Day 23 CV-19

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Day 23 CV-19
Codes and Coding

“Languages: they say that to learn another language is to gain another soul and another set of eyes through which to view the world.” I wrote these words just yesterday [Day 22 CV-22]. The words are mine, but the idea belongs elsewhere. I have borrowed it and adopted it. I would willingly attribute it to a specific author, but I do not know who said it first. I offer my apologies to the to me unknown genius who first spoke these words.

Why codes and coding? A rhetorical question, of course. But codes and coding are the basic elements through which language transfers thought, our thoughts. What is a code? Well, we know all about Morse Code and the elaborate codes through which spies from all countries communicate their needs. A code is a way of converting language, changing it, making it available to those initiated in the code and unavailable to those who have not received such initiation. Sounds simple, doesn’t it?

When I was travelling regularly to Spain for research in Spanish libraries, my first port of call was always the local barber shop. I did this for several reasons. In the first place, my Canadian haircut gave me away as a foreigner. This is the hairdresser’s code. The barber’s shop was always the centre of local gossip. Here, buzz words changed hands, politicians were discussed, all the local news was immediately available. Each of these items was a code, a code that made an insider (acceptable) versus an outsider (not to be spoken to). I remember, one summer in Madrid, not getting served in any bar or restaurant. Check haircut: okay. Check shoes: bought new pair. Check shirt, jacket, tie: all up to date. Inspect lucky customers … ah … they are all wearing a shiny brass pin showing the symbol of Madrid: El Oso y el Madroño, the bear and the strawberry tree, as seen in La Puerta del Sol.

The next bar I entered saw me sporting El Oso y el Madroño in my lapel. Qué quiere el señor? Immediate service and with a smile. These are social codes, the codes that include the winks and nudges of the upper class, the secret handshakes and foot positions, the names dropped so gently and quietly that they never shatter when they hit the floor. There are also language codes. Northrop Frye wrote The Great Code: The Bible and Literature, a study of the mythology and structure of the Bible was published in 1982. In this wonderful study, Frye showed how themes and language from the bible have influenced the structure of Western Literature, particularly that written in English. Within this code, names, themes, miracles, parables, psalms form a body of are common knowledge available to all readers who are christian and whose first language is English.

But there are other codes. Think Petracharism. Petrarch’s poetry, originally written in Italian, was widely imitated throughout Europe. Italian literature, Spanish, French, English, all dip into that code, as does Shakespeare among so many others. Think the Great Chain of Being. Shakespeare is incomprehensible in places unless you unlock this particular code. Think Platonism, Neo-Platonism, Stoicism, Existentialism … okay, so all this is academic, and I do not want to lose you in a sea of academia. So think NFL, think NBA, think NHL, think baseball, think cricket, think rugby, think darts, think all of the things we manipulate on a daily basis in our lives and think how they include some people (those who know and share our codes) and exclude others (those who are unaware of them). LBW, c&b,  c. A, b. B, st. A b. B, w, W, b, lb, dec., rsp …

This is a wonderful line of discussion. It follows along the lines of micro-language and macro-language. Macro-language is accessible to all who happen to speak that language. Micro-language in its multidinous forms incarnadine belongs ONLY to those who share the micro community, be it family, household, village, town, county, region … all that is closest and dearest to our micro-hearts.

Self-Isolation Day 22 / Ducks

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Self-Isolation Day 22
22 =Ducks, Patos in Spanish.

Ducks, because the 2 and the 2 seem to float together like a pair of ducks or a pair of Swans. How did Swansea get it’s name? Some say it was because handsome white swans used to swim on the salt waters of the bay: Swan+sea. Other’s say that  was on account of a battle where a man called Swain lost his eye: Swain’s Eye = Swansea. Oh dear, it’s so much easier in Welsh: Abertawe, the mouth of the river Tawe.

Speaking of Welsh, this is the 290th consecutive day that I have done my Welsh lessons. I guess the pandemic has helped over the last few weeks. Nowhere to go, nothing to do, and all those Welsh memories bringing a fresh light to enlighten the darkness that is Corona Virus aka Covidis-19.

Language Teaching: never easy. And I should know after 43 years of teaching Spanish in Canadian universities (1966-2009). Relevance and irrelevance: how do we teach meaningful things? Good question. Dw i eisiau prynu’r crwban ddu fach / I want to buy the little black tortoise. Very useful. I bet they use that phrase on the streets of Llanelli and Abertawe every day of the week. How about Mae’r ddraig coch yn callu smwddio bob wythnos / The red dragon is able to do the ironing every week. Well, well: I suppose I did remember these two wonderful phrases. I am sure I will use them the next time I go to Cardiff.

I much prefer the Welsh of St. David: Gwnewch y pethau bychain mewn bywyd / Do ye the little things in life or Byddwch lawen a chadwch eich ffyd a’ch credd / Be joyful and keep your faith and creed. These two quotes from the patron saint of Wales are full of meaning, especially at this oh-so-difficult juncture in all our lives. Funny really: I laugh at the first two, the dragon and the tortoise, but without them, I would probably never have arrived at the Original Welsh of St. David / Dewi Sant.

Languages: they say that to learn another language is to gain another soul and another set of eyes through which to view the world. We view the world through our languages. Limit the language and we limit the world. Reduce the language, any language, to its lowest common denominator, and we reduce and diminish the world around us. Sparrows, juncos, chickadees, Cedar Waxwings, robins, mourning doves, crows, hawks (Cooper’s Hawk, Sharp-Shinned Hawk, Marsh Hawk) are all reduced to birds. Mountain Ash (Russian or European), Birch, Hackmatack, Tamarack, Spruce … all these are reduced to trees, nothing more and nothing less than trees.

Think about language. Savor language. Roll it round your mouth. Taste it on your tongue. Use the correct names for things. Expand your vocabulary. Do not be satisfied with Grade 9 English. Learn. Advance. Develop. Carry a dictionary (Y geiriadur Gymraeg newydd) and look up words, learn their meanings, learn how to spell them. Never give up. Do not be satisfied, ever, with the lowest level of existence. Flower, flourish, rise up and fight for your own self-education, for your own language, for your own destiny, for your own rights!

Self-Isolation Day 18

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Self-Isolation Day 18

So we are in the eighteenth day of our Self-Isolation. Yesterday I added a fifth book to my group around the table: The Art of the Middle Game by Paul Keres and Alexander Kotov, translated by Harry Golombek. I have had this book since 1964 when it was first published in Penguin Books. Once upon a time, I played serious chess, was president of a chess club, and read widely about the game. But I have not played any serious, face to face chess since I came to Canada and the last games I played were in 1994, when I visited the Dominican Republic, although I did pay a couple of games in Oaxaca on my first visits there.

I dipped in and out of this book yesterday, playing sample games here and there. It was a joy to rediscover the movement of the pieces and to see how great minds viewed the chess board. Sharpe’s Riflemen are wonderful to watch on YouTube, but they cannot rival the two sixteen piece armies that wage battle on the sixty-four squares of the chess-board!

The Art of the Middle Game uses descriptional notation. This means that when the King Pawn takes two steps forwards, it moves from King two to King four. In descriptional notation, this becomes P-K4. If it is the first move of the game, by white, then it becomes 1. P-K4. If the opposition follows suit, then his move is also transcribed as P-K4. This gives us 1. P-K4   P-K4. And this is where the confusion arises: each side has a K-4, and a Q-4 and every other square is doubled up as well in a mirror image of army facing army. After such a long time away from the game, I found my concentration wavering in places and thus I had pieces on the wrong squares and had to start all over again. Very frustrating.

When I played chess in Spain, also back in the sixties, I was faced with algebraic notation, long in use on the continent of Europe. The eight ranks are lettered a-h, from left to right, and the eight files are numbered 1-8 from bottom to top, with ‘white on the right’ i.e. h-1 always white. This means that each square has a single, plotted designation and it is much easier to follow the game as there is no mirror imaging. In this fashion, 1. P-K4 would become e2 – e4 followed by e7 – e5. None of this changes the nature of the game, but it does change the speed and ease with which it is transcribed and followed.

I remember buying my first pocket chess set, in Boots the Chemist (!) when I was 9 or 10 years old. It is an old cardboard set with red and white squares and pieces. I still have it and I am using it now. The scrawl that I call my handwriting is still unmistakable, after all these years. That same day I bought Harry Golombek’s The Game of Chess, and I taught myself how to play, based on that book. I remember looking at the descriptional notation and not understanding how the system worked, even after days of memorization. Then, one morning, as Dylan Thomas, another Swansea Boy once wrote, ‘light broke where no light shone’ and as all the squares fell miraculously into place, the system of descriptional notation suddenly made sense to me. “Threshold knowledge is a term in the study of higher education used to describe core concepts — or threshold concepts — which, once understood, transform perception of a given subject, phenomenon, or experience” (Wikipedia). The discovery of the key to descriptional notation was indeed a threshold experience, as was the transition to algebraic notation. What a wonderful world we live in.

CV-19 Week 3 Day 2

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CV-19 Week 3 Day 2
Reading in Multiples

Legend tells us that Francisco de Quevedo possessed a revolving book stand-cum-lectern. He placed this on his table at meal times and he would have four books open at the same time, moving rapidly in his reading from one to another. I have always liked this idea. As a result, I am now doing something similar.

I began by taking out Don Quixote, which I am once again reading in Spanish. The adventures of our Ingenious Gentleman are a delight and this time, the slowness of my 28th reading of the 1605 text allows me to taste every word, to roll the syllables round the tongue, and to savor every word. With CV-19 on the loose, there are no deadlines, no use by dates, and nothing to prevent me from delaying the full enjoyment of each word of the text. Equally important, there is no class preparation, no waiting audience, just me, an old man now, following the thoughts and adventures of an old man as written by an old man, Miguel de Cervantes, way back when.

I have the Collected Poems of Phillip Larkin on the table beside me. What a different world. What depth of insight and observation. What a bearing of witness to the follies and foibles of an England that I left behind so long ago, much of it vanished now, along with the old choir stalls and the hedgerows, the cuckoos and the skylarks. I read and re-read The Old Fools and realize just how close I am to that cliff edge, that precipice, that Alpine peak, beneath which I shelter and seek succour. Then I turn to This be the Verse and I start to laugh at this portrayal of middle-class parental pretensions. This is Larkin’s open wit, but his sly wit, like that of Cervantes, but more bitter, creeps up on you and catches you unawares, unless you know how and where to look for it.

At my left elbow, Juan Ramón Jiménez’s Platero y yo awaits my attention. No children’s book this, but a wonderfully poetic recounting of a poet’s observations of Moguer, a small seaside town in Andalusia. This too is a book to read slowly, to savour, to taste each word, each story. This too is prose poetry at its best. Cervantes wrote that ‘epic poetry can be written in prose’ / la épica también puede escribirse en prosa‘. JRJ might equally well have written that ‘poetry can also be written in prose’ … an edict that I have tried to follow in my own writing.

For my more serious reading, I am dipping into the late Roger Scruton’s A Short History of Modern Philosophy (from Descartes to Wittgenstein). This is heavier reading, in some senses, yet the parallels between Descartes philosophical observations and Cervantes’s literary ones are well worth considering, for Cervantes often offers the practical where Descartes puts forward the theoretical.

I will be adding more titles to my reading as I progress. Needless to say, I am also wandering through the labyrinth of my own earlier writings, and they are so much fun to revisit too. I will add more on this topic, as our enforced enclosure progresses.

Comment: These visitors came to my garden last summer. It is a delight to offer my photographs of them as a counter to CV-19 for these butterflies symbolize the brevity and the beauty of our lives. Butterflies on a rock: poetry and literature in Canada, and even more fragile in these times of utmost fragility. Keep well, keep safe, and keep in touch with your loved ones by telephone, Skype, Messenger, e-mail, and keep everything safe.

Le Pont Mirabeau

Le Pont Mirabeau

Beneath Mirabeau Bridge flows the Seine
and so does our love
must I be reminded yet again
that happiness always follows pain

Let night descend let the hours sound
the days go by … I’m still around

Hand in hand let us stay here face to face
while beneath the bridge of our arms
like flowing waves our gazes interlace

Let night descend let the hours sound
the days go by … I’m still around

Love flows away like waves that flow
love flows away
hope fills us with dismay
and life passes slow

Let night descend let the hours sound
the days go by … I’m still around

Days and weeks flow by bye bye
along with former loves
and past times that did fly fly fly
they will never come back again
Beneath Mirabeau Bridge flows the Seine

Let night descend let the hours sound
the days go by … I’m still around

Comment: I spent the school year in Paris in 1962-1963 and I have always wanted to translate Le Pont Mirabeau from French into English. Today, I found both the time and energy to do so. It’s not a great translation, but it is mine. It also contains new revisions from an earlier post but note that the links in the earlier post no longer function. Click on the link above to get the French original.

Intertextuality

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Intertextuality

Intertextuality is the dialog that takes place between texts or as Merriam-Webster explains it: “the complex interrelationship between a text and other texts taken as a basic to the creation or interpretation of the text.”

Often we write from an intertextual perspective when we respond to other writers and their thoughts and imagery. This is why, in the creative process, reading can be as important as writing. Reading expands our vocabulary. It reinforces some of our own opinions and challenges others. Without reading, we are lonely rocks in sunless seas.

To be creative, we need to be aware of what others are writing and how they view the world we inhabit. When we read creatively we read with an eye to improving our creativity and our structures. We look for new ideas, new images, new words, new ways of expressing our thoughts.

Often we think we are being original when in fact we are re-processing, just as I am now, the ideas of other people. Given the nature of modern media, we are not always aware of all the multiple sources of our material: telephone, twitter, blogs, radio, television, newspapers (less and less), books, chapbooks, magazines, e-sources, lectures, chat groups, Facebook, and general conversations with other people who are also unaware of their sources. Thus ideas abound, float in the air, circulate and recirculate, submerge and resurface, shift their shapes and colors.

As writers we dip into that enormous moving mass of current and past culture and creativity and we choose our narrative lines, our characters, our structures, our images, our metaphors. As Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, better known as Molière, once wrote, “Mes idées? Je les prends où je les trouve.” My ideas? I take them from wherever I find them.

Imitation is the best form of flattery. Indeed it is. We cannot, however, borrow wholesale and just copy. Miguel de Cervantes borrowed the first five chapters of Don Quixote (the first sortie) from an earlier entremés entitled El Entremés de los romances. For a very long time, critics thought that Cervantes was the author of both pieces: they are very similar. However, even a quick analysis also shows that they are very different. The language of the entremés is much older while the conversion of theatre into narrative distinguishes them at a very basic level. Cervantes borrowed: but in borrowing, he adapted, he changed, he took the old form and converted it into something new and completely original. Nevertheless, we are still aware of the origins of the great novel that has many other borrowings woven into its fabric.

So, we indulge in intertextuality when we engage in a dialog with other texts and ‘borrow’ from other authors. To be original, we have to take that borrowing and turn it into something entirely different, something that becomes a part of ourselves and no longer exists as a part of that other text. Intertextuality is not copying. If we take a text in its entirety, if we ‘copy’, then we must acknowledge the source. However, when we indulge in a dialog with a text, when we transform a text, when we are ourselves transformed by a text, then that is a totally different situation. Think of the links between Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 film, The Seven Samurai, and its offspring, the 1960 western entitled The Magnificent Seven. They are very similar in so many ways … and yet they are so very different.

While intertextuality refers more to the larger elements of character and narrative structure, it also exists at the level of metaphor and image. Sometimes, without thinking, we use metaphors that we have heard before. Often we like the sound of a group of words, shuffle them around, and come up with a new meaning for them, a new metaphoric reality. This too is intertextuality.

At its best it is a very valuable addition to our creative tool kit.

While on the topic of creativity, let us spare a thought for our needs for creative time and space. We cannot create when we lack the blessings of time and space. Creativity is greatly hindered when we go hungry and need to complete back-breaking work just to sustain our lives and feed our families. Our relative wealth and leisure is a blessing: without them, we would be floundering in the pre-industrial world of subsistence farming, working at manual labor from dawn to dusk.

Let us spare a thought too for those oral societies that existed when people could not write. Or those early societies in which only the few, the happy few, were educated to the level at which they could actually read and write.

Intertextuality is a blessing, not a curse. Use it wisely, use it well.

Comment: I would like to thank Meg Sorick who suggested that I expand an earlier conversation that we had on the topic of Intertextuality.

Codification

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Codification

For me, it is vital to see how others read and interpret my work … what comes across, what doesn’t, how things are understood and read, sometimes in the same way, sometimes in different ways. It is always easy to pick out some favorite phrases. However, deciphering, interpreting, and then reacting to, a poem’s inner code, is a very different matter.

I love the cut and thrust of dialog … I was at our Tuesday night writing group meeting last night from 7-9:30 pm and we had a great time, back and forth across the table pecking, like wild birds perched on a literary feeder, at each others’ texts. My own texts are thickly layered and highly codified and I have become very interested in the theory of literary codification.

My own ideas are a development of those of Northrop Frye as he expressed them in The Great Code. When we lose our common code, to what extent do we need to explain a private one? This is of great import to Frye’s studies on William Blake, perhaps (in spite of his seeming simplicity in certain poems) one of the most difficult of English poets.

Perhaps the answer lies in Karl Jung’s theories on the racial subconscious: that we all share deep, (human) racial symbols that transcend words and often appear as symbols and images. If this is true, then we communicate, at a non-speech level, through metaphor and symbol, and that is more powerful and outreaching than linear language, however well and clearly codified it may be.

This emphasis on symbol, image, and metaphor leads us, of course, into surrealism, free writing, concrete poetry, sound poetry, and all those efforts to abandon the linear and reach into the subconscious roots of ‘that which binds us together as human beings’ … in my humanistic theories, to find the links that behind is more productive than the reinforce the fears and misbeliefs that separate. Alas, not everyone thinks that way in the literary world, and private codes can easily be used as wedges to force people apart.

We need codes, preferably codes that we can share. The question is, how explicit would we be, as writers, in explaining those codes? How closely should we imitate the writing codes of other people?

The eternal mystery of Aladdin’s Lamp: “New codes for old.” And don’t forget the magic words “Open Sesame.”

Ah, the joys of codification.

Commentary
This is a golden oldie, a repeat of an earlier post.  I am creating furiously at present and cannot always spend the time to create for the blog. Hence the repetitions and the golden oldies. Codification is something that has interested me for some time: the Biblical Code, The Western Tradition, Courtly Love, the Icy Fires of Petrarchism, Romanticism,  Impressionism, Expressionsim, Surrealism, Existentialism, Modernism, Post-Modernism … the -isms, once started, are apparently endless. All of these -isms spiral round the ideas of verbal codes. In codification, I would like to start a discussion on what these codes are, how they affect us, what do they mean, especially when they can be so totally personal. By all means, join the discussion: what do you mean by codes? How do you use them? How do you interpret the codes of other people? By all means post here, but better by far, rech out and discuss these things with your friends and your writing or art groups.