Wednesday, December 31, 2008

"The Loaves and Fishes"

is a bar outside of Bethlehem,
PA, where once your gin glass is filled,
it stays filled, like the clear, inexhaustible stuff
of the cosmos, and every swig begins
another big bang. Even the vermouth
grows from a single dewdrop and swirls
into another solar system, matter
never being destroyed, only . . . etcetera, etcetera.
So many universes down the smoky bar,
each held by its own little drunken deity,
who quaffs and holds forth on the meaning
of things, hoping the prophets
of the new olive-green planets
are taking all of this down.

William Greenway,
from Everywhere at Once.

Christmas is over, and the new year 2009 beckons. I didn't post this poem earlier, since it may be deemed as disrespectful to Christians, since it is secular, even though Christian references are made. In a way, too, I guess, posting this poem now adds perhaps a sobering dimension to the new year celebrations tonight, amidst the looming world economic crisis and events round the world that we might pause to think about, even as we celebrate.

PS. Apologies. My mistake in reading the poem, I read the location of Bethlehem, PA as a completely different place, as will be evident below. Perhaps my mind was dwelling very sadly on the other Bethlehem, not the one in Pennsylvania. PA, I mistook, off course, for the where the Bethlehem is. Anyways, most bits here I wrote are still, to a degree, relevant. It makes for more playful piece than I granted below.

The poem is set at a bar near Bethlehem, the birthplace for Jesus the Son of God for Christians, or as Muslims know him, the Prophet Isa. The name of the bar is Loaves and Fishes, a reference to one of the miracles Jesus performed, when taking five loaves of bread and two fish fed the thousands of people who gathered to listen to him preach. The food multiplied in the hands of people, as it was passed around, and everyone had their full. Jesus' feeding of the people satisfied their physical need for food, but in preaching to them, satisfied and nourished their spiritual hunger. In this poem, however, as Loaves and Fishes become the name of the bar, it secularly refers to the seeking of comfort or satisfaction in drinking.

Like Jesus' miracle, the drinks at the bar do not run out, but keep flowing, as the glasses stay filled (and refilled by presumably the bartenders there). Each drink is bottomless, and “each swig” “a big bang” - an explosion of the senses heightened and intensified. A perfect metaphor drawn from the secular and scientific theory of the formation of the universe, as opposed to God's creative powers. The swirling of vermouth in the glass becomes like the whirling of stardust from which the planets spring forth. As the drink goes down the throat, down into the body, it is as in physics, matter (or elements) that is not destroyed, but goes through the transference of energy, which in this case, bodily reactions and assimilation. The line “matter/ never being destroyed, only . . . etcetera, etcetera” not only captures this endless chain of energy or chemical changes, but how in drinking heavily, one drifts off and rambles on... One can see the wonderful aptness of the metaphors chosen and employed here in this poem, and how they are brought together (seeming) so effortlessly.

The “many universes down the smoky bar” points then to the patrons of the bar who in their solitary drinking are each in his own world (universe), each person a “little drunken deity” - a comically ironic phrase. The choice of the word “deity” instead of the word God is clearly a reference to Greek gods. So, like those gods, each sit lofty on 'Mount Olympus' drinking, frolicking and “holds forth” discourse on the “meaning/ of things”. Perhaps, “holds forth” is also a reference to the Greek philosophers like Socrates and Plato who held discourse on philosophical questions of things and their meaning. This again is ironic, for the men in their drunken state, but the use of enjambment where the line breaks from “meaning” “of things” puts on a strong emphasis on the word “meaning”. The pausing of reading makes us stop to rethink and reconsider why these men (perhaps, women too) are drunk, and why would they in such a state be talking about “meaning” and not other things else. There is now, maybe, a slight tinge of sadness here.

The word in the next line is “hoping” which suggests the need for something more which the drinking cannot quench or satisfy. They each hope, as 'gods' of their respective universe, that the prophets of a planet of people would listen to what they have to tell.and instruct. This is a desolate image of individuals whose hopes of being listened to, whose untold personal (sad) stories are left unheard. The “olive-green planets” mentioned adds yet another dimension, as is not just a reference to our green planet, as the word “olive” references the olive twig that the dove that Noah (for Christians) or Nuh (for Muslims) sent out after forty days of flood across the earth returned with. It was a symbol of hope, that the floodwaters was receding, and that earth is replenishing itself, returning to life. But, hope in this poem is a forlorn one.

My hope then is that among the ordinary people, there will be inner comfort and peace amidst everything else. Have a good 2009!

Labels: , , ,

Friday, December 12, 2008

"Thing Language"

Thing Language
by Jack Spicer

This ocean, humiliating in its disguises
Tougher than anything.
No one listens to poetry. The ocean
Does not mean to be listened to. A drop
Or crash of water. It means
Is bread and butter
Pepper and salt. The death
That young men hope for. Aimlessly
It pounds the shore. White and aimless signals. No
One listens to poetry.


Does anybody, nowadays, really listen to a poem, being read out in front of you, by someone you know, by a poet, who wants his poem to be listened to as much as to be read?

According to poet Jack Spicer - twice - in his poem here: No one listens to poetry. He likens a poem or, rather, poems, to “this ocean”. Like it, poems have their shortcomings, when compared with other media now available to us, like the TV, movies, videos, music, and many more of those 21st century mode of entertainment. Most of us would rather stick a pair of tiny earphones into our ears and lend them (as Shakepeare wrote "lend me your ears”) to the services of an iPod than to an actual poet, a live one.

Also, like this ocean, poetry has many, many guises. No matter, poetry, through the ages, is still surviving, still “Tougher than anything”. Still, “No one listens to poetry”, says the third line.

A dramatic pause there. Then, the subject from the first line is repeated, with emphasis, after that pause and ending at the end of the line, as a run-on to line four, which agrees that it – take it whichever you will, ocean or poetry – “does not mean to be listened to”.

Really? Not meant that?

Another dramatic pause, within the third of the line. The vast ocean is now strained of its “disguises”. We are given, now, “A drop” – at last, a poem! One poem, which is so loud, when read out, that it’s “a crash of water”.

Alas, it still “means/Nothing.”  The run-on here is strong, and the line it runs to end-stops just as powerfully, when it is the only word standing and with a full-stop into the bargain.  The new line, a word by itself, after this, is also solitary. “It” is another strong run-on.  

Those two one-liners are placed, strategically, in the middle of the poem.  The first has five lines before it, and the second also five lines, after it.  They are like mirrors: "Nothing" = "It"; "It" is "Nothing". Perfect symmetry. By the way, symmetry - and it cousin, parallelism - plays a major role in most good poetry.

To some poets, like Spicer, “It” – poetry – is their “bread and butter/Pepper and salt.” Big pause, again: it is “The death/ That young men hope for.”

Does the poet, or the poem, have a point or is he or it waxing “Aimlessly”, pounding the ocean’s (poetry’s) “shore”; merely “White and aimless signals.”

Is that why “No/One listens to poetry.” ?

Thing Language is from My Vocabulary Did This To Me: The Collected Poems of Jack Spicer , published this year by Wesleyan University Press.

Jack Spicer was born in 1925, in Hollywood, but lived only to 1965, in San Francisco.

Labels: , , ,