Sunday, April 22, 2012

A midnight poetry reading

I have tried to love T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land. I have read it several times over the past 13 years. I have listened to university lectures on Eliot, on his contemporaries, on The Waste Land itself. I have read articles, study guides, reviews by readers who know what they're talking about, and some by those who don't. I picked it up again, thinking that perhaps it's an acquired taste. If so, I still haven't acquired it.

As I drove through town last week I consoled myself against my Waste Land failure with the fact that I've always liked poetry; I'm just having a hard time with this particular poem. Yes, I told myself, I've always liked poetry, ever since...since when? What was my first experience of real poetry (Itsy Bitsy Spider doesn't count)? And as I waited at a red light, that memory came back to me in its entirety, and it was a moment of history being reinterpreted in light of later events. Of course, at the time I had no idea a formative event was taking place. Looking back, I now see that I've summoned that night repeatedly over the years as I rifled through long library shelves and used book bins, searching for a book, a page, a line that would bring back that rhythm, that feeling, that night. Now you're wondering... was it a poetry reading? Perhaps a schoolwide literature event? Maybe a tv special in which an actor recited a poem with perfect diction and feeling? Nope.

The evening began with me spending a 2 hour car ride with my grandparents. They brought along a bag of popcorn for us to share as a snack. This story taking place in 1980s rural Alaska (which was noticeably microwave-free), the bag of popcorn was a large paper grocery sack, filled with air-popped, buttered, and salted popcorn. I'm very sure I ate more than my fair share, because I then spent most of the night vomiting into a garbage can in my aunt's bedroom. My aunt was 15, and already resigned to her fate of enduring a population boom of nieces and nephews.  She sat up with  me and read aloud Longfellow's Song of Hiawatha. Even during my stomach's most prolonged episodes of rejecting the popcorn, she continued to read without pausing midline. Only in retrospect, as the poem kept returning to me, did I come to appreciate its enduring quality. If one of your best memories involves throwing up into a bucket all night, you know the soundtrack must have been pretty good.

By the shores of Gitche Gumee, by the shining Big-Sea-Water,
Stood the wigwam of Nokomis, daughter of the moon, Nokomis

Later I learned that for this epic narrative poem Longfellow used the meter of Elias Lonrott's Kalevala. Those Who Want To Get Technical call this trochaic tetrameter, but it's sometimes called Kalevala meter or Kalevala verse, after its most famous example. You can feel the similarity even in the English translation:

Westward, westward sailed the hero
O'er the blue-back of the waters,
Singing as he left Wainola,
This his plaintive song and echo:
Suns may rise and set in Suomi,
Rise and set for generations,
When the North will learn my teachings,
Will recall my wisdom-sayings,
Hungry for true understanding.
Then will Suomi need my coming,
Watch for me at dawn of morning,
That I may bring back the Sampo,
Peace and plenty to the Northland.

This is straight up oral narrative verse, recorded by Lonrott from interviews with Finnish folk singers and poetry reciters and plain old village people, and then arranged into one long work. Longfellow wanted to replicate this idea of a heroic narrative, but using traditional stories from the New World. I think the meter complements the substance of these narrative poems well. It gives an expansive, striding feel to the story, as though the listener is following the hero down a long and winding path. I am ever grateful that my introduction to this genre was through hearing it, not through reading it. These poems were meant to be read aloud, not unlike Homer's Odyssey (which is my main event this month; The Waste Land was supposed to be a supplement).

Maybe I should stop reading The Waste Land and try reciting it.

1 comment:

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