Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Aftermath


 This post gets a little cuss heavy in spots. Read on at your own risk.

I was set to thinking about the following poem the other day

"When the summer fields are mown,
When the birds are fledged and flown,
And the dry leaves strew the path;
With the falling of the snow,
With the cawing of the crow,
Once again the fields we mow
And gather in the aftermath.
 

Not the sweet, new grass with flowers
Is this harvesting of ours;
Not the upland clover bloom;
But the rowen mixed with weeds,
Tangled tufts from marsh and meads,
Where the poppy drops its seeds
In the silence and the gloom"



That's Henry Wordsworth Longfellow's "Aftermath."

I first encountered this poem in college a few years back and did not appreciate it. Now? I don't know what changed my mind, and I won't pretend it's a favorite, but something burr of it has apparently stuck with me since the last time I saw it. I'm not going to cut it to pieces in an attempt to figure out why, but I do have a kernel of an idea.

I'm one of those jerks who loves end rhyme. Love it. I hate poetry that doesn't have it. Most poetry these days doesn't have it. Guess what? I hate most poetry these days.

Before you begin passionately defending the choice not to rhyme, let me point out the word "most" in the previous paragraph. Stephen Crane is one of my favorite poets with stuff as simple as this ditty, the title of which is the first line.

"I saw a man pursuing the horizon;
 Round and round they sped.
I was disturbed at this;
I accosted the man.
"It is futile," I said,
"You can never-"

"You lie," he cried,
And ran on.

To complete the tangent, this one sticks out to me because I love stories of people zealously pursuing impossible goals. More satisfying to me to see just how big a dent an individual can put in the impossible than to see someone succeed at anything in particular. Call me the tragic/romantic type I guess.

It's one of a handful of non-rhyming poems I can remember. This is not solely bitching about quality, which is subjective, it's a problem inherent in a population with horrifically bad attention spans. And if you're like me, a weak memory to boot.

End rhyme is as much a mnemonic device as it is a stylistic choice. Maybe even moreso. How many of you read anything by Shel Silverstein when you were growing up?

"This bridge will only take you halfway there
To those mysterious lands you long to see:
Through gypsy camps and swirling Arab fairs
And moonlit woods where unicorns run free.
So come and walk awhile with me and share
The twisting trails and wondrous worlds I've known.
But this bridge will only take you halfway there--
The last few steps you'll have to take alone." 

It's not just random chance that so much children's poetry rhymes. We're operating under the assumption that it will help a small child to pay attention and to remember. Why should we assume that an adult would be any different? The treating of end rhyme as some kind of piddling or immature device is incredibly stupid. It reeks of the bullshit notion of "You're an adult now, you don't need it." As if actively paying attention were some kind of chore we need to take care of to enjoy poetry, or we don't deserve it.

"You're an adult now, be responsible and get your taxes done early."
Hardly anybody does.

"You're an adult now, you should eat your vegetables."
People don't. (Jay Leno doesn't)

"You should vacuum today."
Eh, nobody will notice if I let it wait till next Thursday.

"No, you really should vacuum today."
Hey, fuck you.

There is no other form of entertainment so pretentious that it would assume that it is fine as it is, that if you don't enjoy it, you have the problem. It doesn't need to alter itself to piddling things like "what people like." Can you imagine if television was like this? How about movies? I'd love to a version of, say, The Expendables where the audience is expected to sit still for a half hour and learn about the local government and politics of Small South American Island Land. As if the enjoyment we're supposed to derive from our entertainment (in any form) were a privilege? Fuck that.

And I know it's not as if poets around the turn of the century said to each other, "Man, people need to work for their goddamn poetry." They turned from rhyme for the same reason Ginsburg turned to drugs; a want/need to experiment with the art they were producing. Only now it's the standard. It pisses me off that we’ve nearly eliminated what was not only a nifty device in the poet’s toolbox, but also a  felt the need to turn our noses up at it. What might have been initially done as something to expand the bounds of poetry is now being used to restrict it, which is a damn shame.

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