Archive for November, 2011

The Road Forks: Song This Way and Poem That Way

The tradition of poetry derives from music and oral performance harking back to the bards of Greece and the medieval minstrels. Ballads through the ages have been collected and published to be read. Yet in the twentieth century poetry in the popular mind resides in song lyrics, Broadway musicals, or perhaps in the hit songs of Bob Dylan.  Songs are the closest that most people ever come to poetry today.

But that is not a bad place to start. It is in fact where my classmates and I started in our methods in education course. We used Beatles’ song lyrics to introduce our unit on poetry. T.S Eliot still had the audacity to title his famous poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Don’t tell me that the lines: “In the room the women come and go\Talking of Michelangelo” and “I grow old . . . I grow old . . .\I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled” do not replay in the mind like a song lyric.

I have always contended that good poetry must have musicality; the traditional devices of poetry–rhythm, rhyme, alliteration, assonance, onomatopoeia, refrains, etc.–are used to create it. Walt Whitman’s poetry has musicality because he makes extensive use of the rhythm created by repetition of grammatical structure in phrases and clauses of the same cadence.

In his new book Finishing the Hat: Collected Lyrics (1954-1981) Stephen Sondheim asserts that his lyrics are not poems and that songs and poems are not the same. I beg to differ with him. Good poems can be sung and composers have often set them to music. Others support Sondheim’s contention, saying poetry today is of the intellect and songs are of the emotions, as if never the twain shall meet.  Commonly, poets the likes of William Blake in his Songs of Innocence and Experience and of audacious Whitman in his “Song of Myself” boldly proclaimed the relationship of song to poem. Not many do so today. I recall one of my poems I ironically titled “A Song to End all Songs of Love.” My poem “Song of Hononegah” was adapted as part of Fred M. Hubbell’s choral work Sinnissippi Saga, which was performed by the Community Choral and Concert Choir on April 22, 1992, in Rockford, IL. Edith Sitwell in 1922 attempted to reclaim poetry’s birthright with Façade, a collection of poems that the British composer William Walton set to music.

As long as much of modern poetry remains unmusical, academic, and obscure most of us will continue to satisfy an innate desire for poetic language with song lyrics. And that is fine with me. But I must also reassert that the best of the world’s poetry of necessity is inherently musical. The two paths have not diverged in the woods. It is primarily the academic poet who has diverged from poetry’s roots in song and choral presentation.

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Does Your Child Play Inside More Than Outside?

My collection Playground was based on the perception that my generation growing up in the 1950’s and 1960’s, even if they were not raised on a farm, played outdoors more than the generations that came after them. I have since learned that my assumption has been subjected to research and has been the topic for other writers. While traveling this summer, I happened upon a book title that immediately caught my attention in the Mt. Rushmore gift shop. I scooped up the book and bought it.

I recommend that anyone with young children or grandchildren read Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder by Richard Louv. Well, everyone should read it, for anyone can take a child for a walk in the woods. Published in 2008, this book gives ample examples of how the intelligence, the physical and emotional health, the imagination and development of a child’s brain are enhanced with free play and exploration of the outdoors. Even autistic and ADHD children improve with exposure to nature. That is not to say there is something wrong with organized outdoor activity such as soccer, but the freedom for a child to explore on his own is better. The child’s problem-solving ability and self-confidence grow as he builds tree houses, finds secret places for solitude and contemplation, catches tadpoles, or observes for hours caterpillars in the grass. I think nature-deficit disorder is a real phenomena when children, if they explore nature at all, would rather do it on a dune buggy or ATV, or when given the choice to play a computer game or go fishing, they choose to stay indoors and play an electronic game.

This, of course, is not true of all children, but the trend definitely is there.  For example, I live in rural Montana with no lack of nature to explore. A mile down the road, our neighbor with a fifteen-year old son could not persuade him to go fishing with him and my husband, saying his son always prefers to stay inside with his computer games, which the boy always brings to their mountain vacation home.

That is not to say that computer technology does not have value. If I were raising children today, I would reserve introduction of the computer as an educational tool to the child until the pre-teen years. I would restrict the amount of television-watching, and horror of horrors, never put a television in a child’s bedroom or computer for that matter.  Granted this would be difficult. Parents are always bucking the trends and the latest gadget that the marketers are promoting. I would certainly try to buy imaginative toys–dump trucks for kids to play in the dirt again, ice skates and bicycles–anything to get them off the sofa and playing outside.

The nation knows we are faced with a huge child obesity problem. The overweight child was so rare in my childhood as to be an oddity. That poor child was noticed as not being the norm. Now that overweight child has plenty company so as not to feel different. In addition to singling out the rise of technology and around-the-clock television as contributors to nature-deficit disorder, Richard Louv in his book recognizes that fear is also a factor.  Because of child predators, parents do not want their children to wander far from home. They want to know where they are every minute of the day. They drive or walk them to school. I remember walking miles by myself. No parent accompanied me to meet a school bus. As long as we were home before dark, parents did not worry. Louv suggests we teach children the adult behaviors to beware of, rather than instill fear of all strange adults.

As I thought about Louv’s exposition of nature-deficit disorder, another component of this trend came to mind, which he did not mention. Americans have become accustomed to extremely large houses considering that the average size of families have shrunk. My parents raised four children in a house less than 1000 square feet and with one bathroom. Think of a couple raising one or two children in a 3500 square foot house with 4 or 5 bedrooms and 2 or 3 bathrooms. Each child has a bedroom of his own; four decades ago usually the girls shared one room and the boys another. There are places to hide in today’s monstrous house.  Why play outside when a child has a private world inside? When houses were smaller, going outside to play was an attractive alternative. The outdoors was a great get-away where we could breathe freely and create our universe. When mother said “Go outside and play,” we were happy to get out of her hair in a flash.  As in all social changes more than one component enters into the equation.

In the poems in Playground written over the course of 2009-2010, I take a look at those mainly outdoor activities and crude non-electronic toys that furnished the fuel for a childhood rich in imaginative life and physical exercise without the sedentary play and visual screen imagery that children get pre-packaged so often for them today. I put myself in the camp that wants to restore mud pies, finger paints, lightning bug catching, and tree houses (among other things) to childhood.  At the minimum, I want the pendulum to swing back on the side of children playing outside more than they play inside. Unfortunately, by all studies today, the time children spend playing inside far exceeds outdoor activity whether they live in the town or in the country.

Ahab’s Wife, or the Star-Gazer by Sena Jeter Naslund

The scope of this novel is as vast as the ocean and as immense as the night sky the main character Una Spenser contemplates from the Lighthouse tower. From two short references in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, one at the beginning in Chapter 16 “The Ship” and again at the end in Chapter 132 “The Symphony,” Naslund creates her novel in which Ahab’s wife narrates in first person how she came to live in Nantucket and marry the old sea captain.  And what a marvelous yarn it is, showing how great literature inspires other great books.  In choosing to name her heroine Una from Edmund’s Spencer’s The Faerie Queene, Naslund makes clear she intends to write a book of epic proportions. And she does. The style, the language, the poetic grandeur, the seriousness of the topic, Una’s epic voyage and return to Nantucket all contribute to this aim.  She succeeds so well that in my mind she has written a book as grand as Moby Dick and as distinctively American in its range.

The question arises whether the reading of Ahab’s Wife can or should be tackled without first reading Melville’s classic of American literature. Naslund’s  novel can be enjoyed and her message understood without having read Melville’s Moby Dick, or The White Whale, but much of the nuance and grandeur of Ahab’s Wife will be lost. This was no problem for me, because I am one of those strange birds who was carried away on a sea of imagination reading Moby Dick, not once but several times, while others only read it because it was an assigned book in a course, and then found it too ponderous to bear.  Moby Dick was not even a popular book in its day; its only been rediscovered by literary types in the twentieth century.  I first read Ahab’s Wife not long after the paperback edition came out in 2000.  Now upon the second reading I am still swept away by the power of Una’s voice telling her story.

Naslund patterns her book in many ways on Moby Dick. Both books begin with inscriptions; both have subtitles respectively the star-gazer and the white whale; both name the book’s chapters as well as numbering them. Naslund takes characters and events from Melville’s novel but also is wonderfully inventive in the creation of new characters and situations, bringing in the escaped slave Susan, the dwarf slave hunter David Poland, and a cast of other intriguing characters. In addition, Una is developed as the female counterpart of Ahab’s rebellious, defiant nature; but instead of being cast down into revenge and bitterness by the vicissitudes of life, Una’s spirit soars to embrace the universe and the power of love to heal all wounds. Both novels wrestle with the issue of predestination versus the will to choose the course of one’s life. At one point in the book, Una muses: “Is our life determined for us, or do we choose? Some of both–the answer came clear and simple to my mind.”

The depth and expanse of Ahab’s Wife astound. This is definitely a literary novel that subsumes a knowledge of American literature and history. Familiarity with these subjects certainly enhances the reading. The themes touch upon all the eternal questions not only of philosophy, but the story treats of that defining period in American history when the incompatibility of the institution of slavery with liberty, equality, and justice become insupportable. It is not a coincidence that slavery, the abolitionist movement, and such historical figures as Emerson, Margaret Fuller and Frederick Douglas are woven into Una’s story. The fight for women’s equality grew alongside the abolitionist movement. It is no coincidence that Una repeatedly finds solace and consolation in the company of female friends and relatives. Una carries the burden of good and evil; she has committed a heinous sin in order to survive, but she does not let guilt subdue her indomitable will. Unlike Ahab, she does not see nature as a malevolent force, even as many Puritans did, for she tells her friend Giles that the wind has no volition and advises Ahab to forgive the whale for taking his leg because it had no evil intent.  Through the novel other characters reveal their dark secrets, their sins to her; she listens and knows that she carries one too. She forgives them as she has forgiven herself.

Passage after passage in this novel illuminates, scintillates and delights as only highly charged poetic language can. Because Naslund writes so poetically–her book brims with symbolically evocative flights of prose–I searched for poetry books she may have published and was surprised that I found none.  In the following passage, a sample of her poetical language, Una describes ships in New Bedford harbor:

When the Camel came into New Bedford port, I was swept with sorrow for the forests, for here, it seemed, in the multitudinous masts of ships, stood all the straightest, tallest, most majestic trunks of North America. But their branches were all broken off and stripped away, their roots planted only in the barren pots of boats. Sails might have suggested the cloak of leaf-filled branches, but sails were furled, and the nakedness of the timbers stood in jumbled display. The standing rigging was in place, to be sure, but would you drape the mighty spine of a tree in cobwebs and call it clothed? Bare as crucifixes, the ships at rest seemed nothing like the unfurled fairy-swans that skimmed the oceans.

Is there always, under the glory of white wings and graceful speed, the scaffolding of a cross? This is not a Christian question but one applicable to India and China and Africa. If you meet a woman of whatever complexion who sails her life with strength and grace and assurance, talk to her! And what you will find is that there has been a suffering, that at some time she has left herself for hanging dead.

The voice of Una in Ahab’s Wife exactly suits an independent, free-thinking woman at mid-nineteenth century.  Her Quaker mother in their Kentucky cabin has read her the great romantic poets–Wordsworth, Byron, Keats, and Shelley. She has learned the Bible from her father who has been driven mad by the vengeful Old Testament God the Father, that Una soundly rejects. Madness is a motif throughout the novel and Ahab is not the only one to be crazed by a fixed, unbending idea. Her friends, Giles and Kit, succumb to madness in their own way.  Ahab’s wife, the mother-goddess figure who embraces the light, wills not to go mad.

And that familiar voice at the beginning of Moby Dick pronouncing “Call me Ishmael” makes his way into Una’s tale at the end, adding one more delight when I think Una’s narration has fully sated my appetite for rich literature.  It seems the right note on which to end her story, with both narrators, Ishmael of Moby Dick and Una Spenser of Ahab’s Wife–two survivors–meeting and writing their stories together on Nantucket Island.  I say this novel will endure alongside the novel that inspired it.  Ahab’s Wife is one of those memorable books that will remain on my shelf until some unfortunate has to come and clean out my house after I am dead.