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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.

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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.