Epigrams

September 20, 2016

epigramHello everyone,

I believe I have mentioned several times both on this blog and via Twitter that I am active redditor. I don’t think I would be surprising anyone by saying one of the subreddits I frequent is /r/writing, which puts me in touch with other writers all over the world to talk about our craft. Yesterday someone asked, “Do you have a quote/song lyric/poem at the beginning of your book?” The general consensus seemed to be it usually does more harm than good, but I do include a couple of quotes at the start of each of my novels. I read and write historical fiction, and the little extras like epigraphs, maps, and end notes from the author are pretty common in that genre. I went on to list the quotes I used for each book and why I chose them, and within six hours I had received a message from someone who bought one of my books based on my post.

Well, that certainly got my attention!

Several times on this blog I have talked about why I wrote something or how I wrote something, so why not take that random post on reddit and expand upon it here?

Cover_ImprovedLet me begin by saying for each of my three novels to date I have made a point of sourcing two quotes that I believe reference my plot and help fit my book into a larger literary space. For Inca I went with:

“Explain your words so that I can understand them.
They are like a tangled skein.
You should put the threads in order for me.”

— Act 1, Scene I of the Quechua play Ollantay

and

“Tempus edax rerum.”
Time, the devourer of all things.

— Ovid

I chose them because the book’s premise is an Inca bureaucrat translating his memoirs into Spanish before his story is lost to time. The Inca had a record-keeping system of knotted string called quipus, so using a line from an old Peruvian play about putting the tangled threads in order is a direct reference to what the narrator is doing as he tells his story. For a long time I toyed with the idea of actually calling the book The Tangled Skein, but eventually I decided that would be a very poor choice from a marketing perspective. Still, I know these two quotes have resonated with my readers. A couple years back I even received an email from one man saying he planned to get, “Tempus edax rerum” tattooed on his arm.

That was not an eventuality I envisioned when I first starting writing the book!

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My favourite Rudyard Kipling Poems

June 24, 2011

When I began this blog I never thought poetry would play such a prominent role in the content.

Despite my occasional dabbling, I am not a poet; I feel ill-equipped to speak with authority on the merits of poets or their work. I have no formal training in the appreciation of English literature. I often have difficulty in conveying why somethings stay with me and others do not. Still, I have done my best to make this blog about things that I find interesting and that I believe will be just as relevant in a year as in the day to day. Poetry –what I perceive as good poetry, anyway– is timeless and speaks to people on an individual level. Today I want to highlight three poems by Rudyard Kipling that make me think long and hard on their subject and the way they were conceived and composed. I can’t say categorically that these are his best poems, as I’m a long way from an exhaustive familiarity with his work, but these three should be a fair sampling of his style.

One note on context: Just as Robert Frost conjured his prose from the perspective of a New England yeoman, Rudyard Kipling wrote during the high-water mark of the British Empire: His worldview held the Anglo-Saxon race to be God’s chosen people, gifted with intellect and industry above other men and so responsible for the well being of the rest of humanity. At the same time, Kipling took a long look at the people the British ruled, and he found much to admire. This is the man who wrote the Jungle Book, Kim, and the Barrack Room Ballads. Kipling had no problem casting the ‘noble native’ in a positive light. With that in mind, let’s get started.

Harp Song of the Dane Women
by Rudyard Kipling

What is a woman that you forsake her,
And the hearth-fire and the home-acre,
To go with the old grey Widow-maker?
She has no house to lay a guest in—
But one chill bed for all to rest in,
That the pale suns and the stray bergs nest in.

She has no strong white arms to fold you,
But the ten-times-fingering weed to hold you—
Out on the rocks where the tide has rolled you.

Yet, when the signs of summer thicken,
And the ice breaks, and the birch-buds quicken,
Yearly you turn from our side, and sicken—

Sicken again for the shouts and the slaughters.
You steal away to the lapping waters,
And look at your ship in her winter-quarters.

You forget our mirth, and talk at the tables,
The kine in the shed and the horse in the stables—
To pitch her sides and go over her cables.

Then you drive out where the storm-clouds swallow,
And the sound of your oar-blades, falling hollow,
Is all we have left through the months to follow.

Ah, what is Woman that you forsake her,
And the hearth-fire and the home-acre,
To go with the old grey Widow-maker?
I wanted to start off with something the reader casually acquainted with Kipling may have missed. I came across this in the frontispiece of The Long Ships by Frans G. Bengtsson, and I was deeply impressed. This isn’t a poem of martial pride or great adventure. It’s a lament about the cost of wanderlust; the shared experience of centuries of women forced to share their menfolk with the dangers of storm and sea and sword and spear. How many women watched their brothers and fathers, husbands and sons sail away –gone a-viking– for a season, or for years, or forever? What must they have thought of their loved ones, themselves, and the cruel ocean? I think Kipling’s done a beautiful job of capturing a deep ache in the hearts of women dead long before he was born. Almost all people of English ancestry have  some Danish blood in them from the Viking and Norman invasions, so this is also the story of Kipling’s many-times great-grandmothers. Mine, too, for that matter.

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