Daily Archives: 12 November 2009

#10 “Ode to a Nightingale” (John Keats)

For John Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale” I will provide a weblog glossary to the unfamiliar language of the poem. Once that’s in place, the magnificent Ode itself is a pretty straightforward poem, full of the tensions between Death and Beauty that characterize so much of Keats’s work.

  • Nightingale: “A secretive bird” with a proverbially beautiful song; associated with nighttime, of course, and thick vegetation. “Nightly she sings on yon pomegranate-tree,” says Juliet to Romeo, trying to persuade him to stay awhile longer, “Believe me, love, it was the nightingale.”
  • hemlock: POISON! as this website says. When the Athenians got tired of Socrates, he exited this life by knocking back some hemlock.
  • Lethe: A river in Greek legend. Once you drink of Lethe, your memory is gone forever. Kind of like the garbage-pail punches I drank as an undergraduate, but with a more systemic effect, i.e. instead of just forgetting one weekend in October 1978, you’d forget everything.
  • Dryad: Another regular character from Greek mythology. Dryads are forest spirits, leafy, secretive like the bird Keats compares them to. Sort of nubile and sort of vegetable at the same time.
  • Flora: A Roman vegetation goddess; as her name might suggest, connected with flowers. She gave her name to a whole branch of living things, of course.
  • Provençal: Associated with Provence, in the Southeast of France. A country not unlike Texas in its climate, in other words an awful lot unlike rainy, cloudy, chilly, miserable England.
  • Hippocrene: The fountain of the Muses, and one can imagine that the Muses serve something more potent than Diet Dr Pepper.
  • Bacchus and his pards: Bacchus was the Roman god of wine, and here he is pictured in a sketch by Delacroix, his chariot packed with wine jugs and drawn by two leopards. Actually these look to me more like saber-tooth tigers, but Delacroix had a lot of imagination. “Pard” is an earlier English abbreviation for “leopard,” as in Shakespeare’s soldier “Full of strange oaths, and bearded like the pard.” Though why 17th-century English people needed an abbreviation for “leopard” is beyond me.
  • White hawthorn: Prickly, showy, fragrant hedge plant common in England.
  • eglantine: A variety of rose, also called sweetbrier. Prickly too, with a lovely open blossom.
  • musk-rose: A huge number of rose varieties are called “musk-roses,” and Keats uses the phrase more for its sound and its suggestion of scent than for any visual cue.
  • clown: No, not Bozo. Keats means the word in its original sense, that of a none-too-refined country man.
  • Ruth: In the book of Ruth, the title character, a young widow, says to her mother-in-law Naomi: “Let me now go to the field, and glean ears of corn after [him] in whose sight I shall find grace.” (Rth 2:2). (And by “corn,” she means “barley.”) This patient gleaning got Ruth a husband, but she had to leave home and hie herself into a strange country to get him. If you have been to a Christian wedding in this country, you have probably heard Ruth’s words: “whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people [shall be] my people, and thy God my God” (Rth 1:16). Of course, what they usually don’t point out at weddings is that she said this not to her husband but to her mother-in-law.
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#11 “Notes on the Peanut” (June Jordan)

When I was in elementary school in the 1960s, we didn’t look back to the Civil Rights era during Black History Month – well, we didn’t have Black History Month at all in the schools I went to in Southern Illinois and South Jersey. It was the middle of the Civil Rights Era, and its history was being contested, sometimes right outside of the schools I went to. No, when we looked at the history of African-Americans, we looked at Crispus Attucks, and at Booker T. Washington, and of course, at the most eminent faculty member at Washington’s Tuskegee Institute, the great agronomist and botanist George Washington Carver.

As the linked bio indicates, the most amazing thing we learned about Carver was that he invented 325 different products based on the peanut. (Plus another hundred from the sweet potato. I did not know that.) In fact, I somehow always thought that Carver had invented peanut butter, which would have placed him high in my personal foodie hall of fame, but come to find that “nut-butter” was patented by none other than Kellogg of Battle Creek.

Now, I am as amazed as anyone else by inventions like peanut sausage and peanut linoleum; the list of Carver peanut products behind that link above is every bit as wild and strange as the fictional list created by poet June Jordan in her “Notes on the Peanut” (written in 1980). But as we ritually admired Carver’s ingenuity every year in school, there arose the nagging question: was the entire contribution of black people to American intellectual history located between the halves of a peanut shell? Everywhere else in our history books, we saw only white folks and the occasional Pocahontas or Sacagawea. The one black man we had as a role model was a nutty individual who apparently ran around all day fixing peanut bisque, driving a car powered by peanut diesel.

June Jordan must have shared that suspicion. In her brilliant satiric poem, she pumps tons of hyperbole into Carver’s peanut resumé. She imagines Carver as a lecturer firing up an audience with peanut facts. The absurdity of his inventions mounts, till at some point in the poem it spills over the bounds of parody. We start to see a Carver trapped inside his own peanut universe. The little corner of human endeavor and the natural world that he has been granted by American historians starts to become a grotesque obsession.

The tone of the poem is sharp, unrelenting. Is Jordan laughing at Carver, or with him? At her audience, or with us? When does humor segue into anger, or vice versa? And at what point does stand-up comedy become political?