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Literature and Ideas

Brave be the Poet

The scaredy cats
strut out in packs,
while lions roam
the sands alone.

May poets always walk like lions.
Les animaux lâches vont en troupes.
Le lion marche seul dans le désert.
Qu'ainsi marche toujours le poète.

from a diary entry, dated 1847
Alfred de Vigny (1797–1863)

Mad Mask

On my wall hangs
a Japanese mask that's
carved out of wood:
an evil demon,
laquered in gold.

I watch with compassion
its temple-veins bulge: they speak
of how much it hurts to be mean.
An meiner Wand hängt ein japanisches Holzwerk,
Maske eines bösen Dämons, bemalt mit Goldlack.
Mitfühlend sehe ich
Die geschwollenen Stirnadern, andeutend
Wie anstrengend es ist, böse zu sein.

Bertolt Brecht (1898–1956)

High Horse

I rode a horse
over cloud-strewn fields,
submerging myself
in the smouldering day.

No stopping me going
to God knows where.
Not a horse, but a ship.
Not a ship, but desire.

It was a horse,
as never seen
before. The head
of a courser, dressed

in delirium. Wind
that neighs as it spreads.
I was still riding
and gestured my words:

“Follow my track,
my best of best friends,
come on, you can:
the route is restful,

the sky is uncast.
But who is it who speaks?
At this height, I lose track
of myself. So can you

work it out? I’m the one
who was speaking before.
Am I still the same person
I was when I spoke?

And, friends, are you
the same as you were?
As we climb, we change
and we blur, you and I.”
J’avais un cheval
Dans un champ de ciel
Et je m’enfonçais
Dans le jour ardent.
Rien ne m’arrêtait
J’allais sans savoir,
C’était un navire
Plutôt qu’un cheval,
C’était un désir
Plutôt qu’un navire,
C’était un cheval
Comme on n’en voit pas,
Tête de coursier,
Robe de délire,
Un vent qui hennit
En se répandant.
Je montais toujours
Et faisais des signes :
« Suivez mon chemin,
Vous pouvez venir,
Mes meilleurs amis,
La route est sereine,
Le ciel est ouvert.
Mais qui parle ainsi ?
Je me perds de vue
Dans cette altitude,
Me distinguez-vous,
Je suis celui qui
Parlait tout à l’heure,
Suis-je encor celui
Qui parle à présent,
Vous-mêmes, amis,
Êtes-vous les mêmes ?
L’un efface l’autre
Et change en montant. »

Jules Supervielle (1884–1960)

Straight and Bent

Do you know where the words “prose” and “verse” come from? It’s quite interesting, I think.

Both terms derive from ancient Rome, where agriculture was the primary mode of production: in other words, almost everyone except the elite was employed in farming, either as slaves or as wage-earners — and the upper classes were farmers, too, to the extent that they owned the land and would expect to receive a steady financial return from it.

Fields by Marzia Colonna (1951–).

In Latin, the word versus could refer to a field’s “furrow”, the trench made in the ground to prepare it before the seeds were sown. That word, in turn, came from the verb vertere, which simply meant “to turn” (think of the English “reverse”, which can be interpreted etymologically as an act of “turning back”), because the plough would be dragged in a straight line along the soil and would then be turned around to be dragged over — or, indeed, to turn over — the next line of earth. By analogy, the term came to be applied to poetry, where line would follow line in strict metrical rhythm (“free verse” hadn’t yet been invented).

If you add the prefix pro- to the original verb, you get provertere, which first meant “to turn ahead” and later came to mean something like “to move forwards”. So the adjective prorsus meant both “straight ahead” as a direction of travel and also “straightforward” in the sense of something uncomplicated. In everyday speech, prorsus became shortened to prosus, since the shorter word was easier to fit in the mouth, and from there came English “prose”, the type of text that goes on without being broken up into regular lines.

So the two English words are related through the twists and turns of linguistic history. And if we think back to the origin of “verse”, it provides a nice metaphor, the poet as ploughman, as labourer and farmhand, working steadily on hostile ground and with little certainty of success. But working the earth nonetheless. This connection was explored by Seamus Heaney in his poem Digging, where he reconciles his guilt at not working with his hands, as his ancestors had, with the hard, heady labour involved in building order out of words. So I’m going off now to reread that poem: you’re welcome to join me…

Old Flame

By candlelight
he loved to read
all through his life.

And often moved
a hand across
the flame, to prove

to himself
that he lived,
prove that he
was alive.

Since the day
of his death,
he has kept
by his side

a candle that burns.
But now he keeps
his hands deathly firm.
Tout le long de sa vie
Il avait aimé à lire
Avec une bougie
Et souvent il passait
La main dessus la flamme
Pour se persuader
Qu'il vivait,
Qu'il vivait.
Depuis le jour de sa mort
Il tient à côté de lui
Une bougie allumée
Mais garde les mains cachées.

Jules Supervielle (1884–1960)