Tag Archives: poetry

The Divine Comedy

Abbandonate ogni speranza, voi che entrate!
Abandon every hope, ye who enter!
—posted above the entrance to Hell

Dante Alighieri

Okay, amici—next up is Dante Alighieri’s (DAHN-tay ah-li-GYAIR-ee) masterwork, La Divina Commedia (lah di-VEEN-ah ko-MADE-yah), The Divine Comedy. Dante wrote it in Tuscan-Italian during his exile from Florence in 1308-1321. The word ‘comedy’ is used in its old sense—this time, it all turns out all right—there aren’t a lot of laughs in this poem. On the other hand, it’s chock-full of mind-boggling imagery. Dante glommed onto mediæval Christian dogma and wrung every last drop of inspiration from it. You and I think of Hell being devils with pitchforks. Dante gives us 9 levels of Inferno, each for the severity of a particular sin. What’s Purgatory like? Dante imagines it as a series of challenges souls need to work through. Heaven, too, has a hierarchy of levels with the Trinity at the tippy-top. Along the way Dante meets people from history, condemned souls frozen in ice, an enormous Lucifer chewing on sinners, sinners drowning in a sea of poison, sinners with their heads twisted backwards as punishment for blasphemously predicting the future (punishments are aptly just—they fit the sin)…it’s the stuff of nightmares. Dante has to be one of the most creative writers ever.

The plot is pretty straightforward. Dante is both the narrator and the main character. He is spiritually lost & confused. Politics forced him to leave his hometown and exile is getting to him. Dante is magically whisked away to the 3 realms of afterlife: Inferno, Purgatory and Paradise. Dante’s hero, the Roman poet Virgil, is his guide through Inferno and Purgatory. In Paradise, Dante’s lost love Beatrice (Bay-a-TREET-chay) takes over as guide (she died when they were both young). Virgil shows Dante the horrible eternal punishments for sinners in Hell. When they get to Purgatory, Dante doesn’t just go through and look around like he’s on a ride at Disneyland. He joins in with the other souls to work through his spiritual shortcomings. That way, he’s allowed to see Heaven. Dante’s soul is refreshed and renewed. This is known in writing circles as character arc.

The whole adventure takes place over Easter weekend in ad 1300.* Dante wrote it in his own Tuscan dialect which became standard Italian because of La Commedia’s popularity. Just like The Canterbury Tales, The Divine Comedy enjoyed a huge audience thanks to the printing press.

Stuck nipple-high in a frozen lake

I’m an illustrator so I gotta tell you about this. Five centuries after Dante, Gustave Doré was France’s highest-paid illustrator (he could make his mortgage payments on time nearly every month) and he decided to illustrate La Commedia. He wanted to publish a deluxe edition. His publisher said, “Meh, not interested,” so Doré invested his own money and printed up just Inferno. Inferno was an instant blockbuster, his publisher said, “I’m an ass!” and together they produced Purgatorio and Paradiso. Don’t ever stop believing in yourself. Doré was a supremely talented artist. If you’ve never seen Doré’s stuff, you’re in for a treat. His images are every bit as inspired as Dante’s words.
https://www.openculture.com/2013/10/gustave-dores-dramatic-illustrations-of-dantes-divine-comedy.html
WARNING! There are paintings of nekkid people in this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oO1JTVuhymg
https://www.openculture.com/2015/04/artists-illustrate-dantes-divine-comedy-through-the-ages.html

https://essaypro.com/blog/divine-comedy-summary
https://www.britannica.com/biography/Dante-Alighieri/Legacy-and-influence
https://study.com/academy/lesson/the-divine-comedy-by-dante-summary-analysis-quiz.html
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Divine_Comedy
https://context.reverso.net/translation/italian-english/Lasciate+ogni+speranza
https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/comedy

* Just like Ebeneezer Scrooge met 3 ghosts over Christmas Eve night.
http://through-a-glass-brightly.blogspot.com/2013/12/kindred-spirits-juxtaposition-of-dante.html

The Canterbury Tales

Assembling the pilgrims at the Tabard Inn

Who doesn’t love reading Middle English poetry?

Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote
The droghte of Marche hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;

Here’s the Modern English version:

When that April with his showers sweet
The drought of March has pierced to the root
And bathed every (plant’s) vein in such liquor/liquid
From whose potency is created the flower

It’s the first four lines of The Canterbury Tales http://sites.fas.harvard.edu/~chaucer/gp-aloud.htm

The English author Geoffrey (sounds like the American name Jeffrey) Chaucer wrote The Canterbury Tales in Middle English over the years from 1387 to 1400. It’s a frame narrative—it’s a story made up of stories. The frame, the set-up, is that a group of people are gathered at an inn, about to start their pilgrimage to Saint Thomas á Becket’s shrine in Canterbury (pilgrimage is something devout believers do, a way of connecting with God. You travel, but also pray. Today, Christians and Jews make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem; Muslims make a hajj to Mecca). It’s a longish trip so the innkeeper says, “Let’s have a storytelling contest along the way. The prize for best story will be a free dinner when we get back.” So off they go.

People of every social class—nobility, clergy and peasantry—went on pilgrimages. A pilgrimage was an ideal situation for a writer doing social commentary. The story each character tells reflects an aspect of life in England at the time. The upper-class knight tells a story about chivalry and romance; the peasants tell bawdy stories and take verbal swipes at each other; the narrator tells a boring story in rhyme; the pardoner tells a moralizing story about how greed kills. 

The Canterbury Tales wasn’t the first book written in English rather than Latin, but it was a bestseller—especially when William Caxton printed it in 1483.

I ought to point out that as authors like Chaucer pioneered writing in their own language, they also shaped their language. Choices the authors made about spelling, grammar and syntax became established standards because they were being written down. Likewise, the early printers like William Caxton were establishing standards for books: size of paper and typeface design. I’ll get back to that in a few posts.

There are 24 (?) individual tales. I don’t think I’ll do my usual patented Western-Lit-In-Only-One-Sentence ® treatment of The Canterbury Tales because there’s some adult stuff in there that I can’t avoid since the adult stuff is the central part of some of these stories. As a Sunday school teacher who specialized in the Old Testament I got pretty good at covering those awkward family relationship moments in the Bible without actually—you know—saying what was going on but Chaucer taxes my poor powers of, uh—dissembling. I want you to enjoy your carefree middle-school-aged childhood innocence unfettered by the concerns of carpenters whose wives might be stepping out on them. You can read summaries of The Tales in the links below.

https://www.cliffsnotes.com/literature/c/the-canterbury-tales/summary
https://www.litcharts.com/lit/the-canterbury-tales/summary
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Canterbury_Tales
https://www.sparknotes.com/lit/the-canterbury-tales
https://www.britannica.com/video/73102/dramatization-Middle-English-lines-Geoffrey-Chaucer-The
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vernacular_literature
https://www.britannica.com/topic/history-of-Europe/The-growth-of-vernacular-literature
https://www.britannica.com/topic/history-of-Europe/Renaissance-science-and-technology
https://www.pinterest.com/pin/103090278954408620/
https://www.dictionary.com/browse/pilgrimage

Of course the matrons of River City had Chaucer’s number. How I adore this—https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mvhFs2bdRpE

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Beowulf in one sentence

And now, the moment you’ve been waiting for. Yes, you lucky readers, it’s time for my patented Western-Lit-In-Only-One-Sentence ® treatment of Beowulf! Ready? Hang on to your horned helmets ‘cause here we go—

The drinking song from The Student Prince ran through my head while I drew this one, so here’s the link. Isn’t that Anne Blyth adorable, though? Mario Lanza does the singing. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OI3Bcgh4Jko

In Denmark King Hrothgar builds a big mead-hall it’s a big barn where his warriors can hang out and party (mead is an adult beverage) play music and listen to storytellers they’re whooping it up and making a racket at all hours which annoys Grendel who is a horrible monster who lives in the swamp near the mead-hall Grendel terrorizes the Danes every night he even kills a bunch of

them which dampens the party atmosphere none of the Danish warriors is a match for Grendel finally a young Geatish warrior named Beowulf hears about Hrothgar’s situation Beowulf sails to Denmark with 14 guys Hrothgar holds a big feast for Beowulf at the feast a little wiseacre named Unferth says maybe Beowulf isn’t up to the job the music stops Beowulf tells the crowd all about the big things

he’s done the party starts back up again but then Grendel bursts in and Beowulf fights him unarmed because he’s so strong they have a rip-roaring mortal battle and Beowulf rips Grendel’s arm off so Grendel limps back to his swampy home to die the warriors party on and eventually fall asleep but things are about to get real Grendel’s mom is a much worse monster who chews gum and kills Danish warriors and she’s all out of chewing gum she comes to Hrothgar’s party and grabs Esher who was the emcee so Beowulf says I’ll handle this and tracks Grendel’s mom to a lake where Esher’s head is bobbing in the water and he thinks this must be the place so he dives down to her underwater lair at the bottom of the lake and they have a knock-down drag-em-out fight the situation looks bad for our hero but there’s a magic sword on the knick-knack shelf Beowulf grabs it and kills her with it so now no more monsters in Denmark King Hrothgar thanks Beowulf with great heaping piles of treasure they have another big party and Beowulf heads home with his pals he gives his treasure to King Higlac who rewards Beowulf with real estate and swords now we skip ahead 50 or 60 years Higlac is dead and Beowulf is king of the Geats there’s an underground cave full of treasure that’s guarded by a dragon some stupid Geat steals a bejeweled cup from the cave while the dragon’s asleep and when the dragon wakes up he knows right away the cup’s missing so he goes on a rampage and burns everything down including Beowulf’s house so Beowulf goes to the cave to kill the dragon but he’s not so young as he used to be they have a harum-scarum fiery battle Beowulf breaks his sword and the dragon bites him on the neck Beowulf’s old pal Wiglaf comes to the rescue and stabs the dragon then Beowulf cuts the dragon in half with his knife (it doesn’t say lengthwise or crosswise) but it’s game over for Beowulf that was his last fight Wiglaf builds a giant tomb for Beowulf with lots of treasure the Geats give Beowulf a viking send-off with a big funeral pyre and bury his ashes and treasure in the tomb.

https://www.ancient-literature.com/other_beowulf.html
https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-suffolk-43045874
Here’s a movie reviewer who gets Beowulf. https://www.salon.com/2007/11/20/beowulf_2/

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Frontier poetry

Well, okay, there’d been vernacular literature before the Renaissance. Poets who lived in the far-flung fringes of the Roman Empire had been writing their stuff in their own language long before the Renaissance. It seems reasonable to figure since so few people spoke or read Latin on the frontier, Latin wasn’t the best language to go with when writing poems. The epic poem Beowulf was written in Old English/Anglo-Saxon and dates from at least ad 1000—probably earlier.

J.R.R. Tolkien

Beowulf is a warrior-hero who slays monsters. His poem is the model for many epics that followed. F’rinstance, J.R.R. Tolkien was a mediæval literature scholar who got plenty of mileage out of Beowulf for his Lord of The Rings saga.* Dungeons & Dragons, Game of Thrones—how about Dune, Star Wars, comic books and superhero movies? How To Train Your Dragon did a neat twist on the Beowulf story. Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky is a Beowulf spoof. I have a crackpot theory that Beowulf was the inspiration for Dr Seuss’ How The Grinch Stole Christmas! https://johnmanders.wordpress.com/2009/11/23/youre-a-mean-one-mr-grendel/

Beowulf is a poem but it doesn’t sound like any poem we’re used to hearing. Instead of lines that rhyme with each other, poems from those days used alliteration. The Beowulf author repeated consonants, like in ‘the far-flung fringes’ from 2 paragraphs ago. I was lucky enough to hear Benjamin Bagby perform Beowulf (more alliteration!) in Pittsburgh some years back. Here’s Mr Bagby at the 92nd Street Y in NYC— https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2WcIK_8f7oQ

* Tolkien wrote a translation of Beowulf—https://www.amazon.com/Beowulf-Translation-Commentary-J-R-R-Tolkien/dp/0544570308 you may also like Sir Gawain and The Green Knight https://www.amazon.com/Gawain-Green-Knight-1996-02-06-Paperback/dp/B014BGYZCC/ref=sr_1_3?dchild=1&keywords=the+green+knight+tolkien&qid=1626837983&s=books&sr=1-3

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Homer starts the Vowel Movement


We speak by letting air flow from our lungs and through our vocal cords, located deep in our throats.

The Phoenician abjad was all consonants. A consonant is a hard sound you make in your mouth by closing off the air flow from your lungs. You make ‘D’ or ‘T’ by pressing your tongue to the roof of your mouth then releasing air. You make ‘K’ by closing the back of your mouth, then releasing air. Close your lips then pop ‘em open to make ‘P.’ Every consonant is made by closing the air flow in your mouth, then releasing it. To make ‘H, R, W & Y’ you don’t cut off air flow completely, but you do restrict it by a lot. You push a sudden gust of air out to say ‘hey.’ You lips and mouth tighten up to say ‘roo woo yay.’

On the other hand, vowel sounds are made by keeping your mouth open and letting the air flow freely. You adjust the shape of your open mouth to make ‘A, E, I, O & U.’

‘Y’ can be a vowel or a consonant.

Homer needed vowels to compose and recite poetry because a vowel can be extended over more than one beat. Try singing this without vowels: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZbrnXl2gO_k

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IuQ63QlJIMY

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Homer busts a dactyl


My pal Jeffrey K asked me about the Odyssey post: “Did Homer write it or rap it?” I said, “Both! He had to keep to a meter.”

The blind Greek poet Homer wrote and recited or sang the Odyssey. Rap music is sung poetry, or at least it’s spoken over a musical beat. In both cases the poetry needs to stick to a meter.

A meter is the rhythm of a poem. Each line of a poem gets a precise amount of syllables. Homer’s epics are written and recited in dactylic hexameter. Hexameter means six ‘feet’ in each line. Each foot is a dactyl: one long and 2 short syllables. Boom-diddy. Boom-diddy, boom-diddy, boom-diddy, boom-diddy, boom-diddy, boom-diddy is kind of repetitive so Homer mixed it up by sometimes making the last foot 2 long syllables or sitting a long word over 2 feet or replacing the 2 short syllables with a long one.

The poet is the only person who needs to know this technical stuff. When you read or hear a good poem you’re aware that it’s satisfying to listen to. When you read classic poetry you’re aware of a rhythm that lures you into that world. A rapper recites a poem and emphasizes different syllables to play with or against the accompanying music, but the poem still sticks to a meter, its rhythm.

Poetry raises language from a means of communicating to an art form.

Why am I telling you this? Because if you’re going to write poetry in dactylic hexameter, it’ll be nearly impossible to do without vowels. You need vowels to extend a syllable. You need vowels to divide a word into syllables. And the Phoenician abjad didn’t have vowels.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dactylic_hexameter
https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/rhythm
Dactyl means ‘finger’ in Greek.
https://video.search.yahoo.com/yhs/search?fr=yhs-trp-001&ei=UTF-8&hsimp=yhs-001&hspart=trp&p=rapper%27s+delight+lyrics&type=Y143_F163_201897_121020#id=1&vid=d7b5953b49a56c301fdde7d113c23d0b&action=click

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The Odyssey in one sentence

Odysseus had himself tied to the mast so he could listen to the Sirens without jumping overboard (of course there’s a link to the song below).

If you read The Iliad, you may remember Odysseus, one of the Greek commanders in the Trojan War. That was 20 years before this story, The Odyssey, which is about Odysseus trying to get back home to Ithaca where he left his wife and son. Homer, the blind poet who wrote it, starts the story in the middle—or, say it with me, in medias res (you need to know this or they won’t let you graduate from college).  Okay, here we go—

Polyphemus the cyclops

We join our hero Odysseus wasting time on the island Ogygia with the demigoddess Calypso who is a real cutie while his wife and kid patiently wait for Odysseus to come home where a bunch of guys hang around Penelope (his wife) hoping she’ll marry one of them she tells them to get lost but they won’t go away and every night they throw loud parties at Odysseus’ house and eat all the food the goddess Athena says this is not good so she sends the messenger-god Hermes to tell Odysseus to quit stepping out on Mrs Odysseus and go home Athena gives Telemachus (Odysseus’ son) courage to stand up to the creeps pestering Penelope so they start thinking about how to murder him Odysseus finally waves goodbye to Calypso and sails until he lands at Phaeacia and falls asleep on the beach Princess Nausicaa finds Odysseus who looks like a beach bum she introduces him to mom and dad Odysseus tells them about his adventures like how the Cicones punished Odysseus’ men for being greedy and how the Lotus Eaters got everybody high on flowers and how Odysseus blinded the one-eyed Cyclops Polyphemus which wasn’t such a hot idea because Polyphemus’ dad is the sea-god Poseidon Odysseus tells them about that old bag of wind Aeolus and the Laestrygonians who eat people and the witch Circe who turned his men into pigs and the irresistible Sirens who sing to sailors until their ships crash and the monsters Scylla and Charybdis and how finally Odysseus and his crew landed on the Island of the Sun the crew were really hungry so they barbecued the Sun-god’s cows which cheesed off Zeus who killed every man except Odysseus with a bolt of lightning so Odysseus floated on a raft to Calypso’s island and stayed put for seven years Odysseus finally wraps up his story and the king gives him a ship so Odysseus sails home to Ithaca he dresses like a beggar so nobody will recognize him and meets up with Telemachus and a pig-farmer they all go to Odysseus’ house to beat up the creeps Odysseus’ old dog Argos recognizes him so does his old nurse but not Penelope the creeps give Odysseus some flack because they think he’s just some beggar now after 20 years Penelope figures Odysseus ain’t coming back so I’ll marry one of these idiots whoever can win an archery contest but you have to use my husband’s bow and shoot an arrow through a row of axes that have holes in them none of the creeps can even get a string on Odysseus’ bow so then the old beggar comes up strings the bow and shoots an arrow through the axes now everybody knows who he is Odysseus and Telemachus kill all the creeps Odysseus and Penelope are together again and everything in Ithaca is back to good ol’ normal.

Odysseus disguised as a beggar

Thanks to LitCharts https://www.litcharts.com/lit/the-odyssey/summary
https://video.search.yahoo.com/yhs/search?fr=yhs-trp-001&hsimp=yhs-001&hspart=trp&p=ray+harryhausen+cyclops#id=5&vid=71e2e8a5a17758c3b7fce1801e453164&action=click
The irresistible Annette Hanshaw—
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3ao1LoDCr_4


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