The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

When I first arrived in college, wearing an Indonesian batik shirt and flared trousers, I figured that I would need to distinguish myself somehow from the hordes of the uncultured that thronged the mathematics and science departments. As a math student myself, I was geeky enough. But if I was to establish my cultural superiority over the rest of the nerds, I needed a powerful display of, well, cultural superiority.

In my quest for domination, I didn't aim to compete with the liberal arts types. They were already in the cultural stratosphere relative to us rationalists. ("Damned arty-farty culture-vultures", I muttered to myself enviously.) So I began to implement my cunning plan among the nerds. I would spout poetry, I decided, and slay them with my superiority.

A small problem arose. I only knew three poems. Two of them weren't even high culture. The absent-minded Man from Petushkee was an absurdist verse, and The Jabberwocky not much more exalted, even if it was a superb work of imaginative wordplay. My trump (and only) card, therefore, would have to be Tennyson's
The Eagle

He clasps the crag with crooked hands;
Close to the sun in lonely lands,
Ring'd with the azure world, he stands.

The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls;
He watches from his mountain walls,
And like a thunderbolt he falls.
As part of my stealthy plan for conquest, I showed this poem to various classmates. Most of them shuddered and withdrew stealthily from me, even as I buttonholed them and explained in a strident tone that Tennyson wrote muscular poetry, with metronomic thunder and feeling. It was like a Jehovah's Witness aiming to convert Richard Dawkins. My pal Eki, on the other hand, was not too impressed. He had studied poetry in much more depth than I. So he could drawl, "Um, yeah, it's not bad. But if you want real poetry, you should read Gerald Manley Hopkins."

I had never heard of the guy. "Gerrymandering hoplite?" I asked. One of Eki's eyes shone with the brilliant light of the fanatic, while the other considered me with pitying exasperation.

"Hopkins, man, Hopkins", he said, buttonholing me in turn, and dragging me to the library. "Check this out!"
The Windhover:
To Christ Our Lord

I caught this morning morning's minion, king-
dom of daylight's dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
As a skate's heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend the hurl and gliding
Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird -- the achieve of; the mastery of the thing!

Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!

No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermillion.

Sheer magic, I was forced to admit. Maybe a bit effete in its irregular metre and hyphenations and accents. But magic. I still preferred the military tattoo of Tennyson's beat, but Hopkins was, suddenly, a close second.

Sometimes I think it rather a shame that, growing up, I didn't concentrate a bit more on poetry. You know, reading more of it and aiming to appreciate it deeper. Now, in my dotage, I have little patience with the form. Light verse? Sure. But serious poetry - it's an increasingly rare example that appeals to me. The lumpenisation of Fëanor continues apace.


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