Sumer is icumen in

I posted this years ago on the old blog, but as the solstice approaches, I have been thinking of it and thought I would trot it out again.

The Hilliard Ensemble sings the earliest known example of six-part polyphonic song, one of the major hits of the 13th century – the first of exactly two periods in which the world was knocked off its pins by English music. I think it still stands up well.

 

Sumer is icumen in,
Lhude sing cuccu!
Groweþ sed and bloweþ med
And springþ þe wde nu,
Sing cuccu!
Awe bleteþ after lomb,
Lhouþ after calue cu.
Bulluc sterteþ, bucke uerteþ,
Murie sing cuccu!
Cuccu, cuccu, wel þu singes cuccu;
Ne swik þu nauer nu.

Pes:
Sing cuccu nu. Sing cuccu.
Sing cuccu. Sing cuccu nu!

 

In Modern English:

Summer has arrived,
Loudly sing, Cuckoo!
The seed grows and the meadow blooms
And the wood springs anew,
Sing, Cuckoo!
The ewe bleats after the lamb
The cow lows after the calf.
The bullock stirs, the stag leaps,
Merrily sing, Cuckoo!
Cuckoo, cuckoo, well you sing, cuckoo;
Don’t ever you stop now.

Pes:
Sing cuckoo now. Sing, Cuckoo.
Sing Cuckoo. Sing cuckoo now!

(There is some controversy over the translation of uerteth. An alternative, favoured by the scatologically inclined, is that the stag is farting. This is an amusing idea, I suppose, but neatly destroys the parallelism of action in the line, and I find myself compelled to disfavour it.)

Fake evocation

A sombrero fell out of the sky and landed on the main street of town in front of the mayor, his cousin, and a person out of work. The day was scrubbed clean by the desert air. The sky was blue. It was the blue of human eyes, waiting for something to happen. There was no reason for a sombrero to fall out of the sky. No airplane or helicopter was passing overhead and it was not a religious holiday.

—Richard Brautigan, Sombrero Fallout

This is a good way of hooking a reader: we want to know where that sombrero came from. But it does contain a wasted sentence, thrown in, apparently, in a failed attempt to provide ‘atmosphere’:

It was the blue of human eyes, waiting for something to happen.

That line is simply a cheat. One technique that bad writers use fairly often, and even good writers may fall back on despite themselves, is fake evocation – communicating mood by phony description. Instead of describing a thing and allowing it to suggest a mood to the reader, they flatly state what the mood is supposed to be and pretend that the thing described evokes it. It’s lazy, it’s a swindle against the reader, and it deserves no praise.

In the instant case, it appears to me that Mr. Brautigan (or, rather, the character who is writing the story-within-a-story that begins with this passage) wanted to shoehorn an expectant mood into the passage, so he looked for a place where he could plausibly insert the phrase ‘waiting for something to happen’. He did this by attaching it to a bit of physical description that, by itself, would do absolutely nothing to evoke such a mood, and then relying upon artistic licence to make readers (and critics) let him get away with it.

Incidentally, to say that eyes are sky-blue is descriptive, because sky-blue is a fairly definite colour. To say that the sky was eye-blue is just silly, because blue eyes are not all alike.

For what it’s worth, I’ve written about this at somewhat greater length in ‘Teaching Pegasus to crawl’.

(Reposted, with edits, from a comment thread on The Passive Voice.)

Sequel

As a sequel to my last post, I have received a charming and delightful email from a person who informs me that I am a ‘miserable fool’, that I am suffering from spiritual pride and need to turn to the Lord, and that the only way to do that is to do exactly as he, the writer of the email, commands. But it is I, you see, not he, who suffers from pride.

As a further balm to the wounded spirit, he offers this gem:

As for fiction, you haven’t enough broad and intense experience to ever convey the kind of depth and originality to the fantasy field (or any other) that makes for greatness or popularity.

I shall not reply to him in person; I have dealt with this character before; his eyes, ears, and mind are closed to everything and everyone, as far as I can tell, and the only thing he pays attention to is the din inside his own head. But I reply to him at large and in public, in the words of C. S. Lewis from The Pilgrim’s Regress:

But how can you help me after removing the only thing that I want to be helped to? What is the use of telling a hungry man that you will grant him his desires, provided there is no question of eating?

I put it to the 3.6 Loyal Readers – just in case I should be missing a jewel in a dunghill; I do not want to dismiss advice without a hearing. Is this man right, and I should give up writing fiction?

Narrative fatigue

A personal plaint.

According to that fearsomely encyclopaedic source, TV Tropes, a story, any story, is dead from the moment the audience utters the Eight Deadly Words: ‘I don’t care what happens to these people.’ This is a specific instance of a larger class of story-killers, which I propose to call narrative fatigue. Some other forms that it may take:

  • ‘I know what is going to happen to these people, and I’m not enjoying the ride enough to stay till the end.’ My reaction to any fiction by David Eddings. Other writers tried to waste my time with predictable stories. Eddings bragged about it in the text itself.
  • ‘I care what happens to these people, but I’ve lost all faith that I will ever find out.’ One of many possible reasons to give up on A Song of Ice and Fire.
  • ‘I care about these people, but nothing that is happening to them makes any sense.’ The #1 pitfall of magic realism.
  • ‘The things that are happening make sense, but the people themselves don’t.’ The #1 pitfall of those ‘slice of a Manhattan neurotic’s life’ stories so beloved of The New Yorker.
  • ‘I’d like to find out what happens, but I don’t want to work this hard for it. Cliff’s Notes, please?’ The #1 pitfall of self-consciously ‘literary’ exercises in stylistic weirdness.
  • Perhaps the worst killer of all: ‘It’s blatantly obvious that nothing is ever going to happen to these people.’

[Read more…]

Cataplasm

Sonny, the senior domestic vermin, has at length recovered from his recent surgery. He developed an ulcerated eye with a promptness and celerity that does our Division of Infectious Plagues credit. In the span of a few days he went from a mild case of pink eye to having his cornea rupture, whereupon aqueous humour leaked out all over, and there was nothing for it but to remove the eye – at great expense to my Vile Human, who could ill afford it, but was too much of a sap to simply dispose of the beast.

The vermin is now fully recovered, except for being minus an eye, and has completed his sentence – a fortnight in the Cone of Shame: [Read more…]

Long-burnt incense and very old peppermints

As I write this, I am sitting at the counter in Denny’s, industriously shirking the work I came here to do. To help me in my efforts to avoid effort, a few minutes ago, the PA system played ‘Incense and Peppermints’, the 1967 hit by the psychedelic one-hit wonders, Strawberry Alarm Clock:

I paused to reflect, and it occurred to me that we are just coming up on the 50th anniversary of this song’s release. This made me feel old.

To distract myself from this feeling, I went looking on Wikipedia (that unimpeachable smorgasbord of occasionally accurate pop culture trivia), and discovered that Strawberry Alarm Clock still exists to this day, and continues to perform live, at least sporadically. Of course the entire membership of the band has turned over more than once, and those original members who are with the Clock today have rejoined (two or three times apiece) after quitting in the late Sixties. Like the knife that has had two new blades and three new handles, they are just the same band as they ever were.

(It may be worth noting that the lead singer on ‘Incense and Peppermints’ was not a band member at all. The regular singers for Strawberry Alarm Clock all hated the lyrics and refused to sing them, so they brought in a 16-year-old kid, a friend of the band’s, as a pinch singer. Lo and behold, the song with the terrible lyrics turned out to be their only #1 single. Shows you what they know – a lesson to all writers, I suppose.)

This information distracted me from feeling old, and instead made me feel a kind of general dislocated weirdness. It would seem that general dislocated weirdness is what you are supposed to feel when listening to Strawberry Alarm Clock, so all’s right with the world after all.

Testing, testing (Comments please?)

Since the last so-called upgrade to WordPress, I can no longer view my site statistics. I have no way of knowing whether anybody is actually looking at this blog anymore or not. GoDaddy gave instructions on how to fix the problem; they didn’t work.

If anyone reads this, would you be so kind as to leave a comment? I need to know if my 3.6 Loyal Readers are still there, and I have no other way of telling.

Thank you.

 

UPDATE, 23 February: Now I’m in touch with the support people for the Jetpack plugin, which is causing all the trouble. I finally managed to upgrade and reinstall it… and it started putting code barf all over the pages containing individual posts. So I disabled it again, and I’m back to square one (but on the New and Improved™ upgraded board). No stats again.

My sincerest thanks to all who posted comments. It’s good to know that you’re all still out there and haven’t forgotten me. All alone in the silence, I was feeling pretty low.

#nocontextforyou

Of course the professor needed a grad student to help him. She knew where to find the comma on the keyboard.

Now hear this, that is all!

Difficult times during the holidays: periods of friction with the Beloved Other, ghastly weather, and yet another change to the monstrous regiment of pharmaceuticals, all of which left me fatigued, frazzled, and scatterbrained. In short, I got no work done; for which I cry you mercy.

I did get one or two ideas for essais, which I intend to work on as the electrochemical state of my brain permits. One of these – strange to say, but perhaps not so strange for me – came when I was leafing through ancient back numbers of ROM, a short-lived computer magazine from 1977–78. Stay tuned for an explanation of that, if you dare.

A memory, as Christmas approaches

I was born in Vancouver, B.C., many aeons ago in a former world, and immediately put out for adoption; which happening in due course, I found myself with the man and woman whom I remember as my parents. They had a massive RCA console black-and-white TV with built-in stereo, about four or five feet long, something very much like this: [Read more…]