The wise person finds the simple path

Recovered from the Wayback Machine.

I picked up a couple of books from the library yesterday that I’d ordered based on their being mentioned in other weblogs. One was Le Ton beau de Marot: In Praise of the Music of Language by Douglas Hofstadter. I would give credit to the person who mentioned this, in either a posting or a comment, but I can’t remember exactly where I heard of this book; the people I read tend to drop titles as frequently as Hantzel and Gretel dropped bread crumbs, and for about the same reason — to mark a path.

Well, if you recognize yourself as the person, give yourself a bow, because this book is an absolute delight. Here is a person, Hofstadter, discussing the principles of translation based on a small French poem, but doing so in a manner that is both engaging as well as enlightening. Rather than make the topic more complex and obscure, he simplifies, and in the process creates something infinitely richer.

In the introduction, Hofstadter discusses his obsession with controlling the layout and format of the published book, not just the content. He writes:


I know this sounds quite nutty, but it is me to the core. This is my style at its more pure, and, I must say, at its most joyous. Paradoxical thought it surely sounds, I feel at my freest, my most exuberant, and my most creative when operating under a set of heavy self-imposed constraints. I suspect that the welcoming of constraints is, at bottom, the deepest secret of creativity — and that, of course, is why poetry, building on a foundation of constraints, is so central to this book. Translation, too, is a dense fabric of constraints — and thus, needless, to say, the merging of translation with poetry gives rise to such a rich mesh of interlocking constraints that the mind goes a bit berserk in a mixture of frustration of delight.

I’ll relate just one example of the strangely twisty effects of my many self-composed constraints. Early on, I decided, just for the fun of it, to begin each chapter with a bit of a flourish — a few large letters that grandually would shirnk down to the size of the normal text. I soon realized that I had to avoid descenders in those first few letters — in other words, no “g”, no “y”, and so forth — in order to prevent collisions with letters just below. Well, this tiny constraint had quite a big effect in the case of Chapter 2.

An early draft of the chapters started out with a word that had a letter with a descender in it, and my search for a way to reword that first sentence to get rid of the lone descender led to a totally unexpected, unplanned style for that paragraph, which set a distinct opening tone for the chapter, which led to a curiously assonant three-word section head, which then suggested to me the idea of repeating that three-word pattern for all of the section heads in the chapter, and then the various section heads that I created in the appealing mold of that pattern would up exerting a considerable influence on what I actually said in the sections that they headed. Thust the trivial avoidance of one descender in the first five letters had a major impact on the ideas expressed in that chapter. Though this may seem bizarre, it is in fact absolutely typical. It is one of the more easily explained examples, but is not exceptional.

I was charmed by Hofstadster’s admission of this fact — I wonder how many writers would? — but I was hooked when he used ‘twisty’.

The book is ostensibly about the experience and effort of translating one small French poem. I don’t know French, nor is it a topic of particular interest; and my knowledge of poetry is limited. But from the first I was engaged and now can’t wait to finish the book. On a topic I have little interest in. Can you think of a higher compliment to give a writer?

I started this post last night, but left the finishing it to today. This morning, while doing my weblog reading, I found this at Loren’s about the poet Ezra Pound:


As I read the Cantos, I constantly wondered whom Pound considered his audience. I’ve had seven years of college English, with a focus on poetry. I’ve had two grad-level courses in Chinese Literature taught by a brilliant Korean professor. I’ve read a wide range of poetry for over twenty years. Yet, I felt totally inadequate when faced with the Cantos. Who, then, did Pound think would read his poem? Did he really expect anyone to be cognizant of all the literary influences found in the poems? Or did he think that, like a prophet, scribes would meticulously study his poems for years, annotating them so that the faithful could begin to truly comprehend his message? At the very least, the poem seems directed at a small, elite group of artist-scholars who believed, as Pound apparently did, that the great poets are seers.

The small, elite group.

I respect the need for any scholar to communicate with those of like mind in order to increase the base of knowledge. But I reserve my highest acclaim for the person who can write something like “Postmodernism for Dummies”, without condescending to the audience, or lessening the topic.



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