Sunday, 26 August 2012

Metaphor and Simile, or Semaphore or Something Else.

 "The Destruction of Sennacherib"

The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold,
And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold;
And the sheen of their spears was like stars on the sea,
When the blue wave rolls nightly on deep Galilee.

Like the leaves of the forest when Summer is green,
That host with their banners at sunset were seen:
Like the leaves of the forest when Autumn hath blown,
That host on the morrow lay withered and strown.

For the Angel of Death spread his wings on the blast,
And breathed in the face of the foe as he passed;
And the eyes of the sleepers waxed deadly and chill,
And their hearts but once heaved, and for ever grew still!

And there lay the steed with his nostril all wide,
But through it there rolled not the breath of his pride;
And the foam of his gasping lay white on the turf,
And cold as the spray of the rock-beating surf.

And there lay the rider distorted and pale,
With the dew on his brow, and the rust on his mail:
And the tents were all silent, the banners alone,
The lances unlifted, the trumpet unblown.

And the widows of Ashur are loud in their wail,
And the idols are broke in the temple of Baal;
And the might of the Gentile, unsmote by the sword,
Hath melted like snow in the glance of the Lord! 
Lord Byron. (first pub.1815)

It occurs to me that,  if you're not versed in the old testament,you might be unfamiliar with Sennacherib. He was an assyrian king who rebuilt Nineveh in Mesopotamia, as his capital city. The Judaeans were a thorn in his side, so he took an army to show them who was the boss.
The Sennacherib Prism

In my third campaign I marched against Hatti. Luli, king of Sidon, whom the terror-inspiring glamor of my lordship had overwhelmed, fled far overseas and perished.... As to Hezekiah, the Jew, he did not submit to my yoke, I laid siege to his strong cities, walled forts, and countless small villages, and conquered them by means of well-stamped earth-ramps and battering-rams brought near the walls with an attack by foot soldiers, using mines, breeches as well as trenches. I drove out 200,150 people, young and old, male and female, horses, mules, donkeys, camels, big and small cattle beyond counting, and considered them slaves. Himself I made a prisoner in Jerusalem, his royal residence, like a bird in a cage. I surrounded him with earthwork in order to molest those who were his city's gate. Thus I reduced his country, but I still increased the tribute and the presents to me as overlord which I imposed upon him beyond the former tribute, to be delivered annually. Hezekiah himself, did send me, later, to Nineveh, my lordly city, together with 30 talents of gold, 800 talents of silver, precious stones, antimony, large cuts of red stone, couches inlaid with ivory, nimedu-chairs inlaid with ivory, elephant-hides, ebony-wood, boxwood and all kinds of valuable treasures, his own daughters and concubines. . 

According to the bible, the god of the Hebrews was busy somewhere else, sitting upon cherubim,  when all this happened, but eventually Hezekiah, the king, managed to get a prayer through, by way of the prophet Isaiah, pretty much at the last possible moment, what with Jerusalem being besieged, and Sennacherib about to smash down the walls. 
Well. lo, the wrath of the Lord was pretty mighty, once he'd decided to listen to Hezekiah, who'd been somewhat out of favour, and he sent down an angel that night to do a bit of smiting. Yea verily, for the Lord, despite all his talk of mercy and love, and so on, never could resist a good smiting, and by the morning, so the hebrew record tells, " And it came to pass that night, that the angel of the LORD went forth, and smote in the camp of the Assyrians a hundred fourscore and five thousand; and when men arose early in the morning, behold, they were all dead corpses." (that's a hundred and eighty five thousand, by the way).
So Sennacherib packed up and went home. Interesting that, how histories are written.
Because, there's no mention of those vast losses at all in the Assyrian record.
Herodotus, however, tells us this camp was at Pelusium, far south of Jerusalem:
-Josephus, Antiquities 10;1
Now concerning this Sennacherib, Herodotus also says, in the second
book of his histories, how "this king came against the Egyptian king, who
was the priest of Vulcan; and that as he was besieging Pelusium, he broke
up the siege on the following occasion: This Egyptian priest prayed to God,
and God heard his prayer, and sent a judgment upon the Arabian king." But
in this Herodotus was mistaken, when he called this king not king of the
Assyrians, but of the Arabians; for he saith that "a multitude of mice
gnawed to pieces in one night both the bows and the rest of the armor of
the Assyrians, and that it was on that account that the king, when he had
no bows left, drew off his army from Pelusium." 
Other commentators point out that a plague of rodents carries with it disease, and typhus might be what disabled the assyrian army.

  Ogden Nash- Very Like a Whale*
One thing that literature would be greatly the better for
Would be a more restricted employment by the authors of simile and

Authors of all races, be they Greeks, Romans, Teutons or Celts,
Can't seem just to say that anything is the thing it is but have to
   go out of their way to say that it is like something else.

What does it mean when we are told
That that Assyrian came down like a wolf on the fold?
In the first place, George Gordon Byron had enough experience
To know that it probably wasn't just one Assyrian, it was a lot of

However, as too many arguments are apt to induce apoplexy and
   thus hinder longevity.
We'll let it pass as one Assyrian for the sake of brevity.
Now then, this particular Assyrian, the one whose cohorts were
   gleaming in purple and gold,
Just what does the poet mean when he says he came down like a
   wold on the fold?

In heaven and earth more than is dreamed of in our philosophy
   there are great many things.
But I don't imagine that among them there is a wolf with purple
   and gold cohorts or purple and gold anythings.
No, no, Lord Byron, before I'll believe that this Assyrian was
   actually like a wolf I must have some kind of proof;
Did he run on all fours and did he have a hairy tail and a big red
   mouth and big white teeth and did he say Woof Woof?

Frankly I think it is very unlikely, and all you were entitled to say,
   at the very most,
Was that the Assyrian cohorts came down like a lot of Assyrian
   cohorts about to destroy the Hebrew host.

But that wasn't fancy enough for Lord Byron, oh dear me no, he
   had to invent a lot of figures of speech and then interpolate them,
With the result that whenever you mention Old Testament soldiers
   to people they say Oh yes, they're the ones that a lot of
   wolves dressed up in gold and purple ate them.

That's the kind of thing that's being done all the time by poets,
   from Homer to Tennyson;
They're always comparing ladies to lilies and veal to venison,
And they always say things like that the snow is a white blanket
   after a winter storm.

Oh it is, is it, all right then, you sleep under a six-inch blanket of
   snow and I'll sleep under a half-inch blanket of unpoetical
   blanket material and we'll see which one keeps warm,
And after that maybe you'll begin to comprehend dimly
What I mean by too much metaphor and simile.

"Very Like a Whale" is a quote from a line spoken by Polonius in Shakespeare's play, 'Hamlet',

Ham. Do you see yonder cloud that ’s almost in shape of a camel?
Pol. By the mass, and ’t is like a camel, indeed.
Ham. Methinks it is like a weasel.
Pol. It is backed like a weasel.
Ham. Or like a whale?
Pol. Very like a whale.

At this point, Hamlet is playing with Polonius, seeking to show that he's an unreliable sycophant, ready to say whatever he thinks is required to keep his mastter happy

R.I.P. Neil Armstrong, The Man Who Made One Giant Leap for Mankind.

I watched live, as the lunar module, piloted by Armstrong, descended toward the surface of the moon.
It was July 1969, I was a teenager, and a science-fiction aficionado, and I was in hospital. I'd spent six weeks desperately ill, with a severe bout of asthma, I'd lost weight, unable to eat,  but by July 21st, I was up and about in the hospital, and there was no way I'd be sleeping through this.
Back then, televisions were not common issue in hospitals, but there was one in a smaller room at the end of the ward, and a determined group of patients and nurses were there,  at almost four in the morning, watching the blurry images, hearing the beeps and crackles of static, and rapt as we watched him descend the ladder.

One man, in with lung cancer said "That's it. That's what I stayed to see."
And, some three hours later, he was wheeled, covered in a sheet, past my bed, to the mortuary.

I remember that summer, the intensity of it. I remember the sounds from outside,  I remember a lot of pain and living right on the edge of life, and wishing it would end, one way or another. Being carried out of the house, and into an ambulance, with the neighbour's kids staring. I remember the ambulance driver braking hard to avoid a small child who darted across his path, and the paramedic who was holding an oxygen mask to my face, joking with my distraught mother, who was crushing all the bones in my right hand with her grip, "It's alright Missus, if we knocks them down, we picks them up!"

Armstrong, and Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins, they were my heroes at the time, they were the ones who were going to the edge of man's frontiers, and I was gasping for breath, and wondering if we'd all die at the same time. Because it was the unknown. All these years later, when we're watching the latest probe exploring Mars, it's easy to forget how fragile and tenuous the whole mission was, how few seconds of fuel were left, how nobody knew if the L.E.M. would land safe and stable, crash, or topple and sink. Would they ever lift off again? could they rejoin the command module?

They did, and the man who piloted that module, and first human to set foot on another world, died today.

On Poetry, a Repost -or is it a Riposte?

I love poetry.
But, there's poetry, and there's poetry.

As I think I may have mentioned once or a hundred times,  way back, far back in my distant memory, I set out on a path as a student of english literature, which seemed a good idea at the time. English was my favourite subject at school, I was fascinated by language, words, the ways in which humans have communicated their thoughts and feelings.

While the other kids in our row of caves were learning to shout "Ug!" and throwing a rock or two at pretty much anything that bounded, soared, wriggled, slithered, or scuttled, I was sitting with the old guys, who were certain some scratches on a bit of rock weren't random.

Well, it seemed there was a wise man in the next valley who had views on this, and one day he came over, and showed us how you could use scratches to keep count of stuff. Like how many rocks you had, even if you couldn't see them.
That was cool. We graduated onto scratching outlines, that, if you squinted a bit, looked like animals seen at a distance. Eventually, we got scratches that we all agreed each had a noise. And every time you saw that scratch.. you made the matching noise! And that was pretty much it. No more cries of UG! ug! ug?, you could have a hunter send a message back saying... "I'm following a mammoth along the side of the stream which smells funny, near the black-burned tree, toward the hill of good rocks for bashing with. Send six hunters with sharp pointy sticks, forthwith. Signed "Og".
Oh yes, writing was a good invention. Pretty soon we had lectures in the big cave, where visiting professors would draw antelope, bison, koala bears, and other stuff we didn't know about. The talks were popular. People used to scratch brief versions onto bark and send them down-river to the marsh-dwellers. We called it texting.
Anyway, a few millennia passed, and I found myself studying Shakespeare, Donne, Marvell, Dickens, Ted Hughes, T.S.Eliot, Robert Browning, Jane Austen, Virginia Woolfe...
It started out with the pretext that it was all very good stuff, to be revered, because it was written by famous, mostly dead,  people.
But then my teachers set about turning all those certainties upside-down, by telling me to challenge, to break down and reconstruct, to try writing it in my own words.
What I wrote, oh how embarrassing it would be now if I still had all that stuff.
And to criticise myself, harshly, and my peers. I'll tell you, getting an essay sent back with negative comments from a tutor doesn't hurt a fraction as much as being savaged by your peers. It's a way we learn not to be too precious though. Write it,  read it back, try to see it through fresh eyes.
I was a bit thin-skinned then, but I learned that "critics" are not gods. That just because the critics love it, doesn't mean it's good. And vice-versa. History shows us that the critics are often proved wrong, long afterwards.
Charles Dickens, in his day, was immensely popular, a superstar, but the critics pursed their lips and muttered nasty words about penny-dreadfuls, here today and gone tomorrow. Seems old Charlie's had the last laugh.
Shakespeare, oh yes, I had to learn plot, subplot, learn about Elizabethan history, learn how he was dangerous and subversive, satirizing current affairs, I'd learn of Elizabethan views on classics, greek and roman mythology, navigation. Everything Will wrote, I was told, was masterly multilayered subterfuge.
Yet I couldn't help sometimes thinking of Shaksper getting a brief  "We  want two hours for seven men, two women and a donkey... We can borrow a chariot, and two of the boys look vaguely alike, and the thin guy can sing. Can you have it ready for thursday?"
Sometimes, I think, it's just a story. 
Stop trying to read hidden messages into it.

This is rambling, isn't it? Blame the medication and lack of sleep.
Where was I?
Oh yes. What I learned was that my opinion is valid. That I don't need to assume that if it's in print it must be good.

You see, I've been challenging this poem at "Through the Garden Gate", I first read it as a nice but unspecial love-poem, but then, in every line, almost, I found something that annoyed me.

Some Years in the History of Love Poetry
Two streams careened from mountains
aimlessly driven, like all lovers, searching
basin and rill, hurrying but hardly giving
the other a thought.
You forded deserts
where mud banks crackled and eased.
I crossed granite depths where trout
shifted, intent as fuses. Senso unico,
an endless aria of forward
and a thousand dialects to try—
the clatter of palm leaves or a clutch
of apples rolled across a table.
birds were passing between us carrying
warbles and tufted seeds. Beneath
a spread of stars we found
ourselves side by side,
two fluences shading into each other
while a score of fingers scored
the delta's tranquil riot.

by Michelle Boisseau

Maybe I'm a ratty tempered curmudgeon, but I really think this is one the poet should have screwed up and tossed in the bin.
I recommend you go to the post and read all the comments,  there was a lively lunge and riposte going on there. I failed to change the blogger's mind on that one, and she failed in her attempt to persuade me my attack was wrong.
Now the blogger who posted it is herself a poet, (this one isn't one of hers) her poems are better than this, by far. I'm always a little afraid to criticise anything on the web, and I don't want her to think this is a criticism of her.
It's a challenge, a challenge to the idea that a published poem is unassailable.

Get in there! Challenge what you read.
Scratch under the mammoth drawing on the cave wall "Og's crap at drawing trunks!"

 Here's a poem, from a man who, it seems, is not afraid to disagree with the printed word.


Sometimes the notes are ferocious,
skirmishes against the author
raging along the borders of every page
in tiny black script.
If I could just get my hands on you,
Kierkegaard, or Conor Cruise O'Brien,
they seem to say,
I would bolt the door and beat some logic into your head.

Other comments are more offhand, dismissive -
"Nonsense." "Please!" "HA!!" -
that kind of thing.
I remember once looking up from my reading,
my thumb as a bookmark,
trying to imagine what the person must look like
why wrote "Don't be a ninny"
alongside a paragraph in The Life of Emily Dickinson.

Students are more modest
needing to leave only their splayed footprints
along the shore of the page.
One scrawls "Metaphor" next to a stanza of Eliot's.
Another notes the presence of "Irony"
fifty times outside the paragraphs of A Modest Proposal.

Or they are fans who cheer from the empty bleachers,
Hands cupped around their mouths.
"Absolutely," they shout
to Duns Scotus and James Baldwin.
"Yes." "Bull's-eye." "My man!"
Check marks, asterisks, and exclamation points
rain down along the sidelines.

And if you have managed to graduate from college
without ever having written "Man vs. Nature"
in a margin, perhaps now
is the time to take one step forward.

We have all seized the white perimeter as our own
and reached for a pen if only to show
we did not just laze in an armchair turning pages;
we pressed a thought into the wayside,
planted an impression along the verge.

Even Irish monks in their cold scriptoria
jotted along the borders of the Gospels
brief asides about the pains of copying,
a bird signing near their window,
or the sunlight that illuminated their page-
anonymous men catching a ride into the future
on a vessel more lasting than themselves.

And you have not read Joshua Reynolds,
they say, until you have read him
enwreathed with Blake's furious scribbling.

Yet the one I think of most often,
the one that dangles from me like a locket,
was written in the copy of Catcher in the Rye
I borrowed from the local library
one slow, hot summer.
I was just beginning high school then,
reading books on a davenport in my parents' living room,
and I cannot tell you
how vastly my loneliness was deepened,
how poignant and amplified the world before me seemed,
when I found on one page

A few greasy looking smears
and next to them, written in soft pencil-
by a beautiful girl, I could tell,
whom I would never meet-
"Pardon the egg salad stains, but I'm in love."

Billy Collins

A Poem. Chew it Slowly, Inspect its Blood and Bones

Litany, by Billy Collins.

“You are the bread and the knife,
the crystal goblet and the wine.
You are the dew on the morning grass
and the burning wheel of the sun.
You are the white apron of the baker,
and the marsh birds suddenly in flight.

However, you are not the wind in the orchard,
the plums on the counter,
or the house of cards.
And you are certainly not the pine-scented air.
There is just no way that you are the pine-scented air.

It is possible that you are the fish under the bridge,
maybe even the pigeon on the general’s head,
but you are not even close
to being the field of cornflowers at dusk.

And a quick look in the mirror will show
that you are neither the boots in the corner
nor the boat asleep in its boathouse.

It might interest you to know,
speaking of the plentiful imagery of the world,
that I am the sound of rain on the roof.

I also happen to be the shooting star,
the evening paper blowing down an alley
and the basket of chestnuts on the kitchen table.

I am also the moon in the trees
and the blind woman’s tea cup.
But don’t worry, I’m not the bread and the knife.
You are still the bread and the knife.
You will always be the bread and the knife,
not to mention the crystal goblet and—somehow—the wine.”