Mine Own Neruda

by William Archila

I was ten and my father was gone, already living here in the States, when my mother woke me up in the middle of the night to listen to a strange voice coming out of the transistor radio. It was Pablo Neruda reciting his love poems while violins and guitars played in the background. For two years I fell asleep to the voice of Neruda rising and falling like waves in the distance, like seagulls swooping down, my head filling with poetry.

The broadcast was interrupted in November, 1980, when I fled El Salvador and the war that was tearing my country apart. I was twelve years old. I arrived in Los Angeles, California, with many questions unanswered, conversations unfinished and years of my young life unfulfilled. I gave up much of my national culture and Spanish language to learn a new culture and language. My English was full of street vernacular and strong raw accents—my words squashed, shredded, forced to dance a Shakespearian rag. I became part of the growing immigrant community, speaking ghetto Spanish. “Go back to your country” echoed throughout these years. Ahead a long road stretched into darkness.

In high school I began writing long before I read any poetry that excited me. My writings were fragments—verses and scribbles not meant to be taken seriously or shared. I pursued this calling in secret, writing only for myself. In college I tried to read the masters of the English language: Shakespeare, Milton, Keats, Dickinson, Whitman, but none of them spoke to me—or maybe I wasn’t ready to listen. It wasn’t until I read Ginsberg’s “Howl” that I was amazed to discover I was not the only young man who saw the best minds of his generation destroyed.

In 1992, after a peace treaty was signed, I returned to El Salvador hoping to find a home, but instead found a war-torn country full of poverty, death, illiteracy, and crime. All my friends and family members were gone, especially those who were capable of changing a society. I was searching for something that no longer existed—a quality remembered from childhood, a sense of belonging to a country and a language. But these had changed. And I had changed. I found myself a stranger in a strange land.

I returned to California and bounced between LA and San Francisco, feeling rootless and without home. Yet that yearning for a sense of home—for union with my country, my family, for other Central American immigrants—grew deep inside me. To cope with these feelings of exile, I needed to write what I could not voice. That’s when I consciously began to write poems.

Within a year of discovering Ginsberg, I rediscovered Pablo Neruda. From poems such as “Walking Alone,” I learned to take the pencil and run across the pages, like a horse galloping across Latin America. I could remember the tree outside my childhood window, the fragile eggs boxed in my mother’s store, the lightbulb hanging from the ceiling, and the moon bending over the neighborhood. I could go outside, feel the cracks of the street and remember my small country of El Salvador.

Neruda demanded more breadth, more precision, more memory of home in my reading and writing. I became interested in writers who sense home as a source of identity more than as a refuge: Pessoa’s Portugal, Neruda’s Chile, Rushdie’s India, Levine’s Detroit, Whitman’s American soil, and Roethke’s North America.

Neruda’s “Residence on Earth” helped me understand that the identity of the exile writer is homelessness and its attendant loneliness. As an exile writer you try to recreate your home in your work. Of course, you never can. You create fictions instead. But in this trajectory, in this country, I never travel alone. I travel with Neruda.

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W.ArchilaWilliam Archila earned his MFA in poetry from the University of Oregon. His first collection of poetry, The Art of Exile (Bilingual Review Press, 2009) won an International Latino Book Award in 2010. His Second book, The Gravedigger’s Archaeology (Red Hen Press), won the 2013 Letras Latinas/Red Hen Poetry Prize. He has been published in American Poetry Review, The Georgia Review, AGNl, and Los Angeles Review of Books, and the anthologies Theatre Under My Skin: Contemporary Salvadoran Poetry, and The Wandering Song: Central American Writing in the United States. He also has poems forthcoming in Prairie Schooner and Tin House. See what he’s published in AGNI here.

 

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Milton and the Machine

by Simon DeDeo

The first line of Paradise Lost is wrong. Most people, most professors of English, even, don’t notice. Even if they remember the line, which is one of the grandest openings in the language.

“Of man’s first disobedience and the fruit”—the solid man, and then first, ripening as it spreads out on the tongue. The fall of letters like rain in that long, classical, scolding disobedience. Fruit, a wide vowel brought to a sudden close as the enjambement tumbles onward. Do you see the error yet?

The line is a syllable too much. In Milton’s blank verse epic—iambic pentameter, five sets of two-syllable feet—the opening has eleven syllables, not ten.

Most people do miss it—it’s a good game at your next literary cocktail party. Perhaps the ear needs time to adjust. Blank verse may not be as natural as it seems when, fifty lines in, the brain engages and the patterns flow back and forth, from the text to the mind and back, as the mind puts the template on. Even the best musicians need to be counted in.

I never noticed, certainly, when I first read the poem on a Kindle, packed in cacophonous train car on the Tokyo subway. In fact, I never noticed at all, until years later I fed the poem into a machine.

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Output from POPE-R, scansion prototype, operating on the opening of Paradise Lost. 1: primary; 2: secondary; 0: unstressed. Lab for Social Minds, Indiana 2015.

I’m a scientist as well as a poet. I study complex systems, which at this late stage in humankind’s knowledge means that I get to study everything we don’t understand. I focus on the products of the human mind, which makes me a cognitive scientist. And I focus, in particular, on what happens when minds get together, and so that means that, with some extremely charming collaborators, I get to study everything from squabbling birds to Wikipedia editors, the spiraling-out of the French Revolution and the Machiavellian strategies of Midwestern gas stations.

People do many things when they get together, but one of the most beautiful is the writing and sharing of poems. So when I fed Paradise Lost to my machine, on a cloudy and humid afternoon in the CUNY Graduate Center—the statistical patterns of the cars honking six stories below are still in my mind months later—I had some serious goals.

I wanted to study surprise, fascination, attention, what draws the eye. I knew about some laboratory studies from the University of Southern California, the so-called Baldi-Itti model, that had found a new way to quantify surprise. Baldi and Itti could take a video clip, and predict where people would look: not at the waving grass, no matter how fascinating, but the soccer player running over it. Not at the rush hour cars, but at the motorcyclist who turns the wrong way up a one-way street.

I wanted to measure Milton’s surprise: his wrong-way cyclists. But in order to do that, I needed to know his structure. We know what people see when they look at a video: light, colors, motion. But what do we hear when we listen to Milton? Far, far more—the words, yes, their meanings and connotations; but also their valence; their rhetorical figures, literal or metaphoric; how they glue together, their syntax, recursive and branching or centipede-like. And, of course, their sounds, their vowels, their consonants; where the stress falls.

As happens to scientists, just as much as to poets, I tumbled down the rabbit hole. I set myself what I thought was a simple goal—I would write some code to find the stress, the lexical stress. Dis-o-BE-di-ence; PA-ra-dise; where our voices linger when the word is on its own. And I would track the rate at which Milton could align that stress with the iamb, that ancient pattern of soft-hard, soft-hard, the metronome of English poetry, and often prose.*

If I had thought a moment, I would have realized how hard the problem is. It’s hard enough to stump Google, as you can verify by listening to Google Maps struggle to turn a string of letters into a sequence of sounds. They might hard-code in a word like Indianapolis, but if you drive in the American Southwest you quickly realize the arbitrary mess of convention, memory, and history that makes Cerrillos Road ser-RI-os, not cer-rill-US. My code struggled and failed; I taught it to search the web for new pronunciations, new accents, spidering out to the Oxford English Dictionary and, eventually, Wiktionary, a hot-bed of nerd phonetics.

This is a blog post, not a press release: I still don’t know where the surprise is in Milton. I have a statistical hold on it, but the error rate is high. It is easy to horrify a scholar—tell them the errors will come out in the wash. And they just might; enough lines of Milton might mean that the code doesn’t have to work perfectly. A ten or twenty, or even thirty percent error rate might be enough to pull a weak signal, a thin mathematics, from this artifact washed up, as it were, on the human beach. But not yet.

And that first line? I’ve tried the Milton question on anyone I think will be annoyed when they miss it. Jess, a supremely educated barrister in London, turned the tables on me by finding the solution as she spoke the line aloud. Disobedyence—like the ny in canyon, or the Spanish ñ. Turning a pair of vowels into a consonant is a trick, but Milton’s in good company: Virgil did the same in the second line of the Aeneid. As of yet, a machine hasn’t beat them.

*Perfect iambic tetrameter: there are no fractures in your foot.

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DeDeoSimon DeDeo is a professor of Complex Systems at Indiana University, and external faculty at the Santa Fe Institute. At Indiana he runs the Lab for Social Minds, which studies the present and past of the human species to better understand its future.