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“Song of a Fighter Pilot”

Posted in European, Music, Poetry, War by Alex L. on January 2, 2012

Ace Alexander Pokryshkin and his fellow pilotsVladimir Vysotsky wrote such evocative songs about World War II that it’s impossible to tell that he himself didn’t serve in that conflict. His verse on the theme of friendship is especially amazing.

Because of songs like his and the Russian culture of my upbringing, the symbolism of World War II (or, as the Russians call it, The Great Patriotic War) has stayed with me as a kind of arch-metaphor for the human condition.

I was listening today to one of my favorite songs by Vysotsky called Pesnya lyotchika-istrebitelya: “Song of a Fighter Pilot”. It is one of the greatest poems about friendship that I have ever read, and I decided to translate it into English. My translations skills are limited, but though my version inevitably may have errors, I have done my best to convey both the meaning and the flow of the song. The original, like most Russian poems and songs, has a rhyme scheme.

The song is about two Russian fighter pilots in World War II that find themselves embroiled in a losing battle with a larger German fighter formation. You can listen to the original song on YouTube and read the lyrics in Russian here.

Song of a Fighter Pilot

By Vladimir Vysotsky
(Translated by Alex L.) 

Eight of them and two of us. Our prospects before battle
Aren’t bright, but we’ve committed to the fight.
Seryozha!* Hold on, it’s looking dim,
But we we have to get an edge in the game. (more…)

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Two-year anniversary

Posted in Blogs, Music, Poetry, Stories, Storytelling by Alex L. on March 10, 2011

History, slightly skewedOne way to measure the success of a blog is by how much spam its WordPress filters catch. Somehow, I think the bots that troll the blogosphere know which blogs get more traffic and target their “marketing” strategy at them. The blog that I keep at work, where keywords and headings are meticulously crafted to optimize hits from the search engines, is visited as often as Don Corleone on “this, the day of his daughter’s wedding” in comparison to this, my personal blog. Each day nets dozens of spam comments in my work blog’s filter. HistoryJournal.org, on the other hand, is lucky if the errant male-enhancement ad washes up on shore once or twice a week. I don’t care. Not search-engine-optimizing my <h2> tags on HistoryJournal.org is my rebellion against marketing, my current profession.

(Yes, folks. This is the one day of the year, my blog’s anniversary – it was technically on March 8 – where I blog about blogging. Feel free to turn away. There is not so much a sign of a blog’s decay, writer’s block, or an author’s sickness of the writing craft as when he or she begins to write about what it feels like to be writing. Like a historian writing about what good history should be written like instead of showing you by writing good history himself. Nevertheless, the historiography demons need to be exorcised at least once a year, so I’ll try to keep it as short and sweet as possible.)

An opportunity presented itself to me a year ago after I wrote the post, “History, the History Channel, and Dairy Queen”. I had been looking for a way to a way to write about history that would be fresh, interesting, and relevant to the living world. With that post, I hit upon a style or genre which I could develop upon in the future. I desperately wanted to avoid writing history in the dusty forms everyone is so used to, either ringing grandiose notes that always fall flat (“Since the dawn of man…”  or, “Our world would not be the same if it were not for…”) or delving into minutiae that interests nobody but the collector of such informational tidbits (“On this day in history…”). The style that I have tried to work on this past year (in between peddling my marketing skills, chasing various pet hobbies, and staving off spirit-sapping ennui which has been waging war against me since 2007) has been to present history in an extremely personal narrative. (more…)

Falling asleep in Greece

Posted in Ancient, Poetry, Stories by Alex L. on August 10, 2010

Inside my paperback copy of One Hundred and One Famous Poems there is a yellowing bookmark. The book itself is rather plain: a Barnes & Noble publication with a faux-marbled cover and many sentimental poems, all rhyming. Nevertheless, the editor of the collection had taken great care in elevating this rather drab idea for a book into an endearing compilation of verse. He had even written his preface as a contemporary poem, meaningful line breaks and all. It ends: “It is the purpose of this little volume to enrich, ennoble, / encourage. And for man, who has learned to love / convenience, it is hardly larger than his concealing pocket.”

Maybe it was for that portable quality that I had decided to take the book with me on my three-week study abroad trip to Greece in the summer of 2006. It went halfway around the world with me and returned to the United States with a new bookmark: a receipt of purchase from an Athenian cafe. The receipt-bookmark, as I mentioned, now looks aged, and the ink has smudged deeper into the paper and lightened to a gray in the process. The top of it has creased where it protruded beyond the dimensions of the book, and on that portion is written in Greek letters the name of the establishment from which it came: *DIOGENES*.

Diogenes Cafe is located in the Plaka neighborhood of Athens, just below the base of the Acropolis, and its name strangely fit the purpose of my visits during that summer. During the trip, I lived with a group of about twenty American students from my university. When I felt like being as reclusive as the famous philosopher Diogenes (who lived in a tub in the marketplace of ancient Athens), I would walk from our hotel, then meander up the cobblestone alleys of the Plaka to the Diogenes Cafe, order a small cup of strong Greek coffee and a delicious local dessert of yogurt and honey, and read, sometimes from the small book of poetry that I had brought with me.

Reading poems in sequence, one after another, from a collection compiled by an editor is somewhat like watching a movie where every scene is acted by different characters in new settings and portraying unique storylines. Luckily the poems of this particular compilation were arranged with heart and style, so the expectations created by one author’s verse would be fulfilled by the emotions evoked in the next. The rhyming words ebbed and flowed from poem to poem like the waves of Homer’s wine-dark Mediterranean Sea, which wasn’t far away from me at the time.

(more…)

Colbert calls for poetry revival

Posted in American, Culture, Poetry, Storytelling, Television by Alex L. on June 19, 2009

I enjoyed last night’s interview on the Colbert Report of poet Paul Muldoon, especially how Stephen Colbert tried to popularize poetry by reading one of Prof. Muldoon’s works, “Tea”. As Colbert mentioned, poetry is not cool in today’s America. In a country with a strong democratic spirit, perhaps it seems like an artifact of antiquated aristocratic habits. Quote a poem at a social event and you are sure to sound like a snob.

But this decline in popularity is not entirely the public’s fault. I think poetry, like other arts influenced by academia, has evolved to be too cerebral for the public’s taste. And what a shame!

Well-crafted verse, like no other art, has the power to preserve for posterity emotions, the spirit of an age, and even morals. I heard a contemporary scholar criticize Walt Whitman for writing some of his poems in rhyme. But how well Whitman captured the spirit of a historical moment – the national mood upon the assassination of President Lincoln soon after the end of the Civil War – in his rhyming poem “O Captain! My Captain!”! It is rightly so that this poem is remembered above others in the compilation, Memories of President Lincoln, because it not only delivers a powerful message but also does it so pleasurably (one need not overstrain his brain to understand it).

My hope is that poetry does experience a revival. Words beautifully prepared and powerfully spoken are one of life’s greatest joys.