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POEMS THAT SING

POEMS THAT SING

My idea of “poet” is someone who loves words.  The dictionary (preferably unabridged) is this kind of poet’s Bible.  The etymology of words — how they began, how they change in meaning and develop nuances over time, and how they die when they’re neglected — that’s a fascination for this kind of poet.

Why one word or phrase works and another doesn’t…the TASTE of words…their music and the rhythm of strings of them, their “prosody” — that stuff’s exciting to my kind of poet.

THE HEART OF A POEM IS A SONG

That word “prosody” is an anglicized form of the Latin word “prosodia,” which comes from the Greek “prosoide,” which means, “a song with accompaniment.”  To the Greeks, at least, poems were supposed to be set to music.  (Willy Nelson and Bob Dylan would certainly agree.)

Oops!  Sorry…I do tend to get carried away….

For several years, I wrote at least one poem a day.  All of it was just playing with words and trying to find the music.  During this time, I tried bunches of formal and informal poetic forms until I realized that I tend to get obsessive-compulsive about all the syllable-counting and rhyming schemes and such.  All that counting and measuring sure got in the way of the music of it all.

GROWING POEMS OUT OF SONGS

Then I hit on the notion of making poems using the cadences and rhythms of beloved old songs.  Because I have a fondness for Hawaiian music, which seems to encapsulate the feeling and the rhythms of this place I love, I began playing with the old Hawaiian traditional songs.

I made word-for-word translations of these songs that I remembered from the luau and parties in my youth, when all the aunties, uncles, and cousins broke out instruments and sang together. The Pukui-Elbert Hawaiian-English dictionary in hand, I’d go through a song, putting down all the possible English meanings of each Hawaiian word.  I kept the structure of the song intact.

I listened to the music and cadence of the syntax and word patterns.  Then I constructed a poem (which usually had nothing to do with the subject of the song).  Later, I shared some of these poems with a kumu hula, a hula teacher, who told me she could hear the “seed-song” under my words.  It was a cool exercise, but terribly labor-intensive and time-consuming.

Here’s one of those poems.  It was written in the style of an old traditional Hawaiian song, “Hilo March.”  For those who don’t know this old standard, I’m sharing a YouTube clip of the Hawaii County Band playing the Hilo March at the March, 2010 concert at Mo’oheau Bandstand in Hilo, Hawaii.

Hawaii County Band playing “Hilo March” at the March, 2010 concert at Mo’oheau Bandstand in Hilo, Hawaii [via YouTube; uploaded by Tyty Videos on March 15, 2010]

The band is still going strong after more than 130 years.  It is the second-oldest publicly supported band in the state.  The concert where this clip was filmed was held to highlight the plight of the all-volunteer, part-time band when Hawaii Country tried to balance the budget by eliminating the historic group.  There was such a protest that the idea died.

The poem, “Breaking Line,” is partly written in pidgin because that was the language of my youth when I was growing up on the island of Molokai.  (I’ll try and explain what the unfamiliar terms mean.)  Like all of the poems that grew out of this style of writing, it is meant to be read aloud.

I’ve noticed that using and playing with words from a different language evokes another place and sometimes another time.


BREAKING LINE

Early morning

Boom machine clacking.

Luna’s yelling.

What’s he say?

Ai-yah!  Breaking line!

Making contract not going happen.

Some junk…breaking line.

Think they like keep us down or what?

Aw man…Breaking line!

Go easy-easy, bum-bye pau.

 

First crop, row on row,

Strong green spears weave walls between.

Push, push…haul your body.

Hang on the boom…break on through.

Auwe!  Breaking line.

Easy-easy, bum-bye pau.

 

Cold and wet the heavy dew

Soaks through chaps and Levi jeans.

Shoes turn squishy, legs get soggy.

Hurry up, sun, climb up higher….

Go easy-easy, bum-bye pau.

 

Pull on through…pull on through…

No “monsoon;”  Driver won’t listen.

Just keeps on clacking slowly down the road.

Big garoot must be grinning.

Knows we hate to go slow.

Best pine-picking school gang, us.

Beating contract real good fun.

Us, we get the bes’ school record.

Easy-easy, bum-bye pau.

 

The boom arm sweeps above the green leaves,

Clacking, clacking, chaka-lacking.

Conveyor belt churns, never stopping.

Hang on, hang on…pull on through.

Go easy-easy, bum-bye pau.

 

Grab the ripe pine as you pass it.

Twist the top off…good girl.

Place fruit nicely on the belt,

Up and over…there it goes.

Thunking ripe fruit slow-slow-slowly

Fills the crate on the big old trailer.

Luna must be really happy.

Us not throwing fruit around.

Haul on through, haul on through.

Easy-easy, bum-bye pau.

 

No more charging down the long rows,

No fruit-flipping, no wrists swelling.

No big grins and wild, high laughter.

No more yells:  “Monsoon!  Monsoon!”

Pull on through, breaking line.

Auwe!  Breaking line.

Easy-easy, bum-bye pau.

 

Slow, slow, the gang’s all slow,

What the heck do we care?

No more helping, reaching, grabbing.

No more scoldings, we’re not flying

Prime fruit in a “monsoon” race.

Slow to fill up crates this way.

Beating contract?

Not today.

No need hurry, just not going….

Easy-easy, bum-bye pau.

 

Sun’s getting higher, day’s getting hotter.

Shirt’s all soaking, headband’s wet.

Stupid field goes on forever.

Where’s the end so we can rest?

Go easy-easy, bum-bye pau.


When I was growing up on Molokai, there were two pineapple plantations still running: Libby-McNeil and Del Monte (CPC).  The summer I worked the fields was the first year they tried using youngsters to harvest the crops.  In the past, the jobs for the youngsters was limited to hoe-hana (hoeing and weeding work) along the edges of the lines of the plants.

  • The pineapple harvesting machine is called a “boom.” A long conveyor belt carried the fruits up and dropped them into the crates on the back of the trailers.
  • Luna is the crew supervisor. We called ours “Manini” (small and stingy) because he kept trying to keep us all from breaking out wild.
  • Breaking line” is what the first crew to go through the tangled leaves of the lines of the first-crop pineapple plants has to do. The clear, clean lines between the fruits aren’t there yet.  All the plants are tangled together, reaching across the spaces where you put your feet.   You have to use your body and hang on to the machine to drive yourself through the line as you’re picking up the ripe fruit.  Since the work starts just as the sun is coming up, the dew is heavy on the plant leaves and soaks into your work pants, chaps and long-sleeved shirts.  It is tiring and frustrating work.
  • Ai-yah! was a common exclamation of dismay. It probably came from the Asian immigrants.
  • Some junk” is disgustingly-stupid junk.
  • Auwe! is another exclamation of dismay.  It’s a Hawaiian lament.
  • Garoot is pidgin for “galoot” and the “r” is rolled. (Our rebel teenaged crew was not often on good terms with our support crew.)
  • Easy-easy, bum-bye pau. Very old style pidgin, it means “Take it easy.  It will eventually be done.”  We heard that a lot from the older workers.
  • Fruit-flipping was done by grabbing a large ripe fruit by the crown and twisting your wrist, letting the heavy fruit break off and fall from the crown onto the always-moving conveyor belt. It was discouraged by the grown-ups and practiced assiduously by all the young ones.  (We held seminars and critiqued each other’s techniques….)  The proper way to remove a crown from the ripe fruit was to hold the fruit and twist off each crown and then place it on the belt gently.
  • Monsoon” is a tropical storm. It was our war-cry when we were racing another crew in an adjoining field.  It was how we asked the machine driver to go faster.
  • Crews that filled a certain number of the big trailer container-crates in the backs of the trucks with the booms attached were paid at a higher rate for the day’s work.  We called it “making contract.”
  • Jus’ not going” is really, really slo-o-o-w.
By Netta Kanoho

Picture credit:  First Crop Pineapple Field by Forest and Kim Starr via Flickr [CC BY 2.0]

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