Posts Tagged ‘Basil Bunting’

Happy birthday, Omar Khayyám!

Saturday, May 18th, 2013

From an early 20th century edition of the Rubáiyát

We can’t lose an opportunity to wish Omar Khayyám a happy birthday, even though it’s already late afternoon in California. He was born in 1048 in Nayshapur, now in modern Iran.  And fortunately, we have Don Share to remind us of the event over at his blog “Squanderman.”

As Don notes:

“A brilliant polymath, Khayyám was a mathematician, philosopher, astronomer, physician and poet. Most renowned during his lifetime as a mathematician, Khayyám wrote the influential Treatise on Demonstration of Problems of Algebra (1070), which, according to this Wikipedia entry, ‘laid down the principles of algebra, part of the body of Persian Mathematics that was eventually transmitted to Europe. In particular, he derived general methods for solving cubic equations and even some higher orders.’”

Mostly, however, Khayyám is remembered for his Rubáiyát, and in the English language, that means Edward FitzGeralds free translation:

Now the New Year reviving old Desires,
The thoughtful Soul to Solitude retires,
Where the White Hand Of Moses on the Bough
Puts out, and Jesus from the Ground suspires.

Iram indeed is gone with all his Rose,
And Jamshyd’s Sev’n-ring’d Cup where no one knows;
But still a Ruby kindles in the Vine,
And many a Garden by the Water blows …

Alright, alright … these are really really tired rhymes.  But keep in mind that FitzGerald was writing in the late Victorian era, when nobody had gotten sick of them yet. To criticize today would be like getting grumpy at the words of Christmas carols.  They have to be taken on their own terms.

According to Carol Rumens over at The Guardian:

The 101-verse semi-narrative FitzGerald finally assembled is the product of a ruthless editorial job – but how much poorer English poetry would be without it. His endeavour might more generously be termed “transcreation”. Khayyám, an agnostic famed during his lifetime as a mathematician and astronomer rather than a poet, and his mediator, a nineteenth-century English sceptic who believed that “science unrolls a greater epic than the Iliad”, may not meet in a true linguistic union, but there seems to be a “marriage of true minds” nevertheless (and, yes, you’ll note a passing trace of Shakespeare in FitzGerald’s diction).

The speaker that emerges with such authority and panache, despite the stiffish western dress of iambic pentameter, has a voice unlike any other in Victorian poetry, and a philosophical sensibility which, while it has been compared to that of Epicurus and Lucretius, is new and distinct. A whole culture must have suddenly seemed within the imaginative reach of the poem’s first audience.


Illustration from the early, undated edition I have.

“Stiffish western dress of iambic pentameter”?  Who sez?  We must also respectfully disagree with the wise Don Share when he refers to the “jiggered” verse of  FitzGerald.  We’ll grant him the use of that word in the sense of “exhausted” or “shopworn.”  Khayyám’s verses had been quoted by cheesy wannabe seducers until the maidens began laughing them out of the room.  But FitzGerald’s verses would not have become clichés if they had not been so good in the first place. Would we even talk about Khayyám today if it were not for FitzGerald’s verses?

Khayyám is remembered in other ways, as Journalist Kourosh Ziabari reminds us:

Tunisia has constructed a set of hotels named after Khayyam. One of the lunar craters has been named in honor of Omar Khayyám. The Omar Khayyám crater is located at 58.0N latitude and 102.1W longitude on the surface of moon. The Outer Main-belt Asteroid 1980 RT2 is also named in honor of Omar Khayyam. The Argentine Marxist revolutionary and guerrilla leader Che Guevara named his son Omar in honor of Khayyám and his work. Omar Pérez López is a Cuban writer and poet.

The American clergyman and activist Martin Luther King Jr. quoted Khayyám in his speech Why I oppose war in Vietnam: “It is time for all people of conscience to call upon America to come back home. Come home America. Omar Khayyam is right ‘The moving finger writes and having writ, moves on.”

The late American novelist Kurt Vonnegut refers to Khayyám’s “moving finger writes” quatrain in his novel Breakfast of Champions when the protagonist Dwayne Hoover reveals that he had been forced to memorize it in high school.

Don Share reminds us that poet Basil Bunting also was a fan:

A letter from Bunting to Louis Zukofsky (30 August 1933) included a transliterated and untranslated version of a rubai by Omar Khayyám – may their correspondence someday be published! – and in his introduction to Omar Pound’s Arabic & Persian Poems in English, Bunting wrote:

“Persian poetry has suffered badly, Arabic rather less, from neoplatonic dons determined to find an arbitrary mysticism in everything. You would think there was nothing else in Moslem [sic] poetry than nightingales which are not birds, roses which are not flowers, and pretty boys who are God in disguise. An anthology of English verse selected exclusively from George Herbert, Charles Wesley, and Father Hopkins, plus ‘Lead, kindly light’ and ‘The Hound of Heaven,’ would be as representative as the usual samples of Persian poetry. FitzGerald’s Khayyám is the only serious exception.”

The big problem, Persian scholars tell me, is that it’s not really Khayyám.  For that you must look elsewhere.  Or you might simply f0llow Don’s suggestion and try his two favorite editions of FitzGerald’s adaptation:  the one by Daniel Karlin in the Oxford World Classics, and the critical edition by Christopher Decker.

But meanwhile, check out Don’s post here.  He’s promising to lift a glass for old Khayyám tonight … and a second for Basil Bunting.

sypeck-authorphotoPostscript from Jeff Sypeck over at Quid Plura?, the day after Omar Khayyám’s birthday:  FitzGerald’s translation has its stuffy moments, but its influence and ubiquity are remarkable–and so is the speed with which our culture has lost its knowledge of English-language poetry. I recall a “Garfield” comic strip (of all things) from the early 1980s that included the line, “A jug of wine, a loaf of bread, and thou.” I can’t imagine anyone hoping that a few young readers might catch the reference today.

Garrison Keillor, August Kleinzahler, and the perils of one-sided fisticuffs

Tuesday, April 19th, 2011

A polished schtick (Photo: Andrew Harrer)

Sam Leith at the Guardian revisits August Kleinzahler‘s 2004 Poetry magazine “full-frontal assault” on Garrison Keillor’s “appalling taste”.

The occasion was the publication of Keillor’s anthology, Good Poems.

Kleinzahler wrote this:

Now, had Keillor not “strayed off the reservation” and kept to his Prairie Home Companion show with its Norwegian bachelor farmers and Lutheran bake sales (a sort of Spoon River Anthology as presented by the Hallmark Hall of Fame), comfort food for the philistines, a contemporary, bittersweet equivalent to the Lawrence Welk Show of years past, I’d have left him alone. But the indefatigable and determined purveyor of homespun wisdom has wandered into the realm of fire, and for his trespass must be burned.

Full disclosure: I was asked to review Keillor’s poetry anthology some years back (was it for the San Francisco Chronicle? I can’t remember) and I gave it a pass.  I’d seen nothing in the vaunted Prairie Home Companion to convince me that Keillor’s tastes would make his anthology worthwhile reading (and I gave the same pass, for the same reasons, when Camille Paglia‘s anthology came out).  So as far as aesthetics go, I’m probably more along the Kleinzahler end of the spectrum, except for the ire.  Of Kleinzahler’s long-ago review of Keillor, “No Antonin Artaud with the Flapjacks, Please,” Leith writes:

I looked it up: a dismissive review that took two and a half thousand words in the dismissing. It’s been said that criticising P.G. Wodehouse is like “taking a spade to a souffle“. This was something similar; and if you hit a souffle with a spade, you get egg on your face.

Keillor’s taste in poetry may differ from Kleinzahler’s, and his understanding of what it’s for may differ – caricaturally, he thinks it does the soul good, and that makes Kleinzahler wince with embarrassment.  … But it strikes me as odd that the response is not indifference but active rage …

Leith continued:

The divide isn’t actually between people who want to stitch rhymed verse into samplers and sell it in tourist shops, and those so high-minded they think Basil Bunting was a sellout. It’s between people happy for both views to co-exist, and people for whom it isn’t enough to play in the Premier League – you have to be energetically affronted by the existence of Sunday league.

In a calmer moment (Photo: Poem Present)

It isn’t elitist to think that Four Quartets is chewier, profounder and more artful than If or The Song of Hiawatha: it is simply common sense. Indeed, it is so obviously common sense that to be shrill in asserting it makes you look . . . well, weird. Is poetry so sickly that Geoffrey Hill catches a cold when Pam Ayres sneezes? Is the whole project of making high art threatened by the existence of low art? Nobody sensible can think so.

So the Keillors – the live-and-let-live brigade – will always look bigger than the Kleinzahlers. They are in a position to extend what you might call repressive tolerance. As it happens, to view Keillor as a dim, benevolent sweetie-pie – a manatee ripe for harpooning – is to be naive in any case: it is to mistake him for his persona. Nobody who remembers his caustic review of Bernard-Henri Lévy‘s book about America in the New York Times could make the mistake: Keillor skewered Lévy as “a French writer with a spatter-paint prose style and the grandiosity of a college sophomore”, and ended: “Thanks for coming. Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.”

But for Kleinzahler, who swallows the persona in one gulp, Keillor is prepared to kill with kindness. His response, years after the attack, is one of superbly malevolent benignity: “I believe in vigorous free speech. Does no damage whatsoever that I can see. Bless his heart. I wish him well.”

I remember well Keillor’s scalding review of Bernard-Henri Lévy – “On the Road avec M. Lévy” – when I was briefly in the Frenchman’s thrall. It’s a classic.

Otherwise, however, I could never quite “get” the charm of Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion. Too often I, too, have swallowed the schtick in one gulp  – though I shouldn’t have needed Leith to remind me.

The only part of Keillor I ever really enjoyed was the song below: