Ibrahim Ferrer and the Sound that is Music
A Review by Cooper Renner
A Review by Cooper Renner
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--
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 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
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.
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.