The Critics’ Corner
“Beasts of My Land”
by Michael Murry
Editor’s note: Curious about the meter of a line in “Soldier’s Soldier,” I asked Michael Murry for his advice as the author. The reply is this very informative essay, which deserves a place in Mike’s bibliography along with “Gaelic Bardic Verse.”
Mike’s poetry needs no justification; it stands on its own. However, to understand Mike’s personal motivation it helps to know that he’s a combat veteran of the Vietnam War. To a certain generation of Americans, that means a lot. And now to later generations, he cautions us to heed, as Jefferson wrote, “a fire bell in the night.”
Thank you again for the editorial oversight and critical input regarding my verse. As for the intended meter of the line in question: namely, “Now he comes home like the others,” I meant for the four (usual) accents to fall on “Now,” “comes,” “like,” and the first syllable of “others.”
Since the poem deals with martial (if not Napoleonic) malfeasance in the lavish squandering of inconsequential individuals, my own poetic mental ear hears a military brass band pounding away in the background while at the same time another voice offers the cautionary admonition that “military music is to ‘music’ as military intelligence is to ‘intelligence’.”
Regarding rhythm and meter generally, I. A. Richards wrote in Principles of Literary Criticism that:
Ryhthm and its specialized form, meter, depend upon repetition and expectancy. Equally, where what is expected recurs and where it fails, all rhythmical and metrical effects spring from anticipation. ... The texture of expectations, satisfactions, disappointments, and surprisals, which the sequence of syllables brings about, is rhythm. And the sound of a word comes to its full power only through rhythm. Evidently there can be no surprise and no disappointments unless there is expectation, and most rhythms perhaps are made up as much of disappointments and postponements and surprises and betrayals as of simple, straightforward satisfactions.
Along these lines of creating expectation and then purposefully disappointing it, I like to keep in mind one of Kurt Vonnegut’s little ditties:
Roses are redArchibald MacAllister, in his introduction to John Ciardi’s translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy, noted how the poet — in any long narrative — has to beware of the soporific (if not hypnotic) effect on the reader of too regular and too mechanical an application of rhythmic regularity. Short pieces have little to fear from too much un-disappointed anticipation, though, as I tried to explore with “Boobie Conference Calls,” the briefest of episodes in my still-unfolding epic Fernando Po, U.S.A.:
And ready for plucking.
And ready for high school.
We see them in their meeting room,
The bumbler and the creep.
The lips of one move awkwardly
While English speakers weep
And snores emerge from Dubya’s mouth
As Cheney falls asleep.
Just enough of the necessary elements there, with not much room to overdo any of them.
At any rate, I think I’ve mentioned how I based the meter of “Soldier’s Soldier” on George Orwell’s “Beasts of England” (from Animal Farm) while taking off on Umberto Eco’s synonymous phrase for low-ranking cannon fodder: “Scapegoat of the king’s ambition.”
Shortly after the American military in Iraq turned their tormented captive Saddam Hussein over to a Shi’ite lynch mob loyal to the “religious leader” Moqtada Al-Sadr, I dashed off another piece in the same meter: namely,
“Beasts of My Land”
Praise the Lord and pass the bullet
Praise the Prophet; pass the rope
Crack the neck, then stretch and pull it
Praise religion; bury hope
Orwell said, “Revenge is Sour”
Not for those who tap the cask
Buy the bottles by the hour
Take a swig and pass the flask
Eye of newt and ear of frogskin
Dig a pit then set the stake
Chain the bear then throw the dogs in
Good Queen Bess will join the wake
Shoot the traitor; drown some witches
Burn the heretic real slow
Scratch the caveman where he itches
Basking in the good-feel glow
In the tavern, hold communion
Bread and wine a frenzied flood
Want to conquer? Spread disunion
Eat His flesh and drink His blood
“Beasts of England, beasts of Ireland,”
Beasts of U.S.A. so fair,
Beast of Baghdad, Shi’ite firebrand:
Praise Moqtada, Bush, and Blair
Now without Saddam, who’ll be next?
What excuse will you use now?
What transparent ruse or pretext
Will you make your sacred cow?
First tilt this way, then lean rightward
Back and forth, play both sides now
Throw them all in Bedlam’s fright ward
They don’t matter, anyhow
Place your sons upon the altar
Also daughters, friends, and wives
Parents, too — and never falter
Praise your GAWD who feeds on lives
— Michael Murry, “The Misfortune Teller” © 2007
Again, thanks for the comments and questions. I apologize for subjecting you to such lengthy ruminations on rhythm and its possible effects, accidental or intended. I try to think barely enough when writing poetry, but certainly not too much. I don’t always know where the words originate, and somehow I feel reluctant to tamper with inspiration that I don’t understand all that well.
Mostly I like to sing the sounds of words silently as they occur to me. I also tend to avoid over-punctuation in the hopes that a little grammatical ambiguity will give the reader more chances to supply his or her own interpretations. When I occasionally stumble on an unexpected accent, I try to take advantage of the wake-up call to re-examine the established rhythmic expectation in light of what I might gain or lose by disappointing it.
Copyright © 2008 by Michael Murry