Saturday, April 12, 2008

Poem of the Week 4/14/2008: The List of Famous Hats

The List of Famous Hats

Napoleon's hat is an obvious choice I guess to list as a famous hat, but that's not the hat I have in mind. That was his hat for show. I am thinking of his private bathing cap, which in all honesty wasn't much different than the one any jerk might buy at a corner drugstore now, except for two minor eccentricities. The first one isn't even funny: Simply it was a white rubber bathing cap, but too small. Napoleon led such a hectic life ever since his childhood, even farther back than that, that he never had a chance to buy a new bathing cap and still as a grown-up--well, he didn't really grow that much, but his head did: He was a pinhead at birth, and he used, until his death really, the same little tiny bathing cap that he was born in, and this meant that later it was very painful to him and gave him many headaches, as if he needed more. So, he had to vaseline his skull like crazy to even get the thing on. The second eccentricity was that it was a tricorn bathing cap. Scholars like to make a lot out of this, and it would be easy to do. My theory is simple-minded to be sure: that beneath his public head there was another head and it was a pyramid or something.

James Tate 1996

This is a prose poem by James Tate; I have become interested in prose poems of late, partially because it begs the question ever interesting to me: what makes a poem? Why do we recognize some language as poetic and some not? Is there a cultural locus of this? I, at least, feel that a prose poem like this couldn't really exist before the modern age, for only now are we so chatty and cluttered that we have to abandon form, or rather that we can't appreciate more formal aspects of lanuage or poetry. Perhaps that's unfair. Well, it's probably true in many cases and not in others, I suppose.

My favorite definition for poetry was set forth by Howard Nemerov, himself an excellent poet. "Poetry," he writes, "is right language." So any proper description would make poetic language; clever style is thus not necessarily poetry (though is often counted as such), nor is high form. It has to be apt language. What does this mean? Oh, I hesitate to provide answers, so here, instead, are a few thoughts. Compression, paradox, symbolism (provided it doesn't symbolize something made up, like creativity or "sense of place," for example), and musicality often convey more of a thing, can lead us to the thing itself... This is probably a lot of quibbling. Does anybody have any thoughts, or is this something that it does not do to think about; perhaps, like the question of music, it's a case of: we know it when we hear it. That's satisfactory for me.

I hope you enjoy this poem. Funny poetry is a real gift of existence.


Safa said...

Thanks for the poem, Sarah! It made me laugh on a sunny afternoon. It reminds me of the hilarity found in taking iconic ideas and re-imagining them as something different. I think this poem is especially clever because the reorientation isn't towards something new but a different aspect of Napoleons' true character. Without being judgmental of others' poetry, I think that good poetry is all about communication. Poetry is more about being honest and genuine (which requires a certain level of cleverness, practice, and vocabulary of course) than using clever catechisms. Some of my favorite poems inform my understanding of myself and the human experience(they sometimes make me laugh too) because the author communicates so well...or maybe that's just what I'm looking for in their poetry. It's hard to know.

mia said...

Hey girl,
In my Argentine poetry class we have been discussing how Borges defines what poetry is. Borges seems to define poetry as turning our human consciousness of time, and therefore our own death, into something beautiful. It is the transformation of the passing of time and the pain that we know we are destined to die into beauty and art.
Just some Argentine food for thought.
Silently loving,

rinabeana said...

I just stumbled across your site. I'm so glad! I haven't read a lot in the way of prose poetry, but I do love this one. I'm not big on definitions. The prose poetry I've read doesn't often look very poetic, but read aloud, it's a whole different ball game. I agree with you about the humor, too (as evidenced in the poem linked above). Thanks for sharing!