in verse #37 : still Smarting

There is a complex of retirement apartments rising like a mushroom in a former farm a few blocks from my home in Orem calling itself Treeo, and advertising itself with, among other slogans, this:  “Where the smartypants live.[i]”  Smart looms large in their legend:  they have bought two of those cute little Smart cars and decorated them to emphasize their smartitude.  US News reviewers said of the Smart Fortwo that “According to the EPA, the Fortwo gets 34/38 mpg city/highway, which is good for the class, but low for such a small car.[ii]”  That’s my beef with the smart car:  how can something that small and light get such lousy mileage?  My son Cody[iii] has a better beef with Treeo — he pointed out that Treeo’s choice of slogan is as bad as its taste in cars:  it should be either “Where the smartypantses live” or “Where the smartypants lives.”  That’s the kind of attitude for which I was thoroughly mocked in grade school as, yes, a smartypants.

Christopher Smart probably wasn’t so mocked.  Born in 1722, he was sent, at eleven when his father died, to Durham School and, in 1739, to Pembroke College, Cambridge, whence he graduated in 1744 with a BA.  He was much smarter with his language than the people promoting Treeo, or the smart car.  Here’s one of the latter’s[iv] poems:

The smart electric drive’s single-gear transmission means
instant torque and smooth, dare-we-say, sexy acceleration.
Pair that with smart’s classic compact size and tight turning radius,
and you’ll pour milk down the drain just for an excuse to drive to the store.

Conserving the environment? Woo hoo!
Driving a conservative-looking car? Womp womp.
That’s why the smart electric drive, like every smart, is endlessly customizable –
from vehicle wraps to tridion safety cells to mirrors and more.
Want us to cover your smart in photos of your cat? We’ll do it.
Seriously, try us.[v]

And they say that poetry has disappeared from  Continue Reading →

in verse # 34 : a different Blake

If William Blake is the father of contemporary American free verse, Emily Dickinson is surely its mother.  But hold on, I hear you say, wasn’t that father Walt Whitman?  Well, maybe he was the godfather.  And I am aware of the distance in time and space between the father and the mother, and the fact that Dickinson may have never heard of, let alone read, Blake.  Although he could have visited her as an emanation.  Maybe that’s what she was writing about in “Wild nights.”  So call it an immaculate conception, if you will.

I will.

After all, Blake worked with a biblical line, and Dickinson with a wide selection of meters, most commonly the ballad stanza of four lines in 4, 3, 4 and 3 stresses, a meter common in hymns as well.  Blake has always been known as an eccentric and experimental poet.  It is becoming clearer, as explorations of Dickinson’s manuscripts[i] proceed apace, that she was more experimental than eccentric.[ii]   More on Dickinson later, but for now the focus is on Blake.  And in my last post, I neglected perhaps one of the best sources on Blake’s relationship to the Bible.  Peter Ackroyd, in his biography of Blake, says this, which is worth reading at length in relation to Blake’s prosody:

His early biographers do agree upon a single aspect of his childhood, however, since it is one that affected his entire life — his closest and most significant attachment [among books] was to the Bible.  I would have been the staple reading of his family, the object of continual meditation and interpretation.  It is hard to re-imagine a culture in which that book was the central and pre-eminent text, through which the world itself was to be understood, but the sectaries of mid-eighteenth-century England [Blake’s parents were Dissenters from the Church of England] still retained the old radical traditions of commentary and exegesis. …  His poetry and painting are imbued with biblical motifs and images; the very curve and cadence of his sentences are derived from the Old Testament, while his passages of ritualistic description and denunciation come from the words of the great prophets that were heard in the house on Broad Street.[iii]

As I said in that last post, “The translators [of the Authorized Version] produced a liturgical text, a text intended to be heard by the congregation, to be read aloud by the priest or preacher or lector” — or, in Blake’s case, mother and father and siblings and, eventually, himself.  As Ackroyd notes above, “the very curve and cadence of his sentences are derived from the Old Testament.”  But here a word of caution is in order, a caution that I myself need to recall:  it comes from David Norton, the editor of The new Cambridge paragraph Bible, discussing the work of the translators of the Authorized Version.  “Poetic parts of the text” he says

have been given in verse lines.  Here a word of caution is necessary:  it is not always clear what parts of the original were poetry, nor how that poetry should be lineated; moreover, the King James Bible was made as a prose translation, and its words only sometimes work as verse.  Nevertheless, the appearance of poetry, at the least, may act as a reminder that some parts were originally poetry.  Sometimes it may do more, bringing out the structure of the poetry and more of the rhythm of the text.[iv]

But as you saw in that last post, Blake’s verse does have the lilt and stress of the biblical poetry exemplified in the selection from Nahum.  In this post, I want to examine Continue Reading →

in verse # 32 : warning – vasty generalization looming

Looming on my intellectual horizon, and thus on yours, unless, on reading this prophecy, you bail on me, is a vasty generalization — to which I am being enticed by John Pollack through the medium of his book The pun also rises, to wit:  one casualty of the Restoration was blank verse.  The main casualty, as far as this blog is concerned.  When England emerged from its Taliban — or Caliban — interval, the Protectorate, following hard on the death of Cromwell; when, I say, the Stuarts were restored to the throne of Great Britain in the person of the Frenchified Charles II, England broke the mold of its greatest poetic achievement, blank verse.

Well, no.  Milton broke it.  And it wasn’t really a mold, it was more of a die, used to strike one perfect, highly polished, platinum coin:  Paradise lost.  Although many of you might regard that poem as not much more than a moldy tome,  Continue Reading →

in verse # 31 : dark Satanic mills

If I were to tell you that I was writing a parody bent on displaying a hacker’s mindset, based on Ira Gershwin’s “I got rhythm,” and that it began

I got rhythm                                                                                                                                 Algorithm                                                                                                                                      I got rhythm                                                                                                                                 Who could ask for anything more?

would you revise the title for this post to “dork Satanic mills”?  What if my parody morphed into

I got rhythm                                                                                                                                  Al Gore rhythm                                                                                                                             I got rhythm                                                                                                                                 Who could ask for anything more?

would that incline you to a more charitable view?  Would you even notice the change in rhythm in the second line with the change in wording?

Of course you would, because Continue Reading →

in verse # 30 : the doors of perception

The first day of war in heaven didn’t go so well for Satan and his crew.  But as they counseled together in their defeat, Satan put forth a plan.  It takes the form of an assertion regarding that Heaven in which they are warring, to wit that it contains the seeds of its own destruction.  Milton here gives Satan the beautiful language he needs to persuade his angels, thrones, dominions, etc., and an argument that at root heaven is rotten[i] (i.e., “pregnant with infernal flame”):

Whereto with look compos’d Satan repli’d.                                                                                  Not uninvented that, which thou aright                                                                                       Beleiv’st so main to our success, I bring;                                                                                    Which of us who beholds the bright surface                                                                                    Of this Ethereous mould whereon we stand,                                                                              This continent of spacious Heav’n, adorn’d                                                                                 With Plant, Fruit, Flow’r Ambrosial, Gems and Gold,                                                                     Whose Eye so superficially surveys                                                                                            These things, as not to mind from whence they grow                                                                  Deep under ground, materials dark and crude,                                                                              Of spiritous and fiery spume, till toucht                                                                                     With Heav’n’s ray, and temper’d they shoot forth                                                                           So beauteous, op’ning to the ambient light.                                                                                 These in thir dark Nativity the Deep                                                                                             Shall yeild us, pregnant with infernal flame,                                                                                  Continue Reading →

in verse # 29 : of the devil’s party

William Blake was Milton’s son.  But it was no easy birth.  In his fine article on Milton’s prosody, John Creaser describes how Milton was able to work so well within the conventions of blank verse.  Creaser begins by summarizing the description by Derek Attridge of “the prevailing norms” of verse rhythm in English:

Fundamental to the rhythm of English speech are (1) isochrony — the tendency, allowing for sense “breathings,” to perceive stressed syllables as falling at equal intervals of time; and (2) duple movement — the tendency for stressed and unstressed syllables to alternate.[i]

These are our Anglo-Saxon heritage, the stresses of our Germanic past, lingering in English only in the rhythms of our speech, reflecting the stripping away of most inflections in our grammar, yet the retention of that old 4-beat prosody irrespective of syllable counts.  Of the iambic foot, Creaser describes Attridge as concluding that “in lines of any rhythmic complexity, the foot cannot be felt as a unit.”[ii]  This is what makes the later Shakespeare plays so wonderfully adaptive to the actor’s voice.  I would argue Continue Reading →

in verse # 28 : the pun is meatier than the surd

Sitting at home alone in bed when I was 13, and unable to go out because I was undergoing the aftermath of rheumatic fever, I entertained myself with old copies of Reader’s Digest.  One of the things I digested thoroughly in the humor columns was puns.  I believe it was in one of those columns[i] that I read an entry from a proud punster who told of a woman who had named her new ranch, which was operated by her sons in her behalf , “Focus.”  Asked why, she replied “It’s where the sons raise meat.”  The author was proud of the fact that this was the only triple pun he knew of.  Now it wasn’t that kind of punning that fed this reader’s disgust with the magazine — it was the right-wing politics and red-baiting, which I was old enough to recognize but too young to understand.  So now I only read the magazine to keep my contempt fresh.  Joseph McCarthy had just recently died, and I had heard him memorialized in an editorial on KSL radio by comparison with the Roman senator Cato, who argued that, for the good of Rome, “Ceterum censeo Carthaginem esse delendam” — (Moreover, I advise that Carthage must be destroyed.)[ii]  It was the era of the Birch John Society (promoting outhouses) and Walt Kelly’s Jack Acid Society black book, the first piece of political satire I ever bought.[iii]

But when John Pollack talks about puns, he invokes a bigger tent.  Talking about Jewish punning Continue Reading →

in verse # 27 : wretched matter and lame Meter

John Milton didn’t know jack about free verse, and yet when he explicated his reason for shunning rime he sounded like he understood the reasoning of the free versifiers at the turn of the last century.  In introducing Paradise lost he averred this:

The measure is English Heroic Verse without Rime, as that of Homer in Greek, and of Virgil in Latin; Rime being no necessary Adjunct or true Ornament of Poem or good Verse, in longer Works especially, but the Invention of a barbarous Age, to set off wretched matter and lame Meter…[i]

Milton makes a distinction between “Poem” and “good verse” as if he had been reading this blog, one that seems to me more than rhetorical, as if the Poem being invoked were a short work, and “English Heroic Verse” the longer, unrimed, work.  And if the phrase “English Heroic Verse” sounds vaguely familiar, you may have read about blank verse in an earlier post in this blog.  It is one of the two great achievements of the short-lived Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey (1517-47).  Substitute the word “epic” for “Heroic” and you can make the connection Milton asserts:  Surrey’s development of blank verse for his revision of a translation of two books of the Aeneid.[ii]  Surrey is also the father of the English sonnet, now, in an instance of the greater absorbing the lesser, commonly called the Shakespearean sonnet, not because “the Surrey sonnet” would suggest a poem with a fringe on top, Continue Reading →

in verse #26 : organ music

If the last three letters of the f-word are what seems most repellent about it — the sound of “uck” — that would explain how some other words ending that way still seem a bit odd, if not funny or repellent.  Suck, duck, buck, cluck, yuck, muck, guck — and now BYUCK.  Or why others, like ruck and snuck, are fading away.  And why a word like luck, which leads in with a liquid consonant, doesn’t seem quite as bad, or why pluck, which leads with a plosive followed by a liquid consonant, seem positively upbeat.  It would also explain why all of our substitutes begin with “f,” as in flippin’, fetchin’ and friggin’.[i]

If you apply such a general, and no doubt faulty, rule[ii] to some of the other less-genteel words kicking around in English, like the c-word, you come up with bunt, punt, hunt, runt, grunt, all of which have that same feature of being punched in the stomach and feeling your breath rush out. Continue Reading →