Stopping by a Woods with Bad Cellphone Service for National Poetry Month

A couple of posts back I suggested we do more than poetry prompts or poem a day writing challenges for National Poetry Month. Here’s a demonstration of an idea that’s half-way there. While still a poetry writing prompt, it also acknowledges the tradition we’re working in.

Write a parody of a poem you like, you dislike, or you just have heard too too-often that you want to mess with it.*

One of the first teenage poems I wrote decades ago was a parody of Keats’ “Ode to a Grecian Urn”  titled “Ode to a 1953 Automobile Ad.”   I loved Keats’ poem, and while I wanted the smile that my title could engender, my parody was more at pointing out that Keats’ painful air of not-quite-realized truth portraying beauty wasn’t just a 19th century thing. Like most all of Sappho, that one may be lost to the ages, but here’s one recent enough to have been performed in the early years of this project: “Stopping by a Woods with Bad Cellphone Service.”

Did I like, hate, or just want to mess with Frost’s Stopping by a Woods on a Snowy Evening?”   Maybe a little of each. Long time readers here will remember that I disliked Frost in my youth. I thought then he was spouting platitudes, but I was wrong on that. When I presented Frost’s “Snowy Evening”  here years back I said that the most important thing in the poem has been little realized. The poem’s speaker isn’t being tempted by wasting time admiring natural beauty. He’s not seeking Transcendentalist truth by closely reading the book of nature — though Frost does read the book of nature, his readings are unusually dark. Those are common understandings of Frost’s poem, which do sort of find the poem’s ending as a platitude: “You know what you need to do, get to work.” So is it darker? Is he basically being tempted to crawl into the woods and end it all? Not quite that either. The most important fact in the story of this poem is that the speaker is lost  on a rural road in the early 20th century on the “darkest evening of the year,” which would be utter darkness in the days before electric light. There’s no beautiful Currier & Ives woods. It’s so deserted and without information you can hear snowflakes rubbing on each other. The famous opening is (with added italics) “Whose woods these are I think  I know.” Not really knowing = lost. When he decides to press on, it’s the act of acting without there being any knowledge that he’s going the right way. The poem sounds beautiful, and that ennobles that act, even if it says the speaker may have been foolish and is risking acting without knowledge at the end.

Frost Drake

April is National Poetry Month, and spring is here. Two gentlemen are unbuttoning their coats.

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My parody is more lighthearted, and is set in the 21st century, but like a lot of jokes the situation isn’t pleasant. By writing a parody you are acknowledging the poem and your knowledge of it — so even if your parody is meant as a corrective to make the reader never read the original poem the same way again, you are engaging in the type of activity I’m urging more of this Poetry Month: that we should encourage more expression not just by adding to the sum total of poetic examples of it, but by acknowledging it in others.

Three ways to hear The LYL Band rip into this snowy poem: this is the link to a lyric video, or (for some of you) a player gadget below to hear just the audio, and finally there’s this fallback link that will play it also.

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*There’s a long tradition of this in poetry and songs. It’s not just Weird Al. In my youth they were called “answer records” — and later on in hip hop, a “dis track” might twist someone else’s rhymes or musical samples in service of dialectic. We’ve presented some poetic “answer records” here. Like this famous set of poems here and here. Or this quippish answer I appended to another short poem.

I also sometimes make moves that feel a little like parody in some of my looser or “after” translations of older poems. Here’s one example. And another. And one more. These aren’t meant to be “funny ha-hah,” but there’s a pleasure in finding history’s cultural “rhymes.”

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