Posts Tagged ‘Peter Dale Scott’

“Magpiety”: getting to the bottom of it.

Wednesday, August 12th, 2015
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magpie2“Magpiety.” I had thought the title came from Nobel poet Czesław Miłosz and his poem by that name – his translator Peter Dale Scott has assured me that he himself invented the word, though I thought Miłosz had made the same claim. Anyway, I wrote all about the word Magpiety here. I thought the subject had exhausted itself and I had become the world expert.

Then I received in the mail the galley proofs for a collection of Melissa Green‘s poems, which will be out later this year: Magpiety, published by Arrowsmith Press in Medford, Massachusetts. When I scanned the table of contents, I expected to find a poem in tribute to the late great Polish poet – along the lines of Philip Levine‘s poem “Magpiety.” Nope.

My OED dates the usage of the word to 1845 (“Not pious in its proper sense/But chattering like a bird…”). Long before either Miłosz or Peter Dale Scott were born. The mystery deepened. Arrowsmith publisher Askold Melnyczuk sent me the author’s note that is to go at the beginning of the volume. In it, the poet writes: “Magpiety arose directly from the anonymous Renaissance poem ‘Tom O’Bedlam’s Song’ and with the call and response of the lesser known—and probably later—’Mad Maud’s Song.’ In order to write my version, I searched for language that had fallen out of English in order to invent a dialect for Maud’s voice as she struggled with delusions, her dread of madness, of the loss of Tom, and of Bedlam.”

Had the OED been bested by several centuries?

So I wrote the poet for an explanation, and this is what she said:

For a while, even I thought I’d invented the word Magpiety!

I hadn’t remembered it from the Miłosz – in fact, if pressed, I would have said I had yanked from one of Mark Strand‘s poems, but I must have been thinking of Philip Levine.

I have bushel baskets full of words with the same kind of frisson, that sit in the cellar year after year, ripening, until I need them, until the source of the word has been forgotten. I didn’t actually find any evidence for its use anywhere as early as the Elizabethans; rather when the time came to write the Mad Maud poems, I remembered the word ‘magpiety’ and employed it like a valise to pack in all the meanings I could in the manner of Humpty Dumpty.

green-melissa

She likes the twinkly bits.

ORIGIN late 16th cent.: probably shortening of dialect maggot the pie, maggoty-pie, from Magot (Middle English nickname for the given name Marguerite) + pie (Old French from Latin pica)

‘Mag’ came to mean a woman, an idle chatterer, whose daylong running monologue, I imagined, expected no reply – so I saw Maud’s poems as full of a mad self-talk, with the world not responding. (The Corvidae are loud and raucous talkers). My confirmation name is Margaret, which made ‘Mag’ appropriate. It was easy to extend ‘pie’ to ‘piety’ (though I do remember your OED reference mid-1800 as the opposite of true piety; Pierus claimed his nine daughters sang as beautifully as the Muses and they were turned into magpies for that hubris/impiety). I am a magpie-ish kind of writer – drawn to the shiny, twinkly bits – but this magpie is full of reverence for the world. The rhyme in my head went ‘mag/hag/bag lady’ which is how I am convinced I’ll end up.

She ended with an apology: “Sorry I have no legitimate trail of breadcrumbs for you to take this word back into linguistic history. You see I just used it to suit myself.”

Connection with Miłosz?  Coincidence. Who would have guessed it?

What is Magpiety? An answer at last.

Wednesday, January 30th, 2013
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Czesław Miłosz wrote, as he recalled the familiar cry of a bird during a stroll through an oak forest:

What is magpiety? I shall never achieve
A magpie heart, a hairy nostril over the beak, a flight
That always renews just when coming down,
And so I shall never comprehend magpiety.

I have since heard scholars and poets discourse learnedly on this particular poem (which is here).

In a binge of self-improvement a year or two ago, I signed on for the Oxford English Dictionary’s “Word for a Day.” The binge ended long before the avalanche of words stopped – they were either already familiar, easy to figure out, or otherwise not the etymological treat I was expecting.

But look what arrived in my inbox today:

magpiety, n.   Pronunciation: Brit. /maɡˈpʌɪəti/ , U.S. /mæɡˈpaɪədi/

Forms: 18 mag-piety, 18– magpiety.

Etymology: Humorous blend of magpie n. and piety n. Compare also mag n.3, mag v.2

Talkativeness, garrulity (esp. on religious or moral topics); affected piety.

1832 T. Hood Jarvis & Mrs. Cope in New Sporting Mag. Mar. 323 Not pious in its proper sense, But chattring like a bird, Of sin and grace—in such a case Mag-piety’s the word.

1841 T. Hood Let. in Memorials (1860) II. iii. 118 Such solemn questions as..whether your extreme devotion has been affected or sincere..in short, Piety or Mag-piety?

1891 Blackwood’s Edinb. Mag. 150 400/2 Conceive the agony of suppressed speech when a man is as garrulous as a magpie by nature; and my friend is that, though his magpiety is of an elevated sort.

1987 M. Daly Websters’ First New Intergalactic Wickedary Eng. Lang. 145 Magpiety, the impious impropriety of Prudes; irreverence for sir-reverence; Nagpiety’s Hagpiety.

Who knew?  The usage of the word does not begin with Milosz, as I had assumed.  In fact, it goes all the way back to 1832, and has a life of its own.

You can hear the poet read the poem here. He says:  “There is a very short poem, which when we translated with Peter Dale Scott – quite a trouble to find an equivalent for a notion of magpieishness … if there is a bird magpie, there should be magpieishness. We hit on the idea of translating that magpiety.”

Postscript on 2/3:  Poet and translator Peter Dale Scott has made an appearance in the comment section below. He wrote: “’Magpiety’ was my suggestion. Later I was ambivalent about it, but Michael Palmer assured me it was not such a bad idea after all. Apparently not, if it occurred to others before me.”

Meet me at the San Francisco Public Library for Miłosz centenary celebration Dec. 7

Tuesday, December 6th, 2011
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The centenary for Nobel poet Czesław Miłosz has been a year-long, international saga for many of us who knew him, translated him, or wrote about him – but it’s finally winding to a close this month.

Think of tomorrow night as one of your last chances to get in on the act.

On Wednesday, December 7, I will be speaking at the San Francisco Public Library for a Celebration of Czesław Miłosz – and also a celebration of An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czesław Miłosz from 6:30 to 8:00 p.m. in the Latino-Hispanic Meeting Room at the library on 100 Larkin Street. The book will be for sale at the event.

Here’s what’s going to happen:  the host of a weekly KUSF radio show Zbigniew Stanczyk will be interviewing me and one of the Polish poet’s earliest translators, Peter Dale Scott, poet, author, and former Canadian diplomat in Warsaw.

But here’s the deal:  Pan Stanczyk also knew Miłosz, and there’s a few questions I’d like to ask him, too.

What’s more, I’m sure the audience will have a few questions to ask us about the renowned poet who spent four decades of his long life in Berkeley – and I’m sure some of those in the room also knew Miłosz, so I hope we’ll have some time to hear from them, too.

It will all be very democratic.  With luck, even Miłosz himself will have a say.  I have some video clips to play, if I can get the whole techno-thing working right.

So come along for a evening of readings, recollections, and books.  It should be fun.

Last call.

Postscript on 12/7:  And a fine event it was.  As you can see from Caria Tomczykowska‘s cellphone photo at right, I spoke in the shadow of giants.

And it was indeed very democratic!

“Heaven is the third vodka” — Czesław Miłosz

Sunday, April 3rd, 2011
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So far the events celebrating the Czesław Miłosz centenary have been marked by a special warmth and conviviality, almost like a family reunion – but nowhere was that impression more pronounced than at last Wednesday’s event at Wheeler Hall at the University of California, Berkeley.  No surprise.  Berkeley was the poet’s home for four decades.

Thanks to the notorious Berkeley parking — a university parking lot meter that would not take cards, not take bills, and, once I got about three dozen quarters, wouldn’t take those either (nor return them) – I arrived about 45 minutes late.

Adam Zagajewski was saying “Has he grasped the totality? … Well, yes.”

“It’s in ruins, because totality is in ruins, but it’s still a totality.”  I wasn’t quite sure what the “it” was – the world?  the Nobel laureate’s oeuvre? — nor did I get more than the gist of what he was trying to say, having missed the context, but it was vintage Zagajewski, so I pass it on.

“The world does not belong to any single poet,” said Adam.

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Robert Hass was the emcee for the event, and commented on Miłosz’s stunning memory, and also on the unusual and sometimes dark connections it made.  A singing of “happy birthday” would remind Miłosz of the crematoria at Auschwitz, and crematoria might remind him of strawberry jam.

Berkeley is also the home of the poet’s son, Anthony (or Antoni) Milosz.  I met him once before, several years ago at the San Francisco memorial organized by poet Jane Hirshfield, but the resemblance to his father did not strike me nearly so forcefully then.  On Wednesday evening, it gobsmacked me.

Toni has translated his father’s last poems (Wiersze ostatnie was published by Znak in 2006), to be published with the paperback selected this fall as Selected and Last Poems.

The younger Miłosz said that he was aiming at “sound translation,” and felt too often translations of his father’s poems “intellectual content dominates.”

He noted the rhythm of his father’s work, and that, among musical instruments, Miłosz favored the bass and drum – “though he claimed to like the harpsichord and more refined instruments.”

“My father’s poetry is immensely direct,” he said, adding that directness pits it against current trends.

He read his father’s late poem “In Honor of Father Baka,” which he described as “funky, short-lined” poems in the baroque manner.  It’s wry and mysterious – and I am looking forward to the November 15 publication.

Peter Dale Scott reiterated the claim that Czesław Miłosz was “perhaps the greatest poet of our time,” and called him  “a poet of radical hope” in a way “not seen since Schiller and Mickiewicz.” Miłosz saw poetry as “a home for incorrigible hope” — another feature of his work that was “in marked contrast to the times.”

Peter ranked Miłosz with poets from Dante to Blake, the poets who were “enlarging human consciousness.”  He discussed Miłosz’s poem, “Dante,” which concludes:

“The inborn and the perpetual desire
Del deiformo regno — for a God-like domain,
A realm or a kingdom. There is my home.
I cannot help it. I pray for light,
For the inside of the eternal pearl, L’eterna margarita.”

Miłosz, said Peter, was “obsessed with the need to reach the ‘second space’ – the world of paradise and perfection beyond this world we inhabit.”

Peter called Miłosz a “leading visionary of his time, looking into the open space ahead.”

Jane Hirshfield noted that for Miłosz, “everything was I and Thou, everything was personal.”

Most of the evenings speakers at the front of the room arrived via literature, said journalist Mark Danner. “I come here through real estate.”  (That’s not quite true; he was Miłosz’s friend for several years before he bought the poet’s house on Grizzly Peak.)

He described the roughstone chimney and the roughstone path of the house that has been compared to a cottage from a Grimm Brothers’ fairy tale.  He also remembered “Czesław’s deer.”  “The deer populate the place,” even though Miłosz would chase them away from the garden they viewed as a salad bar.

Bingo! (But it's not Żubrówka...but would you notice by the third round?)

One morning he recalled seeing more deer on the lawn than he had ever seen before – over a dozen, as he recalled.  Bob Hass’s voice was on his answerphone – “Mark, I don’t want to leave a message on a machine…” Miłosz had died in Krakow.

Mark thumbed through a book Miłosz had inscribed to him, and was startled to read the reference he had apparently forgotten, the inscription “in the name of all generations of deer.”

Bob Hass’s wife, the poet Brenda Hillman, recalled the Monday translation sessions Bob shared with Miłosz — sometimes spending the session working on a single line.  Bob recalled Miłosz appearing on their doorstep, with the command, “Vodka, Brenda!”  A bottle was always in the freezer, waiting. I hope it was Żubrówka.

Brenda was, for a time, interested in the knotty issues the Gnostics raised, and asking Miłosz, “What is heaven?  What is it like?”  To which the poet replied:

“Brenda, heaven is the third vodka.”

Peter Dale Scott’s “J’aime mais j’accuse”

Wednesday, February 23rd, 2011
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Poetry reviews are hard to come by in our increasingly distracted world, so Peter Dale Scott wrote me yesterday to say that he is understandably chuffed with John Peck‘s hefty, megawatt review for his  Mosaic Orpheus in the current Notre Dame Review. (If you scroll way down to the bottom of the screen here, you can download the 15-page pdf, which is certainly a clumsy way for NDR to do things.)

Peter, a former Canadian diplomat, is one of the few to tackle political poetry in a way that is gritty and specific, rather than the more commonplace attempt to commandeer politics to give oneself unearned gravitas via airy and politically correct generalities.  Robert Hass called Peter’s 1988 Coming to Jakarta: A Poem About Terror “the most important political poem to appear in the English language in a very long time.”

Peck’s discussion opens with the 1988 “contemplative epic”: 

“Coming to Jakarta, his attempt to contain distress over the blocked publication of his investigative research findings comes up against ‘mosaic darkness’—not familiarly seamless obscurity, but kaleidoscopic stuff—while in the poem’s later books Dante’s civic grief and wrath, with his loyal love for a dead woman, make him an Orphic brother-father to Scott, in that Alighieri’s existential defeat folds out into contrary visionary assurance. Such is not regulation Orphism, particularly as invoked collegially against American amnesiac indifference toward a largely occulted, webby congress of state terrorism, proxy mass slaughters, off-the-books funnelings of the sluice from international drug cartels to black ops, economic decline and the management of fear by debt, false-flag events, assassinations, and greasy resource wars.”

Shovel ready

Peck’s writing style is dense, but often rewarding.  And while I hadn’t been terribly looking forward to a long gaze at the nastiest sides of American policy — other than that proffered by the daily news — I must say that Peck’s review has heightened my interest.  Of Scott, Peck writes:

“He must be the only poet now writing who can say that Czesław Miłosz, peace-studies scholar Ola Tunander, various prominent vipassana teachers, and certain unnamed informants in government service deceased in mysterious circumstances, equally have nourished his effort. This span, together with an iron stomach for the forensics and catharsis of difficult findings, spell his personal equation. His poetics therefore will likely be neither a standard Orphic affair nor a canonical Buddhist one, although the poetry plainly arises in order to square those canons, and that personal equation, with a civics obdurately impersonal and malign.”

Peter, one of Miłosz’s earliest translators, describes his up-and-down relationship with the Nobel laureate — the two parted over politics, but reconciled much later — in my  An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czesław Miłosz.

Peck concludes:

“The spirit of research in this our dump needs every acolyte who carries a shovel. My Ketman-meter, its needle pushing into the red zone, tells me that our bitched order forces doubleness into both zones, out behind the vast oligarchic scrim and down into the crannies of palimpsested authority.  Scott has done us the honor of adopting this country as his own. Shall we read his voluminous J’aime mais j’accuse with due attention? His vade mecum, Mosaic Orpheus, reminds us that this labor has been one of hopeless, yet justified, love.”

By the way, Clive Wilmer called Peck, a Pittsburgh-born psychotherapist, “the outstanding American poet of his generation–as well as one of the most difficult.” As a young man he studied under Yvor Winters, and earned his Stanford PhD with doctoral thesis on Ezra Pound, supervised by Donald Davie.  Some of Peck’s poems are at the Poetry Foundation here.