All these islands are uninhabited
Except one where large, fast, brown goats can be found
Our Indian pilot said they tasted delicious
Thirty years back a family of whites settled here and grew maize and cassava
The father outlived his children
As he became rich he bought two black slaves, who murdered him
Thus the goats ran wild, but not the maize
Maize appears to survive only if looked after by man
Birds destroy all the seeds needed to reproduce
(p4-5, Jaguars and Electric Eels, Alexander Von Humboldt)
William Carlos William wishes he could write that. The poetry of non-sequitor, unfulfilled expectations, and vividness rendered banal by the haikuish simplicity of the language, is that it? I’m not sure, but I’m fascinated; it’s verbatim except for the line breaks.
Sometimes my class is smarter than me. I put that poem together as a classroom exercise in the difference between prose and poetry, asking them how we read the same words differently when they’re poetry than if they’re prose. And they told me, and connected it to what Alexander Von Humboldt’s larger project was: when it’s written as poetry, you get spectacle (“Large Fast Brown Goats!”) and objects that a tourist might come to look at. There’s a haiku-ish sublime when words get de-contextualized and reified, a marvellous effect of disconnect that passes for aesthetic excellence if you let it. I still say its a good poem, much better than Stanley Fish’s famous “Jacobs-Rosenbaum” poem from “How to Recognize a Poem When You See One.” But as my computer scientist student pointed out, the thing it does as prose is un-reify the spectacle, rendering them simply a vehicle for meaning: the question of why you find maize in one place and goats in another, how the relationship between local history, birds’ preference of foods, and plant biology all interact to produce: an ecology. Which was, of course, Alexander Von Humboldt’s great achievement, to imagine that all these “things” out there were significant only insofar as they were part of a context and dots that a good scientist could connect. Wish I’d thought of that. But I will take credit for it.