Friday, December 12, 2008

Glossolalia, Redecorated


Do you know John Barth's fiction collection Lost in the Funhouse? It contains a piece called "Glossolalia" that features several widely varying texts. When these are read aloud simultaneously, they sound like a well-known everyday text; I hesitate to say more than that, for fear of damaging your potential bliss of discovery if you don't already know Barth's "Glossolalia" — the word itself refers to speech in an unknown language that cannot be understood, perhaps even an imagined language. Go read Lost in the Funhouse. I've always admired Barth's little parlor trick of a story, or whatever it is — "Glossolia."

I also admire Robert Mezey's "Prose and Cons," which employs similar sounds to fabricate humorous "translations" or conversions of common texts we might all know. Here, for example, is s beginning whose model you will surely recognize immediately: "Our farther, whose art is heavy, / hollow bead I name. / Die, kingpin, come" and so on. The central engine of "Prose and Cons" (found in Mezey's poetry collection Evening Wind) is consonance.

These two sources confraternized in my "inner poetry machine" and the following prose poem came sliding out:

Chorus of Glories

— Instructions for performance: assign one person (or group) to
voice each speaker, then read the four “glories” aloud and in unison.
Note: readers may need to practice several times, letting go of
personal intonation in favor of group syllabics, to allow the
glossolalic effect to take hold. Marvelous for parties, choir rehearsals,
and university committee meetings.

  
— after Robert Mezey and John Barth

The Surfer

Chlorine be to the frother, and to the sand, and to the shoal we
coast. Acid wash in the beginner is gnarly, ever chill, babe.
Curl without land. We men.


The Dieter

Calories be in the fodder, and in the scent, and in the whole wheat
toast. As weight was in the beginning, is now and ever-so-Elvis,
whirl with Attends. Weigh ’em in.


The Avant-Garde Artiste

Galleries be to the Fad War, into the Scene, into the whole East
Coast. As we test ’em, the big ending is knowing if there shall be
pearls in our hand. Oh, man.


The “Pre-Owned Vehicle” Dealer

Glory be to the four-door, and to the shine, and to the full lease,
most. Mitsubishi, the beguiling, Nissan and ever Shelby,
hurled without end. Aim in.

— Vince Gotera, from Mirror Northwest (2006)

I am posting this poem now because I am just finishing teaching Craft of Poetry at the University of Northern Iowa — an upper-class and grad course in which we focused on poetry imitation. We read Denise Duhamel's Barbie-poem-collection Kinky and then wrote imitation Duhamel/Barbie (or Ken or Papa Smurf or King Kong) poems. Then Revolt of the Crash Test Dummies by Jim Daniels; Prairie Fever by Mary Biddinger; Against Which by Ross Gay; Love, Death, and the Changing of the Seasons by Marilyn Hacker; and finally Long for this World by Ronald Wallace — all the while writing and workshopping imitation poems for each poet we studied.

Now I want to show my students that there can be a larger life outside the classroom for imitation poems. In "Chorus of Glories," I am imitating John Barth and Robert Mezey, as explained above, as well as a Christian prayer. And also lampooning all sorts of people on the way, including myself and my profession.

Like a couple of other poems recently posted in the blog, "Chorus of Glories" appeared in the Contemporary Poetry anthology of the online journal Mirror Northwest — an anthology/cache of creative-writing models for students. Here is my pedagogical note about "Chorus of Glories" on that website:

This is a light-hearted experiment in poetic music, especially so-called "rich consonance." I am of course indebted to Hopkins and, more particularly, Robert Mezey's "Prose and Cons" in his book Evening Wind and also John Barth's "Glossolalia" in Lost in the Funhouse. Although my "Instructions for performance" are tongue-in-cheek, I hope you will try reading the different sections out loud chorally in unison groups.

The "rich consonance" here is easily shown by comparing the last sentence in each paragraph: "We men." "Weigh 'em in." "Oh, man." "Aim in." But, you know, I'm over-explaining. Just gather a group of people, assign different paragraphs, and try reading them all at the same time. Can you "feel" what my primary original model was? Have fun!

Graphic courtesy of GospelGifs.com.

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