Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Biden's Bard

Breaking News: "Poetry & Popular Culture" has just learned, from sources sorta close to the Biden campaign, that the vice-presidential nominee's favorite poem may well be Seamus Heaney's "The Cure at Troy" (Heaney's translation of "The Philoctetes" by Sophocles) and especially the lines in the third stanza below which Biden has repeatedly quoted:

Human beings suffer,
They torture one another,
They get hurt and get hard.
No poem or play or song
Can fully right a wrong
Inflicted and endured.

The innocent in gaols
Beat on their bars together.
A hunger-striker's father
Stands in the graveyard dumb.
The police widow in veils
Faints at the funeral home.

History says, don't hope
On this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up,
And hope and history rhyme.

So hope for a great sea-change
On the far side of revenge.
Believe that further shore
Is reachable from here.
Believe in miracle
And cures and healing wells.

Call miracle self-healing:
The utter, self-revealing
Double-take of feeling.
If there's fire on the mountain
Or lightning and storm
And a god speaks from the sky

That means someone is hearing
The outcry and the birth-cry
Of new life at its term.

What's the appeal for Biden? While "Poetry & Popular Culture" has been unable to reach Barack Obama's running mate himself, our source sorta close to Biden comments: "I think Heaney's poem taps into the growing sense of frustration that this country feels, knowing our past flirtations with rebelling against inept power. And I think this poem is appropriate for Joe and Barack because together they represent hope and history."

Go team.

It's interesting to note that while Biden attaches himself to Nobel Prize-winning Heaney, and while Obama was once friends with politcal poet and civil rights activist Frank Marshall Davis, John McCain's choice verse might well be William Ernest Henley's 1875 poem "Invictus." Indeed, writing for The New York Times on January 21, 2008, William Kristol reported that McCain had to memorize Henley's verse in school and still has it by heart. For Kristol, McCain's affinity for Victorian-era poetry suggests that McCain himself is "not thoroughly modern"—as if the Original Maverick's inability to use email and the internet weren't evidence enough. "John McCain," Kristol writes, "Is a not so modern man. One might call him a neo-Victorian—rigid, self-righteous and moralizing, but (or rather and) manly, courageous and principled." "Invictus" ends:

It matters not how straight the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

"Poetry & Popular Culture" now eagerly awaits McCain's choice of running mates. What shall his or her poetic preferences be?

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Guest Posting: Canoedling

Poetry & Popular Culture correspondent Jeff Swenson writes in reporting (hubba hubba) on the racy poetry of canoedling from a time when modern love was reaching, er, something of a tipping point.

At least as early as the 1880s, “canoedling”—the canoe-based variant of “canoodleing”— was becoming tableau in American culture. The still-popular image of a man in the stern, paddling, and the woman reclining on cushions in the bow, often covered by a parasol, was commonly reproduced in magazines, calendars, advertisements and postcards. The mass production of wood-canvas canoes in the late 19th and early 20th centuries helped to make canoeing popular recreation, and young folk soon found the canoe was a remote—and sexually liberating—place for courtship.

Popular songs of the era particularly celebrated this courtship on water. Tin Pan Alley songwriters penned tunes such as "A Little Birch Canoe and You" (1918) and "Beautiful Ohio" (1918). Both songs are relatively chaste, the singer in “Birch Canoe” reflecting on the time when his “one and only dream comes true / The world is fair and fine, and all I want is mine / A little birch canoe and you.” “Ohio” is similarly nostalgic, the singer thinking back on a past love cultivated in the canoe:

Long, long ago, someone I know
Had a little red canoe
In it room for only two,
Love found its start, then in my heart
And like a flower grew

Harry Woods’ "Paddlin’ Madelin’ Home" (1925)—originally performed by ukulele legend Cliff “Ukulele Ike” Edwards—is much spicier. In a typical canoedling scene, the singer and his gal Madeline paddle at midnight, ignoring her father’s calls. They find “a spot where we’re alone / Oh! She never says ‘No’ / So I kiss her.” Of course, the irony of the song’s title is that the singer never does get Madeline paddled home, for after the couple canoedles, he paddles “for one mile” just to “drift back for two,” hoping for the time when she will say, “‘Throw your paddles away.’" Here's "Paddlin' Madelin' Home" in its entirety:

I love a girl named Madeline
I know she loves me, too
For ev'ry night the moon is bright
She rides in my canoe

At midnight on the river
I heard her father call,
But she don't care and I don't care
If we get back at all

'Cause when I'm paddlin' Madeline home
Gee! When I'm paddlin' Madeline home
First I drift with the tide,
Then pull for the shore
I hug her and kiss her
And paddle some more

Then I keep paddlin' Madeline home
Until I find a spot where we're alone
Oh! She never says "No"
So I kiss her and go
Paddlin' Madeline
Sweet sweet Madeline
Paddlin' Madeline home

'Cause when I'm paddlin' Madeline home
Gee! When I'm paddlin' Madeline home
First I kiss her a while
And when I get through
I paddle for one mile
And drift back for two

Then I keep paddlin' Madeline home
Until I find a spot where we're alone
Oh! If she'd only say "Throw your paddles away"
Paddlin' Madeline
Sweet sweet Madeline
Paddlin' Madeline home

You can listen to a recording of “Paddlin’ Madelin’ Home’” at Better yet, grab your uke and hit the river with your favorite gal before the summer is up.

Jeff Swenson writes from Garrettsville, Ohio, where he is Assistant Professor of English and Director of the Writing Center at Hiram College.

TRIVIA QUESTION: What famous cartoon character did Ukulele Ike voice?