Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Gateway to Insanity

There's nothing like a meandering path that takes you somewhere special. For example, many years ago I basically flipped a coin in choosing one musical festival over another, picked a piano trio to play, had my assigned cellist turn out not to be there, and then was assigned a new cellist...who is now my wife. We now have a daughter in music camp out in Western Massachusetts which led us to an afternoon of Sunday shopping in charming Northampton where I came across a book I've wanted to read for years. Vikram's Seth's The Golden Gate is a novel-in-verse set in 1980s Silicon Valley but modeled on Pushkin's Eugene Onegin, especially in its use of the peculiar Onegin stanzas devised by the "Russian Shakespeare." In Le Ton beau de MarotDouglas Hofstadter raves about The Golden Gate, gateway for him to Eugene Onegin which becomes the second most important case study in Hofstadter's wide-ranging study of translation.

I've now read Eugene Onegin a few times in this dazzling translation, and I've intended to read The Golden Gate for more than a dozen years, but somehow never got around to hitting the "buy" button on Amazon or tracking it down at a local library; seeing it on the shelf at The Raven conquered my irrational inertia, and now I'm happily flipping page after page.* My only slight disappointment is that Seth's book (or any good translation of Eugene Onegin) is a perfect candidate for e-book reading on a smartphone or tablet since each sonnet would nicely fill a screen, but it's only available in paper form. Oh's still delightful even only 160 or so sonnets in. My mind is rhyming in iambic tetrameter even when I'm not reading, which is a problem I've had before.

Unfortunately, I also made the mistake of wondering if an Onegin stanza could be fit into a single, 140-character Twitter post. I remember wondering this back in #operaplot days when I successfully tweeted several limericks, but if you do the math, 140 characters divided by 14 lines leaves only 10 characters per line, and that has to include spaces and line breaks. Iambic tetrameter demands 7-9 syllables per line so it's really impossible, right?

However, it occurred to me that using texting abbreviations might make the task just possible, and OMG! (which I'd interpret as "Oh my goodness" since that yields an extra syllable), voilà:

It's pretty ugly to look at, but it's Tweetable, although Twitter doesn't really let you use line breaks, so it ends up looking like this:
IOU a tiny sonnet of ≤ 140; In it 14=143 IIRC SRSLY I ineptly had U ROTF LOL once b4 @my TMI No IMO my MO I AKA admiration ≠ U & yet WYSIWYG
I do enjoy the oddly formulaic juxtapositions of 140, 14, and 143 and the 3-line set of "TMI, IMO, MO I," not to mention that any sonnet ending with "WYSIWYG" is pretty awesome.

If you're wondering how to read it, here's a "translation." Note that every line should begin with a stressed syllable and that line 5 requires "remember" to be accented awkwardly on its first and third syllables. "Seriously" should also get a secondary stress on its third syllable.

IOU a tiny sonnet
of ≤
140; In it
SRSLY I ineptly
had U ROTF
LOL once b4
@my TMI
No IMO my
AKA admiration
≠ U & yet

I owe you a tiny sonnet
of less than or equal to
one-hundred and forty; in it
Fourteen equals "I Love You."
If I remember correctly
seriously I ineptly
had you rolling on the floor
laughing out loud once before
at my "too much information."
No, in my opinion, my
modus operandi I
also know as admiration
does not equal you and yet
what you see is what you get.

OK, it's not Shakespeare or Pushkin...or Seth, but it sort of makes sense as a slightly desperate sonnet from a poet prone to ridiculously flowery flights of fancy. It's a bit pitiful since it seems our hero knows his recipient is a harsh critic; he's apparently trying his best to keep this tweet both short and sweet, but he is who he is.

It's also not quite an Onegin stanza since that requires iambic tetrameter which would add an extra unstressed syllable to the beginning of each line, but chopping off those 14 syllables was really helpful. The astute among you will further note that I've interpreted AKA as "also know as" instead of "also known as." So sue me. My first line takes up a luxurious 24 characters, and I had to find as many ways as possible to abbreviate thereafter. Honestly, I don't think I'd have pulled it off without that "less than or equal to" sign. That's six syllables of pure, 1-character gold.

I later realized I hadn't even thought about abbreviated proper nouns like UK, USA, IBM, etc., but textspeak is a perfect fit for Twitter anyway. Still, I think this is my first and last Onegin sonnet of 140 characters or less.

But I also wondered about a trimmer-style sonnet, and fairly quickly managed the following (I was home sick yesterday, so I had a little time on my hands):

A sonnet
in tweet?
I'm on it
A feat!
is short. See
each line
li'l more than
3 beats.
will pour in
for me.
You'll see.

If tweeted like so:
A sonnet-in tweet?-I'm on it-A feat!-140-is short.See-each line-assigned-lil' more than-3 beats.-RT's-will pour in-for me.-You'll see.
...this actually comes in at a highly efficient 134 characters. Note that I've kept the Onegin stanza rhyme-scheme with its charming variety of masculine and feminine rhymes. For those not in the Twitter know, "RT's" stands for "Re-tweets," which is the Twitter way of sharing posts. Also, you'll note that "140" in this case should be pronounced as "One forty." It's true that this rhyme scheme has quite a different flavor than Eugene Onegin with only 2-3 beats per line; in fact, in this regard the poem is much closer in spirit to Clement Marot's A une Damoyselle malade, the 28-liner beginning and ending with "Ma mignonne" that is the central case study in Hofstadter's book.

My favorite felicitous detail in my "Mignonegin" sonnet comes with the phrase "li'l more than / 3 beats"; I chose "li'l" to create a nice triple rhyme with "will pour in" but was slightly bothered by the fact that none of the lines actually has any more than 3 beats. EXCEPT, one could say that the contraction "li'l" has perhaps a little more than one syllable, meaning the phrase "li'l more than" contains something like pi beats; it thus becomes the very line to which it refers. I realized that while struggling through the last leg of my morning run, and that put a much-needed hop in my step.

* I could quote favorite turns of phrase for days, but here's one of Seth's couplets that I particularly admire:
Thus by default the fault is Phil's.
Jan sets her gaze at Look that Kills.
More MMmmusing Onegin stanzas:

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