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When did we stop reading aloud?

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The memory is an echo, but the thunder and gallop of the rhythm still quivers in my head:

Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the Valley of Death rode the six hundred,

the opening lines from Alfred Tennyson’s Charge of the Light Brigade. Back in my home-schooling days when we lived in Morocco, my dear mother, poor lady, was implored to read this poem over and over again by two of my older brothers and I during our weekly poetry class. Sometimes I envied my other siblings who attended the local school, but not during poetry class. We didn’t have to do anything, just listen (and try not to fidget). Sometimes, on a glorious day, the sweet Mothership would take us outside and conduct the lesson in the shade of our back yard. Bliss. Give her half the chance – no, less – and she’ll still whip out an old favourite before you can say, “Mum, do you remember that poem you used….”

Likewise, I will never forget – not in all my life – my Italian professor reading out long passages from the Divine Comedy in Italian. It is some of the most beautiful poetry ever written, and to hear it read in its native tongue is enough to make you melt. You absolutely have to believe me. Amongst my favourites are the mellifluous opening lines of Purgatorio Canto VIII:

Era già l’ora che volge il disio
ai navicanti e ‘ntenerisce il core
lo dì c’han detto ai dolci amici addio,

The above examples illustrate some of the rare scenarios when reading aloud is still practiced and therefore normal: to children and in places of learning. The few other examples I can think of are: in court, at religious gatherings, and readings. Even readings, though, have become an “alternative” passtime. Count the occasions you’ve been to a reading versus gone out for dinner or to the movies. As for religious gatherings, a lot of people don’t. And court, well let’s just hope not.

Truth is, we don’t read aloud very often – and I’m as culpable as anyone. Reading aloud, it seems, has become somewhat of a lost art, a tradition battling an incipient extinction. But why?

One thing is for sure, read a book to a child and you’ll feel quite normal, even grown up. Read a book to an adult and you’ll feel like a complete plonker. Likewise, I know most of us descended into a blind panic when called upon to read during class: our eyes suddenly flittering in and out of focus, the surge of blood to the head as we anticipated a stutter or mispronunciation, fearing the censorious judgments of the teacher, not to mention the merciless taunting of classmates. So that’s clearly part of the reason: we’re embarrassed, or far too self-aware at least. But surely embarrassment alone hasn’t eroded this millennia old tradition.

In my last post on blogging and the history of writing I mentioned that Homer never wrote down a single word of his poetry, meaning – incredibly – that it was passed down orally for centuries. But that was normal back then because no one was very literate. Well, literacy didn’t really exist at all. Then literacy happened, slowly. So people who couldn’t read a story had to listen to one. On top of that, there weren’t very many books knocking around, and those that were, remember, cost you a pretty sum. So going to a reading was a bit like today’s equivalent of going to the library – you have to put up with a few weirdos, it kind of smells, but you get the same thing for free.

But now where are we? Everyone can read and books are as cheap as chips (if you buy them on Amazon). The conclusion, then: we don’t read aloud anymore because we don’t need to. More interesting, though, is that the spread of literacy and availablity of books – both wonderful things – have aggravated the demise of an equally important and longstanding tradition.

Fortuantely, not everywhere has reading aloud become such an atavistic activity. The Italians and their affair with the Divine Comedy is an apropos example.

For centuries in Italy in different piazzas, town halls, and auditoriums the Italians have shared in the prolific Lectura Dantis, the reading of Dante’s Divine Comedy, often in its entirety, over a series of days – weeks, really. (The Divine Comedy, by the way, is composed of three books – Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso – totalling 100 Cantos, each Canto comprising some 130+ lines. Yes, this is one poem. And the entire thing rhymes – and brilliantly, too). This has been happening since Boccaccio’s time, who himself, as orator, partook in the very same tradition in the piazzas of Florence. The beauty of this is that it still happens to this day, lead by, most notably, Academy Award winner and Italy’s cherished Roberto Benigni. Extraordinarily, he recites each Canto from memory. You can find videos of this on Youtube, my favourite being his recital of the last Canto, the climax and apogee of the entire poem. It is exquisite, breathtaking, life-affirming. Trust the Italians: when they do something well, Madonna mia don’t they know how to knock your socks off!

So we’re not all Roberto Begnini, I know. But we can try at least; we can begin to rediscover something of this important and increasingly rare tradition. Not just for tradition’s sake, but because it’s entertaining, sociable, beautiful. So read to each other. It takes some courage, and you may feel a little foolish, I understand. But you’ll also experience joy, trust me. Go on, promise me you’ll try it.

Blogging and the history of writing

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At some point in time, probably a very long time ago indeed, something quite extraordinary happened: someone (or a group of people) decided to transfer spoken language into symbols. We can only surmise what the implements were – a finger in the sand perhaps? Burnt embers on stone? – and what the purpose of their communication was. And how the moment unfolded can likewise only be left to supposition. Was it a brilliant flash of genius followed by much metaphorical popping of champagne corks? Or was it an unruffled affair of simple necessity owing to the natural vicissitudes of mankind? Whenever and however it happened, it marked one of the most significant shifts in the history of mankind – the move to written/visual communication.

Of course this visual communication could not be called writing in itself. Rather, historians refer to it as proto-writing, literally a proto-type. (For those interested, Andrew Robinson has written several books on writing and scripts.) Really, proto-writing was a form of drawing, which is why its individual elements are called pictograms. Technically speaking, therefore, if you could draw, you could (proto) write. Although the width of your readership probably left much to be desired.

Proto-writing developed into more complex pictograms. Most of the earliest examples of these were inscribed into clay tablets, and whose existence today, by the way, we owe to the fact that they were baked and hardened in the fires of incinerated communities. These emerged around 3300 BC, and interestingly their purpose seems to be predominantly mathematical – ancient Excel spreadsheets recording and balancing transactions.

The pictograms became ever more complex and therefore esoteric, Egyptian hieroglyphic script being an excellent example. Clay tablets gave way to papyrus and other forms of parchment. And so nations, it appeared, began writing their stories and histories, not just their financial transactions. Then alphabets appeared, the Phoenician in 1000 BC, the Greek in 730 BC, just in time for Homer’s poetry. Interestingly, though, Homer is believed to have lived closer to 850 BC, and therefore his poetry was transmitted only orally for at least a century, if not two (depending on which scholar you believe). If you could write back then, that was probably your job; you were a scribe. But as Homer’s example evinces, it wasn’t so much about readership as “listenership”.

The codification of alphabets (and therefore language) and the spread of “education” no doubt accelerated the art and practice of writing. Readership now relied on literacy and wealth. Your own manuscript would cost you an arm and a leg.

Then another monumental shift in the history of writing occurred, this time during the boom of the European Renaissance: the invention of “movable type”. In other words, the printing press. To say it revolutionized the way writing was produced and disseminated is practically an understatement. Suddenly books could be made en masse. Partner this with ever exploding trading routes and you could have your own copy of, say – Dante’s Divine Comedy (with illustrations), printed in Florence and over to you in London in a month or two. OK not quite as expeditious as Amazon’s standard free 3-5 business day shipping, but not a million miles away either, and not bad for the fifteenth century, you’d have to agree.

Next up was your very own printing press of sorts – the typewriter, invented in 1867. I have my own, a Smith-Corona Skyriter (salvaged from Value Village for the ransom of $30). It is an object of unparalleled mechanical beauty. And then of course, much like Bob Dylan’s music, writing went electric. From pictograms to telegrams. The 1980s saw the first ever electronic word processor, and the 1990s heralded the invention of the irrepressible and now ubiquitous monolith – the World Wide Web. Still, though, if you wanted anyone to read what you had written you pretty much had to get published.

Enter blogging stage left. Hardly a grande entrance. More of a discreet shuffle out from the wings. Even the word evoked suspicion. “Blog?” we all thought. It sounded too frumpy, too guttural. Somewhere between a blob and a log. Not the most alluring of literary enterprises. Like I said, we all thought. And now where are we? – hundreds of millions of blogs, and the vocation of scribe has become the vocation of blogger.

You know already the point I’m going to make about readership; it’s roll-your-eye-balls obvious, but nonetheless remarkable: write a blog piece and post it, and virtually anyone in the world with an internet connection (an estimated 2 billion+ people) can read what you’ve written. We’ve all got used to this idea, I know. But from the perspective of history’s timeline of writing the shift is jaw-dropping! There’s been a heretofore unwitnessed explosion. We are living on the mushrooming cloud of a fusillade of new and accessible writing.

I’ll admit, I used to feel mild disdain towards bloggers – What because everything you  have to say is so desperately important? Well actually, in a way, yes it is. I’ve come to accept that what we have to say is important. What you have to share is valuable. Not everyone’s going to be interested (a lot of people won’t even care), and what you post is not always going to be brilliant or “right”. But when it comes from a place of truth within yourself – and interests and creativity are an inseparable part of that truth – then it matters. And that’s why it should be shared. And that, readers, is what blogging is all about.

In memoriam: succeeding death with words

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For a girl I know March will always be the hardest month of the year to live through. In this same month is her late brother’s birthday, shortly followed by the anniversary of the day he took his own life.

Already the urge to stop writing and recede into reticence envelops me. For to try to fill the limitless silence between the opening paragraph and this, to speak into that burgeoning emptiness, seems almost ridiculous. Impossible. That a single word of mine on a blog like this could be added, that it might in some inconceivable way affect, change, or heal a truth so devastating, so immovable, so irreversible.

In my last post I said that to write poetry, for me, means to wrestle with words. It is the same with letters and messages of condolence. For the most part such messages, I sense, are a rarity. Not because we are lazy nor because our compassion doesn’t encompass someone else’s grief, but because words come awkwardly – or don’t come at all. We fear platitudes.

Yet eulogies and epitaphs are common place. Common place, but mainly unnoticed, and seldom spoken of. We skip over them in newspapers. We pass them by in graveyards – those tablets of stone on which is written one commandment only: live. They are hardly inconspicuous, but their existence is almost clandestine.

We seem to have a peculiar relationship between words and death. There is certainly discomfort, naturally. But I wonder if there is also neglect. Not an active, irreverent neglect, but a neglect of passivity born out of the discomfort we feel. We are coerced into silence. I don’t think it should be like this. I am painfully sensitive to clichés, but I don’t think death has to have the last word. We do. We who are still alive.

Shakespeare hit the nail on the head square on when in his closing rhyming couplet of Sonnet XVIII he wrote,

So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this and this gives life to thee.

We must continue to succeed death with words. Be it an epitaph or a letter of condolence, we must continue to write. And we must continue to read. When we don’t, we neglect the sorrow and we forget the memory. More than this, we fail to participate in an experience of truth. Because truly, I don’t know what else can begin to heal the pain of death and the loneliness of grief except truth. Lies won’t, and neither will denial.

One of the hard things I know for the girl who lost her brother was the lack of acknowledgment she received after he died. It’s no one’s fault; she doesn’t blame anyone. Words don’t come easy. But in the silence that has been left is a sense in her that his death has been forgotten, or that it is somehow taboo. It is not taboo. It did happen. So just to acknowledge it, just to begin to fill that void of loneliness with words, is something. We must continue to succeed death with words.

Today is the second anniversary of her brother’s death. And so today I am writing to remember this, to acknowledge the sorrow, to remember the memory.

M.C.C. 03.05.1969 – 03.22.2010

How to be a poet

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For the most part, I want my blog posts to be my own words – my own thoughts and ideas. But every now and then, as happens, you come across something written by someone else, and in the overwhelming, satiated silence that follows you think, What else is there to say? Wendell Berry’s poem ‘How to be a Poet’ is one such piece of writing. So I’m going to make an exception and have his poem – his own brilliant words – be the predominant feature in this month’s blog post.

I will add only two things. Firstly, I have thought at length about this poem. I have read it, re-read it, and read it again. I hope you will, too. It’s worth doing. Secondly, if I could share one other thought about how to be a poet (yes, in all my vast wisdom), I would say, Learn how to wrestle. To write poetry, for me, means to wrestle with words, to wrestle with the truth, to wrestle with laziness, to wrestle with failure, and to wrestle with the fear that everyone will think what you’re writing is laughable and pathetic. Those are my two cents. Here are Wendell’s:

How to be a Poet
By Wendell Berry

(to remind myself)

i.
Make a place to sit down.
Sit down. Be quiet.
You must depend upon
affection, reading, knowledge,
skill—more of each
than you have—inspiration,
work, growing older, patience,
for patience joins time
to eternity. Any readers
who like your poems,
doubt their judgment.
ii.
Breathe with unconditional breath
the unconditioned air.
Shun electric wire.
Communicate slowly. Live
a three-dimensioned life;
stay away from screens.
Stay away from anything
that obscures the place it is in.
There are no unsacred places;
there are only sacred places
and desecrated places.
iii.
Accept what comes from silence.
Make the best you can of it.
Of the little words that come
out of the silence, like prayers
prayed back to the one who prays,
make a poem that does not disturb
the silence from which it came.

Italy: an exercise in co-writing (and co-translating) poetry

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“And where’s your Fiscal Code?” the lady at the bank barked at me irately in Italian. Fiscal Code? What the Dickens is a Fiscal Code? I thought. Embarrassed, I sheepishly replied,  ”Sorry madam, a Fiscal Code?” I pulled out my passport hoping that it would help. “No, no,” she waved it back to me, dismissing the document altogether. Incredulous, “You don’t have a Fiscal Code?” I don’t. “Sorry. Next!” And repeatedly, in such a manner, my first couple months as a year abroad student in Italy unfolded: tumultuous question after tumultuous question, fired at me with rifle speed. Questions I could barely understand, my mind working overtime to translate, desperately trying to glean any significance I could. Disoriented and dejected, I would return to my residence of six weeks – the youth hostel, go to my room, which I shared with a carousel of always under or over-deodorized travellers, sit on my bed and start asking some pretty serious questions myself: What are you actually doing here? When are you going to get out of this greivous and malodorant youth hostel? Why did you even bother choosing Italian in the first place?

Italy, everything –  it was a quandary of questions.

My fortunes changed when Paolo, a friend of a friend of an acquaintance, who I had hardly met, took pity on me. He was dorming in one of the university accommodations. He said his room-mate had never turned up and that I could come share with him, if I wanted. Well, I think that’s what he said. Anyway, I wanted. Very much so. Anything but this purgatory of a youth hostel where privacy, quite frankly, was non-existent. I moved in shortly afterward.

Paolo had quite the pensive disposition, and although he was studying economics, he was a very literary type; he loved to read novels, comics, and poetry. And having a room-mate who also enjoyed reading made life a lot less awkward, especially when at first, due predominantly to my linguistic ineptitude, we didn’t have much to say to each other. It meant the silences didn’t have to be so uncomfortable; we could just hang out and read, filling our minds – instead of our mouths – with words. After a while, though, and as my Italian improved, the parameters and shape of our friendship grew. We conversed more. I was able to answer his questions, and he mine. Then one evening, as I was coming to the end of a binge on American literature: Ray Bradbury, Edgar Allan Poe, and finally Herman Melville, Paolo introduced me to another Paul, a Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda. He quietly left the book on my bed, turned around and walked out the room. As he was half way out the door, he called back, “E’ interessante, vecchio.” It’s interesting, old friend. Curious I picked it up and read the front cover. Libro delle Domande. I translated: The Book of Questions.

Inside were seventy-odd short poems, each line a question. On one page was the original in Spanish, on the opposite page was the translation in Italian. Many were challenging to understand, but I dusted off my dictionary and worked diligently that evening to translate them. One of my favorites is still poem III:

Tell me, is the rose naked
or is that her only dress?

Why do trees conceal
the splendour of their roots?

Who hears the regrets
of the getaway car?

Is there anything in the world sadder
than a train standing in the rain?

I quickly became enamoured with the book, and the poems became a source of frequent discussion between Paolo and I. And so it happened one evening that we decided to go out for a drink together. The bar was poorly lit and the beer cheap. Its walls and ceilings were completely plastered with prints of famous pieces of art, a modern-day Sistine Chapel of sorts (minus the religious reverence, plus some raucous revelry). At one point during a lull in our conversation Paolo jumped up and went to the bar, and instead of ordering another beer, asked for a pen a paper. He sat back down, wrote something and pushed it towards me. I read it:

Perché il marmo ha scelto lo stesso colore del latte?
E’ possible forse annegare nei suoi pavimenti?

“What does marmo mean?” I asked him. Marble. “And annegare?” To drown. I translated:

Why did marble choose to be the same colour as milk?
Is it possible, then, to drown in its tiles?

And thus began a little experiment in writing poetry together, Neruda style. He’d write a poem in Italian, I’d translate it into English, or vice versa:

What is it about the sea that makes me so sad?
Is it because in its vastness it still seems so alone?

And is the sand not tired of the indecisive tide:
Coming, going, stealing and giving back?

Cosa nel mare mi rende triste?
E’ perché nella sua vastità sembra ancora così solo?

E la sabbia non è ancora stanca dell’indecisione delle maree?
Di questo venire e andare, rubare e restituire?

Then sometimes he’d start a poem and I’d finish it. We’d put it together and translate accordingly:

E perché il vento fa tanta strada per venire a giocare
con un sacchetto di plastica davanti a me?

E da chi andrà dopo?
E con cosa giocherà?
E si sentirà solo dopo avermi lasciato?

And why does the wind blow through so many streets
just to come and play with a plastic bag in front of me?

And to whom will it go next?
And with what will it play?
And will it feel lonely when I walk away?

As far as writing goes, it was a very unique, creative experience. My memories of that period are bright and fond. I admired Paolo’s boldness. It’s not every day you’re sitting in a bar when your friend starts writing poetry for you. I also admired Paolo’s boldness in inviting me to share a dorm with him. In many ways, he saved my bacon.

When I arrived in Italy, I was harangued by the cacophony and headache of  numberless voices and their unintelligible questions, but I found an antidote in friendship and poetry – the euphony and balm of our very own unanswerable questions.

Why we read

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C.S. Lewis is supposed to have said that we write not to be understood, but to understand. Of course, writing can be – and very often is – a screen onto which we project our opinions, beliefs, and experiences for the world (or a few blog followers) to see and understand. But writing, as any writer will tell you, is by and large a cathartic experience. The very opinions, beliefs, and experiences we are trying to recount aren’t perfectly lucid to our own eyes until we’re actually done writing them. Well what does this have to do with why we read?

This:

I don’t quite view writing to be some antipodean friend of reading; that is, I don’t think they’re opposites. They are, however, two wildly different adventures indissolubly bound together. But in this case, if we write not to be understood, but to understand, then we read not to understand, but to be understood. Let me say that again: we read not to understand, but to be understood. Again, of course we read to seek understanding, as anyone who has studied anything knows. But frequently when we read, especially something like a novel or a poem, we take part in an experience of identification. The characters we love (and loathe) the most, the parts which touch us profoundly, the words which remain etched in our memory are those we identify with the most. Not always, of course. But very often. The identification is part affirming; it speaks to who we are. In this way, we read to be understood.

Intertextuality

In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare famously presented his Elizabethan audience with what at the time was a highly innovative motif: a play within a play.  In 2010, Christopher Nolan’s film, Inception, explored the perplexing possibility of a dream within a dream within a dream within a dream (within a dream?).  Intertextuality follows the same paradigm: it regards the concept of a text within a text.  What exactly defines an intertext is, to a large degree, quite nebulous.  However, an example of what an intertext is not would be if I wrote the following:

Such optimism and hope recall the words of T.S. Eliot, “And all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”

This is a quotation, a verbatim reference attributed to the author.  An intertext has similar roots but is somewhat more discreet; somewhat more wily.  Compare the example above to this – an excerpt from an e-mail written to me by someone very dear to my heart, the beauty of which almost knocked the wind out of me:

I remember, suddenly, sweetly, the peace and the sparkling air of your last night the FIRST time we met, sitting there on my porch swing, feeling warm next to you, feeling right next to you.  All shall be well, said the night sky.  And the frost said, All manner of thing shall be well.  And my heart echoed All shall be well and All shall be well.  And the Spirit said, All manner of thing shall be well.

This is an intertext.  And a brilliant one at that, if the reader will excuse my bias.

But why am I writing about intertextuality?  For one, because intertexts, especially when executed well, have a certain enchantment to their subtlety and hiddenness; there is something delightfully surreptitious in their creativity.  Perhaps more importantly, though, an inclusion of an intertext is, by its very nature, a recognition of what has gone before.  It is, in a way, a respectful acknowledgement of the literature from which it has come (although we are not to assume that an intertext is always respectful.  An intertext can also be employed as a form of parody).  This recognition of past literature is, in my view, essential for a full appreciation of both writing and reading.  As Wendell Berry wrote in his essay, The Responsibility of the Poet, “We can only write poetry because poetry has already been written.”  And it is, of course, the same for all forms of literature.  Just as you and I have come to this exact moment in time because of generations upon generations of marriages and births, so also has the literature of today (old or new) reached us only through the millennia of what has preceded it.  Intertextuality, then, affirms literary lineage.

Returning to the point I made in the opening paragraph, the reason why defining an intertext can be so problematic is precisely because of this lineage: in every book can be found traces of another book, if not multiple books.  An intertext, therefore, could be quite accidental.  But this is not problematic to the theory of intertextuality itself; indeed, it is the very premise of intertextuality.  And this is the point I want to make: intertextuality demands we recognize that a book is not a self-contained work, despite its definite beginning and final full stop, despite the fact it is bound, encased, opened, and closed.   It is, if you think about it, quite a striking and profound idea; to suddenly think that a book – so tangible, so set in stone, is in fact, metaphyiscally speaking, fluid.

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