Saturday, September 3, 2011

Plenty a gold so I been told

Call me Ishmael. Some years ago -- never mind how long precisely -- having little or no money in my purse and nothing particular to interest me at home, I thought I would sail about a little in the realm of substitute teaching. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation.

One day two boys from a middle school social studies class come up to my desk wanting to know whether all I ever do is substitute teach. I tell them, no, I’m also a musician and an artist. And I write plays and books. “What kind of books?” they want to know. “Well I wrote a book about the wind and the grass.” “The wind and the grass?” “A battle between the wind and the grass.” “A battle between the wind and the grass?” I’ve got their attention. “Yes.” “What’s that?”

“You have to understand the grass I’m talking about is very long, not the sort of grass you see on your lawn. And one day, this boy, this ‘lazy farmer boy,’ utters a very deep, heartfelt sigh in the middle of his long, grassy field. And, due to the almost inexplicable, but very real, scientifically demonstrable, laws of chaos theory, this sigh manages to multiply its effects until pretty soon it becomes a fierce, howling wind. And the wind just whirls around and whirls around gaining strength and then, for no reason anyone’s ever been able to determine, takes off across the farmer’s field, bullying the delicate long grasses backwards practically till they can see their own roots.”

“Do they fight back?”

“Yes they do. Because the grasses are brave and also long and sharp and there are many rose bushes among them and other thorny plants, so as the wind rushes across the field, the grasses, bushes and thorny plants try hard to stand their ground and they tear at the wind and the wind begins to bleed. And the wind bleeds rain and so it rains and pretty soon it’s thundering and there is a terrible storm, with lightening too, and so the field catches fire.”

By this time the boys’ eyes are bugging out of their heads and they both take a step forward with looks that say: “We gotta talk some more.” And believe me I’d love to do just that. But these kids have an assignment and it’s my job to see they do it, so I have to tell them to back off for now and finish their work and then look for me at lunch time and maybe we can continue then. Only when lunch time comes they are nowhere to be seen, probably because this is first lunch and their lunch is second lunch. Or this is third lunch and their lunch is first lunch. Or maybe they just got distracted, because, after all, they were pretty young.

So I’m writing this in the hope these boys will some day read here the answer to the overwhelming question I could tell was on their minds, and that they desperately wanted to ask me, which was: what is poetry?

Well, one thing poetry is not it is not the poetry written by poets. I mean, yes, certain poets have it in them, no question. But usually not. For example when Shelley writes “O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn's being,/ Thou, from whose unseen presence the leaves dead/ Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing,” no he doesn’t have it, that’s not poetry. Clever yes. And what’s with these “leaves dead”? Who talks like that? Now on the other hand, his pal Keats writes (and we need to wind down a bit before reading this -- take some deep breaths and then maybe five seconds of silence to slow the metabolism): “My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains/ My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,/ Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains/ One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk:” Oh yes, he has it, this is poetry. Four lines and we’re trembling in the grip of pallid death.

Because poetry is a lot like a joke. Except instead of laughing something else happens to you, something grabs you deep inside and tears you to pieces, like what the long grasses did to the wind. In my book, remember?

Or take John Clare, a farm boy really, not a poet: “The rolls and harrows lie at rest beside/ The battered road; and spreading far and wide/ Above the russet clods, the corn is seen/ Sprouting its spiry points of tender green,/ Where squats the hare, to terrors wide awake,/ Like some brown clod the harrows failed to break.” Wow. That’s it. That’s really it. The rest of the poem is also very fine, but that opening verse cuts really deep, don’t ask me why. (The question was “what,” not “why.”). You don’t even need to know what a “rolls and harrows” is. It’s a kind of old fashioned wagonny farm implement used to tear up soil. “The rolls and harrows lie at rest beside/ The battered road;” Yes. “and spreading far and wide/ Above the russet clods, the corn is seen/” Oh yes. Even just “The corn is seen.” Poetry. Even just that much, that one simple phrase.

T. S. Eliot once said the most beautiful word in the English language is “cellar door.” He actually said that, so I’ve heard, yes. Of course really it’s two words, not one. But think about it: “cellar door.”
In Neil Simon's play, The Sunshine Boys, one of the characters gives a lecture on what’s funny:
Fifty-seven years in this business, you learn a few things. You know what words are funny and which words are not funny. Alka Seltzer is funny. You say "Alka Seltzer" you get a laugh . . . Words with "k" in them are funny. Casey Stengel, that's a funny name. Robert Taylor is not funny. Cupcake is funny. 'L's are not funny. 'M's are not funny. Tomato is not funny. Lettuce is not funny. Cookie is funny. Cucumber is funny. Car keys. Cleveland . . . Cleveland is funny. Maryland is not funny. Then, there's chicken. Chicken is funny. Pickle is funny. Cockroach is funny -- not if you get 'em, only if you say 'em.
Poetry is not the same as humor. But not that different either.

Now Shakespeare, even he doesn’t always have it: “Let me not to the marriage of true minds/ admit impediments.”? Wah????? Sounds like a minister or a speech therapist. Or “To be or not to be, that is the question.”? What kind of a question is that? But the followup is terrific: “Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer/ the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,/ Or to take arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing end them.” Yes. Almost as good as Brecht.

No, despite certain notable exceptions, which are, admittedly, quite good, real poetry cannot be found in the work of poets. And it’s definitely never “poetic.” Which reminds me of a story about one of my favorite poets, Charles Olson, returning to Wesleyan University, his alma mater, to recite in the “Honours College,” where sherry was always served either before or after, I forget which, and Piranesi prints lined the expensive walls. He starts off (I was there) with this poem about these bikers on a beach somewhere and how they took over the beach, looking almost like certain ancient gods, and it’s getting very interesting, because he really knows how to write poetry, and also how to read aloud -- but then he stops dead, sits down right there on the floor, and puts his head in his hands. “I can’t go on,” he says, “I can’t do this.” Moment of stunned silence. “Oy, this is such a poetic atmosphea.” He’s not even Jewish but he says “Oy” and yes the word “atsmosphere” comes out with a New Yawk accent and then he just sits there and will not be consoled.

“Oh they call me hangman Johnny/ Come away my Bonnie/ But I never hanged no body./ Oh hang boys hang.” Lots of these sea shanties are poetry. Or have poetry in them. Often they’re made up of disconnected or almost disconnected couplets or stanzas, framed by tiny refrains. Some of these stanzas, well, they’re not too great. But many are. “Oh hang boys hang.” Now that’s very special because it’s a punch line too and the whole stanza is basically a joke. Only to get the humor you need to know something about how the song was used. It’s a song for hanging sail. Get it? But it’s also a very efficient little machine, with a wind up spring that gets wound up very tight in those first three lines and you don’t really have to know what the song is used for to find yourself caught in the trap.

We’re sailing down the river from Liverpool,/ Heave away, Santy Anno!/ Around Cape Horn to Frisco Bay,/ All on the plains of Mexico./ There’s plenty a gold so I been told,/ Heave away, Santy Anno!/ There’s plenty a gold so I been told,/ ‘Way out in Cal-i-for-ni-o./ So heave ‘er up and away we go,/ Heave away, Santy Anno!/ Heave ‘er up and away we go,/ We’re bound for Cal-i-for-ni-o.” You’ll find many versions of this shanty, but this is one of the best. Word has it “Santy Anno” is Santa Anna, the old Mexican general. But I prefer to think of it as another name for the wind, namely the “Santa Anna” winds, which rage along the coast of California. So that refrain then shouts defiance over and over in the teeth of some half forgotten storm. (Remember my story?) But what’s really important here is not what we interpret the words to mean, but the tremendous weight of each and every syllable, with no room for any half measure anywhere. Just listen, say it and listen and feel it on your tongue: “Around Cape Horn to Frisco Bay.” Say it, feel how it resonates through your soul, makes you more courageous, more foolhardy, more of a pirate.


  1. there are plenty of rock-solid fundamentals that suggest the market is healthy with plenty of room to move higher.

  2. I don't understand what you're trying to say with this essay. How about a version for dummies? What is your point exactly?

  3. Well, anonymous, this blog is not only about economics but also poetry. And how the two are more closely related than one might think. I've been posting a lot on the economics side, so I thought it would be interesting to post on the poetry side for a change.

    "What is your point exactly?"

    My point can be summarized as follows: what poetry and economics most have in common is that both are a lot like a joke.


  4. Why don't U rite more? Some of UR thots are cool but UR defense of same at times seems lackin. Aside from economics and poetry, I discern a lot of politics, etc. Where do UR politics stand at this time, generally?

    I was referred to your page by some droid and you have alot of good stuff, but what of the reality of today's US political system? I mean for myself the more the left/progressives try, the more lame they seem. Obama is close to a total failure IMHO, and he's running for re-election in my view, as a centrist-republican against a bunch of far far right Republican alternatives (AKA SCUM). All of whom are crazy to me. Crazier than Obama, golly-gee-whiz. What's an aging greyish Americano 2 do?

    But actually, and I will cut this short, I feel kind of crazy when I think back to when I voted for Obama. What a great CHOICE we seem to be facing in 2012. Obama, almost a total fuck up versus an even worse Republican wacko looneytune.

    God Bless Amerikkka...

  5. Doc, you disappeared on us again.
    At last O has figured out the principle of the 30 second sound bite. Most Amerikuns are not college graduates. String 3 reasonably related sentences together and you've lost em! They have no powers of deductive reasoning or critical thinking. Its not their fault. IMO (enter the conspiracy theory) it's part of the systemically orchestrated dumbing down of Amerika. They have suceeded, now we have to deal with the resulting "Idoicracy" (you live here now so see the move...really! )
    He is finally getting it...this is not a college lecture hall. These are not minds hungry for truth and wisdom. This is the generation that has grown up on slogans like "plop plop fizz fizz, oh what a relief it is" and "Where's the beef?". And now after a decade of LOL and LMAO shorthand our attention spans are even shorter.
    So I loved hearing him say "Pass this bill, pass this bill, pass this bill"
    Hope Springs Eternal! HSE! Kat

    PS I happen to like “Let me not to the marriage of true minds/ admit impediments.” But then again I also like:
    anyone lived in a pretty how town
    by E. E. Cummings

    anyone lived in a pretty how town
    (with up so floating many bells down)
    spring summer autumn winter
    he sang his didn't he danced his did

    Women and men(both little and small)
    cared for anyone not at all
    they sowed their isn't they reaped their same
    sun moon stars rain

    children guessed (but only a few
    and down they forgot as up they grew
    autumn winter spring summer)
    that noone loved him more by more

    when by now and tree by leaf
    she laughed his joy she cried his grief
    bird by snow and stir by still
    anyone's any was all to her

    someones married their everyones
    laughed their cryings and did their dance
    (sleep wake hope and then)they
    said their nevers they slept their dream

    stars rain sun moon
    (and only the snow can begin to explain
    how children are apt to forget to remember
    with up so floating many bells down)

    one day anyone died i guess
    (and noone stooped to kiss his face)
    busy folk buried them side by side
    little by little and was by was

    all by all and deep by deep
    and more by more they dream their sleep
    noone and anyone earth by april
    wish by spirit and if by yes.

    Women and men(both dong and ding)
    summer autumn winter spring
    reaped their sowing and went their came
    sun moon stars rain

  6. Hello again, Anonymous -- :-)

    I don't write more because most of the time I feel pretty written out on this topic (i.e., the total collapse of the financial system, what it means and how much it amuses me). Also I've been busy with other projects.

    If the blog attracted more traffic I might be encouraged to keep up with it more, but the traffic here varies between over 1,000 hits a day (very rare) to only a few (more typical). Admittedly the traffic thins when I don't post and I'm discouraged from posting when traffic thins.

    As far as my politics are concerned, I always vote Democrat, usually straight party ticket, even when I disapprove, which usually I do. I'm sympathetic to Socialism, but the Democratic kind, NOT the Soviet kind or anything like it. I have a feeling my politics may not be terribly different from that of George Orwell, as expressed in his great book, Homage to Catalonia (see link posted here).

    I WAS an Obama supporter, but not any more. I'd like to see Hillary or even Joe Biden run in the next primary, but that seems unlikely.

    I think the Tea Party is extremely dangerous, but maybe not as dangerous as it might seem, since the billionaires who got it going are probably just as much alarmed by its momentum as the rest of us, and will probably abandon it very soon. It's weakness is that it lacks strong leadership -- though Glenn Beck is certainly trying hard and might succeed. It's strength is that it plays to that lowest common denominator, the endless parade of thwarted egoists and true believers who make up the majority in this country, very sadly.

    I try to avoid the usual self-righteous liberal whining about all the terrible things that are happening and that the bad old Republicans are doing to the country. Others can do that better than I and to me it's all very boring.

    As I see it, it's some of the more absurd liberal positions that have strengthened the right and given them some valid reasons for denigrating leftist politics. When I read about how we must act NOW on global warming or all the brouhaha over carbon credits or biofuels, or the naive faith being placed in solar power or electric cars and even nuclear power, or when I think about all the many on the left willing to accept all the "9/11 Truth" lunacies I must admit I no longer want to be labeled a "liberal." Or even a "progressive." Which is why I proposed the "Get Real" party. If you read what I've written on that topic, you'll know where I am politically.

  7. Hi Kat. Thanks for hanging in there with me, even when the posts are thin. Sorry for abandoning you again. You can read my last comment for some of the reasons why.

    Actually we are reaching the point where most Americans WILL be college grads. But that will no longer mean much, since the only thing that will distinguish them from everyone else is their huge burden of unpayable debt. I have a feeling most of them are learning very little, least of all critical thinking skills.

    What's so pathetic about Obama is his continually renewed faith in his powers of persuasion over the Republicans. We are now hearing for the second time that he will absolutely positively NOT agree to spending cuts unless accompanied by tax hikes on the wealthy. He already caved on that one but still expects us to believe that THIS time he's determined to tough it out. Right. He'll tough it out until the last minute and then he'll cave all over again. As though anyone's any longer going to be surprised.

    As far as the Shakespeare quote is concerned, I memorized that sonnet in high school and that line still grates on my sensitive ears. Sorry. It sounds more like a philosophy lecture than a poem.

    Thanks for posting the wonderful E. E. Cummings poem. Now THERE I agree with you. It's poetry from the first line to the last. Great stuff!

  8. I found gold, which are scattered in the forest, abundant in this place, and for every gold in it you can see up to 13 hands.

  9. Thanks a lot for such a beautiful theme.Good work from you!you are doing your best as usual.


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