Bagpipe Music

January 29, 2012 § Leave a comment

It’s no go the merry-go-round, it’s no go the rickshaw,
All we want is a limousine and a ticket for the peepshow.
Their knickers are made of crêpe-de-chine, their shoes are made of python,
Their halls are lined with tiger rugs and their walls with heads of bison.

John MacDonald found a corpse, put it under the sofa,
Waited till it came to life and hit it with a poker,
Sold its eyes for souvenirs, sold its blood for whiskey,
Kept its bones for dumb-bells to use when he was fifty.

It’s no go the Yogi-Man, it’s no go Blavatsky,
All we want is a bank balance and a bit of skirt in a taxi.

Annie MacDougall went to milk, caught her foot in the heather,
Woke to hear a dance record playing of Old Vienna.
It’s no go your maidenheads, it’s no go your culture,
All we want is a Dunlop tyre and the devil mend the puncture.

The Laird o’Phelps spend Hogmannay declaring he was sober;
Counted his feet to prove the fact and found he had one foot over.
Mrs. Carmichael had her fifth, look at the job with repulsion,
Said to the midwife “Take it away; I’m through with overproduction.”

It’s no go the gossip column, it’s no go the Ceilidh,
All we want is a mother’s help and a sugar-stick for the baby.

Willie Murray cut his thumb, couldn’t count the damage,
Took the hide of an Ayrshire cow and used it for a bandage.
His brother caught three hundred cran when the seas were lavish,
Threw the bleeders back in the sea and went upon the parish.

It’s no go the Herring Board, it’s no go the Bible,
All we want is a packet of fags when our hands are idle.

It’s no go the picture palace, it’s no go the stadium,
It’s no go the country cot with a pot of pink geraniums.
It’s no go the Government grants, it’s no go the elections,
Sit on your ass for fifty years and hang your hat on a pension.

It’s no go my honey love, it’s no go my poppet;
Work your hands from day to day, the winds will blow the prophet.
The glass is falling hour by hour, the glass will fall for ever,
But if you break the bloody glass you won’t hold up the weather.

– Louis MacNeice

A swinging, cacophonous collage on the cultural unrest leading up to World War II, “Bagpipe Music” is still one of MacNeice’s most popular and anthologized poems. The incessant slant rhymes give the lines an ugly aural crunch, but also lighten the mood and were meant, according to MacNeice, to mimic the drone of a bagpipe. I love the “Blavatsky/taxi” pairing, and how, at least in my accent, the “found he had one foot over” line really does have one metrical foot more than the others. There are shades of Auden’s “Danse macabre” in the rickety-rackety rhythm and impending doom, though I find this poem to be more successful in setting a mood.

Despite the serious undertones, MacNeice meant the poem to be comical, but in retrospect, one sees the last stanza as foreshadowing a war brought on by the political inertia that would end up changing Europe forever.

the Mouse’s Tale

January 27, 2012 § Leave a comment

– Lewis Carroll

Happy birthday, Reverend Dodgson! Barring George Herbert’s “Easter Wings“, this is probably the earliest example of concrete poetry in English. It is rather amazing how many of the 20th century’s art and literary movements Carroll either influenced or foresaw — dada, surrealism, futurism, pop art, postmodernism, absurdism. The term “concrete” wasn’t coined until the 1950s, when the de Campos brothers of Brazil wrote its manifesto and pioneered the form.

Martin Gardner, in his Annotated Alice, suggests that Carroll’s idea for the poem may have come from Tennyson:

Tennyson once told Carroll that he had dreamed a lengthy poem about fairies, which began with very long lines, then the lines got shorter and shorter until the poem ended with fifty or sixty lines of two syllables each.

Tennyson forgot the poem when he awoke, which is a shame, because I’d love to read it.

Below is an early version of “the Mouse’s Tale” written out by Carroll, a tail that doesn’t end in death.

A Jellyfish

January 24, 2012 § Leave a comment

Visible, invisible
  a fluctuating charm
an amber-tinctured amethyst
  inhabits it, your arm
approaches and it opens
  and it closes; you had meant
to catch it and it quivers;
  you abandon your intent.

– Marianne Moore

A pulsating and cerebral confection on an ethereal creature. The understated indentations, unusual for Moore, oscillate like a jellyfish.


January 20, 2012 § Leave a comment

– Eugen Gomringer

I played the cello for about 10 years during my childhood. One of the first lessons I learned, and the one that has stuck with me, was the importance of silence, that the nothings were equal to the notes. This idea has circulated in music forever — without rests music becomes one jumbled mess of A B Cs — but perhaps was never more eloquently expressed than in John Cage’s 4’33”.

Cage’s piece isn’t just about silence. It is also about what ambient sounds break the silence and become part of the piece — the audience rustle, the lone cough, the slammed door as one leaves the concert hall. Silence is where things happen.

Likewise in the poem. There are 14 instances of silencio and not a single one of them is actually silent. We get a representation of the word, but are not shown its meaning. It is only when the word doesn’t appear, in the white box of its absence, that we begin to understand what silence incorporates, what it really sounds like. We need the noise of the silencios to realize true silence, just like how 4’33” needs all of those ambient sounds to illustrate silence’s fleeting nature.

In his essay on concrete poetry, Roberto Simanowski describes the effect:

[The] gap is the point in Gomringer’s piece for which all other words are just a preparation because the gap conveys the message that, strictly speaking, silence can only be articulated by the absence of any words…Certainly, the message is to be seen but it will only be revealed on the fundament that one did read the surrounding words before.

Pure silence is ephemeral, impossible, rare. Like that missing silencio in the poem, the only way to experience it is to not be there.

4’33” at the Barbican:

the Triumph of Bullshit

January 16, 2012 § Leave a comment

Ladies, on whom my attentions have waited
If you consider my merits are small
Etiolated, alembicated,
Orotund, tasteless, fantastical,
Monotonous, crotchety, constipated,
Impotent galamatias
Affected, possibly imitated,
For Christ’s sake stick it up your ass.

Ladies, who find my intentions ridiculous
Awkward insipid and horribly gauche
Pompous, pretentious, ineptly meticulous
Dull as the heart of an unbaked brioche
Floundering versicles feebly versiculous
Often attentuate, frequently crass
Attempts at emotions that turn out isiculous,
For Christ’s sake stick it up your ass.

Ladies who think me unduly vociferous
Amiable cabotin making a noise
That people may cry out “this stuff is too stiff for us” —
Ingenuous child with a box of new toys
Toy lions carnivorous, cannons fumiferous
Engines vaporous — all this will pass;
Quite innocent — “he only wants to make shiver us.”
For Christ’s sake stick it up your ass.

And when thyself with silver foot shalt pass
Among the Theories scattered on the grass
Take up my good intentions with the rest
And then for Christ’s sake stick them us your ass.

– T. S. Eliot

It is interesting that the face of SERIOUS MODERNISM would begin and end his career with light verse. “The Triumph of Bullshit” is one of Eliot’s earliest poems (written around 1910) and contains one of the first, if not the first, use of the word bullshit as we know it. More on that here.

The “ladies” refers to the taste-makers of the time whom Eliot believed were blocking his way to publication. One was possibly Harriet Monroe, the then-editor of Poetry, who would later publish “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” under the suggestion of Ezra Pound.

My favorite touch is the obscure Latinate words juxtaposed with the completely inelegant “stick it up your ass” refrain. Choice lines include “dull as the heart of an unbaked brioche” and “floundering versicles feebly versiculous”. And from a technical stand-point, I prefer Eliot’s own ballade rhyme scheme to that of the traditional one: ababacaC instead of ababbcbC.

maison aragon

January 13, 2012 § Leave a comment

arp & the barbered arbor
reignite the open night
in the special pocket edition made for australian kangaroos

arp & the arc-shaped bark
are framed by semiramis
arp the arc & the arbored barbered bark

o crisp chronometer

– Tristan Tzara
translated by Jerome Rothenberg

Probably a tribute to avant-garde sculptor (and Dada co-founder) Jean Arp. The poem is surprisingly easy to memorize, as if there’s a nursery rhyme lurking behind its Dadaist composition. And after the pop-pop-pop of the plosives, how refreshing is that “o crisp chronometer”?

the Private Dining Room

January 10, 2012 § 1 Comment

Miss Rafferty wore taffeta,
Miss Cavendish wore lavender.
We ate pickerel and mackerel
And other lavish provender.
Miss Cavendish was Lalage,
Miss Rafferty was Barbara.
We gobbled pickled mackerel
And broke the candelabara,
Miss Cavendish in lavender,
In taffeta, Miss Rafferty,
The girls in taffeta lavender,
And we, of course, in mufti.

Miss Rafferty wore taffeta,
The taffeta was lavender,
Was lavend, lavender, lavenderest,
As the wine improved the provender.
Miss Cavendish wore lavender,
The lavender was taffeta.
We boggled mackled pickerel,
And bumpers did we quaffeta.
And Lalage wore lavender,
And lavender wore Barbara,
Rafferta taffeta Cavender lavender
Barbara abracadabra.

Miss Rafferty in taffeta
Grew definitely raffisher.
Miss Cavendish in lavender
Grew less and less stand-offisher.
With Lalage and Barbara
We grew a little pickereled,
We ordered Mumm and Roederer
Because the bubbles tickereled.
But lavender and taffeta
Were gone when we were soberer.
I haven’t thought for thirty years
Of Lalage and Barbara.

– Ogden Nash

Nash belongs to none of the 20th century’s poetic movements though he borrowed from all of them. He published his first collection during the height of High Modernism and his last in the early 70s with the Language poets and Second New York School bubbling around him. “The Private Dining Room” pops and fizzes on the level of sound poetry, both a sendup to the form and to 1950s propriety and etiquette guides.

A sound poem like Hugo Ball’s “Gadgi beri bimba” introduces new sounds sparingly; it uses alliteration to tie the lines together and to create momentum. By recycling phonemes, Nash both replicates the dizziness of a plastered partier and captures the party’s inertia. As the dinner guests get more and more drunk, words transmogrify into mutant strains of themselves; “pickerel” becomes “pickled” becomes “pickereled” or “lavend” becomes “lavender” becomes “lavenderest” with the words gaining freak morphemes as they progress through the poem. Then, when inebriation subsides and the guests leave, we’re left with the plain last lines and the narrator wondering if the debauchery ever happened at all.

Here is Ogden Nash reciting the poem. Ignore the awful background music.


January 4, 2012 § Leave a comment

There was an old woman from Szechwan
Who worked in the suitably Brechtian
Town of Stettin
Where she ran a canteen.
Or was it a woman from Szczecin?

No, this was a woman from Szechwan.
She went around kvetching in Quechuan.
Philologists think a
Lost tribe of the Inca
Reside as high lamas in Szechwan.

They came to the mountains of Szechwan
To study Du côté de chez Swann
And Melchior’s question:
What time is the next one?
And Leda’s: why don’t we go chase one?

Should Yeats have attempted to hatch one?
Should Christ have turned left at Saskatchewan?
The track of Big Bird
Is erose and absurd
The trackers morose and Masaccioan.

– George Starbuck

Here names and places from across the centuries clash to form a metaphysical mystery. An annotated Ondioline:

Gastarbeiter: The title is German for “guest worker,” workers who came to West Germany after the war. How this connects to the rest…

Szechwan: A Chinese province. The first line plays off the standard limerick opening (“There was an old man with a beard…”) and Bertolt Brecht’s play “Good Person of Szechwan.”

Stettin: A town in Poland as spelled by the Germans. The Polish spelling is Szczecin, so to answer the narrator’s question, the woman is, indeed, from Szczecin. Curiously, Brecht makes no mention of the town in his play.

Quechuan: A language spoken by the Quechuan people of South America, primarily in the Andes. How an Incan tribe arrived in China is one of the poem’s many mysteries. (Did they do it for the rhyme?)

Du côté de chez Swann: Volume I of Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time).

Melchior: One of the Three Wise Men. One assumes his humorous question relates to Jesus’ birth. He may have been expecting twins. Theologians still debate over whether or not Christ had siblings.

Leda: Slept with her husband and Zeus on the same night, the latter while he took the form of a swan. Out popped several children in eggs. Presumably, her question relates to Melchior’s baby question in the preceding line. Yeats’ poem ‘Leda and the Swan’ explains his [Yeats’] appearance in the following line. What any of this has to do with Proust, however, remains unknown.

Saskatchewan: A Canadian province.

Big Bird: This probably refers to Christ in the preceding line. His track would be “erose and absurd” to followers—difficult to comprehend, swerving to no logic, sublimated, and, like the zigzagging between geographic points mentioned in the poem, impossible to predict. One imagines his trackers saddened by their inability to keep up.

Masaccioan: Masaccio was an Italian Renaissance painter of religious works, and one of the first painters to use linear perspective and chiaroscuro. Perhaps the Masaccioan trackers can see their trail vanishing in the distance?

None of these items seem to relate to each other, but their appearance together suggests something just beyond the reach of the words, which, with the poem’s religious overtones, may be the point; Christ remains unknowable and supremely mysterious.

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