Tuesday, August 26, 2008

For My Uncle Dan . . .

Dear All:

A few days ago, I attended the funeral of my Uncle Dan. He was born in County Kerry, Ireland, in 1907 and came to America at age twenty. Two years ago, he went back to Ireland and still knew every road, and recognized people he hadn't seen for seventy years. He led a rich life, left three children and two grandchildren behind, and was noted for his joy. Not many people get such a good deal out of existence.

But it was a sad day anyway.

During the services, the following verses, from Ecclesiastes, were recited more than once:

To every thing there is a season,
And a time to every purpose under the heaven:
A time to be born, and a time to die;

A time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;

A time to kill, and a time to heal;

A time to break down, and a time to build up;
A time to weep, and a time to laugh;
A time to mourn, and a time to dance;

A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
A time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
A time to get, and a time to lose;

A time to keep, and a time to cast away;

A time to rend, and a time to sew;
A time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
A time to love, and a time to hate;

A time of war, and a time of peace.

Simple words, and a solace when you're saying goodbye to somebody who's had a full life. I want to note, however, that much of English and American literature is solidly built upon the Bible and specifically, the King James Version. Why? Because every family had a Bible. Even families that disapproved of books saw nothing wrong with reading the Bible. Lots of writers learned about cadence and language from the Old Testament.

The King James Version is also perhaps the only major work of literature ever written by a committee. First published in 1611, it was commissioned by King James I of England on behalf of the Church of England, and apparently involved over fifty translators. Nevertheless, it remains the gold standard for rich, sonant language. That was (the tail end of) the age of Shakespeare, remember. The vernacular was particularly good.

Even the KJV nods, however. Usually people say "under Heaven," rather than "under the heaven." This is how traditional verse perfects itself. Wording that sounds good for a decade or a century is eventually rubbed away, "all that glisters is not gold" changes the suspect word to "glitters," and so on.

All for today,



Saturday, August 23, 2008

The White Lady of Poetry

Dear Everybody:

Today's poem is by possibly the best-known poets in the universe:

Three Wise Men of Gotham
by Mother Goose

Three wise men of Gotham,
They went to sea in a bowl,

And if the bowl had been stronger,

My song had been longer.

Of this poem I can tell you two things: First, that Gotham is the town of fools, which is why New York City is often referred to as Gotham. (Though most people think that Batman is actually set in Boston. Go fig.) And second, that it's meant to be told to a sleepy child who's nagging for just one more poem. We tend to forget how long most poems used to be. That's because in the ages before radio (much less television and the internet), people had a lot less entertainment and a lot more time to fill. So they liked their poetry good and endless.

Today, of course, we have neither the time nor the patience for epic-length poetry. Shame on us.

All best,


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,


Thursday, August 14, 2008

Poetry: Not Just for Children Anymore

Dear Everybody:

Holy COW! You will never guess what I just discovered on the Web! It's The Devil and Billy Markham by Shel Silverstein!!!!

Eh? So what, you say? Another light, witty children's poem? Oh, man, have you got a lot to learn!

So go right here, and read the whole damned (in both the literal and figurative senses) thing:

[Alas, the site is gone, possibly because the poem cycle is being sold as a play nowadays. I saw a magnificent one-man performance by Anthony Lawton once, and there are any number of clips on YouTube which fail to live up to him. But here's the opening:]

The Devil and Billy Markham
by Shel Silverstein

The Devil walked into Linebaugh's on a rainy Nashville night 
While the lost souls sat and sipped their soup in the sickly yellow neon light.
And the Devil, he looked around the room, then got down on his knees. 
He says, "Is there one among you scum who'll roll the dice with me?" 
Red, he just strums his guitar, pretending not to hear. 
And Eddie, he just looks away and takes another sip of beer.
[And on and gloriously on it goes . . . I encourage you to find a copy.]

Okay, have you read it? Really? Scout's honor and hope to die? Well, then...

Did that take your breath away or what? Yep, ol' Shel wasn't JUST an entertainer of children. (If you haven't heard Johnny Cash's version of SS's "A Boy Named Sue, incidentally, you're just plain culturally lame.) He was a bawdy, guitar-totin', women-seducin' kind of guy. Playboy used to commission him to go to exotic places, seduce women, and draw cartoons about the experience. Jules Feiffer (you artist-guys know about Feiffer, right? You'd best!) wrote an obituary saying that Silverstein was the envy of all other (straight) male cartoonists.

Now, the poems. Silverstein was obviously basing his works on the Negro holler, which...

Okay, wait. You don't know about Negro hollers? I worry about you guys. Try googling "The Signifying Monkey."

Done that?

If you have, you're now WAY up on your culturally illiterate cronies. Now, when you compare the two, what do you see? Two things:

1) Silverstein's work is far far far more sophisticated.

2) Parts of it have rotted and aged. A line here, a few words there, are embarrassing to read now. The reference to Harlan Ellison... You missed it? Well, it reads a little precious now.

What's the lesson here? Well, first of all I think The Devil and Billy Markham is a keeper. It's real lit, the true quill. But it can't score a perfect ten against oral tradition. The reasons for this are myriad and complicated and if you're interested, hit me up when you see me & I'll be glad to tell you. I'm a talker.




Pretty, Lovely, Ruthless...

Dear Everybody:

Okay! Today we have a serious poem, and thank God for that. Before you read it, you should know that the proverb (sometimes attributed to Chaucer) mentioned was:

Better is it to suffer and fortune abide 
Than hastily to climb and suddenly to slide

Also that "Nother" means "Neither," that to tarry the tide means to bide your time (sailing ships could only leave port when the tide flowed outward, remember), and abiding speed means continuing success, so that when Wyatt writes "And with abiding speed well ye may" he's saying, "Easy for you to say!" Oh, and "I wot alway" means "forever, for all I know."

Here's the poem:

I Abide and Abide and Better Abide
by Sir Thomas Wyatt

I abide and abide and better abide,
And after the old proverb, the happy day;
And ever my lady to me doth say,

"Let me alone and I will provide."

I abide and abide and tarry the tide,

And with abiding speed well ye may.

Thus do I abide I wot alway,
Nother obtaining nor yet denied.
Ay me! this long abiding

Seemeth to me, as who sayeth,
A prolonging of a dying death,

Or a refusing of a desir'd thing.
Much were it better for to be plain
Than to say "abide" and yet shall not obtain.

In brief: You say "wait" and I wait and suffer and nothing ever happens. Better you rejected me ("be plain" in your meaning) than tell me to wait for something that never comes.

We all know someone in this guy's situation, don't we? So I'm not going to discuss the meaning, but the poet. Sir Thomas Wyatt (1503-1542) wrote the first sonnets in English. Why "in English" you ask? Because England was still something of a backwater in the sixteenth century, and its literature was largely derived from Italian models. The sonnet is an Italian invention.

A sonnet is (and here I check my handy Columbia-Viking Desk Encyclopedia) a poem of 14 lines, usually in iambic pentameter, in certain definite rhyme schemes. The Petrarchan sonnet is an octave and sestet (8 lines and 6 lines) rhymed abbaabba cdecde and the Shakespearean sonnet is three quatrains and a couplet, rhymed abab cdcd efef gg.

Take a second here, see which lines rhyme and tell me what we've got. Don't everybody raise your hands at once. That's right: abbaabba cddcee. Which is to say, a variant on the Petrarchan sonnet.

So what's the big fuss about sonnets? They're long enough make a logical argument, short enough to memorize, and the words are arranged in a way very natural to the English language, so that delivered smoothly, as an actor might, they sound like speech.

And this is important because?

Picture this: There's a man and a woman. She says, "Be patient, Fred. I'm just not ready for a serious relationship."

“You keep saying that," he replies. "And I keep waiting. Sir Thomas Wyatt was right."

“Huh?" she says.

And he leans forward and lets rip this poem. She's stunned. She's going to feel pretty damned foolish saying, "Yeah, but still. I mean, I kinda think we should, you know, wait," after that glorious torrent of words and emotion. The ball's in her court. She's only got two choices now: To lean forward and kiss him, or to say, "Oh, all right, fuck off if that's how you feel." Either of which leaves her suitor better off than he was ten minutes before.

But now you object that, really, this poem is just an advanced formed of verbal bullying. Well, yeah. What did you think love poetry is? Pretty to look at, lovely to hear, and absolutely ruthless in its intentions.

If you doubt me, read John Donne.

All best,


Naughty Auden

Dear All:

As you've probably figured out by now, I have a soft spot for W.H. Auden. Here's one reason why:

As the Poets Have Mournfully Sung
by W. H. Auden

As the poets have mournfully sung,
Death takes the innocent young,
[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.]

No exposition needed today.

All best,