Saturday, May 16, 2009


With our ever expanding social networking and instant communication I wonder if we have outgrown a central fact of generations past or dangerously forgotten it. In the instant societies we create by computer and the way the cell phone keeps every friend and acquaintance and even emergency help no farther than a few seconds away from our needs. Twenty years ago I went to the Siberian arctic to write about an expedition of radio amateurs who were the first to be allowed to broadcast from that officially closed part of the world. It was part of the breakup of the Soviet Union, and the joint broadcasts from five American and twelve Soviet radio operators were a kind of announcement to the world that people were coming together again. Today coming together is much much easier (at least if one does not live in North Korea or Cuba or Iran—and one can even meet strangers in these last two by internet or short wave radio if the proper restrictions are observed).

Back to the question-- have we outgrown a central fact of all human history or dangerously forgotten it? I don’t know the answer, but I know a few poems that pose the question. Here’s one.


He knew how Roman legions looked, for he
Had seen the Maine coast fogs march in from sea
For many years now, in August days.
They came in mighty columns up the bays,
Tawny and gray and silver in the sun;
They trampled out the seaports one by one,
The islands and the woods, with their high hosts
And pushed the world back inland from the coasts.

This little house was lost, these hills and dells,
Cows in a pasture faded into bells,
The world around a man closed in and in
Till nowhere was ten paces from his chin.
A man drawn up and halted with a start
To be so close to his own beating heart
And left so to himself and wholly blind
To everything but what was in his mind.

This was the peril and the comfort, too,
A man who lived in such a region knew;
On any Summer’s day, within an hour,
He might be blind and naked to a power
So vast, it might have come from stars unmade,
Undreamt of, even, making him afraid,
So mightier than the night that he could guess
How life was but a name for loneliness.

(Robert P. Tristram Coffin)

Friday, May 1, 2009

Poetry: Divine Wind v Gas

I have often argued, sometimes too brutally, that in our lives poetry has been trashed by poets and teachers who are too lazy or too ideological to give any value to the long-evolved art of poetry that includes meter, rhyme, alliteration, stanzas and other such craftsman’s tools.

The most utilitarian argument is that these tools make poetry memorable. I suspect some practitioner of a discipline called something like bio-literature or biopsychology (which does exist) has discovered an area of the brain that lights up a CAT scan when the subject hears rhyme or metered meaning.

Biopsychology we don’t need to find the proof of the utility of the tools of poetry. This afternoon, I turned to the literature of spring and I picked up an old favorite, Viscontess Wolseley’s compilation of English rural folklore, The Countryman’s Log-Book. It’s 300 plus pages are full of verse used by the people engaged in the grittiest labor of olde England to make the rules, values, and history of their world memorable.

“Be sure of hay till th’ end of May,” or your animals might starve before the new forage is ready.

Here’s one that is a riddle for moderns but easily understood in the 16th Century:

The calf, the goose, the bee
the world is ruled by these three.
(from the herald Guillim.)

From the calf comes parchment on which the most durable books and official documents were written: the Magna Carta, for instance. From the goose came the quill pen. From the bee came candles and sealing wax that made a tamperproof seal on letters and documents and that bore the unique impression of the authority issuing a document. (Sealing was made from pine rosin and bees wax.)

About the tendency of a hive’s bees to gather up their hive’s honey and leave in search of a new home (called swarming), the farmer is reminded:

If bees swarm in May, they're worth a pound and next day;
If they swarm in July, they're not worth the fly.

That is to say a swarm caught in May can still be put in a new hive and make enough honey to see them through the winter. Or perhaps they can be sold for a pound sterling to another farmer. July is too late to re-hive them or sell them.

About sheep we read:

A scabb’d sheepe will mar a whole flock,
Faith, then the Shepherd’s a Knave or a Block.

History too was recorded and made memorable by rhyme. Sure, some were long narratives by educated poets, but often enough the rhymes were simple and utilitarian:
Turkeys, Carps, Hops, Piaccarel and Beer,
Came into England all in one year.

Politics too had its expression in verse. After the Black Death struck England the law allowed the privatization of the commons land where anyone could graze cattle, sheep, and geese. Those who favored it might recite:

The country enclosed I praise
The t’other delighteth not me;
For nothing the wealth it doth raise
To such as inferior be.

That summed up what the modern biologist Garret Hardin famously called “The tragedy of the commons.” However, those who saw enclosure as a land grab by the rich (or richer) might recite:

A sin it is in man or woman
To steal a goose from off a common;
But he doth sin without excuse
Who steals the common from the goose.

This last verse is still quoted by activists who believe the rich steal from and enrich themselves at the expense of the poor.

What contemporary poetry will be remembered 10 years from now, not to mention 300 years in the future? The classic poets whose works we read in schools and universities as literature, from Homer to Hopkins, all build on this very well proven practical service of poetry to memory.

I could even suggest that this lesson might give us a simple solution to defining what is and is not art.

We remember art.
We forget the fart.