As I mentioned in the last post, sometimes I like to take a long view of poetics. It helps me see most clearly some elements of poetry that arise from the nature of language itself—not only from culture (except in the longest possible time frame) and from the qualities of any particular language. And this in turn helps me see more clearly the cultural elements in poetry, so I won’t take them for granted as somehow natural or inevitable.
Pondering a poetic element, learning how to notice it, I can then think about how it is used, or not, in the poetry being written now, in the USA or anywhere else where English is the language, or one of the languages, of poetry. I have learned a little about how to take such a long view by translating poetry in ancient Greek, but all that is required, really, is reading about ancient poetry even if one does not have the language, and reading the same poems in multiple translations and not only questioning those translations but also allowing oneself to be questioned by the poem.
Taking the long view makes me completely dependent on the intervening existence of every bardic performer who memorized huge numbers of lines, episodes, formulas, genealogies, and dependent also on every successive form of the book and of the written word generally—on scribes and monasteries, libraries and archives, librarians and archivists, the individual persons who in private life preserved family papers, on commentators and scholars, editors and philologists, print and electronic media. So of course I value enormously the conserving impulse through all of recorded human history–not only for its own sake, but also because it testifies simply but eloquently to (among other things) the value poetry has held in the thought and feeling (“minds and hearts”) of people… everywhere.
I somehow feel that if I can do nothing else, then I can be, I should be, in solidarity with all present and future readers and poets, as well as with those in the past; together we create an archive of human possibility—of language, thought, and feeling, of articulations of lived experience–that is a crucial part of the realness of the world. As Muriel Rukeyser famously said, “The universe is made of stories, not of atoms.” (Well—I think we have to say our world is made of both; there can’t be stories across the universe unless there are, in some other infinitesimally small outposts like our own, other articulate creatures who have hunted and howled and sung across their planetary equivalent of our grasslands—I’ll come back to grass, below.)
“Poetry as what has been memorably thought,” a good friend summed up, a few mornings ago at breakfast in a nearby diner. “Yes… True… Thought,” I replied. But also, I had to add, an utterance that is shaped poetically, and so has the memorability of sound and shape—nothing necessarily fancy—and even more important, is working at thought, or exuberant or despairing with it, in a poetic way. And I could not resist pulling pen and paper from my pocket to write down one example (it’s not that I have very many in my head) of the most ancient kinds of poetic thinking, of making things memorable (this example is from Calvert Watkins’ book, which I have mentioned in several posts, including the last one). Like a lucky, river-smoothed, odd-shaped pebble, this is something I wanted to show to my friend, a scholar of linguistics who works with prose—it’s a phrase I keep in a mental pocket: “Oats, peas, beans, and barley grow.”
These words are still sung by schoolchildren here and there to some traditional tune or other. The phrase is a tremendously deliberate arrangement, produced perhaps by some combination of a trained poetic practice and a bit of intuitive fiddling that perfected it after it had first come into consciousness in some less perfect form. Or it was shaped into its compact perfection by the generations who sang it—no poet required. Or both. The arrangement of the words is deliberate in a very longstanding way, since the poetic devices that structure this old phrase are still in use in our daily speech and our poems, without our being aware of them. Watkins says that this tiny “masterpiece of the Indo-European poet’s formulaic verbal art,” even though it may be only a few hundred years old, “could perfectly well have been periodically and continuously re-created on the same model, over the course of the past six or seven thousand years” (p. 47). And in fact, Watkins cites many very ancient phrases from far-flung cultures that include the word, and thus the cultural importance, of barley—alerting us to the fact that there is an important thought within the pretty words.
Watkins’ book—which I consulted right after breakfast that day to see if I had forgotten anything when showing this pebble to my friend—tells me that I left out only one element of the ones he lists. (I do hear it, but it must have been too subtle for me to remember in my excitement—yes, little things like this, I find exciting—because I didn’t stop, that morning, to listen quite carefully enough.) “Peas” and “beans,” Watkins says, are linked to each other phonetically not only by the repeated vowel sound (which I did point out to my friend), but also by the labial stop—the sound we make by first closing our lips then pushing out our breath—that we hear in the p and the b. (And “barley” produces the third, culminating, labial stop in the phrase, I notice now.)
Also, as Watkins showed me, some time ago, and as I showed my friend that morning, the structuring and emphasizing devices, which so clearly mark the phrase as highly deliberate, include the long o in “oats” and “grow,” creating a pleasing sense of completion, of closing the line as it began (a tiny “ring composition”); that repeated long e in “peas” and “beans” that marks them sonically (a “phonetic figure,” i.e., one of the many types of rhyme, in this case called assonance) as especially well chosen; the repeated b in “beans” and “barley” (ditto, in this case called consonance or alliteration); the repeated s’s in the first three words (consonance again); the placement of the only two-syllable word as the end of the series of four items (following a rule, “Behaghel’s law of increasing members,” that holds that most often in a series of words in such polished utterances the word that is longest is placed last); and most wonderfully, the fact that oats and barley are cereals, whereas peas and beans are legumes, and so the agricultural sense of this nursery-song phrase is that it is like “an Indo-European agricultural prayer, harvest song, or the like.” That is, the beautiful structure of this sentence or verse is not only the device of its memorability but also the sign of its seriousness and the highly compressed manner of verbal interplay in which it thinks.
I would add to Watkins’ list two additional poetic elements: the repeated open vowel at the ends of the last two words—another phonetic figure, which in this case gives the end of the utterance yet more persuasive shapeliness; and the strong rhythm of the four beats on “oats,” “beans,” “bar-,” and “grow,” and the lovely syncopation against that rhythm of the emphasis on “peas.”
On-line (thank you, archivists of the nineteenth and twenty-first centuries CE—and all others!) a web search finds the song in a nano-second. One site explains, “Written By: Unknown, Copyright: Unknown”; another tells me it is number 1380 in the Roud Folk Song Index. The chorus is:
Oats, peas, beans, and barley grow,
Oats, peas, beans, and barley grow,
Can you or I or anyone know
How oats, peas, beans, and barley grow
The mesmerizing (and, to my inward ear, strangely calming), effect of the great line is so great that it suffices as nearly the whole chorus.
We might wonder why, in contrast, a dull dead metaphor like “at the end of the day” has proved so memorable—uttered constantly by politicians, television news commentators and so-called pundits, and so many others, and why we may even hear ourselves saying it. It is no beautiful thing, like “oats, peas, beans, and barley grow,” but in fact it has a poor poetic shape that makes it a mentally convenient way of giving emphasis to some ongoing process or other. But its great appeal lies, I think, in how it uses a few song-gestures for strength precisely because it is so far from song, so far from the real world of real oats, peas, beans and barley. Instead, like advertising, it uses a bit of poetic authority in order, ever so slightly, to coerce. It implies some underlying attitude or other that expects to be correctly in favor or in opposition. I leave it to you to spot its poetic elements (my friend saw three).
And I think that this phrase must also be an unconscious response to something about our cultural moment—the last few years, anyway, in which this tediously repeated phrase has become an ineradicable meme of public speaking. Perhaps it is also subtly symbolic (poetry again) as a subtly idealizing (and thus subtly self-justifying) allusion to a time when the end of the day was the end of toiling in farm fields (oats, peas, beans and barley) or leaving the factory, when work had been completed and there would be time for leisure and conversation with friends and family—when the day was not—for most people—the nearly undifferentiated 24 hours of fear-and-fantasy media, work shifts, apprehension, things to do…. I remember a small-town insurance agency calendar from 1947, bought in the 1990s in a second-hand shop of old curios; all the pages of the months were still attached, and the illustration had the title “The End of a Perfect Day.” It was a color lithograph of an idyllic, small, family farm: as the sun sets in the distance, beyond the tilled fields, a young woman and little girl are standing inside a broad open gate, and the girl is waving, as a young man rides in through it on his simple green tractor.
(And in the New York Times of March 3, in Olivia Judson’s blog on science and biology—this time on grasses and grasslands—she happens to list the grains that have so influenced the co-evolution of animals and human beings, in this order: “Rice, wheat, rye, oats, maize, millet, barley, sorghum and sugar cane are all grasses.” I am guessing that Behaghel’s law of increasing members, which I mentioned above, is called such because we follow it without even being aware we are doing so—note that Judson lists the one-syllable names first, then the two-syllable ones, ending that group with the one that has the longest vowel-and-consonant combinations, and then ends the whole sequence with the only three-syllable name, “sugar cane.”
And if we break her prose sentence into lines, we can see the underlying rhythm of speech and perhaps even thought, sometimes, in English:
Rice, wheat, rye, oats, maize,
millet, barley, sorghum and sugar cane
are all grasses.
If I put a comma after “sugar cane” and rearrange the last three words as “all are grasses,” then the iambic rhythm of English is allowed to flower at the last moment, and in fact we have a little poem of three lines—one of five strong beats, the next of five metrical iambic feet, and the last of two. And there are phonetic figures, including the repeated long a at the ends of lines 1 and 2. Perhaps, having altered Judson’s careful prose line in only the tiniest way, if we were then to offer it as poetry—the ancient kind that aids memory and yet at the same time speaks of a culture (in this case, ancient human culture in general)—then it might be a useful formula for remembering the grasses that made possible the co-evolution of plains, grazing animals, and human beings, who hunted the animals, domesticated some of them, and domesticated the grasses to yield more nutrition. Eventually there were towns, festivals, dancing, storehouses filled with barley, sieges, and poems.
Next, with the help of another friend, I will consider worms. I suppose that was inevitable.
(to be continued)