Thursday, August 05, 2010

Scrutable Poetry Corner: "It Rolls On" by Morris Bishop

A poem for the uneasy modern, from the November 1, 1930 issue of The New Yorker.
This is the time of wonder, it is written;
Man has undone the ultimate mysteries.
(We turn from the Chrysler Tower to watch a kitten,
Turn to a dead fish from Isocrates;

Drinkers on five-day boats are gladly smitten
Unconscious on the subjugated seas;
Einstein is even more dull than Bulwer-Lytton;
You cannot smoke on the Los Angeles.)

Science no longer knows the verb-form "can't,"
Fresh meat will soon be shipped by radio;
Scholars are harnessing the urgent ant
And making monstrous bastard fruits to grow,
Building machines for things I do not want,
Discovering truths I do not care to know.
You can find out more about Morris Bishop and his elf-loathing here.


Gary said...

It's extremely important to read about Prof. Bishop's background before attempting to comment. The Wikipedia article about him is helpful.

If he's amazed by a skyscraper, and overwhelmed by the scientific wonders of his day, just imagine the fits he'd have with cloning, DNA, and walking on the moon!

As with writing that is rooted in a certain era, annotation would be useful. For example, I assume that the "Los Angeles" is a railroad train.

Isocrates (not to be confused with the software, "iSocrates") - well, I guess I have not studied enough of the classics. Even so, the dead fish reference is unresolved by a brief Internet search.

Any ideas about the kitten / fish / Greek philosopher connection?

Adam Thornton said...

I agree about the annotation, Gary; I was in too big a hurry to do the poem justice! Plus I think there's a lot of artistic license here which doesn't lend itself to a '30s-era decoding.

The kitten/fish/philosopher elements and everything else in parentheses seem to be examples of "mundane" issues and experiences trumping the vast human accomplishments: we spend more time looking at kittens and preparing food than we do marveling at engineering feats and deep philosophy; people get drunk and party on ocean liners rather than stand in awe of their ability to cross the ocean in such comfort; people are more concerned with their inability to smoke on a train than they are with the work of Einstein.

I think it's brilliant how this poem expresses both awe and distrust; it isn't a condemnation of modernity or a luddite screed, but still expresses uneasiness.

Gary said...

I agree with you analysis.

BTW, you may have meant "self-loathing"; however, given the world-view expressed in this poem, I suppose Mr. Bishop could have something against the magical little fellas, too!

Anonymous said...

The Socrates/ dead fish reference he actually explained in a letter to Katherine White (editor of the New Yorker):
"As Isocrates was delivering an oration, a rival stood up on a block of marble in the rear of the crowd, and held up a dead fish and said nothing. One looked around, nudged neighbor, and so on until the whole crowd turned from Isocrates and looked at the silent rival. He then spoke: “See how a dead fish is more interesting than Isocrates!""