Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Poetry - a treatise

It is a favorite past time of my in laws to recite poetry.  After a few shots, a discussion of the current state of affairs in the US, Israel, and all former USSR countries, and proper ways to do "trick-shots" (such as putting the shot glass in the bend of your elbow), a young Russian's fancy turns to love, and romantic poetry begins to be spouted.

A constant favorite is the snippet from Eugene Onegin "I loved you once", translated in English below for those of you who are link-o-phobic.
I loved you once: perhaps that love has yet
To die down thoroughly within my soul;
But let it not dismay you any longer;
I have no wish to cause you any sorrow.
I loved you wordlessly, without a hope,
By shyness tortured, or by jealousy.
I loved you with such tenderness and candor
And pray God grants you to be loved that way again.
I memorized the first three lines (in Russian, mind you) just by sheer contact-repetition.  Every once in a while, they will pull out a Lermontov, or if someone's feeling especially saucy, they'll break out the Bunin.

This gets me thinking, after my head clears from all the vodka/Romanticism, about why it is that in America, we don't pay nearly as much attention to poetry as the Russians do.  My 6 year old nephew (who, to be clear, has Russian parents) is already memorizing Pushkin, and it's treated as if it's completely natural, and not creepy at all.

The only poem I've ever memorized in my life is a William Carlos Williams poem, "Red Wheelbarrow" (cut/pasted below).  This is because he obviously had twitter's character limit in mind when writing the poem.  This helps with memorization

so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
Blogger's note - immediately after this, there was originally a whole bunch of really great and funny stuff that I was particularly proud of...but somehow it disappeared into the belly of the Blogger Beast. What follows is a poor man's attempt to recreate what was once a brush with genius, but is now just figurative blog fodder.

That poem is nice and all - gives a great perspective, and brings attention to blah blah blah, barfidy puke-hurl.  But it's vastly different from the poems in the Russian repertoire.  Why is it, though, that I've only ever memorized one poem?  Most likely because poems are stupid.  But it is also probable that my high school education came into play a little bit.  My teacher would introduce poems to us that made very little sense, and offer very little explanation as to what the poet was trying to say.  This led to the assumption  discovery that most poets end up adhering to the following formula when developing their "poems":

First, decide the tone of your poem, happy or sad.  Happy poems are boring, so it's best to choose sad poems.  Then string together a list of random and infrequently used words in such a way as they are related in a coherent fashion but just mysterious enough to cripple any true meaning. The more infrequently used, the better.  Observe the following stanza from a poem:

Parched and posted atop the pugilistic rampart
The mockingbird does not caw
Misogynistic hands grip the beleaguered bird's heart
To bring forth guilt back into its gaping maw

Brilliant, you say?  Perhaps too brilliant?  A great rhyming scheme mixed with a bit of alliteration?  Did you catch the deeper meaning of the word "Misogynistic"?  Did you go back and read it more than once?  I greatly apologize if you did, because I literally just wrote it in a matter of a few seconds.

This, to me, has become the problem with poetry.  It's almost like a language that has been developed by crazy hipsters to differentiate themselves from everyone else, thus making sure that they retain their elite and esoteric status as hipsters.  So is this the problem?  Is this why nobody likes poetry?

Or is it due to a flaw in our educational system?  Enlisting those who cannot discuss the subject properly could result in generations of Americans who just simply do not get it because they were never taught HOW to get it.

And as a final possibility, could it be that it's a more systemic flaw in our culture that while we can sit long enough to read W.C.W., we can't sit around long enough to extract that he's trying to bring focus to an under-appreciated object, and show us that even the most overlooked things can be objects of adoration.

Not unlike a good poem, perhaps?  Psh, if that were true, there'd be a movie about the stupid wheelbarrow.  And an action figure.

I realize i'm generalizing here, because there are plenty of people who like poetry.  But let's face it.  They're in the minority.  Because honestly?  Poetry's dumb.

1 comment:

  1. I have memorized more poems in German than in English. I'm not really sure what this says.


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