A Memory Called Empire Q5: Poetry

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A few questions here.

While the book is an exploration of a culture that venerates and practises poetry, there's precious little actual poetry in the book. There are a few instances where Martine's written the odd couplet. The rest is a description of what the poetry means and how it's expressed. It could be an example of "tell, don't show". Does Martine's approach work in this context? Would you have liked more poetry written verbatim?

Martine's thoughts on writing poetry: https://www.torforgeblog.com/2021/01/07/poetry-of-a-memory-called-empire/

Poetry is a medium where the words have multiple meanings and the reader has to interpret them. How does that fit with the politics of the Teixcalaani court, where no-one says what they actually want? 

How did the poetry act as being a barrier between native Teixcalaanlitzlim and outsiders like Mahit? What other markers have you seen in fiction to separate cultures?

Comments

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    This was another aspect I really appreciated about the book. It brought up a series of related thoughts which I'll try to put down here in semi-coherent form.

    Firstly, I think there are two issues at the fore here (which Arkady touches on in that article you linked). One is the creation of good poetry within the structure of a given language. This will favour or dis-favour particular kinds of poetic form, such as end-rhyme, metre, parallelism, syllable count patterns, alliteration etc. Plus larger scale structural patterns which I'm going to ignore here. For example, ancient Hebrew or Egyptian poetry (and I can think of good reasons why ancient Egyptian might be close to Teixcalaani) favours parallelism, alliteration and (to a degree) syllable count patterns, but not end-rhyme or regular . English favours end-rhyme, metre, alliteration and syllable count patterns but not parallelism. Old and Middle English poetry (like Beowulf) favours alliteration and parallelism but not end-rhyme. And so on.

    The second is translating poetry from one language to another. Should one attempt to replicate in the target language the devices that are typical of the original one? So for example when translating Beowulf into modern English, should on attempt to replicate the specific alliteration rules and use of line pattern with a strong caesura (pause) in the middle, or alternatively use standard modern English patterns such as metrical regularity and end-rhyme? Seamus Heaney chose the former: other translators choose the latter.

    As I used to rattle on about in our Lord of the Rings slow read, JRR Tolkien carefully and deliberately used specific kinds of poetic form to signal different cultures and their interrelations - for example "high" human or hobbit poetry imitating elvish forms, while "everyday" hobbit poetry was more like a ballad form. JRRT was of course a highly skilled author with enormous command of many ancient languages.

    On a more ordinary level, I tried to do something similar in The Flame Before Us, which @Apocryphal kindly reviewed recently: the four different cultures represented in that book also have snippets of poetry of four different styles.

    In A Memory Called Empire, Mahit is partly in the first position, as her command of the Teixcalaani language is very good, though not perfect. Arkady as author is in the second position. How should she represent Teixcalaani poetry so as to convey something of the original, when neither she nor (especially) us have a real knowledge of that language. I reckon she does a very good job of this.

    Poetry as a barrier: yes indeed, and I think this rather neatly illustrates something very deep about the place of poetry in communication. It is comparatively easy to list out the various devices used in a particular culture's poetry. It is rather more difficult to feel that one has a real and instinctual grasp of those devices. CS Lewis covered this a bit in Out of the Silent Planet when Ransom first really gets hrossa poetry at a funeral: "to every man, in his acquaintance with a new art, there comes a moment when that which before was meaningless first lifts, as it were, one corner of the curtain that hides its mystery, and reveals, in a burst of delight which later and fuller understanding can hardly ever equal, one glimpse of the indefinite possibilities within".

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    I much prefer hearing Richard talk about poetry to reading the actual poetry, so I guess this is a win for me.
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    I liked Martine's choice to tell us about the poetry, not show it. Part is her talent in writing it, but I think it was motivated by the inability of us readers to interpret fully the poetry. I wonder if she was influenced by any difficulty in understanding the depths of Byzantine poetry in her research? I can well imagine a new Byzantine scholar reading a bit of innocuous Greek doggerel, then an extreme contemporary reaction to it, and wondering how the Byzantines went from that poetry to that reaction.

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    I think she made the correct choice. I am sure most Teixcalaani poetry would be impossible to correctly model in English, especially since I doubt she actually created a comp lang and wrote poetry in it to translate into English...

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    I just stumbled across this video about word-games in Egyptian heiroglyphs: There are lots of examples of scribes being playful with words and writing, with signs being substituted all over the place depending on sound, meaning, or texts. It reminded me of how Three Seagrass was needed to "decipher" the messages, with lots of in-jokes and cultural double meanings.

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    Thank you, Neil! I did not know Hieroglyphs worked that way!

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    Neither did I! Even if it's not totally accurate (it is some random YouTube) it's good fodder for the imagination.
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    Well, there's an interesting thing that I came some years ago back in ancient poetry study times. I had a secondary supervisor who specialised in New Kingdom Egyptian poetry, and he had a theory that scribes preferentially selected glyphs which visually reinforced the oral message - a kind of multimedia presentation for those handful of people that could read the written version as well as listen to the delivered one.

    A case in point: there are a number of love poems which use bird imagery as a metaphor for the lovers (both male and female), or for the distractions of the world threatening to separate them, or whatever. This guy's theory was that the signs selected (which we conventionally present as hieroglyphs, but which were in fact usually hieratic) also have a preponderance of bird signs in the writing. Egyptian words can be written in multiple different ways by using the flexibility of the written system as compared to the spoken, so it is entirely plausible that a skilled writer could choose to use more bird signs in this sort of context than another author who wanted to visually present a different set of images.

    Now, at the time, being mathematically inclined, I tried to support this case by counting signs in their classes (bird, animal, growing things, made things and so on - there's a conventional set of such classes) and seeing if there was any statistical weight. Sadly I couldn't find any - the sample sizes were not sufficiently large to convince myself that the results were significant, so after a while I gave up on it. But I do think that the proposal itself makes sense, and that in the particular case of the bird poems that it works. Maybe a few really nerdy scribes did it, but others didn't bother?

    I'll see if I can dig out a picture or two...

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    Cuneiform signs often have multiple meanings, and when a text that was intended to be read one way could also be read in a second, supporting, way, it was thought to have more divine weight, as it were. For example, during the early dynastic period, the high kings of Sumer (that is, the one who held the hegemony of power over the others) called themselves 'The King of Kish' - even though many of these were not from the city of Kish, and in fact some of them didn't even have control over it. But the word 'Kishshatu' means 'totality', so a title like 'King of Kish' also implies 'King of All'. Furthermore, by scribal convention, the number '7' came to stand in for the word 'kishshatu'. So in theory if you could claim to be the 'king of the 7 cities' you would also be the de-facto 'king of all'.

    In another example, take the city today known as Erbil in Iraq. In the middle of the 1st millenium, the name of the city is written using the sign for the number 4 (pronounced 'arba') and the sign for god, DINGIR (pronounced 'il'), preceded by the URU determinative (which is not pronounced at all, but used to classify this as a city). In writing, this looks like URU 4 DINGIR, which means (City) Arba-Il, and is pronounced ARBA-IL. But this can also be read as "City of the Four Gods", which in fact became the nickname for the place.

    The SBL (Society for Biblical Literature) has this free book-length monograph on Ancient Near Eastern wordplay, if anyone is looking for a few hours to fill: https://www.sbl-site.org/assets/pdfs/pubs/9780884144762_OA.pdf
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    Hi all, rather later than I intended but here is a picture of one of the bird love poems, using hieroglyphs rather than the hieratic in which they were originally put down. This particular one is read left-to-right (ie into the faces of those signs which have such an orientation) though back in the day, it might have been done right-to-left, or "boustrephedon", alternately l-t-r and r-t-l so you followed the signs down the page as you went. The physical line breaks in the text are put in by me to demark the logical line breaks in the lines of poetry - the original writing did not have any concept of using physical layout to indicate poetic lineation, so you have to use other markers like meaning, parallelism or syllable count to show you how to do this. And, of course, in this sample there are plenty of bird signs.

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    Whoa! Very cool! In fact my asssumption for why the Egyptians kept with heiroglyphics was always because it looked bad ass!

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    @clash_bowley said:
    Whoa! Very cool! In fact my asssumption for why the Egyptians kept with heiroglyphics was always because it looked bad ass!

    Totally! Who would choose this crappy alphabetic nonsense... though to be strictly fair it was better when A still looked like an ox head and all the rest...

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    You can see the rhyming pattern by the little kneeling guy with arm upraised.
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    @RichardAbbott said:
    Totally! Who would choose this crappy alphabetic nonsense... though to be strictly fair it was better when A still looked like an ox head and all the rest...

    Absolutely! But hieroglyphs are so very cool looking!

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    @Apocryphal said:
    You can see the rhyming pattern by the little kneeling guy with arm upraised.

    Ha! I actually noticed that and wondered if it was a rhyme!

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    Strictly speaking it's a determinative indicating that the word in question is something to do with a male person (Gardiner sign A1, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Egyptian_hieroglyphs#A for some more stuff about it). So it's not actually pronounced as such: however the rules of Egyptian show you that this is the end of a word since the determinatives were appended onto the signs that indicated sound.

    There's an equivalent female determinative (Gardiner B1) which appears in this poem on the last-but-one line at the fourth place in from the left. The poem presents itself as being words spoken by the woman partner, so the "she" sign appear a lot less than the "he" sign.

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