Poetry is the Devil’s Wine: origin and meaning of the expression

In the 1980s, my high school’s literary magazine was called “The Devil’s Wine,” a reference to the ill-attributed and much misunderstood but often repeated proverb: poetry is the Devil’s wine.

Most dime-store quotation aggregate websites ascribe the quote to St. Augustine. So does the editor of “a compendium of… dark verse,” Tom Piccirilli.

In fact, St. Augustine did not conceive the axiom. Nor did Francis Bacon. But the origin story leads us back to the English critical theorist and scientist (above).

In his essay “Of Truth,” Bacon wrote: “One of the fathers [of the Church], in great severity, called poesy vinum daemonum, because it filleth the imagination; and yet it is but with the shadow of a lie.”

The word vinum means wine in Latin. The word daemonum id the plural genitive of daemon meaning demon (not devil).

A more apt translation from Bacon’s Latin would be the wine of demons.

Over time, some of Bacon’s editors have translated it as devils’ wine (note the English possessive/genitive plural), in other words, the wine of devils (and not Devil’s wine with capital d and singular genitive). I believe this is where the now colloquial expression was born.

Another important distinction: for Bacon, poesy, not poetry, is the wine of demons.

The term poesy, more akin to the Greek poiesis than the contemporary English poetry or poem, denotes not just poetry or poem but rather the art of composing poetry or a poem.

It’s a fine point, I concede. But there is a subtle difference that’s important here: in the context of Bacon’s essay, he’s arguing that literary artifice, the art of creating poetry, can obscure or bend the truth (read the essay here; it’s great, btw).

In his quote of the Church father, he’s probably blending — most scholars agree — a line from St. Augustine and a line from St. Jerome.

In the Confessions, St. Augustine wrote: “vinum erroris ab ebriis doctoribus propinatum” (“the wine of error poured for [me and my fellows] by drunken teachers”).

Like Bacon, who was inspired by him, he was discussing the ways words — literary artifice — can eclipse truth.

In one of his epistles to Pope Damasus I, St. Jerone wrote that “daemonum cibus est carmina poetarum” (“the poets’ verses are the food of demons”).

I haven’t been able to track down the original letter (yet). But I believe that St. Jerome is apologizing to the Pope for his use of a parable (literary artifice) to illustrate one of Christ’s teachings (according to descriptions of the letter, it describes and recounts the Parable of the Prodigal Son).

So the next time someone misattributes this erroneous quote, please correct them and tell them to pair the wine of error with the food of demons.

Thanks for reading.

Image via Wikipedia Creative Commons.

Bruno De Conciliis: “Wine and may the dance begin,” a poem (translation mine)

Wine is a game, a serious game, a joyful game,
a heroic game, an erotic game, wine is skittish, it’s
joyful, it’s sad, it’s solitary, it’s a sea, it’s a road,
it’s a destination, it’s silence, it’s entropy.

Breathe.

White wine is green, yellow, gold, sometimes orange,
red is ruby, purple, violet, sometimes black.

Wine is instinct, science, pure creativity, painting, music,
Johann Sebastian Bach and Mozart, John
Coltrane and Jimi Hendrix; how is it possible
to drink a baroque wine listening to Purple Haze?

Wine, an intense pleasure, a happy thought, sometimes
requires, sometimes suggests, an undisputed star
or distant tapestry that takes a backseat to conversation
or food, the little pleasures to share with a
friend or a lustful torrent that enchants the viewer,
wine is a friend to humankind and it can be its
worst enemy, wine is happiness, simple sharing or opulence,
comfort in solitude, glue of friendship, wine’s solitary
pleasure creates deep friendships or becomes the
energy of a clique born from happenstance.

Wine is study, knowledge, an immovable journey,
curiosity and sloth, overwhelming passion,
a cruel struggle, a sincere friend who knows the way
you need to go or invents one where there is none.

Memories that lead us to tenderness or move us to laugh,
to smile, to enjoy, enemy of regret and blame, maternal bosom
where you can nurse until becoming aware.

Wine is born from deep within the land, from people
who are bound to it by an umbilical cord
that hasn’t been voluntarily severed, from the uniqueness
of that land, from the specific variety,
from the culture and knowledge of those people, that people.

Wine is the experience of that land, that culture,
the history of a village.

Wine and may the dance begin.

Bruno De Conciliis
(translated from the Italian by Jeremy Parzen)

Bruno (below) and I will be leading a tasting of his wines at Sotto in Los Angeles on Thursday, January 25. Please join us. He’s one of the most fascinating grape growers and winemakers I’ve ever had the chance to taste with. And his wines are among the most compelling I’ve ever drawn to my lips. Stay tuned for details.

G-d bless us all: let America be America again…

american-flagPlease see this op-ed published yesterday by Harry Belafonte in the New York Times.

In it he quotes the great American poet Langston Hughes (1902-1967): “Let America Be America Again,” a poem written by Hughes in 1935 (published 1936).

Early in the morning of the 2016 presidential election, after a restless night, I am reminded as well of these lines from the closing poem of Hughes’ collection of poetry Weary Blues (published 1926).

We have tomorrow
Bright before us
Like a flame.

Yesterday
A night-gone thing,
A sun-down name.

And dawn-today
Broad arch above the road we came.

Hopefully tomorrow America will be America again.

G-d bless America. G-d bless us all.

Photo taken in San Diego, California, August 2016.

Epitaph for an Everyman: “I am America” (guest post)

Today, a guest post by my cherished friend Nico Danesi…

confessions of a crap artists dick“If this world’s all for the winners, what’s for the losers?”

“Well, somebody’s got to hold the horses.”

Before I first crossed the Atlantic, there was a man who brought me to America. He took me there without ever going.

He took me to places where America is colored by the exasperated reflections of legend and contention, where poetry is fragmented into hallucinatory but vivid images, unreal only in the eye of those who believe in proclamations and don’t know how to listen to humanity in pain, imperfect but beautiful nonetheless.

Sam Peckinpah’s ugly mugs and Altman’s moonstruck players. Arthur Penn’s humble heroes and Cimino’s emarginated immigrants. Coppola and Scorsese’s Italians. Hal Ashby’s unknowns and Monte Hellman’s taciturn characters but also the Beat provocateurs and especially the hyperbolic jazzers with their impossible solos as long as a long illness is long.

If, in her or his propaedeutic arc, a functional wine drinker sets out as an “Absolute Beginner” drinking the “bestest wines” of the world, would she or he understand them?

Surely, she or he would be hard-pressed to describe them or offer commentary but she or he would surely enjoy them. Such enjoyment would come in brilliant flashes and would deliver a deep well of wonderment upon which the most solid of foundations could rest.

I believe the same holds for artistic expression as in music, cinema, poetry, and literature.

As a child, I was nourished by an uncle who was more like a friend and big brother. He fed me words and magical images that drifted inside of me as they evoked a limpid but also often terrible America.
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“Pasolini’s girlfriend” and a poem in the shape of a rose

pasolini poems poetryImage via GoogleBooks.

Happily, I’m not alone in my insatiable interest in Italian essayist, poet, and filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini.

With the current financial crisis looming over Italy and the nation’s general malaise, many Italians agree with me that his writing is more relevant today than ever.

A number of Italian intellectuals have invoked his name, for example, when addressing the continuing controversy over the construction of a new high speed train in the northwest Alps.

Sadly, most Americans know Pasolini only as a cineaste. In fact, his essays and his poetry are the works that have most greatly shaped his legacy following his assassination in 1975.

Beyond my scholarly fascination with his writings, Pasolini has become a sort of code word for me. In my social interaction, the utterance of his name is a synecdoche for an overarching attitude and an ideological stand against consumerism, the reification of our bodies, and the subjugation of the disenfranchised.

And Pasolini has also been the catalyst of some of my most cherished friendships.

One of those best friends is Paolo Cantele, who is also my client.

Earlier this week, he brought a wonderful blog post to my attention: “Pasolini’s girlfriend,” by Rome-based blogger and author Carmelo Albanese.

However apocryphal the story may be, it touches the heartstrings of Italians’ self-awareness and counter-culture today. The comments to the post, alone, would merit the attention of a doctoral thesis: this is the power of Pasolini’s towering presence in the country today.

I loved the story so much that I have translated it for Paolo’s winery’s English-language blog.

Please click over to read it.

Spoiler alert: the tale’s denouement revolves around a poem by Pasolini, “A un papa” [“To a Pope’].

Unfortunately Stephen Sartarelli’s translation of the poem was not included in his landmark Selected Poetry of Pier Paolo Pasolini, a Bi-Lingual Edition, published last year by University of Chicago Press. (Stephen is a friend and a mentor and he’s the Italian translator I admire most.)

But here’s a note on the importance of the poem by James Ivory (the celebrated director) who wrote the book’s introduction.

“Early in 1959…,” he writes, “problems” with Pasolini’s then publisher Bompiani arose “because of a polemical poem [by him]: ‘A un papa’ (‘To a Pope’), a rhetorical invective against Pope Pius XII, Eugenio Pacelli, considered by many to have been compromised by his silence and inaction during the Fascist-Nazi epoch. As the publisher was close to the Vatican, the controversy created strife with the editorial board… The poem itself, part of a series of what Pasolini called ‘epigrams,’ represented a new vein for him, merging politico-moral invective with verse, which he would tap with varying degrees of frequency for the rest of his life.”

Carmelo reveals in the post that he’s not an avid reader of Pasolini’s poetry. And I wonder if he was aware of the significance of the work in the arc of Pasolini’s literary career.

Anyone intimately familiar with the Pasolini mythologies would surely agree with me when I say that Carmelo’s post is even more moving because of the very fact that he hadn’t ever read the poem.

When you read Carmelo’s post, you might wonder — as I did — why he didn’t call the post Poesia in forma di rosa (Poetry in the Shape of a Rose, Pasolini’s famous collection of poetry published in 1964).

I hope you enjoy my translation as much I did composing it. Buona lettura!

Blues people: Amiri Baraka poet, scholar, & playwright dies at 79

amiri baraka

Above: Amiri Baraka in 2007 (image via the Wiki).

When the email arrived yesterday, it hit me in the chest like a brick: Amiri Baraka, poet, scholar, musicologist, dramatist, and one of the greatest artists of our generation, died yesterday in New Jersey.

I had the opportunity to hear him speak and recite his works on many occasions. He was a close friend of my dissertation advisor Luigi Ballerini.

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Il miglior fabbro: mourning the passing of the great Italian translator William Weaver

pasolini ragazzi di vita

Above: William Weaver is remembered by many for his superb translations of popular writers like Eco and Calvino. But to many Italian literature cognoscenti, his masterworks are his renderings of experimental works by Carlo Emilio Gadda and Pier Paolo Pasolini (image via Barnes & Noble).

It was with great sadness that I read the news this morning (published over the weekend in the New York Times) that the greatest Italian translator of our generation William Weaver has passed at age 90.

I never had the opportunity to meet him but his work had a huge influence on my career as a translator and my intellectual life (and two of his students were mentors of mine).

Many American college graduates and literary buffs will remember him for his superb translations of popular writers like Eco and Calvino.

But his masterworks are his renderings of experimental works from the twentieth century by authors like Pier Paolo Pasolini and Carlo Emilio Gadda.

Weaver brilliantly translated the title of Pasolini’s 1956 Ragazzi di vita — a novel written in urban Roman dialect — as A Violent Life. The title alone (ragazzi di vita — which, slavishly, means the boys of life — is a colloquial expression that denotes street hustlers) marked a new era for Italian translation and translators. As in this case, he often abandoned accuracy for the verve and ethos of the original. And this bold approach set a new tone and a new benchmark for the generation of translators who would follow in his footsteps.

When I frequented literary circles during my New York years, Weaver’s name was invoked by translators from all fields — poetry, prose, French, Spanish, etc. He was a Virgil for many of us. And he taught us — in theory and practice — that the fact that translation can never be perfect does not stop translation from being great.

If you are so inclined, please read this essay (very short but indicative of Weaver’s work) which he published as an introduction to his translation of Gadda’s Acquainted with Grief (again, another brilliant rendering of a challenging title).

He was il miglior fabbro (the best smith [of the mother tongue])

Scenes from the “Pasolini in Rome” show at the Cinémathèque Française

Comrade Howard graciously sent me these images from the current “Pasolini in Rome” exhibition at the Cinémathèque Française where he toured the show last week with the museum’s director.

It runs through January 26.

La poésie, la politique, le sexe, l’amitié, le cinéma… The stuff that life is made of.

The track “Pasolini” in the slideshow comes from my band Nous Non Plus’ release Le sexe et la politique (Terrible Kids Music 2012).

pasolini

“Universe in a glass of wine”: who really said that? The answer…

galileo wine glass

Above: Portrait of Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) by Justus Sustermans (1597-1681; image via the Wiki).

Reading the excellent Italian-language food and wine blog Porthos this morning, I was reminded by the authors of the famous and brilliantly topical lecture by U.S. physicist Richard Feynman, “The Universe in a Glass of Wine.”

“A poet once said,” it begins, “‘the whole universe is in a glass of wine.’ We will probably never know in what sense he said that, for poets do not write to be understood. But it is true that if we look in glass of wine closely enough we see the entire universe.”

Click here for the entire text (it’s very short) and the audio. If you’ve never heard it, it’s worth listening (in part because Feynman’s immense ability as orator).

(Today’s post on Porthos takes the form of a Socratic dialog on biodynamics and Natural wine and the interlocutors cite Feynman as an example of the powerful mythology of Nature as expressed through wine.)

Feynman doesn’t seem to know who the poet was. (And he notes — for comic effect but erroneously in my view — that poets “don’t write to be understood.”)

I believe that the imagery comes from a “scientific letter” by Italian philosopher Lorenzo Magalotti (1637-1712) who cites Galileo’s [attributed] maxim, wine is a compound [mixture] of moisture [humor] and light (il vino è un composto di umore e di luce).

Note that humor denoted moisture in seventeenth-century Europe (cfr. “1697 Dryden tr. Virgil Georgics i, ‘Redundant Humours thro’ the Pores expire,'” Oxford English Dictionary).

This celebrated observation of the physical world was transmitted anecdotally by Galileo’s student Raffaello Magiotti (1597-1656), who is quoted by Magalotti in the letter.

magalotti letters

In the text (the fifth letter in the collection), he uses the maxim as a thesis in his dissertation on the nature of light. The grape and its transformation, he writes, are a perfect example of light’s ability to “penetrate a body.”

In Dante’s Commedia (Purg. 25, 76-78), the Latin poet Statius compares G-d’s creation of life to Nature’s transformation of moisture into wine by means of light:

    E perché meno ammiri la parola
    guarda il calor del sol che si fa vino,
    giunto a l’omor che de la vite cola.

    [And, that you may be less bewildered by my words,
    consider the sun’s heat, which, blended with the moisture
    pressed from the vine, turns into wine.]

(Some have translated Dante’s omor [umore] with the English sap but moisture is a more accurate translation, especially given the context.)

In the light of Dante’s popularity during Galileo’s time, it’s likely (guaranteed, really) that Galileo was familiar with these lines. Magalotti cites the Dantean verses as well in his letter.

So did a poet once say that you could see the whole universe in a glass of wine?

It’s possible but unlikely.

Did the poets, as far back as Statius, consider wine to be a substance that could reveal the nature of the universe? Yes, most definitely.

Like me (however small I am compared to those giants), they were negotiating the epistemological implications of oenophilia.

Thanks for reading…

Defending a diacritic in Cogno’s “Anas-Cëtta” TY @brittanieshey

cogno anas cetta

A note of thanks to my friend and colleague Brittanie Shey (Houston-based music and lifestyle writer) who brought this New Yorker piece to my attention: “The Curse of the Diaeresis.”

It interests me for three reasons: 1) my doctoral thesis on medieval & Renaissance prosody (meter/versification) and transcription included a chapter devoted in part to diaeresis; 2) I have always been annoyed by the New Yorker’s hypergrammatical (yes, that’s a term; I didn’t coin it) use of the umlaut (aka diaeresis); and 3) Valter Fissore uses a gratuitous umlaut in the proprietary designation for his Cogno Langhe Nascetta.

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