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Commuter Train

Just the idea of laying steel track,

Evenly spaced, there and back,

Boggles the brain.

But then - to build a train?

That makes the laying

Of track... seem like mere playing.

Harnessing explosive forces

To outpull a thousand horses...

How exactly is that done?

I wonder whether I'm the only one

Who's awestruck, as we glide along the rails,

At just how rarely this thunder beast fails.

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John,

This is a delightful little poem. It captures a very nice moment of wonderment during an everyday occurrence - a commute by train. The emotion is a typical Objectivist one instead of something like contemplating nature or an unimportant small detail, which is rare.

One question. The rhyme scheme is in twos, but the verses are in threes, making the rhymes overlap with the verses. Did you have any particular effect in mind by doing that?

Also, you avoided the normal cliche of making a clackety-clack type rhythm. The rhythm of your poem is pretty random. I imagine this was done to emphasize the emotion of random wonderment and not the train itself.

Did you have anything further in mind? (I believe discussing these things with the author is a wonderful manner for opening people's minds to what poetry is and how to let it enrich their lives.)

Michael

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Michael,

On the one hand, I could have just printed the poem as 2 sets of sixes, and the rhyme scheme vs. verse issue would have disappeared. But on the other hand, it seemed the meaning-paragraphs were in fact falling into threes, as were the rhythm-paragraphs, and I wanted the meaning to be very clear, particularly in the case of a rumination like this where the internal dialogue jumps around a bit.

One effect of breaking rhyme from sense, here, is to create a sense of tension at the end of the odd numbered verses, pulling your ear ahead into the even numbered verses, because your ear knows it is missing a rhyme.

I can't say I had the effect in mind, I just heard it happening. I do like the sense of suspense created by ending a meaning unit while leaving a rhyme unit hanging. I feel it creates a sense of yearning for forward motion.

As for the rhythm, this takes us back to those 3-line verses again. The rhythm changes every three lines, too.

Generally, the rhythm begins (1) with an unusual jerky dactylic/anapestic feel with descending beat counts, (2) picks up speed with a bouncy iambic trimeter/dimeter, (3) starts marching to a strong regular beat with trochaic tetrameter, and then (4) at last seems to settle into iambic pentameter, the standard verse of calm reflection in English. But just at the end of the last line, the rhythm alludes to the anapestic rhythm of the opening, for a sense of the circle being closed. This is done while maintaining the ten syllable count of iambic pentameter. Of course, that first line, jerky though it was, was also a ten-syllable line.

I would scan it this way:

/--/--/--/

/--/--/

/--/

-/-/-/

-/-/-

-/-/-/-

/-/-/-/-

/-/-/-/-

/-/-/-/

-/-/-/-/-/

-/-/-/-/-/

-/-/--/--/

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John,

Thank you for that explanation. Now I have a question that is even more basic (and this is for the benefit of non-poetry readers - those who want to appreciate poetry, but whose eyes glaze over when they see verse).

Why does a poet choose the form he chooses? How does the rhythm, rhyme scheme and other technical matters impact on his message? Tension is a good thing to prompt (and you made me think a bit there - thank you), but it is delivery, not the subject itself.

Most people, for example, have no idea why you would choose varied rhythms for a message about contemplating the glory behind the power of a commuter train (basically man's mind, which you brilliantly contrasted with "beast.").

The connection of the whys and hows between form and content is something I believe will make people read more poetry.

Any thoughts?

(Sorry to abuse your time, but having a willing author explain what he was doing is always a treat for readers.)

Michael

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Michael,

It's a good question, how sense gets wedded to form. I think that in many cases it is not really done at the conscious-calculating level, but at the sense-of-life level, of what feels right. In my case, I often start with a line, or a beginning of a line, that comes to me or appeals to me. Then I think about what kind of rhythm that line has and what kind of form might spring from it, and what kind of form I feel like doing.

I may also be influenced by what I have read lately. If I have been reading sonnets, the odds go up I will feel like writing a sonnet. Perhaps that's partly because I will have an orderly, constrained, sonnet-type feeling from reading all those sonnets and getting in a sonnet mood.

Indeed, there are times when a set and fairly rigid form appeals as a challenge and a recipe, a target to hit, a shape to twist into. At other times, cutting loose and generating a form as I go seems satisfying. A rigid form is more like a set ice-skating routine, cutting loose is more like cross-country skiing through an unknown woods.

Anyway, after all this vague theorizing, I would like to think this particular poem comes off as deceptively prosaic, keeping you off balance about where it's going, but giving you an uncertain feeling it's working its way to somewhere, until it finally roars home with the thunder beast image in celebration, as you say, of man's mind. When the image arrives, it has been quietly prepared for, so it feels natural, but still surprises with its force.

John

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This discussion reminds me of a great book by John Ciardi; How Does A Poem Mean. It covers wonderfully the "How" of poetry. I highly recommend it.

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  • 3 months later...

I like the rhyme scheme in particular. I played it as a drum beat on my thighs:

AA-B, A-BB, AA-B, A-BB

…and that showed me what I suspected: the rhythm of a train going over the tracks.

I was wondering, though: would Ayn Rand have liked this poem? Somehow O:) I cannot imagine Rand writing lyrically about a train. Whoever heard of such a thing? %? Next thing you'll tell me, is Rand wrote a book about an architect. :eek:

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  • 2 weeks later...

I have noooo idea whether Ayn Rand would have liked this poem. Her artistic tastes were difficult to predict. She liked some of Kipling, Swinburne, and Alexandr Blok.

Putting the inscrutable tastes of A.R. aside, I'm glad you enjoyed it.

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Thank you, John. Your poem gave me an Ayn Rand moment. Your poem reminded that we take so much for granted. I will be going across the country two weeks from now in 1 % of the time it took my ancester to cross it one-hundred sixty years ago. Thank you again. See you at Chapman

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It reminds me of Chopin's Waltz in A flat major op. 42:

chopin-waltz.jpg

The melody is in two beats against the three beat waltz rhythm, but with some fantasy you can also find a structure similar to that of the poem:

      1  2  1  2      (rhythm of the melody in the right hand)

1231231231 (right-hand eights according to the right-hand rhythm)

ababababab (right-hand eights according to the left-hand rhythm)

1 2 3 1 2 (left-hand)

The third line abababab would then correspond to the rhyme scheme aabbccdd and the second line 123123123 to the division of the verses in threes.

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John: "One effect of breaking rhyme from sense, here, is to create a sense of tension at the end of the odd numbered verses, pulling your ear ahead into the even numbered verses, because your ear knows it is missing a rhyme."

I'm fascinated by how often you -- and others -- use the language of music when discussing poetry. And that concern with sound and rhythm is often to be found in writers of prose, both fiction and nonfiction, as well. It certainly is a focus of mine; I've often said that if a sentence or paragraph I write "sings with the song I hear inside me," then I know I’ve said what I wanted to say in the manner in which I wanted to say it. And there is a kind of music in those writers whose style I most respond to that seems to match my own inner song.

Let me make an educated guess about you, John. I suspect that if you have a deeply emotional experience of some kind, you are not fully satisfied, the experience does not feel complete, until you find the poetic -- that is, musical -- words that describe it. I don't mean that you must write a complete poem, but that you feel a powerful need to put words, your kind of poetic-musical words, to the experience.

This has always been true of me, amd I learned that in various forms it also is true of people with other esthetic interests. For example, I was speaking to a man who is a passionate music lover, and when I questioned him, he said that for him an emotional experience is not complete until it has conjured up in his mind bars of a musical composition that he loves and that captures his feeling about the experience. A painter told me the same thing – that is, that she needs to find a visual “synonym” for a profound emotional experience. The synonym, for the writer, the music-lover, the painter, need not be of their own devising but may be the words, the music, the visual counterpart within the area of their particular esthetic love, or it may be a synonym they devise on the spot.

When I was much younger, I sometimes wondered if I was distancing myself from my own experiences. Why, I wondered, in the midst of an intense experience, do I seem to be stepping back and WRITING about it? But I came to understand that it was not an issue of distancing myself, but of making the world and myself intelligible on an emotional level.

Am I making myself clear? Does anyone else share this particular focus?

Barbara

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Barbara,

I don’t share your particular focus but what you say fits with thoughts I have been having about intuitive processes. The way I envision it, we are capable of processing experiential information without first attaching verbal labels to the elements of experience. We are able to isolate patterns in what we observe, identify these elements with “experiential” (as opposed to specifically verbal) symbols, and integrate these elements according to principles of association or causation. In this way our intuitive vision of existence develops wordlessly, with a combination of our own unique language and language that comes from culturally shared symbols (again I see the need for me to read Jung). Of course most of these processes would be classed as subconscious or unconscious processes.

You write of such intuitive processes:

*I've often said that if a sentence or paragraph I write "sings with the song I hear inside me," then I know I’ve said what I wanted to say in the manner in which I wanted to say it...

...an emotional experience is not complete until it has conjured up in his mind bars of a musical composition that he loves and that captures his feeling about the experience. A painter told me the same thing – that is, that she needs to find a visual “synonym” for a profound emotional experience. The synonym, for the writer, the music-lover, the painter, need not be of their own devising but may be the words, the music, the visual counterpart within the area of their particular esthetic love, or it may be a synonym they devise on the spot.*

We have two fundamental orientations to the information of our experience: the experiential/responsive; and the creative/assertive. You might call these two sides to our core or soul (see Nathaniel’s description of ego). Our soul can be reactive, reacting to a given perception, including emotional and cognitive reactions. Or it can be proactive, asserted creatively in our being and in our world. In your description of your particular intuitive focus you talk of an emotional reaction which you then strive to put into your own poetic language. This drive to put “your kind of poetic-musical words, to the experience” is the action, or rather the proaction, of the creative/assertive side of the soul. It is an act of will to proactively create one's vision of existence.

I don’t share your particular focus but I think I am beginning to understand the causation of the intuitive processes that underlie what you are talking about. My music is not aesthetic symbols and metaphor. It is physical causation. I create causal models, rather than aesthetic compositions, in my mind's eye. I think we have two basic types of intuitive processes: aesthetic, connected by symbolic association; and physical, connected by causal association. I tend to have an extreme bias towards the latter but I find I can learn a lot from those who are more accomplished with the former.

I think it is of great importance for us to learn how this intuitive level of processing operates. It is of great importance to understand our non-verbal, non-explicit, non-conscious ways of processing information. Our explicit processes are just the tip of our spiritual iceberg. Most of who we are, most of our behaviour, most of our visions of existence, resides in, or begins with, these intuitive processes. As I have said before, I also think this is where you will find some of the more important answers to your questions about “Objectivism’s plague.” The cause of this plague can be found at the level of intuitive processes in Rand’s character, the characters of her admirers, and the characters of her detractors. The level of intuitive psychological processes has been, still is, and will continue to be the battlefield for religious and philosophical world views. It is also the battlefield to see who’s vision of Objectivism will reign between competing camps.

What I am trying to say, Barbara, is that I think your post is pointing us in an important direction. We need to become more conscious of the non-conscious processes within us. That’s what your post is striving to do.

Paul

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  • 7 months later...
I have noooo idea whether Ayn Rand would have liked this poem. Her artistic tastes were difficult to predict. She liked some of Kipling, Swinburne, and Alexandr Blok.

Yesterday, in verifying something in my notes from Peikoff's 1976 lecture series The Philosophy of Objectivism, I came across the Q&A note in which Rand said she had no theory about poetry and that her favorites were Blok, Swinburne, and Kipling. Of course she meant Blok in Russian, not in translation. But here are a couple by Blok in English translation on the web, from which we the Russianless can get a glimpse. (I do not entirely understand them.)

"I Prefer the Gorgeous Freedom" (1898)

I prefer the gorgeous freedom,

And I fly to lands of grace,

Where in wide and clear meadows

All is good, as dreams, and blest.

Here they rise: the clover clear,

And corn-flower's gentle lace,

And the rustle is always here:

"Ears are leaning... Take your ways!"

In this immense sea of fair,

Only one of blades reclines.

You don't see in misty air,

I'd seen it!It will be mine!

---translation of Yevgeny Bonver, edited by Dmitry Karshtedt

(I have changed rice to rise -sb)

"A Girl Sang . . ." (1905)

A girl sang in the church choir

Of all who are weary in foreign lands,

Of all the ships gone out to sea,

Of all who have forgotten their joy.

Thus her voice sang, flying up to the dome,

And a ray of sun shone on her white shoulder,

And from the darkness all watched and listened

As the white dress sang in the ray.

And it seemed to all that joy would come,

That all ships had reached shelter in peaceful harbors,

That all weary people in foreign lands

Had found themselves a serene life.

And the voice was sweet, and the ray was thin,

And only above, at the altar gates,

In touch with Mystery, - a child wept

Because no one will ever return...

(Translator uncertain. Visit site of Northwestern University / Department of Slavic Languages & Literatures / Russian Poetry Home / Blok)

Edited by Stephen Boydstun
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Yesterday, in verifying something in my notes from Peikoff's 1976 lecture series The Philosophy of Objectivism, I came across the Q&A note in which Rand said she had no theory about poetry and that her favorites were Blok, Swinburne, and Kipling. Of course she meant Blok in Russian, not in translation. But here are a couple by Blok in English translation on the web, from which we the Russianless can get a glimpse. (I do not entirely understand them.)

I think I pretty much understand them. Translation does make for hard-to-interpret awkwardnesses. Although I know of Rand's saying that Blok was one of her favorites, I don't recall her naming specific poems of his that she particularly liked. If she did like these two poems, however, I can see why, since they're both poems of a solitary perspective.

"I Prefer the Gorgeous Freedom" (1898)

I prefer the gorgeous freedom,

And I fly to lands of grace,

Where in wide and clear meadows

All is good, as dreams, and blest.

Here they rise: the clover clear,

And corn-flower's gentle lace,

And the rustle is always here:

"Ears are leaning... Take your ways!"

That line I find non-pellucid. Possibly it means something about the field's "hearing" what's happening.

In this immense sea of fair,

Only one of blades reclines.

You don't see in misty air,

I'd seen it!It will be mine!

I interpret that to mean that the speaker had plucked a blossom -- leaving behind a reclining blade hard to discern in the "misty air." Recall Ayn's saying that she had a fierce possessiveness about writings she loved, almost feeling that they were hers alone and for someone else to love them besmirched them. I recall reading this, I'm not sure where. In Barbara's biography? Fits with the characterization of Dominique. Here the speaker has taken a blossom which no one else knows is missing from the meadow.

"A Girl Sang . . ." (1905)

A girl sang in the church choir

Of all who are weary in foreign lands,

Of all the ships gone out to sea,

Of all who have forgotten their joy.

Thus her voice sang, flying up to the dome,

And a ray of sun shone on her white shoulder,

And from the darkness all watched and listened

As the white dress sang in the ray.

I think Rand would have relished the dramatic visual image there -- the ray of sun shining on the white shoulder, the white dress "singing" while people watched and listened from the darkness.

And it seemed to all that joy would come,

That all ships had reached shelter in peaceful harbors,

That all weary people in foreign lands

Had found themselves a serene life.

And the voice was sweet, and the ray was thin,

And only above, at the altar gates,

In touch with Mystery, - a child wept

Because no one will ever return...

It's kind of an "Emperor's New Clothes" meaning, but with a beauty and poignancy not present in that tale. The child, at the altar gates -- I'm assuming this means the entrance to the front of the church where the priest officiates -- is in touch with the truth others are beguiled into not recognizing: that "no one will ever return."

Does the poem break off as punctuated, in trailing fashion? Or does the ellipsis indicate that the poem continues after the segment quoted?

Ellen

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Another translation... Translated from the Russian by Alec Vagapov

The girl was singing in a church choir,

About the weary abroad, far away,

About the ships in the sea, so dire,

And those who'd forgotten their happy day.

So sweet was her voice flying up into highness

With shimmering beam on her shoulder of white,

And every one listened watching from darkness

The way the white garment was singing in light.

And every one thought that the joy was there,

That the ships were all in a quiet bay,

And the weary people abroad, full of care,

Were now all blessed with a happy day.

The voice was sweet, and the beam was shining,

And only up there at the royal rack

A child, conversant with secret, was crying

That nobody, really, would ever come back.

August, 1905

Original of the choir poem:

Девушка пела в церковном хоре

О всех усталых в чужом краю,

О всех кораблях, ушедших в море,

О всех, забывших радость свою.

Так пел ее голос, летящий в купол,

И луч сиял на белом плече,

И каждый из мрака смотрел и слушал,

Как белое платье пело в луче.

И всем казалось, что радость будет,

Что в тихой заводи все корабли,

Что на чужбине усталые люди

Светлую жизнь себе обрели

И голос был сладок, и луч был тонок,

И только высоко, у царских врат,

Причастный тайнам,- плакал ребенок

О том, что никто не придет назад.

Август 1905

Original of the running in the meadow poem:

Там один и был цветок,

Ароматный, несравненный...

Жуковский1

Я стремлюсь к роскошной воле,

Мчусь к прекрасной стороне,

Где в широком чистом поле

Хорошо, как в чудном сне.

Там цветут и клевер пышный,

И невинный василек,

Вечно шелест легкий слышно:

Колос клонит... Путь далек!

Есть одно лишь в океане,

Клонит лишь одно траву...

Ты не видишь там, в тумане,

Я увидел - и сорву!

Both found:

http://www.litera.ru/stixiya/authors/blok.html

Edited by jenright
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Thanks, John, for posting the translation by Alec Vagapov of Blok's "A Girl Sang" (post above). Although that one has been put into rhyming English, and is smoother in its meter, I like the version in post #18 better. I find that version more emotionally powerful, and I expect it's closer to the feeling of the original Russian. Translating poetry is a bitch. ;-)

Ellen

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Edited by Ellen Stuttle
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Translating poetry is a bitch. ;-)

The meaning can be expounded.

Lost is the way it sounded.

I like to look at different Englishings of the same poem. I imagine I can interpolate back to the original. Folly, of course.

I want to mention these are very early poems from Blok. The meadow poem is from when he was 18, I believe. I came across a translation of the first stanza of that one:

I aspire to luxurious freedom,

Rush to the beautiful land,

Where in the broad clear field

It is good, as in a marvelous dream.

Doris V. Johnson translated it incidentally as part of her translation of a biography of Blok. She said her poetry translations were very literal.

I also came across yet another translation of the singing girl poem.

A girl was singing in the choir with fervour

of all who have known exile and distress,

of all the vessels that have left the harbour,

of all who have forgotten happiness.

Her voice soared up to the dome. Glistening,

a sunbeam brushed her shoulder in its flight,

and from the darkness all were listening

to the white dress singing in the beam of light.

It seemed to everyone that happiness

would come back, that the vessels all were safe,

that those who had known exile and distress

had rediscovered a radiant life.

The voice was beautiful, the sunbeam slender,

but up by the holy gates, under the dome,

a boy at communion wept to remember

that none of them would ever come home.

This is by a duo, Jon Stallworthy and Peter France, from their book of Blok translations: The Twelve and Other Poems. One of them was fluent in Russian, the other a verse maker, and they worked together to try to get it right.

John

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Thanks, again, John, for the additional translations.

I compared the two rhymed versions of "A Girl Sang" side by side. Since they both use a, b, a, b, I suppose that's the scheme of the original, too. I like the sound of the Stallworthy and France version better than that of the Alec Vagapov one. The latter is noticeably sing-songy, a sound effect which I feel clashes with the meaning.

Here's an interesting detail. Compare the 1st and 3rd stanzas of the Stallworthy and France version:

A girl was singing in the choir with fervour

of all who have known exile and distress,

of all the vessels that have left the harbour,

of all who have forgotten happiness.

[....]

It seemed to everyone that happiness

would come back, that the vessels all were safe,

that those who had known exile and distress

had rediscovered a radiant life.

[....]

Line 2 and 4 of stanza 1 are "distress"/"happiness";

line 1 and 3 of stanza 3 are "happiness"/"distress."

I still like the unrhymed one in post #18 the best of the three. Though it sounds rough, it nonetheless affects me with more power.

Ellen

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Edited by Ellen Stuttle
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Off on a tangent, I was thinking about these translations today and fondly remembered a peculiar but moving book that goes into poetry translation at philosophical depth. It's Le Ton beau de Marot, by Douglas Hoftstadter. It also contains about 50 translations of one old French poem, many of them by Hofstadter's wife, Carol. She died before the book was finished, and the book also meditates upon love and loss.

Edited by jenright
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