Commentaries - April 2008
No, this--above--is not the chaos I have in mind. The photo here was taken in 1984 at Bennington, at a summer writing workshop: there's Richard Ford at left, and Alan Cheuse at right. If you are an NPR listener, you will know Cheuse for his good radio reviews and other All Things Considered literary contributions. No, the chaos I have in mind goes back to 1960, when Cheuse was a quasi-bohemian figure who'd gotten to attend the Bread Loaf end-of-summer writers' workshop as a waiter, and caused some trouble, at least from the point of view of those who wanted the Old Ways at Bread Loaf to be restored. I've written about this today on my 1960 blog, so please go there and get more.
Whenever I discuss with my students William Carlos Williams' poem "the rose is obsolete" (from Spring and All (1923), we begin with our sense of the rose as it is. Is it just a rose? No, the students say, it's become a huge commercialized symbol. WCW wanted a new rose, the rose that is the rose, the non- or pre-symbolic rose, "Sharper, neater, more cutting..." He wanted an infinite, endless rose, a rose that was somehow not really soft--made of "copper" or "steel." A wonderful adult student in one of my all-online versions of English 88 - a businessman who lives in China and does his business all around east Asia - took some time to create the Hallmark Card image of the poem's position. Here it is, above. And here, below, is the opening of the poem:
The rose is obsolete
but each petal ends in
an edge, the double facet
cementing the grooved
columns of air--The edge
cuts without cutting
itself in metal or porcelain--
whither? It ends--
But if it ends
the start is begun
so that to engage roses
becomes a geometry--
Pins and Needles was a hit musical revue in 1937, performed by rank-and-file members of the ILGWU (International Ladies Garment Workers Union) who worked all day and then practiced the show three hours at night; it took a year of practice before the show was ready to open.
Until Oklahoma came along, Pins and Needles was Broadway's longest-running show ever. Harold Rome's song - a meta-song if ever there was one - "Sing Me a Song with Social Significance" was a favorite of audiences. Don't keep singing me silly songs; after all, now is a time which "history's making" and "nations are quaking," so why doesn't the popular song try something serious and significant? "Sing me of wars, sing me of breadlines." Editorialize "in syncopation" - sure, go ahead.
Sing me of crime and conferences martial,
Tell me of mills and of mines,
Sing me of courts that aren't impartial,
What's to be done with 'em? Tell me in rhythm.
Most of all, songs should be about "new things." This was a new Broadway song about what's wrong with the old kinds of songs. Here's another verse:
Sing me a song with social significance,
All other tunes are taboo.
I want a ditty with heat in it,
Appealing with feeling and meat in it.
Sing me a song with social significance,
Or you can sing till you're blue,
Let meaning shine from every line
Or I won't love you.
"I didn't realize," Harold Rome said, "that the big attraction was that the garment workers themselves were doing the show and singing to the audience, creating a rapport which is very rare in the theater."
All the lyrics are here.
Nick Montfort decided to write by constraint, limiting himself to the use of the top row of his keyboard: q w e r t y u i o p, and no other letters. He wrote a poem and called it "Top Row Retort." It was published in 2000 in Word Ways: The Journal of Recreational Linguistics.
- - - -
Top Row Retort
I tore out type ere I wrote, to type up top:
upper typewriter row, pert repertoire.
Reporter, I quote to you: To write, pop type out.
Retire typewriter row two. Your tri-row?
Rip it out, too. Tour your top row territory.
Queer tip, you retort? I worry your poor typewriter?
To torque it out -- typewriter terror?
You require row two, your tri-row prop?
You pout, try to quip. (Poor etiquette.) You titter.
(Poorer propriety.) You utter uppity output?
Quiet, you! Quit it! You purport to write.
I tire to peer to your rot, your petty writ,
to eye your wire report. You write pyrite,
terrier to torpor. I pity you, preppie yuppie.
I tutor you, tyro, to uproot your trite tree,
put type to pyre. Rupture type. Write to write.
I erupt. I riot. I prototype pure power
to write. I, upper typewriter requiter.
I outwit you, too. To perpetuity, I write poetry.
You, to put it true, putter out rote poop.