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.


  1. Interesting commentary on utilitarian poetry. I've used it frequently in my classroom, hoping that my research-paper-writing students will better retain the message when I tell them that "every quotation / requires a citation." Your examples also bring to mind the rhyme-and-rhythm traditions of black Christian preaching.

  2. Good point about preaching. Makes me wonder if some of the most popular and/or effective preachers, including the TV ones, have a good part of their power in the craft of their words. It also reminds me that in those centuries when a large part of the population knew by heart huge parts of the King James version of the Bible its rhythms, metaphors, and phrases enriched the language of even illiterate people. I remember with great clarity an illiterate and slightly retarded neighbor in North Carolina once commenting to me on some pre-teen girls that lived between his land and mine: "Them Williams girls are worse than Pharoah's daughters," he opined. In any case, you have opened an interesting area where the craft of words still makes a big difference. Thanks.