Friday, June 15, 2018

On poetry and other abstractions

Anthropologists tell us that the first artifacts that conclusively tell us that the creator or creators were “like us” were the cave paintings, those paintings described in this article for example:       

It seems unlikely that everyone at the time these cave paintings were created would have seen their value.  I don’t recall any anthropologists commenting on the cave-painter’s contemporaries, but I’m assuming there were such people, people who did not have the ability to think abstractly, to substitute one thing for another.  I wonder what they thought when they looked at him (or her) painting.  Some perhaps were impressed.  Some perhaps were not.

At what point and why did we become us?  Some anthropologists are now theorizing that we owe our ability to speak to the Neanderthal – some genetic material we picked up during some interbreeding – that enhanced our ability to create complex sounds – words which are for the most part abstract (sounds standing for things), but beyond that sentences. 

Anthropologists have no way of knowing when our ancestors began talking to each other in sentences, or even when they developed a fondness for poetry.  But in pre-literate cultures we know that they told stories and sang songs around campfires to rehearse their histories, great battles, famous ancestors, etc. 

The earliest poems that have come down to us are closer to what we imagine to be those camp-fire stories.  They were popular narratives, usually involving rhyme, because rhyme is a memory enhancer as is song. .

A modern-day detractor might at this point say that if poets still did that, did what they did around campfires, told stories that had “clear . . . arguments . . . open to standard assessments of logical validity and soundness” then they would have no objection to poetry.

There is no question about modern poetry being more abstract than early poetic forms.   And yet, when our first ancestor capable of abstract thought first painted in his caves, there should be little doubt that there would have been nay-sayers who would have objected that these paintings were “neither clear nor open to standard assessments of logical validity and soundness” – or whatever equivalent statements these naysayers were capable making back then.  

In regard to modern poetry, most critics are people who cannot themselves write, and one of them, Trilling perhaps, wrote that critics often forget that the poem precedes the criticism.  The critic does not get to say, “this is what a poem ought to do, say, or be.”  The poem, like a painting, or a piece of music is an abstract creation.  To say that any abstract creation is subject to a standard assessment would be like those who stood in the cave watching the first person who was “like us” painting and though they didn’t understand what he was doing, felt free to criticize him anyway.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Bird Songs

    The lantern burned down
    Through the night but was still
    Half lit in the morning.  We yawned
    Together, unzipped our tent
    And stepped out before birds
    Could sing or a breeze could
    Flutter any tree leaves.

    It would be like that for
    Months on end, years even.
    She could live in the moment
    More than I who looked about,
    While she was smiling,
    For any threat coming up
    The mountain or down. 

    An evil I didn’t know and
    Couldn’t see swept by
    And took her away while I
    Sat Listening to her breathing,
    A musical sound that
    A bird might make
    With enough warning.



    They’re angry.  So am I.
    Why don’t they add that
    As well?  I climbed higher
    Than any they’d seen,
    Solo too – no one holding
    My ropes – just me finding
    The random crevice,
    The little indentation
    For fingers and thumb.
    “But you’ve never joined!”
    They’d said.  “It doesn’t
    Matter what you do. 
    And you don’t exist unless
    We say so.  Forget

    Your climbing gear!”  I
    Kept to myself from then on,
    Wrote my poems in places
    They’d never find, but
    The gods were not
    Amused.  One fall
    Was all they’d give me.

Book Business


    I’ve run, dashing along
    The sand, despite the
    Wind’s hindrance.  I’ve
    Struggled, collapsing,
    With mind buzzing
    Feeling the end near
    Even when young.

    And the books: I tried
    To read them all,
    Running thoughts in
    My head along the sand
    And at home struggling
    Through one after
    The other.  I dreamt

    Of the World’s end
    And that learning
    Would be lost unless
    I saved it.  I watch 
    Ben sleeping,
    Legs kicking.  Who 
    Is it watches me?