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Making Lemonade

Erik Wennermark

Faced with the challenge of regaining his intellectual identity, Bad Librarian escapes the morass of linguistic lethargy by losing himself in the wonderful world of poetry.

My alter ego (known as Bad Librarian) has recently felt suffocated by the relentless scourge of euphemistic claptrap and emotionally vacant cliché omnipresent in contemporary English. Jeepers, you can say that again! Take it with a grain of salt, but it's the God's honest truth, the bastardization of the King's English has descended like an invading Mongol horde on elephant-back to crush me like a bug. Banal speech has engulfed my soul like a toxic cloud of colloquialisms, rampant slang and linguistic shorthand…The list goes on ad infinitum…It's in my conversations, in my reading, even in my own mind, thus causing the inner voices of reason to cry out in unison, "Rest easy the sun will come out tomorrow! All's well that ends well, Buddy Boy! Get a grip on yourself you kooky bastard, you're going off the deep end!" As James Brown once said, "talking loud, and saying nothing."

What can I do to combat this evil affair? What must I do to save not only my fragile psyche, but my biting tongue, too? Will I grow spoiled from it, and descend into the unyieldingly dreary pit of all that is unholy and wrong in a universe of emoticons and acronymic laughter? Will I go shuffling off this mortal coil with a catch phrase on my blanched lips, or an anagrammatized obituary? Will this be yet another hapless spin around the well-girded May Pole of Linguistic Doom? Uh, excuse me, Bad Librarian, are you really giving a 110% on this intro, 'cause, like, I'm really getting the sense that you're phoning it in or something. LOL…LMFAO… FUCKYOUPAL. Well IMO, you hit the nail on the head with that one, Champ! Damn it Jim! I'm a librarian not a phonics instructor! Rest assured dear readers, Bad Librarian will not succumb! With what strength I have left, I will journey to where language lives. I will bury my head in fresh words and be renewed to combat the perversion of gross sloganeering. Bad Librarian will escape from the mixed-up metaphors and sorry similes and illiterate alliteration, regaining myself through the beauty of poetry.

Ah, poetry…frightening and marvelous and vague and wonderful, while being impractical artifice and impossible truth all in one. But what exactly is poetry? I do not claim to precisely know, but I did however, in my research-ly librarian zeal, find two interesting definitions of the word "poetry": 1) "the measured language of emotion" and 2) "the blossom and the fragrance of all human knowledge, human thoughts, human passions, emotions, language", (from Easton's 1897 Bible Dictionary and Webster's Dictionary - 1913 edition respectively). Crafting my own loose definition, poetry, while lacking the clean and easy interpretation of prose, provides a new and original voice to each moment of existence. By relishing its contradictions (it's as dire as it is ephemeral, as morbid as it is comic) poetry deepens the meaning of everything it touches, and shows the audience that there is something unique left in this world. The beautiful expression of carefully chosen words is a powerful tonic against the emotionally dead and irredeemably vapid language of modern social discourse, the mode of communication in which we all are so unfortunately mired due to the acceptance (and tolerance) of lowered expectations.

This is not to say that all poetry, by the virtue of a "poetic" quality, is good. As a matter of fact, one problem I find trying to engage with poetry is that a lot of it is terrible. This of course is true of any art form, but seemingly more so with poetry in particular. The reason I guess being that everyone thinks they are capable of poetic art, ("I'm tortured, I can operate a pencil, I'm a poet!"). But alas and alack, naught such simpering doth make thee great, nor particularly deep or interesting. Self-indulgence does not suit a form that relies on economy and precision, just as sprawling columns do not make literature (see Bad Librarian Vols. 1-4). This is especially true in our modern culture of self-published everything; a blog is still a blog is still a blog, unless it's haiku, and that rocks!

While reading the vaguely poem-like, thesaurus-hewn, online spew of chalky chicks and dour dudes is occasionally titillating, a good poem is so much more than that: it is a moment taken from the vastness of the world and shined to its perfect uniqueness in an expression of artful divinity, (Whoah, I totally made that shit up). Poetry, perhaps more than any other form, lets us learn not just from the workings of the intellect, but from the interior of the collective conscience. That is, I think, why it is so important.

My most recent poetry phase started when I stumbled upon Orson Welles' reading of Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself". The sound of Welles' dusky voice thundering through my speakers, "I celebrate myself, and sing myself / And what I assume you shall assume / For every atom belongs to me as good belongs to you," was bound to catch my Narcissus-like attentions, and it did. Whitman, via Welles' boom, taking my hand and leading me outdoors, the words filtering through me, yet I am barely present to their meaning:

The atmosphere is not a perfume, it has no taste of the / distillation, it is odorless / It is for my mouth forever, I am in love with it / I will go to the bank by the wood and become undisguised / and naked / I am mad for it to be in contact with me.

The beautiful voice and beautiful rhythm sweep into my ears, dancing there, sweating there, and slowly forming into something approaching faint comprehension. Thus hooked on the music of the words spoken, I find the words myself in a book and read them, and read them, and read them.

This would be Bad Librarian's first pointer in Poetry Appreciation 101: while I clearly can't stomach audio books (except for maybe on long car trips), there's something to be said for "hearing" a poem, rather than just reading it. It's an integral part of the form and can facilitate a connection that a tight-lipped reading won't. There are many websites that have audio files of poetry available for free (poets.org, laurable.com, to name a couple), from contemporary work to classic verse. The only drag being that the older stuff is often read by lame professors with insipid intonations, (obviously Orson Welles is not of this limited class). Let his shuddering throat further elucidate:

I am not the poet of goodness only, I do not decline to be the / poet of wickedness also. / What blurt is this about virtue and about vice? / Evil propels me and reform of evil propels me, I stand / Indifferent / My gait is no fault-finder's or rejecter's gait / I moisten the roots of all that has grown.

Those last two lines kill me...When was the last time someone communicated something to you that succinctly and artfully? There is absolutely nothing conventional, tired or at all clichéd about any of those words: "My gait is no fault-finder's or rejecter's gait / I moisten the roots of all that has grown." The self-conscious construction (repetition and alliteration) blends the craftily chosen syllables into a mantra of unmistakable power. Spoken in cadence, the words just sound true. Genius, pure genius.

With characteristic synchronicity, "Song of Myself" seems to have worked itself into the rest of my reading list too, in its shared resonance to another quasi-poetic book I've been spending some time with of late (the Tao Te Ching), the other being Michael Cunningham's (of The Hours fame) new novel Specimen Days, which uses the poem as its central thematic construct. I'll say it reminds me a bit of David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas, which I dug, and leave it at that. As for the Tao, I was inspired to pick it up again, for the first time since those lost-and-not-finding-myself high school days, after reading James Frey's memoir, A Million Little Pieces.

Like poetry, I normally stay away from memoir, though for different reasons: I just don't like it. A Million Little Pieces however, was well done and I was seriously taken by Frey's brutal re-creation of drug rehab. The telling of the process of his recovery from addiction was earnest and thoughtful and made for a compelling read, even if I thought some of his views about the dogmatic and shortsighted nature of the 12 Step program were a bit dogmatic and shortsighted of themselves, (foremost, his reliance on Taoist philosophy bearing a certain resemblance to the personage of the AA "Higher Power" he incessantly ridiculed). But it got me interested and that's what counts: I picked up a few translations of Lao Tzu's (who probably never actually existed as an individual person) book of wit and wisdom at the library and would have to say I settled on the popular favorite, Stephen Mitchell's 1988 translation.

Mitchell's excerpted take on Chapter 22 of the Tao Te Ching presents a theme clearly on Whitman's mind as well:

If you want to become whole / let yourself be partial. / If you want to become straight / let yourself be crooked. / If you want to become full / let yourself be empty. / If you want to be reborn / let yourself die. / If you want to be given everything / give everything up.

Very Karate Kid I know, but it, and the other 81 pieces in the book, totally affected me. Just reading them aloud brought on a certain low-key bliss. Huzzah! Words that actually mean something! This is real! Claptrap begone! The book was a wonderful, and timely, rediscovery and has reminded me of the mindfulness that contemplative poetry can create. It cultivated a stillness that, to me, is a large part of the transformative nature of poetry and one of the great pleasures of reading, or hearing it. Not that poetry exists to calm anyone down mind you, the variations are as myriad as any other means of expression (I like me a dirty sex poem as much as the next guy); what I mean is I simply had the patience to listen.

Another Mitchell translation (it's totally embarrassing to me how many divergent languages this guy is fluent enough to translate poetry into) I picked up is his version of the poems of Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke. Like the Tao Te Ching, it's been a while since I've looked at Rilke — pouring over his Letters to Young Poet around the same confused time as I was into the Tao — and it's shameful I've avoided him for so long. The following poem is so bloody good you're getting the whole thing, so take a deep breath and be ready. I'll keep the Taoist theme going with Rilke's Sonnets to Orpheus I, 3:

A god can do it. But will you tell me how / a man can penetrate through the lyre's string? / Our mind is split. And at the shadowed crossing / of heart-roads, there is no temple for Apollo.

Song, as you have taught it, is not desire / not wooing any grace that can be achieved; / song is reality. Simple, for a god. / But when can we be real? When does he pour / the earth, the stars into us? Young man / it is not your loving, even if your mouth / was forced wide open by your own voice - learn / to forget the passionate music. It will end. / True singing is a different breath, about/nothing. A gust inside the god. A wind.

Sit with that for a while. Read it again out aloud, or, if you're at work or something, at least read it softly, under your breath. It's insanely beautiful. It is true words spoken truer still. There is nothing more I can, or want to say about it. Read it…enjoy it…

With that, it's time to go back into the world. It's time to make like a WWE wrestler and say something badass before hitting a steroid-ridden bruiser with a metal chair. It's time to hum a breakfast cereal jingle while mentally categorizing the various Seinfeld quotes I've memorized in order to root my schadenfreude around a pop-cultural touchstone. No soup for you! Oh, that's witty! HA HA HA. Time to have my brain washed into submission by the flotsam of meaningless words around me, to rejoin the unfiltered stream of mass reality and its attendant uh, like, whatever, three-word vocabulary.

I don't mean to incessantly harp on the common idiom, because I am amused by a stupid cliché as much as the next guy (for comedic purposes, gratuitous group-think is oh-so-amusing and well satiates my heightened sense of elitist scorn). It's the surrender of choice that really scares me about other people's speech. By relying on lingo and tired jargon, meaning is abdicated and docile formulaic speech becomes the norm. By compartmentalizing and packaging words into easy-to-use metaphors, language is stripped of emotional value and becomes rote noise without human connection, all done for the sake of some idiotic sense of "normalcy". By creating a language-based lowest common denominator (all of us saying the same stupid shit) we cheapen our most profound means of communication. By doing so, we in turn, cheapen ourselves.

Poetry on the other hand, connects us to the world, enlivening our relationships and personal encounters with its music and magic. Poets are the protectors of the artful word and by staying with them, and by reading their work, we show our love and appreciation for what they do and what they stand for: language as art, art as divinity. I make my own language with these men and women, and with language, I am freed. With language I can think and say what I please, exactly as it is and without dilution. I am unbound from the constraints common culture places unconsciously within me. With language, I can make the world as it truly is, and so can all of you. Just ask Whitman:

Have you reckon'd a thousand acres much? have you reckon'd / the earth much? / Have you practis'd so long to learn to read? / Have you felt so proud to get at the meaning of poems?

Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the / origin of all poems / You shall possess the good of the earth and sun, (there are / millions of suns left,) / You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor / look through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the / specters in books / You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things / from me / You shall listen to all sides and filter them from your self.

Bad Librarian Homework Assignment No. 1: I very much hope that by writing this column I have encouraged some of my readers to go back and renew their acquaintance with poetry. I even thought perchance, with my wily skills of rhetoric, I could force it upon you. And so I shall. By next column, I expect all my regular audience (yes, that's you Mom) to spend some quality time with a few pages of poetry. Pick your favorite, write a little something about it, and email the poem and your well-tempered exegesis to me at [email protected] If I get enough responses, I will start up a sappy, self-indulgent blog of my own. Till then . . .

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