The Poet’s Tale

The poet is born in squalor, his first love. Some of the poet’s favorite words include seedy, shabby, seamy. These are words made with a hissing sound. In phonics, that sound is called a sibilant, and is produced by forcing the tongue toward the teeth, with the lips near closed, forcing air out like a snake whistling. But opposite words are equally valued by the poet: classy, stylish, exclusive. Even if the reader uses words without really caring about words as such much. The poet is not primarily concerned with getting a point across, and is held harmless if some point hurts its object in the bargain, even if so much the better. If an annoying sound appears to sharpen the point, there’s value added. The poet is in love with words.

But it’s easy to confuse poetry with sarcasm, satire, or irony. And the true cynicism of poetry often gives way to stoicism. This may occur when the poet realizes there is no point to anything, including his own poetry. Innuendos may still be highly valued (particularly where points may be scored), for all words have their beginning in figures of speech, which is to say, metaphor. That is precisely what an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth is meant to solve. Words disallow mistake when artificial trade-offs are refused. But language is no place for despots, try as they might to exert control, to establish absolute authority. Who controls the movement of words over space and time?

Words are all substitutes. No one can claim dominion. One is as good as another. Language is democratic. And that is why the poet is married to shame, his own mother, at once virgin and harlot (that is to say, vagabond, a beggar for words). In a truly democratic society, where everyone is equal and all words hold common sway, and competition without compromise is useless, it may begin to appear the only way to have a-leg-up-on is to attempt to subject another to shame. But shame has never worked as a measure of control. And that is why poetry can be so hard to get, and why hard times come so often to poets.

The poet stands accused of nothing and nonsense. His love of words and sound and color is scorned and mocked. He is the scapegoat for confusion.

Honor and Shame: Born Again Off Maggie’s Farm

When Huck decides to help Jim at the end of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, he really does believe he’ll go to hell for his actions. Yet he’s awakening from a cultured sleep; he’s being reborn. First, he’s accepted the responsibility of a decision; he must act: “I was a-trembling, because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself: ‘All right, then, I’ll go to hell.’” Huck was born into a culture that passed on as a value the idea that to help a runaway slave was a crime and a sin. It’s a culture informed by codes of honor and shame. “It was awful thoughts and awful words, but they was said. And I let them stay said; and never thought no more about reforming.” And at the end of the book, when Huck decides to “light out for the territory,” he’s saying that he ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more. The orphaned Huck has been born again.

This same sense of honor and shame opens Crossan’s discussion of Mediterranean cultures in his “The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant. Honor and shame are cultural core values, but more, they become the very persona of the culture: “Honor and shame, then, could be defined as the ideology of small, discrete, and unstable groups competing permanently for basic resources that are attained insecurely and maintained precariously but where conflict must be reluctantly transposed into cooperation for the most precious resource of all, marriageable women” (p. 15). But like Huck, Jesus ain’t gonna work on this Maggie’s farm no more, either. It’s clear that honor and shame, as enculturated values, become emotions enabling control, and one must be born again to escape the enculturated entrapments.

We see both examples come together in Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, where the culture described in Huck Finn finally plays itself out, and Quentin’s suicide, prompted, among other things, by his worrying over his sister Caddy’s reputation, will continue forever his argument with his father who has told him that virginity as a value is a man-made tool to control women, the same explanation Crossan argues: “Boys. Men. They lie about it. Because it means less to women, Father said. He said it was men invented virginity not women” (p. 96). But Quentin can’t stomach the irony: “And Father said it’s because you are a virgin: don’t you see? Women are never virgins. Purity is a negative state and therefore contrary to nature. It’s nature is hurting you not Caddy and I said That’s just words and he said So is virginity and I said you dont know. You cant know and he said Yes. On the instant when we come to realise that tragedy is second-hand” (p. 143).

An example of the controls at work can be seen in Joseph Campbell’s “Tales of Love and Marriage,” from his The Power of Myth. We’re now in medieval Catholic culture, where marriages are arranged, but Tristan and Isolde decide they are, absurdly, in love, in romantic love. Isolde’s nurse delivers the warning, but Tristan, too, has had enough of Maggie’s farm: “And if by my death, you mean the eternal punishment in the fires of hell, I accept that, too” (p. 190).

A culture’s core values, what it desires, finds expression not necessarily in ideology but in personality, in the masks individuals wear to get along with their neighbors. The existential decision to be born again shucks the mask. James Joyce leaves Ireland and the oppression of the church’s values of honor and shame, its sanctioned hierarchy of rich and poor, ecclesiastical and secular, its discriminations of right and wrong. And Samuel Beckett ain’t gonna work for the text, no more, ripping off the mask with the inside out eyes, the mask that conditions us to see ourselves as others see us, and to find there outside acceptance and respect. Everyone working on Maggie’s farm must wear the same mask.

How we vote is also probably an enculturated core value. Louis Menand, in “The Unpolitical Animal: How political science understands voters (New Yorker, August 30, 2004), argues that “Voters go into the booth carrying the imprint of the hopes and fears, the prejudices and assumptions of their family, their friends, and their neighbors. For most people, voting may be more meaningful and more understandable as a social act than as a political act.”

“I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm, no more” is an existential decision, like Huck’s, and announces a rebirth, affirming that one’s existence precedes one’s essence, and that one has taken individual responsibility for one’s own essence.