Posts Tagged ‘anthropology’

Seven Ways of Looking at a Line of Poetry

November 6, 2016


Anthropologists tell us* that “some time between 75 thousand and 60 thousand years ago” homo sapiens underwent a remarkable change (194). This event occurred “somewhere on the African continent (most likely somewhere in its eastern or southwestern regions)” (193). Suddenly, our already impressive brains developed the capacity for symbolic thought. Our ancestors, who heretofore merely consisted of roving bands of uppidy carnivorous weapon-wielding bipeds, were transformed into artists, shamans, scientists, and engineers. World-domination was now only a matter of time.

These new-and-improved brains rendered representational art, handicraft, metaphor, music, dance, language and poetry essential to our existence.

As Kurt Vonnegut notes, this spectacular transformation gave us not only the capacity and the inclination to produce Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony; it also gave us the capacity and the inclination to

burn people alive in the public square for holding opinions which were locally unpopular, or build factories whose only purpose was to kill people in industrial quantities.

I’m seriously into words. I have argued that it’s ultimately impossible to separate language from poetry because our ancestors began playing with words as soon as they began to invent them. Uttered phonemes are automatically poetic just like every basket and every arrowhead homo sapiens produce is a work of art.

Death and disruption at an early age hurt Theodore Roethke into poetry, as W. H. Auden suggests “mad Ireland” hurt W.B. Yeats into poetry. And oh what prodigious poetry Roethke did make! I’m going to spend a little bit of time talking about how to say the third line of a villanelle Roethke wrote called “The Waking” because my brain spends a lot of time thinking about such things.

A villanelle is a nineteen-line Italian form in which the first and third lines are each repeated three times. (I’ve written a few of them myself.) (A smartass once wrote on this blog that “the cool thing about villanelles is that once you’ve written the first three lines, you’re 42% finished.”)

Here’s the first stanza of Roethke’s “The Waking.”

I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I feel my fate in what I cannot fear.
I learn by going where I have to go.

I told you the dude was prodigious, right? Anyhow, the first and third lines of a good villanelle must be firm and flexible as much heavy lifting is expected of them. Here are some examples:

Time will say nothing but I told you so.

(First line of Auden’s “If I Could tell You”)

(I think I made you up inside my head.)
(Third Line of Sylvia Plath’s “Mad Girl’s Love Song”)

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

(Third Line of Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night”)

Now back to “The Waking.” If a reader must read the same lines four times in a nineteen-line poem, the poet should provide her with options about which words to stress. Here are seven ways to say line three of “The Waking”:

#1 I learn by going where I have to go

Learning is about destination rather than free will.

#2 I learn by going where I have to go

The essential lesson is in the destination

#3 I learn by going (pause) where I have to go

The journey, so to speak, is the destination.

#4 I learn by going where I have to go

The lesson is in the doing.

#5 I learn by going where I have to go

The important thing is that the experience is educational.

#6 I learn by going where I have to go.

It’s imperative to take a certain route that is nonetheless educational.

#7 I learn by going where I have to go.

I find out what I’m supposed to do only by doing it.

by Richard W. Bray

*Ian Tattersall, Masters of the Planet

Men and Sports

January 22, 2012

Men have an innate desire to celebrate athletic achievement. This is probably because Our Hunting Fathers relied upon their athletic prowess for survival, and it is no surprise that the best hunters and warriors are revered and rewarded in nomadic societies and lionized in folklore. Anthropology is the field which best explains why modern men are hardwired to want to be like Mike.

Professional sports–grown men playing children’s games in public for money—is a multibillion dollar obsession in this country. (Of course, this includes Division One college football and basketball—a malignant growth on our system of higher education, but that article has already been written.) Millions of American males (myself included) spend an absurd amount of time not merely witnessing this grand spectacle, but talking about it, reading about it, and digesting hours of sports radio and television shows.

Sports media is ultimately a discussion about morality. This is acutely apparent on sports talk radio, a large and growing presence in radio markets large and small. And sports talk radio is largely a debate about what constitutes manhood. (The overwhelming majority of the hosts and callers are male, and on the rare occasions when women’s sports are discussed, they are often held up for ridicule.) No matter what the subject, high salaries, steroids, what it takes to be a champion—it’s about what type of men these athletes are. The hosts and callers argue endlessly about whether particular athletes are winners, whiners, losers, or stand up guys.

But athletic competitions are not morality plays. Despite our inherent tendency to assign virtue to the victors, when one team defeats another on the sporting green, it signifies little about the actual character of the men involved. But something inside us wants to believe that the winners are more virtuous, or that they practiced harder, or that they are simply better people who deserved to win.

Sadly, however, grace under pressure in the athletic realm has no correlation to one’s behavior in real life. This is confirmed by a cursory look at the Jurisprudence section of the local sports page. The NFL is our favorite sport by far despite the frequency with which the exalted men who play professional football are being arrested for all manner of malfeasance, including rape, murder, assault, and drunken driving. (For a literary example of this phenomenon, see John Updike’s novel Rabbit Run. Like so many real life jocks, Rabbit Angstrom is a winner on the basketball court but a louse and a loser in his personal life who abandons his pregnant young wife and calls her a mutt).

When it comes to sports, people are inclined to ignore one of life’s basic lessons: an unexplainable alchemy of talent, luck, and preparation add up to worldly success. The winners are not necessarily superior to the losers, and Jesus doesn’t love them any better than He loves anyone else.

Hollywood understands all this
. Witness the perpetual onslaught of tedious formulaic movies where our hard-working and virtuous hero almost always wins. Movies like Rocky and The Karate Kid are more cliche than storytelling, where lovable underdogs prevail against opponents who are simply depraved monsters.

There are many outstanding sports movies which defy and often even ridicule our expectations, including Dodgeball, Happy Gilmore, CaddyShack, Raging Bull, White Men Can’t Jump, Eight Men Out, Moneyball, North Dallas Forty, Million Dollar Baby and Friday Night Lights.

by Richard W. Bray