I visit the zoo.

Friday, November 12, 2004

Visitor: About this Billy Collins poem. "The Centrifuge" (BAP2004).

Hedgehog: Oh, I was getting to that...

Visitor: Well?

Hedgehog: You know, they won't like this...

Visitor: What?

Hedgehog: Well... anything.

Visitor: It's the name, isn't it?

Hedgehog: That's where it starts. The name he has. And the name he is. "Billy" and Billy are just too damned friendly and popular.

Visitor: Better to be Bill or William.

Hedgehog: Or william.

Visitor: But that's just the beginning, right? Just the baseball cap on the well-loved famous poet who gets more for one reading than you'll see all year?

Hedgehog: Yes. It's also that he says stuff. In "The Centrifuge," he comes right out and says, "It is difficult to describe what we felt" and "we all wondered openly" and then goes on to describe what made them wonder, right there on paper for children to see. In complete sentences.

Visitor: That's problematic, eh?

Hedgehog: Problem-o-matic. You are not permitted to induce wonder with simple exposition.

Carp: Crap!

Visitor: And? There's more, right?

Hedgehog: You can't be about things. This is strictly forbidden.

Carp: I don't like it one bit.

Visitor: But other poets write about things in simple sentences. A drawer full of rubber bands, for instance.

Hedgehog: They might sometimes write simple sentences about things, but one sentence should not follow another sentence, not from beginning to end like you're telling a story. Collins starts right in with a story and follows it all the way to the end without losing anyone for even one line. There is an internal logic. There is sense in the sentence and consequence in the sequence. You cannot interchange any of his sentences. He depends on the story.

Visitor: You're supposed to say narrative. But whatever. This is not done. Right?

Hedgehog: No, this is not done, not often, not in the best circles.

Carp: I don't like it. I'm not having it.

Guppy: But what does he do, exactly?

Hedgehog: In the notes, he says he was thinking about the religious power of technology and about early Hitchcock movies. In the poem, a family pays admission to enter an aluminum dome and be before a great and powerful machine, which is said to have a counterpart somewhere else. They go home and discuss it at tea. They mention the lodger, who is reported to have slipped out.

We have the simple props: the dome as a place of worship, the god-machine, the suggestion of an invisible connection to some greater power. The time is past: an aluminum (old future material) dome holding a machine from the age of giant steel, technology as celebrity ("Look! Electricity!"), a large family (more old technology) having tea around a table, a lodger staying with the large family and disappearing quietly.

We have the words: admission (confession), a "mightier" (suggestion of 'almighty'?) invisible power, and wonder.

Carp: I don't like it. Please shut up.

Hedgehog: So if I were a kid back in hedgehog school (ready, cheaters?), I'd probably write some crap...

Carp: Crap!

Hedgehog: ... about how the centrifuge is a device that separates by qualities, and perhaps in this case separates the large worshipful family from the lonely disappearing lodger. Or, the centrifuge is nothing of the kind. Instead, the centrifuge (representing technology) is what is splitting society apart, the family representing before and the lodger representing after. Or the centrifuge is both. See how easy this stuff is?

So let's run through it again for the kids wring papers. Admission is confession, the dome is the church, and the machine, of course, is god. Or something. The invisible connection to the invisible counterpart machine is prayer. And then the lodger is, I don't know, Jesus with an umbrella?

That sucks all the poetry out of it, but that's probably exactly what your teacher is after. Make up your own silly shit around that. Poetry teachers will buy anything if you sound like you mean it and write in complete sentences.

A thousand guppies: Thanks, Uncle Hedgehog!

Carp: I don't like it.

Visitor: Fine, you don't like it now, but say this centrifuge is a time machine that takes itself back to 1910. Manikins wear new clothes. Poets don't work in universities. Hardly anyone's read Frege. The centrifuge parks itself on H.G. Wells and leaves only skid marks on the acid-free page. Would it then be called a good poem?

Hedgehog: In theory?

Visitor: No, I'm saying we leave theory out of this.



Hedgehog: What?

Visitor: Would it be called a good poem in 1910? Or in 1930? Or 1950? Or 2020?






Visitor: The last bus is coming. See you tomorrow.



Carp: I don't like it.


At 10:03 PM, Blogger chris said...

I hope I'm not cluttering up yr comments boxes too much, but Malcolm, this one, too, is an absolute Hoot! Laugh-out-loud funny--I think I like the well placed one liners from Carp best of all--what an ace of delivery. Please keep on!

chris murray


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