Guillaume Apollinaire: Exercice

Guillaume Apollinaire is another one of those folks who shows that you can be both a poet, and a very serious ass-kicker. 

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Street sign in the Saint-Germain-des-Prés neighborhood.

Guillaume Apollinaire is another one of those folks who shows that you can be both a poet–and a very serious ass-kicker.  Apollinaire tried to join the French army in Paris at the beginning of the First World War, but was turned down–because he wasn’t a French citizen.  (Polish, actually.)  Undaunted, he travelled south, tried again, and this time got in.  He was initially assigned to the artillery, but that wasn’t hard-core enough for him, and he asked for–and received–a transfer to the infantry.  He suffered a head wound in 1916, never really recovered from it, and in his weakened condition, died in the influenza epidemic of 1918.  Here is one of his poems, Exercice.

Exercice

Vers un village d l’arrière
S’en allaient quatre bombardiers
Ils étaient couvert de poussière
Depuis la tête jusqu’aux pieds

Ils regardaient la vaste plaine
En parlant entre eux du passé
Et ne se retournaient qu’à peine
Quand un obus avait toussé

Tous quatre de la classe seize
Parlaient d’antan non d’avenir
Ainsi se prolongeait l’ascèse
Qui les exerçait à mourir


French notes

In the last two lines, note the inversion: not L’ascèse qui les exerçait à mourir se prolongeait ainsi, but Ainsi se prolongeait l’ascèse qui les exerçait à mourir.  If you’d like to read an analysis of the various and sundry kinds of inversion that ainsi can trigger, as well as some quantitative data on ainsi-triggered inversion in Le Monde, see Lena Karssenberg and Karen Lahousse’s paper on the topic.

•    la poussière: dust.
•    la plaine: plain.
•    se retourner: (tourner la tête) turn around, do a double take; (changer de sens, de position) turn over, toss and turn; (se mettre à l’envers) turn over, overturn
•    la peine: punishment, sorrow, trouble—but, that’s not what it means here—see the next entry.
•    à peine: scarcely, hardly
•    un obus: shell (artillery).
•    tousser: to cough
•    d’antan: of yesteryear, of long ago
•    se prolonger: continue; perpetuate itself; persist; linger; go on; be continued; be extended
•    ascèse: This word is a tough one.  It’s not in any of my French-English dictionaries.  In Anne Greet’s translation (see below), it’s rendered as “ascesis.”  I found it in a monolingual (French-French) dictionary; the definition seemed to be something like asceticism.
•    exercer: to train, exercise, practice

What should we make of the past imperfect tense that is used throughout the poem?
Greet’s notes suggest that it produces a detachment between the poet and the four men: “The poet…is not part of the graphic little scene he is painting.  The verbs, in third person and imperfect tense, indicate that he is an omniscient observer.  This role produces a…fine balance in the poem between compassion and detachment.”

Towards a village in the rear
Marched four bombardiers
And they were covered with dirt
From head to foot

They stared at the vast plain
As they talked about the past
And they barely looked around
When a shell made a coughing sound

All four of class sixteen
Spoke of the past not future time
Thus the ascesis dragged on
That practiced them in dying

Translated by Anne Hyde Greet

You like Apollinaire, but like me, have trouble with the French?  I like Anne Hyde Greet’s translation of Calligrammes quite a bit.

Rest In Peace, Jacques Higelin

One of my friends once said this to me: “When I walked out of the room after finishing my bac [the French high school exit exam–your score on it determines a lot of the future course of your life], I said to myself: if I’d spent as much of the last four years studying as I did memorizing Higelin, I’d be going to a much better university.” 

One of my friends once said this to me: “When I walked out of the room after finishing my bac [the French high school exit exam–your score on it determines a lot about the future course of your life], I said to myself: if I’d spent as much of the last four years studying as I did memorizing Higelin, I’d be going to a much better university.”  Jacques Higelin died yesterday.  Go to his anglophone Wikipedia page and you’ll find a few short paragraphs–go to his francophone page, and it goes on for screen, after screen, after screen.  Here’s the most appropriate song of his that I could think of during this National Poetry Month–scroll down past the video for the lyrics.

J’suis mort qui qui dit mieux
Ben mon pauv’vieux, voilà aut’chose
J’suis mort qui, qui dit mieux
Mort le venin, coupée la rose
J’ai perdu mon âme en chemin
Qui qui la r’trouve s’la mette aux choses
J’ai perdu mon âme en chemin

Qui qui la r’trouve la jette aux chiens

J’m’avais collé avec une fumelle
Ben alors ça c’est la plus belle
J’m’avais collé avec une fumelle
L’jour où j’ai brûlé mes sabots
J’lui avais flanqué un marmot
Maint’nant qu’son père est plus d’ce monde
L’a poussé ce p’tit crève la faim
Faut qu’ma veuve lui cherche un parrain.

Elle lui en avait d’jà trouvé un
Eh j’ai pas les yeux dans ma poche

Elle lui en avait d’jà trouvé un
Dame faut prévoir, en cas d’besoin
C’est lui qui flanquera des taloches
A mon p’tiot pour qu’il s’tienne bien droit
C’est du joli, moi j’trouve ça moche
De cogner sur un plus p’tit qu’soi.

Cela dit dans c’putain d’cimetière
J’ai perdu mon humeur morose
Jamais plus personne ne vient
M’emmerder quand je me repose
A faire l’amour avec la terre
J’ai enfanté des p’tits vers blancs
Qui me nettoient, qui me digèrent
Qui font leur nid au creux d’mes dents.

Arrétez-moi si je déconne
Arrétez-moi ou passez m’voir
Sans violettes, sans pleurs ni couronnes
Venez perdre un moment d’cafard
J’vous f’rais visiter des cousins
Morts à la guerre ou morts de rien
Esprit qui vous cligne de l’oeil
Les bras tendus hors du cercueil

Aujourd’hui je vous sens bien lasse
Ne soyez plus intimidée
A mes côtés reste une place
Ne tient qu’à vous de l’occuper
Qu’est c’que tu as ? oui, le temps passe
Et le p’tit va rentrer de l’école
Dis lui q’son père a pas eu d’bol
‘L a raté l’train, c’était l’dernier

Attend un peu, ma femme, ma mie
Y’a un message pour le garçon
J’ai plus ma tête, voilà qu’j’oublie
Où j’ai niché l’accordéon
P’t’être à la cave, p’t’être au grenier
Je n’aurais repos pour qu’il apprenne
mais il est tard, sauve toi je t’aime
Riez pas du pauv’macchabé

Ceux qui ont jamais croqué d’la veuve
Les bordés d’nouilles, les tir à blanc
Qu’ont pas gagné une mort toute neuve
A la tombola des mutants
Peuvent pas savoir ce qui gigote
dans les trous du défunt cerveau
Quand sa moitié dépose une botte de rose
Sur l’chardon du terreau
Quand sa moitié dépose une botte de rose
Sur l’chardon du terreau


French notes

Je suis mort, qui qui dit mieux : This is a complicated line, combining an expression fron childish language (qui qui) with qui dit mieux, which is how an auctioneer tries to raise an amount that’s been bid.  An explanation from a friend:

“Qui dit mieux” est l’expression du commissaire priseur, mais pas “qui qui dit mieux”.   
En français commencer une phrase par “qui qui (veut des pâtes ?, chante si fort ?…etc…), est une formulation enfantine ou illettrée pour dire “Qui est-ce qui ? “.  La complexité de la construction grammaticale de ce bout de phrase non visible mentalement dans sa version orale, fait que jeunes élèves et adultes fâchés avec la belle langue le réduisent à “C’est qui qui + verbe” ou “Qui, qui + verbe”.

 

 

Mere anarchy

Ever since Obama got elected and the Republican Party went insane over the sight of a black man in the Oval Office, Yeats’s “The Second Coming” has become more and more meaningful to me.

I was never really all that struck by Yeats’ poem The Second Coming when I was an English major in college.  We mostly contented ourselves with showing off our knowledge of what a gyre is, and then moved on to Beowulf, or Salman Rushdie.  But, ever since Obama got elected and the Republican Party went insane over the sight of a black man in the Oval Office, The Second Coming has become more and more meaningful to me.  When Trump got elected, it went way past “meaningful” towards “frightening,” and nothing that has happened in the subsequent year+ that he’s been in office has done anything to make it less so.

As you can imagine, the imagery of this poem has generated enormous amounts of discussion, and I won’t pretend to even begin to get a handle on it.  Even the language is difficult to understand at points, and not just for reasons of obscure vocabulary.  Here are the two words that people have the most trouble with:

  • gyre: a spiral motion.  From what I understand, falcons hunt by flying in a widening spiral, or gyre.  I haven’t been able to find a video that shows it clearly, but if you have a strong stomach and want to see a falcon kill something: seek, and you shall find.
  • mere: the sense of the word here is an old one: pure, absolute.  See the Merriam-Webster entry here.  The typical meaning is something like “nothing more than”–He is a mere child.
  • to vexto trouble.

The Second Coming

W. B. Yeats, 1919

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

À Grenelle

Suddenly Bruant’s poem made sense.

For the 3rd day of National Poetry Month, here’s a slice of life from Aristide Bruant.

IMG_3629
My little bookstore.

I live in the most boring arrondissement of Paris.  The 15th typically doesn’t even show up in tourist guide-books–it’s the biggest arrondissement in the city, but it’s just a residential neighborhood, plain and simple.  (Plain and simple is an adverb, not an adjective–see the English notes below.)  The pearl of my little corner of the 15th is a small used bookstore on the boulevard Grenelle.  The floor is almost completely covered with stacks of books, to the point that if the owner ever has a heart attack in there, they will have to empty the store to get the stretcher inside–it’s adorable, and if the owner sees something that he thinks I’ll like, he puts it aside for me.

 

bruant_aristide
Aristide Bruant. He’s usually pictured wearing a wide-brimmed hat, but you can find such depictions anywhere… Source: http://www.dutempsdescerisesauxfeuillesmortes.net, https://goo.gl/rcFw9e

And yet: this being Paris, there are centuries of history everywhere around me.  An afternoon’s walk often takes me through the side streets to the west of the École militaire, the military academy that was meant to increase the size of the French officer corps by making it possible for the sons of non-aristocrats to get into it.  (Napoleon learned his craft there.)  Amongst those streets was the red-light district of this very military neighborhood, and the poet Aristide Bruant immortalized it in À Grenelle.

Much of this poem puzzled the shit out of me (see the English notes below for what that means) until the day that I walked into my little bookstore and the owner showed me something that he was saving for me.  Called Les mots et la chose, the trame (premise?) of Jean-Claude Carrière’s epistolary novel is that a retired lexicographer gets a letter in the mail from a struggling actress who pays her bills by dubbing pornographic films into French.  She’s tired of the limited vocabulary that she’s asked to use, and she requests that the lexicographer suggest some alternatives.  (Note the subjunctive: that the lexicographer suggest, not suggests.)  The rest of the book is his responses, with separate chapters for penises, breasts, la chose itself, etc.

IMG_0495Suddenly Bruant’s poem made sense.  Faire sentinelle: to stand guard, but also to have an erection.  La chapelle: chapel, but also vagina.  Other plays on words are more obvious, at least to a veteran (which I am, but Trump isn’t, having been excused from Vietnam due to a sore foot, although apparently said foot did not deter him from being an enthusiastic athlete).  Montaient à l’assaut de mes mamelons: the word le mamelon is a nipple or a small hill, and lemme tell ya, assaulting a hill is a highly technical undertaking–higher ground gives the defender a major advantage, and assaulting hills is the kind of thing that you really have to practice.  I was also impressed by the technical accuracy of this verse: …des lanciers, // Des dragons et des cuirassiers // Qui me montraient à me tenir en selle… Specifically, the fact that these soldiers who are teaching her “to stay in the saddle” (do French men all share the universally-held American man’s wish to “die in the saddle”?) are all mounted (i.e. on horseback) troops of one sort or another: lanciers and cuirassiers were cavalry troops, and dragons were “mounted infantry,” meaning that they travelled on horseback, but dismounted to fight.

There’s cool stuff in the poem for grammarians, as well–most notably, this line: J’en ai-t-y connu des lanciers…  Us anglophones struggle with both and en, and finding both of the together and with an inversion…well, good luck finding anything that complicated ever again, and if you do, please tell us about it in the comments…

738_yvette_guilbert
Yvette Guilbert in 1885. I HATE the Toulouse-Lautrec paintings of her, but looking at this photo, you can see why he did what he did with her… Source: franceculture.fr, https://goo.gl/RknwY1

Bruant’s poem was eventually recorded by Yvette Guilbert, and more recently by Patachou.  I hum it in my head whenever my train passes by the Chaussée d’Antin metro station, for reasons that will become clear when you get to the last verse.


À Grenelle

Aristide Bruant

Quand je vois des filles de dix-sept ans,
Ça me fait penser qu’y a bien longtemps
Moi aussi, je l’ai été, pucelle,
A Grenelle!Mais c’est un quartier plein de soldats,
On en rencontre à tous les pas,
Jour et nuit, ‘font sentinelles,
A Grenelle!J’en ai-t-y connu des lanciers,
Des dragons et des cuirassiers
Qui me montraient à me tenir en selle
A Grenelle!Fantassins, officiers, colons,
Montaient à l’assaut de mes mamelons!
Ils me prenaient pour une citadelle!
A Grenelle!

Moi, je les prenais tous pour amants,
Je commandais tous les régiments,
On m’appelait “Mâme la Colonelle”,
A Grenelle!

Mais ça me rapportait que de l’honneur,
Car si l’amour, ça fait le bonheur,
On fait pas fortune avec elle,
A Grenelle!

Bientôt je m’aperçus que mes beaux yeux
Sonnaient l’extinction des feux,
On se mirait plus dans ma prunelle
A Grenelle!

Mes bras, mes jambes, mes appâts,
Tout ça foutait le camp à grands pas,
J’osais plus faire la petite chapelle
A Grenelle!

Aujourd’hui que j’ai plus de position,
Les régiments me font une pension:
On me laisse manger à la gamelle,
A Grenelle!

Ça prouve que quand on est putain,
Faut s’établir Chaussée d’Antin,
Au lieu de se faire une clientèle
A Grenelle!

Scroll down for the English notes.

IMG_5803
The Chaussée d’Antin stop on line 7. Picture source: me.

English notes

plain and simpleClearly; without any complexity (Wiktionary).  Plain and simple is what linguists call a sentential or sentence-level adverb.  It describes the speaker’s attitude towards the assertion being made by the rest of the sentence: in this case, that the assertion is indisputably true.  Plain and simple is unusual in that most sentential adverbs come at the beginning of the sentence (Luckily, we didn’t miss the train); in contrast, plain and simple usually comes at the end of the sentence.  Some examples from the enTenTen13 corpus at the Sketch Engine web site, purveyor of fine linguistic corpora and the tools for searching them:

  • It doesn’t work, plain and simple.
  • Those things are just evil, plain and simple.
  • A mood disorder is an illness, plain and simple.
  • Seriously addressing the long-term fiscal problem means restraining entitlement spending growth, plain and simple.
  • That is the reason for the obesity epidemic, plain and simple.

to verb the shit out ofa delightful English adverb (well, maybe American–I don’t actually know much about British English) that intensifies the action of the verb.

  • Found : At most gay bars, probably confusing the shit out of everyone.
  • When and if it does happen it won’t freak the shit out of you…
  • The group is preparing to shock the shit out of tourists.
  • If there is one thing ATLA is overflowing with, it’s ladies absolutely walloping the shit out of everyone.
  • There’s not a critic in the world who could say anything to me, because I kick the shit out of myself way worse than anybody ever could.
  • What happened here was the jury didn’t like the victim, and so the wrong-doer got a walk, and frankly that should scare the shit out of you.
  • If you want this to be a legitimate sport, start running it like one and stop embarassing the shit out of everyone who has supported your organization since the get go.

Note that the modified verb is usually one with a negative sense–to confuse, to beat, to shock, to wallop (to hit very hard), to scare, to embarrass.  (Yes, it’s spelled wrong in the example above.)  But, it doesn’t have to be a negative verb; using it with a positive one is odd, though, and that gives a certain flavor to such uses.

  • I plan to enjoy the shit out of it.
  • I’d buy the shit out of those tickets.
  • Then go find your Peter Brand and hire the shit out of him before someone else does.
  • Choir! – but you have, right? – they are everyday people who get together on Tuesdays or Wednesdays to sing the shit out of something, usually a popular song from the last 30 years or so.
  • I want to marry the shit out of you and then I want to put a baby inside you as soon as you’ll let me.

The Chad Gadya machine

Yehuda Amichai is a good illustration of the fact that nobody hates war more than the people who have to fight it.  Amichai fought in four wars–and wrote one of the great poems of peace of the past century.

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Yehuda Amichai. Photo originally from Hana Amichai.

For the second day of National Poetry Month: Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai’s beautiful poem An Arab shepherd is searching for his goat on Mount Zion.  Amichai is yet another example of something that we’ve seen many times on this blog: being a poet doesn’t mean that you can’t kick ass.  From his Wikipedia entry:

He was a member of the Palmach, the strike force of the Haganah, the defense force of the Jewish community in Mandate Palestine. As a young man he volunteered and fought in World War II as a member of the British Army, and in the Negev on the southern front in the Israeli War of Independence.[4]

…In 1956, Amichai served in the Sinai War, and in 1973 he served in the Yom Kippur War.[6]

Amichai is also a good illustration of another thing that I hope you’ve gotten from this blog: nobody hates war more than the people who have to fight it.  Trump is, of course, a big fan of it–for other people, for other people’s children.  (He ditched out on Vietnam himself, and you’ll notice that none of his kids have served, either.)  Amichai fought in four wars–and wrote one of the great poems of peace of the past century.

An Arab Shepherd Is Searching For His Goat On Mount Zion

Yehuda Amichai

An Arab shepherd is searching for his goat on Mount Zion
and on the opposite hill I am searching for my little boy.
An Arab shepherd and a Jewish father
both in their temporary failure.
Our two voices met above
the Sultan’s Pool in the valley between us.
Neither of us wants the boy or the goat
to get caught in the wheels
of the “Chad Gadya” machine.

Afterward we found them among the bushes,
and our voices came back inside us
laughing and crying.

Searching for a goat or for a child has always been
the beginning of a new religion in these mountains.


…caught in the wheels of the “Chad Gadya” machine: this is a metaphor for a sort of process of tit-for-tat that snowballs out of control (whoops, another metaphor–sorry).  Chad Gadya is a song that’s sung at the end of the seder, the (loooooong) ritual meal eaten on the first two evenings of Pesach (Passover, or la Pâque des juifs, as it’s called in French–“Jewish Passover.”  This always makes me smile–and, yes, I’m Jewish.)  It’s a highly allusive/metaphorical story, like … well, like every Jewish story I’ve ever heard.  “Chad gadya” is Aramaic for “one kid”–in English, a baby goat is a kid.  The plot line of the song: Father buys a baby goat.  The cat eats the goat.  So, the dog bites the cat.  So, the stick hits the dog.  So, the fire burns the stick, the water puts the fire out, and on, and on, and on.  Hence:

Neither of us wants the boy or the goat
to get caught in the wheels
of the “Chad Gadya” machine.


In case you were wondering: Aramaic is similar to Hebrew–you can recognize Aramaic by the frequent presence of at the end of nouns where you wouldn’t expect them in Hebrew.  It’s the definite article (the), which in Hebrew is ha- at the beginning of the word. For example, here’s a chunk of the lyrics:

le-tora de-shatah le-mayathe ox that drank the water,

de-khavah le-nura de-saraf le-chutrathat put out the fire that burnt the stick,

de-hikkah le-khalba de-nashakh le-shunrathat hit the dog that bit the cat,

de-akhlah le-gadya dizabin abba bitrei zuzei.  that ate the kid that Dad bought for two zuzim.

“What about the at the end of abba,” you’re wondering?  No–that one’s just part of the word abba–Dad or Daddy.

…and with that, I’ll stop language-geeking and go watch an episode of Santa Clarita Diet.  The always-adorable Drew Barrymore as a zombie–brilliant, just brilliant.

The angelic wrath of hope

This being a blog about language, the beauty will mostly get lost in my analysis, unless you think that the analysis IS the beauty, in which case: let’s get married.

It’s April, and that means National Poetry Month in the US, and that means: poems.  This being a blog about language, the beauty will mostly get lost in my analysis, unless you think that the analysis is the beauty, in which case: let’s get married.

For the first day of April, I bring you a poem by my colleague Daniela Gîfu.  Besides being one of the few researchers in my field who publishes as much as I do (and maybe more–it’s not like it’s a competition), she is also a many-times-published poet and essayist–and journalist.

Daniela writes in Romanian.  I’ve used Google Translate on her poem Ianuarie, which certainly isn’t optimal, but it gives you the flavor of her work.

I don’t speak Romanian, but the language has a couple features that stand out.

  1. Like a typical Romance language, Romanian has definite articles (the); unlike a typical Romance language, they are at the end of whatever they modify.  The definite article has different forms for masculine, feminine, and neuter words, and also has different forms depending on the last sound of the noun to which it is added.  Here are the examples from the Wikipedia page on Romanian grammar:
  • Masculine nouns (singular, nominative/accusative):
codru – codrul (forest – the forest);
pom – pomul (tree – the tree);
frate – fratele (brother – the brother);
tată – tatăl (father – the father)
  • Neuter nouns (singular, nominative/accusative):
teatru – teatrul (theater – the theater);
loc – locul (place – the place)
  • Feminine nouns (singular, nominative/accusative):
casă – casa (house – the house);
floare – floarea (flower – the flower);
cutie – cutia (box – the box);
stea – steaua (star – the star)

2.  Many of the sounds from Latin became sounds.  (The “conditioning factor” was the vowel that came after the consonant.)  Some examples:

  • bună ziua (good day–compare Spanish buenos días)
  • zece (ten–compare Spanish diez)

IANUARIE

Sunt născută în ianuarie,
o lună cu ochii de gheaţă
în hibernarea greoaie a poverilor sufleteşti.
Alături,
înariparea îngerească a speranţei.
Zăbovesc pe străzi ca-ntr-o rugăciune.
În jur, doar pândele cerşetorilor
îmbrăţişaţi părinteşte de ger,
în uimirea trecătorilor indiferenţi.
Oriunde privesc,
abatere, risipă, pierzanie
de la drumurile moştenite de la facere,
în licărirea luceafărului de seară.

JANUARY

I was born in January,
one month with the eyes of the ice
in the cumbersome hibernation of soul burdens.
Together,
the angelic wrath of hope.
I walk in the streets as a prayer.
Around, just the beggars’ lusts
embrace parents with frost,
in the astonishment of indifferent passers-by.
Wherever I look,
miscarriage, waste, loss
from the roads inherited from the making,
in the glimpse of the evening star.

“The angelic wrath of hope”–I love it.  Want to read more of Daniela’s poetry?  See this web page.  Search around and you’ll find her doing readings.

Veterans running for office as Democrats in 2018

It irritates me when people assume that US military people all vote Republican–plenty of us are reliable Democratic voters.

It irritates me when people assume that US military people vote Republican. We’re humans, which means that we are not all the same, and plenty of us are reliable Democratic voters. Trump the war-mongering draft-dodger? A poll in October of last year by the Military Times (the most recent one I can find today) showed the following:

  • 53% of officers oppose him
  • Only 30% of officers support him
  • Only 47% of enlisted personnel support him
  • 38% of enlisted personnel view him unfavorably

I’ve written a number of times about why his approval ratings are so low in the military–today I’ll just leave you with this link to a nice article about veterans running for office in 2018 as Democrats.

apple.news/AdOf4MjO4RGCibkB0mTBW3w