All entries for Wednesday 07 March 2007

March 07, 2007

Humboldt’s Electric Eels

Electric Eel

I have written about Humboldt’s “electric eel” experiment in the Amazon previously on this blog (Baron Von Humboldt and the Electric Eels ), but here is the account from the man himself.

“Under the name of tembladores (‘which make you tremble’) Spaniards confuse all electric fish. There are some in the Caribbean Sea, off the Cumaná coast. [58] […] Other tembladores, proper electric eels, live in the Colarado and Guarapiche rivers and several little streams crossing the Chaima Indian missions. There are many of them in the great South American rivers, the Orinoco, Amazon and Meta, but the strength of currents and the depths prevent the Indians from catching them. They see these fish less often than they feel their electric shocks when they swim in the rivers. But it is in the llanos, especially around Calabozo, between the small farm of Morichal and the missions de arriba and de abaxo, that the stagnant ponds and tributaries of the Orinoco are filled with electric eels. We wanted first to experiment in the house we lived in at Calabozo but the fear of the eel’s electric shock is so exaggerated that for three days, despite our promising the Indians two piastres for each one. […]

“Impatient of waiting, and having only obtained uncertain results from a living eel brought to us, we went to Can~o de Bera to experiment on the water’s edge. Early in the morning on the 19th March we [59] left for the little village Rastro de Abaxo: from there Indians led us to a stream, which in the dry season forms a muddy pond surrounded by trees, clusia, amyria and mimosa with fragrant flowers […] The Indians decided to fish with horses, embarbascar con caballos. It was hard to imagine this way of fishing; but soon we saw our guides returning from the savannah with a troop of wild horses and mules. There were about thirty of them, and they forced them into the water.

“The extraordinary noise made by the stamping of the horses made the fish jump out of the mud and attack. These livid, yellow eels, like great water snakes, swim on the water’s surface and squeeze under the bellies of horses and mules. A fight between such different animals is a picturesque scene. […] Several horses collapsed from the shocks received on their most vital organs, and drowned under the water. Others panting, their manes erect, their eyes anguished, stood up and tried to escape the storm [60] surprising them in the water. They were pushed back by the Indians, but a few managed to escape, stumbling at each step, falling onto the sand exhausted and numbed from the electric shocks.

“In less than two minutes two horses had drowned. The eel is about 5 feet long and presses all its length along the belly of the horse, giving it electric shocks. They attach the heart intestines and the plexus coeliacus of the abdominal nerves.” (58 – 60)

Alexander Von Humboldt. Jaguars and Electric Eels. Trans. Jason Wilson. London: Penguin, 2007.

Tenuous and Precarious: the Comic Muse

Tom and Jerry

Gwyneth Lewis comments here on the escapology of poetry and the joke. She writes that there are similarities between the joke and the poem:

Both require an unusually masochistic degree of self-revelation or, even, exhibitionism. A certain universality of subject matter is necessary for broad appeal. Topicality helps, but with reliance on older archetypes behind the occasion for satire. The joker must have an ear for common speech. Timing is everything. (17)

Memory is another factor mentioned by Lewis as is a convincing story and characters. Lewis tells a riddle which, she thinks, captures the trick of the joke or poem aptly:

You’re in a sealed room with nothing in it but a table and a mirror. How do you get out? The answer is: You look in the mirror, see what you saw. Take the saw, cut the table in half. Put the two into a whole. Escape through the hole. This kind of wit is an effort to loosen the buckles on the straight-jacket of ordinary thinking. It’s a punning Houdini trick. You could argue that such a play on words is a tautology but I’d say grappling with slightly different spellings of the same word gives you that little half-inch that can change your perspective and allow you to effect an escape from isolation into hilarity. (17)

Rhyme can be an important part of humour in poems and Lewis describes it as, ‘a divining rod straight into our unconscious fears and obsessions’, which is often used as, ‘an attempt to impose order on a chaotic world’ (17, 18). Jokes and poems can, ‘deal with tricky subjects so that the mind can grasp solutions way out to the left of its normal field of vision’ (18).

Lewis compares the relationship of pain and poetry to a Tom and Jerry cartoon, in which the pair have to play/dance together: ‘The minute the music stops the two are mortal enemies again’ (18). Lewis adds: ‘Miserable poets don’t make better art, but writing can have a therapeutic effect on neurosis if we’re given the safety of rhythm, metre and rhyme to pacify the potentially destructive side-effects of introspection’ (18).

Lewis, Gwyneth. ‘Tenuous and Precarious: The Comic Muse’. Poetry Review (Fanfare for the Comic Muse). 88.3 (Autumn 1998). 17-19.

Extracts from an Interview with Gwyneth Lewis by Richard Poole

*Lewis on Sonedau Redsa a Cherddi Eraill*

I went to the Philippines first on a visit with James Fenton, for whom I was house-sitting while he was being Far East Correspondent for The Independent. While I was there we were asked to be godparents to a friend’s child, who’d been conceived during the momentous events of the People Power uprising which ahs toppled Ferdinand Marcos in 1986. […] The title sequence of Sonedau Redsa was my christening gift to my god-daughter, a sequence of twenty-five sonnets giving a very simple outline of the history of the Philippines up to the Revolution. (25)

Lewis on the role of the Poet

The awareness of the public role of a poet is perhaps inherited from the tradition of Welsh poetry, and does inform my work in both languages. I tend not to be interested in subject matter that’s merely personal. I’m fascinated by history, politics and goings-on out there in the world – and I think this shows in the rest of my work. (25)

Lewis on Poetry and Science

I don’t know that I see poetry and science as diametrically opposed. In fact, they’re both provisional ways of describing a creation which is more than both, so they’re partners in the world. The discarded metaphors of science are of great use to a poet. (25)

Lewis on Saxons versus Celts, the Line versus the Circle

I used the geometric images as shorthand for the values ion two very different cultures – their history is, after all, why different nations have widely varying aesthetics. The heavily elaborated swirls of Celtic art are a reflection of a whole system of religious and political values which have been and are still alien to the more hierarchical Anglo-Saxon model. (26)

Lewis on her Development as a Poet

The big leap forward came for me when I realised that I was primarily a religious poet. This was a tremendous liberation in relation to language because it means that the values which are most important to me reside not in any one language, but beyond language itself. To me language is only a servant in the project of praising God, and can never be an end in itself. Of course I delight in language endlessly, but if you regard it as a wonderful carriage that can only take you part of the way towards expressing what you want, then you don’t get too attached to it or too annoyed when you finally have to get out and walk. (27)

Lewis on Faith

Faith is a gift, which I enjoy to the full when I have it, and I do think that praise is perhaps the most important stance a poet can take, because it puts the rest of the world into perspective. (26)

Lewis on writing in English and Welsh

What is different is the cultural and literary background against which you write, and these are very distinct in Welsh and English. For example, the poetic line in English in always dragging you towards a pentameter or a tetrameter, whereas this isn’t such a familiar sound in Welsh, a fact which can be exploited for the sake of novelty. This principle extends far beyond prosody, because poetry, if it’s any good, always gives us new information – cultural, emotional or spiritual. What’s new is different in Welsh and English, because what’s gone before in both cases is very distinct. Whereas lyricism and the music of words are nothing new in Welsh-language poetry (in fact, an excess of music has been a problem for it), they are new in English verse, which has been suffering to my mind, from a dull flat-footedness in some quarters for quite a while. (28)

Poole, Richard.: “Gwyneth Lewis talks to Richard Poole.” Poetry Wales. Vol. 31:2 (1995), 24-9.

JP Ward on Cynghanedd


[T]he Welsh forms have their own strange fascination, analogously to the haiku, sonnet or villanelle. If the English reader thinks Hopkins and Dylan Thomas have a power deriving from their very pronounced assonantal usages, what is that power? It is wholly wrong to think as Matthew Arnold did, that it is a matter of ornamentation. The tight form, used successfully, seems to be insisting that the poet emphasize a certain feeling very deeply by making all the words he chooses practice a certain self-denial in reinforcing that feeling. It is almost as though – and this does not at all deny the tremendous facility with which some poets do this – the words are forced into position against their will, and this, paradoxically, makes the strain like bent mental, giving them great tension and power. It makes each different line or phrase seem to belong to and be contained by some over-all hidden idea binding it. Wheras the effect of Swinburne for example is open-endedly mellifluous , and the late mediaeval alliterative revival in English, as in its masterpiece the Gawain poem, seems physically to encrust the poem’s characters and harsh natural environment with the power of the detail of those things. The tighter those prescribed Welsh forms, the more is the poet precipitated into the expression of a particular psychology the mode seems to enable whereas the quite different voices of [3] Edward Thomas, Hardy, Wordsworth himself, seem more direct emanations of the mind itself in an era in which the question of what mind itself actually is, is the most pressing ontological question. (3-4)

Ward, JP. Editorial (on cynghanedd). Poetry Wales. Vol. 14.1 (Summer 1978). 3-4



On Writing Poetry in Two Languages
Lewis begins by explaining that she is bilingual (Welsh and English) and that she is interested in how her languages work together

Lewis begins by explaining that she is bilingual (Welsh and English) and that she is interested in how her languages work together. Initially being bilingual was very difficult for Lewis, but eventually she began to create her own set of poetics:

I have become less and less interested in literal translation, more keen to write totally separate poems in both languages. This is bound to be the case because I rely totally on rhyme and scansion (the most difficult elements of poetry to translate) to lead me through the poem. I see rhyme as the tracer bullets in the battle to capture a passable poem – it shows me where I should be shooting, where I’m wide of the mark and how to be accurate in the gloom of the battlefield. I find the labour of translation far less interesting than writing itself, that pleasure of riding meaning like a wave, not quite knowing if you’re surfing for shore or heading for an embarrassing tumble on the beach in front of a crowd of girls in bikinis. (81)

Lewis tells that she is not interested in ‘self-translation’ and she adds that translation by another poet can create the most extraordinary results:

Milton’s Latinate English, James Macpherson’s Hebrew-sounding Ossian poetry, the stark surrealism of postwar Polish poetry have all added new tones to the palette of English verse. Behind these new rhythms lie new philosophies and visions as well, whose substance is given formal expression in prosody, and these ideas may be translated. In its essence poetry is a translation of an experience into words. The feeling that the finished poem never quite catches the original insight or emotion would support this, as if poetry were, in itself, a kind of algebraic language or logarithm which had its own proportional relationship both with the emotions of the poet and the ear of the listener. (81)

Having said all this, Lewis is aware that the signification of certain words have deep resonances in a language. She notes the example of the Welsh word for grace, gras, which also refers to, ‘fully-aired clothes’ (82). In Lewis’ mind the word gras will always be associated with the putting on clean clothes.

Yet Lewis is aware that languages are not always as separate as it might appear at first glance. Between Welsh and English, Lewis senses, ‘a complex underground system of seepage and mutual irrigation […], subtle connections which make the whole literary landscape between them fertile and pleasant to inhabit’ (82). English and Welsh work, ‘a kind of magnetic attraction and repulsion’ (82). For Lewis, there are, ‘two linguistic rhythms’, which work in, ‘syncopation’: cynghanedd in Welsh and euphony in English, the half-rhyme proest in Welsh and English (82).

Taken together they are both one language to me – I know them both so intimately that they are often transparent to me, so that I’m aware not of hearing Welsh or English but of understanding the thoughts of another person speaking. They flow through my dreams like rivers. (82)

Lewis, Gwyneth.: “On writing poetry in two languages.” Modern Poetry in Translation (7) 1995, 80-3. (1995)

The Position of the Poet in Welsh Society

Dafydd ap Gwylim

In his study, An Introduction to Welsh Poetry, Gwyn Williams begins by studying the position of the poet in Welsh society. He suggests that there is a difference between attitudes about poets in England and Wales. He suggests that the English regard the poet as ‘dreamy or fantastic, unpractical and useless’, while in Wales, poets are regarded with’ an attitude of respect’ (1). This is a huge generalisation – many kinds of English poetic traditions exist – but there may be something in the claim that in Wales the poet’s role is primarily to serve the community. Williams tries to explain this by suggesting that the concentration of poets in Wales is larger. These poets may not necessarily be ‘professionals’ but they are poets with a social role in the community nonetheless: ‘A village as little as Ffair Rhos in Cardiganshire today boasts of several poets and a man whose farming is criticised by the agricultural authorities replies in scathing verse which is repeated in bus and tavern’ (1).

Williams traces the roots of Welsh poetry back to the sixth century and the poets Taliesin, Aneurin and also Llywarch Hen. He notes that there were three kinds of poets in the noble household:
• the penkerdd or chief poet, ‘in the immediate entourage of the king or prince’, who would sing to the king, ‘two songs of God and one of princes’ (8);
• the bardd teulu or house (literally ‘family’) poet was, ‘one of twenty-four officers of the court’, who lodged with the king’s doctor, who sang Unbeinyaeth Prydain (‘The Sovereignty of Britain’) on the day of battle, who sang songs to the king and queen, to noblemen and to churls and who dealt with the legal duties of the house (taxes, fines etc.)(8);
• and the cerddor or mistrel-jongleur who was part of the retinue of the king.

However after English law began to overtake Wales (around 1536), no one system applied throughout Wales. Williams explains that poets became, ‘closer to the wandering poets of France’ (11). Women began to be poets too such as Gwerfyl Mechain. In the sixteenth century, Welsh poets would change again into, ‘the gentleman writer of occasional verse’ but by the eighteenth century, it was clear that the Welsh tradition had persisted through Welsh scholars and parsons (13). Williams explains: ‘Some rustic poets still studied the classical metres and not, in this century of antiquarianism, as a rediscovery of the past, but in a direct and in some cases still traceable line of tutelage from the great practitioners of the fourteenth century’ (15).

Williams thinks that the role of the poet in Welsh society today is not so different from the place of the eighteenth century Welsh poet. He paints an idyllic picture of the passion for poetry in Wales:

In the English-speaking South Wales town where I was bred tradesmen and master craftsmen and workmen studied the rules of versification and one of my early memories is of a coal merchant and my father composing englynion before the fire on a winter’s evening. A young man I met recently at a railway station spoke no Welsh himself but, hearing me talk Welsh to my companion, offered to repeat a stanza he had learnt from his father and which I have never seen recorded. A barmaid at Tregaron capped my englyn with another and the country road surveyor had to read the copies I had made of fourteenth century cywyddau at the National Library. When I recited to a friend of mine, headmaster of a West Wales school, the epitaph of a seventeenth century bishop, he repeated it to a bank manager who next morning passed it to a solicitor and a shopkeeper, so that in a day or so it was being told in all its bright paganism all over the little town. (16-17)

Williams concludes that the role of the poet in Welsh tradition has had two strands: ‘the strict conventions of the chief poet and house poet passing on to the priest and scholar’ and ‘the freer tradition of the minstrel and the wandering singer persisting in the work of the village rhymester’, two roles that, ‘have probably never been quite distinct, and they are happily not so today’ (17).

Williams, Gwyn. An Introduction to Welsh Poetry. London: Faber, 1953.


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