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Poetry's inside jokes

Do you ever wonder about, worry over, how much of a poem's meaning gets lost when we, as readers, do not follow up on a poem's suggestive lead. Being myself a poet who trades in inside jokes I do. An example of what I mean:


You are too far away tonight.
This afternoon by bee yard’s pond I felt
first year’s sun-slant on my cheek.
Then the uncalled for ache between my legs.

Night heron in her live oak disturbed, disturbs,
and her own slight surface of flight.
Because of you, sweetheart, I know that call.

What amazes me is how tied in flesh we can be
on the cusp
when white clover spells contentment
in foraging field and while
the death berry mistletoe
is not quite crouched, canopy concealed;

or tonight when I must reckon with
sight of gibbous girl out of reach.

The poem speaks well enough of longing and the ache felt in late winter. The moon at her apogee tells of her furthest point from the earth in her orbital swing, something all lovers dread. Clover in the field and mistletoe still visible in the bare branches speaks to that moment somewhere close between winter's wasteland and the new spring. It is all obvious enough. But then there is, in strophe 2, a night heron's call. And unless you are a birder, a naturalist, or a country bumpkin; unless you have walked the swamp, a tidal marsh, a coastal waterway, or a riverine system like the Yazoo's Mississippi delta or maybe the Nisqually River delta; unless you've heard the nocturnal call of a Black-crowned Night Heron, you're not going to get that bone chill.

 Now go back to the poem.


Last edited by Terreson, Jul/4/2013, 8:28 pm
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Terreson Profile
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Re: Poetry's inside jokes

Here is another example of what I mean by poetry's inside jokes. The poem is from the suite called In Deep Song's Register.


Mockingbird sing your song.
Black brother crosses the water.

Mockingbird girl
you never repeat a note.
But tell of elegant brother
crossing over tonight.

Night bird sing.
The picture is in white light.
And black brother floats
on Bayou Paul.

Cajun boy got too close today.
He struck off smooth brother’s
head with my long knife.

Mockingbird sing your elegant song
to cottonmouth brother
who crosses over.

The poem is easy enough to get. Tells the story of a Cajun killing a water mocassin, a cottonmouth, decapitating it. No stretch of imagination is needed to get the allegory involving the lynchings of tens of thousands of African-Americans following the Civil War, their bodies simply discarded. But what about the poem's mockingbird?

Any chance Southern reader will immediately assume I am a yankee who knows nothing about the natural history of mockingbirds. They not only repeat their rills and bars monotonously, incessently, but in early spring they start up their singing around 2 in the dark AM and keep at it for hours. For hours. If you suffer from insomnia, as I did during one period of my life, they can drive you to want to commit murder or suicide or both. Any crime committed that can be attributed to the mockingbird induced state of mental imbalance should, in fact, be acquitted on the grounds of insanity. It is unbearable. I don't think most of Harper Lee's readers get the irony in the title of her one book, "To Kill a Mockingbird." The idea is that killing a mockingbird brings bad luck. But I'll bet a bourbon on your Irish that Harper was kept awake night after sexually tense adolescent night in her small Alabama town by a mockingbird, wanting to pull down her daddy's shotgun and kill it, persuading herself that to do so would be wrong and so suffered from sleeplessness. What about the poem's mockingbird now so elegant in its song? By the associational rules of poetry, what about the elegance of murder?

Jul/4/2013, 9:20 pm Link to this post Send Email to Terreson   Send PM to Terreson
Katlin Profile
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Re: Poetry's inside jokes

Hey Tere,

I enjoyed learning about the inside stories on these two poems and listening to the bird calls. Cool thread. Maybe others will join in with inside jokes from their own poems.
Jul/6/2013, 8:24 am Link to this post Send Email to Katlin   Send PM to Katlin
Terreson Profile
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Re: Poetry's inside jokes

Glad you enjoyed the stories. I'll try to think of others. And it would be fun if others played too.

Jul/6/2013, 11:43 am Link to this post Send Email to Terreson   Send PM to Terreson
GaryBFitzgerald Profile
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Dedication in ‘No Thanks’ by E.E. Cummings:

“In the summer of 1934 the normally buoyant EE Cummings was in low water. His ballet Tom, based on Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe, had been pronounced undanceable by George Balanchine, and had been dropped by the American Ballet. A Hollywood screenwriting offer worth around $10,000 had been made in August but then inexplicably withdrawn. He had been awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship worth $1500, but the money had run out. More brutally, the poems he had written with the Guggenheim money had proved unpublishable. Tentatively entitled 70 Poems, the volume had been turned down by fourteen publishers.

The Depression was taking a toll on American publishers and American readers. Poetry, never anything less than a luxury, was selling very badly, and Cummings’ brand of experimental verse was doing worse than most. In the 1920s he had found publishers for his poetry because of his one indisputable hit, the novel The Enormous Room. But his poetry had never sold well. In the first half of 1935 Cummings’ publishers Liveright sold 13 copies of Is 5 and just two copies of ViVa, and Covici-Friede managed to push exactly one copy of Eimi.

In spite of all this Cummings knew that in 70 poems he had achieved some of his best writing to date. It was a highly-wrought, precisely-structured collection, organized into a schema which alternated sonnets with free verse poems, representing the descent from heaven to earth and back to heaven. Thematically the volume focussed on the natural world, the doings within the miniature cosmoi of grasshoppers, ants and mice, the joy of spring awakenings, the sun’s and moon’s rises and settings, and love between man and woman.

No-one wanted it though.

After his fourteen failures Cummings gave up, and turned to his mother for the funds to self-publish the volume. She gave him $300, with which he was able to approach the printer Samuel Jacobs to bring out the volume in three different formats of nine, ninety and nine hundred copies (the attention to detail omnipresent) under his own imprint, the Golden Eagle Press. The title was changed from 70 Poems to No Thanks. The allusion was to the polite refusals of the publishers who had rejected it. To put the final nail in the coffin Cummings included on the dedication page of the book a witty concrete poem, arranging the fourteen publishers in the form of a funeral urn.”

Farrar & Rinehart
Simon & Schuster
Limited Editions
Random House
Equinox Press
Smith & Haas
Viking Press

Foreword to ‘is 5’ by E.E. Cummings:

On the assumption that my technique is either complicated or original or both, the publishers have politely requested me to write an introduction to this book.

At least my theory of technique, if I have one, is very far from original; nor is it complicated. I can express it in fifteen words, by quoting The Eternal Question And Immortal Answer of burlesk, viz. "Would you hit a woman with a child? - No, I'd hit her with a brick." Like the burlesk comedian, I am abnormally fond of that precision which creates movement.

If a poet is anybody, he is somebody to whom things made matter very little--somebody who is obsessed by Making. Like all obsessions, the Making obsession has disadvantages; for instance, my only interest in making money would be to make it. Fortunately, however, I should prefer to make almost anything else, including locomotives and roses.It is with roses and locomotives (not to mention acrobats Spring electricity Coney Island the 4th of July the eyes of mice and Niagara Falls) that my "poems" are competing.

They are also competing with each other, with elephants, and with El Greco.

Ineluctable preoccupation with The Verb gives a poet one priceless advantage: whereas nonmakers must content themselves with the merely undeniable fact that two times two is four, he rejoices in a purely irresistible truth (to be found, in abbreviated costume, upon the title page of the present volume).

Last edited by GaryBFitzgerald, Jul/13/2013, 7:20 pm
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