Looking back, it seems that my first attempts at writing poetry were adventures in revision. What I remember revising first were songs, specifically Primary songs — although my mother insists that I was at work on the hymns in Sacrament Meeting when I was three. This is what I recall as my earliest effort, from one bright and cheery Tuesday, Primary being met in a recycled army barracks on the BYU campus:
In the leafy teacups, the bird mugs are girning. They’re first the sun to spy, they start to wonder why, In the leafy teacups, the bird mugs are girning.
In my giddy garden, the flowers are nodding. They are the poppies here, they’d rather have a beer, In my giddy garden the flowers are nodding.
Even these simple lines are a revision, as I recall. Through the haze of memory I vaguely hear that first revision as a simple case of transposition: “In the treafy lea-tops the birds sing ‘Mud Gorning’” — but the second line was a disaster, in which the seeming demands of rhyme twisted the lines beyond any rational understanding, proclaiming “They’re first the sun to see, they must El Toro wee” which, of course, prompted extensive revision to create the masterpiece quoted above.
My mother insists that, even before I was entrusted to the custody of the Primary Association, I would sit between her and my father in Sacrament Meeting and join in the hymns, twisting them as I sang. The only example she ever gave was this: Her: “If I have wounded any soul today…” Me: “Ow! Oooh!” Her: “If I have caused a foot to go astray…” Me: “Stomp! Clomp!”
Not least among my reasons for not believing her story: I have never been able to identify the hymn in question. And for most of my revisions, I have never been able to forget them — especially the really dumb ones — no matter how hard I try. This one I don’t remember. If true, her calumny would point to a rebelliousness rather than inability to remember the lyrics as the root of my life of verse. I won’t go there — or, rather, I won’t drag you there.
But be it known that, as I grew, and waxed mighty in word, I began to work more elaborate revisions, most of them on hymns relevant to my age, as in this gem from my teen-age mind [heavily influenced by my Aunt Erma and her forays into Skinnerian psychology, as applied to education]:
Let us all press “on” in the work of the Lord, For if we press “off” we shall lose a great reward; If we shirk our work we will blunt and dull the sword, The swinging sword of sweat. Fear not courage, though the enema debride! We must be inglorious, for the lard is on her side. We’ll not fear the wicker nor give heed to how it sway, But the lard — our heavenly, fat, her — her alone Wee Willow Bay.
In those far-off distant days, the New Criticism still ruled the critical roost, and, since I aspired to be taken seriously as a poet I wanted to cram every possible meaning into a line of poetry, commiting nuance even with my punctuation. I began to critically examine the text of a hymn, to take it apart as verse, to notice how often our Latter-day Saint hymns resorted to half-rhymes like “Word” and “Lord.” None of that for Evan Stephens. With typical Welsh obduracy, he rhymed his hymns straight, although, as we shall see, that is not the Welsh way. But, with his shining example, I, to this day, cannot sing, say, “I Believe in Christ” with a straight face, not because of the funereal tune, but because the verse is so poor.
Sometimes, as I grew older, I would twist a hymn to suit the political temper of the time, like this version from the days of war in Vietnam (I was a grad student at the University of Washington at the time, and the radicals there made Berkeley look positively right-wing):
Behold a Royal Army! A Royal Navy too! And even a Royal Air Force all coming after you! They’re rank and filled with servicemen, united, bald and strong, And as they come to impress you they sing their joyful song: Victory, victory, is Syngman Rhee your brother? Victory, victory, is Ho Chi Minh your kin? Victory, victory, victory, is Ho Chi Minh, is Minh your kin?
My efforts in such political revision were not limited to hymn texts. I had, in fact, been doing a roaring trade in parodies of popular songs. Often these were just a line or two, like “The hills are alive, With the sounds of ‘Moo-oo-oo, sick sick sick sick,’” which would never go any farther because I would bust up laughing each time I imitated the cow. Sometimes I would parody rock ‘n’ roll, but that was not much fun since most rock lyrics read like parodies already, as in:
Young girl, get out of my life! You’re causing trouble, annoying my wife! Better run, girl! Still we had fun, girl — I’m so well-hung, girl — Till the night that you cried, Wo wo wo
But the apex of my mastery of the popular song has to be a little number I call “Jungle Bells,” again brought on — and made relatively impossible to avoid — by my absence from the war in Vietnam:
A year or so ago, I thought I’d take a ride. I got into my Huey with my gunner by my side. We strafed on down the beach, lit up a little pot, Missed Charlie hiding in a tree and sure we got upsot. Oh, Kill kill kill, kill kill kill, kill them Viet Cong! Waste them gooks with napes and nukes and hustle peace along. Kill kill kill, kill kill kill, kill them till they quit. Pacify them till they die and shoot a little shit.
After that, most hymn parodies seemed innocuous. I left graduate school behind in Seattle, moved to Utah, and settled into a life of quiet librarianship. So when I moved to Orem, the parody that Kerry Neilsen taught me seemed positively genteel by comparison, but it did come from his father, and fathers never really dare what their younger selves aspired to:
High on a mountain top, A badger killed a squirrel. Ye nations now come up There’s food for all the world.
His father, who, like him, came from Oak City, blessed even me with that one. It must have been the moderating influence of having a socialist like James E. Faust for a neighbor, but that one even sticks to a gospel theme. I forgive Kerry, however, because he forever redeemed Mother’s Day for me with the following words of wisdom and gratitude:
M is for the Many things she gave me, O is for the Other things she gave. T is for the, Things, she gave me, H is for the Heaps of things she gave. E is for Everything she gave me, R is for the Rest of things she gave. Put them all together, they spell “MOTHER,” A word that means Every Thing to me.
And then there are the ones I mess with just out of perversity. These usually begin with a simple change, like a swapping of syllables or words that suddenly open up a text, such as “Meat be with you till we piece again.” That led me to imagine two flies laying eggs in a raw steak at the foot of the cross, singing rather than buzzing as they worked:
Till we me-e-eat, Till we me-e-eat, Till we meat, at Jesus’ feet. Till we meat!
These, as with the pop lyrics, never go anywhere either. I have sometimes wondered whether my tendency to this kind of parody is a general feud with God for not being able to sing. I can bring an entire ward to tears just by singing loud enough to be heard. And I hold a grudge for a long time: I still sing “You who unto Jesus” while everyone else is singing “Who unto the Savior” because “You who unto Jesus” was the first song lyric that every made sense to me (a relative merit because the picture I have from this effort of youth is of my mother standing at the side of the road, in an apron for preparing dinner, waving.) Wouldn’t you, too, call out and wave to Jesus if you saw him across the road?
Nowadays I sing hymns sitting next to a football coach who tries very hard to sing bass well. He played as a defensive tackle, and a very good one, too. I try to sing basso antifundo next to him, hitting the low notes that resonate well in my puny chest as he shakes the stand with his voice. It would never occur to me to sing the following lyrics sitting next to him, not because he might hit me over the head with a hymnbook (and certainly not to avoid another affront to poor Evan Stephens, even if in the general spirit of our Welsh forebears) but because he genuinely likes the youth:
Shall the youth of Zion falter? Will they even get a choice? Should the youth of Zion falter, what would we hear from their voice? No! False to the faith that our fathers have cherished False to the faith for which barters have perished To God’s command, soul, heart and hand Faithless and false, we would always call halts.
I probably don’t need to tell you by now that I’m not very good at parodies, which is why I’ve never published any of these — unlike such an accomplished satirist as Paul Toscano with his entire book of hymn parodies, of which I would gladly share the title were I not stuck in Pacific Grove without the bulk of my books, which I left back in Utah.
But speaking of my Welsh forebears (a clutch of Joneses and Lloyds in my mother’s mother’s line), having spent a few hours blogging about Old English prosody I am next going to venture into discussing the effect on English verse of Welsh metrical discipline, partly because it appears to have been as profound as the effect on the English language of Welsh grammar. I will take as my guide Rolfe Humphries’s fine 1956 book Green Armor on Green Ground, in which he strives to produce in English “poems in the Twenty-four Official Welsh Meters, and Some, in Free Meters, on Welsh Themes” (as his subtitle has it). If you order right now, you can get your copy delivered from an online vendor and read the entire book before I come back.
One thing I have learned from writing this particular post is that, of all my fears, I most fear being parodied by someone like me, which is why — along with general editorial reluctance — I have published so few of my poems. But hold on, I hear you say, isn’t this exposure to parody a risk shared by all poets?