Saturday, May 21, 2016

From the Archives - Kroopian Poetry (Dactylic Trimeter)

NOTE:  This post is rated R for mild strong language, gross imagery, and crude sensual themes.


Sometimes I don’t have time to think up a blog topic.  Taking a cue from the movie industry, and from the Book of Ecclesiastes, I’ve decided there’s nothing new under the sun and I’d better just rehash some old material this week.  So I’m posting two of my old poems—one that’s 30 years old and another that’s almost 20—and providing all-new commentary in the form of footnotes.  Pretend you found this in your Norton Anthology of American Teen and Sophomoric Adult Poetry.

The Blue Tube Club – spring 1986

Splat mud splut, Cow chud cud, Dog dung stunk.
Nose snot rots, Booger blood, Anal hair;                            2
Armpit sludge, Dick Butkus, Damp crotch rot.

Happy love, Friendly peck, Snuggle up,
Happy-sap, Special friend, Hugga bunch;                           5
Smurfy love, Special coo, I Love You.

Stupid jerk Fire Up Total butt
You all suck, You’re a prick, Gimme that;                           9
Go to hell, God you suck, Just shut up!

Footnotes & commentary

Title:  The Blue Tube Club

The Blue Tube Club was a club that my two oldest brothers and two of their friends formed in the mid ‘80s.  If you think four people is barely enough for a club, you’re probably right.  This club was either too elite to accept others, or (more likely) its members were too shy and self-conscious to do much outreach.  What isn’t disputed is that they refused to offer me official membership, despite the fact that I hung out with them most of the time anyway.  The idea, I think, was for me to be really bummed out about this and press my nose sadly against the window, wishing I’d be invited in to play their reindeer games.

In fact, I couldn’t have cared less.  This was put to the test when my brother Bryan asked me to write a letter to the Casper, WY Chamber of Commerce thanking them for allowing the Casper Classic bike race to be held there.  I refused.  (My perspective:  what did some local government functionary need with another piece of mail to process?)  Bryan said, “Come on, think of the Club!  What is the Blue Tube Club?  It’s a bunch of guys helping each other.  You know, like Bill drives us everywhere, and I fix the Volv’ [Bill’s car], and Geoff welded the roof rack, and I fixed the Volv’, and Dave … well, Dave makes us laugh.  So you should write that letter.  It’s time you started pulling your weight.”

To which I replied, “First off, I’m not even a member of the Blue Tube Club, as you’ve made abundantly clear.  Second, I’m not interested in pulling my weight.”  This last quote became my signature utterance.  To this day, it’s occasionally trotted out as proof of … well, something fundamental about my character, I guess.

Byline:  Maynard Steele

Maynard Steele was (and sometimes still is) my pen-name.  I didn’t come up with it myself.  In junior high French class we were passing around the sign-up sheet for the student directory, and (unbeknownst to me) my friend Phil erased my name and wrote in “Maynard Steele.”  That’s how it came out in the directory, and I decided to run with it.

Line 1:  Splat mud splut, etc.

It doesn’t take long for the astute reader to realize there isn’t much meaning in this poem; it’s arguably more nonsensical even than Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky.  This was an assignment for my high school creative writing class.  The teacher, Mr. Kroop (I hope I’ve spelled that right) assigned us a “Kroopian poem,” which had the requirement of being written in dactylic trimeter.

What is dactylic trimeter?  It means each line had to consist of three dactyls in a row.  A dactyl is a foot of poetry with the first syllable accentuated and the next two syllables not.  An example of a dactyl would be the word “hangover.”  You place the emphasis on the first syllable and then the next two are non-emphasized:  HANG-over.  Another example would be the word “jettison” (JETT-ison).  In normal speech, you might occasionally stumble across three dactyls in a row, like “GO to the MAR-ket and STEE-al stuff,” but I wouldn’t say it happens a lot.

At the time, I was furious about the assignment.  It seemed impossible to write a single line of dactylic trimeter, much less a whole poem.  So I decided to be really sneaky and write the whole poem using nothing but single-syllable words.  I erroneously thought that strings of one-syllable words couldn’t be proven to be non-dactylic.  (This isn’t actually true, as I’ll get to later.)  Figuring my poem would be nothing more than a blatant act of rebellion, I didn’t bother much with the meaning and basically wrote whatever words popped into my head.

Line 2:  Booger blood, Anal hair

As you can see, I kind of faltered in my pugnacious resolve to use only one-syllable words.  Perhaps the better part of my brain realized that two-syllable words could be employed here without too much difficulty, and to good effect.  As you can see, both “booger blood” and “anal hair” are properly dactylic.  They’re also pretty gross, which was my way of celebrating the freedom I had in Kroop’s class to write whatever I wanted.  Mr. Kroop was famous for not only letting students write short stories that were brazenly, graphically sexual, but for reading these stories aloud in class.  (This was probably a myth:  when I was in Kroop’s class nobody wrote such stories, and no student work was read aloud.)

Line 3:  Dick Butkus, Damp crotch rot

This line demonstrates my failure to grasp dactylic trimeter.  First off, “Dick Butkus” isn’t dactylic.  I was correct that “Dick” is accentuated in this phrase, but I failed to notice that “But” also is.  It’s “DICK BUT-kus,” not “DICK butkus.”  If you don’t believe me, just ask him.  And while you’re at it, ask him why he never changed his name.  What kind of nutjob would willingly go around with a name like Dick Buttkiss?  Why didn’t he at least go by Richard?

The phrase “damp crotch rot” shows where my all-one-syllable strategy failed.  It’s pretty much impossible not to accentuate a word like “crotch.”  It’s a word that demands emphasis, even if you’re embarrassed to say it.  And the phrase “crotch rot” naturally comes out  as the trochaic “CROTCH rot,” perhaps because—specifying, as it does, the kind of  rot we’re talking about—“crotch” gets the emphasis, as would any word it its situation.  Consider this line of would-be iambic pentameter:

His house was fairly riddled with dry rot.

It sounds wrong, doesn’t it?  The last syllable of a line of iambic pentameter is supposed to be accentuated, but you cannot accentuate “rot” in the phrase “dry rot.”  It’s “DRY rot,” not “dry ROT.”  Many two-word phrases are like that, as I’ve explained in my post about how to write a sonnet.  “Dry rot” is trochaic, just like “HOT dog.”  And so is “CROTCH rot.”  Which makes it even worse, doesn’t it?  “Oh man, I’ve got a bad case of crotch rot, and it’s become trochaic!”

Lines 4-6:  Happy love, etc.

This stanza captures my frustration at teenagers in love.  There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with love, of course, but teenagers are annoying enough without deciding they’re in love.  You know how teenagers seem to think they know everything?  It’s particularly annoying when, at 16, they think they’ve found “the one,” and everybody around them knows they haven’t, and that this is just a stupid practice fling that will end in deep embarrassment for both parties, but they still go on like they’ve discovered what it means to love.

A teen would be arguably better off dabbling in the occult than messing around with romance. At the time I wrote this poem, my oldest brother was in love, which involved a lot of snuggling and even cooing.  It wouldn’t have been enough to say “Get a room!”—I wished he and his girl would go jump in a volcano or something.  Yes, some of this was sour grapes, but mostly it was the spectacle of all that James-Taylor-grade sappiness.

At the time, a buddy of mine did a long stint at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs and had some long phone calls with his girlfriend back in Boulder.  Now, my friend had the good taste to keep the mushy stuff to himself, and treat the affair lightly, around his friends.  I suppose that many a teenager was labeled crass who was really just observing a delicate teen-specific form of decorum.  This could be a group sport:  at one point, another OTC athlete was waiting for the phone, and—perceiving from my friend’s tone and diction that he was talking to his girl—did a crude pantomime and cried out, “Plow ‘er, dude!”  This has become my friend’s signature utterance (even though he himself didn’t utter it).  To this day, it’s occasionally trotted out as proof of … well, something fundamental about his character, I guess.

Perhaps it’s out of a residual distaste for sappy, smurfy love that to this day, my friend and I will occasionally cry out “Plow ‘er, dude!” whenever some guy starts using goofy language like “relationship.”

Line 7:  fire-up

At age 16, when I wrote this, I was a pretty quiet fellow, as now, but with a very hot temper.  This could come out without any obvious provocation; it could be triggered by male hormones, typical life frustrations, instinct, impulse, and/or the effect of being your basic social outcast.  This volatility was exacerbated by those around me.  My two oldest brothers were a study in contrasts:  one was dreamy, quiet, largely disconnected, and (as described above) shamelessly in love; the other, meanwhile, was what you might call an angry young man.  The angry brother, whom we sometimes referred to as “Mr. A,” once chewed my head off, without a trace of irony, for stinking up the bathroom, as though that was some decision I made that could have been avoided—as if I’d decided to crap in a wastebasket or something.  The other members of the Blue Tube Club could also be a bit hard to take:  one had an excessively drippy girlfriend and liked to blow his nose on his shirt, and the other—a giant guy—liked to wear a big trench coat, smoke cigars, and make wisecracks 24x7, and would  spontaneously tackle me to the floor and pretend to hump me.

So as a result of keeping this company, and also due to my essential nature, I would sometimes lose my shit completely.  The label my brothers gave to these outbursts was “fire-up,” as in, “Uh oh, Dana’s on the brink of another fire-up!”  My fire-ups were very loud, and this stanza captures some of that.  Of course I made no effort, as a livid teenager, to yell in dactylic trimeter, so much verisimilitude has been lost here.  For example, I’m quite sure I used the phrase “total asshole” a lot but never once said “total butt.”  But of course “total” and “asshole” are trochees, so the phrase “total asshole” cannot be rendered in dactylic trimeter.

Teacher’s comment:  Did Max help do this?

My brother Max had Mr. Kroop’s class a year before I did.  To say Max was a mediocre student isn’t really fair.  I think it’s more accurate to call him an F-student.  But he got an A in Kroop’s class, and earned it.  He was, and is, a great writer, and his style, particularly in those days, was blunt, wild, raucous, and utterly uninhibited.  In contrast I was much more reserved, with poems like “The Paperboy.”  So I wasn’t surprised at all that Kroop saw (or thought he saw) Max’s hand in this strange poem.
A Voice Will Sing – December 7, 1997

Once in a while a voice will sing praises,
Something to levitate everyone’s spirits.                        2
Somehow the faithful will manage to fear it,
Calling it chanting from somebody crazed.

Must we all be a collection of skeptics,
Fearing the good we’ve been trying to summon,           6
Finding the evil in everything common,
Feeling that praise is not ours to accept?

     Witness your neighbor and salvage his soul,
     Count up his evils and call them the whole.            10

Footnotes & commentary

Line 1:  Once in a while a voice will sing

After I’d turned in the Blue Tube poem, Mr. Kroop read the class his own Kroopian poem, and to my astonishment he did just fine with the tricky meter.  The only line I remembered later was “Once in a lifetime a voice will sing.”  It bothered me that I’d taken as impossible a task that was not.  I vowed to try again at the Kroopian form, but of course never got around to it … well, almost never.  For over a decade I kept thinking about tackling dactylic trimeter, and finally got ‘er done.

I decided, after much messing about with this meter, that I didn’t really care for it, and that a slight enhancement would make the lines gallop along better.  I attached a trochee—that is, 2/3 of a dactyl—to the end of each line, and I think you can see it helps.  Without that last trochee, the line kind of lurches to a halt, like it’s been clotheslined.  Then I decided, having forgotten whatever rule Kroop made about rhyme scheme, to use an ABBA scheme (reminiscent of a Petrarchan sonnet), whereby the second line doesn’t rhyme with the first, but the third line does rhyme with the second, and the fourth line then rhymes with the first.  I also determined, somehow, that each stanza would have a zippier finish if I lopped off the second half of the final trochee.  To maintain the rhyme, this final syllable would have to rhyme with the penultimate syllable of the first line.  Thus, “crazed” rhymes with “prais-,” not “praises,” and “accept” rhymes with “skept-” instead of “skeptic.” 

Rather than paying a verbatim tribute to Kroop’s “Once in a lifetime a voice will sing,” I changed “a lifetime” to “a while,” because “once in a lifetime” didn’t makes sense in the context.  Plus, I didn’t want anybody to think I was alluding to the Talking Heads song “Once in a Lifetime,” since I was alluding to Kroop’s poem (which for all I know was alluding to the Talking Heads, but no matter).  And based on my adjustment to the meter, I needed to tack on that trochee anyway.  Could “sing” be a transitive verb, setting me up to slap on a direct object?  Sure.  What can you sing?  A song, obviously, but that’s only one syllable.  “Ballad” is trochaic, but the fact is it didn’t occur to me.  I landed, rather arbitrarily, on “praises,” which really set up the content of the poem.

Line 2:  levitate

This word choice is probably my favorite thing about the poem.  I could have so easily put “elevate,” but “levitate” gives it a slightly creepy air—are the faithful right to call this voice a crazed chant?—but also points up the fact that the state of somebody’s spirits is kind of an illusion.  Anything that improves your emotional health could be reasonably labeled a placebo, could it not?  And your spirits, though raised up, are always so delicately perched … they could come down any minute, so isn’t the tenuousness of “levitate” better than the false solidity of “elevate”?

Line 8:  praise is not ours to accept

It’s important to keep in mind that I was fundamentally unconcerned with the content of this poem.  I was interested only in getting the meter and rhyme right, as this poem was a warm-up exercise for the real, serious poem that I intended to write next (and did, in fact, write—but you can’t see it as I wrote it for my wife).  So I think it a minor triumph that I managed to convey any meaning at all with this poem.

Isn’t it odd that religion is supposed to be an emotional balm, but so many strains of it bring negativity to the table?  For example, if somebody (even, or perhaps particularly, your inner voice) buoys up your spirits by praising you, you’re not supposed to accept—because that would be committing the sin of Pride!  After all, all praise be to God!

Line 9:  salvage his soul

At various points in my life, certain well-meaning types have decided my soul needed saving.  I’ve always found that vaguely insulting … like my soul is so far gone that some chance acquaintance—armed with little more than faith and a bible—can just sweep in and rescue me.  To me, such spiritual meddling is like a salvage operation.  (Both “salvage” and “salvation” stem from the Latin salvare, to save.)  As these do-gooders pick through the apparent disaster of my spiritual world, what bits and pieces are they looking to rescue before leaving the rest to slowly dissolve at the bottom of the sea?  And how is this operation supposed to bring a message of hope?

Line 10:  call them the whole

In all likelihood nobody has made it this far into my solipsistic morass of literary criticism, and even if somebody has, nobody is taking my quasi-religious rambling very seriously.  But if you have, and you are, please remember how little attention I actually paid to the content of that poem.  If changing a word made the meter or rhyme right, I did it, whether meaning was served or not.  In that sense, you could change this final line to “Count up the syllables and call that the whole”—but then it wouldn’t be truncated dactylic quatrameter!  It wouldn’t be neo-Kroopian!  See how this works?

For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.

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