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

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Rule #1

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #1

      Normally, when Auden's "Musée des Beaux Arts" and Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" are compared it is because of their meters¹, which some seem to find challenging.  As illustrated in "Scansion for Intermediates", "Prufrock" is a nobrainer:  perfect iambic trimeter, tetrameter, pentameter and heptameter after some extra syllables ("anacrusis") at the beginning of some lines.  "Musée des Beaux Arts" is the mirror opposite;  its curginated accentual meter (think "Beowulf" or "The Red Wheelbarrow" here) is far less clear and attempts to scan it as accentual-syllabic meter result in a lot of extra syllables at ("hypercatalexis") or near (late anapestic substitutions) the ends of the lines.

      Instead, let's examine the voices through the prism of Rule #1:  "Never say anything in a poem that you wouldn't say in a bar."

      The issue is how relaxed or tipsy we would have to be to use that language at that pace to focus on that subject among friends in a lounge.

     We aren't talking about the dreaded "verse voice":  headbanging cadences, often with unusual "promotions" and long endstops, committed by performance newcomers whenever they discern meter.  We aren't talking about niche verse written strictly for those with a narrow interest (e.g. football fans, interpreters, other poets, et cetera).  Nor are we referring to the outliers:  soporific poetry readings¹ that sound like a pot party in an opium den; or, frenetic slams that seem like an Ecstacy bash at a meth lab.

Musée des Beaux Arts

      The moderate tempo and plain language in "Beaux Arts" (Appendix A, below) implies recent arrival at the bar.  Aside from some overmodification by later modernistic standards, the only phrase that raises eyebrows is the initial inversion:

About suffering they were never wrong,

      We bear in mind that a poem may be a part of a conversation at that bar.  Imagine if a friend were to say something like "What did those old masters know about suffering?"  Now imagine a speaker who raises and wags a correcting finger before saying "Suffering?  About suffering they were never wrong."

      The rest of the poem is merely one person trying to make a an impression on a bunch of friends.  As such, we'd consider "Musée des Beaux Arts" a one beer poem, reflecting comradeship² more than inebriation.

The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

      T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"  is the prototypical hypermodern poem.  "Beaux Arts" (Appendix B, below) could be seen as the best of many attempts to recapture T.S. Eliot's success but the two works are antipodal opposites in speed and egocentricity, if not diction.

      The language is slightly more elevated in "Prufrock", the overmodification not quite so salient.  The main differences, though, are continuity and focus;  "Prufrock" comes in fits and starts of utter self-absorption.  That level of self-centeredness, so common among today's aspirants, suggests the speaker has been at that watering hole for longer than booze has been distilled.

      Unlike any successful poem since, "Prufrock" is a 12-pack poem in the United States, a 6-packer anywhere else.  Were it less coherent, as so much of today's cryptocrap is, the bartender would cut the speaker off and signal for the designated driver.


      Together, these two pieces define the endpoints for successful verse.  Between them, the Suds Spectrum concerns itself with issues of language, tension and focus.  Among the the great poems of our time, verbage ranges from the plainspoken DPK's "Beans" to E.A. Stallings' luscious "Antiblurb".  Tension builds in Maz's "Studying Savonarola", appears suddenly in "Beans", and is released in "Antiblurb".  Not surprisingly, all of the triumphs [before and] after Prufrock have been fancentric.  Millions have tried, but it took the greatest poet of the 20th century to raise navel-gazing to the level of art, shattering the previous 5 Beer Barrier in the process.

     Speaking of the Suds Spectrum and the best poetry of our time:

1. "Beans" by D. P. Kristalo needs its context, perhaps requiring a viewing of the Film "No" beforehand.  Its narrative tone caused one contest judge³ to miss the fact that it was an acrostic in iambic pentameter.  The sudden rise in passion in the second half may require some alertness (read:  sobriety) on the part of a listener.

      In any case, this is a straightforward single steiner.

2. "Studying Savonarola" by Margaret A. Griffiths does not require, nor does it necessarily benefit from, understanding its context.  Some may not know what the term "fasces" means but the vocabulary elsewhere is simple enough.  The use of the second person singular draws the listener in as a participant.  The rising level of excitement and emotion may be enhanced by having a slight buzz on, though.  It's an engaging two beer effort.

3. "Du" by Janet Kenny uses some startling modifiers but what will require at least three mugs of spiritual fortification is its ghost story spookiness.  Oh, sure, you could listen to it sober, as you could eat hot dogs without condiments, but why would you want to?  Some may say a poem like this is too "deep" for a bar but they miss the point:  those nagging questions that survive the hangover may be the whole purpose of the exercise.

4. "Hookers" by Marco Morales employs simple vocabulary and constructs.  Its emotion is not explicit.  The issue is its subject matter.  No one needs to connect the dots between drinking and seeking companionship, including prostitution.  Still, a few stiff drinks may help reduce inhibitions when talking about the oldest profession.

5. "Antiblurb" by Alicia E. Stallings uses slightly more formal language and involves more philosophy than reporting.  More "tell", less "show" than our audience may be used to.  As such, we'd likely save this one for later in the evening, after we've had about five drinks under our belts.  Indeed, this may be about as far as the envelope can be pushed before we encounter resistance from latecomers who are a few drinks behind us.


¹ - Given that poetry predated literacy by millennia and is designed to be memorized and performed, "poetry reading" is an oxymoron.

² - This was not meant as a reference to Auden's politics but the philosophical differences between the two poems and their creators may be interesting to some.

³ - Whom we with discuss in a forthcoming entry.

Appendix A

Musée des Beaux Arts by W. H. Auden

About suffering they were never wrong, |
The Old Masters; how well they understood |
Its human position; how it takes place |
While someone else is eating or opening | a window or just walking dully along; |
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting |
For the miraculous birth, there always must be |
Children who did not specially want it to happen, | skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood: |
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must | run its course.
Anyhow in a corner, | some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their | doggy life and the torturer's horse |
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree. |
In Breughel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns | away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may |
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry, |
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone |
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green |
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that | must have seen
Something amazing, | a boy falling out of the sky, |
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

Appendix B

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

    S’io credesse che mia risposta fosse
    A persona che mai tornasse al mondo,
    Questa fiamma staria senza piu scosse.
    Ma perciocche giammai di questo fondo
    Non torno vivo alcun, s’i’odo il vero,
    Senza tema d’infamia ti rispondo.

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question. . .                    
Oh, do not ask, "What is it?"
Let us go and make our visit.

  In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.

  The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening
Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains,
Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys,
Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,                     
And seeing that it was a soft October night
Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.

  And indeed there will be time
For the yellow smoke that slides along the street,
Rubbing its back upon the window-panes;
There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands
That lift and drop a question on your plate;                    
Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions
And for a hundred visions and revisions
Before the taking of a toast and tea.

  In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.

  And indeed there will be time
To wonder, "Do I dare?" and, "Do I dare?"
Time to turn back and descend the stair,
With a bald spot in the middle of my hair--                      
[They will say: "How his hair is growing thin!"]
My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin,
My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin--
[They will say: "But how his arms and legs are thin!"]
Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.

  For I have known them all already, known them all;
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,                  
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;
I know the voices dying with a dying fall
Beneath the music from a farther room.
  So how should I presume?

  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?

  And I have known the arms already, known them all--
Arms that are braceleted and white and bare
[But in the lamplight, downed with light brown hair!]
Is it perfume from a dress
That makes me so digress?
Arms that lie along a table, or wrap about a shawl.
  And should I then presume?
  And how should I begin?

Shall I say, I have gone at dusk through narrow streets         
And watched the smoke that rises from the pipes
Of lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of windows? . . .

I should have been a pair of ragged claws
Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.

And the afternoon, the evening, sleeps so peacefully!
Smoothed by long fingers,
Asleep . . . tired . . . or it malingers,
Stretched on the floor, here beside you and me.
Should I, after tea and cakes and ices,
Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?            
But though I have wept and fasted, wept and prayed,
Though I have seen my head (grown slightly bald) brought in upon a platter,
I am no prophet--and here's no great matter;
I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,
And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,
And in short, I was afraid.

  And would it have been worth it, after all,
After the cups, the marmalade, the tea,
Among the porcelain, among some talk of you and me,
Would it have been worth while,                                         
To have bitten off the matter with a smile,
To have squeezed the universe into a ball
To roll it toward some overwhelming question,
To say: "I am Lazarus, come from the dead,
Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all"
If one, settling a pillow by her head,
  Should say, "That is not what I meant at all.
  That is not it, at all."

  And would it have been worth it, after all,
Would it have been worth while,                                         
After the sunsets and the dooryards and the sprinkled streets,
After the novels, after the teacups, after the skirts that trail along the floor--
And this, and so much more?--
It is impossible to say just what I mean!
But as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen:
Would it have been worth while
If one, settling a pillow or throwing off a shawl,
And turning toward the window, should say:
  "That is not it at all,
  That is not what I meant, at all."                                     

No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two
Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use,
Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous--
Almost, at times, the Fool.

  I grow old . . . I grow old . . .                                           
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

  Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

  I do not think they will sing to me.

  I have seen them riding seaward on the waves
Combing the white hair of the waves blown back
When the wind blows the water white and black.

  We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown             
Till human voices wake us, and we drown.

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