Thursday, August 30, 2018

"Holy Cow!" by Lowell Jaeger, Contest Judge

Holy Cow!
Lowell Jaeger

Holy cow! we’d say, waking to a foot of fresh snow
covering roads and walks.  Standing in our PJs barefoot
at the window, staring at drifts lolling from the eaves
"Expletive" Ink on Paper
By J. Artemus Gordon
like whipped cream.  Holy cow! we’d say, pointing
at icicles bending pine branches to breaking.

Holy balls! Dad said, nodding past his beer mug
at the trophy muskie mounted behind the bar,
the open jaw spiked with rows of glinting sabers.
That sum-bitch could swallow your arm.

Jesus balls! he’d exclaim under his breath
on days his wife and whining kids plagued him
past exasperation.  Holy flappin’ balls — meant
we’d best quit yapping and keep out of his way.

Jeez, Mom said, her bottom lip curled,
her two dollar door prize ticket winning a measly
set of plastic spoons.  Jeez, what a gyp.
Or, Gol darn it.  She’d plop herself down on the couch,
cross her arms and declare herself on strike.
I’m not your slave, she’d protest.  Gol darn it anyways! 

Poet’s Notes:  What’s a “swear” word?  Who decides?  Why do we care? 

I was born and raised in dairy farm country – north/central Wisconsin where every pasture everywhere was a green buffet for munching black and white Holstein cows.  “Holy cow!” was our favorite exclamation, and we used it from dawn to dusk and sometimes mumbled it in our sleep, too.  Our mothers and fathers and Sunday School teachers forbid us to “take the Lord’s name in vain,” so we improvised swear words to punctuate our arguments and insults. Holy cow, we’d say, you’re cheating!  Gol darn it, we’d spit, that’s not fair!  If the cows overheard us, they didn’t give a damn.  I mean, darn.

I love to eavesdrop on other people’s conversations.  In some ways, that’s a poet’s job; we’ve been gifted with ears wide and hungry for language in all its uses and misuses, in all its versions and perversions. Walt Whitman, bless his soul, used to walk the streets of Manhattan with an eager ear cocked to the wondrous variety and inventiveness of ordinary speech.  He heard poetry in that.  The “chuff” of the hand, he wrote, the “blab” of the pave (see Editor’s Notes). These words he picked up while loitering near the loading docks while riding streetcars or downing a mug at the pub.  

During his lifetime, Whitman’s poems went largely unread because his poems seemed crude and prosaic in comparison to his contemporaries who employed a more formal and accepted vernacular (see Editor’s Notes). Today, Whitman’s one book, Leaves of Grass, is loved across the globe.  His poems are alive with the living pulse of language.  Many scholars now refer to Whitman as the “father’’ of American poetry.  He certainly has influenced many modern poets, William Carlos Williams, for instance (see Editor’s Notes), and Allen Ginsberg (see Editor’s Notes). He’s influenced me, too. Whitman taught us that poems could sing without a regular rhyme scheme and without high-fallootin’ diction. Whitman taught us to appreciate the music in the barmaid’s banter, to marvel at the fireworks exploding from a teamster’s curse.  

How can you call that poetry?  Lots of people are still asking this question. Your poems sound like someone talking, they say. Isn’t that just prose?  Well, yes, a clear demarcation between poetry and prose no longer exists. Some poetry is prosaic. Some prose is poetic.  To explore this issue, I recommend reading an exceptionally brilliant poem called “One Morning Shoeing Horses” by Henry Taylor (see Editor’s Notes), who won the Pulitzer Prize back in the 1970s for his book The Flying Change.  I won’t say much about this poem; I’m hoping you will read it and discover its power on your own.  The poem just sounds like someone talking, if you read without pausing at the end of each line.  And it rhymes.  

Editor’s Notes:  Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself, Part 46, stanza 6, line 1 reads, “If you tire, give me both burdens, and rest the chuff of your hand on my hip,” http://www.potw.org/archive/potw375.html.  Part 8, stanza 4, line 1 reads, “The blab of the pave, tires of carts, sluff of boot-soles, talk of the promenaders,” https://whitmanarchive.org/published/LG/1891/poems/27.

A short biography of Walt Whitman may be read here https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poet/walt-whitman.

For commentary on Whitman’s influence on Williams, see https://whitmanarchive.org/criticism/current/encyclopedia/entry_327.html.

For an essay on Whitman’s influence on Ginsberg, see https://www.amacad.org/content/publications/pubContent.aspx?d=22352.


"Holy Cow!" will appear in Lowell's verse-play Someday I'd Write This Down http://www.songsoferetz.com/2018/08/contest-judge-lowell-jaeger-publishes.html.

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