Thursday, June 12, 2008

The ordinary in wild and savage contrast with the everyday

It was there when I got on the train. And, despite the logo on the bottom saying 'Melbourne on the move', with whizzy little arrows all around it, it was there when I looked up and got off the train. Yes, bad train poetry is back this winter. These three-line poems that Connex are putting up on their walls are the sort of three-line poems that make you look up, read them, and then say to yourself, 'Hmmm. I've just read a three-line poem.' They are not, as a rule, significant - although they often try to be.

You might, if you wanted, detect a certain change in the poems this year. Previously, they had specialised in vague-but-pretty natural images, like mist or vapour. Popular cliches in the poems - they don't really rise to the level of themes, or metaphors, or ideas - now include nature, as well as generic inner-city references, and sport.

I jotted this one down last night:

pigeon -
why do you choose
the black wire?

And there you go - a natural image in the first line, closely followed by a generic inner-city reference. All that's missing are the sporting references, found in other poems:

Cup Day -
why am I no longer
his favourite?

That's a sporting reference, a Melbourne tradition, and an implied reference to nature (ie, the horse). I don't suppose I need to go on.

Lazy grammar is typical of the poems. They almost never start with a capital letter, and indeed, seem to be chopped out of longer, more meaningful (albeit just as banal) sentences. There is very little discernible rhythm or metre: they typically mimic the 'short-long-short' three-line structure of the haiku, though display even less formal rigour than that poetic genre, which is often learned in the seventh grade. They don't rhyme, and alliteration, symbol, metaphor, and so on, if they occur in these poems, are often incidental - if not accidental.

I find it difficult to say why I despise these poems so much. When I contemplate them, I get the vague impression that they lumber through the English language, picking up random words that were good, useful, and meaningful, and suck the life out of them. I'm not sure whether I'm wrong about that, actually: one of the traditional functions claimed for poetry is that it adds new meanings to language, or revitalises old meanings. That's a hard thing to claim for these poems, since they eschew almost any rigorous technique, and seem to exist simply to chronicle the banal, the inoffensive, and the everyday. T S Eliot once made a claim about boredom being an essential part of modern life; but then, to Eliot and other modernists, boredom and meaningless were one of their satirical modes. The banal, the ordinary, and the everyday was contrasted with the bizarre, the strange, and the surreal.

In these poems, that contrast doesn't exist anymore. All you get is the ordinary in wild and extravagant contrast with the everyday. I seriously doubt that anyone cares.


Maria said...

I love many rhyming poems.

I have had some poems given to me. They had very little structure, no rhyme, almost no metre, nor rhythm that I could detect, and the use of bad grammar was frequent.

The topic was generally sex in some form or another and the message was usually brought across with lots of repetition of common sex words like "F***".

When you say you don't really appreciate this poetry you are told by many of these poets that you are not "modern" or "progressive" and "real poets appreciate the power of their work" and other stuff like that.

Um, actually, I just don't like it, I don't care if I prefer a Shakespearean sonnet and that makes me old fashioned. Whoop.

I think you are right about the incidentality or accidentalness (hmmm?) of any metaphor or meaning in many of these train poems.

In fact I think they take some mundane sentence (or part of a long one), write it on three lines and therefore don't capitalise the beginning of lines two and three often and then pass it off as deep poetry and this is supposed to trick people into believing they are silly if they cannot derive some deep meaningful philosophical metaphor from it.

Let's see:

The ordinary in
wild and savage contrast
with the everyday.

I did one!

It was
there when I got
on the train

I jotted
this one down
last night.

These three line poems
that Connex are putting up on their walls

Are the sort of three
line poems that make you look up, read
them, and say to yourself

I just read a three-
line poem

Thanks to TimT for use of his article as material.

Maria said...

(from above)

Don't know what happened in the publish but that should have come out as a three line poem!

These three line poems
that Connex are putting up on
their walls

Tim said...

What an excellent post. I love it when somebody writes about something I've been meaning to write about and does the job far better than I could have managed. Those poems really do suck.

Alexis, Baron von Harlot said...

O FAN of white silk,
clear as frost on the grass-blade,
You also are laid aside.

- Ezra Pound

Alexis, Baron von Harlot said...

I think that's sorta what they're going for, only with pigeons.

enquiring minds from interstate said...

Are any authors credited or are we supposed to assume that the poems were written by committee?

TimT said...

I love how in the space of one hour - during which I travelled to work - I get six spanking new comments on this, admittedly curmudgeonly, post. Thanks everyone!

Enquiring minds from interstate - authors are credited - their name is given, where they live, and their profession. The professions include 'artist', 'writer', 'teacher' and 'student'. You get the idea, Connex probably sees it as a kind of community initiative. Presumably they hold a competition each year, advertising in the Herald Sun, or something like that.

Maria - thank you for your moving contribution to the three-line poem genre. I am very moved.

BTW, I think the typical trick Connex are looking for is this:

First line: subject
Second line: observation made.
Third line: question asked.

(The second line and third line are sometimes swapped around.) So paradoxically, while not sticking to any formal rules, the poems are nevertheless entirely predictable.

(Would have added that observation to this post today, but given your many pointed and enlightening comments, the moment seems to have passed.)

Maria said...

It's a bit late now
Why didn't you tell me earlier?

Might have been written differently
Or perhaps not?

'Tis easy to write a "question" these days by popping a "?" at the end of a sentence, so that's what I'll do.

was there when I got
on the train?

jotted this one down
last night?

All fixed!

satisfied minds said...

Hmmmm. Perhaps it's a competition in schools rather than committee-mandated inoffensiveness? Maybe I'm getting soft, but I wouldn't mind the triviality so much if some kid got a thrill seeing their poem and their name in print.

Curmudgeonliness is nice too, though.


Maria said...

Kind of like, it doesn't matter how bad a kid's drawing is, you still stick it to the fridge with a magnet because it makes 'em feel good?

Hmmm, maybe the kids should all have to sign off their poetry with name, age and school (and maybe a little portrait) for posterity.

If it's anything like Sydney's Rail System they won't have got to cleaning it off by the time he kids are corporate go-getters or train-drivers and they'll have to face it on the way to work every day, twenty-five years later, their "pigeon-poemming".

People could use it in their references if they wanted to get into the writing trade (say as journalists, freelance reviewers, book writers)

"Earliest works published on Carriage D4032 of Connex, the pigeon poem and the outside dunny man musing. Wide and varied audience per day."

TimT said...

I'd be much less cranky about it if poetry was at all common in public - like in an art gallery full of masterpieces, as well as an Andres Serrano shock picture. You could complain about the Serrano hanging on the wall in the gallery, but why bother if you can simply move on to the other masterpieces?

If Connex really cared about poetry, and not about looking good, there are plenty of beautiful and glorious and shining examples of poetry in existence they could have put on their train walls. But they don't, so they won't.

colonel eggroll said...

Was enlightening
Do you like pancakes?

I never realized writing poetry was so easy! And here I've been doing it wrong all these years! LoL.

TimT said...

Thanks. And yes. I DO like pancakes!

Robert Blair said...

Is free verse really poetry, or is it just prose with weird punctuation? See here Free Verse Test

Email: timhtrain - at -

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