Posts Tagged ‘Galapagos’

Seven Ways of Looking at a Line of Poetry

November 6, 2016

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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.

Art inevitably pops up wherever you have people and it’s our sacred duty to make it available to our children. (But this isn’t another jeremiad about those sick, sad losers who think our children are merely their test scores).

by Richard W. Bray

*Ian Tattersall, Masters of the Planet

Voices and Voices

March 5, 2016

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There was no shutting them down! Whether we had anything for them to do or not, they ran all the time! And were they ever loud! Oh, God, were they ever loud.

—Kurt Vonnegut
, Galapagos

People and people screaming with need
Their dreams and desires and egos to feed
Attacking my senses and making me bleed

Bloody compassion fills me inside
My fragile existence cannot abide
I’ll dig me a hole where I can hide

But even alone I can’t clear my head
Voices and voices of anguish and dread
Rattle the skull until we are dead

by Richard W. Bray

Too Big for Our Own Good: Kurt Vonnegut on the Human Brain

February 8, 2015

 

So far the human episode has been a brief chapter in the story of life on Earth—about two hundred thousand years.  That’s not very long compared to the dung beetles who feed on rhinoceros droppings, which are the hearty descendants of bugs that were frolicking in dinosaur poop at least forty million years ago.  And sharks have been around for over 400 Million years.

Although it’s fun to fantasize about a time long ago when giant monsters roamed the earth, it’s much more painful to imagine a point in the future when Mother Nature says: “Time’s up, humans.  You had your chance, but you blew it.”   Indeed, as the poet Richard Wilbur notes, it’s almost impossible to imagine a future on this planet without us:

Nor shall you scare us with talk of the death of the race.
How should we dream of this place without us?—

The novel Galapagos by Kurt Vonnegut describes a future where evolution has altered humanity beyond recognition.  A million years hence, we have mutated into a furry, seal-like creature with flippers and a much smaller brain encased in a “streamlined skull.”  Our future progeny is no longer equipped to build skyscrapers or compose Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.  And these new creatures exhibit an immense moral superiority over modern-day humans because they lack the intellectual and physical tools to harm one another on a grand scale.  Besides, “how could you ever hold somebody in bondage with nothing but your flippers and your mouth?”

According to the Ghost of Leon Trout, the narrator of Galapagos who witnesses the million-year transformation of our species, this reduction of endowment is all for the better because humans

back then had a brain weighing about three kilograms!  There was no end to the evil schemes that a thought machine that oversized couldn’t imagine and execute.

Trout’s Ghost concludes that the human brain “is much too big to be practical.”  A practical brain would never “divert” people from “the main business of life by the hobgoblins of opinion.” The main business of life, of course, is survival and procreation.  Yet by some freak of evolution, human beings are capable of so much more.

Trout’s Ghost laments how our “overelaborate nervous circuitry” is responsible “for the evils we [are] seeing or hearing about simply everywhere.”  Furthermore, such self-inflicted horrors as war, famine, slavery, and genocide are “as purely a product of oversized brains as Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.”

Trout’s ghost confides that, “A million years later, I feel like apologizing for the human race.”  He also describes “the most diabolical aspect” of the oversized human brain:

They would tell their owners, in effect, “Here is a crazy thing we could actually do.”….And then, as though in trances, the people would really do it—have slaves fight each other to the death in the Colosseum, or 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, or to blow up whole cities, and on and on.”

Here’s another disadvantage to having too much brain power for our own good:

Big brains back then were not only capable of being cruel for the sake of cruelty.  They could also feel all sorts of pain to which lower animals were entirely insensitive.

Today the “mass of mankind” is “quietly desperate” because “the infernal computers inside their skulls [are] incapable of idleness.”  The constant din of thought inside our brains that people must bear is akin to having “Ghetto blasters inside our heads.” And there is

no shutting them down! Whether we had anything for them to do or not, they ran “All the time!  And were they ever loud!  Oh, God, were they ever loud.”

Like Brick in Tennessee in Williams’ “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” humanity craves to hear a “click in the head” which renders life “peaceful.” In Galapagos, Kurt Vonnegut suggests an evolutionary solution to the plight which ails us.  And perhaps it is the most plausible solution.  As Emily Dickinson notes

Narcotics cannot still the Tooth That nibbles at the soul

by Richard W. Bray