JUST RHYME PLATO WITH POTATO: THE EPIGRAM

Lyric poetry was born from graffiti of Classical Greece.

Lyric poetry was spawned by the epigram, and concision, the memorable, the august, the mournful, inhabited the lyric soul by necessity, due in large part to the physical atmosphere surrounding the funerary monuments upon which epigrams were inscribed.

Ekphrasis lives in the epigram: its meaning, ‘to write on,’ to physically inscribe, chimes with ‘to write on (about) someone or something.  The surface, as much as the subject, determines its source.

A rhyme, a couplet, is a great way to be brief and memorable:

Go tell the Spartans, passerby,
That here, obedient to their laws, we lie.

Inscribed on a monument to the Greco-Persian wars by Simonides (b. 556 BC), this is a war poem, just as much as the Iliad is.

Let’s face it: everyone wants to write something that is remembered.  You might write an epic, and one line of it is recalled; or you might write one memorable epigram among thousands; in either case it’s an epic task.

But it doesn’t have to rhyme; brevity is all.

Pound’s “make it new,” (1934) a stupid phrase, but one, nonetheless, that became famous, is a mere 9 letters in length, and is beaten out only by the famous, “Odi et amo,” (I hate and love) by Catullus, which is only 8 letters.

Since life is short, a short poem can be successful for that very reason; think of the popular elegiac trope, ‘oh life is short! drink today!’ as symposium and mournfulness mingles.

The Romans brought satire and obscenity to the august Greek epigram, and the Roman poet Martial (40 AD) is known as the “original insult comic:”

Long poems can have unified strength,
But shit, your couplet, Cosconi, has too much length.

This critical spirit, alive to measurement and unity, lived in all eras of poetry, from Ancient to Romantic, until it died in the looseness of the modern era.

Shakespeare’s works are bursting with epigrams:

For as the sun is daily new and old,
So is my love still telling what is told.

One of our favorite epigrams is Pope’s

I am His Highness’ dog at Kew.
Pray tell me sir, whose dog are you?

And William Blake has many wonderful ones:

A truth that’s told with bad intent
Beats all the lies you can invent

The questioner, who sits so sly,
Shall never know how to reply

If the sun and moon should doubt,
They’d immediately go out

Some are born to sweet delight
Some are born to endless night

We are led to believe a lie,
When we see not thro’ the eye

One simply cannot imagine any of these coming from the pen of a Jorie Graham or a John Ashbery.

Coleridge called the epigram a “dwarfish whole.”  The idea of the “whole” seems to be what irks the loose and open moderns.

The early 20th century had its wits—Dorothy Parker, J.V. Cunningham, Ogden Nash—but as we move closer to our era, compressed wit and wisdom seems to have eluded our poets.

John Crowe Ransom, another early 20th century writer who attempted to be witty,  wrote:

In all the good Greek of Plato
I lack my roast beef and potato.

But like “Make it new” and Williams’ silly wheel barrow, this has no wit whatsoever: Plato was the most lifestyle-conscious, political science, ‘meat-and-potatoes’ philosopher ever, a superficial view of his ‘forms,’ notwithstanding.

Just give us, “Little strokes fell great oaks” by Benjamin Franklin.  And writing epigrams of an afternoon, we believe even Scarriet can do better:

Hart Crane was totally insane.

Robert Lowell was a broken bowl.

Sylvia Plath fell victim to wrath.

Delmore Schwartz never wore shorts.

Appearance is all, even in the depths.

Just enough hunger prevents insanity.

Beautiful women are wrong in love and right in everything else.

Boredom is the devil’s only weapon.

Feminism wants one thing: freedom from love.

A woman is pretty until she is loved; then she is beautiful.

A woman is ambitious in love; when she is loved, cautious.

A man is cautious until he is loved; then he’s ambitious.

A man is beautiful when loving; when he is loved, pretty.

We have two choices in life: sleep or poetry.

Death has this advantage: it is the only thing that’s not complex.

There are 3 types of poets: One puts emotion in poems, one leaves it out; the genius does both.

Parent to child, lover to beloved want to be friends—but cannot.

Music exists for one reason: to add body to poetry.

The right context is just a way of saying the wrong context is no context at all.

Public speaking is the art of joking while serious.

Good sex for couples is based on one thing: whether it is before or after dinner.

Desire hopes; love knows.

Love can cool desire as it increases it.

Friendship is love’s runway: smooth on takeoff, rough on landing.

Nature’s not right just because the ingredients on the box are wrong.

Nature wishes to create us and kill us: people tend to do this, too.

Why is life tragic?  Nature wants more, humanity, less.

The endless dilemma: guilty for caring too much, guilty for caring too little.

All successful endeavors—moral or not—have one thing in common: the future.

Literature is politics with the politics put tastefully out of sight.

The greatest error the mind makes is thinking truth is for it—and not the heart.

Betrayal wounds hearts, but sensation kills more.

Depth is all, even on surfaces.

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TRAVIS NICHOLS WARNS: LOUSY POETS WANT TO EXPERIMENT ON OUR BRAINS!

Beside running Blog-Harriet into the ground, Travis “The Enforcer” Nichols has another gig writing scientific articles for The Huffington Post. 

The mission: Attempt to make really bad contemporary poetry mainstream.

Step One.   Find a fairly eclectic topic covered by the mainstream press.

Take it away, Travis:

As you read this, Dr. Jacopo Annese is slicing up a brain. Not just any brain, but the brain of Henry Molaison, a man famous for his inability to form new memories after he underwent brain surgery in the early 1950s. Dr. Annese, a San Diego scientist, is digging into Molaison’s gray matter with hopes of figuring out exactly how human memory works. The NYT reports that recordings of Molaison’s brain slices will “produce a searchable Google Earth-like map of the brain with which scientists expect to clarify the mystery of how and where memories are created–and how they are retrieved.”

“The NYT reports…”   Good job, Travis!  That’s good. “The NYT reports…”  I like that.   OK…you’ve found something about the brain.  Good.  Someone is “slicing up a brain.”   That’ll perk their interest. 

Step Two.  While no one is looking, change the topic to poetry.

So Dr. Annese and his compatriots are, in effect, plunging into the greatest poetic mystery of all time.

Yeaaaa  “…greatest poetic mystery of all time.”   Way to go!   

Step three.  After mentioning a few dead poets in a erudite manner, politely name-drop your contemporaries as much as possible.  It might prove helpful one day.

Memory–and the wonder and terror it inspires–has generated great poems from Simonides, famous for eulogizing ancient Greek nobility, to Coleridge, who longed for his faraway friends in “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison,” to the contemporary poets writing an “experiment in collective autobiography,” The Grand Piano. These poets–Ron Silliman,  Rae Armantrout,  Lyn Hejinian,  and Carla Harryman among them–have spent their careers using poetry to prod the brain in other areas besides just the comfortable spot where (to paraphrase Wordsworth) emotion is recollected in tranquility.

“…have spent their careers…”   Nice touch.  People will think you had no choice but to mention them in your article. 

Step Four.  Discuss the work of your contemporaries as if it’s new and important, even if it isn’t.

Poetry in this tradition–one that is less interested in telling stories and more interested in exploring how story-language works–attempts to make the emotion present in the reading experience. Tranquility can come later. They’re not re-telling memories in a poem (like the memory recounted in William Stafford’s much-anthologized “Traveling Through the Dark”, but rather using word combinations, sound patterns, and different types of sentences to engage a reader’s brain while he or she is reading (Bernadette Mayer‘s writing is a great example of this kind of thing). To varying degrees, these poets have delved into what literary critic Reuven Tsur has called Cognitive Poetics, a field of study that has taken “reader-response” theory to a whole other level.

For example:  “…using word combinations, sound patterns, and different types of sentences to engage a reader’s brain while he or she is reading…”  “…different types of sentences…”  Great!

Step Five.   By now, the only readers still with you are those contemporaries you’ve name-dropped.  So you might as well name-drop some more.

Tsur makes the case that certain sound patterns have inherent properties that fire up the “poetic” parts of the brain, and that by paying attention to those patterns we can read poetry in an entirely new way. A wave of contemporary poets–the Grand Piano folks as well as Clark Coolidge, Bhanu Kapil, Renee Gladman, Eric Baus,  Christian Bok,  and, in his way, Tao Lin–have taken up Tsur’s ideas about reading and used them in their writing. A “Cogntivie Poet” won’t simply say “When I first made out with so-and-so, I did the happy dance!” Rather, she will use word combinations that cause the attentive reader to feel, to create a new experience, a memory, by the act of reading. It will make the reader’s brain do the happy dance.

Step Six. It might make one or two people suspicious if you do all that name-dropping and don’t quote at least one bit of actual writing to demonstrate your thesis, so find a poem by someone hot and throw it out there.

Here’s how Bhanu Kapil handles a childhood memory in her poem “The House of Waters”:

Mud walls whose surfaces belonged to the plantar surfaces of human hands. I could see finger marks, whorls. Once, I was a living being, embellished with skin: fortunate and blighted in turns. I turned. In circles. In the adventure playground, which was concrete. When I fell, the nurse would daub me with yellow smears, that stang.

 “Mud walls.”  That’s good.   Now praise what you’ve just quoted and be sure to mention a dead poet in connection to it.

It’s heady stuff, and it follows in Gertrude Stein’s footsteps much more than Robert Frost’s.

Artsy-fartsy is the new brain science.

Step Seven. Finish up, lest a reader ask themselves what bad poetry has to do with the science of the brain.

It also can be full of messy failures that achieve nothing at all besides piles of linguistic gobbeldy-goo (it’s experimental, after all). For these reasons, only the most adventurous poetry readers have so far taken it up . This kind of poetry isn’t a comfort. Rather, it’s a challenge. It’s an experiment much like that of Dr. Annese, who, when he first sliced into H.M.’s brain uttered the quite expressive phrase, “Ah ha ha!”

“Ah ha ha!”  

Warn them, Travis, warn them!

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