Mowers

I have always wanted to write a mower poem, in the tradition (or at least the spirit) of Andrew Marvell’s marvelous mower series and Philip Larkin’s touching hedgehog poem. The theme is also alluded to in the first season of the HBO TV series True Detective.

Larkin’s The Mower was one of his last and is an almost perfectly crafted little suburban meditation on mortality, although Larkin, being Larkin, always likes to leave a little roughness around the edges, which only adds to the appeal. The poem has rightly recently become a stock-in-trade of social media condolence notices.

Marvell’s series of four (five, if you count The Garden) mower poems, to which Larkin alludes, covers a much broader range of issues. Marvell’s (human rather than mechanical) mower is obviously and explicitly used, as Larkin’s is, to represent death—the scythe-bearing grim reaper—but the motif is also employed to address the human predilection for destroying wild nature in an effort to create the kind of stagnant but apparently more attractive-looking simulacrum of nature that is found in gardens. This, in turn, is linked to the cruel manner in which people often treat one other when romantically attached.

A man atop a motorized lawnmower is an ominous presence throughout the first season of True Detective. And this mower theme ties in with Detective Rust Cohle’s long lugubrious rants regarding the noisy, foul-smelling, murderous ‘psychosphere’ in which humankind has swaddled and shrouded itself and the natural world, against the backdrop of an eerily beautiful Louisiana landscape scarred by industry and a community rotted by perverse interpersonal relationships. Never has a twitching neurotic ex-hippy on the verge of being ready to vote for someone like Trump better been portrayed on screen. The name of the character alone speaks volumes and Matthew McConaughey plays the part with a rare combination of acute thespian sensitivity and barely-bridled savage artistic license.

My own modest contribution to this long and noble tradition came to me almost out of nowhere, in its entirety, in a matter of minutes, if not seconds, in the early hours of the morning, at a time when I should have been sleeping. I have dashed it down as best I can.

I should add that my mower poem emerged as a free-standing section of an emotionally and technically difficult-to-write longer poem I am currently struggling to work on, on the subject of a real-life spree shooting.

The Mower

A man mowing a lawn thinks no ill

will befall his world, as he whistles

and the blades whir into a blur

of shredded grass and the smell

of cut grass mingles with the slight scent

of roses lining the fence, the cool breeze

of the summer air. The buzz

of a small plane passing overhead

leaves a fading signature on the sky;

the clip-clopping clapping sounds

of tennis on TV coming from indoors.

*

The shot rings out with a single

sharp metallic whistle. Birds

scatter out of the pear tree.

Blood decorates the nasturtiums.

The lawnmower whirs on growlingly,

tipped over,

stuck in place, digging into the turf

with hungry angry teeth,

as if the thing had a life of its own.

 

Advertisement

John Berryman and the Male Gaze

Does anyone read Berryman, these days? Or has he become one of those once feted poets now lost in the cracks of oblivion?

Current fashions and trends do not augur well for his survival. His drunken testosterone-driven poetic rants and sentimental attachment to racial stereotypes raise every red-flag imaginable. His privileged academia-confined background reeks of entitlement in an age in which the apparent outsider is king.

And yet there is still something exhilarating and liberating about reading the Dream Songs. The way that Berryman strips away everything that is decorous about the sonnet form, leaving only its barest essence: a sort of cogent lack of cogency, like logic going over a bumpy road. The unbridled honesty; the sheer sprawling, oozing scope of the confessional yet non-confessional work that is nonetheless totteringly controlled.

Myth has it that Berryman wrote these poems fast, one each morning, a night of dreams still fresh in his mind. He would then slip the poem under the glass top of his desk and just look at it. Then he would start in on the booze. After a few drinks, he would take the poem out again from under the glass, make a few alterations, file it away, and spend the rest of the day binge-drinking and arguing on the telephone with his ex-wives.

Myth or not, this bizarre routine reminds me of the Greek historian Herodotus’s account, repeated and embellished by Baudelaire in Les paradis artificiels, of the ancient Persians’ political decision-making process. They would, according to these imaginative and frankly racist and orientalist accounts, first come to a collective decision during a communal orgy of alcohol and hashish consumption. Then soberly, the next morning, they would take the very same decision and, if the two votes concurred, the decision was ratified.

Exaggeration and racist stereotyping apart, this has always struck me as rather a good way to make decisions and it is, in fact, mutatis mutandis, what modern democratic parliaments do. Wining, dining and lobbying are followed by more sober deliberation in a more formal setting.

Berryman, however, does the reverse. He writes sober but refuses to allow himself to edit his work until slightly drunk. He writes his first draft when still half-befuddled by sleep but refuses to let his growingly conscious mind edit or censor it until it is befuddled again by alcohol.

I hazard a guess that until the 1950s in America, no poet would have imagined working this way. Poets, for sure, have always had their drug-filled recreational breaks, but the actual writing of poetry, guided by obedience to stern rhythms, required a certain discipline and sobriety. Baudelaire and Verlaine consumed their fair share of absinthe and opium, but did not deliberately write under its influence. Inebriation, in their world, was romanticized and seen from the outside: a variation on the sublime. It was not seen as anything approaching a method or a technique, Jackson Pollock style.

The US artists and poets of the 50s and 60s changed all this. Their principal metaphor, as On the Road testifies, was the motor car. And just as motor cars need to be fuelled by gasoline, so poets and artists needed to be fuelled by drugs and alcohol.

In Berryman’s work, somewhat shockingly to modern mores, inebriation runs through the poetry like an original scar, actively informing the structure and content of the work, as glibly as his casual misogyny and racism does.

Berryman’s true genius, however, concerns the way he re-invents poetic form: enriching the poetic canon by bringing in the vernacular and vulgar without losing touch with the sound sensitivities of traditional forms.

In this, he uses techniques similar to those developed by the much soberer William Carlos Williams: long flowing streams of poetic prose broken conscientiously and intriguingly into often very short lines. But, while Williams’s verse aims to achieve an at times pastorally mawkish resolution of conflicts, Berryman seems to relish chaos and his poems often end with some kind of metaphysical/psychological challenge that is reflected in a jumpier more jarring form, more akin to the feisty repartee of vaudeville than to Williams’s exquisitely executed painterly thought experiments, which are always carefully wrapped up in flowers and bows at the end.

My favorite Berryman poem is Dream Song #4, even though it is controversial and perhaps not one of his best. I like it because it presents a master-class in his peculiar poetic technique and also because it exemplifies the way Berryman elevates the vile and the vulgar to an almost transcendental, if still troubling, status. It is brash, it is swaggering; it is apparently America at its best… And, of course, it is half-drunk on its own success.

The poem is written from the point of view of a male character observing a woman he finds attractive across a crowded restaurant. It could not be more banal a situation, but it looks back humorously and critically to earlier tropes in the Petrarchan tradition of love poetry and forwards to modern-day feminist literary criticism regarding the ‘male gaze.’

The poem itself starts off in the manner of a hipster menu extolling the virtues of an expensive restaurant. The lines go on to pick through the sensorial and intellectual delights of the scene, like knives and forks tucking into a gourmet meal, though unable to disguise the essentially bestial nature of the act of eating.

[1-3] Filling her compact & delicious body

with chicken páprika, she glanced at me

twice.

The first tercet is, as it should be, almost perfectly turned out. Beginning with the gerund ‘filling’ introduces an element of pronoun ambiguity. The grammar speaks of the woman filling her body with food but, stuck ambiguously at the beginning of the poem, the gerund also suggests right from the outset the lecherous gaze of a male onlooker imagining filling her with something else.

Berryman, like many of his contemporaries, liked to use ampersands. He does this to control both the rhythm of the poem and the degree of connection between ideas. The adjectives ‘compact & delicious’ here are meant to go together metrically and conceptually. Note also how the first line draws the reader’s mind’s eye back and forth over various visual, olfactory, gustatory and tactile stimuli the way both food and sex do.

In the second line, Berryman introduces the menu, being careful to put an accent on the first syllable of paprika, both to mark it out, in the way of menus, as something exotic and to indicate the correct metrical reading of the line in a seemingly fussy way, Gerard Manley Hopkins-style. Here, however, Berryman is clearly taking the piss out of both pretentious uses of the diacritic by playing them off against each other.

The comma in the middle of the second line marks not only a sort of hiatus but also an almost cinematic shift of perspective. It is followed by the banal but flirty ‘she glanced at me’, amusingly carried on by way of enjambment onto the third line by the single word ‘twice’, as if it were a wink. We are already laughing and lusting along with Berryman and his alter ego Henry and the devices used to effect this quick outburst of mirth are both metric and concrete. Note also how the first three lines flow together as a perfectly natural and pleasingly rhythmic prosodic whole. Mid-twentieth century American poems tend to start like this and then become more stuttering.

[4-6] Fainting with interest, I hungered back

and only the fact of her husband & four other people

kept me from springing on her

“Fainting with interest’ in the fourth line introduces pronoun ambiguity again although this is rapidly cut short by the comma and the abrupt introduction of the first person singular pronoun. “Fainting” we should note is an historically gendered word, applied more to women than men, and thus it comes as a slight surprise when the second half of the line reveals that the narrator is actually using it to refer to himself.

‘Hungering’ especially in the continuous form of the verb, picks up the already established eating=sex motif and the subtly ambiguous ‘back’ provides a little rakish grammatical and visual playfulness and echoes metrically back to ‘twice’. American free verse is especially fond of this kind of rhythm rhyme.

Line 5 is much longer and more matter-of-fact than the previous four. This produces an ironic and apparently jarring metrical effect of upping the pace, as if the hunt were now on, while, in fact, the content puts a damper on Henry’s priapic enthusiasm. The comic use of the ampersand to link together the ogled woman’s husband and his four dinner guests, as if they were just a blur, serves to reinforce both the fixedness and inconsequentiality of Henry’s lustful gaze.

“Kept me from springing on her” speaks for itself, comically using a springing conclusive rhythm to convey a sense of sexual failure, frustration and impotence.

 

[7-12] or falling at her little feet and crying

‘You are the hottest one for years of night

Henry’s dazed eyes

have enjoyed, Brilliance.’ I advanced upon

(despairing) my spumoni.—Sir Bones: is stuffed,

de world, wif feeding girls.

A grammatically unjustified line-break now marks a marked change of tone. The quixotic confidence of the previous climactic line now turns to pathos. Predator becomes suppliant; the imagined direction of domination is turned around.

At this point, Henry tries a little poetry of his own, a poem within a poem if you like. It begins with vulgar language but manages to lift itself up to a certain lyricism by the end, vitiated by Henry’s insertion of his own name in the third person, as if Berryman were using his alter ego to mock himself. This is swiftly followed by an ‘I” focusing back on Henry’s high-dining. We are left with a confused sense of who the real Henry is: the one who lusts after women in restaurants or the one who dutifully, if despairingly, tucks into his spumoni. Bones, a recurrent Berryman antagonist/alter ego, based on therapists and characters in racist Minstrel shows, chips in here with a blackface version of the platitude that ‘there are plenty more fish in the sea.”

Note also the huffingly alliterative sequence of ‘f’ sounds in this poem (filling, fainting, falling, feet, stuffed, feeding, feasts), conveying both a sense of breathlessness and suffocation and one of fullness, of being overfed and, ultimately, fed up.

The poem now descends in lines 13 to 16 into a shameless syntactically and visually chopped up (almost cubist) representation of the male gaze.

It concludes with two stark lines of dialogue.

[17-18] Where did it all go wrong? There ought to be a law against Henry.

—Mr. Bones: there is.

The first of these lines is delivered by Henry to himself “Where did it all go wrong? There ought to be a law against Henry,” the second by his blackface alter ego/comedy duo partner, introduced stage direction wise: “There is.” Note that all the ‘f’ sounds now have suddenly gone silent.

The last lines are clearly, in their abruptness, brevity and prosaic quality, designed to make us sit up and think. Henry/Berryman has produced an almost perfect poetic expression of the banality of the male gaze, barely veiled by various layers of irony and self-deceit. But now the law comes down and the poem is dramatically concluded by a grammatically austere but empty edict that seems to come from a higher power but is expressed by an imagined member of a minority group trapped in an oppressive stereotype.

Berryman may well be the Bart Simpson-like prankster in the pantheon of dead American poets but he sure does still serve up food for thought and still has much to teach us regarding the impeccable orchestration of free verse in a broadly vernacular mode.

Testing Tests

As a teacher and language test setter, I am well aware how individual questions or whole tests can tend unwittingly to disadvantage candidates of different social, racial and educational backgrounds. In an ideal world, we would eradicate all such inequalities but, in practice, attaining such a perfect equilibrium would be impossible and would not necessarily even be desirable, were it to produce tests that everyone can pass. We should however aim to eradicate any aspects of a test that unfairly disadvantage or even deliberately exclude candidates of a certain background.

The Louisiana State Voter Registration Literacy Test of the 1960s was a test designed specifically for the purpose of disenfranchising African Americans and it provides a good guide as to what not to do when designing a test. The Jim Crow establishment in the Southern States was concerned to hold back social change and civil rights for as long as possible. Although it was no longer legal to disenfranchise citizens on the basis solely of race, it was still permissible to withhold the right to vote from those who were deemed illiterate and hence ‘mentally deficient’. The State of Louisiana thus introduced a test to be applied to all citizens who had not completed basic education, a disproportionate number of whom were, for reasons of historical discrimination, inevitably going to be black.

The test the State of Louisiana came up with is devilishly effective. It is not just tricky, it is carefully crafted, in every respect, to ensure that every candidate will fail and, furthermore, with a very low score, thereby further confirming the mental deficiency of the potential voter.

The test consists of 30 questions of a ‘logical’ nature.

At the time, it was widely believed that tests based on pure logic were less likely to discriminate and more likely to assess ‘pure’ intelligence than those based on language skills, math or other school subjects. This in itself is a highly dubious assumption and one that I return to below.

Candidates were given 10 minutes to answer all questions and would fail and thus be prevented from voting if they fell short of a score of 100%. It is clearly impossible, even for a highly trained logician hyped up on amphetamines, to accomplish such a task.

Were this not barrier enough, most of the questions are of the kind that tie your brain in knots or are virtually impossible to answer with any degree of certainty. Questions of the type “Underline every word in this sentence that contains the letter e except this one” abound.

This test is obviously as laughable as its intent is despicable, but it is the only example I know of a test specifically designed to garner a 100% failure rate and, for this reason, I recommend that test setters study it as a way of ensuring that none of their questions resemble it even in the smallest degree.

The racist electoral authorities in Louisiana were only able to slip this transparent exercise in bigotry and deceit under the eyes of higher more liberal authorities because there was a general idea at the time that supposedly logic-based intelligence quotient (IQ) testing provided a fair unbiased measure of intellectual ability. Such tests were routinely applied in the UK to children as young as eleven to determine whether they would be granted a more academic education providing later access to better paid clerical jobs or one based on more manual skills. They were also used by psychologists to classify individuals as ‘morons’ or ‘cretins’ (these now highly offensive epithets were then regarded as technical terms) and thereby deny these individuals access to certain opportunities and rights (including, in some cases, the right to procreate).

IQ tests seem fair. There is a balance between verbal, mathematical, visual-spatial and logical skills. They do not appear to depend on any prior book- or family-learnt knowledge. A whole impressive-looking baggage of science and statistics is at hand to back them up.

More critical scholars who examined IQ test results found, however, again and again, that, while such tests could not be accused of discriminating on the grounds of race or class, children who are raised in an urban environment perform significantly better on them than those from rural areas.

In an attempt to explain this anomaly, they pointed to questions (common in IQ tests) of the ‘odd-one-out’ variety.

To give a fictional but not atypical example:

Which is the odd one out? A. dog B. cat C. cow D. chicken

The ‘correct’ answer is D, because the other three animals are mammals. But you could arrive at the same conclusion by way of other forms of logic: dogs, cats and cows have four legs, all produce milk, only chickens have wings etc. etc. Even if we take knowledge of the difference between mammals and birds out of the question, it does not, on the face of it, appear to be a particularly difficult question.

Children from rural areas, however, tend to answer differently in disproportionate numbers. And the most common type of explanation given by the children themselves for opting for Cow in this fictional case, for example, was something akin to “Dogs chase cats and chickens, but they don’t chase cows.”

What is interesting here is not the fact that the rural children got the question ‘wrong’ but the way that they explain their reasoning. After all, the question is highly flawed and has many possible answers. Cow, for example, could be the right answer because cows are bigger than cats, chickens or dogs, or because cows are used to produce milk for human consumption, while dogs and chickens and cats are not. In fact there are an infinite number of possible answers and explanations.

The researchers concluded that the rural children differed in their response for two different but related reasons. First, the children brought up in the countryside noted the order of the list, while the city kids assumed it to be random. So the rural kids were thinking something like this: “OK. The dog comes first. So this must be a question about what dogs do to the other three animals. Well, I’ve seen them chase cats and chickens, but never a cow. Pronto. Obvious answer.”

The rural children visualize the order of the words into a kind of dynamic everyday narrative with which they are familiar, whilst the urban kids are happy to regard the order of words as no more significant than that in which the melon, cherry, lemon and orange fall in a fruit machine. They are used to randomness; while rural dwellers look for a fixed pattern.

The other difference concerns the way the children of different backgrounds categorize things differently. The urban children rely primarily on abstract categories learnt from books in school. Even though they may be unfamiliar with the details of Linnaean taxonomy, they are used to organizing things by counting legs or according to functional use. And even if they got the question ‘wrong’, they would be inclined to do so on the grounds of the cow being bigger—another abstract quality.

What we are witnessing here is a clash between two kinds of wisdom. Rural knowledge is practical, visual and specific. Urban knowledge is abstract, categorical and random.

The test is the big loser here, because it fails to strike a reasonable balance between these two kinds of understanding, both of which are equally valid and important. And tests fail to be fair for this kind of reason again and again and again.

*

There are all sorts of tests in life. Academic tests form a small (if privileged) subset, IQ tests (fortunately) an increasingly smaller one.

But I wonder whether the same sort of criticism might be applied to other kinds of more important tests: elections, for example, and the dark shadow of elections that is polling.

Like multiple choice IQ tests, ballot papers present voters with a randomly ordered list of candidates affiliated to various parties. It is different from an academic test in that there is no ‘right’ answer and you can change your mind the next time the test comes around. It is also different, in so far as the test works both ways. The democratic system is testing the feelings of the population and the people are testing the policies of their potential rulers.

I therefore find it somewhat disturbing that many people, in the wake of the two most controversial and unexpected national elections in UK history and other similar ones around the world, posted comments on social media to the effect that ‘voters got the election wrong’.

This presupposes that there is some ‘right’ answer and, in so far as this negates the very essence of democracy, it is a belief that serves as a gateway to various shades of ugly authoritarianism—a slippery slope towards the reintroduction of something akin to but more sophisticated than the Louisiana Voter Registration Literacy Test.

I personally find Donald Trump’s personality and policies odious, but more insidious still is the notion that by electing him president, the American people somehow ‘got the election wrong.’ I think Brexit is a tragedy for Britain, but I would not argue that, having had their say, the British people somehow ‘got the result of the referendum wrong’.

The recent general election in Britain has thrown any notion of electoral right or wrong to the wind. It is deeply unfair to argue, given the Tory Party and Teresa May’s dismal performance in recent years, that the electorate got it wrong by failing to deliver her a stomping majority to push through unfair and misguided policies. But it is equally unfair to argue that hers is not, at least for the time being, a legitimate government.

In a true democracy, the right answer is always the one that the people opt for and they always have the right to change that next time round, which will rightly come sooner rather than later, if elections throw up ambiguous results. Hung parliaments provide good ‘teachable moments’ for politicians and electors alike.

Elections enable voters not only to opt for the best answer to their problems but also, in the event of a hung parliament, to demand a better test.

Since 2015, I have been sifting through as much British election data as possible in an effort to find an explanation for the tumult of the past two years. A whole rainbow of choices is now available compared to previous elections, in which voters were confronted with a simple choice of switching directly from Labour to Conservative or vice versa, or in more highly polarized areas, shifting from either side to the middle ground of the Lib Dems.

This was predictable and pollsters, those other testers, usually ‘got the result right’. This is obviously no longer the case.

Sifting through the data, I have identified numerous complex patterns among so-called floating voters. I shall focus here on one group alone: those who voted Liberal Democrat or Labour in 2010, UKIP in 2015 and Labour in 2017. Some of these individuals have voted for three different parties, with widely diverging policies, in the space of just seven years. Are they wrong?

Obviously, I think not. They are rather like the rural children who see things not in terms of the abstract categories beloved of pollsters (Do you consider yourself basically Labour, Conservative or Lib Dem?) but instead in those of the more dynamic practical issues of who better chases whom and what this means in everyday life.

During the Blair administration, when Labour and the Tories were largely in cahoots, these voters drifted to the Lib Dems, stirred by the populist man-down-the-pub manner of Lib Dem leader, Charles Kennedy. Disappointed by the Conservative Lib Dem coalition, these voters then shifted in large numbers to UKIP, whose leader not only had an earthy man-down-the-pub manner but also appeared to explain why all three parties had failed them for so many years, albeit by unfairly pinning the blame on immigrants and the European Union. Whence Brexit. Now, in 2017, these same voters are rallying back around Jeremy Corbyn’s more progressive Labour Party and look set, in the near future, to overturn decades of Conservative or quasi-conservative rule.

Are all these people wrong? Of course not. They are simply and rightly more interested in which candidate/party seems better placed to chase off the chickens than in fitting neatly into the abstract socio-economic/fiscal-policy categories into which, according to the pollsters and the politicians, they should belong.

Never have we been further from Louisiana. Never has the test of an election got things so right.

Victory in Defeat

Jeremy Corbyn is already the most successful Labour leader since Harold Wilson in terms of average share of the popular vote gained in national elections, as the chart below illustrates. In terms of increase in the Labour vote from one election to the next, he is the most successful leader since Attlee.

Can we now finally lay to rest the absurd notion that Labour can only be successful if it drifts ever further to the right?

Labour.jpg