Saturday, August 13, 2011
Sometimes I get to chewing on stuff I might maybe shouldn't have bitten off. Right now I'm square in the middle of an attempt to document Kurt Weill's influence on American Jazz--a daunting task if, like me, you lack a music education or any playing experience. All I know or suspect comes from reading and listening; serious, reasoned analysis takes me oh... so... long...
Rather than skip a week, I decided to post one of the better poems I've written over the years, a sort of "small tale" for a front-porch summer evening. As a lifelong admirer of Irish poetry, I consider William Butler Yeats and Seamus Heaney to be the two greatest poets of the 20th century--those writing in English anyway--each of them wonderfully "musical" in his own unique way, with Heaney still going strong. One day I read a quotation from Flaubert that bounced around in my brain until I wrote a response, a monologue poem perhaps prodded a bit by Heaney as he might have sounded in his younger days; more about that below.
* * * * *
“Language is like a cracked kettle on which we
beat out tunes for bears to dance to, while all
the time we long to move the stars to pity.”
I beat the cracked kettle
with a single stick of hazel
and listen as the thick syllables
run together. The chain pulls
this way and that, rattles
its own countermeasure, and hauls
me up tall, tipsy-toed to reel
Old Blarney in, drool and all.
Oh, he’s a handful,
he is: brown fur matted wet, male
razzle slapping his time, the usual
twinkle of trouble
in his one good eye... Bears
‘ll dance for you, and stand still,
shuffle and stall and sometimes scuffle
a bit; but Old Blarney’s a regular dazzle.
He rears back, high as Maeve Hill,
and sets his bear backyonders to heel-
an’-tow, and wriggle sure and all.
With his great paws flapping uncle,
his gap-tooth smile,
and his raggle-taggle tinker’s airs,
why, honey wouldn’t melt in his muzzle.
And thereby hangs a tale…
Or did. Just the last April
it was, at Derry Fair, and him on a publican’s table,
stepping out something fierce and typical.
Till he backstepped his backside full
in the barman’s electric fan, and fell
all over himself and nine pints with the froth of the pull
still on them—pell-mell and holywell
water, prancing and roaring and clanking, hide-hairs
a whirlwind behind him, parts of Old Blarney mill-
ing amongst us like the pieces of a puzzle
we couldn’t reassemble,
though we patched up his pride by wetting his whistle
with enough of the stout to befuddle
Cuchulain. He passed out in a puddle
of Guinness, still licking his chops, wishful
like... And now he just grins and bares it all.
Me? Oh, I’m just the bit of a shill.
Whilst Old Blarney struts his wonderful,
I blather and beat on this kettle
and watch his tin cup fill
till the stars come out all unawares.
* * * * *
Once I'd written the poem I began wondering what had prompted the garrulous Irishness and the bear-handler's tale-telling misdirection culminating at the end. What might "bear witness" to this example of poetic inspiration? After all, I'd merely opened up Flaubert's words to make room for a story that hoped to amuse the reader. Certainly my immersion in 20th century literature must have contributed, maybe starting with a kind of Yeatsian desire for elegance masked--in this instance--by bearish behavior:
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?
Theodore Roethke may be in there somewhere too, the big bearish poet shuffling around the University of Washington's Padelford Hall and mentoring a whole next generation of poets:
I need a place to sing, and dancing-room,
And I have made a promise to my ears
I'll sing and whistle romping with the bears...
Yes, I was dancing-mad, and how
That came to be the bears and Yeats would know.
And Heaney, who looked a bit bearish too in his younger days, and whose Northern Ireland accent and poems so syllable-precise with Irish diction might have somehow persuaded me to go for broke. His power is accumulative, but here's a poem in just four lines that hints at his style:
For beauty, say an ash-fork staked in peat,
Its long grains gathering to the gouged split;
A seasoned, unsleeved taker of the weather,
Where kesh and loaning finger out to heather.
Other possible sources could range from my teaching Faulkner's great classic, "The Bear," centerpiece of Go Down, Moses, to Randy Newman singing about a dancing bear on his first album... Clearly it becomes a mug's game, a muddle of influences, all of them or even none of them directly involved.
Maybe I just got inspired. Or maybe the poem is as lame as a battered bear-pit creature, not worth the time it's taken to tell all this.
(Wonderful color illustrations from Henry Climbs a Mountain by D.B. Johnson. Note the shackle on this nameless bear who's "riding" the underground railroad North.)