, you can still talk about it. We can talk about anything ó or nothing!
William Michaelian: Indeed. We can even talk about how hard it is to talk about the book, or how hard it is to talk about talking about it. If we keep it up long enough, we will find that we are talking about it. I donít know. Maybe the others have gone off and formed their own Ulysses group, where they donít have to put up with our ecstatic outbursts. I hope so. Even that would be a refreshing sign of life. Imagine towns full of rival Ulysses groups meeting at various coffeehouses, milling around on the sidewalks, stopping traffic, members occasionally being taken into custody by the police for speaking Latin to passersby.
John Berbrich: Willie, you have a great idea here for a successful independent film. I can see it all now ó the sidewalks, the glittering sunlight, punk rock bands hammering out moony Bloomsy tunes on street corners. Iím telling you, weíll make millions. Iíll volunteer to play the guy who gets the girl in the end. We need at least one car chase, a couple of hot barmaids, and quite a few kegs of ale. We canít miss!
William Michaelian: At this rate, youíll get the girls right along. Not a car chase, though ó a rattling horse-drawn hearse making a sudden turn and dumping its friendly cadaver right at the pub door. You realize, of course, that this is exactly why the others bailed. And yet weíve been holding back until now, being polite and calm. Oh ó weíll need a title. Canít begin without a title.
John Berbrich: How about Publiners, the real story.
William Michaelian: Thatís catchy, of course, and easy to remember, but how about something a little more artsy and mysterious, like Paddy Dignamís Hearse? Those familiar with Ulysses know who Paddy Dignam is, and theyíll be eager to see how he ties in. Those who arenít familiar will expect him to be a main character ó which he will be, except that no one will ever see him or hear him speak. The hearse will appear from time to time, dumping its load without comment. Then, in the credits, for people who stay that long, it will be revealed that the horse is Paddy Dignam. What do you think? Too much of a plot?
John Berbrich: Thatís it, Willie ó too much of a plot. Co-starring Mister Ed as the hearse-driver. Bill Murray as the goofball pouring draft ales. Jessica Alba as the serving wench. Wait, we could do this. Iíll hold Jessica for ransom. Youíll sell blackmarket stout in a back alley. In fact, you could enlist the drunken Dedalus and his entourage of stumbling goons into your dark sphere of evil and then, then, you could. . . .
William Michaelian: Sing? No, that would come later. I know ó become an ordained priest. That would drive Dedalus nuts. We also need some really good actors to play the miscellaneous corpses.
CORPSES: (With pints held high) Weíre dead, but we might not stay that way.
And ashplants. Everyone in the movie, including the corpses, has an ashplant. Where does Bloom come in? Is he a pimp, or the mayor? And who do we get to play his part?
John Berbrich: How about Woody Allen, maybe 30 years ago? He could be a pimp and the mayor. I like your idea about the corpses, but weíd better be careful or this will turn into a zombie-movie. And I love zombie movies. This sounds like the perfect Crime and Grime urban epic that weíve all been waiting for. But youíre quite right, without the car chase. How about we change Stephen Dedalus to Stephen Dionysus?
William Michaelian: God of stout? Hmm. I like it. Okay, now let me write this down: Sparing on the corpses. We also might consider using made-up Latin subtitles. And Woody Allenís glasses can turn up occasionally on other faces. Itíll be one of those little things that people think has meaning, but really doesnít ó you know, kind of like Paul McCartney walking barefoot on the Abbey Road album cover. And in three or four of the major scenes, letís have someone sitting alone at a table, reading Ulysses. Sort of a mystery character, someone who, when he looks up from his book, is mildly amused by what he sees and smiles only with his eyes.
John Berbrich: Maybe that would be Joyce himself, although Iím not sure who should play the dapper Irish author. We could pack this film full of clues that lead toward nothing, as youíve suggested. But donít tell anyone ó let the pundits dig their way through the maze of false trails ó and weíll laugh all the way to the bank, or more likely the pub.
William Michaelian: Weíll wander about pushing wheelbarrows full of silver. No ó I take that back. Thatís something else that can happen in the movie. Say, before I forget, I read something today that Josť Saramango, the Portuguese writer, said during his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize in 1998. He remembered how his peasant grandmother, when she was near the end of her life, once looked up at the stars and said, ďThe world is so beautiful and it is such a pity that I have to die.Ē And then of his grandfather he recalled, ďThis Jeronimo, my grandfather, swineherd and storyteller, feeling death about to arrive and take him, went and said good-bye to the trees in the yard, one by one, embracing them and crying because he knew he wouldnít see them again.Ē Isnít that wonderful?
John Berbrich: It is, both sad and beautiful. Iím not familiar with Saramango. Speaking of poetry, Nancy Henry and Alice Persons, editors/publishers at Moon Pie Press, have sent me their latest effort, Traveling Through History by Patrick Hicks. I read the chapbook last night in my favorite Potsdam coffeehouse. Hereís one Iíd like to share, relevant in more ways than one. Itís the second poem in a triptych entitled ďTraveling with My Father.Ē
2. Dublin, 16 June 1997
The sun was asleep when we rode the swaying train to Dublin.
You with your camera, me with my bruised copy of Ulysses.
We were going to walk literatureís Mecca.
It was my idea, but you, the polymer chemist,
seemed happy to contemplate the bonds between us.
On that Bloomsday, we bought our lemon soap,
visited Martello Tower, and walked along Sandymount Strand.
I, your son, the writer, explained how Stephen Dedalus
never connected with his father. It was over
burgundy and gorgonzola sandwiches
that I showed you a map of Dublin.
I traced my finger over the wandering rocks of
missed opportunities between Joyceís characters.
When I finished speaking,
you ordered two pints of Guinness.
We drank silently, together,
until the darkness had been captured.
You licked foam from your lips,
scratched the bristle of your face,
and you sat back, smiling from the street,
to me. When we crawled back to Belfast,
our mouths were weak but our memories
were as alert as the first day
that you cradled me,
and wondered who I was.
William Michaelian: That is nice. A fine poem. Thanks for typing it in. And again, I picture the silent character in our movie, reading at his table, alone. Incidentally, I read the other day that Joyce once visited Marcel Proust, and was impressed by Proustís work room, which was lined with cork on the floor and walls to keep out sound. Then, speaking of his own work conditions, he said, ďAnd, I, writing in this place, people coming in and out. I wonder how I can finish Ulysses.Ē
John Berbrich: Cork, huh? Funny what writers need ó some require silence, others noise. I recall Harlan Ellison saying that he needed music, didnít matter what, in order to write. And apparently Jane Austen wrote in the family room, scene of conversation and hi-jinks. But back to the movie. Where shall we film this cinematic colossus?
William Michaelian: How about my work room? I need a lot of commotion, or I canít write ó jackhammers, horns, street sweepers, freight trains, violent winds, hail, loud arguments, live bands, poultry, square-dance callers, and lots of nervous laughter. Or did I just describe the movie again? Letís see . . . weíll need a lot of old brick buildings, not too tall, a few towers and cobblestones, an oceanic atmosphere with wisps of clouds, moss, street-vendors, a juggler or two, dark alleys leading nowhere, and doorways heaped with drunks. I guess any old city will do.
John Berbrich: Beautiful description. How about trying an animated version? We can make it as dreary and weird as we like, and weíll avoid paying big bucks to all those high-priced movie stars. I canít draw anything, though, except flies. Youíre great at those guys with the droopy mustaches, but can you draw anything else?
William Michaelian: Well, I drew a lamp once, and my fatherís old chair. I think I can draw anything if I put my mind to it. The trouble with that is, itíll leave me exhausted. Flies, huh? You must be good. Flies are intricate creatures. I know weíll need a lot of them. But rather than an animated version, I think it would be better if we had certain short scenes that were animated, to the show the state of mind of different characters. And as for those high-priced stars, the heck with them. Weíll get people off the street. So. When do we start? Or do you think we should write the script first?
John Berbrich: Okay. You wanna write it or shall I? Or we can hire some hack to scribble something down. You know, thatís a cool idea, filming the movie with regular people but including animated peeps into their minds. That way you can film the entire thing in one or two rooms, but can go anywhere you like in imagination. Willie, what do you eat to give you these great ideas?
William Michaelian: Figs. Figs in the vestibule. Ah, that would make a good scene, wouldnít it? Forget the hack. Weíll do it ourselves, no middlemen. We can just piece it together here, while we talk about other things. For instance, we already have that scene with God wearing a kilt. Thatíll fit in nicely somewhere. Itís in the right spirit, anyway. Hereís another idea: parts of the film can be silent. And hereís another scene: a man goes into an outhouse thatís located, for some strange reason, along a busy street. Other things happen, but the man doesnít come out. The audience begins to wonder, how long is that guy going to stay in there? Finally, someone else goes in. And then, someone else, followed by others. You donít know what happens to any of them. No one comes out. And there is no comment at all made by any of the people on the street. To them, itís just a normal happening.
John Berbrich: Another great idea. This is starting to sound very much like a place other than Dublin. Maybe itís some kind of an Irish Hell. I suppose it doesnít matter what we think ó if itís poetry on film, the viewer decides. One of the Publiners could go for a filling and the dentist turns out to be the mad Dr. Farrago. Muddleís in the back room, sharpening his toothbrush. We seem to be inventing an entire demented universe at this point. Great fun. Yeah, yeah ó I like the outhouse scene. Eat another fig, Willie. Iíll have to build myself a vestibule.
William Michaelian: Yes. Donít delay. And youíre so right about Farrago. But the film is in Dublin ó at least part of it, anyway. Hereís what Iím thinking: we give it an international flavor by having different scenes on different streets, which, when characters enter them, actually turn out to be streets in different cities ó a Dublin street, a San Francisco street, a Paris street, a street in Casablanca, and so on. We can even have a scene where the main characters ó if there are any ó wind up in the same theater somewhere, only to find themselves acting together in a play onstage. They find this either very funny or very disturbing, and after the performance they get into an argument about it in yet another pub, a place so full of music and laughter that no one can hear themselves talk. Thatís where subtitles will come in handy. Another possibility ó man, these figs are powerful ó would be to have snippets of old film: dictators giving speeches before large crowds, Charlie Chaplin waddling up to a lonely girl selling flowers on a street corner ó that sort of thing ó just a few seconds here and there, artfully woven into the story to reflect a characterís predicament or mood.
John Berbrich: Okay, Willie, what do I need to build a vestibule? And where should I put it? Do you think an old Irish model will be good or will a 21st century style vestibule do? I hate to bother you, but Iíve never built one before and you seem to know an awful lot about them. Regarding the film, we need a scene where the bartender announces that the establishment has just run out of beer ó then you hear those strident terrifying violins screeching from Hitchcockís Psycho ó but then it all turns out to be a joke, thereís plenty of ale and stout for everyone, on the house too. Iím thinking that maybe the vestibule should go in the middle of the living room.
William Michaelian: First of all, new vestibules have little character, so stick with the old-style models. Your living room is fine. Some people think vestibules have to be just inside the front door, but theyíre wrong. Donít limit yourself. Our house has many vestibules, several of which lead into other vestibules. Weíve had guests who remained trapped in them for weeks, not knowing whether they were coming or going. Remember, shelves for the figs. So, I like the little fear element you introduced. Imagine the shock on the Publinersí faces when they hear thereís no more beer. Dead silence ó until Paddy Dignamís hearse rolls by on the street. And music ó you mentioned punk bands. I think the scenes should each have their own set of live musicians, often visible ó fiddlers, melancholy saxophone players, harmonicas, cellos, harpsichords, lonely sounding drums. There are those neat little Irish instruments that are held in the lap, and which make the most delightful, mournful music ó I canít remember what theyíre called. I want to call them lap-bellows. Theyíre probably related to the bagpipe. Anyway, the lap-bellows would fit in somewhere quite nicely, I think.
John Berbrich: Iím not sure what lap-bellows are, but the fellows could play accordions. Yes, lots of beer, lots of music. I can see this on Broadway some day, with a stage full of colorful drunken characters. Weíll have to write the songs too. And then the novel, based on the play, based on the film, based loosely on the original Ulysses. Weíll mention Joyce somewhere. But what about the Publiners and their pipes and cigars ó do you think this will send the wrong message about smoking to our teens?
William Michaelian: God, I hope so. The right messages do no good whatsoever ó probably because so many of the people sending them are two-faced liars. Anyway, it would be impossible to make this movie without lots of smoke. Pipes, cigars, debris, forests, factories. I can already tell this will be one of the biggest, best, and most fun projects of our collaborative careers. Itíll make us famous ó not that we arenít already. People just donít know it yet. At the end, in the credits, set in small white type against a black background, we can say something simple like, ďFor Sunny Jim ó Thanks for everything.Ē
John Berbrich: And only the coolest people, those who stay in the theater until the very end, will see it. And they could start up some kind of exclusive club, those who know the real meaning of our esoteric movie. The Sunny Jim Club. Only those knowing the meaning of those simple words are admitted into the sacred precincts of the secret organizationís inner chambers. Once within, the privileged members drink ale and recount highlights from the film and play and novel ó and, oh yes, the original. Everyone in American society will wear a Sunny Jim t-shirt, but only a select few will get the real meaning.
William Michaelian: As always. You realize, of course, that weíve come full circle. This is how the idea for the movie began, with groups discussing Ulysses. It seems the Sunny Jim Club is a movie within a movie, which could spawn yet another movie, or some other strange works of art. Sculpture? Think of those James Joyce statues, with him wearing a hat and leaning on his walking stick. The Ashplant Society. How are you at writing songs?
John Berbrich: I wrote some pretty fair rock songs years ago. Could probably crank out a few hits. Ulysses is this amazing seminal wheel of creativity, spinning through the universe, impregnating artists with fertile raw stuff for remarkable offspring, or something like that. Really, we havenít carried on like this since the glory days of the mad dentist Farrago. And then there was the party at your place with Judy and Anita. That was a blast!
William Michaelian: Iíll say. And letís not forget the ghostly Jian Brichiam, the everywhere-nowhere man. I like the way you describe Ulysses. It sounds like something Kirk and Spock would have encountered in Star Trek, drifting, timeless, explosive, transformational, and wise. Inside the wheel, thereís this little kid who has run off while his parents were sleeping in the warmth of a distant sun, exercising his imagination. A Whitman from another galaxy. Rock songs, eh? That could come in handy. I see no reason why we canít come up with our own brilliant soundtrack. Not that a guy needs an excuse to write a song, mind you.
John Berbrich: How much acting experience do you have? ó I mean on stage or in front of a camera, not the day to day stuff.
William Michaelian: You toad. You just had to qualify it, didnít you? Very well. In the third grade, I played a common tablecloth. I crawled across the classroom floor at Wilson School with a tablecloth over me when it was my turn to appear, and then the villain in the play replaced me with another tablecloth full of magical powers. In the fourth grade, I played an apologetic banker who foreclosed on the house of a desperate widow while holding my older brotherís hat. In the sixth grade ó are you still listening? ó I played Sgt. Martin in Christmas at Checkpoint Charlie in a performance given in the Grandview School cafeteria, home of fish sticks, beerocks, and hot buttered spinach. Years later, in the early Eighties, I was queried by a television news reporter on the subject of the Armenian Genocide while milling around in a church hall. Yes, I was on the Evening News ó as you were, according to your introduction in the last Yawp. My best comments were left out, of course. You?
John Berbrich: I think that youíll have to play the starring role. In fourth grade in St. Raphaelís I played a kid in a library trying to find a good book ó and the books were talking to me. In Holy Trinity in ninth grade I played a head hunter in our ďChristmas Around the WorldĒ special, written, produced, and performed by me and some friends. And I was on the evening news, exactly as detailed in the Yawp. Thatís all I remember. Iím sure that your credentials are more impressive.
William Michaelian: Hey, I love that library scene. Even then, strange forces were at work, leading you toward the written word. Your Christmas special just reminded me of a comical video my old pal Chris and I filmed with some ďfriendsĒ in high school. It started out with me in a phone booth outside a hamburger joint near the high school. I was on the phone when, out of nowhere, Chris appeared dressed as a bald alien with enormous ears. I dashed out of the phone booth in a panic, nearly breaking my leg, and ran all the way to the fire station, where someone we knew turned on the flashing lights on the trucks as the fire department responded to the emergency. Weíd been invaded! Then there was an innocent basketball game going on in a driveway in front of someoneís house when, again out of nowhere, the alien appeared on the roof and caught the ball when it was about to go into the basket. Very frightening ó and yet, for the life of me, I canít remember how the video ended. With the help of a friend or two, Chris and I also tape-recorded several impromptu sketches that were truly hilarious. He claims to have them still. No doubt heís waiting for the right moment to embarrass me by making them public. Iím sure theyíd go for three or four dollars in auction, maybe even less. In any case, itís obvious we are both eminently qualified for the task at hand.
John Berbrich: Maybe we could work that alien angle into our film ó one of the Publiners is about to quaff an ale, when the contents of the mug are abruptly sucked out by the long funnel-like tongue of a creature from space. He lurches back to the flying saucer, which in a drunken stupor he promptly steers into the roof of a bank. The vaults are torn asunder and paper money is floating on the wind. Coins roll down the cobbled streets. Imagine the commotion.
William Michaelian: Yep, another night on the town. And yet even this is considered normal, because, after all, weíre talking about some mighty fine ale. Meanwhile, the text of Ulysses appears in the strangest places. A man about to read a eulogy he struggled during the preceding night to write, is suddenly confronted with Joyceís insane poetry. Passages pop up in newspapers and shop windows. Children skipping rope chant in demented rhythm, A heaventree of stars, hung with humid nightblue fruit ó which, by the way, just might be my favorite phrase in the entire book.
John Berbrich: Donít think Iíve reached that one yet. Ulysses is an amazing compendium of writing-techniques, poetry, & learning. And inspiration. I really donít get that long dramatic chapter, where various women excoriate Bloom; but of course I havenít finished it. By the way, what is an ashplant?
William Michaelian: An ashplant is a walking stick. So, youíre in that chapter. That is a strange one indeed. I emerged from it a few days ago, bruised and battered, but still in one piece. Itís followed by another noticeable shift ó not that this comes as a surprise anymore. And really, I must say, Joyce cannot be accused of brevity or economy. There are so many instances where he takes an entire page to say what might be said in a sentence. In a few cases, it sounds like he actually might have been bored, or was writing his way through a rough patch of life. Or it might be my own mood on a given day. And then there are times when it seems he must have said to himself, ďMy God. Before I go any further, I simply must clean up this mess.Ē The result, sudden lucidity. And then there is his amazing poetry, which yields things like the heaventree of stars, not to mention the general music of the language throughout, which conveys its own meaning, or part of the overall meaning.
John Berbrich: Yes, when describing this book, one is compelled to utilize many superlatives. Ulysses is not held to the same standards as other, mortal, works. By the way, Happy Thanksgiving. Itís 15 degrees here, with an inch of snow on the ground.
William Michaelian: Glad to hear itís warming up. For our Thanksgiving dinner, we roasted Ulysses, drank lots of stout, and worked on our Latin ó and French, and Italian, all before a raging fire, which, in fact, still has a few hours of life in it. Hard to leave a fire alone. Do you have a woodstove, by any chance?
John Berbrich: Yes, we have a big woodstove. Itís called a Round Oak, stands about five feet high and is as wide as a barrel. This particular stove was built in Dowagiac, Michigan, in 1895; yes, thatís 1895. Throws off a LOT of heat. Unfortunately, the stove wall has quite a crack in it. Iíve put in new fire-bricks, which certainly helps. Anyway, we got another six inches of snow overnight, with the temperature falling to around seven this morning. We ate the traditional turkey ó and I sang karaoke for the first time in my life ó was quite a hit with the ladies, I understand. Regarding ashplants, I figured that they were some kind of walking-stick, but I couldnít find the word in my dictionaries, not even in my Oxford English Dictionary, which comprises two volumes totaling over 4,000 pages in print so small they give you a magnifying glass to read it. When I failed to find ashplant in the OED, I supposed that Joyce had invented it.
William Michaelian: A logical assumption. Itís not in my old 1924 dictionary either, even in the obscure words area at the bottom of the pages, readable only under a microscope. I turned then to Google, and, sure enough, there were several listings, some of which didnít even mention Joyce or Ulysses. Huh ó imagine the people at the OED pretending the word ashplant doesnít exist. I suppose itís because Joyce was Irish. Jealousy, plain and simple. Anyway. We heard about the storm headed your way, riding on bitter-cold air out of Canada. A couple of mornings ago, when I was purchasing a dram of petrol, the man dispensing the vile liquid said heíd heard it was going to snow a couple of feet ďback East,Ē and that he wished he could see it. Turns out heís from Barrow, Alaska, a place above the Arctic Circle in the land of the midnight sun. Unfortunately, I didnít think to ask him if heíd sung karaoke, but itís obvious he likes to have a good time. Round Oak ó a great name for a stove: survivor of long hard winters, friend through feast and famine. What songs did you sing? Have you sobered up yet?
John Berbrich: I sang only one song, ďThe Wanderer,Ē I canít remember who did the original. Then I beat my nephew two out of three in 8-Ball, after which we hit the road for more visiting and eating. Hereís something interesting I found in Ulysses: on page 519 of my edition, Virag says: ďFlipperty Jippert.Ē My wifeís mother is of Scottish and Mohawk ancestry ó she doesnít take nonsense from anyone. But thatís a saying of hers, Flipperty Jippert. Iíve found that term in only one other place, somewhere in Robert Louis Stevenson. In fact, I even made a notation in one of my notebooks. Hold on. *** Back again. Iíve found it! Hereís the direct quote from my notebook, dated July 26th, 1995: ďAnother Scottishism! I have heard Nancyís mother use the word flibbertigibbit. In the reading of R.L. Stevensonís An Inland Voyage, I have come across the phrase, ĎHe was a lean, nervous flibber-tigibbet of a man,í located in the chapter Pont-Sur-Sambre, The Traveling Merchant. Interesting!Ē Anyway, now I can make another notation. I have observed the differing spellings. Perhaps one is Scottish, the other Irish?
William Michaelian: Or, one is Scottish and the other is Joyce. I remember reading that. Oddly enough, the term was used occasionally in my family when I was growing up. I told you once I had a Scottish great-grandfather whom we affectionately call the Horse Thief. So, maybe it is Scottish. Fascinating. And isnít that section of Ulysses something?
John Berbrich: Something, yes, but I donít know just what. I knew you had Scottish ancestry. Thatís why you look like a dour Scottish detective. He wears funny hats and smokes a big pipe and he doesnít rush into anything; but let me tell you that fellow is always two or three steps ahead of the bad guys. Talks about these crazy philosophies as heís tracking down horse thieves, bandits, highwaymen, robbers, and poets living outside of the law. He rescues the damsels, enjoys a fair sampling of their charms, and collects his rewards without a lot of fuss. He sometimes enjoys a bit of a tippler with the Publiners, but usually heís off pursuing madmen and talking rubbish. Heís a helluva guy if you can catch up with him. I know that Stephen gets conked on the beaner at the end of the chapter, something I didnít expect.
William Michaelian: Ha! You make me sound almost human. And all this with just a smidgen of Scottish coursing through my veins. The dramatic chapter is totally ridiculous. How are you supposed to make sense out of something like that ó characters being introduced at random, or being created just for the purpose of uttering a single line and then disappearing. But, it beats having a one-sentence chapter that reads ďStephen got drunk and met up with Bloom.Ē An over-simplification, perhaps.
John Berbrich: Iím not so sure. I must admit that there were times when I found the whole chapter somewhat tedious and would have preferred your version. Enough is enough.
William Michaelian: Yes. And thatís one reason I find the assumption that Joyce can do no wrong ridiculous. As Iíve mentioned before, there are times in Ulysses where he seems to be daring the reader to throw in the towel, as if nothing would give him more pleasure. Or times when heís bored. And yet there are so many great things about the book that Iíll probably end up reading it again ó not right away, though. Just today I was thinking, what about Finnegans Wake? Am I going to tackle that? And then, quite by coincidence, I read in an Armenian newspaper that Joyce included 114 Armenian words in that book. Now Iím forced to read it. But again, probably not right away.
John Berbrich: Do you read Armenian, my friend, or was this a translation?
William Michaelian: I read Armenian, though not as well as English. The paper is an English-language paper. I understand that Joyce saw many similarities between Ireland and Armenia, the Irish and the Armenians, both being very old cultures with a large dispersion. Which brings up another question: are there translations of Ulysses, or is the book considered impossible to translate? Finnegans Wake, maybe that is a translation, of something, who knows what.
John Berbrich: Good question. I suppose that one could possibly translate Ulysses, but I donít see how you could convert Finnegans Wake into any other language, the words themselves being so vital to the sense of the book. Would you like me to send you a copy of a fascinating article Iíve just read regarding translation, particularly Russian translation? Too late, I already sent it out this morning.
William Michaelian: Great. In that case, Iíll look forward to it. Thanks. Meanwhile, as we near the end of Ulysses, I think I am beginning to sense a certain degree of frustration in the author as he tries to sum up what might have easily and more effectively been stated in a paragraph or short story. I realize this is blasphemy, and that I will be tormented throughout eternity for even thinking such a thing. But now that Iím within sixty or so pages of the end, I really donít think itís an outlandish statement. Of course, itíll probably take me another week to finish those pages, which seem to be made up of a single sentence, and by then Iíll probably have changed my mind several more times.
John Berbrich: I have about 160 pages to go so I wonít catch you anytime soon. Did you receive the translations yet?
William Michaelian: Nope, and Iíve been looking all over for them. Maybe your pigeon ran into some rough weather. What are your reading plans after Ulysses? Anything major, or do you think you might give up reading for awhile?
John Berbrich: Remember not too long ago we were talking about Shakespeare? Well, Iíve dragged my Complete Works of Shakespeare out and put it on my to-read shelf, where it stands with a couple dozen other books. I vow to read all of his plays from front to back, no skipping. Of course Iíll read other things besides, but I do want to plow through these plays and suck the marrow out of Shakespeare. Should take several years. I have quite a few lesser books that I want to read piling up. Ulysses is a big investment. I have lots of reading plans for when I retire, still years away. I often tell my wife that I plan to read all the books in our house ó in order to accomplish that, Iíd have to live forever!
William Michaelian: Who knows? With that kind of incentive, you just might pull it off. On the other hand, you keep adding books to your collection. You sound pretty determined about Shakespeare. Maybe youíll become as fluent in his works as Stephen is in Ulysses. What else is on that to-read shelf of yours?
John Berbrich: Erewhon by Samuel Butler, No Enemy But Time by Michael Bishop, Nietzscheís The Will to Power, Saul Bellowís Dangling Man, a biography of Pushkin by Henri Troyat (translated from the French by Nancy Amphoux), Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis by Freud, The Universe in a Nutshell by Stephen Hawking, The Life & Selected Writings of Thomas Jefferson, People are Crazy Here by Rex Reed, Russia and the West under Lenin & Stalin by George Kennan, As We Know by John Ashbery, & The Waterworks by E.L. Doctorow. Want more? Thatís part of one shelf.
William Michaelian: You bet I do. Thatís quite a list. Butler and Bishop are new to me, or at least I canít place them. The only thing Iíve read by Doctorow is Billy Bathgate.
John Berbrich: How did you like that one? I read Doctorowís Ragtime last year & thought it was excellent. Michael Bishop is an innovative & convincing writer of science fiction; Iíve read 3 or 4 of his books. Butler is a 19th century author. Okay, the next shelf includes The Most Evil Men and Women in History, Jacques Barzunís From Dawn to Decadence, a biography of George Bernard Shaw, the collected poems of Yeats, The Big Show by Keith Laumer, Doris Lessingís The Golden Notebook, The Flounder by Gunter Grass, Kerouacís Maggie Cassidy, and actually there are plenty more. I try to limit my purchases of books by insisting that I read every book I bring into the house, unless it is obviously a reference item. Iíd read those if I had time. So what happens is I have to designate more and more shelves to house books that I havenít gotten to yet. Iím going to have to build another house at this rate.
William Michaelian: Yes, but wonít that take time away from your reading? In my case, I do occasionally buy a book that I donít seriously intend to read. It might be the binding or artwork that appeals to me, the typeface or aroma. I bring them home to appreciate and study as objects, and just to have around. But I do read most of the books I buy, or plan to, anyway. Billy Bathgate wasnít bad ó entertaining is how Iíd describe it, but it didnít make me want to go out and buy more of Doctorowís books. But he does know a lot of words. I donít know. It might just have been the gangster subject matter. Iíd rather read Raymond Chandler ó I know we mentioned him a long time ago. And yet I havenít read Chandler for many years, and have no real desire to get back to him. You can only go so far with that kind of stuff. Itís a matter of appreciating his style and then moving on. What about your method of selection? I rarely go to a bookstore with a specific title or author in mind, as was the case with Ulysses. Instead, I just look around and wait for something to grab me. Thatís why I end up with offbeat stuff like Mademoiselle de Maupin by Gautier, Wine from These Grapes by Millay, and Peer Gynt by Ibsen.
John Berbrich: Yeah, I donít usually look for certain books, but I do look for certain new authors Iíve heard of. I read an essay last spring by a woman named Gretel Ehrlich. The essay was well written with an interesting use of language, and I thought I bet this gal has written some other worthwhile stuff. Soon after, I was leafing through a catalogue and found a book by her called This Cold Heaven, an account of seven years she lived in Greenland, the arduous treks and adventures she had. So I sent away for it and was very pleased with the book, as it was filled with fascinating stories and lines like this: ďIn the house we drank sparkling water popping with glacier ice.Ē Quite an adventurous woman and another worthy author added to my list.
William Michaelian: That reminds me. From time to time, I add to a little list of books and authors I want to read or know more about. But I always forget to take the list with me to the book store. I think I mentioned this once. Then the list gets lost in piles of notes and I start over. Or I find the list two years later, read it with interest, and put it back in a place where Iím sure Iíll see it. Then it slowly gets buried again. This is probably an indication of something or other, maybe even several things. Personality defects, organizational disorders, the fear of becoming systematic and reasonable. And yet, isnít it interesting how there are all these to-us-unknown writers in the world, and how their names or works are seemingly dumped in our laps at random? Our way of finding them is different, but we achieve similar results.
John Berbrich: I know ó itís like something is leading us to them. And Iím constantly astonished at how much good writing there is out there, by authors Iíve never heard of. Itís like music ó you think well, how could people keep coming up with new songs ó there are SO MANY songs written, and yet they do. And itís like poetry ó as an editor I read lots of poems by relative unknowns and complete unknowns, and I sometimes think, theyíve got to start running out of ideas soon, but every issue we have enough quality work describing the world or a portion of it in a fresh new way, and I just smile and nod my head. Art is always so new and beautiful, so inspirational. Ahhh.....
William Michaelian: Choo! Youíre absolutely right. To top it off, the New Yorker article you sent arrived today. Another two-day turnaround. I read the first page out loud to Dollface as we were warming up yesterdayís gourmet leftovers. Very interesting, and very entertaining. Iím looking forward to the rest of it. I have about thirty pages left in Ulysses. Donít know which Iíll read tonight ó three pages of Joyce, or the article you sent. Love the cartoons, by the way. That one on the back is great, with the guy standing on the sidewalk looking for handouts and his sign that said ďMeet the Author.Ē Iíve thought of taking that very same approach.
John Berbrich: Certainly more lucrative than writing for a living. Only 30 pages to go? Iíve still got something like 150 left. Iím at the part where Stephen & Bloom meet up with that story-telling sailor. This is probably my favorite section of the past 200 pages. Whether he is telling the truth or not, the sailor is a great yarn-spinner. Two days from New York to Oregon? No complaints with that kind of service, considering I mailed it at the lowest possible rate. I found the article very interesting, and not a little amusing.
William Michaelian: Yep. It was good all the way through. I skipped Ulysses last night and finished the article. I know this: when I get around to reading Dostoevsky again, Iím going to buy the new translations. When I re-read The Adolescent last year, it was the translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. Their work is excellent. But poor Constance Garnett ó she translated like a madwoman until she was blind. You have to give her credit. She takes an important place in literary history. Meanwhile, you have Nabokov, who sounds like a complete jackass, not a pleasant person at all.
John Berbrich: Iíve read nothing by him. His use of language is reputed to be outstanding, although he may indeed be related to donkeys. Thatís the thing with translations ó you never really know, unless you can read both languages. The translation youíre reading may be dull or magnificent, yet you donít know how closely it sticks to the original. We have discussed haiku before, but I must say that I have many translations by different hands and not infrequently the same poem is barely recognizable when comparing translations. I think that Wilson was somewhat arrogant too. Amazingly powerful wills some people have, right or wrong.
William Michaelian: Interesting how arrogance and art often go hand in hand. But sometimes, too, what is thought of as arrogance is really just supreme confidence. Nabokov learned to write in English, of course. Iíve read nothing of his from beginning to end, but I did read several dozen excerpts when the intrepid leader of our mostly silent Ulysses group was commenting on Nabokovís stories several months ago on his website. Pretty dull writing, in my opinion. Haiku: coincidentally, I read this one yesterday online, by Basho, reputedly the last one he wrote before he died:
Stricken while journeying
my dreams still wander about
but on withered fields.
Are you familiar with it? No translator was credited.
John Berbrich: I am familiar with the poem. I have a translation by Harold G. Henderson and here it is:
On a journey, ill,
and over fields all withered, dreams
go wandering still.
Pretty much the same poem. Hendersonís might be a bit more positive as it ends on a slightly optimistic note. The reversal of lines two and three really changes the parting mood. Henderson liked to use end-rhyme on the 5-syllable lines, but didnít always adhere to this. Iím sure I have other varieties of the same poem.
William Michaelian: Other than the changes you pointed out, the big difference I see is that the first translation is personal ó my dreams still wander ó and the second impersonal. If you feel like it and theyíre easy to find, maybe you can type in a couple more. Also, just so we are clear, would you explain the basic rule, or pattern, or construction, of haiku?
John Berbrich: Okay, the haiku is a poetic form which originated in Japan. The standard haiku contains three lines and seventeen syllables, written in a 5-7-5 pattern. Almost all haiku contain a reference to the season of the year and some sort of internal comparison of light-dark, rich-poor, secular-spiritual, et cetera. There is no rhyme. Allusions to early poems are prevalent though subtle and aid in building poetic depth. Some haiku are a shout of joy. Tomorrow Iíll try to go through my books and find another translation or two of Bashoís death poem.
William Michaelian: Great. Haiku really is a form, isnít? Now that you say there is no rhyme, I wonder why Henderson used it in his translation. I also wonder how such a form developed, with its set number of lines and syllables.
John Berbrich: It supposedly began as a sort of competition, with one poet supplying a line or two and then another poet finishing it off, and so forth. The form of that original competition poem was five lines of 5-7-5-7-7 syllables per line, I believe. This eventually was shortened to the standard haiku length. But of course this doesnít answer where the 5-7-5-7-7 syllabic pattern came from and how it developed. Henderson defends his use of rhyme by saying that he likes it, plus he feels that a verse form is more effective if kept fairly rigid and suspects that, in English anyway, haiku will not be considered much of an actual form if based on syllabic pattern only. Anyway, hereís the same poem by Basho translated by Harry Behn:
In fever dreaming that dreams
William Michaelian: Well, itís probably a meaningless observation, but I like the first translation the best. Iím willing to go along with the Henderson Defense as far as his liking rhyme, but it seems the first translation contradicts an actual need for it. But Iíve read very little haiku ó indeed, and when I was reading it I might not have known I was reading it. Harry Behnís I like the least. I donít know. It sounds sort of clever to me ó too many dreams, I guess. And I notice he leaves the withered field image out entirely, and thereby loses the seasonal light-dark feeling you mentioned. All in all, though, these translations are intriguing. And since this page is full, I hereby propose we take another gander at them on a new page.