Posts Tagged 'poetry'

“The beard makes the bard”: Poets ranked by beard weight

Via The Second Pass: at A Journey Round My Skull, Gilbert Alter-Gilbert offers “commentary” on The Language of the Beard, which he alleges to be a forgotten tome penned by “one Upton Uxbridge Underwood (1881 – 1937)…a deipnosophist, clubman, and literary miscellanist with a special interest in tonsorial subjects.” I suspect this book does not actually exist—but this post is wonderful all the same. It’s had me smiling wide all evening.

Excerpted from the post:

There is a direct correlation between personal appearance and artistic proficiency and integrity, or what, in the case of the bewhiskered brethren of the literary fraternity, he elsewhere calls “poetic gravity” or beard weight. It might be said, in short, that Underwood’s motto is the beard makes the bard.

The post includes evaluations of a number of poets by the weight of their beards, as well as classifications of their beards by type (“Italian False Goatee,” “Queen’s Brigade,” “Garibaldi Elongated,” “Claus-esque”). On Underwood’s scale, Walt Whitman scores a relatively paltry 22—well behind William Cullen Bryant (43), whose “Van Winkle” style beard is impressively full, but whose poetry doesn’t quite measure up to Whitman’s in my book. Perhaps Underwood’s scale needs a little tweaking. But then again, what do I know? My own beard most likely wouldn’t even outweigh that of Sir Walter Raleigh.

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The difference between a koan and a poem

The Poetry Foundation website has recently posted a new interview with poet Gary Snyder in which he discusses crosscultural influences in Western and East Asian poetry. (The interview also presents links to several of Snyder’s poems.)

At one point, the interviewer suggests that there might be similarities between the process of writing a poem and working on a Zen koan. Snyder argues that there’s a key difference:

The intention of a koan is to make people who are bright in an ordinary way, or ordinary people who are bright in an odd way, work harder and go further into themselves. The language presents an opportunity to perceive a metaphor that calls one not to “thought” but to work. Work is performance. Performance is embodiment, and not subject to ordinary rational analysis—it must spring forth freely and spontaneously, as does life for most working people, who are always dealing with the immediate. That’s one kind of koan. So in a way we’re not talking about “language,” we’re talking about the theater of life.

Poetry, Snyder seems to be arguing, can serve as a means for reaching greater understanding through language’s power to order thought into comprehensibility. But koans, he says, use language to create an immediate transformative experience, something less like language and more deeply connected to the immediacy of life. I know far too little about koans or Rinzai Zen Buddhism to offer thoughts on Snyder’s sense of how koans work. But I’m curious about the other side of the equation here: is there any reason why the experience of reading or writing poetry couldn’t also create a non-rational, transformative effect—an understanding that relies not on rational comprehension of the poem’s language, but rather on the emotional and intellectual experience of encountering a poem on the page?

It seems to me that much of the power of poetry—and of art in general—lies in realms beyond rational understanding. Rhymes, assonances, and alliterations can sometimes feel significant in ways you’d be hard pressed to explain in rational terms; and you can sometimes scan the meter of a line without saying very much of importance about the ways in which its rhythm shapes your understanding of a poem’s meaning. Music works the same way: a song might be powerful in part because of its message, but much of its emotional and experiential force would seem to come from the felt experience of its musical structures and sounds.

A related question: what exactly is the purpose of a poem or a song? Most do lend themselves to some kind of rational understanding—but is that what they’re for? So much of the enjoyment of art is experiential, rather than rational, and so I wonder if meaning in poetry (or music, or any other kind of artistic expression) is ultimately secondary to the felt experience of reading (or listening, viewing, etc.).


Recent Publications

Review of J.M. Coetzee and Ethics: Philosophical Perspectives on Literature, edited by Anton Leist and Peter Singer. The Quarterly Conversation, September 2010.

Review of Union Atlantic by Adam Haslett. The Region, June 2010.

Review of The Man in the Wooden Hat and Old Filth by Jane Gardam. The Quarterly Conversation, Issue 19, Spring 2010.

Review of 1989: Bob Dylan Didn't Have This to Sing About by Joshua Clover. ForeWord, November/December 2009.

Review of The Humbling by Philip Roth. Identity Theory, November 25, 2009.

Review of Imperial by William T. Vollmann. PopMatters, September 18, 2009.

Review of Wonderful World by Javier Calvo. The Quarterly Conversation, Issue 17, September 7, 2009.

Review of Of Song and Water by Joseph Coulson. Identity Theory, August 3, 2009.

Review of Digging: The Afro-American Soul of American Classical Music by Amiri Baraka. ForeWord, July/August 2009.

Review of Death in Spring by Mercè Rodoreda. Rain Taxi, Summer 2009 (#54). Viewable online via Powell's Books

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