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Saturday, June 25, 2011

Number 197: Geroge Starbuck "Sonnet with a Different Letter at the End of Every Line"

Sonnet with a Different Letter at the End of Every Line

O for a muse of fire, a sack of dough,
Or both! O promissory notes of woe!
One time in Santa Fe N.M.
Ol' Winfield Townley Scott and I ... But whoa.

One can exert oneself, ff ,
Or architect a heaven like Rimbaud,
Or if that seems, how shall I say, de trop ,
One can at least write sonnets, a propos
Of nothing save the do-re-mi-fa-sol
Of poetry itself. Is not the row
Of perfect rhymes, the terminal bon mot,
Obeisance enough to the Great O?

"Observe," said Chairman Mao to Premier Chou,
"On voyage à Parnasse pour prendre les eaux.
On voyage comme poisson, incog."

-- George Starbuck

Hap Notes: So much is packed into this clever little poem that I sometimes forget to appreciate the sheer artistry of Starbuck. Once again, he's so clever here that we forget to take the poem as seriously as we should. He's saying something here about art, politics and poetry in addition to the extraordinary cleverness. Starbuck was a well read and highly intelligent man and whatever we find in the poem, it's a good bet that he slipped it in there on purpose.

First off notice that each line of the poem starts out with 'O', then notice that his rhyming sounds all sound a bit like "oh" then notice his clever use of abbreviations and short-hand to get his "different" letter for each ending. Pretty clever stuff. But there's so much more. Let's start at the beginning, eh? (And I'm quite sure I'm going to miss stuff, but I''ll try to be thorough.)

"O for a muse of fire" is the beginning lines of the Prologue of Shakespeare's Henry V where he bades the audience to use their imagination to create the scenes in France, the horses, etc. He and Starbuck are both telling us to uh, 'think outside the box' (hate that phrase but it does nicely here.)

The "notes of woe" is from a Lord Byron poem called, " Away, Away Ye Notes of Woe." In the poem he talks of music he once loved that now fill him with sorrow when he thinks on those brighter days.

Santa Fe, N.M. is, of course, Santa Fe, New Mexico. It is where the poet Winfield Townley Scott is buried (we'll get to his poems soon). Scott committed suicide.

"ff" is the musical notation fortissimo - very loud.

Rimbaud (pronounced "Rimbo" - sorta) is a poet we talked about when we discussed Verlaine, a gifted poet with a seedy side, remember?

De Trop (dee tro) is a French phrase for "a bit too much". Bon Mot (bone mo) is literally "good word" and means clever phrase.

The great O is (I believe) Orpheus, the legendary Greek poet, singer and story teller who was said to have charmed even stones with his musical verses. ( I don't know if Starbuck was thinking of the orgasmic reference we use but it certainly fits here.) We will talk more about Orpheus later this year. (The masthead today is "Orpheus Leading Eurydice from the Underworld" by Corot. If you want more stuff on Orpheus and Eurydice here's a spot to check: )

Premiere Chou (Zhou in the history books now) was the first premier in the peoples republic of China under Mao Zedung.

The French phrase means "they travel to Parnassus to take the waters,/ they travel as fish." Taking the waters is what people used to do (and may still, I don't know) to take the curative effects of natural springs. Parnassus in Greek mythology is a mountain which was the home of the muses and sacred to Apollo. It's worth noting that the "Parnassian" poets in France in the 1800s were devoted to formal perfection and less romantic "inspirations."

"Incog" is a truncation of the word incognito.

Got all that? Now put it together. I may have missed some stuff– I'm not even half as smart as Starbuck. The poem is great fun (okay, it is for me anyway) but there's some serious stuff being said about poetry. By the by, Starbuck's final little joke on us all is that this is NOT a sonnet – it has 15 (instead of 14) lines.

It's very funny that the two Chinese communist leaders disguise themselves as fish to "take the waters" eh? What else does that say?

I'm going to let you ponder this poem a while. Relax– don't force it, just let it come to you.

Here's where we have talked about Starbuck before:

and here:

It's Saturday so here's a few cartoons too!

First Betty Boop and the awesome Cab Calloway:

Then we have a great little tune by Bernie Cummins & His New Yorker Hotel Orchestra - Minnie The Mermaid, I guess because I was thinking of traveling incognito as a fish. My mom used to sing this to me and I always loved it:

Here's a little fish who didn't want to go to school:

Finally, a little sampling of Dr. Orpheus from one of my favorite current cartoon series "The Venture Brothers":

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