IT WAS THE THIRD OF JUNE…

Today I am going to combine some things I have talked about lately:

First is the “Question” hokku, the whole point of which is to ask a question — or raise a question — that remains unanswered.

Shiki wrote a verse which I shall rearrange slightly to better fit English:

On the sandy beach,
Why is a fire being lit?
The summer moon.

Again, the whole point of such a verse is to have us experience — through the elements of the verse — a question that remains unanswered.  It is that feeling of not knowing that is the whole point of a “question” hokku.  To answer the question would ruin the verse.

The second recent topic is that of song lyrics as commonly unrecognized or undervalued poetry.  I have pointed out that song lyrics, which for convenience I call poems/songs, are often not even mentioned when the subject of poetry is raised, because they are somehow seen as “not real poetry.”  But in contrast to that, I also pointed out how in most cultures, poems that today are read silently or aloud were originally sung.  That combines the musicality — the sound and rhythm — of words in a poem with the music of the singing voice, often accompanied by one or more musical instruments.

There is a conflict then — something that makes no sense — when we read through hundreds of pages in an anthology of poetry and find that virtually none of the recent verses included are the poems that are song lyrics.  This is often simply unrealistic snobbery on the part of the compiler or compilers.

But back to the topic.  Just as we find the raising of an unanswered question significant in “question” hokku, we also find it significant in a good longer poem/song.  As an example, here is a rather remarkable poem — originally sung — called “Ode to Billy Joe,” by Bobbie Gentry:

It was the third of June,
another sleepy, dusty Delta day.
I was out choppin’ cotton
and my brother was balin’ hay.
And at dinner time we stopped,
and we walked back to the house to eat.
And mama hollered at the back door “y’all remember to wipe your feet.”
And then she said she got some news this mornin’ from Choctaw Ridge
Today Billy Joe MacAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge.

Papa said to mama as he passed around the blackeyed peas,
“Well, Billy Joe never had a lick of sense, pass the biscuits, please.”
“There’s five more acres in the lower forty I’ve got to plow.”
Mama said it was shame about Billy Joe, anyhow.
“Seems like nothin’ ever comes to no good up on Choctaw Ridge,
And now Billy Joe MacAllister’s jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge.”

And brother said he recollected when he and Tom and Billy Joe
Put a frog down my back at the Carroll County picture show.
And wasn’t I talkin’ to him after church last Sunday night?
“I’ll have another piece of apple pie, you know it don’t seem right.
I saw him at the sawmill yesterday on Choctaw Ridge,
And now you tell me Billy Joe’s jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge.”

Mama said to me “Child, what’s happened to your appetite?
I’ve been cookin’ all morning and you haven’t touched a single bite.
That nice young preacher, Brother Taylor, dropped by today,
Said he’d be pleased to have dinner on Sunday. Oh, by the way,
He said he saw a girl that looked a lot like you up on Choctaw Ridge
And she and Billy Joe was throwing somethin’ off the Tallahatchie Bridge.”

A year has come ‘n’ gone since we heard the news ’bout Billy Joe.
Brother married Becky Thompson, they bought a store in Tupelo.
There was a virus going ’round, papa caught it and he died last spring,
And now mama doesn’t seem to wanna do much of anything.
And me, I spend a lot of time pickin’ flowers up on Choctaw Ridge,
And drop them into the muddy water off the Tallahatchie Bridge.

Wow.  One could hardly find a verse more effective in setting mood, in raising questions that forever remain unanswered.  And the plain, southern “country” language of the writer is very effective.  The whole poem has a hot, weary air that is only heightened when sung.  And the phrasing is so true to life — no “fancy” language here:

Mama said to me “Child, what’s happened to your appetite?
I’ve been cookin’ all morning and you haven’t touched a single bite.”

and

There was a virus going ’round, papa caught it and he died last spring,
And now mama doesn’t seem to wanna do much of anything
.

Look at the effective use of alliteration (repetition of consonant sounds) and repetition of two-syllable words at the very beginning, in setting the tired, drowsy overall atmosphere of the poem:

It was the third of June,
Another sleepy, dusty delta day.

Is it any wonder that the general public has lost interest in much of what is offered in contemporary anthologies and journals as poetry today?  It has all too often become over-intellectualized, over-thought, and has frequently lost the “life” that we see, somewhat paradoxically, in poems such as “Ode to Billy Joe.”

David

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