In stilly watches of the night
the hours float by like sleeping whales,
and on their gently moon-stroked flukes
the seconds crawl like snails.
Such was Culture Vulture’s poetic assessment of insomnia approximately 30 years ago as a creative-writing student at Butte College, the honorable Dennis Ross presiding.
Poetry is at once the most common and the most elusive of the literary arts, flitting mysteriously in and out of even the most prosaic writers’ output. We can claim to be hard-headed, clear-eyed realists dryly declaiming the facts and nothing but the facts, but the fact is that the simple act of formulating words to convey meaning is an act of poetry for both the writer and the reader, if we believe that mutual sensibility is essential to effective writing.
As a chronic compulsive reader Culture Vulture is endlessly fascinated by written words. Novels are, in my universe, as much the building blocks of my being as the cereal I eat for breakfast while I cram in a page or two between bites.
Song lyrics and cereal ingredients are interchangeable, depending whether I have a set of liner notes or a cereal box handy in lieu of the current book.
The one I’m wrapped up in with at the moment, by the way, is the latest by T. Coraghessan Boyle, titled The Inner Circle, and it chronicles the career of an imaginary assistant of Dr. Alfred Kinsey, the guy who was the first person to clinically study and publish reports of sexual activity in America. And that was back in the 1940s, when the disparagement, denial and general ignorance of sex was at an all time low, or high, depending on how you look at it. But the best I can say for the book is that it’s morbidly fascinating, mostly due to Boyle’s skill as a writer, not because the characters he’s chosen to write about are particularly fascinating in and of themselves. They seem disengaged from the sex they are so obsessed with engaging in, which I guess is sort of fascinating, in a sad kind of way.
And here we come back to poetry, which, in my not so lofty opinion, often has as much to do with pleasingly organizing sounds as it does with organizing thoughts or visions. Sure, the best poetry will illuminate some facet of perception in a way that causes the reader to gasp or smile in recognition, but the recognition is the key, and if the poem doesn’t inspire a sort of anamnesis—a remembrance of that which has been forgotten—it can at least provide a pleasurable ride, floating upon a raft of words, even if the words themselves are utter nonsense when stripped down and analyzed for ultimate meaning.
Songs for 4 a.m.
1. Bob Dylan, “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight”
2. Weather Report, “Boogie Woogie Waltz”
3. Brian Eno, “Taking Tiger Mountain”
4. Joe Ely, “Boxcars”