Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Pretzels and Poetry

First, let's get this out of the way:
Pretzel porn
I was not kidding about the National Soft Pretzel Month thing. Not kidding at all. Check out the recipe I used here. They are heaps of fun to make and eat and are very much like poetry in their properties.

In the immortal words of Dutch euro-pop dance group, 2 Unlimited: "Ya'll ready for this?"

Some people (myself included) don't care for the pretzels that come in a bag from the grocery store because they are dry and dusty and kind of too much trouble to chew. 

Some people think they don't like poetry for the same reasons. We've all sat through the classes that deconstructed Homer and Byron and fallen asleep and drooled all over our Robert Frost. We've been there while the moisture has been sucked from our eyes and brains and the symbols and the feet and the meter and what does it all mean? Right? Archaic, incomprehensible, tedious. Very much like the grocery store pretzels.

You know who seems to unanimously and universally love the pretzels from a bag? Children. Bring a bag of Rold Gold pretzel twists into a kindergarten classroom and you are a rock star. They immediately start licking the salt off of them, sticking their fingers through the holes, stacking them up, biting them into other shapes and lining them up on their desks to stage great dramas. 

Children seem to intrinsically love poetry as well. From the rhythm of sing-song motherese in their little cradles (or smack in the middle of my bed) to the rhyming of early readers and nursery rhymes. One of the best children's authors of all time, Theodore Geisel, wrote almost entirely in iambic pentameter. The good Dr. has appealed to children for decades with his Cat in his famous hat. Put a pin in this idea; let it wiggle around like a caterpillar there for a little bit.

You know what makes those crunchy, dusty, troublesome pretzels delicious and addictive? Toppings. Taking the product that on its own is maybe not that appealing and then adding any number of your own flavors to it turns it into a whole other kind of experience. Chocolate? Yes please. Mustard? Of course. Queso? Obviously. Peanut butter, yogurt, caramel sauce, ranch dip, more chocolate? Yes. (Don't mix all of those together, though. Yick.)

One of the things that makes poetry delicious is chucking out the idea of singularity of meaning. Possibly more than any other genre, poetry elicits a dance between the writer, the words on the page, the reader and all of the readers' ghosts and phantasms of assorted toppings. Add your own flavor, find your own meaning, and all of a sudden these dusty poems are delicious conveyances of flavor - enriched and enhanced in a mutually symbiotic relationship with the toppings you choose.

Let us discuss soft pretzels, though. I am not sure if I've ever met anyone who doesn't like soft pretzels. For some they conjure very specific memories: ball parks, malls, fairs, biergartens in Munich, and so on. Warm, buttery, soft, yeasty, crunchy with salt and a tang of baking soda from their bath before baking. They become a whole experience that envelops the senses and the memory for a while. 

The most accessible form of poetry in our culture is song lyrics. I am not sure if I've ever met anyone who hasn't been moved at least once by the lyrics to a song. Be it a hymn, a ballad, a tears-in-my-beer country song, an angry acid rock manifesto, or a hip-hop dance number - people are moved by songs. A song that speaks to us is like that all-encompassing buttery crunchy goodness. It involves all the senses and drags in our memory to dance as well. This is literally poetry in motion.

Take your pins out of the caterpillars now. I think a lot of the poetry-phobia that exists has something to do with the packaging. It is put on a shelf, inaccessible except if your mom gets it down and doles out a small cupful for you to munch on at her discretion. (I think my kids possessed me and wrote that last line, but I trust you caught the metaphor.) But here's the thing. While we were doodling 2-gether 4-ever in the margins of The Odyssey, our ancient Greek counterparts were eating it up with gusto. Homer and his seeing-eye dog roamed around reciting these great epic poems because they appealed to the common man. They were relevant adventure stories, full of intrigue and love and adventure. Ditto Shakespeare. We sit in classrooms and libraries and memorize soliloquies for extra credit, but when those babies were live at the Globe, the penny arcade was there weeping and gasping and having pig's blood splashed on them. 

Poetry is a visceral experience. Sometimes it paints vague pictures that we fill in with our own suffusion of emotion. Sometimes it tells a story that draws us in. Sometimes it describes a moment, a thing, an emotion. Even if it's one to which we can't completely relate, there's something to the rhythm, the cadence, the beat that mimics the beating of our own hearts that appeals on a level deeper than the words themselves. Children understand this intrinsically, I believe. They are lulled by rhythms from before they are even born. They are closer to the ground, closer to the heartbeat and primal rhythms of life. They love the literature that mirrors these all too familiar beats. One, two, buckle my shoe. The content isn't the deepest, but its rhythm alone touches a deeper part of us that makes us alive. Kids don't think about this, they just dive in and lick the salt off and make shapes and create their own versions and own it, gobble it up and make it theirs. Somehow we get that taught out of us. Even so, the 2-gether 4-ever's we doodled while tuning out our English teachers contain a germ of that primal rhythm that infects all poetry - both in its actual cadence and the concept it evokes.

Extra credit: make your own pretzels. The making of soft pretzels is a labor of love. From waiting patiently for the yeast to proof, to the kneading and kneading of the dough to the perfect earlobe-elastic consistency. A little more flour? Not too much, knead some more. To the simmering alchemy and the counter-intuitive step that makes all the difference - the boiling baking soda bath. It's what turns them from ordinary bread into pretzels. The wash of egg and the crunch of salt. And then the quick blazing heat of the oven to make them golden. It's a laborious and intricate, somewhat unforgiving process, but there are few things worth tasting like a soft pretzel warm from the oven. Don't want to mess up the kitchen? Write a poem. It's much the same process. 

Listen to your favorite song, dance around the room. Headphones are best because then it's right there in your head with you. Feel the poetry of everyday life. Eat a soft pretzel.

17 comments:

  1. There are so many songs whose lyrics touch me. I've never thought of them much as poetry, but now think I will never think of them in any other way now. Thanks!

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    1. It's a full-service blog I run around here.

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  3. My favorite thing to do with hard pretzels is bite pieces out of them so they form letters. Perhaps I'll write a little poem with some pretzel letters, take a pic, and send it to you. Hmm.

    Hmm.

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    1. I do the same thing! Yes, yes! Bite me a poem of pretzels! It will be my favorite thing, ever.

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  4. My favorite songs range from oldies like Frank Sinatra to new comers like Pink and a vast amount of country in between. What they all have in common is my love of their words, their lyrics, their poetry. When I want to sing out loud, I put on my 'songs I just love' playlist and get to it. Pretzel making seems like just the accompaniment for poetry singing!

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    1. Yes, yes, yes! This is exactly why my favorite songs are my favorites. It is a very personal and eclectic bunch, but really, that just makes it even better.
      I highly recommend the pretzel-making/poetry-singing combo. It does wonders for the soul.

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  5. I am the proud mother of a high-schooler who just outright refused to do his poetry final, preferring to take an F because he hates the subject so much. I can't remember him ever liking poetry. He can't stand metaphor, generally. Perhaps there's hope for my other two. But I have to say I much prefer song lyrics to poetry books myself, so maybe it's my own fault. And, as to the pretzels, I'm gluten-intolerant, so I guess I'll wait until you write on hummus and heavy metal. Perhaps in May? ;)

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    1. Thank you, Rowan, for proving my point exactly about all the fun being taken out of poetry by testing on it. I happen to know of some very tasty GF soft pretzels.

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    2. I will henceforth turn his poetic education over to you, and can I please have that recipe?

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  6. I am so glad that I have discovered the soft fluffiness of poetry again in adulthood, I have to admit it was a little lost on me there for a while!

    Oh and now I am craving chocolate covered pretzels, mmmm.

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    1. Oh yes, Sleepy. Poetry and chocolate covered pretzels are the most amiable companions.

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  7. Due to my life as an Army brat, the textbook we used in English my junior year in New Hampshire and the textbook we used in English my senior year in Pennsylvania were the same textbook. (NH had English lit in 11th grade & World Lit in 12th. PA apparently thought English lit was the pinnacle of literature.) I had a little bit of a crush on the portrait of Shelley within its pages, but that's not the point here--the point is the poetry was not only distant and dry, but extremely familiar. When writing the essay where we had to pick a poem (any poem), I wrote about "We May Never Pass This Way Again" by Seals and Crofts. How clever did I think I was? Oh so very. ;)

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    1. I love so much that you had a crush on a portrait of Shelley. I think I may even know which one.

      You were so very clever. Wise beyond your years. There is some amazing poetry in song lyrics that we live with every day. It gets overlooked, I think because of the genre and the means of performance, but there are some very talented poets singing their works and selling albums. (I'm not at all sure about Seals and Crofts, though. ;) )

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  8. Song lyrics, yes. Poetry ... sometimes. I don't think abstractly enough to really *get* poetry most of the time. Except Shel Silverstein. He's a rock star.

    Rhythm is a dancer. It's a soul's companion. You can feel it in the air.

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    1. Some poetry is obscure or tedious. My beef is that seems to be mostly what is taught in schools so there are whole swaths of the population who think: Poetry, ick.

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