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Of El Trains and Quatrains

Posted on 2011.07.18 at 16:19
Current Mood: giddygiddy
Current Music: Deacon Blues - Steely Dan
[NOTE: The following post originally appeared in this blog on May 31, 2006. At the time, I’d been writing here for less than a year. Since then, I’ve been happy to attract quite a few new readers, and I wanted to share this, since it is one of my personal favorites. I hope you enjoy this blast from my own past.]

It was a long ride home tonight. There was a problem with the switching at the Clark Junction that resulted in trains being very slow for most of the evening. I actually got off pretty easy – I only had an extra half hour added to my commute; a friend who came home a few hours earlier had a full hour added on. The long ride did, however, afford me the opportunity to scrutinize my environment more closely than usual. I ultimately looked at the wall next to me to find the following bit of graffiti, which I carefully copied onto the front page of today’s Sun-Times. I am reproducing it here exactly as I saw it, including spelling, punctuation, and line breaks:

Marcell a lame ass
mufucker, and he
in luv wit

It was good to have my question answered at last. The question was this: Where is the next generation of poets going to come from? Let’s scan this, shall we?

The form is apparently an adaptation of haiku. While it does not strictly follow the textbook definition of haiku, there is an unmistakable sense of liberation from those stodgy constraints, which leads me to speculate that it came from the pen of a younger author who is rebelling against the status quo and the poetic intelligentsia.

I suppose the word that jumps out upon first reading is the wonderfully quirky “mufucker.” It must first be allowed that this was, I think, a bit of a cheat on the poet’s part, done for the sake of preserving the symmetry of the poem’s structure (discussed below). The poet makes it work, though, because it is also brilliantly economical; we understand exactly what is being expressed without the clutter of redundant letters and words. In a verse of this brevity, economy is the coin of the realm, a fact obviously not lost on our poet.

The use of punctuation is restrained and purposeful. Note the single comma which neatly bisects the poem into two 8-syllable halves. The comma also signals a dramatic shift in tone. Note the apparently dismissive nature of the first half, and how it contrasts with the accepting, even embracing, of Marcell’s humanity in the second half. This shift is also signaled by the pun contained in the word “wit” which the poet partially masks by pairing it with the phonetically spelled “luv.” The reader naturally reads it initially as an informal sense of “with” but we are unavoidably forced to consider the literal nature of the word. Whose wit is being celebrated? Marcell’s? Laylonni’s? Our unnamed poet? He/she is coyly cryptic on that point, which leads me to suspect that the word is meant to apply more broadly to the maturing love that exists between Marcell and Laylonni. In any case, the poet clearly views this love as a transformative catalyst in Marcell’s life.

As a personal exercise, I have tried to imagine how this story might be told in more direct, less poetic terms. If our anonymous poet will forgive me, the following is my own humble attempt to translate his eloquence:
“My friend Marcell has been subject to the failings and trials that we all must endure. He wandered through this world rudderless, and as his friend, I cried bitter tears of concern and yes, despair, over how he would find his way through it all. Into his life came Laylonni, unexpected and unlooked for. In her warm gaze did I see my friend grow as a sapling becomes a tree. Over time, he has learned to view himself as she sees him, through the lens of her wisdom, and it gives them both great joy. I celebrate my friend’s life!”

I must hasten to add that I have no formal training or education in the analysis of poetry as sophisticated as this, and I would welcome any additional insights. Thank you!

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