I could stand still
if I knew where I was headed,
but the light is gone long since;
I have lost my destination (or destiny)
in the fog.

To walk is stumbling steps,
starting, stopping, striking stones
before my faltering feet –

But not to walk – to wait,
that’s worse,
an unstealthy insecurity,
fear of susceptibility
to unknown presences of the dark.

My moving feet beat back the terror from my heart
but worlds still weigh wearily. . .

Hoof-beats from behind
overtake and pass me by.
I yearn for such a swift steed to carry me
to something beyond now.

But beneath the burning wish
I know it would be no escape:
Escape to where, and what?

What is out there
in the dark or in the dawn
for me. . .

© Samuel Birrer and Serendipity, 2017.

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What I Might Have Done

What I Might Have Done
Is a poison of uncertainty
seeping through my mind.
What if, what if…
Would I be happier,
Would I be more alive?

Would that man
Have lived a while longer
Had I been there
By his side that night
Would he have a job,
A family,
A home instead of a tomb?

Would I have gone crazy
Or would I have gone sane
If once upon a time
I had done this – not that.

Am I living the wrong life right now,
Or the right one?
Is there a difference?
Am I myself,
Or did my self diverge from me
A long while back
In a yellow wood…

The poison penetrates deeply sometimes
But eventually
I awaken
To the universe in which I live
Whether I will or no.

And feeling the matrix
Into which I was born
And to which I belong –
I know that What I Might Have Done
Is a poison,
And what I am choosing to do right now
Is life.
And that is the way it ought to be.

© Samuel Birrer and Serendipity, 2016.

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The greatest thought
In the universe
Flashed once in a lonely mind
That never knew its worth.
The lips that might have spoken it
Were silent.
For the lonely mind
Had convinced itself
That nothing it thought was important
That no one would want to hear.

The greatest thought
In the universe
Once formed, was soon forgot;
But its light continued on
Beyond the lonely mind
And loud, uncaring world.

In all its significant insignificance,
It faced the court of the numberless stars
In their eternal session.
And when the gavel finally clacked,
On the surface of space and time,
A lonely scientist
Working too late on a Friday night
Discovered a fiery faraway sun
That was never seen before.

No one ever understood
– not even that scientist -Why she called that star
By the strange little name

© Samuel Birrer and Serendipity, 2016.

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Kalevala (4): Musical Influence and Jean Sibelius

The Kalevala was recognized as a work of enormous cultural importance in Finland when it was first published, but its influence spread far beyond the pages of the book itself, and not only in literary spheres.  Many lovers of music know the name of Jean Sibelius, a prominent romantic composer, and perhaps the best known name in Finnish music.  His “Finlandia” – which introduced a popular hymn melody – and “Karelia Suite” are some of his most famous works, but many of Sibelius’ compositions found their inspiration in the Kalevala.

Robert Kajanus, a composer writing slightly before Sibelius’ time, also wrote music based on themes from the Kalevala, notably the symphonic poem Aino.   He also wrote Kullervo’s Funeral March, on a theme which was later taken up by the younger Sibelius.  Kajanus, though brilliant and renowned, was never as prolific or well-known as his successor.

Kajanus’ music may have been instrumental in the Sibelius’ decision to use the Finnish national epic for inspiration in his own pieces.  His Lemminkäinen Suite derives its name from the cycle of poems about the impetuous hero Ahti (also named Lemminkäinen).  Another, called Tapiola, is takes its name from a forest spirit in Finnish mythology.  Kullervo is based on the tale of the tragic hero Kullervo, which Tolkien transformed into the story of Túrin Turambar.*  Because I’m such a Tolkien nerd, I find this story fascinating, and the music, happily, lives up to my high expectations.

Sibelius also studied some of the rhythmic and melodic styles of the folk poetry from which the Kalevala was drawn, and incorporated them into some of his compositions, giving the folk poetic tradition something of a voice in modern musical tradition, which it otherwise might never have had.

A prolific though far more recent composer, Einojuhani Rautavaara, though most of his music seems to have little relation to the Kalevala, wrote an early piece called The Myth of Sampo, named after a legendary treasure that appears several times in the epic.

The music of Finland demonstrates the power of the Kalevala to influence national culture in the musical realm, in addition to inspiring generations of Finnish literature, visual art, and political activism.  Arising from unique circumstances in the birth of the nation of Finland, Lönnrot’s epic clearly holds a cultural status rivaled by few other works in the world, maintaining a surprising degree of influence over the art of its native land even to the present day.

I’ve included some links to YouTube, where you can find some of the pieces I’ve mentioned above:




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Kalevala (3): Lönnrot & Longfellow?

As the third episode in my series about the Elias Lönnrot’s Kalevala, I want to speak just a little about the influence its publication has had on literature beyond the borders of its native land.

You may know, or may be interested to know, that the Finnish Kalevala epic is widely thought to have been a major influence on Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “The Song of Hiawatha,” which uses the same meter  – trochaic tetrameter – and somewhat similar poetic devices, such as abundant parallelism.  While many have accused Longfellow of extensive imitation, and even plagiarism, it seems to me that these allegations are unreasonable, and that influence from the Kalevala could easily be legitimately incorporated into a poem such as “The Song of Hiawatha.”  Though some have sought and found sources in Native American culture that resemble Longfellow’s masterpiece, it seems clear that his reading of the Kalevala was also instrumental in its formulation.

For it is certain that Longfellow was familiar with the Kalevala, and words of his own suggest that it greatly affected the composition of “Hiawatha.”  In the Routledge Encyclopedia of Translation Studies, he is quoted as saying: “I have tried to do for our old Indian legends what the unknown Finnish poets had done for theirs, and in doing this I have employed the same meter, but of course have not adopted any of their legends.”  As Longfellow did not have mastery of the Finnish language, however, his studies of the Kalevala were directed to the German and Swedish translations.  Most likely, he used Franz Anton Schiefner’s 1852 German translation (which was used by many of the Kalevala‘s translators who could not work directly from the Finnish) and Castrén’s 1841 Swedish translation (the work of a bilingual Finnish philologist).  Both were the only full translations in these languages available before “Hiawatha” was published, although excerpts had sometimes been translated by others.

I find it fascinating to think that the Kalevala‘s influence could have been key in the composition of this most treasured work of American literature, regardless of the purity or authenticity of all that Longfellow attributes to Native American lore.  Among other things, it serves to show the power that literature can have on individual people and on whole literatures and nations.  The Kalevala has clearly had an effect that extends far beyond the borders of Finland itself.  I look forward to reading the epic of Hiawatha, perhaps this summer, and comparing it with my experiences of the Kalevala.  I am certain the investment of time will be quite worth my while.

In the next post I intend to examine another facet of the Kalevala‘s international influence, this time closer to its place of origin – in Estonia, a nation which has had fairly sparse experience of independence over the centuries, and which experienced a nationalist movement similar to and about the same time as Finland’s.

© Samuel Birrer and Serendipity, 2016.

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Kalevala (2): Name Translations in Runos 1 & 2

As the second post in this series about Elias Lönnrot’s famous Kalevala, I would like to discuss a topic that never occurred to me until I began comparing different translations of this work…  How does an author or translator decide how to represent names in his or her works?  I’ll be examining the phenomenon of names and titles in the preface and first two poems of the Kalevala in this post, and maybe touching on some other topics at the end as well.

To give an idea of the sort of poems we’re discussing here, the first two runos in the modern format of the Kalevala have two main themes, both based on origins (a topic that recurs constantly in Finnish myths, I’ve found).  Specifically, the origin of the world (the creation myth) and the origin of a central figure in Finnish folklore and myth: Väinämöinen, the ancient wizard and singer.  The two are not really separate, necessarily, I’ve merely created a distinction that makes sense to me.  In truth, the birth of Väinämöinen is an integral part of the creation sequence.  This, I suppose, is why thereafter one rarely sees his name mentioned without an epithet like “the ancient Väinämöinen” or “the aged Väinämöinen” or just “old Väinämöinen.”  He is as old as the hills – literally!

Now, to begin discussing names and their translations/transcriptions.  How does an author decide how to represent a name from another land, language and culture, when writing a translated work?  This issue is interesting enough, I think, to examine in some detail, with the side-by-side comparison of three different translations.  Those I’ve decided to include are Crawford 1888, Magoun 1963, and Friberg 1988.  These each have very distinctive qualities to them, and thus offer lots of fascinating material for comparison and discussion.

Before the creation myth of Runo 1 begins, there is a prelude, in which many important names are mentioned.  I want to focus briefly on two rather inconsequential names, because they brought my attention to this whole subject: Murikki and Kimmo.  These are the names of two horses, which appear to be generic stand-in names, the way you or I would speak of a dog named Fido or Spot.  Still, these names, which I found in Crawford’s translation, have a magical ring to them, like so many Finnish names.  To my ears, unfamiliar with the Finnish language, they also give an impression of otherness, foreignness, perhaps one could even say “Finnishness.”

Contrast this with the scholarly prose translation of Magoun, 75 years later, who translates many names to their English equivalents through their meaning.  Where Crawford has “sable-haired Murikki” and “many-colored Kimmo,” Magoun writes “dusky Blackie” and “spotted Frisky.”  It makes a big difference, doesn’t it?  Suddenly the names that were so magical are commonplace and unimpressive.  I wonder if a Finnish reader would see Murikki the same way that I see the name Blackie!  Sadly, this is likely to remain a mystery to me, but I think at least the example demonstrates what an enormous difference a simple name translation can make.  Interestingly, Friberg mixes and matches, giving us “spotted frisky” and “Muurikki, the black one.”  Again, the decision affects the poem’s tone for English readers.

In the interest of keeping this post below novel-length, let’s move on to the Kalevala‘s creation poem.  The first character is a virgin goddess or spirit, who resides in the air before the existence of the world.  She is the catalyst of the world’s creation – although she does not seem to be an intentional creator figure – as well as the mother of Väinämöinen, who is conceived when she is impregnated by the sea (vaguely reminiscent of the relationship of Uranus and Gaia).

She seems to have various titles and names, but we will begin with the simplest.  Magoun consistently uses a rather lengthy epithet to refer to her: “mother of the water, virgin of the air.”  Clearly accurate and descriptive of the character’s origin and role, but a little bit clumsy.  Magoun can only get away with repeated use of this phrase because his translation is prose, not intended to fit into poetic meter.

Crawford, whose work sticks strictly to the trochaic tetrameter characteristic of Finnish folk poetry, employs the rather different epithet “Ether’s daughter,” as well as the untranslated “Luonnotar.”  This last comes from the Finnish word “luonto” meaning nature, and the ending, as far as I can tell, indicates a female spirit or goddess.  Very logical, but Crawford’s decision to leave it in its Finnish form certainly has an impact, whether it had to do merely with keeping the meter or whether he preferred the Finnish names to their translations.  Also interesting is the fact that Luonnotar is in fact only used in Runo 2, when Väinämöinen calls upon his mother for help.  It would seem Crawford makes a distinction between his third-person references and direct address to the goddess in the context of the story.  Is this so that characters’ speech carries more authenticity and Finnish identity, while the voice of the narrator takes on a more familiar, English tone for the reader’s comfort?  It’s uncertain.

Eino Friberg, the only Finnish translator, has his own terms to refer to this being, one of which is reminiscent of Magoun – “the virgin of the air” – and one of which, like Crawford’s Luonnotar, is an untranslated Finnish name.  Significantly, however, Friberg’s Finnish “Ilmatar”* is the first name we hear for her, when we are introduced to the character.  This says a lot about the way that this author chooses to represent the Kalevala as a whole.  While it must still be clear and intelligible to the English reader, he wants to accentuate its Finnish qualities as much as possible, and so gives Finnish names priority in his version.


And the second being to make an appearance in the Kalevala is… a duck.  How inelegant.  Only Crawford uses this exact term, however.  Usually the most romantic of the three translators, Crawford seems out-of-character using the word “duck,” and, almost in an attempt to soften the contrast, he modifies it with “beauteous.”   Here each translator comes up with a different way of expressing himself, Magoun with the much more aesthetically pleasing “goldeneye,” and Friberg with “scaup.”  These describe specific types of sea ducks, which are found in Scandinavia among other areas.  Because of the generality of Crawford’s term, his version focuses the reader on the function of the creature in the story, whereas both Friberg and Magoun encourage clear, vivid imagery of the natural world, placing less emphasis on plot.  While in many cases I prefer Crawford’s approach to the Kalevala, here I feel that Magoun and Friberg do the poem more justice with the clarity of their diction (it is only fair to point out, however, that most readers, as in my case, have no clue what a goldeneye or a scaup looks like – another possible argument for Crawford’s translation).

When Väinämöinen is finally born, he is already old, having been in his mother’s womb “for seven hundred years, for nine ages of man” according to Magoun.  He then floats helplessly in the sea for another eight years, before coming to the land, which Ilmatar (or Luonnotar, etc.) has created by her motions, swimming in the great ocean.

To briefly make note of Väinämöinen’s name, we shall consider its origin and the forms it takes in translation.  The etymology of the name appears to trace it to the Finnish word “väinä,” which refers to a broad, slow river.  No translation that I am aware of has ever attempted to literally translate the hero’s name into English.  However, there are two variants of the printed name, the one I have been using, which is also found in Friberg and Magoun, and the spelling “Wainamoinen,” chosen by Crawford.  Crawford’s is an anglicized form, but notice that the initial sound seems to be different.  In fact, the V and the W represent the same sound in Finnish, but it is not exactly equivalent to either of our English sounds.  As I understand, it is a “labiodental approximant,” that is, a sound made with the lower lip and upper teeth – labiodental – in which the lip does not quite touch the teeth, giving something that sounds similar to both V and W.**


The last name I want to mention is one that appears in the same form in all translations I have come across:  Ukko.  Ukko is the sky God in Finnish mythology, yet he never appears in a concrete form in any poem or story (as far as I am aware).  However, he is often called upon (usually for help in times of trouble) by titles such as “God on high” (Magoun), “Lord of all” (Friberg’s title, reminiscent of pagan names like ‘allfather’ for Odin), and “thou O God” (Crawford, in his characteristic English archaic style, recalling traditional Christian phrases).  Most of the important gods in the Kalevala have some direct relevance to the story, usually manipulating their respective natural phenomena for some purpose.  Ukko, on the other hand, in spite of his apparent supremacy among gods, has no very evident role in the story, or even in creation.  This is striking and difficult to explain, especially given the frequency with which his name is mentioned throughout the work.

Since this post has already run on longer than I was expecting it to, I will leave it at that.  I hope it was interesting and thought-provoking, and perhaps made you curious about the Kalevala, Finland, and the poetic/mythological tradition behind them.  More on the subject will be coming soon!

*translated, this name means “female spirit of the air.”

**link to a video from the University of Glasgow which demonstrates the labiodental approximant:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WUPjlzSoDt0

© Samuel Birrer and Serendipity, 2016.

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The Kalevala (1)

My deepest apologies for not having contributed to this blog in over a year.  For any of you who are still paying attention to what goes on here, I applaud your tenacity.  As a note, this post is intended to be part of a series, thus the number in parentheses.


Since I’ve been studying the topic, I decided to write a little about the Kalevala, the so-called national epic of Finland.  Since I know no Finnish, I have of course been reading English translations, and so far I’ve begun reading the 1888 version by John Martin Crawford and the 1963 prose version by Francis Peabody Magoun Jr.  [A third, at which I’ve only glanced a little, is the 1988 Eino Friberg translation.  I’ll mainly be examining the first two at first, but perhaps at some point I’ll write about Friberg’s, which is fascinating since to my knowledge it is the only version translated into English by a native of Finland, who also happens to be blind.  The situation reminds me of Homer, or Milton, or William H. Prescott]

For a little context, in this post I’ll give a brief explanation of the history of the Kalevala.  It was compiled by a Finnish medical doctor named Elias Lönnrot between the years 1828 and 1842.  He made various expeditions throughout much of the expansive wilderness of rural Finland and Karelia, to put into writing as much as he could of Finland’s vast and ancient folk poetry tradition.  Before Lönnrot’s time this poetry had rarely been written down, but many of the poems had been part of Finnish oral tradition for a very long time, and they included a creation myth, heroic and tragic tales, magical charms, and lamentation songs, among other things.  The compilation cannot really be considered a unified “epic” in the way the Iliad or the Song of Roland can, yet I think perhaps it has its own sense of continuity, and most would consider it successful in giving Finland a mythic and literary status comparable with other lands.

Constantly impressed upon me while reading the Kalevala are the intense importance of two things: the natural world, and song.  The forces of nature are some of the greatest powers that appear, as one would expect from a culture growing up in such a harsh environment.  The human reaction to this great power that exists in nature is song.  Songs are a means of communication between humanity and the mystical realm of nature.  They are sung for various reasons, most often either to work magic (in the form of manipulating the forces of nature), to ask the aid of major or minor mythological beings (who are almost always connected with a natural phenomenon).

Lönnrot updated the Kalevala twice and added many lines of poetry to it after its first publication, so that the version of the Kalevala most commonly read now is known as the “New Kalevala,” preceded by the “Old Kalevala” and the “Proto-Kalevala.”  In its current state, it consists of 50 poems or runos total.

The first two of these are mainly concerned with the creation of the world and the origin of the eldest of the Finnish folk heroes, Väinämöinen, who plays a central role in many of the later poems.  It is these two runos I intend to discuss in my next post, examining in particular the characters that appear, and the translators’ decisions regarding their names and titles.


© Samuel Birrer and Serendipity, 2016.

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The Ugly Duckling?

Everyone’s heard Hans Christian Andersen’s story of the ugly duckling, in which a young waterbird believes himself to be a duck, but looks nothing like the other ducks… And finally runs away, and eventually finds that he’s actually a swan.  But have you heard the tale of the duckling who didn’t believe he was a duckling?  …No?  Well, let me tell you.

He grew up beside a small pond, (where most ducklings of the storybook sort grow up) with his mother duck and eleven brothers and sisters.  They all led a fairly peaceful existence, for to that part of the country predators and hunters seldom came.  This one duckling, apart from being a little quieter than most of his kin, was very like the rest.  Others took no notice of him, just another little duckling who would grow into a bigger duckling as time passed, and would finally become a grown duck.  Was there anything the matter with him?  I dare say!  When he walked, he wobbled on his skinny legs and sometimes fell clean over, when he quacked, the sound was slight and feeble like a cricket, and he flew like an awkward stone.  But none of these things was unusual for a young duckling, and all of his eleven brothers and sisters had the same problems.  The only thing that was really wrong with this particular duckling, was his inability to perceive that.  In his eyes, everyone else was doing alright, while he crashed and burned.  But because he never asked for help, everyone else thought he was fine!

After a month or two, the little duckling was in a really sad state of affairs.  He said to himself one day, “I cannot possibly be a duckling – I’m the opposite of what it means to be a duckling.  Look at all my brothers and sisters!  They’re so wonderful at doing these things: flying, swimming, walking, quacking…  It’s second nature to them!  How could I ever be a real duck?”  So, deciding he was not, in fact, worthy of being a duck, he went off in search of his true identity.  He spent a while with the crickets and grasshoppers, and tried to learn how to chirrup, but they all said after a few lessons, “I don’t think you were made for this… Ducks should quack, and leave chirrupping to us!”  That only made the duckling sadder, since he knew he was no duck, and he didn’t know what he was.  Then he tried being a fish, but that turned out no better, since he had to keep going up for air.  So the fish told him, “Ducks were made to swim on top of the water, not under it!  Try that instead!”

Really depressed now, the duckling went off and wandered through the woods a ways, until he came to a farmhouse.  “Oh!” he thought, “maybe there is something here I can do well!”  He entered the barn through a little door, and came up face to face with a creature he’d never seen before!  After the two of them got over their surprise, the strange animal licked its paw and groomed its long elegant whiskers, saying, “My, my, what brings a little morsel like you to a place like this?”  The barn was vast and noisy, and didn’t appeal to the little duckling at all, but he answered bravely, “I want to learn what kind of animal I am, sir, and I know I’m no good at being a duck, or a cricket, or a fish.  So I’ve come to see what I am good at being!”  The animal stopped grooming and looked slily at him out of the corner of its eye.  “Weeelll,” it purred thoughtfully, “perhaps you’re a cat.  Did you ever think of that?”  The duckling had to admit he hadn’t, for he had no idea what a cat was.  The real cat gave a couple of slow blinks on the outside, though he was laughing on the inside, then said, “Alright, look.  All you need to do to find out if you’re a cat is to guard that mouse hole over there.  See it?  You just watch that hole, and if any mouse tries to go in or out, you give a great big holler.”  Though the barn was a frightening place, the duckling was very excited to discover what he was, so he thanked the cat profusely and hurried over to the mouse hole.

One mouse, sitting inside the hole, observed all this.  She knew the cat could be up to no good, and she could see he only meant to eat the duckling in the end.  So after looking him up and down, the mouse ventured out to talk to her new guard.  Just as he was about to start making noise, the mouse said, “Ssshhh!!  I’m not a mouse, I’m a duckling!  If you can’t tell a duckling from a mouse, then you can’t possibly be a cat.”  The duckling was embarrassed, and he apologized, and asked humbly, “What can I do for you, little duckling?”  He did think it was odd that this duckling looked nothing like his brothers and sisters, but he shrugged off that thought.  Yet thinking of his family made him homesick, and his heart grew heavy with the weariness of wandering.  Then the mouse answered, “I’m lost, a long way from home, and I don’t know how to get back there.  Do you think you might be able to help?  I come from a pond not too far off, where other ducklings live.”  The duckling brightened at that, and answered, “Surely, I can bring you there!  I know the place well, since I used to live there myself.”  “Then let me up on your back, and let’s go, as fast as you can!” the mouse squeaked, for she could see that the cat had become suspicious and was approaching rapidly.

The duckling could see no particular reason to hurry, but he let the mouse onto his back and they headed swiftly for the door.  And not a moment too soon!  For the cat was right behind, and caught a mouthful of tail feathers as they jumped through the door.  “Fly, fly!” shouted the duckling’s rider, very much afraid that such a young duckling might not be able to outrun a barn cat.  And the duckling… flew.  He flew haltingly at first, but eventually he became more sure, and flew higher and more gracefully than he knew he could.  The mouse shrieked and whooped with delight, high above the trees and the farmhouse, and the spitting, seething cat.  Looking over his shoulder at the joyful little mouse, the duckling began to laugh and honk and quack, and he thought he had never been so happy in all his short life.

Finally they landed, right in the middle of the little pond, and there were all of the duckling’s family, swimming by the water’s edge.   He almost went over to them, but first he told the mouse, “I don’t think you are really a duckling… But you have helped me to see that I am one myself.  I don’t know how to thank you.”  She replied, “You are right, I’m no duckling, I’m a mouse, but I need no thanks, for I ought to thank you, for saving me from the cat, and giving me a ride I’ll always remember.  Now, I gather you know those ducks across the pond,” she said with a smile.  “Drop me on the shore, and go back to them.  You belong there.”  The duckling did as she asked, mingling a few joyful, thankful tears with the clear pond-water, but before she walked away into the tall grass, he called out, “I do belong with my own kind, but believe me when I say this:  I’ll never forget you, or what you’ve done for me, mouse, and I dearly hope we shall see each other again.”  The mouse turned and flung her arms around the duckling one more time, dropping a few tears of her own, like precious jewels, upon his downy feathers.  Then they parted silently, and the duckling returned to his family.  I don’t know if he ever saw the mouse again, but he understood from that day on that living, whether as a duck, a cricket, a fish, a cat or a mouse, means being imperfect, and to reject the life given you because of your imperfection is folly.

That is all I know of this tale.  If you want more, you ought to ask the duckling, or his friend, the little mouse, and they will surely be glad to tell more.

© Samuel Birrer and Serendipity, 2014.

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A quick-and-dirty Python word generator for Scrabble

Want a more efficient way to play scrabble? “Scrounging for Data” has a solution! Love this.

Scrounging for Data

I haven’t had a chance to do much coding this semester, and I’ve been itching to get back into it.  My problem with coding has always been finding interesting projects that aren’t too difficult – everything I think of is either boring or beyond my capabilities.

While I was home on Thanksgiving break, during a family Scrabble game, it occurred to me that there were probably anagram generators available online specifically for playing Scrabble, and after looking at a few I decided I wanted to try to make my own.  I figured it would be a pretty easy project, but would allow me to refresh my rusty Python.

I began by looking for a dictionary to use for checking whether I’ve generated valid words.  I thought I would use the built-in Linux word list in /usr/share/dict, but reading around I learned about Python’s Enchant library.  This library allows a user…

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The Heart of the Blues

Themes in “Sonny’s Blues” by James Baldwin

“Sonny’s Blues” is a short story about two brothers in Harlem, New York, who are torn apart and finally reunited by jazz. At least superficially, that is. Such a description of course does not even begin to illuminate the intricacies and themes of the story. Baldwin incorporates insights into the power of sibling bonds and the family in general, as well as exploring subtle human conflicts within his setting. Above all, however, “Sonny’s Blues” penetrates to the very core of what jazz and blues (and perhaps all music) is about.

The narrator, who is never named, and his younger brother Sonny come into conflict over Sonny’s dream of becoming a jazz pianist and playing bebop and blues.  The narrator has a conservative mindset and neither likes nor understands jazz.  After going abroad for several years, returning to Harlem, and succumbing for a time to drugs, Sonny finally comes back to his brother a much different person.  His love of and need for jazz, however, remains the same, and he explains the reasons for this to his brother:

“‘It’s not so much to play.  It’s to stand it, to be able to make it at all.  On any level.’  He frowned and smiled: ‘In order to keep from shaking to pieces.'”

Here we see exposed Baldwin’s concept of jazz as a means of staying sane, of creating order in the world around us, an idea which extends to other forms of music and art as well.  Sonny also says that some musicians use drugs for the same reason – “it makes something real for them.”  The music and the drugs are both ways of “trying not to suffer.”  Sonny argues that all people have different ways of doing this, and that “nobody just takes it.”  People are incapable of simply living with the world as it is, and we must therefore use some medium to create a livable version of the world for ourselves.  For Sonny, this medium is jazz – for the narrator, perhaps it is his job teaching algebra, or his wife, Isabel.  Others use painting, reading, writing, gardening, sports; anything that provides a lens through which the world takes on order or symmetry.

Some ways of bringing order are effective, but some are not.  Some have the opposite effect – though they may seem at first to help make sense of things, in the end they only heighten the drowning chaos of life.  Into this category fall the drugs that Sonny was addicted to briefly.  Alcohol is similar:  as G.K. Chesterton said, “Drink because you are happy, but never because you are miserable. Never drink when you are wretched without it, or you will be like the grey-faced gin-drinker in the slum.”

So there are things that cannot be used to create order – but what exactly is the problem with them?  Why is it that alcohol and drugs are so destructive, (quite apart from their terrible medical problems they cause) while other activities provide wholesome views of the world?  The answer is that anything that does away with the world completely cannot benefit someone who must live in the world.  The drug addict and the alcoholic return again and again to their substance abuse, not because they want a clear lens to make sense of their environment, but because they wish to leave the world behind them.  They want it all to go away, even if only temporarily.  Sonny describes his experience with drugs by saying that “when I was most out of the world, I felt that I was in it, that I was with it.”  This eventually only plunged him into a greater chaos and despair.

So these are not valid ways to cope with the world, but as J.R.R. Tolkien said, not everything that falls under the designation “escapism” is negative.  Much of what we label escapism is perfectly healthy, because, rather than making the world disappear, it provides a lens or mirror-image, that organizes reality in an alternate fashion.  This is the type of escape that provides hope, that keeps us from “shaking to pieces.”

And it is this type of escape that music gives to Sonny, as well as innumerable other music-lovers since the dawn of history.  In the last part of “Sonny’s Blues,” the narrator witnesses a performance by his brother and some other musicians at a night club, and we come to the climax.  This is the point where James Baldwin’s main theme comes out into the open.  He shows us what the blues really are all about.  He shows that their essence is ancient, but that the forms they take are new and always changing.  He shows us that the blues have universal meaning, but are also particular to each person who plays and each person who listens.  “For, while the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard.  There isn’t any other tale to tell, it’s the only light we’ve got in all this darkness.”  Here is the heart of the blues.  They provide us with beauty and order to make this world livable, and not only that: just as they bring Sonny and his brother back together in the end, they have the ability to unify people under the one banner of humanity.  The blues make us appreciate our common ground and realize that we all have our sufferings and joys, and we share in this vast, ever-constant, ever-changing heritage of telling stories, of sharing the experience of life.

“Now these are Sonny’s blues.”

© Samuel Birrer and Serendipity, 2014.

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