mjj (flemmings) wrote,

The Poetry Party

Invisible Library missing chapter, from a chapter which may, for all I know, no longer exist. ETA: spoilers for the Invisible Library series, obviously.

The Poetry Party

"Really, Mr Strongrock, I can't understand your regard for the villanelle after the lapid simplicity of the Chinese poets you quote. The villanelle--" Vale's tone was savage-- "was something pseudo-pastoral French poets came up with to indulge their self-pity while still sounding clever. Pure adolescent drivel, all of it:

Ah, I have lost my turtledove!
How might a man endure such pain?
Oh pity me, the slave of love.

Her lips and all the smiles thereof,
Her pearly bosom without stain-
Ah, I have lost my turtledove!

One tiny shoe, one perfumed glove,
Poor tokens that to me remain:
Oh pity me, the slave of love.

All else is gone that might me move--
I stand benighted in the rain.
Ah, I have lost my turtledove!

So if at last push comes to shove
I'll put a bullet in my brain-
Oh pity me, the slave of love.

Which to forestall, ye powers above,
Most quickly bring her back again-
Ah, I have lost my turtledove!
Oh pity me, the slave of love."

Irene felt like applauding, though a disloyal part of her mind wondered if the composition was really as impromptu as Vale's manner suggested. She refrained, however, because Kai was looking dangerous. Dragons, she'd gathered, took poetry *seriously*, and such a frontal assault on his taste was possibly not a good idea.

"That a thing can be done badly," Kai was saying, "doesn't mean it can't be done well. Dylan Thomas--"

"And who else?" Vale cut in triumphantly. "Thomas wrote the only half-acceptable villanelle in English, bar the Welsh bombast. 'Curse, bless me now, with your fierce tears I pray.'" He snorted. "All the rest are contrived or feeble. Having the same lines repeat every verse always sounds trivial or pompous, and usually both."

"You admire the ghazal, where every other line ends in the same *word*. That doesn't strike you as contrived, to say nothing of monotonous?"

"Not in Persian. There the repetition resonates and its absence strikes the ear as wrong. But in English, yes, of *course* it feels contrived. That's why no sensible person tries to write ghazal in English. Our basic form of rhyming verse is the ballad--"

"Ballads have repeated refrains," Irene pointed out.

Vale gave her a withering look. "But the lyric poem has moved so far from the ballad that refrains jar the ear, even in the older poems. You'll notice most books omit them after the first stanza or so. It's rhymes we want, fresh and unexpected, not meaningless 'oh derry down derries' every other line."

"Speak for yourself," Kai said heatedly. "You want poems to be surprising-- no repetitions, no hint of what's to come. You think Chinese poetry is like that because you don't know Chinese. Our poetry follows tonal patterns and verbal juxtapositions: once you hear a line, you can guess what follows in the next as easily as you can anticipate a rhyme in English. Oh, and it rhymes as well. It's not all 'lapid simplicity'; we have quite as much 'oh derry down derry' as you do-- or rather, as much June-moon-spoon."

"Nothing I've read sounds like that at all--"

"Because you haven't read any rhyming translations. If you had-- Alright, listen:

The birds fly off into an empty sky
Above ringed hills, all autumn shades again:
I watch the tiny specks go winging by.

Southwards away green mountains pile high,
Their distant outlines far beyond our ken.
The birds fly off into an empty sky.

Tracing their flight, a man can only sigh-
'Oh, if I too were free to follow them!'
I watch the tiny specks go winging by,

And pass to where the sunny countries lie
Far from the darkening world of aging men.
The birds fly off into an empty sky.

None stays behind when winter comes so nigh-
Cold, bleak as that regret unspoken when
I watch the tiny specks go winging by.

None here to comfort, none to tell me why
My sadness has not ever found an end.
The birds fly off into an empty sky:
I watch the tiny specks go winging by.

Is that maudlin drivel or adolescent self-pity? In fact it's Wang Wei, the third great poet of the Tang dynasty."

"He didn't write that as a villanelle--"

"It translates as a villanelle, very nicely, and a lot closer to the feel of the original than the blank verse you prefer."

"Four lines into nineteen? More than a little expansion there, Mr Strongrock."

"Very well. There's this:

The birds fly off into an empty sky
The circling hills all autumn dun again;
From top to bottom of Huatzi Ridge,
When will my sadness ever find an end?"

"Better," Vale said grudgingly.

"Because it uses the ballad form you prefer," Kai snorted. "I can see your prejudices are unmovable. We'll just have to agree to disagree on this point."

"Probably a good idea. But I don't *prefer* the ballad form, which is after all a little simplistic. The sonnet is more intriguing, if it's Petrarchan."

The conversation drifted off into considerations of the Petrarchan sonnet and the Elizabethan, and Shakespeare's unfortunate (in Vale's opinion) influence in making the latter dominant in English, and Shelley's variation in Ozymandias, and a host of other topics, until Singh looked at his watch and said he had to be off home. That broke off the evening; good-byes were said, and Kai and Irene soon found themselves in a cab headed to their apartment.

"That was nice," Irene said out of her dozy contentment. "Friends. Conversation," she supplied, in answer to Kai's quirked eyebrow.

"Are they so rare in your life?"

"No. I mean- Librarians tend to talk books, of course, but--" she waved a vague hand- "so much is technical talk, the what and where and how-to-gets. Work, you know?"

Kai nodded. "And of course the competitiveness."

"Err- yes. That does come in. But tonight was all about, mh, simple appreciation. It's been a long time."

"For me too," Kai agreed. "Pure discussion of the form- no one-up-manship--" he coughed suddenly. "Alright, not *much* one-up-manship."

"It helps to have a large body of verse committed to memory," Irene observed diplomatically.

"Our primary education consists of little else. Perhaps that gives me an advantage over Vale-- not that you'd know it..."

"But you've memorized translations as well. That gets you points."

"I have?"

"The Wang Wei you quoted," she reminded him.

"Oh. Those. Those were mine, actually. Off the cuff- not my best, I admit- but he annoyed me."

Irene blinked. "You made those up? Just like that?"

"Impromptu composition is also a part of our education. And a lot easier in western languages than in Chinese," he said feelingly. "At least you don't have to deal with tones."
Tags: fic, verse

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