I and a few pals were watching the evening news on TV with equal if not hungrier eagerness than little chicks waiting to peck up the next morsel the mother hen’s broken. Then…
Then the woman came on.
It was some conspiratorial moment with all four of us turning away from the screen simultaneously with heaves of, “uh, not another propaganda” this evening of how the President did this or did that!
She was the Minister of Information.
Up to this point we’ve labeled whatever morsel she shared “propaganda.”
Politics’ fault, maybe. Or religion’s? But from its origins in the Roman Catholic Church, “propaganda” has apparently always been used in the negative.
Propaganda Can Be Benign
However, David Puttnam would have us think otherwise. He once insisted (I read his interview in Bill Moyers’ A World of Ideas) that the business of cinema is “benign propaganda.”
So, propaganda can be “benign,” eh?
His idea for films was to wrap propaganda (the benign type, of course) with drama in order for people to both find it palatable and to evolve with it a better society gradually. Fine thing, wouldn’t you say?
So, propaganda in plain speech? Boring. As drama?
We Should Propagandize with Poetry
And perhaps we all do as poets. To be benignant. But maybe a little too didactic, a little too much, which like political speeches and TV appearances, get easily dismissed as too banal and just another one of those.
The too much information problem.
But there’s a tool we can use in our poetry to wrap our benign propaganda so it is accepted and even re-read over a hundred times.
I’ve discussed it in an essay before. But I have some new lights on it in this essay.
A Benignant Exercise in Obfuscation
Just so we’re on the same level of thought, here’s how you should see how I see obfuscation in poetry.
You’re not unnecessarily darkening things up, as the English word implies. But you’re introducing just the right morsel of metaphor that can sustain the length of the poem and entertain away the hearer’s thought from its meaning, which will only be available upon reflection.
They read the poem and are entertained. Communicated to, but not necessarily given understanding. Then they settle down and think and they “get” it. It is theirs. Or they don’t. And they lose it. You see?
Reincarnation — Ellen Bass
Who would believe in reincarnation
if she thought she would return as
an oyster? Eagles and wolves
are popular. Even domesticated cats
have their appeal. It’s not terribly distressing
to imagine being Missy, nibbling
kibble and lounging on the windowsill.
But I doubt the toothsome oyster has ever
been the totem of any shaman
fanning the Motherpeace Tarot
or smudging with sage.
Yet perhaps we could do worse
than aspire to be a plump bivalve. Humbly,
the oyster persists in filtering
seawater and fashioning the daily
irritations into lustre.
Dash a dot of Tabasco, pair it
with a dry Martini, not only
will this tender button inspire
an erotic fire in tuxedoed men
and women whose shoulders gleam
in candlelight, this hermit praying
in its rocky cave, this anchorite of iron,
calcium, and protein, is practically
a molluskan saint. Revered and sacrificed,
body and salty liquor of the soul,
the oyster is devoured, surrendering
all—again and again—for love.
Now, do you think the poet is talking about reincarnation? She wants you to think so, right? I mean, it’s so titled! Or about “the toothsome oyster?” The “molluskan saint?” “Surrendering all for love?” Or about the fired flame of “erotic fire” in tuxedoed men and women? Or about…
The Benign Propaganda
I’ll tell you what I think, just for the sake of this essay. Otherwise, I shouldn’t. And I hope I haven’t spoiled and am not spoiling the fun for you. Now. O, sorry. But maybe there’s more, there must be, and I don’t mean to obfuscate.
I might say Ellen Bass had a propaganda in mind to fashion her poem this way. What is that?
Well, it came easy to me. Of course, I could be wrong. But she meant more pleasure of the thing than the meaning of the thing, I guess. With a dash of Tabasco…
I think Bass wants us take the little things serious that we can easily trample upon. — Yours Truly
It’s kind of like Jesus glowing to his followers over the lilies’ glory made more splendid than King Solomon’s by God. Same lily that’s all too easily thrown into the oven for breakfast.
No, not that we should stop eating bivalves and vegetables. But we “could do worse than” taking a moment to think upon the morsel in our mouth before swallowing all. Do that. We could make more sense of the life we have now than the one we may not, which we might call “reincarnation.”
In reincarnation is Bass’ obfuscation. And it’s benign.
Yet, Obfuscation Was Necessary
But it was necessary to obfuscate with a subject like reincarnation. Because who, if they could choose to be born again after death, would seek such bottom and humble position as this ‘seawater filterer?’
After all this world has shoved up their throat?
And yet it’s this “plump bivalve” that adds all the zest to our lives, beyond just a meal, in several ways. Let the seafarers tell you!
See you’ll never outgrow this poem. Because it feigns. And it does it well with a metaphor that runs the course of its versific life. Then you enjoy the reading. The hearing. Then you think one thing but get another. And another. I could go on.
So What Do You Think?
In my first essay on this subject I laid out how to obfuscate in poetry. I think those steps are just fine. I did also say getting a poet and deconstructing a poem or two of theirs that obfuscate, like “Reincarnation,” will teach you the skill faster.
That necessitated this sequel. And I hope you’ve gotten the go ahead, coupled with the benignant need to always do. To make your propaganda palatable. And not get heaves of, “uh, not another propaganda” the next time you must be heard.
Let’s discuss this essay on Twitter #ObfuscationPoetry