I had a pleasant surprise at a gig I was playing at last night, as it turned out that one of my favourite Welsh singers was also on the programme.

The gig in question was a charity event down in Criccieth and I was there to play trombone with the Menai Bridge Intermediate Brass Band during the interval. The main programme included a couple of choirs, a most excellent piano/harp duo (I particularly enjoyed their renditions of Summertime and a couple of Scott Joplin rags), two fine opera singers (established tenor Gwyn Hughes Jones, who looked disconcertingly like my old friend Richard Burton (not the famous explorer or the famous actor), and up-and-coming soprano Alys Roberts) and the aforementioned singer (and also poet) Gwyneth Glyn, who is apparently a resident of Criccieth.

Gwyneth only did a couple of short sets in the concert, but one of them included her song Adra, which is one of my favourite songs. Here’s a link to a youtube video of the song, complete with a handy translation of the lyrics in case you don’t happen to speak Welsh (don’t be fooled by the first verse, which is mostly quotations of English-language songs, although I love the way there’s a Welsh one – Dwi’n mynd yn ôl i Blaenau Ffestiniog (I’m going home to Blaenau Ffestiniog) by the band Y Tebot Piws (The Purple Teapot) – thrown in).

I almost got a chance to speak to her in the interval (after we’d finished playing) but I was overcome by a bout of shyness and didn’t quite manage to pluck up the courage. After the gig (and having made the mistake of mentioning my earlier failure to Hannah, the conductor of my band, who then more or less frog-marched me over to her before standing by to watch me squirm) I made another attempt but that time was thwarted by my own politeness, as she was busy talking to other people and I didn’t want to butt in and didn’t get any natural openings to start talking to her before my lift was ready to depart.

This paragraph is addressed to Gwyneth Glyn on the unlikely event that she should ever stumble across my blog (and is more or less what I was planning say to her at the gig though, apart from the final sentence, not in Welsh as I had been intending): The bloke with the big beard who was loitering near you after the gig last night (that is, 9th December 2016 in Criccieth) would like to thank you for your delightful music and especially the beautiful song “Adra” which has been a favourite ever since he first heard it several years ago. He hopes that if the two of you should happen to cross paths again he may actually manage to talk to you. Diolch yn fawr iawn. 🙂

This post is dedicated both to Gwyneth Glyn and to my dear friend and conductor Hannah Retallick (who, after commiserating with me on my failure to talk to Gwyneth suggested I should blog about my near-encounter with her instead).

Addendum: A short while after posting the original version of this and reading Hannah’s encouraging feedback on Facebook (I forgot to mention that she’s also an aspiring writer as well as a fine musician), I was inspired to write a short poem to commemorate the events of last night. Somehow it seems appropriate, since Gwyneth Glyn is herself (as I said) a poet as well as a musician. This one’s a bit rough and ready, but I kind of like it as it stands (including the deliberate lack of punctuation and variable line length). So here it is, my “Memoir of meeting but not quite talking to Gwyneth Glyn in Criccieth, 9th December 2016”:

All I want to do
Is to talk to you
To say hello
To let you know
That I really like your song
But the words might come out wrong
So I stand and wait
Until it’s too late
Then home I go
And you’ll never know

I actually started off thinking of that (or at least a bit of it) as a potential song lyric and I may yet turn it into a song, but I’d probably have to regularise the meter a bit to do that, so maybe I won’t. Also, it occurs to me (after the fact – it certainly wasn’t a conscious thought when I wrote it) that the penultimate line is quite appropriate since my favourite Gwyneth Glyn song (and hence the one I allude to earlier in my poem) is “Adra”, which is the Welsh word for home.

Recursive poetry

I’ve mentioned a couple of times in previous blog posts that I rather like the xkcd webcomic, which describes itself as being “a webcomic of romance, sarcasm, math and language”.

It’s a daily comic which I follow on my blog reader and I more or less enjoy every instalment. Some stand out more than others, for various reasons, and today’s was one of these:

Ozymandias (xkcd)

There are two things I particularly like about this.

Firstly, I’ve always been fascinated by recursion, which is the basic idea on display here.

Secondly, Ozymandias (by Percy Shelley) is one of my favourite poems and is also the only thing I studied for A-Level English. That was because, when I did my A-Levels I had hoped to do English as one of them and got as far as attending one lesson (in which we read and analysed this poem). Unfortunately a timetable change meant that English clashed with chemistry and since at the time I was intending to go on and study chemistry at university, that meant I had to drop English. Unlike some other choices I’ve made, I’ve never considered that I may have made the wrong decision on this one, but I do still feel it was a bit of a shame that I didn’t get to pursue my formal studies of English a bit further. Of course, that hasn’t stopped me retaining an interest in literature (and especially poetry) over the years.

Plumming the depths of memory

Memory is a funny thing.

You can forget about something for many years and then, due to a random association (or even no discernible cause whatsoever), remember it suddenly.

This happened to me yesterday while I was eating a plum. All of a sudden, a couple of lines from a German poem that I vaguely learned almost 20 years ago (and haven’t looked at or thought about at all for several years) came floating into my mind.

In this case, the association wasn’t too random since it is actually a short poem about a plum tree by Bertold Brecht (who, I believe, was more famous as a playwright, though certainly also a well-respected poet).  It is called Der Pflaumenbaum (the Plum Tree) and it runs like this:

Im Hofe steht ein Pflaumenbaum,
Der ist klein, man glaubt es kaum.
Er hat ein Gitter drum,
So tritt ihn keiner um.

Der Kleine kann nicht größer wer’n.
Ja, größer wer’n, das möcht er gern;
‘s ist keine Red davon,
Er hat zu wenig Sonn.

Den Pflaumenbaum glaubt man ihm kaum,
Weil er nie eine Pflaume hat.
Doch er ist ein Pflaumenbaum,
Man kennt es an dem Blatt.

Here’s my own rough prose translation: “There’s a plum tree in the yard. It’s small and you hardly notice it. It has a fence round it, to stop people tripping over it. The small thing can’t grow any bigger. Yes, it would love to grow bigger; but there’s no way it can – it gets too little sun. You’d scarcely believe it’s a plum tree as it never has any plums. But it is a plum tree – you can tell by the leaves.”

On one level it’s quite a mundane, almost banal little tale and the simplicity of the meter coupled with the strong rhyming makes it sound suspiciously like doggerel verse.  However, I think it’s quite charming and also, especially in the middle stanza, rather sad.

One detail that I find quite interesting is that while the first two stanzas follow an AABB rhyming scheme, the third stanza switches to ABAB.  Also, there are a couple of places where the basic rhythm of the stanzas is varied, most notably in the penultimate line (which is emphasing the identity of the plum tree against all evidence to the contrary and perhaps, therefore, most needs to be a stand-out line).  This slight break in the regularity, I think, makes a huge difference to the sonic impact of the poem (though it would make it slightly more difficult to set it to music – an exercise which I might one day try).

All too short…

The opening lines of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18 have long been one of my favourite fragments of poetry, probably ever since the Darling Buds of May (which took its name from the end of line 3) was on TV in the early 1990s, although I never actually watched it at the time.

Although I have read the sonnet quite a few times over the years (it’s one of the few that I know at all well – I am currently engaged in a systematic read-through to rectify my limited knowledge of the others), only the first 3 lines are deeply etched in my memory:

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate.
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May…

When I re-read the sonnet the other day, I was particularly struck by the fourth line and I am trying to commit this (if not the rest of the sonnet) to memory so that I have a more balanced chunk available to recite when the occasion arises.

The line in question runs:

And summer’s lease hath all too short a date.

Perhaps I can appreciate this line more fully now I live in Wales, where our summers tend to be rather brief (although last year was a very pleasant exception).

Today has been one of those days that actually feels like summer.  The afternoon was made especially pleasant by a visit from my brother and sister-in-law.  We went for a nice walk along the cliffs near South Stack (just outside Holyhead), followed by a lovely dinner at the Marram Grass café in Newborough (the third time I’ve been there and the first when I’ve not been playing a gig).  Sadly, like the fleeting summer, their visit was all too short.

Once there lived a crocodile…

My recent experiments with kvass have been just one of the manifestations of my latest bout of slavophilia.

I have been interested in Russia for quite a long time, at least since a school trip to Moscow and Leningrad (shortly before it was renamed back to St Petersburg) in 1991.  I learned a small amount of Russian for that trip and then had a chance to study the language as a subsidiary module at university for a year in 1997-8.  Hand-in-hand with my interest in the language has been an interest in the culture of Russia.  Along with most of my other interests, these enjoy occasional periods at the forefront of my attention, with often quite long gaps in between.

In addition to various culinary-related activities and a spot of balalaika playing, not to mention listening to quite a lot of Russian music (including some by the Mighty Handful), I have recently been having another attempt to dust off my Russian language skills which have largely languished in disuse since I finished my university course 15 years ago.  My main goal is to be able to tackle some works of Russian literature (which I enjoy reading in translation) in their original language.

Most of my knowledge of Russian literature (in translation or otherwise) is confined to prose, but I have enjoyed my limited exposure to Russian poetry too.  In particular, I have fond memories of a poem that I studied as part of my Russian course.  This was Крокодил (Krokodil = Crocodile) by Korney Chukovsky, a popular children’s poet who was mostly active during the Soviet era.  We only actually studied the first 30 or so lines of the poem in our class and I later discovered that it is considerably longer than that (I think I originally thought we’d done the whole thing).  At one time I could remember more or less the whole of the section we’d studied.  These days I only have the first half dozen lines firmly committed to memory, although I can also remember several later snippets.

Here’s how the poem starts:

Жил да был
Он по улицам ходил,
Папиросы курил,
По-турецки говорил –
Крокодил, Крокодил Крокодилович!

That’s about as far as I can remember without having to look it up (although I did check the spelling).  A rough prose translation is:

Once there was a crocodile.  He was walking down the street, smoking cheap cigarettes and speaking Turkish.  Crocodile, son of Crocodile!

Obviously that translation loses all the poetry, even if it does retain the meaning fairly faithfully.  I did have a quick go at making a verse translation, but I didn’t manage to come up with anything good that stuck reasonably close to the original meaning.

There are a couple of interesting (?) observations about this first bit of the poem.

One is that, when I first learned it (in 1998, fairly shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union), I learned the third line as Он по Невскому ходил (“He was walking down Nevsky Prospect”; Nevsky Prospect is the name of the main street in St Petersburg).  When I looked for a version online a few years ago it had replaced по Невскому with по улицам (i.e. “down the road”, without specifying which road).  I had assumed that this edit was to remove a Soviet-era road name, but on checking it up just now I discovered that Nevsky Prospect was actually the original name (it was changed for a while during the Soviet era to Проспект 25 Октября – “Avenue of the 25th of October” – to commemorate the October Revolution of 1918) and that the poem was written in 1916, two years before the revolution took place.  I’m guessing that the original text had the reference to the Nevsky Prospect, that the other version was a later edit (most likely during the time when the road had a different name) and that both versions are now in circulation.  I think my preference is probably for the Nevsky version, since that’s the one I first learned and it sets the poem in a more definite location.

Another observation is that a reference to smoking in a children’s poem seems quite surprising if we judge by the standards of our own culture but is probably somewhat less so if we remember that the poem was written nearly 100 years ago in another country.  I remember my Russian teacher explaining the meaning of папиросы (papirosi), which is not the standard Russian word for cigarettes (сигареты – sigareti); I can’t remember entirely but I think it was essentially a type (rather than a brand) of cheap cigarettes commonly smoked in the Soviet Union (there are pages about papirosi on Wikipedia in several languages – including Russian, German and Spanish, but not English; I can’t quite follow any of them well enough to do more with a quick skim reading than just confirm my vague memory – it’s not that important for understanding or enjoying the poem anyway).

Finally (just because I know it will wind up a few of my friends to give three observations when I’ve said there were a couple :)), the line “Крокодил, Крокодил Крокодилович!” (Krokodil, Krokodil, Krokodilovich! = “Crocodile, Crocodile, son of Crocodile”) was the first line of the poem that I learned, as our teacher taught us that when she was explaining the Russian naming system (with its strong emphasis on patronymics) sometime before we looked at the rest of (the start of) the poem.  Although it is clear from the rest of the poem that it is about an actual crocodile, the word is here being treated as a proper noun (i.e. a name) and it is the name not only of the eponymous protagonist of the poem but also of his father (or, if not their actual name, it is at least indicating that his father was also a crocodile – probably no great surprise from a biological perspective!).  In any case, it is a lovely turn of phrase that rolls beautifully off the tongue in Russian.

Although we only did the very first part of the poem in my Russian lessons, I have subsequently read somewhat more of it.  I still have quite a lot to get through, though, and I will need to improve my Russian somewhat in order to understand it.  Still, if the start is anything to go by, understanding this poem will itself be a rich reward for any effort I expend in learning the language.

A new word I have

Question: What do Yoda and Gerard Manley-Hopkins have in common?

Answer: The speech of both is characterised by anastrophe.

There’s a fairly good chance that you’re familiar with the Star Wars films and therefore aware that Yoda tends to speak with a non-standard word order (“Help you I can” or “When 900 years old you reach, look as good you will not”).  It is less likely that you knew that anastrophe is the technical term for this.

I was first introduced to this term a few weeks ago when my brother, Wulf, was visiting me and happened to mention it in conversation.  Being a fan both of the small, green Jedi Master and of obscure words, I was delighted to learn this word and resolved to slip it into conversation at the first available opportunity.  Unfortunately I forgot it before I had a chance to do so, but Wulf wrote about the word in his blog the other day.

To save me forgetting it again, I decided I would write about it here (with links both to Wulf’s post and the Wikipedia article on the subject, which you’ll find above).

The term “anastrophe” is  a Greek word (ἀναστροφή in its native alphabet) meaning “a turning back or about”.  As a technical term in English (and a number of other languages which have also borrowed it from Greek, with slightly varying transliterations) it refers to deviations from the usual word order of a given language for the sake of emphasis.

The Wikipedia article remarks that Yoda, as a non-native speaker of English (or rather, Galactic Basic, which is represented by English in the Star Wars films) may have been using non-standard word order by mistake rather than on purpose, so his speech may not technically class as anastrophe.  Interestingly though, he does occasionally use standard word order.  Sometimes it seems to be for special emphasis (e.g. “You must not go!” when warning Luke against going to help his friends in Cloud City before completing his Jedi training), which suggests that it could be a kind of inverted anastrophe. At other times there doesn’t seem to be any special emphasis and one is led to suspect that the scriptwriters were just being inconsistent (or, if the weird word order is due to Yoda’s imperfect grasp of Basic and, presumably, the influence of his first language, perhaps it  is intentional that he sometimes gets it right and sometimes wrong; I’m sure my Welsh is a bit like that!).

The other example of an anastrophe user I mentioned was Gerard Manley Hopkins, a 19th century English poet who, according to Wikipedia, was particularly identified with the use of anastrophe.  He was quite experimental compared to many poets of his time and made several (fairly successful, IMHO) attempts to adapt the Welsh-language poetic techniques of cynghanedd to English verse, which is what especially attracts me to his work.

Here is just one example of a line from Hopkins, taken from The Wreck of the Deutschland (one of his longest and best-known works):

To the shrouds they took,—they shook in the hurling and horrible airs.

This line illustrates both anastrophe – in the rearrangement of “they took to the shrouds” – and cynghanedd-like features — the repetition of the “sh” sound and the “took” – “shook” internal rhyme, and possibly also the alliteration of “hurling” and “horrible”.  It certainly works well, at least within the context of the poem.

Marching and metres

Poetry, both the reading and writing of it, is among my many interests.  As I find so many things interesting, and time is finite, most of my interests enjoy occasional periods of fairly intense activity on my part, interspersed with quite long spells of more-or-less complete inactivity. If you’ve been following my blog for a while (or have looked back through some of the old posts) you will probably have, correctly, gained the impression that poetry has been one of the things that’s been occupying my time and my thought over the last few months.

I was interested to discover fairly recently that Stephen Fry has written a book about the fine art of writing poetry, entitled The Ode Less Travelled (and subtitled Unlocking the Poet Within).  It was published (by Hutchinson) back in 2005 but had escaped my notice until the other day, when I came across a reference to it somewhere or other.  Although I’m not exactly new to writing poetry I decided that this book could still teach me a few handy tips for improving my poetry (helping me to become a well-versed poet, you might say) and should at least be an interesting and entertaining read, so I lost little time in procuring a copy.

I have been working steadily through the book over the past few days.  As it is intended to teach the writing of poetry, and as learning is best achieved by doing rather than just reading, the book includes a number of exercises and I have decided that I’ll get much more out of the book if I take it fairly slowly and actually bother to do the exercises, rather than succumbing to my temptation to just read through it as fast aied quite a lot ofs possible.

The book, at least in the early chapters, focuses on fairly traditional metrical poetry.  I think that’s partly on the basis that a certain amount of structure is generally a good thing in poetry (certainly Stephen Fry seems not to buy into the idea that “anything goes” in poetry and I’m strongly inclined to agree with him) and also on the fact that even if you do want to write “free verse” it helps to have a good understanding of the basic rules before you start to break them (in much the same way that Picasso established himself as an excellent painter in a traditional vein before going on to pioneer several schools of abstract art).

I have just finished working through the first two chapters, which focus on iambic pentameter, the most widely used metre in English-language poetry; it was the staple of most of Shakespeare’s work to pick one, albeit particularly significant, example and is described by Fry as “the very breath of English verse”.   I’ve quite often used iambic pentameter in my own poetry (including my sonnet to coffee, which I posted recently).  However, the book has introduced me to (or at least increased my understanding of) several techniques that I was previously only peripherally aware of, which are used to break up the regularity of the iambic line.

I won’t go into detail here about the poetic devices used to spice up iambic pentameter, since you can read plenty about them on Wikipedia (or go out and get a copy of Fry’s book) if you’re that interested.  Suffice it to say that enjambment, caesura, feminine (or hypermetric) endings and substitutions (both trochaic and pyrrhic) are all handy techniques for enlivening a passage of iambic pentameter.  It isn’t necessary, of course, to use any of these techniques to write perfectly good poems.  My sonnet to coffee (which I think is a perfectly good poem, though you are free to disagree) has one or two possible examples of enjambment (although I think they are borderline at best, as the meaning of the individual clauses does stay pretty well within the confines of the lines), but I’m glad to know about the techniques both for helping my understanding of other people’s poems and giving me a broader palette to use for creating my own.

All this is really a very roundabout way of mentioning what I got up to last Saturday (apart from some of the poetry exercises from Stephen Fry’s book):  I took part in my first march with the Menai Bridge Band.  Apparently marches, like competitions, are a fairly standard part of the brass band world.  They are particularly fun if you play a large instrument such as a Bb bass (aka tuba, as they are usually called outside the brass band world).  Fortunately I discovered that we had some nice compact marching basses in our band room.  They sound at the same pitch as a standard bass but are only slightly bigger than a euphonium (which is an octave higher) and are therefore much easier to march with.  The downside is that you don’t get quite such a full sound and they only have 3 valves instead of 4, so the intonation isn’t quite so good on some notes, but that’s not a problem for marching.  This particular march was for the opening ceremony of Eisteddfod Môn (the Anglesey Eisteddfod), which this year is taking place in Holyhead.

You may be wondering what this has got to do with poetry.    After I’d got back from the march, I had a go at doing a poetry exercise which was to write some lines of (unrhymed) iambic pentameter using the techniques that I was referring to earlier.   I used the march as inspiration for the first few lines of the exercise.  Note that this isn’t, and isn’t intended to be, a polished poem.  I counted 5 pyrrhic substitutions (hint: it’s one per line), 2 trochaic substitutions, 3 feminine endings, 2 enjambments and a couple of caesuras in these lines.  You may like to see if you can spot them:

Today I went to Holyhead, to march
with the brass band.  We started near the station.
The rain held off until we started walking
and stopped again just as we reached the end.
That was my first experience of marching.