Earl Gray

Earl Gray
"You can argue with me but, in the end, you'll have to face that fact that you're arguing with a squirrel." - Earl Gray

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Same Words

This is prose:

This is poetry:

     How can this be?  They're the very same words!

God is alive, magic is afoot
God is alive, magic is afoot
God is afoot, magic is alive
Alive is afoot, magic never died

God never sickened
Many poor men lied
Many sick men lied
Magic never weakened

Magic never hid
Magic always ruled
God is afoot
God never died

God was ruler
Though his funeral lengthened
Though his mourners thickened
Magic never fled

Though his shrouds were hoisted
The naked God did live
Though his words were twisted
The naked magic thrived

Though his death was published
Round and round the world
The heart did not believe

Many hurt men wondered
Many struck men bled
Magic never faltered
Magic always led

Many stones were rolled
But God would not lie down
Many wild men lied
Many fat men listened

Though they offered stones
Magic still was fed
Though they locked their coffers
God was always served

Magic is afoot, God rules
Alive is afoot, alive is in command
Many weak men hungered
Many strong men thrived

Though they boasted solitude
God was at their side
Nor the dreamer in his cell
Nor the captain on the hill

Magic is alive
Though his death was pardoned
Round and round the world
The heart did not believe

Though laws were carved in marble
They could not shelter men
Though altars built in parliaments
They could not order men

Police arrested magic
And magic went with them
For magic loves the hungry

But magic would not tarry
It moves from arm to arm
It would not stay with them
Magic is afoot

It cannot come to harm
It rests in an empty palm
It spawns in an empty mind
But magic is no instrument
Magic is the end

Many men drove magic
But Magic stayed behind
Many strong men lied
They only passed through magic

And out the other side
Many weak men lied
They came to God in secret
And though they left him nourished

They would not say who healed
Though mountains danced before them
They said that God was dead
Though his shrouds were hoisted
The naked God did live

This I mean to whisper to my mind
This I mean to laugh with in my mind
This I mean my mind to serve 'til
Service is but magic

Moving through the world
And mind itself is magic
Coursing through the flesh
And flesh itself is magic

Dancing on a clock
And time itself
The magic length of God

Lyrics © Universal Music Publishing Group, Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, Kobalt Music Publishing Ltd.

     Note that this isn't a matter of a pre-existing poem being set to music and/or chanted/sung, as with Pink Floyd star David Gilmour's rendition of Shakespeare's Sonnet 18.

Buffy Sainte-Marie
     Nor is it embedded poetry.  It is an excerpt from Leonard Cohen's 1966 novel, "Beautiful Losers", every word of which was intended, accepted and honored as prose.  Only when folksinger Buffy Ste. Marie read and, subsequently, sang this snippet did it become verse (a subset of poetry).

      How is that possible?  What definition of poetry or prose can handle this?  If adding background music made words verse then many a movie finale would qualify.  Chanting a telephone book doesn't make it poetry¹.

Leonard Cohen
     We could get into the technical aspects, pointing out that this is accentual heterometer, like "The Red Wheelbarrow" (except that it is mixed dimeter/trimeter rather than alternating dimeter/monometer).  However, the truth is much simpler than that:  people repeat it verbatim.  Whether they are speaking, chanting, or singing onstage or in the shower² is irrelevant.  They are making a voluntary effort to get the words exactly right.

     That is poetry.

     In fact, that is how all poetry came into being before the development of writing and prosody.  One cave dweller told a story, another wanted to preserve it, in whole or in part, for posterity.  This memorization effort turned a [prose³] tale into a poem.

     VoilĂ !


¹ - Until others follow your lead, chanting the same names, at least.

² - Or both, given the state of performance art, I suppose.

³ - Prose being the stuff we don't memorize and recite.

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Earl Gray, Esquirrel

Friday, August 5, 2011

Cheap Prosody Parlor Tricks - Part II

In Cheap Prosody Parlor Tricks - Part I we saw how a knowledge of scansion can help us predict what sections of a poem or song will be retained in memory. Let's continue the fun with a test my friend conducted during an open mic.

The rules couldn't be simpler. Participants will be presented with four poems--parts of poems in my buddy's 3-minute version--and then be asked whether each one is metrical or not. No, really. That's all there is to it. In fact, to make it even easier, the metrical poem(s) will rhyme and at least one of the works will be familiar to us.

Why not play along? If music will distract you, turn off your volume for all except #2, which is recited. For #1, #3 and #4, feel free to read the poems aloud to yourself as the words appear. In any event, please view each video only once before marking the poem as Metrical or Free Verse.

1. "Studying Savonarola" by Margaret A. Griffiths


2. "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" by Thomas Stearns Eliot


3. "How Aimee remembers Jaguar" by Erin Hopson


4. "Beans" by D. P. Kristalo


When you're ready to see the answers, please scroll down past these photos:

"Beans" (iambic pentameter) and "Prufrock" (iambic heterometer) were verse. "Savonarola" and "Aimee" were free verse.

So, how did you fare?

When my buddy did this he had 35 people in the audience but, because it came after a poetry reading, three of them were fast asleep. Let's do the math:

32 / (2 x 2 x 2 x 2 = 16) = 2

If the audience were stone deaf and guessing blindly, then, two of them should have gotten all four right. By my friend's count there were at least eight MFAs, graduate students or PhDs in the crowd so our minimum expectation should be...what? 8 contestants getting all of them right? 9 out of 32?

No matter. Only one person in the crowd (a PhD, yes, but in History) got all four correct. Ever the diplomat, our hero told those assembled that the purpose wasn't to test people's ear for poetry but to show how the best free verse is virtually indistinguishable from metrical.

For what it's worth, here are the four snippets my friend used in his 3-minute version:

  1. from "Studying Savonarola" by Margaret A. Griffiths

    Say you die, scorched into ashes, say

    you pass from here to there, with your marigold
    eyes, the garden darker for lack of one golden flower,
    would bees mourn, would crickets keen, drawing long

    blue chords on their thighs like cellists?
    Say you disperse like petals on the wind,
    the bright stem of you still a living stroke

    in memory, still green, still spring, still the tint
    and the tang of you in my throat, unconsumed.

  2. from "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" by T. S. Eliot

    And I have known the eyes already, known them all—
    The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase,
    And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,
    When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,
    Then how should I begin
    To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?
    And how should I presume?

  3. from "How Aimee remembers Jaguar" by Erin Hopson

    sink into the spaces between knees, brush bottoms
    of feet. The softest parts pursue something equal
    to spoon, fingers trace patterns over smooth
    and slick terrain. How pliable, the chasm between lovers
    where welcome linen soothes the burn.

  4. from "Beans" by D. P. Kristalo

    September came like winter's
    ailing child but
    left us
    viewing Valparaiso's pride. Your face was
    always saddest when you smiled. You smiled as every
    doctored moment lied. You lie with
    orphans' parents, long

Try this with your fellow poets or students. It's a hoot.