Saturday, September 21, 2013

Knowing Kong

Here is a follow-up to Thursday's post about the Orwellian sillyness at Annapolis over a poem, Kong Looks Back on His Tryout with the Bears, by William Trowbridge.

From, literally, "people pay good money for this stuff" file, Professor Bruce Fleming was kind enough to share with us how an English Professor teaches and explains a poem. Many thanks to him for agreeing to take the time to put it down and let me use it for a guest post.

The rest of the post is his. Professor Fleming; over to you.

First, a few words about poetry. It spooks a lot of people because they have bad memories of sitting passively while the high school teacher told them what its “deep meaning” was, but never explained how she got that (she was the expert so she didn’t have to). Anyway, they wanted to be playing ball or walking the mall. In fact, there isn’t “deep meaning” in most literature. Instead, if you pay attention you can figure out what it’s saying—and then ask yourself about the issues it helps you think about. That last part, the issues raised by what is on the page, isn’t deep meaning, it’s just reflection. But no, it’s not in the lines of the poem—it’s like ripples spreading out from it. Poetry has ripples a news story doesn’t. That’s the purpose of poetry, to get you to think about the big issues. It usually does that by telling a little story and then letting you realize that you have something in common with it.

I read this poem in a creative writing class, where the students write their own poems (and short stories, short plays etc). For us it’s like taking apart a complicated gizmo to see how it works so they can learn to construct gears and levers (words) in their own poems. I’ll put the poem itself in italics.

Kong Looks Back on His Tryout With the Bears

Titles are usually important. They’re the first thing you read and if they’re good titles they get your mind going in the right direction. This title tells you to stand by for a funny/odd poem, and a really American one. Plus it has a sort of “talking to your buds” tone. You have to get that Kong is “King Kong” of movie fame, but his name here is almost like a nickname, or the way a guy would shorten it. Kong. Short and sweet. And you have to get that Bears are football. That establishes the tone: guys, classic movies, and football.

If it had worked out, I'd be on a train to Green Bay, 
not crawling up this building with the air corps 
on my ass.  And if it weren't for love, I'd drop 
this shrieking little bimbo sixty stories 
and let them take me back to the exhibit, 
let them teach me to rumba and do imitations.

This gives us a lot of information. First, that “it” (his tryout) didn’t work out. And we know where he is, just as in the famous final scene of the movie: at the top of the Empire State Building. (Army) air corps is pre-Air Force lingo, of course, a nice reference to the original movie with biplanes. (It was remade with Jessica Lange. Nah.) He talks like a football player too, assuming we know where Green Bay is and why he’d be going there. He calls the tiny female he’s carrying (remember the movie) a “bimbo”—30s slang, and not complimentary; clearly her “shrieking” is getting on his nerves--and talks about his own “ass.” It’s bitter guy talk. What he’s most bitter about is that he’s totally controlled by his feelings for the “bimbo”! He wants to give up now, but he’s still driven by “love” so he can’t. That’s the silly aspect of the movie, and the poem: the notion that a creature could feel anything (love? Lust?) for something he can fit in the palm of his hand. But it’s also true to our lives, not just his: sometimes we’re controlled by a mixture of lust and love that defies all rationality. Kong knows he’s controlled, but he can’t do anything about it. At this point he’s so demoralized he would even accept the humiliation of being on display, doing a dance (football players don’t usually dance) or even worse, imitations. So we want the story of why it didn’t work out.

By the way, we can tell this poem lacks regular meter and rhyme—as most twentieth-century lyric poetry does. That means it has to pay attention to grouping the words on the line so that they sound good together or create a slight hitch as the line ends in white space—as in “air corps” before the growl of “on my ass” and “drop” at the end of a line so you sort of see the empty air he’d drop her in. (I spend more time on this in class.)

The story here is pretty straightforward.

They tried me on the offensive line, 
told me to take out the right cornerback for Nagurski. 
Eager to please, I wadded up the whole secondary, 
then stomped the line, then the bench and locker room, 
then the east end of town, to the river.

(Note that the lines end with each forceful assault here rather than breaking off like the lines above them, like waves on a beach.) If you don’t know who Bronco Nagurski was, no problem: in the poem it’s clearly a reference (remember the other period references) to a historical great. Everybody gets that, and that’s really all you have to get. Sometimes readers beat themselves up about references when they shouldn’t: you can usually get the gist from context and look up the footnotes later if you feel like it. So it’s real football with real people. That may help us think about it makes more sense to imagine King Kong being recruited to play football rather than, say, baseball. It’s pretty clear why the scouts would have been salivating over him: he’s huge. And strong. Real football material! Could punch through any opposition! So it seems to us, and clearly to Kong as well as the scouts, that his strength and his aggression are going to stand him in good stead. He’s getting strokes for being so, we have to say it: masculine. Athletes, especially males, compliment each other by saying they’re “animals” or “beasts.” For guys in the weight room, saying somebody is “huge” or “freaky huge” is the highest compliment. So we can see why Kong was recruited. He’s what a lot of men aspire to be. What we don’t know is what could have gone wrong. That’s why we have to keep reading.

But they were not pleased: they said I had to 
learn my position, become a team player.

He’s “eager to please”—he may be a brute but he’s a nice guy and he’s giving it his all. And he has no idea why “they were not pleased.” He did what was expected of him, right? He was a beast! The problem is, and this is what makes us think—he was too much of one. Huge is good, aggression is good—only wait! Not that huge! Not that aggressive! I’ve heard Marines talk this way: society trains them to kill and then gets upset if they break a rule. A lot of men, especially these days, feel something like Kong’s bafflement about society’s expectations for them. And it starts early: little boys get dinged in elementary school because they don’t want to sit still, and far too many teenaged boys drop out when they hit puberty. Girls make better students. And men are the ones getting laid off in the recession, with stereotypical male jobs in heavy industry manufacturing being the first to disappear. (An interesting book by Atlantic writer Hannah Rosin of a couple years ago was called “The End of Men” for that reason.) It’s a baffling time for many males, not just Kong.

But bless his heart, he tries. He tries to be a team player.

The great father Bear himself said that, 
so I tried hard to know the right numbers 
and how the arrows slanted toward the little o's.

He’s very male, and brimming with hormones. So of course by this point, things are getting somewhat sexual. Arrows, o’s…and it’s distracting him. Yes, they’re what’s on the play diagrams. But here they are also wink-wink sexual, like a teenager’s dirty joke. Then the joke gets more elaborate, with “wet grass” (reminds you of…) and grunts (reminds you of…):

But the o's and the wet grass and the grunts 
drowned out the count, and the tight little cheers 
drew my arrow straight into the stands, 
and the wives tasted like flowers and raw fish.

Ok, get it? Drew his arrow? Yeah, as in the play, but things are clearly somehow sexual and in any case are going seriously haywire here. Only remember, these are women about the size of a grasshopper to us. He can’t have sex with them, not in our way. So what does he do? He eats them! (Never mind that real great apes are vegetarians.) He eats them, as in chomps them up. But, um, that “raw fish”—yeah, it’s a common comparison for part of the female anatomy—it’s made a little nicer with the “flowers”. So it’s literal (imagined) eating with a sexual echo. Too complex? Nah. Of course he can’t have sex with creatures that are large enough to fit in his hand, but clearly the idea is that he’s having a lot of sexual feelings that just lead to mayhem.

So it hasn’t worked with guys, because he’s too brutal, and it hasn’t worked with females for the same reason—this is from a creature who the scouts thought would be perfect.

So I was put on waivers right after camp, 
and here I am, panty sniffer, about to die a clown, 
who once opened a hole you could drive Nebraska through.

He’s literally a panty sniffer (in the original movie he takes off Fay Wray’s clothes, a scene that was expurgated but that you can sometimes see on YouTube). And he’s disgusted with himself. He was once a muscular beast stomping down the opposition, part of the wholesome Midwest (he made a hole you could drive a large Midwestern state through—very big! And driving something big through a hole is, um, rather sexual too…) and all he can do with the female is sniff her panties and about to die a clown. He has all this power and he can’t do a damn thing with it.

How can he die such a shameful death (clown, panty-sniffer) because of being too much of a stud, as we say at Annapolis? (The female form of this word is “studette.”) That’s the part we’re supposed to think about. Because poems are read by people, not giant apes. So if his story doesn’t have any relevance for us, we don’t have to bother about it. So usually you can see the connection if you say, what do some people have in common with Kong?

Kong was praised for what? For being large and aggressive. Apparently he seemed fabulous to the scouts. And he’s puzzled by the demand that he play well with others. If boys are lucky they get the aggression channeled—sometimes literally into football. They learn to play with others. And how about this opposite sex business? A lot of guys just want to bro out—it’s far easier than learning the rituals of dating or the fact that women have different kinds of needs than the bros.

A lot of men have felt the frustration of Kong without of course being so exaggeratedly out of sync with the demands of society. But many men still dream of breaking the bonds. Miss Watson in Huckleberry Finn wanted to “civilize” him while Huck just wanted to live in the woods. Adventure stories for boys are all about living on your own. Fantasy movies for adults are all about killer studs that lay waste to the bad guys, blow up buildings, against all rules of how we’re supposed to behave, and don’t even have to be nice to the women, because the women find them irresistible and come after them. Most males accept being “civilized.” Some even like it. But we live our fantasy lives through football or movies, yearning to be the huge guy who never dies and who wipes out the opposition.

Reality, um, isn’t that way. It’s diapers and the dry cleaners, and remembering to take your lunch or grade your papers. Or write your FITREPS. This poem could be taken as a warning: an acknowledgment that many males would like to be Kong, huge and invincible. But the fact is, society is based on people getting along. Which means you can’t be too much of a stud. Freud thought that the repression of instinct that society demanded made us all frustrated. The Marine Corps gets its recruits from people, largely male, who want to escape those constraints if only for a time (what they don’t know is that there are new constraints). If the world were all Rambos, we’d all kill each other, Hobbes’s world of “all against all.”

The poem leaves us realizing that the dream of exercising unlimited dominion over the world, annihilating the men and consuming the women, is one many men, in particular, find attractive. But it’s only a dream.

So how can men preserve their masculinity in a world that wants to “civilize” them?

There is a fictional character who provides an answer. It’s not Rambo or Kong, but—Bond. James Bond. The stud in a tuxedo. Though of course Sean Connery is the only perfect Bond, I kind of like the recent films with Daniel Craig. He’s jacked but he’s not even good looking. And he’s beat up: he’s tired and he’s weary. He can still wear the tuxedo to perfection, and there are some girls. But not as many as before because frankly he doesn’t look up to it. The fact that we all wear down especially if we go all out all the time is something nobody has ever been able to change. Poems don’t change reality. But they can reconcile us to it by making us realize that’s just the way things are. If you’re as huge as Kong, you’ll die a clown. So maybe it’s ok being less huge, and staying alive.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Greetings! I came across your blog on Facebook. I am posting to
find what theme you're using on your web page, I would like to use
the theme that you're using so I can put it on my blog (dragon city hack).