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It’s already 9 days into April, or as the literati like to call it, National Poetry Month.  I hope you’ve been celebrating appropriately—or even inappropriately, if that’s what poetry inspires in you (just keep your daffodil-frolicking to yourself). 

As an English professor, obviously, I’m contractually obligated to think of every month as poetry month, but I’ve been doing my bit nonetheless by spending time in my Brit lit survey course with modernist poets, such as Yeats, of whose verse one student wrote “It doesn’t seem like much more than a bunch of words on paper.” Admittedly, poems about odd desert creatures crawling towards Bethlehem or women being assaulted by gods-in-swan-form are a little weird.  And maybe even a little confusing.  

But Yeats is in good company.  I spent an extended period in my car on Monday, and I ended up listening to the radio.  Nothing as elevated as NPR.  No, I admit it: Top 40.  As a culture, we may not read much poetry any more collectively, but we do know song lyrics.  And as I bopped along to the admittedly hooky beats, I realized how many of the current hits are somewhat mystifying themselves. 

Take the current #1 song in the land: Pharrell Williams’ “Happy.” Upbeat and joyful-sounding—and completely odd.  In the chorus, he encourages us to “Clap along if you feel like a room without a roof.” In what way would NOT having a roof ever inspire anything but despair?  I do not see clapping as an appropriate response.  Call me middle-aged and responsible, but having no roof seems like a nightmare of a home repair.  And what happened to my room’s roof anyway? Am I supposed to be a ruin in this simile? That doesn’t seem very auspicious since that would mean I am decaying (nope, not happy about that image of myself).  Was I struck by a tornado—and the roof is on its way to Illinois even now?  Again, that scenario does not inspire unrestrained merriment. Thanks, but I’d rather clap along when my house is nicely warm and intact.

And speaking of warmth.  Then there’s the seemingly instant classic, “Let It Go” (this week’s #5). Children across the land (and a number of hapless adults on YouTube) are embracing a song that appears, in reality, to celebrate anger management problems and an unfortunate medical condition where the sufferer can’t recognize frostbite when it hits her.  I worry about an entire generation of youngsters being raised to think the “cold doesn’t bother them anyway.”  Of course, it does.  Put on your coat—and build that dang snowman with your sister already!

Another gem is the #10 song of the week: DJ Snake & Lil Jon’s Turn Down for What.  To be honest, I don’t know how to punctuate the title of that song: question?  Statement?  And the song itself isn’t much help either: in 3 minutes and 34 seconds, there are literally 12 words.  12.  The song begins with the directive to “fire up that loud”—and perhaps the repetition of “turn down for what” for most of the rest of the song is because the speaker can no longer hear.  Or perhaps he wonders why after being told to turn up the music, he is now being told to turn it down. You can almost see him placing his hand behind his ear, old-man-like, and shouting querously, “for what?”  In the middle of the song, we get the additional clarifying lines: “fire up that load/’nuther round of shots.”  At first, I assumed that the speaker was being shot at because of the loud music (I live on a major thoroughfare and frequently experience the “awesome bass” of an idling car in front of my house, so I hope I can be forgiveness for a moment of wishful thinking).  But the more I thought about it, it seems more likely to be shots of an alcoholic variety.  I certainly needed a drink by the end of the song myself. 

Of course, if we’re honest, we know that this kind of stuff plagues the Bible, too.  Just the other day, my colleague and I were discussing the weirdness of Ecclesiastes 11:1: “Cast your bread upon the water for you will find it after many days.”  I’m sorry, but why am I throwing my bread onto the water?  What would compel me to do such a thing?  Is there something wrong with the bread?  Am I feeding the fish?  Random ducks?  And why would I want that bread back, especially gross and soggy and spoiled after days in the water?  Am I getting it back later by catching the fish that ate it?  If so, why not just say “feed the fish, and they’ll be delicious later.”  I’m sure it’s some kind of metaphor about generosity, but let’s just be clear: if you would ever like some bread from me, be it a hearty 12-grain or money (if you’re an old school hippy and are still into that kind of slang), just tell me.  And we’ll cut out the aquatic middle-man. 

I suppose the moral of this week, then, is read some decent poetry this month.  Give away some bread.  Wear a coat, and try to keep that roof in working order. 

Jennifer L. Holberg

I’ve taught English at Calvin College since 1998–where I get to read books and talk about them for a living. What could be better? Along with my wonderful colleague, Jane Zwart, I am the co-director of the Calvin Center for Faith and Writing, which is the home of the Festival of Faith and Writing as well as a number of other exciting endeavors. Given my interest in teaching, I’m the founding co-editor of the Duke University Press journal Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition and Culture (and yes, I realize that that is a very long subtitle). I also do various administrative things across campus. As an Army brat, I’ve never lived anywhere as long as I’ve now lived in Grand Rapids. I count myself rich in friends and family. I enjoy kayaking and hiking. I collect cookbooks (and also like to cook), listen to all kinds of music, and watch all manner of movies and tv shows. I love George Eliot, Jane Austen, Marilynne Robinson, Dante, E.M. Delafield, Tennyson, Hopkins, and Charlotte Bronte (among others). And I have a bumper sticker on my car that says: “I’d rather be reading Flannery O’Connor.” Which is true.

One Comment

  • Laura Hubers says:

    This is wonderful. My students were not amused when I did the same kind of analysis of some of their stupid music.

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