Thursday, July 31, 2008

Thomas Paine Ditto Works

Thomas Paine Ditto works began when our family discovered an old duplicating machine in the barn. Ditto machines worked with something called a spirit master (aha!) on a hand-cranked cylinder. They produced copies, usually purple, which smelled like alcohol. We took the machine to a company which once made Dittos and they reassembled it and sold us a can of duplicator fluid.
We started a little monthly magazine called the House Organ, laboriously hand-lettering every page, running it off on the Ditto machine, collating, stapling, and mailing it out to our friends. We named our small (very small) press for Thomas Paine, who was best known as a publisher of pamphlets urging the young American colonies to declare their independence.
In the first birthday issue of the House Organ, we tried to connect Thomas Paine to music, since one issue of the magazine was a music book. Tradition said that one of the first of Paine's Crisis Letters was written on a drum head. "Thomas Paine," our article said, "might have been speaking of music when he wrote 'The creation speaketh a universal language. It is an ever-existing original which every (person) can read. It cannot be suppressed.'"
We had about 50 subscribers by the time we gave up the magazine. The last copy, which would have been Volume 3, No. 4, was never printed. The only survivor of the Ditto Works was the music book, A Workbook for Organic Playing, which went into a dozen private printings of a few hundred copies each and which is still in use by a few devotees.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Odysseus Elytis

      If you're not Greek, you may not know the work of Odysseus Elytis, though he won the Nobel Prize for poetry in 1979. I have, framed and hanging next to my desk, a letter he once wrote to me. He says:
     "I am thankful for your letter. I think that this sudden message of love coming from a far country is for a poet the only reward. In our times, poetry can reveal and join similar sensibilities despite distance and other obstructions. Most people try to deal with their loneliness by practical means without understanding that there is another reality just over their heads, the only true reality, where time and pain and death don't have the same power."
    Mike Keeley, who taught Creative Writing at Princeton, translated Elytis' poetry in a way which managed to keep the lyricism and exuberance of the original phrases. Keeley once said he thought "The Mad Pomegranate Tree" was even better in English than in Greek.
      In his English translation, the poem starts out this way:

In these all-white courtyards where the south wind blows
Whistling through vaulted arcades, tell me, is it the mad pomegranate tree
That leaps in the light, scattering its fruitful laughter....

(Six Poets of Modern Greece, Thames and Hudson, translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard.)

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Small World

I was on the island of Crete, between the Greek mainland and the north coast of Africa, about a month ago. Sitting at a restaurant near the Morosini Fountain, I struck up a conversation with the couple sitting at the next table. They were from the East Coast city where I went to college and had gone to the same college the same years I was there. "Maybe you remember me," I said. "I wrote a column for the News-Sentinel." Amazingly, they did remember the column. It's so strange to think that when you put words on paper, (it was paper in those days) the words sometimes take on a life of their own.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Le Violon d'Ingres

As a young man, the French neo-classic painter Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres (1780-1867) was often strapped for money. He played the violin somewhat; as a teenager he was a second violinist in the Orchestre du Capitole de Toulouse. When Ingres needed cash to buy paints, often it was his violin playing which would solve the problem. The expression "Le Violon d'Ingres"--Ingres' Violin--came to mean something you had to do in order to do something you wanted to do.

Made-Up Words

The Metropolitan Museum in New York City has mounted a retrospective of the works of J.W.M. Turner, the 19th century British painter. In the current New Yorker, Peter Schjeldahl accuses Turner of "smooshing" paint on canvas. I don't object to made-up words, especially if they are sound effects or exclamations. I especially like blogger Camille Offenbach's "Geh!" In the case of the New Yorker's bit, however, I dislike "smoosh" because I have never seen any evidence of smooshing in Turner's works at the Tate in London or the Museum of Modern Art in New York or elsewhere, in books. I like Turner; Peter Schjeldahl does not. Why can't critics just make "I" statements instead of cosmic pronouncements?

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Who Am I, Anyway?

I won a poetry contest in second grade, but that was a long time ago.
I was a journalism major in college and I wrote for a metropolitan daily newspaper in the days before the Internet (please see ancient photograph with typewriter.) Newspaper writing and editing demand a kind of terseness, a word-Zen, almost. This kind of writing made me want to write expansive, meditative things and also poetry, a secret vice in which I indulge almost daily.

Write Right

I am a person who sometimes corrects punctuation on already-posted posters.
I am embarrassed if I find I've spelled something wrong.
I frequently disagree with Word's grammar check.
An apostrophe in the possessive "its" makes me mutter unkind things.
In other words, I love language, its purpose, its poetry, its nuance.

When somebody writes me a letter, I don't care about the spelling and the grammar. It's what you say, of course, that matters, much more than the way you say it. However, there will be times when anybody will need to write standard English in a more or less intelligent way: A job application, a school essay, a thesis, a love letter.

I like to write. I know that many people do not like to write. These are things I want to write about (or, as my high school English teacher would have said, about which I want to write.)

Having Something To Say

One of the best pieces of writing I ever read was an essay on washing dishes. The author was a Mexican student who was trying to learn English at the community college where I was volunteering. His work was written by hand, with many deletions and erasures. He described how his grandmother had taught him to wash dishes in very hot water with lots of soap, the glasses first, then the plates, and last the cutlery and pots.

All the while I was reading, the student apologized for his poor English. I am sure he didn't believe me when I said I thought his paper was wonderful.

The essay was wonderful because it revealed things about the writer: That he was respectful, that he was trying to learn, that he was modest and disciplined. His love for his grandmother was revealed in every word. He had something to say.