A Modest Tribute

Dear Mr Heaney,

I studied a few of your poems in the twelfth grade. You were the last, the most ‘recent’ in a group of twentieth century poets who were encased in the covers of a robin’s egg blue book, its front emblazoned with portraits of Tennyson, Blake and, yes, you. I didn’t know who you were when I received that book, and I didn’t particularly thrill to your music. You were not, in my very considered opinion, a ‘poet’, because you didn’t write in rhyming verses, nor did you describe beautiful things like King Arthur’s exploits, Elven women in the Wood and tigers blazing in the night.

What use is poetry, I thought, if it cannot cloak the dreariness of the world? Why would anyone want to read about potatoes, or peat-frozen women, Mr Heaney? Why would they open a book of verse to find these things when they could get the real version easily enough? Where was the beauty of it?

You didn’t have the passion of Hughes, tearing into existence tooth and claw, painting lovesongs red with the blood of an opened vein. You weren’t Tennyson, aesthetisizing grief and, with your rhythmic melodies, moving your reader and yourself past it. You weren’t Larkin, making biting, bitter statements about the futility and meaninglessness of existence, though like him, you used the everyday and wove your words around things we could all know and understand.

The question I had was, why would we want to see what we already understood?

High school and its dreary annals behind me, I arrived in college, breathless with anticipation of what ‘literature’ awaited me. As I wandered the dust-moted lanes of the Library, I chanced upon your translation of ‘Beowulf’ in a section that contained, mostly, writing by and on the Romantic poets.

Why would I, sitting in my corner of the world, would know about Beowulf. The answer is long and complicated and involves a lot of history and politics and other affairs which, hailing from the country you did, would know much more of than me. I think you will understand if I skip the history lesson.

For me, however, Beowulf and the fact that I know of its significance is more than a matter of political and cultural history. I love the work of J. R. R. Tolkien, and when I learned that Beowulf was one of the texts he taught and modelled his own epic on, I knew I to read it. And you made that possible.

It was then, when I had finished your translation, that it came home to me why people loved you, why they celebrated you. In your own manner, you were doing the same as Tolkien: weaving pride and dignity from the annals of history, placing the humble in the spotlight, showing that fortune’s wheel is turned, as he put it, ‘by small hands while the great are looking elsewhere’.

And then I read you with freshly-opened eyes, watched as you carved a live skull from the ground with your pen, scattered a libation of ink on its peat-encrusted brow, kissed it back into its native earth with words, gave it fame, if not the peace it had lacked in life. I watched as you whittled away with your ‘spade’ and the past and present swam into focus, clarified by your stark and uncompromising, and yet, strangely gentle words. You were ever in the shadows, I thought, translating, translating, the history of your world into literature, bringing it out there for the rest of us to see.

From you I learned that poetry is not always glamorous, that it is not just the clever spinning of words—neither is prose, for that matter, though I still fall prey to the sweet and easy seduction of a finely turned phrase. See, I’m doing it again.

I learned that a writer’s role, really, a true Writer (not the many that crowd the markets, but those few who, as my colleague put it, reach above and stay there as beacons for the rest of us), is to watch the world and ‘dig’ into its ‘gravelly’ ground with a ‘squat’ pen. From you I learned reflection. From you I learned that literature is not always the sounding of trumpets and the death grin of a pike, the sheen of a painting on a wall.

So thank you, Mr Heaney. Thank you for that lesson.

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No, it’s not ‘Okay’

So I’m reading Patrick Rothfuss’ Kingkiller Chronicles (I know, I’m late to this party). The books are great- I love that Kvothe is pretty much a nobody and a non-prophesied hero who gets by on his wits alone. I love Denna, who is a refreshing break from all the beautiful, ever-in-danger female stereotypes one often finds in fantasy literature, who’s feisty without being a perfect character. I like the amount of detail Rothfuss seems to be packing into this world and last but not least, I love the way he punctuates his narrative with stories, people telling stories and listening to them.

What I DON’T like is his use of the word ‘okay’.

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, ‘okay’ has various origin-stories, one of which is that O.K. stood for Old Kinderhook, American Democratic President Martin Van Buren’s nickname. Van Buren apparently signed off on documents with the initials ‘O.K.’ and though he lost his re-election bid, the word stuck as a quick way to signify approval on documents. Other theories say that it is the abbreviation of a jocular misspelling of all correct (‘oll korrekt’) or the representation of Choctaw ‘okeh’ (meaning, ‘it is so’). For further information, go here: http://etymonline.com/?term=ok

To cut a long story short, ‘okay’ is a word that arose out of a specific cultural context, be it the Van Buren signing, the unverified Choctaw expression or the misspelling. It is a word that entered into common parlance due to popularization and repeated use, not because it was evolved to signify a particular object, mood, person, animal, thing, whatever. It is deeply rooted in historical factors (like many words and expressions we use today) and quite possibly would never have developed the place it has today were  it not for those people (Van Buren, the jocular misspellers) and their idiosyncrasies.

It is, therefore, jarring to hear characters say ‘okay’ in a high fantasy novel, whose world is assumed to have developed on an entirely different footing, historical trajectory, what have you. What are the chances that there existed a president/king/dark lord who signed his documents with the initials ‘O.K’ in any  of those fantasy worlds? I ask specifically in the context of high fantasy, not urban or new-age or the in-between space occupied by books like Harry Potter and Philip Pullman or Neil Gaiman’s works. All these books use characters and settings strikingly similar (if not actually based upon) the ‘real world’ depicted in realist novels, the settings and scenarios we are familiar with in our humdrum, Muggle world.

All right, let’s say that somehow, the word has managed to evolve in the fantastical realm in question (in this case, Rothfuss). The second reason why it is so odd to the reader (this reader) is the dissonant note it strikes in the prevailing register of the novel. Let’s face it, most high fantasy in the Western world today is written in the vein or at least the shadow of Tolkien. The author might claim to have never heard of or liked The Lord of the Rings but you can rest assured that some critic is going to come along and compare the newer work to the older one. Tolkien is the grand-daddy of this genre, and all those who have come after him are, whether they know and like it or not, using something of what he has left behind, if only (and this is a pretty big ‘only’) the fact that he can claim to have almost single-handedly made ‘high fantasy’ a respectable, mainstream genre. I’m not saying these authors owe a debt to Tolkien, but the fact remains that Tolkien’s work is recent enough to have clout and make itself known and accepted as the Holy Grail of High Fantasy Writing, and whatever you do, you are GOING to be compared to it. (Also, let’s face it, no one is ever going to come out and call you better than Tolkien, no matter what you do. It’s sad, but you have to live with it, for the next few centuries at least. Come on, no self-respecting critic is going to come out and say that some modern day playwright is better than Shakespeare.)

I let myself get distracted by the Tolkien allusion, but the long and short of it is that thanks to him, high fantasy is not considered ‘high’ if it isn’t written in a certain formal, faux-medieval register, replete with ‘my lieges’ and ‘I know not of what you speaks’. At least, not in my book. Perhaps I’m being narrow minded here, but I think that a lot of readers would agree with me. It’s not slang and informal speech that I’m against, but the context of said speech should be that of the fantasy world, and not our humdrum reality. Expressions such as ‘burn me’ in Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time for instance are slangy and frowned upon in courteous circles, occupying the space that is reserved for ‘damn it’ and ‘oh shit’ in our parlance. So if you want to use slang (and you have every right to in a complex world that includes all strata of society and more often than not moves in less dignified circles), use it with context in mind. Make it another facet of the world you’ve built and don’t get lazy and use terms that we use here—you might just stumble across a reader who gets in a snit about it and gets jarred dramatically out of your otherwise finely crafted world.

In short, Hermione is okay, Galadriel is not. Harry might say ‘my exam went okay’, Kvothe should not. It’s lazy, it’s far too casual in a world-inappropriate way, perhaps it’s too American for a genre that we (sadly) look upon as very British, still (like I said, blame Tolkien). And worst of all, it jerks you momentarily out of a wonderfully built and lovingly detailed dimension into a reality which, more often than not, I find myself describing as ‘okay’.

 

 

P.S. – LOTR and other high fantasy fanfiction that uses ‘okay’ gets to me for the same reasons. Unless, of course, the author aims to write a humorous or parody piece, in which case if it’s well done (and many are), anything goes, really.

And the great shroud of the sea rolled on

I have never lost a teacher before. The experience is a strange and unsettling one. It makes you realize finally, like nothing else, that you are growing up. At the same time, this particular loss, and the amazing number of people who came forth to show their love for this man, despite his ‘lonely’ death, made me feel warm and glad to be part of such an emotionally bonded group.

I will miss Dr Ashish Roy, as I miss college and all the pleasant moments associated with it. He took me in, he pushed me into English, and he did, as any teacher would, guide me down its path. I am grateful for having known him.

When I think of Dr Roy, I think of Melville’s ‘Moby Dick’. Perhaps this is because it was one of the last texts we had the privilege of studying with him, but as a literature student, I like to think there is a deeper and more symbolic level of meaning to this association. Never being much of an enthusiast for such readings himself, Dr Roy would probably disagree and tell me not to overwhelm him with the ‘weight of my profundities’, all the while giving his trademark half smile and shrugging laugh. The answer was obvious, he always held, we just had to push past all the symbolic murk clouding our minds.

But in this instance, I hold by my reading. Like Melville’s masterpiece, Dr Roy is for many people many things. A gatekeeper to the doors of college admission, the seemingly ever grim Head of Department, ensconced in his sunny office with the glaring orange and yellow curtains, deep voiced actor who could regale us, when we asked for it, tales of the Shakespeare Society in the days of college past. He was, as my friends put it, an enigma, a ‘character’. Of course, that only lent itself better to our stories, and we made up and embellished so many about him. We did this with all of our teachers, the beauty of the English department being its bizarre and muse-worthy denizens, but Dr Roy could be said to boast a treasure trove all his own.

It says something that, when we heard the news of his passing, what emerged in our many conversations were these stories—how he would send one unsuspecting student to fetch his tea before tutorials, how he would treat us at the end of the year to whatever we wanted in the cafe, his beautiful readings of Pablo Neruda in the original Spanish and of course, his recitation of the General Prologue of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. We felt grief, yes, but as good literature students, as good readers anywhere in the world would do, we take comfort in the fact that he is very much here, with us, in the stories we tell, the imitations we do, the general ‘what would Roy say to that?’ that peppers so much of our conversation, no matter how long it has been since we were in college.

In this way, Roy is like Moby Dick, the whale and the text as a whole. He would probably make some quip about how I was insulting him or questioning his size, but I believe that, beneath that crusty exterior, he would understand. And though the great shroud of the sea has rolled on, it can never completely inundate what he was, what he still is, for us today.

Strapping on that Prada

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Meryl Streep and Anne Hathaway in the movie.

Two posts in one day! This is a record for me.

What brought it on? Simple, I read ‘The Devil Wears Prada’ (by Lauren Weisberger) and realized I am not doing anything with my life. While the writing could have been improved, and the book’s narrative zipped kind of confusingly between timelines, I really enjoyed my time with it. It was easy to imagine myself in Andrea Sachs’ shoes, not only because I’m also 23 and at a first job, but also because I too often pause and wonder if ‘four years of deconstructing and diagramming novels, plays, short stories’ were for, well, this.

Also, I totally want to write for the New Yorker some day. And I know it’s a long, long climb.

But what the book has really done for me is to sort of push me into realizing that I have to work really, really hard to get anywhere, and especially to get to the pinnacle and definition of success I harbour in my head. I’ve been feeling rather uninspired these past few weeks, and not being at my bright and sparky best. It’s made me feel guilty, which is good, since guilt indicates that I care about being brilliant and am not content with just churning out what’s expected of me. I don’t want to just be good at what I do, I want to be exceptional.

I understand that everyone goes through periods of disillusionment and withdrawal at their jobs, especially the first one. But how long can that phase last? And, more importantly, isn’t it up to me how long it goes on? Yes, I may not have what it takes to be the best in this field (and I don’t think I can possibly be, yet), but shouldn’t I try anyway?

I watched the wonderful ‘Prada’ movie for the second time a couple of months ago, and saw so much more of myself in it than I had at the age of 19 (which is, I think, the age at which I first watched it). Of course, that’s thanks to the new angle that my freshly minted professional life brought to bear upon it. I saw people and situations from my own life in it, as usual. Most self-centred literature enthusiasts tend to do that, don’t they?

Though I must hasten to add here that my own boss is an amazing woman whom I completely adore. That was one aspect of Andrea’s life I do not and do not wish to have familiarity with.

Strange that a book I picked up for ‘light reading’ should have this sort of introspective effect on me. I think a few months of blogging have sort of changed my outlook on books though—I’m constantly thinking of what I can say about them, what makes a book and its characters, its story, important and relevant to me. In ‘Prada’, I found a companion for metro rides and lunch hours, a break from the depressing and nightmare inducing world of Alan Moore’s ‘Watchmen’. I also found a person who reminded me of what I need to do.

I need to get somewhere, and I need to bloody well work hard to make sure that happens. Thanks for the reminder, Andrea Sachs!