Tuesday, July 27, 2010

A Tale of Three Poetry Contests (hmmm . . . what rhymes with Jerusalem, entropy, and free trade?)

I know it is often said that poetry is hot again, so perhaps I should not be surprised at the appearance of several poetry competitions reaching well beyond the usual circles.

• The first is the more expected, socially engaged in an uplifting way (is there any other?):
Galway’s literary events organisation, Over The Edge, is looking for poems from poets worldwide on any aspect of the Israel-Palestine issue. The poems can be from any point of view. The only criteria being that they must work as poems and be in some way relevant to what has been happening in that part of the world.

We also welcome poems from those living in Israel, Gaza and the West Bank on any aspect of life as it is lived there.

We will publish the poems as part of a special feature on the Over The Edge website.

The title of the project Will Days Indeed Come: I Come From There is borrowed from the titles of two poems: Will Days Indeed Come by Leah Goldberg and I Come From There by Mahmoud Darwish.

SUBMISSION GUIDELINES: Poems should be e-mailed, both in the body of the e-mail and as an attachment to Poets should also simultaneously send a bio of no more than thirty words in the same format.  [h.t.: Harry's Place]
In the talkbacks, the organizers assure the curious and skeptical that they really do welcome all points of view.  It's easy to imagine how a topic such as this could generate all sorts of propaganda, so it's good to see the insistence that this be real poetry and not just activism in weak verse. (Heinrich Heine taught us that lesson more than 150 years ago, but some have yet to learn it.)

I suppose any starting point for such a contest would be that infamous old couplet:
How odd of God
To choose the Jews
Hard to be more concise and provocative than that.

• The second competition is a bit less conventional:
A Poetry Contest for science nerds

Category: Art
Posted on: July 25, 2010 2:11 PM, by PZ Myers

Dr Charles is having a Poetry Contest, with wonderful prizes to be awarded to the winner with the best poem about "experiencing, practicing, or reflecting upon a medical, scientific, or health-related matter."

It sounds great until you realize you're probably going to have to compete against the Cuttlefish.

• The third really rather takes one by surprise. 
Test your poetic skills in a competition organized in the context of the WTO Open Day on 19 September 2010. Put pen to paper and craft a poem on the WTO or international trade. Those of you who feel more at home with music can try your hand at a rap or slam poem. The competition is open to one and all. (details)
(h.t.: OD)
(That's: World Trade Organization, in case you didn't know.)

One's first reaction has to be: Is this a joke?  Second:  Are they really desperate, ow what?

As Shakespeare sighed in Sonnet 100:
Where art thou Muse that thou forget'st so long,
To speak of that which gives thee all thy might?
Spend'st thou thy fury on some worthless song,
Darkening thy power to lend base subjects light?
As for science verse,  I imagine the result as something like the "Square Root of 3" poem from "Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay":
I’m sure that I will always be
A lonely number like root three

The three is all that’s good and right,
Why must my three keep out of sight
Beneath the vicious square root sign,
I wish instead I were a nine

For nine could thwart this evil trick,
with just some quick arithmetic

I know I’ll never see the sun, as 1.7321
Such is my reality, a sad irrationality

When hark! What is this I see,
Another square root of a three

As quietly co-waltzing by,
Together now we multiply
To form a number we prefer,
Rejoicing as an integer

We break free from our mortal bonds
With the wave of magic wands

Our square root signs become unglued
Your love for me has been renewed
(YouTube won't let us embed the code for his one, but you can view the clip here)

And then, there's that Cuttlefish guy again.

In all honesty, though there's more out there than you'd imagine.  My favorite recent science poem actually combines my love of science and book history.  It's a collaboration between poet Brad Leithauser (of neighboring Mount Holyoke College) and his brother Mark (an artist and curator at the National Gallery), published by the incomparable David Godine.

The opening poem of Lettered Creatures is entitled, "Alphabets:  A Greeting":
It seems we're each a sort of book—
  As scientists now say—
Composed in the four-letter alphabet
  Of our DNA;
Or call it a book-with-printing-press,
  Since we share the common fate
Of going out of print unless
  We manage to duplicate.
(It appears that Nature's Imperative
  Consists of one rule only: Live.)

So what does it mean—that we are books?
  Perhaps that you and I
(Along with the Mouse, the Moose, the Muskrat,
  Spider and Hangingfly,
The Ground Sloth and the bounding Gazelle,
  The neighbor
s ungodly Dog,
Some mite-sized Creature in a shell
  Under a fallen log,
The Eagle and the Bottom Feeder)
  Are each a writer and a reader.
Top that one, I dare you.

In point of fact, though, there is an honored tradition of science poetry, going back at least to Lucretius. Not all of it is great, but there was a time when science writing was not dry and technical and approached the lyrical, and when poets found the truths of science aesthetically compelling.

Who, for example, could forget Pope's immortal:
Nature and nature's laws lay hid in Night.
God said, 'Let Newton be!' and all was light"
or Voltaire's poem on the Lisbon Earthquake?

Of course, astronomy has perhaps always had a special appeal, though science here sometimes becomes an excuse to leave the analytical world of classroom and laboratory and return to unadulterated nature (old theme), as in Whitman's

When I heard the learn'd astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired, and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander'd off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look'd up in perfect silence at the stars.
Speaking of Whitman and astronomy, Jay Adler recently called our attention to Whitman's striking "Year of Meteors" (1859-60), in which he combines his assessment of the natural and social worlds, linking the great meteor to the abortive rebellion of John Brown. An excerpt:
Year of comets and meteors transient and strange!—lo!
  even here, one equally transient and strange!
As I flit through you hastily, soon to fall and be gone, what is this book,
What am I myself but one of your meteors?
At first sight, it's a bit hard to see how the WTO poems could compete with products from the other contests, but we should not be too quick to dismiss the possibilities.  Bernard Mandeville's Fable of the Bees (1714) is a foundational text of capitalism.  Shakespeare, as is well known, is replete with references to the power of money, though that's only one reason that Karl Marx, who described his "favourite occupation" as "Book-worming," so admired him and drew upon his images and metaphors.  And, once you start to poke around, you can find economic references everywhere in the lyrical realm, from Swift's "The Run Upon the Bankers" (pretty obvious) to Shelley's "Queen Mab" (less so) and Allen Ginsberg's  "American Change" and Howard Nemerov's "Money: an introductory lecture" (on the "Indian Head Nickel" of yore). We don't even need to mention Ezra Pounds's fulminations on usury.

Coming up with poems on international trade could be a bit tougher, but I'll start you off with Schiller's "The Merchant" (1796), set in Classical Antiquity:
Der Kaufmann
Wohin segelt das Schiff? Es trägt Sidonische Männer,
Die von dem frierenden Nord bringen den Bernstein, das Zinn.
Trag’ es gnädig, Neptun, und wiegt es schonend, ihr Winde,
In bewirthender Bucht rausch’ ihm ein trinkbarer Quell.
Euch gehört der Kaufmann, ihr Götter. Er steuert nach Gütern,
Aber, geknüpft an sein Schiff, folget das Gute ihm nach.
And, more recently (1936), Carl Sandburg, portraying economic competition as tragic rather than heroic (the difference between those two ages), observed:
Money is power: so said one.
Money is a cushion: so said another.
Mnoney is the root of evil:  so said still another.
Money means freedom: so runs an old saying.

And money is all of these—and more.
Money pays for whatever you want—if you have the money.
Money buys food, slothes, houses, land, guns, jewels, women, women, time to be lazy and listen to music.
Money buys everything except love, personality, freedom, immortality, silence, peace.

Therefore men fight for money.
Therefore men steal, kill, swindle, walk as hypocrites and whited sepulchers.
Therfore men speak softly carrying plans, poisons, weapons, each in the design:  The words of his mouth were as butter but war was in his heart.

Therefore nations lay strangle holds on each other; bombardments open, tanks advance, salient ares seized, aviators walk on air; truckloads of amputated arms and legs are hauled away.

Money is power, freedom, a cushion, the root of all evil, the sum of blessings.
Probably not exactly what the WTO wants to hear, but you get the idea. Now, off you go:  write!

Wait: I almost forgot two crucial details.  The WTO poems must be:

• limited to 110 words:
now where did that number come from? Admittedly, you can fit in many a decent sonnet. Shakespeare's # 100 happens to contain 111 words.  Close, but no cigar.  And Kumar's lyrical masterpiece weighs in at a chunky 127.  Bummer, dude!  I guess there's always the rap song to shoot for.

• and written in Engiish, French, or Spanish.  Seems a wee bit ethnocentric to me.  Let's just forget the land of Dante, Goethe, and Pushkin—not to mention much of the "Third World." (Is that revealing, or what?)

Robert Frost managed to write poems about both astronomy and economics—separately, of course.

Come to think of it, though, it should be possible to come up with a poem that one could submit to all three contests:  say, about Israeli-Palestinian cooperation on wind turbines or green building.  Or perhaps an encomium to those two technocrats, Salam Fayyad and Shimon Peres.  Maybe the possibilities really are endless. (oh, yeah:  except that you couldn't use Arabic or Hebrew, of course)

In the case of all the contests, just two reminders:

1) In the eighteenth century—that greatest of eras, populated by more great intellects than any before or since—almost every author tried his hand at poetry, but much of it was garbage.  Being smart doesn't make you poetic.

2) Everyone can try to be a poet, but as the saying goes, "everyone is a critic."

So, write boldly, but carry a big stick.
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Alisa V. Brewer said...

I just couldn't resist my favorite comic strip's recent take:-)

Citizen Wald said...

Punk'd by Wordsworth--gotta love it!