Ibrahim Ferrer and the Sound that is Music

    A Review by Cooper Renner

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"Spring and Fall"
To a young child

Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leaves, like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! as the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you will weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sorrow's springs are the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It is the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.

Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889)
[Copyright owned by Oxford University Press]

When Robert Frost defined poetry as "what is lost in translation," he was arguing for the primacy of sound in poetry. After all, other central elements of poetry-- imagery (including figurative language), content (which might be a narrative, a philosophical presentation, or a lyric "moment"), and even tone-- can pretty much be carried over from one language to another. We who do not read ancient Greek, for example, can still contact, via Robert Fitzgerald's translation, Homer's vivid similes, the vibrant emotions of the characters, and the events-- large or small-- which lift the Iliad and the Odyssey above mere "novels" and into the realm of epic. But we don't have a clue as to what Homer sounded like. And even if we did, even if we-- like Heinrich Schliemann-- taught ourselves to read the ancient language so that we could meet Homer on his own ground, we still would not have a clue as to what Homer's sounds conveyed to his ancient audience. That is to say, we could hear the sounds the letters make without knowing how an ancient Greek responded to those sounds-- which he or she found sweet and soothing, which were harsh and strident, which lulled one to ease and which called one to arms.
     German, for example, is generally referred to as a guttural language-- a language whose sounds are produced in the throat. We English speakers tend to take this description as a pejorative, almost as if "guttural" and "gutter" came from the same root. To our ears German sounds harsh and imperial. But does it sound so to a mother singing lullabies to her child? To an old man bidding his lifelong wife goodbye? Clearly not. They hear the sounds of German with ears attuned to that language. We hear it as foreigners. Even if we learn the language and speak it fluently, our unconscious minds will still hear and judge its sounds by the standards of our first language.

No matter how important the sound of a verse is, that sound, the music of a poem, can never be isolated from the other elements that make up good verse.

     If Frost is right then, if poetry is at heart an art of sound, then no one but a native speaker of a language can ever hear a poem in that language. Furthermore, I would suggest that this sad state must involve time constraints as well-- by which I mean that I, a native English speaker, can never truly hear Chaucer either, because English has changed so much in the past six centuries.
     At this point you are probably thinking that I disagree with Frost-- and you would be right to think so: I do. No matter how important the sound of a verse is-- and it is important-- that sound, the music of a poem, can never be isolated from the other elements that make up good verse. (And to tell you the truth, I think Frost was deliberately overstating his own views, mostly-- I suspect-- to take a potshot at "free verse", but also possibly as a way to play up his pose as a rascally New England farmboy.)
     The "music" of a poem is, at its base, rhetoric, a rhetorical trick even, a device by which the poet draws his readers in and encourages them to keep listening, encourages them maybe to memorize the poem. But that music may be so employed for its own sake-- by a writer like Dylan Thomas, for example-- or so to the detriment of the other elements of verse that the music ends up being frosting on a cardboard cake-- sound and fury signifying very little. On the other hand, if the poet's skill is true, the rhetoric is an integrated aspect of the poem: it supports rather than overpowers the content, as well as the imagery and tone, of the poem. Think "Easter 1916."
     When I was young and foolish (as opposed to now, when I am middle-aged and foolish), I had the good fortune to study, with Ernestine Sewell Linck, the Gerard Manley Hopkins poem "Spring and Fall." This justly famous poem, Hopkins at his most restrained, would in lesser hands have become doggerel. Its trimeter couplets (with the one triplet in the poem's center) could have sounded jingly and silly-- but they do not, first because Hopkins often de-emphasizes the prominent rhymes by refusing to end-stop the lines, and second because the gravity of his diction-- which both is and is not a function of sound-- dampens the formal tendency toward levity. The couplets might be said to spring forward through the first word of each rhyming pair in order to let the weight of the rhyme, and its thought, fall onto the second. In a similar fashion, the third line of the triplet brings the poem's forward propulsion to a dead stop-- and thus makes this triplet the thematic as well as the actual heart of the poem--

    "And yet you will weep and know why."

     Hopkins' rhyme scheme here is underlain by another aspect of the poem's sound-- prominent s's in lines 6, 7, and 11 which present (Dr. Linck told her class so long ago) the serpent winding his way through Eden, but are also simply one group of a series of alliterative groups in the poem, by which method Hopkins again undercuts what might otherwise be heavy-handed.

While I want to make it clear that I would probably twist Frost's dictum into "Poetry is what survives translation," I do not want to deny the effectiveness and power of sound used with distinction.

     The question Frost raises, by implication is-- Can no one but a native English speaker hear this poem? Is this beautiful and forthright poem forever forbidden to most of mankind? The "correct" answer can only be "no." To be sure, a translator could only with great difficulty replicate Hopkins' simple but demanding rhyme scheme and approximate his multiple alliterations. And I doubt that there is any manner of reproducing the contradictory meanings of "unleaving" in its context. But the grave tone which the speaker projects, the sharpness of the autumn imagery, the metaphysical content, and even the sibilance of the implied serpent can almost certainly be brought over into, at least, any Indo-European language. Only an immoderately gifted translator could create a new version of the poem as artistic as the original, but the great heart of the poem rests in poetic elements which can be transferred across language and time.
     And yet--
     And yet none of us, I think, wants to be the reader who can only read this poem in translation.

     And so finally I come to the title of this column-- which must, to this point, have seemed to be mistakenly placed. While I want to make it clear that I would probably twist Frost's dictum into "Poetry is what survives translation," I do not want to deny the effectiveness and power of sound used with distinction-- as in the song, "Marieta," written by Faustino Oramas and recorded with such grace by Ibrahim Ferrer. In the event that you have been listening only to American commercial music in the past couple of years, let me introduce Ferrer simply by saying that he is one of the gifted elderly Cuban musicians brought (back) to attention by two 1997 projects, Ry Cooder's Buena Vista Social Club and Juan de Marcos Gonzalez's Afro-Cuban All Stars, as well as his own recent solo recording, Buena Vista Social Club Presents Ibrahim Ferrer.

The great heart of the poem rests in poetic elements which can be transferred across language and time.

     "Marieta," from the solo release, is a mildly raunchy and extremely evocative song which contains what is (to this bumbler in the Spanish language) one of the loveliest lines in twentieth century music-- "Mi mama me dijo a mi." It is widely known that the Romance languages rhyme much more normally and easily than English, but the effectiveness of this line does not depend upon rhyme, but rather rhythm, assonance, and alliteration. The alliteration is obvious-- 5 of 8 syllables, and 2 of the 3 stresses, begin with M-- but because M is such a soft consonant, the effect is not overkill, but rather heightening. Likewise, the three somewhat keening long E's are muted by the 3 AH's, the OH and the EH. Rendered phonetically, the line would read something like

    mee MAHmah meh DEEhoh ah MEE

with the capitalized syllables representing the stresses. Thus two of the three stresses, as previously noted, begin with the gentle M, but two of three also share the long E-- a delicate balance. The initial syllable and the last syllable are identical, which creates a nice sense of closure, and except for the "ah," which is only vowel, every syllable is a consonant-vowel syllable. These characteristics create an immensely musical and fluid line, even on paper, though Ferrer's vocal renders it even more beautiful.
     Ah, yes-- you are thinking-- but what does it mean? Well, unfortunately, that gorgeous mouthful of Spanish comes over into English as "My mama told me," four words utterly without charm or grace. If you want to get really literal, you can translate it as "My mama told me to me," a very clumsy way of approaching the emphasis in the original (where both "me" and "a mi" mean "to me" in this context.) The Spanish original is full of poetry, the English translation utterly devoid of it.
     Have I then argued myself into agreeing with Frost's pronouncement? No.
     But I'm sure the old boy is sitting somewhere immaterial and laughing at me.

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About Cooper

Cooper Renner also reviews books and engages in various critical activities for the online magazine 'elimae', under the name b. renner. He is a published poet and a very eclectic fellow.