Shattered Visage

The place of short epigramic poetry in our culture, and just a touch of Percy Bysshe Shelley, combine in today’s piece.

When people seek to stop the expansion of poetry in definition or in practice they will aim and fire at certain targets. If you look closely and slowly, you may see the bullet holes with their worn, rusting lips frozen in mid-kiss.

“Song lyrics? When you see them on the page, you can surely tell they aren’t poetry. And what about advertising jingles then?”

I’ll reply that it’s true that we don’t know if Sappho was a copywriter for hire, or worked independently—and frankly, the advertising jingle has passed into disuse anyway. One benefit of aging is that one can remember lost, golden ages when the rustic bards of old sang along the roads.

I speak of course of that mid-20th Century, Midwestern American Greek Anthology presented by Burma Shave. We know only the fragments of their work that scribes have preserved in illuminated HTML, but did these jingles really harm mid-20th Century poetry much?

I think not.

Here was the scheme: an insurgent company that made shaving cream in Minneapolis Minnesota took to the idea of a series of small signs, enjambed with the broken lines of an epigramic poem, signed-off at the last sign with the company’s logo: its name in white flowing script. Cars sauntered on narrower roads in those days, roads that went farther between cities that had yet to leak out suburbs and housing projects. Car radios were an option not ticked off by every frugal buyer, and the boredom on the two-lane was an advertiser’s opportunity. Huge billboards, the epics of the roadside, might have pressed the budget of the Burma Shave company, but those little signs in series were another matter. Poetry, then as now, is a bargain.

Burma_Shave_Signs_by_highway

Poetry in motion, Burma Shave signs in use, circa 1940.

 

And to us, the naïve backseat riders with no tablets or Gameboys, we could hope then the horizon might give us that initial red sign and line of verse, followed by their episodic reveal, their enforced caesurae.

Perhaps the poems imagery or significance did not equal Elizabeth Bishop or Wallace Stevens, but the experience—yes!—was exactly what poetry should deliver. It comes on us, with expectation, but unpredictably. It reveals itself, in time marked with intervals that tell us it is indeed time. And in the end, it pleases us in a way that the passage of a mere Pioneer Seed Corn placard or another end-of-lane mailbox cannot.

Its motives may not have been artistically pure, but we didn’t care.

Commercial motives are as fragile as Olympian ones. Around 1960, Burma Shave was sold, and the brand discontinued. The placement of new signs stopped, and only in places where no one cared to groom the roadside did they remain to gradual ruin.

Years later I would move to Minneapolis, and eventually I would fall in with some folks who created a literary magazine that wanted to celebrate the inescapable, unpretentious—yes, sometimes commercial—main drag down Phaeton’s east-west path of the city. They called the magazine “The Lake Street Review.”  Down that street I would often bike or drive past a nondescript building, just before the freight-railroad tracks, just before the shopping-and-buying mall built were Minneapolis-Moline once built tractors. When it was built, this building had been a church, but as the area became industrial in the early 20th Century, the building became, for awhile, the headquarters, the factory, the Parnassus of Burma Shave.

Save the (Burma) Shave

The ex-Burma Shave building on Lake Street as it appeared in the 21st Century

 

I don’t know if any of us knew that. I only found out as they planned to tear it down, which they did. As the workman did a workman’s job, in the midst of the ditch of lathe and beams, a red sign with cursive white letters was found at the end: “Burma Shave.”

Weckage of Burma Shave Building

“on the pedestal, these words appear…” After the Burma Shave building was torn down.

 

Musically, the LYL Band performed “Shattered Visage”  a couple of years ago, but I share it now after this week’s presentation of Shelley’s “Ozymandias.”  As I said Monday, I read “Ozymandias”  without bringing out the pathos in the the impermanence of human achievements, choosing instead to emphasize time’s judgement on tyrants, but in “Shattered Visage”  my parody turns to the former. One other link to “Ozymandias:”  remember Horace Smith, the second-place sonneteer who also wrote an “Ozymandias?”  He entered into literary circles with a spoof he authored along with his brother, where they imitated all the most famous poets and orators of their time, including Lord Byron, who supplied an admiring blurb when the collection was published.

To listen to “Shattered Visage,”  use the player below.

 

Ozymandias

I came upon Percy Bysshe Shelley and this poem like many have, a teenager with a school poetry anthology on my desk. It is a good teaching poem, what with its readily accessible irony—and so, “Ozymandias”  came to me, nestled with poems by Keats and Byron, within the handy “The Romantics” chapter.

Stepping outside the poetry, even briefly, into biography, I found them a glamourous bunch of young men to my teenaged heart. The original “live fast, die young, leave a beautiful corpse” crew. Political and sexual revolutionaries, aesthetes with groupies. Should I study them, or seek to be them? Well the former was on offer, the latter harder to obtain for someone of my looks and stature.

Oxford-University_Shelley_Memorial

One Romantic depiction of Shelley’s drowned corpse, which looks better than some of us do alive.

 

In the 1960s Byron, Keats and Shelley were the rock stars in my textbooks. To the generation before the coming of the 20th Century Modernists, they seemed that too, even if “rock star” wasn’t yet a metaphor in the shops. So, Tennyson and the Pre-Raphaelites wanted to be Byron, Keats and Shelley too. In America, Edna St. Vincent Millay and Paul Laurence Dunbar showed that you didn’t have to be male or white to feel that urge. Even unique figures like Rabindranath Tagore were touched by their model.

Well, despite the notoriety, the tangled amorous relationships, and the requirement of a tragic early death—yes, in spite of this—in the end the romantic, idealist stance doesn’t remove the poet from the mundane tasks of writing poetry any more than drugs and sex remove from a rock star the need to come up with, well, some music once in a while.

Such is the case here of “Ozymandias.”  Did this poem strike Shelley’s poetic soul in a flash of hashish inspiration while adventuring in the Middle East? Well, no. If we were to continue the musical analogies, it instead came from a silent, slow-motion, written-poetry equivalent of a Battle of the Bands, a Rap Battle, or a songwriter’s Song Pull, a friendly contest undertaken with another poet, Shelley’s contemporary Horace Smith. They both were working off the same short passage from 1st Century BC Greek historian Diodorus, which gives both of them the plot. Here’s Smith’s “Ozymandias:”

Horace Smiths Ozymandias

Horace Smith’s version of “Ozymandias.” Not found in schoolbooks.

 

After they finished their competing works, I wonder how Smith felt. If one goes to poetry for meaning, these two poems make near the same point. Imagery-wise, Shelley’s choice and portrayal of the broken statue on a barren desert does have better selection of detail. And Smith, trying to make his rhyme, has one particularly awkward line, the one ending “holding the Wolf in chace” (“chace” is an Old-French word that was once used in English to mean hunt). But where Shelley kills it here, is his word-music. If you look at Shelley’s manuscript of “Ozymandias”  you can see some of how he worked on these things, so they wouldn’t be “lifeless things.”

Art is not a competition. Criteria are slippery things, and what works in one poem, fails in another. Even day to day, within our own singular selves, what we seek from, or need from, art differs—but Smith’s “Ozymandias”  was rightfully eclipsed by Shelley’s.

In my music and performance of “Ozymandias”  I went counter to other presentations I’ve heard. The poem’s lyricism and the later 19th Century acceptance of Shelley as a portrayer of ideal beauty has masked the Shelley that was a political radical and iconoclast. As a result, many read it lightly, bringing out its sonic beauty or its pathos. I don’t know how Shelley, the radical, would want it read, but I’ve always felt that the traveler who’s telling this tale knows all too well, in non-historic terms, about living under a hand that mocked them with a sneer of cold command.

Therefore, I emulated the spirit of another English iconoclast, Kevin Coyne, for this piece. I love the probably apocryphal story of Coyne being approached about replacing Jim Morrison in The Doors, that rock star/poet hybrid. In Coyne’s telling, he turned them down because he “didn’t like the leather trousers.”  To hear my sans culottes performance of “Ozymandias,”  with more disgust at tyranny and less pathos at time’s ravages, use the player below.