NABOKV-L post 0019162, Wed, 20 Jan 2010 10:38:36 +1300

Re: THOUGHT on Shade as poet
I have read the entire poem aloud a number of times (not recited from memory: I have a lousy memory for text): to some friends sitting in the back of a charter bus between Novgorod and the Gulf of Finland, to what Americans call "roommates" in the kitchen of the house we occupied as students in Toronto, and to graduate students, live, and for undergraduates, recorded. The friends on the bus and the roommates knew nothing of the rest of the novel, but loved the poem, and a number were in tears at the end of Canto Two. I wonder how many twentieth-century poems of about this length would stir the responses "Pale Fire" did in these groups of not necessarily intellectual or literary young adults.

"Stang" in The Gift would almost certainly have been Nabokov's change to translator Michael Scammell's more colloquial equivalent for the Russian "shtang" in the original, and the change would have been made after VN had used the word in "Pale Fire." Perhaps "shtang" in Dar did prompt "stang" in another suicide scene in "Pale Fire," and that in turn prompted the change from Scammell's word to "stang" in The Gift.

What of Shade's reasons for choosing the word? Jerry Friedman's "rare wall fern" offers a wonderful justification for Shade's diction here, and the overtones of "sting, pang" in the third sense of "stang" in Webster's Second, which as a good American poet in 1959 Shade would certainly have had at his side, add an extra resonance.

I am sure Nabokov was taking aim at T.S. Eliot's "Four Quartets" in writing "Pale Fire," and that he envisages Shade as doing the same: challenging Eliot on the grounds of his free verse, broken form, stark juxtapositions of the lyric and the prosaic, and religiosity, through their own (VN's and JS's) heroic couplets throughout, the architecture of the poem (four cantos falling into two exact halves but not "four quarters," but a sixth, a third, a third, and a sixth), their subtle modulation between the prosaic (like shaving) and the poetic (like inspiration), and their metaphysical but not religiose ruminations. As I point out in a note in my forthcoming essay on the poem, after pointing to the use of chthonic, sempiternal and grimpen as a way of identifying Four Quartets: "Interestingly although Shade singles out these rare words as a means of referring obliquely but unequivocally to Eliot, his diction in 'Pale Fire' is actually more diverse than Eliot’s in Four Quartets: 369 unique words per 1000, versus 287 unique words per 1000 for Four Quartets (2821 types [different words] in the 7632 tokens [occurrences of any word] of Shade’s poem, 1937 types in the 6732 tokens of Eliot’s), and despite the apparent homeliness of Shade’s poem and the foregrounded exoticism and stylistic innovation in Eliot’s.")

Shade, like Nabokov, habitually uses his Webster's well. When a good poet apes poor poetry, as in Kinbote's variants, he uses an impoverished vocabulary.

Let me quote VN in SO. He is talking about translation of poetry, but he could be talking of poetry tout court:

"If I am told I am a bad poet, I smile; but if told I am a poor scholar, I reach for my heaviest dictionary." (241)

"once a writer chooses to youthen or resurrect a word, it lives again, sobs again, stumbles all over the cemetery in doublet and trunk hose, and will keep annoying stodgy gravediggers as long as that writer's book endures. . . . I do not care if a word is 'archaic' or 'dialect' or 'slang'; I am an eclectic democrat in this matter, and whatever suits me, goes." (252)

Despite Kinbote's "a neo-Popian prosodic style," and Shade's admiration for Pope, incidentally, Shade's heroic couplets are not at all attempts to write Drydenesque or Popean heroic couplets. In an article forthcoming in Nabokov Online Journal, Gerard de Vries ably highlights the contrast between Popean and Shadean heroic couplets.

Brian Boyd

On 20/01/2010, at 8:24 AM, Gary Lipon wrote:

On Jan 19, 2010, at 12:03 AM, Stan Kelly-Bootle wrote:

what if the Cantos had appeared ... as a New Poem..

Let me pose you this question:
What if you were ridiculously
committed to Pale Fire, the poem,
and actually memorized it,
(perhaps you possessed
some extraordinary mnemonic process).
Do you think you could recite it for an hour
to an audience of the academe,
or of a lesser curiosity?
Would they need a transcript, a set of notes?
if so how many pages might that be?
And, of course: "How would it be received?"
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