Posts Tagged ‘Masters of the Planet’

Seven Ways of Looking at a Line of Poetry

November 6, 2016

zzwaking

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

Walking Makes Humans What We Are

June 12, 2016

WWHUNTERS

I have never hunted animals. And I used to wonder how hunters walking around lugging heavy guns could ever get close enough to their prey in order to shoot it. Most animals can easily smell/see/hear humans long before the hunters get into firing range and then they could simply run away. Meaty mammals tend to be much faster runners than humans. What I didn’t realize is that human beings are designed to walk and walk and walk until our prey is too exhausted to continue. Then we use our weapons to kill it. And then we cook it and eat it.

In Masters of the Planet, an excellent introduction to human evolution, Ian Tattersall describes how the ability to walk great distances was key to the hunting prowess of homo ergaster, “an extinct ancestral form on the evolutionary scale of the genus Homo” that “lived in eastern and southern Africa during the early Pleistocene, that is, between 1.8 million and 1.3 million years ago.” Tattersall explains that “although homo ergaster would hardly have been fast compared to four-legged predators, its newer slender hips and long legs would have made members of the species exemplary distance runners.”

This evolutionary innovation gives homo sapiens a huge advantage over our prey because, unlike humans, “most mammals do not have the capacity to shed the heat load acquired and generated during sustained activity in the tropic sun, except by pausing in the shade while it slowly dissipates, largely through panting.” That’s why hunters will eventually catch their prey.   “In the heat of the day, the human ability to simply keep going would have allowed these lucky bipeds to single out, say, an antelope, and to keep chasing it, until it fell from heat prostrations” Or we can just kill it with our weapons when we get close enough.

Our ancestors made the remarkable transition from prey to predator.  Human beings are designed to vanquish by walking and running after animals until we get close enough to kill them.  This evolutionary history remains a major component of our collective psyche whether we like it or not.  And we should never forget this, even in an age when, for most of us, meat comes from the back of the supermarket.

So, Aesop’s fable The Tortoise and the Hare, in addition to being a marvelous parable on the efficacy of slow and steady diligence, is also the true story of how Our Hunting Fathers survived. Human beings are designed to “simply keep going” and going and going.

And simply trudging along is how our species came to inhabit and dominate so much of the planet.

I’m really glad that I exist as a human being; I wouldn’t trade in this particular vehicle of consciousness for anything in the world.  But our evolutionary success has had ominous ramifications for many of our fellow inhabitants of planet Earth.

As novelist Kurt Vonnegut notes, the human tendency to simply keep on walking and consuming has a dark side:

humanity itself had become an unstoppable glacier made of hot meat, which ate up everything in sight and then made love, and then doubled in size again.

Soldiers drilling, refugees fleeing, shoppers shopping, children strolling to school. Walking. It’s what we do and it’s one of the most essential things that makes us who we are.

Final word to Fats Domino:

By Richard W. Bray