Sunday, January 29, 2012

On the symbolic use of roses

If you were to ask me, what single element in nature has inspired artists more than anything else?  Without a moment’s hesitation, I would answer, “roses”.  Neither jasmines nor orchids have inspired artists across cultures the way roses have, for roses—thanks to their scent and unparalleled beauty—occupy an undisputed place of privilege among flowers since time immemorial.  Roses are favored subjects in art and, thus, used in various artistic disciplines. They appear in paintings, on stamps, in poems, as ornaments, as heraldic badges, and in films.  They have been adopted as the national flower by many countries, including England and the United States, and even wars have been fought in their name.

But, why is it so?  Most likely because of the rich symbolism they evoke.  In literature, a symbol is a character, object, action, name or setting that signifies something beyond itself.  Writers use conventional symbols as well as personal ones to reinforce an idea, go beyond the literal meaning of words, and make the reader muse upon their themes.  

Symbols allow authors to say more with less.  Properly chosen symbols will make readers bring to mind complex ideas without having to read painstaking explanations where just one word would suffice.  Authors such as Eugene O’Neill, Scott Fitzgerald, and Gustave Flaubert relied heavily upon symbols, while others, like Vladimir Nabokov, preferred to avoid them altogether. 

 “Roses of Vargemont”
Pierre Auguste Renoir

A rose is a classic symbol of beauty, passion, love, and secrecy.  The Latin word sub rosa, “under the rose”, means “secretly”.  The rose is, in fact, the emblem of Horus in ancient Egypt, the god of silence.  In Greek mythology, the rose also has a connotation of secrecy.  Aphrodite gave a rose to her son Eros, the god of love; he, in turn, gave it to Harpocrates, the god of silence, to make sure that his mother’s indiscretions would be kept in secrecy.

Red roses are a universal symbol of love.  When reading Robert Burns’s lines, “Oh, my luve’s like a red, red rose”, we get a clear picture of the kind of love he feels.  In the following stanza of “Isabella”, the Romantic poet John Keats compares departing lovers with roses whose stems are blown apart by the breeze only to be reunited at each other’s heart:

Parting they seem’d to tread upon the air,
Twin roses by the zephyr blown apart
Only to meet again more close, and share
the inward fragrance of each other’s heart.

Robert Herrick uses rosebuds as symbols of the transient nature of life in his carpe diem poem, “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time”, by urging maidens to “seize the day” while they are youthful, because youth, like life, is ephemeral:

Gather ye rose-buds while ye may, 
Old Time is still aflying, 
And this same flower that smiles today, 
Tomorow will be dying.

William Blake, on the other hand, is wary of passion and, to quote Ben Jonson, of “the sports of love” in the following highly anthologized poem, “The Sick Rose”:
“Long-Stemmed Roses” 
Cheri Blum

Oh Rose, thou art sick.
The invisible worm
That flies in the night
In the howling storm

Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy,
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.

Like most poetry, this poem can be read literally or symbolically.  To some, the poem may only suggest the fragility of a rose.  Yet, a closer reading will reveal that the poem is richly symbolic, full of sexual imagery.  The following imagist poem, “Sea Rose”, by Hilda Doolittle can also be read literally or symbolically.  A sea rose is native of Asia and grows on the coast, often on sand dunes.

“Sea Rose Pond” 
Claude Monet

Rose, harsh rose,
marred with a stint of petals,
meager flower, thin,
sparse of leaf,

more precious
than a wet rose
single on a stem--
you are caught in the drift.

Stunted, with small leaf,
you are flung on the sand,
you are lifted
in the crisp sand
that drives in the wind.

Can the spice-rose
drip such acrid fragrance
hardened in a leaf?

Since poetry came into being, women have been compared to beautiful flowers, so the description of this sea rose breaks free from all conventions associated with a beautiful rose.  Although the poem speaks overtly about a harsh rose, its hidden meaning could well be a woman who lives outside the restrictive social codes of her time: a tough rose, alone in the wilderness.

White Roses in a Glass Vase
Henri Fantin Latour

The meaning of roses may vary according to their color and number.  Apart from love, passion, secrecy, and beauty, roses may sometimes symbolize death, particularly if they are white, as it is the case of this elegy by Sharon Olds, “Birthday Poem for My Grandmother”, where white roses are a recurring symbol, representing both love and death:

I stood on the porch tonight— which way do we
face to talk to the dead?  I thought of the
new rose, and went out over the
grey lawn— things really
have no color at night.  I descended
the stone steps, as if to the place where one
speaks to the dead.  The rose stood
half-uncurled, glowing white in the
black air.  Later I remembered
your birthday.  You would have been ninety and getting
roses from me.  Are the dead there
if we do not speak to them?  When I came to see you
you were always sitting quietly in the chair,
not knitting, because of the arthritis,
not reading, because of the blindness,
just sitting.  I never knew how you
did it or what you were thinking.  Now I
sometimes sit on the porch, waiting,
trying to feel you there like the colors of the
flowers in the dark.

Roses have transcended mythology, history, literature, and plastic arts to become sources of inspiration for choreographers as well.  Michel Fokine created the choreography for Le Spectre de la Rose, while Ronald Petit created The Death of the Rose, a ballet with music by Gustav Mahler from his Symphony No. 5, Adagietto.  In it, legendary ballerina Maya Plisetskaya and Valery Kovtun offer a memorable performance:

No wonder Citizen Kane—considered by many the greatest American movie—revolves around the protagonist’s final utterance: “rosebud”, and what the word implies.  An anecdote is told about Umberto Eco’s novel The Name of the Rose.  When asked about the title of his masterpiece, he replied that he had the intention to find “a totally neutral title” and that “the rose is a symbolic figure so rich in meanings that by now it hardly has any meaning left”.  By the same token, William Faulkner’s reason for giving the main character of his Southern Gothic tale, Miss Emily Grierson, a rose is equally intriguing.  It is important to point out that in “A Rose for Emily”, the protagonist is nothing less than a murderess.  When asked about the meaning of the title, Faulkner answered: “Oh, it’s simply the poor woman had had no life at all.  Her father had kept her more or less locked up and then she had a lover who was about to quit her, she had to murder him.  It was just ‘A Rose for Emily’—that’s all”.

Perhaps the quintessential ode to a rose appears in the play written by Federico García Lorca, Doña Rosita la soltera o El lenguaje de las flores.  The poem depicts a particular type of rose that lives for a day only, which botanists call “la rosa mutábile”:

Cuando se abre en la mañana.
roja como sangre está.
El rocío no la toca 
porque se teme quemar.
Abierta en el mediodía 
es dura como el coral.
El sol se asoma a los vidrios
para verla relumbrar.
Cuando en las ramas empiezan
los pájaros a cantar 
y se desmaya la tarde 
en las violetas del mar,
se pone blanca, con blanco
de una mejilla de sal.
Y cuando toca la noche 
blando cuerno de metal 
y las estrellas avanzan 
mientras los aires se van, 
en la raya de lo oscuro, 
se comienza a deshojar.

But it is the Bard, with his infinite wisdom and profound compassion, who expresses concern for the sacredness of the rose’s life; its right to grow, live, and die undisturbed on its stem:

But earthlier happy is the rose distill'd
Than that which withering on the virgin thorn
Grows, lives, and dies in single blessedness.
—William Shakesperare


Sunday, January 8, 2012

On the writer's voice

What do Borges, Bowen, Kawabata, and Nabokov have in common?  They are acclaimed writers, all four born in 1899.  And what do Shakespeare and Cervantes have in common?  Both are undisputed literary giants who passed away in the same year, 1616.  Certainly, we may be awed by the amazing alignment of the stars.  But astrology aside, the single most striking feature that they all share is their distinct voice.  Faulkner, Hemingway, Woolf, Hesse, Chekhov, Cortázar, and Capote had it, and so did Mallea, Breton, Poe, Baudelaire, and Mansfield.  We recognize it when we hear it with our mind’s ear, and miss it when a work lacks it.  But, what is the writer’s voice?

I take four books from my bookcase and read aloud:

“Vi en el reloj de la pequeña estación que eran las once de la noche pasadas.  Fui caminando hasta el hotel.  Sentí, como otras veces, la resignación y el alivio que nos infunden los lugares muy conocidos.  El ancho portón estaba abierto; la quinta, a oscuras.  Entré en el vestíbulo, cuyos espejos pálidos repetían las plantas del salón.  Curiosamente el dueño no me reconoció y me tendió el registro.  Tomé la pluma que estaba sujeta al pupitre, la mojé en el tintero de bronce y al inclinarme sobre el libro abierto, ocurrió la primera sorpresa de las muchas que me depararía esa noche.  Mi nombre, Jorge Luis Borges, ya estaba escrito, y la tinta, todavía fresca.” —J. L. Borges (excerpt from “Agosto 25, 1983”)

“She dropped the letter onto the bedsprings, then picked it up to see the writing again—her lips, beneath the remains of lipstick, beginning to go white. She felt so much the change in her own face that she went to the mirror, polished a clear patch in it, and looked at once urgently and stealthily in. She was confronted by a woman of forty-four, with eyes starting out under a hat brim that had been rather carelessly pulled down. She had not put on any more powder since she left the shop where she ate her solitary tea. The pearls her husband had given her on their marriage hung loose round her now rather thinner throat, slipping in the V of the pink wool jumper her sister knitted last autumn as they sat round the fire. Mrs. Drover’s most normal expression was one of controlled worry, but of assent. Since the birth of the third of her little boys, attended by a quite serious illness, she had had an intermittent muscular flicker to the left of her mouth, but in spite of this she could always sustain a manner that was at once energetic and calm. ” —Elizabeth Bowen (excerpt from “The Demon Lover”)

“He had the illusion that the Inamura girl was walking in the shade of the trees, the pink kerchief and its thousand white cranes under her arm.  He could see the cranes and the kerchief vividly.  He sensed something fresh and clean.  His chest rose—the girl might even now be arriving at his door.” —Yasunari Kawabata (excerpt from Thousand Cranes)

“I was, and still am, despite mes malheours, an exceptionally handsome male; slow-moving, tall, with soft dark hair and a gloomy but all the more seductive cast of demeanor.  Exceptional virility often reflects in the subject’s displayable features a sullen and congested something that pertains to what he has to conceal.” —Vladimir Nabokov (excerpt from Lolita)

Without a doubt these authors have—aside from a fecund imagination—a remarkable command of the language.  In fact, proficiency in the use of language helps to free the writer’s voice.  Language is used as an instrument for conveying ideas, while setting the proper tone.  Readers are enthralled by these writers’ display of simplicity, mystery, irony, alluring descriptions, or even pedantry.  Nevertheless, the voice goes far beyond the author’s ideas, word choice, syntax, and literary tricks; it is, indeed, the timbre of a speaking voice, a total human presence.  The persona in a novel or poem is part and parcel of the work and comes alive during the course of the creation. 

No aspiring writer can deny that finding his true voice is a hard task.  The reason is simple: the writers’ raw materials are words.  By contrast, painters use brushstrokes on canvas, each of them unique.  Just a cursory glance at the following paintings will show you how apparent Van Gogh’s, Monet’s, Turner’s, and Quinquela’s styles are:

Keelman Heaving in Coals by Moonlight, Turner

Sunrise, Monet

Starry Night, Van Gogh

Los barcos, Quinquela Martín

Again, these painters show dexterity with the materials at hand, just as notable authors do with words.

Now, let’s consider the realm of music and ballet.  Composers’ and choreographers’ styles can be as distinct as painters’.  Think about Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, Falla, Bach, Liszt, Chopin, and Prokofiev as well as Petipa, Béjart, and Balanchine, to name just a few.  Their compositions and choreographies carry a hallmark, easily identifiable by those who are well versed in classical music and dance.  Nonetheless, when it comes to identifying interpreters’ renditions of their works, the difference may not be so evident on occasion. Naturally, the trained ear and the trained eye will recognize a myriad of nuances in every single case, as can be appreciated in the following pieces:

Cesar Franck’s Violin Sonata in A Major, 1st Movement, by Yehudi Menuhin: 

Cesar Franck’s Violin Sonata in A Major, 1st Movement, by Jascha Heifetz:

Sergei Rachmaninov’s Spring Waters, Choreography: Messerer, Dancers: Bylova and Nikonov

Sergei Rachmaninov’s Spring Waters, Choreography: Messerer, Dancers: Tikhomirova and Merkuriev

I sip my tea and think some more about a writer’s most distinct feature: his voice.  Put simply, style is the manner of a piece of writing; voice is its soul, what sets an author’s writing apart from others.  It serves a specific purpose in each work because it is directly related to the narrator or the persona of the piece.  The same author may sometimes produce a vibrant, overpowering voice; while his voice may turn gloomy or dismal under different circumstances.  Just as actors embody a different character in each film, a good writer is supple enough to adjust his voice to the character who is speaking in his work. 

A convincing voice is honest, as opposed to fake.  The work is fictional, but the experience must be authentic.  Developing a voice demands courage, intelligence, and self-knowledge.  For a writer to discover his true voice is to discover himself.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Types of poems

A BALLAD is a song, which tells a story.  The BALLAD STANZA is a quatrain in alternate four- and three-stress iambic lines; usually only the second and fourth lines rhyme.

An ELEGY is a poem that deals solemnly with death.

A HAIKU is a Japanese poem with a lyric form that represents the poet’s impression of a natural object or scene, viewed at a particular season or month, in exactly seventeen syllables, which has influenced many poets of other languages.  Haikus typically present an intense emotion or vivid image of nature, which, in the Japanese, are also designed to lead to a spiritual insight.

Under Cherry Trees - Matsuo Bashō (1644-1694)

Under cherry trees
Soup, the salad, fish and all . . .
Seasoned with petals.

After Spring - Miura Chora (1729-1781)

After spring sunset
Mist rises from the river
Spreading like a flood

A LIMERICK is a form of light, whimsical, five-line verse, rhyming aabba.

An ODE is a long lyric poem that is serious in subject, elevated in style, and elaborate in its stanza structure. 

A PROSE POEM is a densely compact, pronouncedly rhythmic, and highly sonorous composition which is written as a continuous sequence of sentences without line breaks.

A SESTINA is a highly structured poem consisting of six six-line stanzas followed by a tercet (called its envoy or tornada), for a total of thirty-nine lines.  English sestinas are traditionally written in iambic pentameter.

An ITALIAN or PETRARCHAN SONNET is a poem of fourteen lines, rhyming abbaabba in its first eight lines, the octet (or octave), the sonnet concludes with a six-line sestet rhyming cdcdcd or cdecde.

A SHAKESPEAREAN or ENGLISH SONNET is composed of three quatrains rhyming abab, cdcd, efef, and a concluding couplet gg.

TERZA RIMA is composed of tercets which are interlinked, in that each is joined to the one following by a common rhyme: aba, bcb, cdc, and so on.

A VILLANELLE consists of five tercets and a quatrain, all on two rhymes.

A VISUAL or TYPOGRAPHICAL POEM is one in which the visual arrangement of text, images and symbols is important in conveying the intended effect of the work. It is sometimes referred to as concrete poetry, a term that predates visual poetry, and at one time was synonymous with it.


PROSODY signifies the systematic study of versification, that is, of the principles and practice of meter, rhyme, and stanza forms.

METER:  In all sustained spoken English we feel a rhythm, i.e., a recognizable though variable pattern in the beat of the stresses in the stream of sound.  If this rhythm of stresses is structured into a recurrence of regular—approximately equivalent—units, we call it meter.  Compositions written in meter are known as VERSE.

FOOT is the combination of a strong stress and the associated weak stress or stresses which make up the recurrent metric unit of a line.  The relatively stronger-stressed syllable is called “stressed”; the relatively weaker stressed syllables are called “light”, or “slack”, or simply “unstressed.”

The four standard feet distinguished in English are:

IAMBIC /_ '/  e.g.: How vainly men themselves amaze. (Marvell)

ANAPESTIC /_ _ '/ e.g.: I am out of humanity’s reach. (Cowper)

TROCHAIC /' _/  e.g.: There they are, my fifty men and women. (Browning)

DACTYLIC /' _ _/ e.g.: Eve, with her basket was / Deep in the bells and grass. (Hodgson)

Two other feet, often distinguished, occur only as occasional variants from standard feet:

SPONDAIC /' '/ e.g.: Good strong thick stupefying incense smoke. (Browning)

PYRRHIC /_ _/ e.g.: My way is to begin with the beginning. (Byron)

A METRIC LINE is named according to the number of feet composing it:

MONOMETER: one foot

DIMETER: two feet

TRIMETER: three feet

TETRAMETER: four feet

PENTAMETER: five feet

HEXAMETER: six feet (an ALEXANDRINE is a line of six iambic feet)

HEPTAMETER: seven feet

OCTAMETER: eight feet

TO SCAN a passage of verse is to go through it line by line, analyzing the component feet, and also indicating where any major pauses fall within a line.  The act of scanning a poem is called SCANSION.

When a line ends in an unstressed syllable is said to have a FEMININE ENDING.

When a line ends in a stressed syllable is said to have a MASCULINE ENDING.

RHYME is the repetition of the same or similar sounds often occurring at set intervals and most obviously appearing at the end of a line.

END RHYME, by far the most frequent type, occurs at the end of a line.

INTERNAL RHYME occurs within a line.

DOUBLE RHYME is a rhyme involving two syllables.

TRIPLE RHYME is a rhyme involving three syllables.

PERFECT RHYME or FULL RHYME or TRUE RHYME occurs when the correspondence of the rhymed sounds is exact.

EYE RHYME occurs when words are spelled the same and look alike but sound differently.

IMPERFECT RHYME or PARTIAL, NEAR, HALF or SLANT RHYME occurs when there are changes within the vowel sounds of words meant to rhyme.

RHYME ROYAL is a seven-line, iambic pentameter stanza rhyming ababbcc.

OTTAVA RIMA has eight lines; it rhymes abababcc.

BLANK VERSE consists of lines of iambic pentameter which are unrhymed—hence the term “blank.”  Of all English verse forms it is closest to the natural rhythms of English speech; as a result it has been more frequently and variously used than any other type of verse. 

FREE VERSE, also known as OPEN FORM verse, or by the French term VERS LIBRE, is printed in short lines instead of with the continuity of prose, and has more controlled rhythmic pattern than ordinary prose; but it lacks the regular syllabic stress pattern, organized into recurrent feet, of traditional meter.  Most free verse also has irregular line lengths and lacks rhyme. 

A LINE OF VERSE is a single line of words in a poem.

A STANZA (Italian for “stopping place”) is a grouping of the lines in a poem, set off by a space in the printed text.

IN MEMORIAM STANZAS are iambic tetrameter quatrains with a rhyming scheme abba.

A QUATRAIN, or four-line stanza, is the most common in English versification, and is employed with various meters and rhyme schemes.

A COUPLET is a pair of rhymed lines.

A TERCET or TRIPLET is a stanza of three lines, usually with a single rhyme.