Wednesday, 17 February 2016

知觉 | Poetry in meatballs

Posted by: Dom Lowth

As you’ve probably guessed from my last post, which ended up as a love note to the University of Birmingham (sorry), I’m studying A2 English at the moment, and plan to take the subject further. It’s something I love: I find it interesting and I want to know more and more about it.

However, something that’s always amused me about the subject is the over-interpretation that can so often seem to happen. Digging deep into texts to extract hidden meanings and ideas is fascinating… but it can easily go too far.

How many GCSE English lessons have you sat through, with your teacher desperately trying to convince you and your classmates that the red colour of the carpet in a book represents the passion of a character or scene, perhaps a warning of danger, anger, or ‘coming of age’? Of course, I know that certain authors will actually use details as seemingly insignificant as carpet colour to convey ideas, but you must agree with me that sometimes this is one stretch of the imagination too far. What if the character just likes red carpets? Give 'em a break…

So anyway, I thought it would be a laugh to have a go myself. I asked my friend [and esteemed literary scholar] Callum, to give me 3 completely random sentences - the first things that came into his head. He didn’t let me down:

North Korea has some pretty sweet art. 
Space Jam is the greatest film ever made. 
The Meatball Marinara from Subway is a sloppy mess.

Here’s the plan: I’m going to say as much as I can about the lines above (treating them as a verse of poetry), and see how believable I can make it all sound. We’ll call it revision for my A2 exam.

On your marks, go.

To start by looking at the overall structure of the poem, its very short length has clear significance. As a three line stanza – or a tercet – we logically expect three stages of thought; possibly three events... a beginning, a middle and an end. In contrast, each line would appear to follow a completely new strand of thought, without any link to the others. There is no rhyme to connect the lines, and although there is consistency in the syllable count of the first two lines (both 10 syllables long), this is broken with the last line (at 16 syllables).

Clearly then, the lines should be studied in isolation. As the longest line, and the thought which we are left with at the end of the poem, I’ll start by studying the third line. Alliteration is used to great effect here. The alliteration of ‘Meatball Marinara’ emphasises the well-known sandwich available as an option from ‘Subway’. Notably, due to this repetition of the ‘m’ sound (which also works to slow the pace somewhat) the snack stands out more than the other proper nouns in the poem: ‘North Korea’ and ‘Space Jam’. It is an unsettling realisation that branding jumps out at us more than the name of a country, and the title of a hugely popular film.

It should also be noted that whilst the opening two lines are focussed on the creation of visual art (‘sweet art’ and ‘the greatest film’), it closes - almost concludes, or culminates - with a focus on food. Callum may be commenting on society here, as an obsession with nutrition and health seems to have taken over people’s lives, meaning that the beauty in art can be easily forgotten, or overlooked. Obesity is an ever growing concern in the world today, and it is likely that Callum has included a reference in his poem to the unhealthiest sandwich available from the fast food restaurant (at almost 1000 calories for the 'foot long' option) to emphasise this. Whereas this ‘Meatball Marinara’ is famous for being hugely fattening, ‘North Korea’ is known as a source of huge political unrest and conflict, and ‘Space Jam’ is a famous film loved by children and adults for its characters and comedy; yet it is the food that sticks in our mind at the end of the poem.

Fascinatingly, even the opening two lines – with no direct reference to food of any kind – contain a hidden semantic field of food-related language. In the first line, the ‘art’ is described as ‘sweet’; an adjective usually associated with sugary snacks, and unhealthy desserts. Similarly, the second line contains both ‘Jam’ (another very sugary ingredient) and ‘greatest’ – a word close in spelling and sound to ‘grater’, a kitchen utensil used in the preparation of food. Again, Callum is able to prove the extent to which the outlook of humans is constantly clouded by a need for instant pleasures – often in the form of unhealthy foods.

The soft tone created with both the alliteration of ‘m’ and the lack of any consonance is disrupted suddenly with strong sibilance at the end of the final line: ‘… from Subway is a sloppy mess’. In a quick skim read of the poem, the reader may assume Callum’s alliteration is present simply to generate a vaguely onomatopoeic effect in the word ‘sloppy’, thus emphasising another unpleasant characteristic of the food we are so happy to purchase and eat.

However, with the second or third reading it becomes clear that there is more to it than this. In fact, traces of sibilance run through the entire poem. Whilst also creating a sound like that of food sizzling and frying in a pan, if the sibilant words are re-organised into their own sentence, the message bears chilling truths about the world, and how we have been led to perceive it by the branding of multinational corporations:

Some sweet, sloppy Subway space.

Dom's listening to: ‘Poetic Justice’ by Kendrick Lamar & Drake
(See what I did there?)

Read my previous post here.

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