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Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Scholars of war

Kill Your Darlings is a 2013 film about the beat poets, starring Daniel Radcliffe as Allen Ginsberg, behaving in ways Harry Potter certainly never did. Oh my.

Those Two, Allan Ginsberg
That tree said
I don't like that white car under me,
it smells gasoline
That other tree next to it said
O you're always complaining
you're a neurotic
you can see by the way you're bent over. 

I never much liked the Beats. Reading them reminds me of the guys in college who holed up in blacklit dorm rooms smoking clove cigarettes and pretending to like Chartreuse. Wait, that was me. Well no wonder I never liked the Beats - I was really annoying in my blacklit dorm room clove cigarette days. Though in my defense, I never claimed to like Chartreuse. It's like licking the bottom of a spice cabinet. But I digress as usual.
In the film, the boys talk about overthrowing the fascism of meter and rhyme; the tyranny of propriety and decency. About chucking everything the establishment claimed was poetry.
The Beats weren't the first to liberate poetry from rules and rhythms. Ginsberg was heavily influenced by the long and sometimes meandering free form lines of Walt Whitman, who wrote a half a century before (though Whitman was far from the first poet to write in what we today call free verse). 

A Song, Walt Whitman 
COME, I will make the continent indissoluble;
I will make the most splendid race the sun ever yet shone upon;
I will make divine magnetic lands,
With the love of comrades,
With the life-long love of comrades.

I will plant companionship thick as trees along all the rivers of
America, and along the shores of the great lakes, and all over
the prairies;
I will make inseparable cities, with their arms about each other's
By the love of comrades,
By the manly love of comrades.

For you these, from me, O Democracy, to serve you, ma femme!
For you! for you, I am trilling these songs,
In the love of comrades,
In the high-towering love of comrades. 

Yeah, poetic trailblazers of the 20th century liberated poetry from the shackles of form and tradition, and a great many great works were created that could never have been shoehorned in to a sonnet or a villanelle
i sing of Olaf glad and big, ee cummings

i sing of Olaf glad and big
whose warmest heart recoiled at war:
a conscientious object-or
his wellbelovéd colonel(trig
westpointer most succinctly bred)
took erring Olaf soon in hand;
but--though an host of overjoyed
noncoms(first knocking on the head
him)do through icy waters roll
that helplessness which others stroke
with brushes recently employed
anent this muddy toiletbowl,
while kindred intellects evoke
allegiance per blunt instruments--
Olaf(being to all intents
a corpse and wanting any rag
upon what God unto him gave)
responds,without getting annoyed
“I will not kiss your fucking flag”
straightway the silver bird looked grave
(departing hurriedly to shave)
but--though all kinds of officers
(a yearning nation’s blueeyed pride)
their passive prey did kick and curse
until for wear their clarion
voices and boots were much the worse,
and egged the firstclassprivates on
his rectum wickedly to tease
by means of skilfully applied
bayonets roasted hot with heat--
Olaf(upon what were once knees)
does almost ceaselessly repeat
“there is some shit I will not eat”
our president,being of which
assertions duly notified
threw the yellowsonofabitch
into a dungeon,where he died
Christ(of His mercy infinite)
i pray to see;and Olaf,too
preponderatingly because
unless statistics lie he was
more brave than me:more blond than you.
But did we throw the baby out with the bath water?
My poetry professors warned us not to rhyme when we wrote, sometimes forbidding rhyming poetry outright, even as we studied Shakespeare's sonnets. Literary magazines often won't even deign to read rhyming submissions before tossing them in the trash - their submissions pages often warn writers not to even bother submitting poems that rhyme.
But why?  Is it impossible to imagine that there's room for both structured and unstructured poetry?
The Road Not Taken
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

I read poetry periodicals from time to time and I've got to say, this oblique, opaque, meandering poetry that's in vogue today is rarely exciting or memorable. I have never read a verse in The New Yorker and felt inspired or excited (also, I admit it, I don't get the cartoons. There, I said it). Certainly nothing that gets me as jazzed as Shakespeare or even Springsteen. 
It feels kind of like we locked grandpa in the basement so that our kids wouldn't be poisoned by his age and wisdom.

Do not go gentle into that good night
Dylan Thomas, 1914 - 1953

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.


jenny_o said...

I agree. It's not a matter of rhyming/not rhyming, it's a matter of good vs bad, extraordinary vs ordinary. Anyone can write a free form poem and nearly anyone can write a rhyming poem. The trick is to create something magical from the same words everyone has access to but no one has ever used together before. (Something like musical notes, actually.)

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