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.



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

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