With Hurricane Irma breathing down the necks of hundreds of thousands of people, I’ve been re-reading the flood narrative. Far-removed from the physical devastation Irma brings, I’m I also hearing the echoes of Kamau Brathwaite: it’s geographic privilege, really, that allows me to consider the brilliance of Brathwaite’s contention that “the hurricane does not roar in pentameters.”
C.L. Innes writes:
At The New School, I was a student of the amazing Robert Antoni. A few years later, I had the pleasure of teaching writing at the College of New Rochelle, and I leaned on much of what Robert taught me. The following is a reflection from that class four years ago:
In the context of the class I’m teaching, it’s important to present the modern formal structures of essay clearly, and for students to be able to execute these schema even as they learn to hear, develop, and deliver their unique, respective voices. It’s also important that they (and that all of us) read widely and across foreign and familiar cultural and linguistic settings.
Braithwaite, of course, is not saying that iambic pentameter is a more formal, academic, or polished form of expression than are the cadences of his experience. The old English forms, unlike the basic structures of essay taught at the undergraduate level, are not conventions to be mastered and then moved on from. They are simply different from other expressions, and just as valid. But the insight he gives about the ways in which experience, geography, and culture influence our voices and our framing devices is brilliantly stated: the hurricane does not roar in pentameters.
In writing, the old sports adage also holds true: you have to get good before you can get fancy. Braithwaite or Ferlinghetti aren’t “fancy” in this sense, nor are the old English conventions necessarily “good.” But we do, all of us, carry points of reference, and for better or for worse, the discipline, practice, and art of writing in English or in the West in general requires a certain level of engagement with things like pentameter and people like Shakespeare, Chaucer, and, later, Whitman, Emerson, Twain, Conrad, Hemingway, etc. In writing and in physics, we’re dealing with relative values and definitions: neither our experience nor our execution manifest in vacuo, neither are they hatched like Athena, fully formed, fully armed, out of Zeus’s head. Motion is always relative, and so too is the spectrum from “good” to “fancy.”
But developing our voice as writers or as people requires the mastery of certain modes of expression. We might even say that without the narrative frames afforded us by the convention of language, we’d be a very different species arranged in very different communities. Even if we can’t read or write, language has given us the ability to think of ourselves as objects with stories moving through time. Self-reflection is in most cases a function of narrative, ours or someone else’s. Mastering the elements of basic structure (getting “good” with the basic tools of the written trade) brings deeper possibilities of expression closer to our reach. I may understand, conceptually, a great many things about black holes, but I’ll likely make no significant contribution to the study of them if I’m not conversant in the language of higher mathematics, even if I say, with Einstein, that all motion and velocity are relative (save the velocity of C). “Good” and “fancy” may be relative terms, but they occur within a written and spoken frame of reference alongside our experiences and efforts toward understanding and expressing them.
It’s been said by Malcolm Gladwell (and Macklemore and Ryan Lewis) that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to master any given discipline. I like for students to keep this general idea in mind: you have to get good (proficient, comfortable, familiar, conversant) before you can get fancy. Visually, I’ve used the work of Picasso to drive this point home. Before he did his groundbreaking work, he become very proficient at using the language of the art world around him. Before he was a cubist or surrealist, he mastered realism. He became conversant at this formal aspect of the craft and, of course, transcended it. But without The Physician’s Palette, we wouldn’t have The Old Guitarist or Guernica.
We’ve been talking about all of these ideas over the first few weeks of class. While preparing for our most recent session, I decided I wanted to revisit the Brathwaite quote in particular and did a google search for “the hurricane does not roar in pentameters.” The second result was for a tumblr blog called Poets of Color using the quote as a tag line. The most recent post on that blog?
Even my hat mocks me
on the inside of my grief –
My twisted mouth
and gnashing teeth,
my fingers fat and clumsy
as if they were still wearing
those gloves –
the bloodstained ones you keep.
What has happened
to the pupils
of my eyes, Picasso?
Why do I deserve
What am I now
if not a cross between
a clown and a broken
piece of crockery?
But I am famous.
People recognise me
despite my fractures.
I’m no Mona Lisa
(how I’d like to wipe
the smugness from her face
that still captivates.)
Doesn’t she know that art, great art,
needn’t be an oil-painting?
I am a magnet
not devoid of beauty.
I am an icon
of twentieth-century grief.
of compositional possibilities
My tears are tears of happiness –
big rolling diamonds.
Picasso, I want my face back
the unbroken photography of it
Once I lived to be stroked
by the fingers of your brushes
Now I see I was more an accomplice
to my own unrooting
Watching the pundits gaze
open-mouthed at your masterpieces
While I hovered like a battered muse
my private grief made public.
Dora, Theodora, be reasonable, if it weren’t for Picasso
you’d hardly be remembered at all.
He’s given you an unbelievable shelf-life.
Yes, but who will remember the fruits of my own life?
I am no moth flitting around his wick.
He might be a genius but he’s also a prick –
Medusa, Cleopatra, help me find my inner bitch,
wasn’t I christened Henriette Theodora Markovitch?
Picasso, I want my face back
the unbroken geography of it.
– Grace Nichols
Dora Maar (nee Markovitch) was Picasso’s long-time partner and the muse/model for much of his best-known work. She was also an up-and-coming artist in her own right in the 30s and 40s and photographed the creative process of Guernica. The diamond tears Nichols speaks of refer to Maar’s role as the face of The Weeping Woman, a sort of Guernica writ large. She also wrote poetry, and so we’re able to move from seeing Maar through Picasso’s lens to hearing Maar in Nichols’ voice to finally arriving at a place all writers want to be: seen as we see ourselves, heard in our very own voice:
Pure as a lake boredom
I hear its harmony
In the vast cold room
The nuance of light seems eternal
All is simple I admire
the full totality of objects.
The soul that still yesterday wept is quiet — it’s exile suspended
a country without art only nature
Memory magnolia pure so far off
I am blind
and made from a bit of earth
But your gaze never leaves me
And your angel keeps me.
The hurricane does not roar in pentameters. Dora Maar does not speak in the voice of Picasso or Nichols but is still, for them, an indelible symbol, a cypher for their own struggles (theirs and their peoples’). Behind that is a person with a point of view and a voice, a photographer-poet wrestling with the ecstatic anxieties of having both and of using them. That’s what we’re talking about here.