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Sunday, February 23, 2003

Taking a Tire Iron to Poetry

Time once again for Bullwinkle's Corner, in which we showcase the pititful crap that passes for poetry in these benighted days.

For those of you who have wandered in on your way to somewhere more important, I'll say again that I know nothing about poetry; which is to say that I was never formally taught in it, nor am I particularly widely read in it, and I certainly cannot do it.

However, I do believe firmly (in my ignorance) that poetry should somehow be distinct from bad prose. It should rhyme, and if it cannot rhyme, it should possess some sort of meter. If it cannot do either of those, it should at least look pretty on the page, or taste good (beautiful, is my choice, but if not, crunchy, metallic, velvet---anything) on the tongue. But if it cannot manage any of these, none at all, at least it should offer intriguing imagery and metaphor---words for one concept pressed into duty for another, illuminating both.

And so we come to today's offering, On the Eve of War by Emmy! Winning! Journalist!, author, musician, and professor, Ruben Martinez. This poem takes up half the front page of the editorials section in today's Houston Chronicle, yet strangely is not on the paper's website. (I think they must keep their most embarrassing moments off the website, because half the time when I want to blog about them, they're not there. On the other hand, it does have some Robert Jensen articles permanently linked.)

Since I can't find it at the Chronicle's site, nor anywhere else on the Web, you can't see the whole poem for yourself. But I think fair use allows me to quote a few snippets. It starts out well enough for the first four stanzas, and then

On the eve of war
The state censors
The I and the I stops
The we and the we
bleeds a you

On the eve of war
I come with my anti-
With a hoarse hearse
A doubt or two
Shuttle streak
And a stinging hand

On the eve of war
I bid you capital gain
Refuge in the Arctic
A sweatshop
And petro-rain

It's difficult to criticize a poem when it doesn't make any sense. Has, in fact, the state censored you? If so, what are you doing in the Chronicle? How does "I" stop "we" (who are "we"?), and how does stopping "we" bleed a "you"?

I realize it's no use asking for literality from a poem; it would sabotage the purpose of poetry. But it's difficult for a poem to have meaning---to convince, as this one means to (see below)---if you cannot tease out its meaning.

So it's a good thing the "capital gain" stanza was included, so we can see that the poet means to clue us in that IT'S ALL ABOUT THE OIL! Oh, and sweatshops, somehow.


On the eve of war
I give you these:


A tire-iron floating on the rain
Guernica on a postage stamp
A full cinema and an empty screen

No doubt the tire-iron and the cinema represent things my brain of little bearing cannot grasp. It's only by wildest chance that I know what Guernica represents, after all.

Finally (there's much more, but I don't want to quote the whole thing):

On the eve of war
My dog eats pancakes
And I make love in the rain

On the eve of war
The poem may yet become history
And postpone the eve of war

What does the pancake-eating dog mean, do you suppose? Is it an allusion to the homely, quotidian aspects of life, which continue even though we are on War's Eve? Or do the pancakes represent the flattened Iraqis, eaten by the dogs of war (note: dogs reviled in Arab society) while rich Americans enjoy their pleasures in the (petro-)rain?

You see, with bad poetry, any half-assed interpretation is as good as any another. Again, I mourn that I did not have the foresight to go into humanities rather than science. In science the notions of correct and incorrect are much more constrained. Niles pointed out that I'd have to pander to the dominant paradigm in order to win fame in the humanities, but he overestimates my sense of integrity. If I'm going to pine after respect cheaply and talentlessly won, it's not going to trouble me that I'll have to pander to do it.

I actually like the final stanza, although it is immodest of a poem (especially a bad one, I must say) to hope that it will turn history's path. You'll note that the author inadvertantly slips the truth---that stopping the war will not avert it, but only postpone it. Can it be postponed indefinitely? And if not, what will be the cost when it finally comes?

In truth, I wouldn't know whether this poem was specifically anti-war except for the lines about capital gain and OIL! Otherwise, though, the poem is basically saying "war is terrible and people get killed, so it mustn't be entered into lightly", for which information, thank you, Professor Poet, but I believe we were already apprised of these facts. The shuttle Columbia is alluded to (twice), for no obvious reason, as are Salvadorans, Nigerians, Palestians, Jews, and Eminem.

Poets certainly do seem to be taken with themselves, and the power of poetry to express Deep Truths; so are a lot of other people. Therefore I think it's not too much to ask that poetry be somehow special, that it be more than a bunch of incongruent sentence fragments slapped together and invested with meaning, man, that the proles cannot grasp. At least, if it is to be prominently sited in major newspapers, it should be.

For those wondering what, exactly, would be my idea of a collection of sentence fragments exceptional enough to call itself "poetry", I'll point out that the name of this site---The Machinery of Night (in case it wasn't obvious)---is taken from a line in Ginsberg's Howl:

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical
naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an
angry fix, angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to
the starry dynamo in the machinery of night...

Howl goes on from there, and on and on. I don't like this poem. It doesn't have rhyme or meter, does not sound beautiful (or crunchy, metallic, etc) when read aloud, but by god it has imagery enough for a thousand modern "poems":

...who bared their brains to Heaven under the El and saw Mohammedan angels staggering on tenement roofs illuminated...

...incomparable blind streets of shuddering cloud and lightning in the mind leaping toward poles of Canada & Paterson, illuminating all the motionless world of Time in between...

...listening to the crack of doom on the hydrogen jukebox...

...who howled on their knees in the subway and were dragged off the roof waving genitals and manuscripts...

And that's just until I got bored. It gets a bit overwrought and tedious after a while, and your pleasure in it is proportional to your tolerance for scenes of drug-induced hallucinations and sex. Mine's fairly low. I am a prude.


...burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night...

always stands my hair on end.

Let's see the pancake-eating dogs and rain-buoyed tire irons do that.