Touch My Justice, Redux

Touch my justice,
my pulsing righteousness.
Touch my justice.
It throbs for you.

I have a raging phone bill,
filled with raised fists.
My Che Guevara desktop
glows, and resists.

I will hotbox your summit
toke upon toke.
Ganja versus teargas,
revenge of the smoke.

Nothing can stop the music.
Take off your pants.
It's time to strum our guitars.
Naked line dance.

Touch my justice.
It's the least you can do.
Touch my justice,
before it fondles you.

Constituency –balls!
Check out my flarf.
Legislature –balls!
Keffiyeh scarf.

Doublespeak omnibus
every hour.
I'll wedgie your bafflegab
the seat of your power.

Cultural battle zone.
Choose your side today.
High-contrast monochrome.
No shades of gray.

I will not get up early.
Dreaming is free.
I will eat more Kraft dinner.
Freedom ain't cheap.

Touch my justice,
my turgid righteousness.
Touch my justice
–please wear this pin.

The Quotable Beryl

This book doesn't live up to Hemingway's great praise of it. Beryl led an amazing life to be sure, but she spends so much time aggrandizing all the people and animals she encountered that large chunks come off as bluster and vanity. The writing gets a bit too ornate, but like many writers of purple prose, she has her moments. Here are the best of them:

There are all kinds of silence and each of them means a different thing. There is the silence that comes with morning in a forest, and this is different from the silence of a sleeping city. There is silence after a rainstorm, and before a rainstorm, and these are not the same. There is the silence of emptiness, the silence of fear, the silence of doubt. There is a certain silence that can emanate from a lifeless object as from a chair lately used, or from a piano with old dust upon its keys, or from anything that has answered to the need of a man, for pleasure or for work. This kind of silence can speak. Its voice may be melancholy, but it is not always so; for the chair may have been left by a laughing child or the last notes of the piano may have been raucous and gay. Whatever the mood or the circumstance, the essence of its quality may linger in the silence that follows. It is a soundless echo.

...or later:

I had never realized before how quickly men deteriorate without razors and clean shirts. They are like potted plants that go to weed unless they are pruned and tended daily. A single day's growth of beard makes a man look careless; two day's, derelict; and four day's, polluted.

The emotional life of objects recurs throughout the book. It's what Robert Bly calls the "twofold universe", the ability of the poet to animate the inanimate with imagination.

The walls of my house are without memories, or secrets, or laughter. Not enough of life has been breathed into them – their warmth is artificial; too few hands have turned the window latches, too few feet have trod the thresholds. The boards of the floor, self-conscious as youth or falsely proud as the newly rich, have not yet unlimbered enough to utter a single cordial creak.

Here's another bit that works the same poetic method, this time about a hurricane lamp.

It is an ancient lamp, not of my own things. Its base is cheap metal, nicked in places, its chimney is smudged with soot. How has it lighted the hours of how many men? How many men have scribbled under it, eaten under it, got drunk under it? Has it ever seen success?

I think not. It is crumpled and slatternly, enured to failure, as if no man with hope in his fingers had ever trimmed its wick. It gives a joyless light; it is a dissolute eye. Watching it burn I am at last depressed. I make it a symbol of despair, only because it is not brighter, perhaps because it can not talk.

Much of her life was spent on solitary adventures, so it isn't surprising that she waxes poetic on the nature of loneliness:

You can live a lifetime and, at the end of it, know more about other people than you know about yourself. You learn to watch other people, but you never watch yourself because you strive against loneliness. If you read a book, or shuffle a deck of cards, or care for a dog, you are avoiding yourself. The abhorrence of loneliness is as natural as wanting to live at all. If it were otherwise, men would never have bothered to make an alphabet, nor to have crossed continents – each man to see what the other looked like.

That's it! The rest romanticizes the colonial conquest of Africa, and Africa itself. Skip it. Hemingway was wrong about this book, as he was about most things.

Al Purdy's Cure for Writer's Block

I've started Margaret Laurence - Al Purdy: A Friendship in Letters, and it's wowing me. Their correspondence is devoid of literary pretensions. It's simple and direct, even when they describe the major themes in their work. There's a lot of worrying about money. They joke about how to properly accept a Governor's General award (Laurence refuses to curtsy, Purdy chooses to shake hands rather than bow). They muddle through their ordinary lives, encourage each other, and struggle with words.

There's a letter in 1967 where Laurence writes Purdy in despair. After years of work, she abandons her first draft of The Fire-Dwellers, burning all 300 pages. She feels she will never write another novel, and gets a bit melodramatic. Here is the first paragraph of how Purdy writes back:

Dear Margaret,
     The way you seem to be feelin, a long quiet drunk with a friend, someone you can talk to, would be a good idea. Universal panacea, they say, but at least it does bust your life into before and after. However, it must be fun burnin all that money you coulda had for the typescript. Anyway, I recommend a drunk, tho I ain't qualified to prescribe – that or twenty four hours fucking.

Laurence perked up considerably in her next letter, and two years later, the novel was done.

Judges for Greek Plays were Randomly Selected

When folks criticize the competitive nature of the poetry slam, I often mention Greek classical theatre as an example of a competition that inspired artistic excellence. I always assumed that these competitions were judged by some panel of experts, clerics, or former playwrights. Nope. These competitions were judged by randomly selected citizens, not unlike the slam.

The Athenians were much more interested in creating a panel of unbiased judges, than a panel of experts. If you were a citizen of any of the ten tribes of Athens, in good standing, and didn’t have any special relationship to the playwrights themselves, then you could be selected as a judge.

Even after the ten judges had ranked the playwrights, their ballots were placed in a urn. Five were drawn and used to make the final decision; the other five were destroyed. Another use of random selection to insure fairness, although this might also have been done to protect the judges themselves. If a judge was cornered by an outraged spectator, they could always say their vote wasn’t drawn and the results weren’t their fault.

From The Making of Theatre History by Paul Kuritz (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1988):

Later in the day the city council met with the choregoi [1] to begin the selection of judges. Ten lists of judges from among the ten Athenian tribes were deposited in ten urns, one for each tribe. Sealed and deposited under guard in the Acropolis, the urns were protected by a sentence of death to anyone who tampered with them. On the first day of the festival, the urns were placed in the Theatre of Dionysis, the site of the performances, before all whose names were in the urns. The archon [2] drew one name from each urn; each of these ten judges took a solemn oath to render an impartial verdict.

[1] The choregoi were wealthy citizens who paid a part of the cost for theater productions. It was considered a form of public service.

[2] The archon, or archon eponynus, was Athen’s chief civil magistrate, essentially he was the managing director of the City Dionysia festival, the competition where most of the greatest works of Greek drama were staged.

Getting It Ong

For the first 50 pages or so, Orality & Literacy: the Technologizing of the Word was one of the most boring books I have ever read. Walter Ong insists on notating all his sources in the text, and spends paragraphs outlining the academic history of orality studies before he introduces any of his own thoughts. But I kept plugging away. Bob Holman and Jack McCarthy both recommend the book. It was something I had to finish, even if that meant mindlessly skimming my eyes over the words of the next 120 pages.

Then something happened. Ong's slow and plodding style seemed less banal and more like a military maneuver. He was being so damn thorough because he was laying the groundwork for something monumental. By page 100, I realized that after reading Ong I would never think of the written or spoken word in the same way again. The last 70 pages were riveting. He was redefining all of human history according to the ages-long shift from the oral tradition to the dominance of the written and printed word, and how that shift changed human consciousness forever. Okay, Ong, you're forgiven for being pedantic. With an idea this big, you've got to make sure all the details are aligned.

As a spoken word poet, I felt like the secrets of the oral tradition were being laid bare. The oral poet values redundancy in performance, because his audience has no access to the "backward scanning" that can occur with a text. The oral poet values narrative as a mnemonic device to string together long pieces of information, while the page poet prefers lists. The oral poet was feted for his ability to adapt his poem to his audience, the page poet – through the Age of Romanticism – became more concerned with the originality and purity of his words; in other words, the page poet wants to say something new, while the oral poet is more concerned with saying something old in a new way. After all, in a world before writing, if the oral poet doesn't pass on the old sayings, they vanish.

The most slap-me-upside-the-head revelation I had while reading Ong is that the oral poet never works with just the word. It is always the word plus his body, plus the time of day, plus the mood of the audience, plus the political climate of his time, plus anything else swirling in the air. Or as Ong puts it:

Spoken utterance is addressed by a real, living person to another real, living person at a specific time in a real setting which includes always much more than mere words. Spoken words are always modifications of a total situation which is more than verbal. They never occur alone, in a context of words.
Ong spends a lot of time comparing work from the oral tradition – almost all of which is poetry that was finally written down (although it's doubtful that it was ever repeated verbatim from one performance to the next) – to written literature, and the effects they show of a shift in human consciousness. The written word, for instance, creates the idea of linear plot in the first Greek tragedies, whereas oral epic poetry had been episodic, filling in the back story as necessary through digressions and flashbacks. Linear plots encouraged linear thought, while episodic plots emphasized the lateral thinking necessary for the poet to extemporize a connection from his digression back to his main story.

The biggest takeaway from this book is that the oral tradition has a long and storied history, which can't be judged by the same standards we use for the written word. The oral requirements are different. It's hard to imagine, but in a primary oral culture words themselves were not marks on a page but fleeting blasts of sound.

Oral man is not so likely to think of words as 'signs', quiescent visual phenomena. Homer refers to them with the standard epithet 'winged words' – which suggests evanescence, power, and freedom: words are constantly moving, but by flight, which is a powerful form of movement, and one lifting the flier free of the ordinary, gross, heavy, 'objective' world.

Orality & Literacy: the Technologizing of the Word is the sort of book I'll have to read a second time before I understand all its implications. One thing I can say after the first read is that there's plenty of readily applicable tips and tricks for today's spoken word poet, which Ong has extracted from his study of the oral tradition. Thanks, Ong. Nice work.