My Own Little, Dystopia — Halloween Edition

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Real World 1

Adam’s curse: not death, but labor, the rudeness of the alarm, the digits glowing heartlessly: 5:55 AM.  Henry David Thoreau you ain’t:

We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn*, which does not forsake us in our soundest sleep.

                                                                                Walden, Chapter 2


*emphasis mine

No, you’re of this ilk:

Little is to be expected of the day, if it can be called a day, to which we are not awakened by our Genius, but by the mechanical nudgings of some servitor [buzz or ring or melliferous radio voice]. That man who does not believe each day contains an earlier, more sacred, and auroral hour than he has yet profaned, has despaired life, and is pursuing a descending and darkening way.

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the darkening way

You’re, let’s say, a resource teacher for severely mentally disabled students in Mississippi or South Carolina.  Cutbacks mean you’re working 1.25 jobs, that your free periods are long gone, that you’re lucky if you manage 20 minutes for lunch.  Although mandated by federal law, meetings concerning disabled children’s IEPs are virtually impossible to coordinate.  Having the required individuals free at the same time  – classroom teachers, speech therapists, school psychologists, and principals – is like trying to solve a Rubik’s cube while riding a roller coaster.  They – whoever they are (the top 1%? K-Street lobbyists?  Smiling State legislators? The voters? All /none /a combination of the above?) – whoever they are literally expect you somehow to do the impossible.

No, for you, the dawn doesn’t “awaken infinite expectations.”

roller-coaster-4

Ronald Reagan’s Body Lies A Mouldering in the Grave

Somehow the nation has elected a sociopath as president who once supported choice and wrote checks to Democratic candidates but who know seems hellbent on accelerating global warning.  Despite the historical lessons that trickle down economics doesn’t work and deregulation can cause financial meltdowns a la 2008, he is gutting environmental regulations and, aided and abetted by Republicans in Congress, has passed a tax cut for the 1% that has created a gargantuan budget deficit.

Despite the Romanesque Super Bowl Halftime extravaganzas, we don’t have enough money to repair aging bridges, to hire fireman, much less to provide healthcare for our children.

The Real World 2

Meanwhile, back in Mississippi or South Carolina in a public school that possesses all the aesthetic warmth of a juvenile detention center, emails sprout in your in-box like the heads of a hydra – each expecting a prompt reply, each unanswered one burrowing into your brain like parasites, calcifying the neurons, overloading the circuitry, shutting it down – only to snap you awake at 3:41 A.M!

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Insomnia II by Jeffrey Batchelor

Where Have You Gone, Franz Kafka, a Lonely World . . .

Given the material richness of the USA, why are so many people so dissatisfied with contemporary American life?

Wordsworth posits one answer:

THE world is too much with us; late and soon,

Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:

Little we see in Nature that is ours;

We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!

We live in a world where increasingly our time is devoured by abstractions – meetings that go nowhere, data demanding input, those hydra-headed emails, texts from acquaintances that we glance at and ignore.

A sordid boon indeed.

Of course, Franz Kafka’s Gregor Samsa is the archetype of the harried worker, so caught up in the intricacies of his meaningless job that the first thing he thinks of when he discovers that he has been transformed into a giant insect is that it will be almost impossible to negotiate the public transportation that takes him to his office.  He, that “gigantic vermin,” should be this year’s top-selling Halloween costume.

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Real World 3

Leave School at 4:10 . . . pick up Abigail from DayCare . . . run in Publix to pick up supper  . . .   grab bills from the mailbox . . . get Abigail started on her homework . . . cycle through the voicemails . . . empty the dishwasher . . . think for a second about your ex . . . start supper  . . .  glance at Wolf Blizter’s head flickering on the screen . . . say grace . . . start the bath water . . . read Abigail a bedtime story . . . put off paying the bills . .

Sleep, that knitteth up the raveled sleep of care . . .

I WAKE and feel the fell of dark, not day.

What hours, O what black hoürs we have spent

This night! what sights you, heart, saw; ways you went!

And more must, in yet longer light’s delay.

With witness I speak this. But where I say

Hours I mean years, mean life. And my lament

Is cries countless, cries like dead letters sent

To dearest him that lives alas! away.

I am gall, I am heartburn. God’s most deep decree

Bitter would have me taste: my taste was me;

Bones built in me, flesh filled, blood brimmed the curse.

Selfyeast of spirit a dull dough sours. I see

The lost are like this, and their scourge to be

As I am mine, their sweating selves; but worse.

                                                Gerard Manley Hopkins

[cue magical laughter]

Happy Halloween!

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Keep Out, By Larkin

Harsh Discords and Unpleasing Sharps

a rather unflattering depiction of Pope

a rather unflattering depiction of Alexander Pope

Nowadays, Alexander Pope is so unpopular that the Robin Williams character in Dead Poets Society demanded his students rip Pope’s poems from their texts.   Certainly, the polished closed heroic couplets that flowed from Pope’s quill would make an incongruous soundtrack for what Eliot called “the immense panorama of futility and anarchy that is contemporary history.” Yep, the minuet has given way to slam dancing; fixed poetic forms have followed their cousin the typewriter into obsolescence.

Adieu. Toot-a-loo. Later.

Nevertheless, when it comes to the poetic confluence of sound and sense, very few poets can equal that four-foot six-inch Colossus, Alexander Pope, that satiric terror who immortalized his enemies in his verse.

Here he is on synthesizing sound with image and movement:

Tis not enough no Harshness gives Offence,

The Sound must seem an Echo to the Sense.

Soft is the Strain when Zephyr gently blows,

And the smooth Stream in smoother Numbers flows;

But when loud Surges lash the sounding Shore,

The hoarse, rough Verse shou’d like the Torrent roar.

When Ajax strives, some Rocks’ vast Weight to throw,

The Line too labours, and the Words move slow;

Note how via spondees he slows down the first half of line six, a lesson learned by Frost in his short poem “The Span of Life”:

The old dog barks backwards without getting up.

I can remember when he was a pup.

Not only do the four consecutive stressed beats of old dog barks back echo what a bark sounds like, but their slowness also reinforces the dog’s old age, his sluggishness. On the other hand, the opening anapests of line two suggest the bounding energy of a puppy. Here the sound does indeed “seem an echo to the sense.”

Ultimately, Pope’s dictum demands that when describing ugliness, poets need to make their poems sound ugly, so I thought it might be interesting to check out a few great poets depicting unpleasant images and to see how successful they are in creating dissonance.

Let’s start with Chaucer’s description of the Summoner from “The Prologue to the Canterbury Tales.”

Click the arrow for sound:

A SOMONOUR was ther with us in that place,
That hadde a fyr-reed cherubynnes face,
For saucefleem he was, with eyen narwe.
As hoot he was and lecherous as a sparwe,
With scalled browes blake, and piled berd,
Of his visage children were aferd.
Ther nas quyk-silver, lytarge, ne brymstoon,
Boras, ceruce, ne oille of tartre noon,
Ne oynement, that wolde clense and byte,
That hym myghte helpen of his whelkes white,
Nor of the knobbes sittynge on his chekes.
Wel loved he garleek, oynons, and eek lekes,
And for to drynken strong wyn, reed as blood;
Thanne wolde he speke and crie as he were wood.

Fast-forwarding 200 years, here’s Edmund Spenser’s personification of Gluttony from Canto 3 of Book 1 of The Faerie Queene (I’ve modernized the spelling):

And by his side rode loathsome Gluttony,

Deformed creature, on a filthy swine,

His belly up-blown with luxury

And also with fatness swollen were his eyes

And like a Crane his neck was long and fine

With which he swallowed up excessive feast,

For want whereof poor people did pine;

And all the way, most like a brutish beast,

He spewed up his gorge, that all did him detest.

Although Spenser succeeds in creating disgusting visual images, I’m not so sure he’s completely successful in creating sonic dissonance.  On the other hand, note the dissonance of these lines from Gerard Manley Hopkins describing Industrial England.

And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

Now that’s brilliantly untuneful. Read it out loud. The rhyme toil/soil is deliciously dissonant, and seared/bleared/smeared ranks up there in rankness as well.

I’ll leave you with Master Will piping some appropriately sour notes:

It is the lark that sings so out of tune

Straining harsh discords and unpleasing sharps.

That’s Juliet talking, lying in her bridal bed with Romeo, realizing that the bird singing outside her window is not, as she hoped, the nightingale.

Time to get up, star-crossed lovers, and march off to your doom.

No, that’s too dark of a way to end this post.

A Meditation on the Sound of Indecorous Words

Fellatio is a lovely word,

Operatic, in a way:

“The role of Fellatio will be sung

By Mr. Richard Cabot-Clay.”

*

Sodomy, on the other hand,

Lacks that light Italian ring:

Biblical, confessional,

A cry of pain! a serpent’s sting!

*

Cunnilingus could be a caliph,

Thundering across Arabian sands

Seeking long lost treasure troves

Guarded by Jinn in distant lands.

*

Fuck, of course, isn’t exotic.

Its harsh cough can cause vexation.

But when a car door smashes your fingers,

It sure beats fornication.

~Wesley Moore