Thursday, August 21, 2008

The Great White Whale is Heard From

Dear Everybody:

Today’s poem comes from an unexpected source... Ernest Hemingway. Yes, the Great White Whale of Twentieth Century American literature himself. You say you haven’t read the man? Shame on you. You’re never going to score with intellectual women like that! If you want an easy entree into Hemingway (and there are very few great writers as easy to read as he), I can recommend The Old Man and the Sea, which is slim, fast, and entertaining. After that, you should try a collection of his short stories. (“The Killers” is a killer story; I recommend it particularly.) Then... well, then you’re on your own. You can continue if you like, or not it you don’t. But you’ll have an informed opinion.

Like many novelists, Hemingway also wrote poetry. Like most novelists, his poetry wasn’t as good as his novels. But that doesn’t mean it’s bad. As witness:

The Age Demanded
by Ernest Miller Hemingway

The age demanded that we sing
And cut away our tongue.

[The rest of the poem has been removed because it’s almost certainly still in copyright. But I doubt you’ll have any trouble finding it on the Web.]

So what can we tell about this poem, just at a glance? Well, first, that the poet was young. Do you doubt me? Okay, I’ll glance at the date of publication, and it’s... 1925. He was 26 years old. Young.

So how could I tell? Because it’s punk – in the black-leather-and-mohawk sense. So was the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction.” Both are the laments of young artists: I can’t write anything good, I can’t get laid, o man I am so bummed out... The whole punk thing is simply this era’s manifestation of a stance that has been perfectly legitimate since forever. But which would look pathetic if somebody of my age copped it. Hemingway was very shrewd. Too shrewd to write the above when he was in his fifties. Shrewd enough to set it down when he was young enough to get away with it.

The other punk aspect of the poem was his deliberate offensiveness in using a word (s**t) that was literally unprintable at the time.

The second thing we get here is an insight into how Hemingway worked a revolution in American letters. Look at those words: Simple, unadorned, with only one adjective – and that one “iron.” No e’ens, oers or troths, no words ending in -est or -eth, nothing tangled, complicated or unclear. Just straight language such as you might hear on the street, but ordered, scansioned, and rhymed. He did something similar in prose. Without the scansion and rhyme, obviously.

Sounds simple, dunnit? Not, though.

All best,


No comments: