Loss of …

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Loss of …

By the time I remembered your name,
I had forgotten your face. Then I couldn’t
recall why I wanted to talk to you.

I trace dark landmarks on the back of scarred
hands: blood maps, unremembered encounters,
dust covered photographs, grey, grim, anonymous,

not belonging in any family album.
At night I cruise among islands, emerald green
against sapphire seas. Why didn’t I visit

some of these places? Golden sand trickles through
night’s fingers and time’s hour glass, as stars
sparkle and planets dance in Platonic skies.

My memory fails. I wake each morning
unaware of where I have been the night before.
I track the sails of drifting ships, white moths.

I think I have caught them in overnight traps,
but they fly each morning in dawn’s forgiving light.
I give chase with pen and paper, fine butterfly nets

seeking wild thoughts waiting to be caught, then tamed.
I grasp at something just beyond my fingertips,
but I can’t quite remember what it is.

Comment: I first published this poem on July 31, 2018 (click here for the original post). Here it is now, in revised form. I find the revision process to be totally fascinating: the polishing of old ideas, the arrival of new ones, a different structure, a reshaping of the poem’s internal logic. So much happens in the revision process. Many great poets wrote and rewrote their poems, again and again.  I consider Francisco de Quevedo and Juan Ramón Jiménez to be poets who continually revised. A perusal of the variants to their poems (28 versions in the case of some of Quevedo’s poems) gives the reader an understanding of how the great poets think, of how they purge, intensify, sometimes simplify, usually improve their initial instincts. We lesser poets can learn so much from the greats. Above all, we can understand that poetry is a life-long practice, that it is a love of words and emotions, that it is a desire to catch and preserve the uncatchable that can never be completely caught. The critics say that the reader can never know the writer’s intentions. I agree with that, to a certain extent, as I never know why I am writing what I put down on the page. I guess I often have no intent. More important, my original intention can change as I write, and what I write is by no means what you understand I wrote when you read, for each of us processes the imagery, especially metaphors, in a different, and very personal, fashion. That said, when I rewrite a thought pattern emerges and my intentions become that much clearer, not from the words on the page, but from the footpath that led me in different directions until the final version emerged on the page.

Curse of Cursive

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The Curse of Cursive
Wednesday Workshop
8 August 2018

It appears we will no longer teach cursive writing in our schools. Instead, we will teach our children to print. I will not pass judgement on this decision. Quite simply, my handwriting has always been bad. Very bad. I have never worked out why, but I suspect that it is because I think very quickly and my hand tries to keep up with my brain, and the result is the scrawl that I call my handwriting.

I type with two fingers, too, and stare at the keyboard as I am doing so. I tried to follow a typing course one year. I worked at it for two months. At the end of that time, I tried my touch typing examination and managed a rate of 78 words a minute with an accuracy of  82%. I did the same test with my trusted two fingers: 114 words a minute accuracy rate 98%. Oh dear. I still type with two fingers and I still write badly and no, my thoughts have not slowed down.

Just glance through the above photograph, taken from the journal I keep everyday. “Almas de Violeta,” it reads, “an early poetry book by Juan Ramón Jiménez, the Nobel winning poet, was first published in violet ink. I have a copy of his complete works, Obras completas, in which these early poems still appear in purple, or violet rather, to match the color of the title. He published in green ink too, but personally I prefer the purple. Bruised clouds on an evening sky, dark depths of a rainbow glow, Northern Lights singing at the deep end of their scale … or just a desire to be different … slightly different, as if that one thing, the color of my ink, might tip the scales and turn me from mediocre to celebrity with a wave of a violet wand or the click of a pair of ink-stained fingers.”

Now, wasn’t that easy! And there’s so much personality in tone and color, ebb and flow, the link of a poet to the words on his page.

Once, in a faraway library in a distant, magical land, I was studying an autograph manuscript, written by Francisco de Quevedo (1580-1645). The hand-writing began very steadily. Then I noticed a red dot or two on the page. Then a larger stain. Our poet was a notorious drinker. The letters grew large and loopy. The paragraphs sprawled. Punctuation marks and accents, slashed and splashed, and missed their targets. By the end of his evening, with his bottle surely empty and gone, I could just about make out what the good man had written.

When I turned the manuscript folio, from recto to verso, it was a new day and the original handwriting was back, small and neat. I have noticed the same phenomenon when I write late at night. Unreadable words, occasional wine splutters, spelling and grammar mistakes, disjointed readability … but the thoughts and the ideas are still there, still clear. Sure, I need a bit of hard work to interpret some things, but that’s the curse of the cursive, I guess.

Plagiary: Wednesday Workshop

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Plagiary
Wednesday Workshop
9 August 2017

No, plagiary has nothing to do with the plague, though it might do in certain circumstances, especially if a plagiarist is plagued by lawsuits from others who think that the thief has benefitted financially or unfairly from the theft.

What is plagiary? The Merriam-Webster dictionary suggests the following, and I quote, with references:

Plagiarius, the Latin source of “plagiary,” literally means “kidnapper.” “Plagiarius” has its roots in the noun “plagium,” meaning both “kidnapping” and “the netting of game,” and ultimately in the noun plaga, meaning “net.” The literal sense of “plagiarius” was adopted into English; in the 17th and early 18th century, a kidnapper might be referred to as a “plagiary,” and, in the legalese of the time, kidnapping was “plagium.” But “plagiarius” also had a couple of figurative meanings – “seducer” and “literary thief.” It is the latter that has made the most enduring contribution to the English language. A “plagiary” could also be one who commits literary theft (now usually referred to as a “plagiarist”) or the act or product of such theft (now, more commonly, “plagiarism”).

https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/plagiary

From the above definition, we can conclude that plagiary is theft, the stealing of another person’s work, and, above all, the presenting of that work as if it belonged to the plagiarist. In other words, creators create: they are not meant to steal and misrepresent.

Does plagiary matter? Of course it does. By its very definition, theft, it is one of the Ten Commandments, and therefore something to be avoided: Thou shalt not steal. However, as with all things, the gravity of the crime depends very much upon the circumstances. In academia, where creativity and original thought is the ‘name of the game’, the theft of intellectual property is considered by the gatekeepers of the purity of knowledge to be a very serious offence. That is why so many universities so carefully define plagiary / plagiarism and place such stiff academic penalties on the plagiarists who offend. By extension, certain professions, such as journalism and science (in the broadest sense, the creation, protection, and distribution of knowledge) must hold to very strict rules on the subject of intellectual theft.

The article on plagiarism in Wikipedia [ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plagiarism ] opens several horizons. It stresses that academia (with its spin off into scientific and industrial research) and journalism (with its theory of scooping) are the two biggest areas in which plagiarism is considered offensive. Plagiarism, the article stresses, more than anything else, is re-quoting other people’s material while claiming it as one’s own and without citing the sources from which it was taken. This quickly leads to the infringement of copyright and this is a much more serious and complicated legal matter, as the article points out.

As for literary and artistic plagiary, this is a very different kettle of fish as artists seem to borrow from each other in the most curious of ways. Molière, for example, proudly announced that, as for his artistic material, “Je le prends où je le trouve.” This roughly translates as “I take it from wherever I find it.” In his day and age, imitation was a favorite rhetorical device, and the imitation of other people’s work was considered more like flattery than theft. Miguel de Cervantes, in the Don Quixote, that most original of novels, took the first sortie of the famous and ingenious knight almost word for word from an earlier entremés (short play to be performed in the interval between the acts of a longer play) entitled El entremés de los romances. This is not so much ‘Homer nods’ as Homer ‘carries a gun and holds up a local bank’. Do we cry plagiary or imitatio when the similarities between the play and the novel’s opening are such that for a long time people attributed the Entremés de los romances to Cervantes and referred to it as his early work?

I follow the Spanish tradition and often use lines and words from other authors in my own work. However, I think that what I borrow is in most cases well enough known for it not to need quote marks, nor to need identifying. Though Lovers Be Lost and Broken Ghosts, two of my book titles, come directly from Dylan Thomas’s poetry. However, I quote the verses in the opening pages of each book and Dylan Thomas’s name is clearly attached to them. If, however, I write “Rage, rage against the dying of the light” … or “Rage, rage … ” against anything, I think personally that the attribution should be clear as should the literary dialog that I am starting within the text. Similarly, if I write that “July is the cruelest month, because we expect the sun and it is always raining”, then surely the reference to T. S. Eliot is clear as well, and so is the attribution and twisting of his ideas. I have used the phrase “Jack Pine Poems” before now, without referencing Milton Acorn, but most Canadian poets will be aware of the origin of the term without my writing “following in the footsteps of Milton Acorn and his Jack Pine Sonnets” ….

To further complicate the matter, plagiarism is a hydra, and its many heads may take a multitude of forms. Wikipedia suggests that there may well be a whole epidemic of what might be called ‘literary borrowings’ that verge on plagiarism; there is, for example, a touch of ‘literary theft’ about all of these: “plagiarism, literary theft, appropriation, incorporation, retelling, rewriting, recapitulation, revision, reprise, thematic variation, ironic retake, parody, imitation, stylistic theft, pastiches, collages, and deliberate assemblages.”

However, as the Wiki points out: “There is no rigorous and precise distinction between practices like imitation, stylistic plagiarism, copy, replica, and forgery. These appropriation procedures are the main axis of a literate culture, in which the tradition of the canonic past is being constantly rewritten.” The quote marks show that this list is lifted bodily from the Wikipedia article.

What I would underline most strongly is that “the canonic past is being constantly rewritten.” Literature is, to a large extent, a writer’s dialogue not only with (in my case) his own times, but also with the way other writers have seen the world and written about it. And not just written about it: think of the geometric expansion of oral literature. We hear so much, so much is repeated, words and phrases slip in and out of common usage. There is usually a prime over, an original author, but when a word r a phrase slips into what might be called ‘common usage’, then plagiarism takes a turn in a different direction.

“To borrow from one author is plagiary, to borrow from many is research,” as Oscar Wilde is rumored to have phrased it. As a result, what is considered to be a can of worms in academia, science, and journalism, may turn into an interesting and not necessarily a dishonest practice in the artistic world. How about the erotic cowboy novel that I am thinking of writing? I am going to call it Fifty Shades of Zane Grey … how many copyright laws am I breaking with that little joke? None, in my opinion, yet given a competent lawyer and two or more clients greedy for money, and virtually anything can be turned into a fertile battleground for legalistic dispute. Hopefully, the pitiful pennies that I own and the innocent and innocuous literary discourse that I exchange with other authors, many of them long dead, will not bring on a flurry of lawsuits.

“Where there’s muck, there’s money,” as a famous Yorkshire millionaire once said. So quit mucking about with even the possibility of plagiary, check your sources, and, if in any doubt at all, make sure that you add those quote marks and those references. And remember, it’s better to be safe than holding up your hand in court and saying “I’m very, very sorry, M’Lud.”

Feathered Kangaroo

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This is a photo of a Feathered Kangaroo
water hopping on PEI, Canada.

Feathered Kangaroo!

A long time ago, still wrapped in the stifling chrysalis of academia, a friend of mine tried to flutter her immanent butterfly wings by making a joke at a very serious conference. She was delivering a paper on one of my favorite Spanish poets, in which she examined the sundry variants of a sonnet that the poet first wrote in 1603, then re-wrote in 1613, revised again in 1627-28, and revised a couple more times before its final revision in 1643, about two years before his death (1645).

At the end of her paper, she was caught off-balance when faced by an apparently serious question from the audience “Did the poet make any more revisions after 1645?” In an effort at humor, she replied, “Well, actually, no. But when they were carrying his body to the church for the funeral, he popped his head out of the coffin and proclaimed in a loud voice ‘Hell, no, I won’t go. I haven’t finished revising the poem yet.’”

This off-hand academic pseudo-joke was greeted with a babble of excited voices and an elderly fellow scholar clapped his hands, exclaimed “Wonderful!” and, in the ensuing silence, asked her what documentary evidence she had for this astonishing revelation, hitherto unknown to the academic world. If she was off-balance before, she was clearly reeling at this stage: a punch-drunk amateur academic swaying before the hypnotic fists of Dr. Muhamad Ali. She smiled sweetly, said she would produce the proper evidence at the appropriate time, and left the podium.

Later, sharing drinky-poos with some fellow scholars, I listened to her as she made excuses for her strange sense of humor and I smiled as explained the situation to them. They were not amused. “You, madam, are an acknowledged expert in your field,” one of them told her. “Your fellow academics trust you and believe you when you make such statements. You must be very careful about what you say.”

Feahered Kangaroo, indeed, water-hopping on PEI!

Now I must make an apology on my own behalf. Alas, if you read the blog item I posted recently, you might be puzzled by the Gazunda tree. I am forced to admit there is no such thing, to the best of my knowledge, as a Gazunda tree, not in the main square in Oaxaca, nor anywhere else in the world. Of course, when it rains people have been known to go under certain trees to use them as an umbrella and thus to take shelter from the rain, but this is the full extent of the origin of the name: the tourist or the golfer or the walker or whatever goes under (say it fast — Gazunda) the tree when it rains. There is nothing more to the Gazunda tree than that little joke.

And this brings us to a really serious series of questions: how do we know things are true? How do we establish the truth of a statement? Why do we believe some people and not others, some facts and not others? How do we choose between a series of alternate truths all of them presented as factual realities when, in actual fact, not all of them are true? This leads us on to the basic foundations on which our knowledge is built: how do we distinguish between scientifically established facts, and hearsay, and gossip if we are ignorant of basic scientific knowledge and principles?

To this we must add the triple increases that threaten us. These are (1) the increase in the availability of real scientific knowledge that bombards us every day with fresh facts and new information; (2) the increase in sources of information and the easy access to those sources; (3) the fact that many of these sources, far too many in my opinion, present us with a fictional or heavily biased version of a pseudo- or alternate truth. And yes, in light of telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, we are indeed entitled to question the existence and indeed the very meaning of these words: alternate truths.

These considerations seem modern and up to date, but of course they are not. They can be found in Miguel de Cervantes’s novel, Don Quixote (Part One, 1605, and Part Two 1615). They are present throughout the meta-theater created by playwrights like Pedro Calderón de la Barca (1600-1681), who set similar dilemmas of truth and fiction in, for example, his play La Vida es Sueño (Life is a Dream) as well as in the twelve plays he wrote based on Cervantes’s masterpiece. They are also present in the writings of some of the philosophers of the day. This is exemplified in the following passage that comes, I think, from René Descartes:

“There is no earth, no heaven, no extended body, no magnitude, no place and that nonetheless I perceive these things and they seem good to me. And this is the most harrowing possibility of all, that our world is commanded by a deity who deceives humanity and we cannot avoid being misled for there may be systematic deception and then all is lost. And even the most reliable information is dubious, for we may be faced with an evil genius who is deceiving us and then there can be no reassurance in the foundations of our knowledge.”

“There can be no reassurance in the foundations of our knowledge.” These are chilling words and present us with the unfortunate fact that unless we ourselves, each one of us, to the best of our abilities search out the absolute truth about all we hear, say, and do, we are indeed lost and we must wander in the dark with no light to guide us. ‘A sad life this, when beneath the axe, we have no time to check our facts.’ So: hie thee to Wikipedia, or Google the infamous Feathered Kangaroo. Or you can take my photo and the words accompanying it for the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. The choice, my friends, is yours.

Night Thoughts

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Night Thoughts
(for Tanya Cliff)

The weight of the weather
with its dark clouds pushing
down on my shoulders
bends me to its omnipotent will.

I know my back doesn’t have
the power to lift up my heart
and soar above such heavy clouds.

I need a chariot of fire …
yet the clouds are so strong,
and the light is so weak
it won’t break through,
except in sudden flashes.

I hear the creak of sodden wheels.
Clouds blinker the lightning
as thunder crashes through my brain.

I listen to the pouring down of rain
and pull the bed sheets over my head.