It was quite late, but it was important because her sadness was apparent and of a mood to erupt once more. Still, I made to try and thought: “Perhaps there will be time to intervene with the cooperation of those who know her best”; so I attempted the necessary; to consult some who could separate and observe these from various angles; we could then huddle and grunt and uncover a solution; this being the plan, but my conspirators in their various oranges and grays had other minds; I didn’t know them well enough to understand their peculiar manner of expression, so my imagination had to supply for much of the gaps my understanding lacked. Read the rest of this entry »

(Things seen and remembered in the backyard)

Red Squirrel, bounding-in
from who-knows-where.
Ripe Banana harumphing him
“Intrusion! a foreigner!”
Black Cat stalks in wondering
“What is that come in?”
Brown Sparrow dives to bomb him
“Away from my nest, away!”
Gray clouds gather grumbling
“Come see how much I rain”
Green Tortoise clumsy happy’s-in
“Oh! What a fine day!”

I Met Banksy

I met Banksy on the street. He had been nonchalantly spraying paint over some cut-up discarded plastic as I walked past eating a meat pie. He stopped his activity and looked at me; I looked back—first at him, then at what he had been painting. The moment was strangely anachronistic; abstract expressionist in a world that had rejected manifestos, and yet here he was making up one his own in contrast to all that he had done before.

As we stood there—he with his spray can and I with my pie—everything turned suddenly dark with thought and history—as if an injustice was depending on us to cause its solution.

Banksy seemed to care and so did I. Whatever he was working on, it now had a scope and significance beyond just another project to be photographed, while I had my own share of trivial work impatiently waiting. With that understanding, the light returned and we went our separate ways, but something would be done now, and the world seemed to understand this more than we did.

On Poetic Form and its Uses

(a bit of a rant but bear with me)

Why? It is about time I placed a comment here (considering recent events that no longer matter) and while I agree that we should not slavishly follow form for its own sake, we must at least acknowledge how critical it is for a poem to maintain a coherent form.

There is no such thing as a formless poetry. For poetry to work the poet must impose an order into the poem for Idea to prosper. Poetic language is not ‘ordinary’ language. Prose mimics this much more closely (but even prose may be formal when necessary) and so to simply assume that a depth of feeling or idea that is not tamed should be sufficient for the poet is akin to baking a cake where the chef is free to use as many eggs as he feels like on any particular occasion.

Therefore, though fair enough that readers of poetry need not recognize the difference between an iambic pentameter and an alexandrine in order to enjoy a poem, it is a matter of critical importance to the poet and the critic, and formalism becomes a part of the process of criticism. These are part of a jargon that prosody uses to study form and it need not concern the reader to know that Shakespeare wrote in iambic pentameters almost exclusively, but rather intentionally chose alexandrine meter for the Pyramus and Thysbe play at the end of A Midsummer Nights Dream, as a joke which the poetically sophisticated among his audience would get. (Alexandrine is just fancy talk for iambic hexameter by the way, which is more fancy talk for six beat two syllable line. Yes it matters.)

So while this matters not to casual readers, why do poets bother with meter and rhyming (or the lack thereof) at all? Why should it matter that a sonnet has fourteen lines of any of three (some say four) possible rhyming schemes? Why should it matter that a Villanelle repeat the first and third lines of the first stanza in an alternating refrain to be repeated as a couplet on the last stanza? Quite simply: because it works. Poets have played and twisted various forms and this produces great results when they are comfortable with and understand the form to begin with. But Pound’s conceit that “No good poetry is written in a fashion 20 years old” has been proven false time after time.

Not that free verse is a waste of time. It was the dominant poetic method of the late 19th through the 20th centuries and it was used very effectively by some of the greatest poets. But almost all of those poets also used meter and rhyme where they felt it was appropriate and I may be bold enough to declare that only a poet who is comfortable with writing a sonnet or or a sapphic ode should attempt (ironically) the extreme difficulty of free verse. Even as famous a modernist as T.S. Eliot could say:

The conscience of a blackened street
Impatient to assume the world

I am moved by fancies that are curled
Around these images and cling:
The notion of some infinitely gentle
Infinitely suffering thing.

And there we have a perfect partly rhymed iambic lines as good (or better) than much of Coleridge and it must be so because iambic lines are so eminently suitable to the rhythms of English we cannot avoid using them except for good reason. And equally so we must know when not to use it:

Half a league, half a league
Half a league onward
All in the Valley of Death
Rode the Six Hundred

By which Tennyson told us about the nature of a cavalry charge using dactyls to mimic the feeling of horses galloping, and while iambic lines could possibly have served the idea just as well, we might no longer remember this hoary old favorite if he had used those instead. (Dactyls are a three syllable foot with the beat on the first syllable. Iambs, as you may already know are a two syllable foot with the beat on the 2nd.)

Now back to the reason for this to begin with, that admonishment by one who pretends to know better, that prosodic devices like rhyme and repetition fall into a category of “cheap tricks.”

Tell that to Dylan Thomas:

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[…]

And you, my father, there on the sad height
Curse, bless me with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

I mean really now, we should all whore ourselves for lines like that. I did not include the rest of that villanelle because it’s easy enough to find (I have it down there somewhere) And so why does Thomas resort to a 16th century form to talk to readers in the 20th Century (and beyond)? Because it works. It’s easy to bastardize a form for cleverness sake, but much more difficult to work with it because it imposes a sense of order. But when the order works it works wonders. The form has its own internal logic that creates something more of the Idea than is normally possible. Of course Thomas had to think hard about how those two lines would work both as a refrain and as the closing couplet that states the theme of the poem. More critically, the repetition builds the thought through another repeated device throughout the poem by characterizing “men” as “wise”, “good”, “wild” and “grave” and relating this to a point about old age that he makes to the listener (his father.) It’s marvelous because the poet understood not only the idea he wanted to express, but also the nature of the medium he chose to express this with. And that is what poetic language is all about. We have a wealth of technique and literary devices to make use of. To attempt a sui generis form of expression is very brave and very foolish and very unnecessary to produce great poetry.

So let’s admonish the poor critic once more. Walt Whitman was at his worst when he strayed from free verse, and as perhaps the most narcissistic poet of them all, he is a poor model. We can still enjoy bits of him at times, but I find him largely unreadable at his best, and atrocious at his worst (see Oh Captain My Captain) And so if our critic chose to juxtapose him as an example of ‘great poetry’ because he doesn’t resort to ‘cheap tricks’ and bares his narcissistic soul for us to pick at well, enjoying poetry, like any other expression, is a matter of taste after all.

Mythical Pets

The pestering being given into, I finally conceded that a pet would be a welcome addition to the home. Unfortunately, after various options were considered, four legged and feathered, we somehow decided on both. Now, let me tell you that hippogryphs are a bit too interesting to be considered proper pets. Ours had an endearing character and would caw-neigh loudly from the roof, fly down and gently accept scraps of meat mixed with hay from my hands, then fly off in a flurry of clattering hooves and wing beats. Everything seemed fine until one day, my next door neighbor came around with a suspicious look asking if I’d seen his Labradors and “What happened to my wife’s Gardenias?” I swore to him I knew nothing of this but I had my suspicions and our relationship became strained. He finally took matters into his own hands by acquiring his own hippogryph, a mare-hen to match our cock-stallion and as soon as she came into season the pair galloped then flew off to mate (we assumed) and were neither seen nor heard from again.

The issue of pet ownership still nagging, we decided to get a manticore instead. These beasts are somewhat more manageable, being mammals, albeit the disconcerting human head. Ours always greeted me cheerfully upon arriving home from a busy day; heart wrenching tears of joy watering his face down to a neatly trimmed beard while wagging a spiked tail against, and demolishing, our furniture. He also had a habit of using the garage door as a scratching post; just as well we kept nothing of value in the garage so it was a good joke on the burglars. I loved him though as he would often rest his head on my shoulder as I would sit on the arm chair; his eyes mimicking my own rolling past each line of verse from The Inferno or The Waste Land; either of which was what our home was in danger of becoming when we discovered a second mortgage was calculated on to pay for replacing furniture more frequently than our bath towels. So we enticed our manticore into the trailer one sad morning to bring him to the zoo. The keepers were only too happy to own a mythical creature since the pandas were no longer drawing the crowds like they used to. I left him there and we kissed each other on the lips and I saw those disconcerting tears, now of sorrow, for the last time.

In desperation, we finally decided on a more manageable pet so we bought a cat. Now our problems really started…

– sebastian 2007

The Fable of Macaw and Jaguar

It was one of those usual wet and dark days deep within the Rain Forest. Now you might imagine that most days within such a forest would be so, and you would be right.

It was on such a day that Jaguar decided to climb a tree she knew Macaw frequented. She didn’t have any evil purpose for this (one Capybara less you see) but was always an admirer of Macaw’s wonderful plumage; he had blue feathers on his body and a bright red head and bits of green and yellow flashed here and there, a mighty beak for puncturing even the hardest of fruits. Jaguar felt she should go up and speak to Macaw to understand him better and to admire his plumage.

So up the tree Jaguar went, a bit difficult for she was not the best of climbers, and finally with some struggle she came near the top, and there was Macaw among a field of blossoming orchids. She hadn’t know about orchids before, because you have to get to near the top of the Rain Forest canopy to see them well.

“Oh! What a lovely sight!” Jaguar exclaimed.

“Hello! And Thank You!” replied Macaw, who was something of a narcissist with his bright plumage and all. In case you don’t know what a narcissist is, it’s someone who thinks too highly of themselves so that they can sometimes forget what others see. Yes it’s a problem for them.

“Oh! Macaw, I didn’t mean you!” said Jaguar, “I meant all these lovely flowers!”

“What flowers?” replied Macaw.

“Why all these, what are they called? Orchids! I think?”

“Oh! Why they’re alright I suppose. I hadn’t really noticed them.”

“Not noticed them? Why up ’til now I thought the most beautiful thing in the Rain Forest was you and now I realize I’d been mistaken.”

“No you aren’t mistaken. I’m still the most beautiful thing. All these flowers bloom only once in awhile. You were just lucky to see them today. I’m always beautiful.”

“So I’m lucky then, I searched for you, and I saw something new that few others see. I suppose I should thank you for that, for even though I still think you are beautiful, you are less beautiful now than I used to think. Your pride in yourself cannot match the shy beauty of these flowers. I’ll
come down from the tree now. Good bye.” said Jaguar as she started to climb down.

“Hello? Were you still there?” said Macaw, a little more dimly than usual.