I've had a bit of a revelation about poetry. It's not the most amazing revelation ever -- if you've ever studied poetry, it might seem blindingly obvious -- but it's making me see poems in a new light, and making me want to both read and try my hand at writing more. I never particularly enjoyed reading poetry in school, but that's changed a lot in recent years.
Poetic structures - limericks, haiku, roses are red - are just that: structures. They provide the scaffolding around which you can build a poem's meaning. Without that structure, a poem is a meaningless mess of ideas. And just like musical structure can give a song meaning beyond its melody and lyrics, the kind of poem you build your words around changes the meaning of those words.
When you set out to write a twelve-bar blues song, the limits of that structure will define what kind of song you can write, and will give its own meaning to the song, regardless of its other components. At the same time, there is almost infinite variety within the twelve-bar blues structure. I think that's really cool.
The same is true of poetry. Wandering around Wikipedia this morning, I came across an entry on dactylic hexameter, the meter used in classical epic poetry. For fun, I started writing a poem in dactylic hexameter for a friend of mine. The need to fit it within an unfamiliar rhythm led to a very different poem from the kinds I've tried to write before.
I was inspired to think about the connection between poetic and musical structures by the following poem, which I also came across this morning. I don't understand a lot of it, but I love the images and rhythms it creates. Hope you enjoy it, too. And feel free to post your thoughts about poetry, or your own poems!
I Am a Cowboy in the Boat of Ra
by Ishmael Reed
'The devil must be forced to reveal any such physical evil
(potions, charms, fetishes, etc.) still outside the body
and these must be burned.' (Rituale Romanum, published
1947, endorsed by the coat-of-arms and introductory
letter from Francis cardinal Spellman)
I am a cowboy in the boat of Ra,
sidewinders in the saloons of fools
bit my forehead like O
the untrustworthiness of Egyptologists
who do not know their trips. Who was that
dog-faced man? they asked, the day I rode
School marms with halitosis cannot see
the Nefertiti fake chipped on the run by slick
germans, the hawk behind Sonny Rollins' head or
the ritual beard of his axe; a longhorn winding
its bells thru the Field of Reeds.
I am a cowboy in the boat of Ra. I bedded
down with Isis, Lady of the Boogaloo, dove
deep down in her horny, stuck up her Wells-Far-ago
in daring midday getaway. 'Start grabbing the
blue,' I said from top of my double crown.
I am a cowboy in the boat of Ra. Ezzard Charles
of the Chisholm Trail. Took up the bass but they
blew off my thumb. Alchemist in ringmanship but a
sucker for the right cross.
I am a cowboy in the boat of Ra. Vamoosed from
the temple i bide my time. The price on the wanted
poster was a-going down, outlaw alias copped my stance
and moody greenhorns were making me dance;
while my mouth's
shooting iron got its chambers jammed.
I am a cowboy in the boat of Ra. Boning-up in
the ol' West i bide my time. You should see
me pick off these tin cans whippersnappers. I
write the motown long plays for the comeback of
Osiris. Make them up when stars stare at sleeping
steer out here near the campfire. Women arrive
on the backs of goats and throw themselves on
I am a cowboy in the boat of Ra. Lord of the lash,
the Loup Garou Kid. Half breed son of Pisces and
Aquarius. I hold the souls of men in my pot. I do
the dirty boogie with scorpions. I make the bulls
keep still and was the first swinger to grape the taste.
I am a cowboy in his boat. Pope Joan of the
Ptah Ra. C/mere a minute willya doll?
Be a good girl and
bring me my Buffalo horn of black powder
bring me my headdress of black feathers
bring me my bones of Ju-Ju snake
go get my eyelids of red paint.
Hand me my shadow
I'm going into town after Set
I am a cowboy in the boat of Ra
look out Set here i come Set
to get Set to sunset Set
to unseat Set to Set down Set
usurper of the Royal couch
imposter RAdio of Moses' bush
party pooper O hater of dance
vampire outlaw of the milky way