Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Still looking for the right words

A high school classmate sent me copies of two little poems I wrote for a school magazine in 1940. They survived the mice for almost three-quarters of a century, and the ink has not peeled off.
What we kids liked most about poems was the sound of them.
            “Shoot if you must this old gray head,
            but spare your country’s flag,” she said.
            John Greenleaf Whittier kept his quill in tune.
            Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered,
            weak and weary…
            While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came
            a tapping,
            As to some one gently rapping…
            Edgar Allen Poe knew tintinnabulation, and how to use it.
The rockets and dive bombers of World War II were thundering across Europe, and the war was spilling over into Africa. The U.S. was legally at peace, but the vibes of blitzkreig were felt everywhere. Pearl Harbor was not far ahead.
That’s why there was a commotion in the press when members of the Jehovah’s Witness denomination, who were conscientious objectors, refused to salute the flag.
While this was happening, the tensions in English class were about infinitives, to split or not to split. And the teacher wanted her kids to write modern verse that did not rhyme, to write in the free and slightly spooky spirit of Orson Wells’ “War of the Worlds” and Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town,” stark and shadowy.
Hence, this verse from a 15-year-old who didn’t know he was just two years short of boot camp.
            Why do we salute that piece of cloth waving in the wind?
            We do not salute a cloth. That is the flag.
            Why do we pledge allegiance to a brightly colored rag?
            We do not pledge allegiance to a brightly colored rag.
            We salute the pioneers, the explorers, the soldiers.
            But they are all dead.
            They are not. They live today:
            The pioneers in aviation.
            The explorers in medicine.
            The soldiers in science—and war.
            We salute them in respect—not worship.
And this to accompany another student’s article about telephones, which had already been discovered by teenagers in 1940.
            Poles. Tall, silent telephone poles.
            But how loudly they speak—
            What a message they carry.
            Poles. Wires.
            Strong, taut wires,
            Poking into stock markets
            In New York. Into the mellowing buildings
            Of San Francisco’s China Town.
            Into the suburban bungalow,
            Tight, slick wires,
            Glistening in the moonlight.
            Death. Fire. Birth. Money. Tragedy.
            This is the story of telephone wires.
And so, after nearly 75 years, we still have wars and we still have telephones. We still have verse-writers, too. Dorothy Parker’s now in e-books that were no more than science fiction when she wrote that men seldom make passes/ at girls who wear glasses. Another quarter century, almost, would pass before Betty Frieden explained in a famous book that feminine vision had nothing to do with spectacles.
They still write verses in high school English classes. Chances are there’s more teen poetry for peace than there was in 1940, and that more verses are written to be sung than recited. Chances are the crafting runs deeper. Teens of the first fully computerized generation have a knowledge breadth unimagined when their grandparents were memorizing dates in schools where the cops were never seen, unless maybe for a safe driving lecture. With that breadth of knowledge comes a reach for depth, and words do the digging.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You are the very best of the best, Mr. Wall