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Life Sketches of Indiana Poets, Malcolm M. Sedam and Thomas Thornburg, Plus an Essay, "Meaning in Poems"

Life sketches of poets and other writers afford readers a glimpse into the writing process, backgrounding the creativity of each artist.

Malcolm M. Sedam - Photo from The Eye of the Beholder / Thomas Thornburg - Photo from Saturday Town

Malcolm M. Sedam - Photo from The Eye of the Beholder / Thomas Thornburg - Photo from Saturday Town

Malcolm M. Sedam and Thomas Thornburg

The late poet, Malcolm M. Sedam, exemplifies the Socratic command implied in the oft-quoted, "The unexamined life is not worth living." The late Hoosier poet, Thomas Thornburg, represents the literary world with the best qualities a writer can possess: honesty and integrity.

Life Sketch of Malcolm M. Sedam

The late poet, Malcolm M. Sedam, examines his life after the Socratic claim, "The unexamined life is not worth living."

Fighter Pilot

Malcolm M. Sedam served in World War II as a fighter pilot, flying bombing missions in the Pacific theatre. Then he settled down to a life in business and started a family. His war experience served to enervate him, and he began to question the efficacy of devoting his life solely to making money.

Businessman

Mr. Sedam asked himself, "How many suits can a man wear in one day?" So he decided he had to make his life about more than business and money. He returned to school, and, as William Stafford would say, he revised his life.

Teacher

Mr. Sedam traded in his life as a successful businessman to become a teacher to make his life more meaningful. He taught American history, English, and creative writing at Centerville Senior High School in Centerville, Indiana, from 1962-1964.

After receiving his M. A. degree from Ball State University, he taught at an extension of Miami University at Middletown, Ohio, until his death in 1976. Miami-Middletown offers a Malcolm M. Sedam English scholarship and awards in creative writing named for the beloved professor, the Malcolm M. Sedam Awards.

Poet

But Malcolm Sedam, called Mac by his friends, did not only serve as a teacher; he also wrote poetry and plays. He published three collections of poems: Between Wars, The Man in Motion, and The Eye of the Beholder. His play The Twentieth Mission has been performed at Playhouse in the Park, in Cincinnati, Ohio, and on many college campuses.

"It happened to me"

Mr. Sedam's second collection of poems, The Man in Motion, brings together an eclectic assemblage from the personal "Nostalgia" to the political "For Reasons Unknown."

The book was published in 1971 by a small now-defunct Chronicle Press in Franklin, Ohio, but it is a smart, handsome publication, and the poems offer a delightful journey into the life of the man who flew fighter planes in World War II and then later became a teacher and poet.

In the preface, Mr. Sedam claims his poetic experience by stating, "Let me speak for my own poetry that it happened to me that I lived, enjoyed or suffered every scene and that these poems are the essence of these experiences."

He was a passionate man, who demanded from himself that he live every moment to the height of its possibility.

Continuing his introduction, Mr. Sedam declares,

Hopefully, for art's sake, the poems will give pleasure and satisfaction both to the critic and the average reader, but in a test of belief, I seek that man, any man (critic or average reader) who values flesh and blood feelings above clever word manipulation.

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He strove always for the authentic, the genuine, to the best of his ability.

My Personal Tribute to Mr. Malcolm M. Sedam

Entering my junior year at Centerville Senior High School in the fall of 1962, I was privileged to study with a teacher, Mr. Malcolm M. Sedam, who employed collegiate pedagogical methods. His teaching style fostered critical thinking in addition to learning the facts about the subject.

The subject was American history. Mr. Sedam had served as a fighter pilot in the Pacific theater in World War II. He attributed his worldview that urged him live each moment to the fullest to his war experience; he wanted to pass that urgency on to students.

Thus, he felt that critical thinking was the most important practice that high school students needed.

Conducting the required junior year course in American history as a college course, Mr. Sedam discussed each issue in detail with background information, including additional facts not dealt with in the textbook. He connected the dots, so to speak, and encouraged us to ask questions.

He also allowed us to respond and make connections during class discussion. He required outside reading as well, with oral and written reports.

Testing consisted of two parts: short identification of five to seven terms and three essay topics; we were required to write on two of the three. This method required us to organize material and make connections to demonstrate that we understood what happened, how, and why—not merely when.

This method also forced us write complete sentences, instead of just selecting answers from a multiple-choice test or merely fill in blanks, as most high school tests were fashioned. This methodology gave us practice in expository writing that usually had to wait until college.

During that same school year, Mr. Sedam often ended a class session by reading his poetry to our class, and a number of students expressed interest in a creative writing class. Mr. Sedam was able to offer that creative writing class the next year, so as a senior, I again sat for a class with Mr. Sedam.

My specialty was poetry; I had dabbled in poetry writing since my grade-school days at Abington Township Elementary School. I had not really thought of what I wrote as poetry, but having a rôle model in Mr. Sedam awakened in me the aspiration to write real poetry.

Mr. Sedam encouraged us to write in the genre that most interested; thus, I began my study of poetry, and I have continued studying it, writing it, and writing about it ever since those high school days.

I had the privilege of studying with Mr. Sedam for only two years in high school from 1962-1964. Mr. Sedam later became professor of English at Miami University at Middletown, OH. The following is a tribute to Professor Sedam from one of his Miami students; it appears on the Miami page titled 10 Reasons We Love Miami:

Professor Malcolm Sedam was an English professor at Miami Middletown. He taught the art of writing from the viewpoint of a life fully lived, and believed true written communication came from the soul rather than from the end of a pen.

Whether he was at the head of the classroom or sharing a table in the student break area, Professor Sedam entertained us with his stories of flying P-51 Mustangs in the Pacific during World War II, his childhood experiences growing up in Indiana, and other adventures.

My two years in his classroom became a place to express passionate perspectives - a skill that carried me through college, career, and life. – John Atkins '79, Stafford, Va.

It is with great appreciation for Mr. Sedam’s example and encouragement of my writing that I offer this memorial to my former American history and creative writing teacher, a beautiful soul.

Malcolm M. Sedam

Malcolm M. Sedam

Malcolm M. Sedam’s "Desafinado"

The speaker in Malcolm M. Sedam's "Desafinado" holds the Beat poet Allen Ginsberg accountable for what the speaker deems to be the attempted degradation of the soul of humanity.

Introduction and Text of "Desafinado"

The speaker in Malcolm M. Sedam's "Desafinado" belongs to that group that finds little to no literary value in Ginsberg's rant and thus holds the Beat poet accountable for what the speaker deems to be the demeaning of the soul of humanity.

Written in 1955 and published in late 1956, the long poem "Howl" from Allen Ginsberg's collection, Howl and Other Poems, caused a stir that ultimately brought the book's publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti, founder of City Lights Bookstore, to trial for obscenity.

The poem dramatizes certain sex acts; for example, "those who let themselves be f*cked in the a** by saintly motorcyclists, and screamed with joy." The Ginsberg poem also spewed its glowing approval of illegal drug use.

Ultimately, Ferlinghetti was not convicted of his alleged crime of obscenity, because "nine expert witnesses, including literature professors, editors and book reviewers from the San Francisco Examiner and The New York Times," testified that the work had literary value.

Ginsburg’s poem, despite some raunchy language, offered "a significant and enduring contribution to society and literature." They also testified that it was a “prophetic work” and “thoroughly honest.”

Since that time, traditionally, however, many readers, including teachers, parents, critics, and other literary scholars have resisted the notion that Ginsberg's hysterics had literary merit.

(One might note that the quotation above from the poem is not welcome on a number of websites even in 2022—even this one; thus I have blocked full spelling of the offending words.)

The poem's main claim to fame has always been its confrontational struggle with dignity and morality, not its literary value.

Desafinado

(For Allen Ginsberg, et al)

Through this state and on to Kansas
more black than May’s tornadoes
showering a debris of art —
I saw you coming long before you came
in paths of twisted fear and hate
and dread, uprooted, despising all judgment
which is not to say
that the bourgeois should not be judged
but by whom and by what,
junkies, queers, and rot
who sit on their haunches and howl
that the race should be free for pot
and horny honesty
which I would buy
if a crisis were ever solved
in grossness and minor resolve
but for whom and for what?

I protest your protest
it’s hairy irrelevancy,
I, who am more anxious than you
more plaintive than you
more confused than you
having more at stake
an investment in humanity.

Reading of "Desafinado"

Commentary on "Desafinado"

Out of touch with humanity, but certainly spouting the postmodern ethos, Ginsberg's work finds its ultimate critic in Sedam's "Desafinado."

Flat or Off Key

The Italian musical term "desafinado" denotes an out-of-tune sound; a note that is flat or off key may be labeled "desafinado."

Thus, Sedam's speaker in his poem, "Desafinado," from The Man in Motion, insists that the Beat poets, Ginsberg and his ilk, are definitely out of tune with human dignity and morality. Featuring Sedam's signature indented lines, the poem is displayed in free-verse and in twenty-four lines.

It seems likely that the speaker of the poem is reacting to having attended a poetry reading wherein one or more of the scandalous Beats—perhaps even Ginsberg himself—have performed their wares.

The speaker claims that Ginsberg in his travels through the mid-west is "showering a debris of art." That debris is blacker than the tornadoes that assault the landscape in May.

Literarily Littering the Minds

The speaker suggests that the Ginsberg "art" litters the mind in a way that even the devastating tornadoes fail to equal across middle America. The speaker understands that influence on the mind of an individual and thereby society can have far reaching consequences.

Cleaning up the damages from damaged minds far exceeds that of cleaning up the damage hurled by strong winds in spring. The speaker berates the Beat poet and his ilk for degrading the art of poetry by dragging it down paths of hatred which is twisted with fear and unhinged from reality.

Also, these protestors hate being judged, criticized, corrected, or held to any traditional standards.

The speaker asserts that he does not believe that the "bourgeoisie" is perfect, nor is it thereby above judgment. However, he forces out the question regarding who is really able and qualified to make those judgments about the middle class.

The speaker affirms that such judgment will never be made effectively by "Junkies, queers, and rot.” If one finds the speaker's name-calling off-putting, one must ask, is it name-calling or simply naming? Is he not accurate in describing the characters who are appearing the works of Ginsberg and the Beats?

What Redeeming Value?

According to this speaker, the Ginsbergian ilk does not offer anything useful to the society from which they benefit greatly. Those of that ilk continue to "sit on their haunches and howl / that the race should be free for pot / and horny honesty."

The speaker is, of course, alluding to Ginsberg's infamous "Howl," which was coming into prominence in the early 1960s in the United States, as the Sixties' decadence was setting in.

The speaker asserts that he might be able to agree with some of the radicals' protesting moral standards if such protest ever solved any of society's problems.

The speaker, however, deems that the Beats' low-energy "resolve" and the grossness of the bellyachers as they just "sit on their haunches and howl" cannot, in fact, alter society and cannot benefit humanity.

The speaker then declaims that he protests against their protests. The irrelevance of those long-haired hippies, those who merely howl while sitting on their butts cannot convince this speaker of any righteousness of their stance.

This speaker revolts against the moral corruption of these dopers. The speaker then further supports his claims by emphasizing his own invested interest in a just and moral society. The speaker insists that he remains even more agitated, melancholy, and befuddled than those hirsute protestors.

One Man's Investment in Humanity

The speaker finally punches his last punch attempting to knock out the feeble but brazen howling cries of the shaggy, dirty, doping protesters, whose selfish self-aggrandizing leads only to a society of decay.

Instead of only a selfish concern, this speaker's stake is much higher: he professes that he struggles mightily because for him what is at stake is his "investment in humanity."

Even though this speaker is aware that he cannot vanquish the debauchery that is on its way, leaking into the culture like a punctured sewer pipe, he knows he can register his own protest against the moral equivalency that is leading to the degeneracy of the next generation.

Of course, the period known as the hippy sixties would continue down its fatalist path, yet where it would lead would remain open for discussion.

My Personal Reflection on Ginsberg’s "Howl"

Allen Ginsberg’s poem, "Howl," can arguably be considered to have ushered in the onslaught of postmodernism in America; however, this work as a piece of literature has stood the test of time as a game changer in literature, whether one agrees that the game needed to be changed or not.

The style of this slack-jawed piece is loosely reminiscent of that of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, even though Ginsberg’s obscene posture is anathema to Whitman’s measured, disciplined stance, as well as to that of the poet of "Desafinado."

In my personal opinion, what saves "Howl" from becoming just a piece of trash to assign to the dustbin of literary history—as the Sedamian ethos would suggest—is that it offers a view of American life along with a revelation of the mindset dedicated to the aberrant life styles that a significant portion of American society would never be able to experience otherwise.

Most of America—and likely even the entire globe—would never consider taking the kinds of trips taken by the Beats. But information can be useful, whether one agrees with it or not, nay, even if the work is nonsensical or brushed through with immorality, nihilism, and naïveté.

And while poetry's first function is not to impart empirical information, it does rely on empirical information to empower its focus on the human experience in feeling and emotion.

A piece of literature based on information that is abominable and morally repugnant in its content offers the opportunity explain to children and students that the behavior in the work should be disdained, discouraged, and avoided.

Censorship vs Editorial Choice

My first commandment regarding the written word is, "Thou shalt NOT censor!" Despite the possible, ultimate degradation and depravity of any text, nothing should be censored.

I remain four-square against censorship because citizens, especially of a democratic republic, need to be able to experience all kinds of experiences. With the exception of calls for violence, I contend that what most poets and essayist put out deserves an airing to offer information and to stir debate, and censorship cuts off all possibility of debate.

Editorial choice regarding the fitness of any text for any publication does not become censorship, unless the editor is denying the work based on prejudice, political bias, or personal preference, that is, the discussion of ideas with which an editor does not agree does not give the editor the moral right to censor.

Essentially, censorship bans ideas not necessarily the form in which those ideas are delivered. If the form, including the use of grammar and mechanics, is faulty, the editor has the duty to reject for publication the submitted piece, as faulty grammar and lax mechanics often suggest that the ideas may be weak as well.

The experienced, knowledgeable editor should possess and sustain the resources to determine the difference between a few insignificant mechanical errors and those that suggest a sloppy writer with sloppy thoughts.

But if the editor rejects or devalues a piece simply because s/he despises the politics, societal attitudes, or spiritual tradition of the writer, then that rejection would equal censorship, which is an abomination and a danger to a free people.

Sources for Commentary on "Desafinado"

Life Sketch of Thomas Thornburg

The late Hoosier poet, Thomas Thornburg, represents the literary world with the best qualities a writer can possess: honesty and integrity.

Born Thomas Ray Thornburg on September 23, 1937, to Robert and Dorothy (Hickey) Thornburg in Muncie, Indiana. Thomas was the third of five Thornburg children. His siblings include Rose, who died in infancy, Jerry, Danny, and Judith—all who preceded Thomas in death.

Thornburg attended Muncie schools, including Southside High School, from which he graduated 1955. He completed his education by earning a Ph.D. at Ball State University in 1969.

Thornburg and Indianapolis native, Sharon Robey, married in 1961, producing four offspring: Donald, Eustacia, Amanda, and Myles. In 1985, Sharon died after a long illness. Thornburg later married Mary Patterson.

Thornburg spent his working life as an educator, teaching high school English at Yorktown and Pike High School in Indianapolis. He served as chairman of the English Department at Pike.

After completing the Ph.D. degree at Ball State, he joined the Ball State English Department faculty, where he served as professor until his 1998 retirement, after which he was awarded the status of Professor Emeritus at Ball State University.

Thornburg’s Writing Life

A fine poet, Thomas Thornburg published the following collections of poems: Saturday Town (Dragon's Teeth Press, 1976), Ancient Letters (Barnwood Press, 1987), Munseetown (Two Magpies Press, 2001), and American Ballads: New and Selected Poems (AuthorHouse, 2009).

In addition to poetry, Thornburg authored two monographs at Ball State University: Prospero, The Magician-Artist: Auden's "The Sea and the Mirror" (Number 15, 1969) and Jonathan Swift and the Ciceronian Tradition (Number 28, 1980).

He also composed rhetorical analyses of the works of many writers, including Charles Darwin, Daniel Defoe, John Donne, Robert Frost, and Karl Shapiro. He published a novel titled Where Summer Strives (AuthorHouse, 2006), and for CliffsNotes, he did a work up of Plato's Republic (2000).

Thornburg served as the lyricist for The Masque of Poesie, which was produced in 1977 on the Ball State University campus and also performed for the silver jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II.

As a native of Muncie, Indiana, Thornburg once quipped, "I have traveled a good deal in Muncie"—echoing with his allusion, Henry David Thoreau's, "I have traveled a good deal in Concord (MA)."

After his retirement from Ball State, Thornburg relocated from Muncie, Indiana, to Bozeman, Montana, where they resided with his wife until his passing on July 8, 2020.

My Personal Tribute to Professor Thomas Thornburg

I owe Professor Thornburg the debt of gratitude for instilling in me the seriousness of purpose required for the writing life.

He served as my advisor at Ball State University (1984-87), providing invaluable guidance as I researched, analyzed, and composed "William Butler Yeats' Transformations of Eastern Religious Concepts," my dissertation for the Ph.D. degree in British, American, and World Literature.

As I sat for the professor's course in classical rhetoric, I became captivated and delighted with the seriousness of purpose that drove the ancients to pursue fairness, precision, and truth in their discourse.

Also because of Professor Thornburg's influence and example, I came to appreciate more deeply the value of pursuing accuracy, concision, and thoroughness in all written composition.

Anything worth writing is worth serious attention to honesty of purpose. Classical rhetoric has remained one of my favorite areas of interest as I pursue improving my skills as a writer.

Tree Planting Memorial: Inscription for a Beautiful Soul

Professor Thomas Thornburg: Studying with you at BSU as I pursued the Ph.D. remains a treasure in my memory. I am honored to have known you. God rest your beautiful soul with eternal blessings!

Thomas Thornburg's "Serving the South"

The irony in the title of Thornburg's "Serving the South" serves the hatred spewed by a Northern bigot on a fancied journey through the Southland of the United States of America.

Introduction and Text of "Serving the South"

The speaker in Thomas Thornburg's "Serving the South," from American Ballads: New and Selected Poems, is a bigoted northerner, who is ostensibly reporting his observations about his southern neighbors.

However, all he actually accomplishes is a warming up and reworking of a handful of worn out clichés and stereotypes about the American South.

An especially egregious example of these ignorant stereotypes plays out in the speaker's deliberate misspelling of the word, "eccyclema" as "ekkuklema."

All those "k's" and the replacement of the "y" with "u" is meant to trigger in the minds of readers an image of the KKK—Ku Klux Klan—which for many northerners like this speaker remains the only thing they actually know about the American South.

The speaker comes across as a pathetic yet pedantic wielder of left-over 20th century animus of the North that continues to castigate the South for its culture.

And yet while no contemporary southerners believe that slavery represents a useful and gloried past to which they would gladly return, many northerners, westerners, and easterners continue to tar the entire South with that broad brush of racism.

Serving the South

deadended on a siding in Midway, Alabama,
stand 6.5 miles of RR cars.
covered in kudzu and time, they stand,
iron cheeks squaring their gothic mouths;
they are Southern and Serve the South
(hub-deep in red clay) this land,
this ekkuklema of southern drama.
still, it is Bike Week in Daytona,
and the Lady is sold in yards from rucksacks
where a tattooed mama fucks & sucks
(her name is not Ramona).
here will come no deus ex machina,
this American South, this defeated dream.
drunken, drugged, dolorous in their dementia,
forbidden by Law to wear their colors,
these cavaliers race their engines and scream
where the marble figure in every square
shielding his eyes as the century turns
stands hillbilly stubborn and declares.
heading back north having spent our earnings,
honeyed and robbed we are fed on hatred
cold as our dollar they cannot spurn,
and we are in that confederate.

"Serving the South," from American Ballads: New and Selected Poems
© Thomas Thornburg 2009

Reading of "Serving the South"

Commentary on "Serving the South"

A northern bigot looks down his nose at the people of the South. As he does so, his use of stereotypes reveals inaccuracies as well as his shallow understanding of his subject. Employment of mere stereotypes nearly always results in wrong-headedness and even gross, but often wide-spread, fabrications.

First Movement: Symbol of the South

deadended on a siding in Midway, Alabama,
stand 6.5 miles of RR cars.
covered in kudzu and time, they stand,
iron cheeks squaring their gothic mouths;
they are Southern and Serve the South
(hub-deep in red clay) this land,
this ekkuklema of southern drama.

The speaker begins his rant in what, at first, seems to be a mere description of a length of railroad cars that have been sitting in Midway, Alabama, unattended so long that kudzu is growing on them. They have seemingly begun to sink into the "red clay"—(Many northerners are often taken aback at the sight of southern "red clay.")

The drama that plays out in this opening movement reveals the bigotry and ignorance of the low-information speaker. The speaker employs the term, "ekkuklema," to describe the railroad cars. This usage could signal a useful metaphor, as the Greek term refers to the vehicle used in Greek dramas to assist in shifting scenes.

However, this usage merely signals an attempt to focus readers on the despicable and now nearly defunct and everywhere debunked group that blackened the reputation of the South following the American Civil War.

The traditional, anglicized spelling of this Greek term is "eccyclema," (pronounced ɛksɪˈkliːmə) but it does have an alternate spelling, "ekkyklēma." However, no alternate spelling that replaces the "y" with a "u" exists. This speaker has coined his own term, and for a very clever reason, he, no doubt, believes.

In choosing to spell "eccyclema" as "ekkuklema," the speaker points to the most heinous organizations that did, in fact, develop in the South, the Ku Klux Klan. The organization served as an unofficial terror group for the Democratic Party, after the first Republican President, Abraham Lincoln, and the Civil War put an end to slavery.

The KKK attempted to dismantle the citizenship rights of former slaves through cross burnings, lynchings, and intimidation. The Klan also attempted to overthrow Republican governors by assassinating black leaders.

With one simple, innocent word, this speaker has alluded to that despicable group that began in the South, specifically in Pulaski, Tennessee, December 24, 1865.

The stone-throwers of the North like to pretend innocence in such ventures, but the KKK spread North, and by 1915, Indiana and many other northern states could boast their own branches of the Klan.

This speaker's sole purpose in coining a new spelling for the Greek stage term is to remind readers of that Southern flaw, with which he hopes his readers will be instructed to believe that all southerners are racists, as well as stuck in red clay, as the railroad cars become a symbol of non-productive laziness.

The South is served by these railroad cars that go nowhere, having sat idle so long that kudzu is covering them, while they sink into the mud of "red clay."

Second Movement: From Alabama on to Florida

still, it is Bike Week in Daytona,
and the Lady is sold in yards from rucksacks
where a tattooed mama fucks & sucks
(her name is not Ramona).

The speaker has now moved on from Alabama to Florida, where it is "Bike Week in Daytona." His participation in Bike Week remains a mystery, but what he actually does pay attention to is most revealing: he is after cocaine and c*nt.

The speaker reports that he can get cocaine, "White Lady," or "Lady" from dealers anywhere selling from backpacks. He seems especially interested in purchasing from a woman with tattoos from whom he can also receive sexual service because this "mama f*cks & sucks."

The tattooed mama is not a looker, that is, she is not a "Ramona"—slang term for a very good-looking woman.

The speaker has done such a marvelous job of condemning the South in his first movement that he lets the second movement slide a bit, except for the fact that cocaine is flowing freely. And ugly women with tattoos are selling coke and c*nt during "Bike Week" in Daytona. But what about the bikers?

Third Movement: The Colors

here will come no deus ex machina,
this American South, this defeated dream.
drunken, drugged, dolorous in their dementia,
forbidden by Law to wear their colors,
these cavaliers race their engines and scream
where the marble figure in every square
shielding his eyes as the century turns
stands hillbilly stubborn and declares.

Indeed, there cannot be any happy ending involving this God-forsaken place. No "god" is going to jump out of the "machine" called the South and save it from perdition, according to this blank-staring bigot from the North.

Now the speaker is ready let loose how he really feels about the American South: it is a "defeated dream." Southerners are nothing but demented druggies and drunks. His cleverly alliterative line-and-a-half reeks of desperation: "defeated dream. / drunken, drugged, dolorous in their dementia."

The speaker then makes a huge error with the line, "forbidden by Law to wear their colors." Actually, there is no "Law" that forbids bikers from wearing their patches or "colors."

The speaker is confusing the controversy that erupted in Florida and other states that resulted in many bars and restaurants refusing services to bikers wearing their club insignia.

There has been a decades-old movement seeking legislation to end the unfair discrimination against bikers, as some areas continue to post signs such as, "No colors. No guns," which violate both the first and second amendment rights of bikers: wearing their club insignia is protected speech under the first amendment, and carrying a gun is protected by the second amendment.

The speaker then concocts an unseemly image of the bikers, whom he refers to as "cavaliers," racing their engines and screaming under the statues of the Confederate war heroes, which the speaker places in "every square."

Oddly, many of those bikers would not be southerners at all because bikers from all over the world attend events such as Daytona's Bike Week.

The speaker further describes the men in the statues as covering their eyes and standing "hillbilly stubborn" at the turn of the century, when according to the implications of this speaker, the dirty, dastardly southerners should be becoming more like their betters in the North.

Fourth Movement: Seriously Confederate

heading back north having spent our earnings,
honeyed and robbed we are fed on hatred
cold as our dollar they cannot spurn,
and we are in that confederate.

Finally, this speaker reports that he and his group are "heading back north." They have spent all their money, but he calls the money "earnings," leaving it a mystery whether he means the money they earned up North at their jobs, or money they might have earned wagering at the bike track.

The speaker now blames the southerners he has encountered for his and his group's spending all their money. Southern flattery ("honeyed") has motivated these savvy northerners to spend their money, but now he translates the act of voluntary spending into being "robbed."

And what, in fact, did they buy—well, nothing, really, they were just "fed on hatred." This speaker would have his readers believe that southern hate is notorious for robbing innocent, white northerners, who are just out to have a good time.

Then the speaker offers a surprising revelation: the southerners could not spurn those northern dollars, even though those dollars were cold like the southern hatred that the speaker et al apparently experienced at every turn.

The speaker is subtly and prophetically suggesting that southerners make up the bulk of that Clintonian "basket of deplorables," who are "racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic—you name it."

The speaker then remarks that on the issue of money, or "earnings," he, his group, and the southerners are "confederate," or in agreement, or so it seems. So money is after all the great leveler.

Everybody needs cash and is trying to secure cash—North, South, East, and West—we are all "confederate" in our need for financial backing on this mud ball of a planet.

But still the cliché dictates that when "other" people—in this case those deplorable southerners—work to get the money they need, they are always deplorable; when we and our little group work for our cash, we are virtuous, and only "confederate" with those "others" in the mere fact that we need it.

No doubt the speaker's cuteness in thus employing the term, "confederate," elicits from him a wild-eyed, wide-mouthed guffaw.

He and his group are, after all, heading home to the North, where things are sober, sane, and sympathetic to the political correctness that is flaying the world and turning stereotypes sprinkled with clichés into models for language and behavior.

Sources for Commentary on "Serving the South"

The Poem, "Trees," by Joyce Kilmer

The Poem, "Trees," by Joyce Kilmer

Meaning in Poems

If a poem can mean anything you want it to mean, then we need only one poem, for every time you read it you can decide it means something different. The foolishness of this statement should be obvious.

Many readers believe that poetry is difficult to understand; others believe poetry is not a matter of meaning but individual preference for what a poem means. Over and over again ad nauseam our ears are accosted with the old lie, "A poem can mean anything you want it to mean."

Can football be played anyway you want to play it? How about I want to play it with a basket ball, or instead of end zones, I'd like to run bases. How would that scenario satisfy football fans and players?

While all art does allow room for a certain level of individual interpretation just as football allows room for different styles and talents of the players, if basic, common meanings and understandings are not observed, then there is no art, nor is there a sport of any kind.

If a poem can mean anything you want it to mean, then all we need is one poem. That same poem can also mean something different to me every time I read it.

If Emily Dickinson's "After great pain" can speak of sorrow to one reader and joy to another, then that same poem could also be about childhood or the aging process or even the beauty of the seasons.

And therefore Dickinson would have committed quite a folly in making the effort to create 1774 additional poems that she added to her inventory.

If one reader takes joy from the poem while another finds sorrow, yet both are deemed correct in their findings, then one single poem is all we need. If those two readers can interpret correctly opposite meanings, then all shades of meaning in between would be feasible as well.

Not All Interpretations Can Be Correct

While there is some latitude for varying interpretations of a poem, based on individual experience and perspective, it is still a fact is that not all interpretations are correct.

Most misreading of poems results from the incorrect notion that words always change meanings when used in poems or that words always have double-meanings when used in poems.

Another fallacy regarding poems is that the poet is using come kind of code to hide his/her real meaning, and only an expert can know the true meaning. Those egalitarian souls who find the experts-only knowledge too bourgeois are usually the ones who like to proclaim that a poem can mean anything you want it to mean.

Interpreting Sexuality in Frost's "Birches"

For an example of a ludicrous misreading, let us consider the following lines from Robert Frost's "Birches":

One by one he subdued his father's trees
By riding them down over and over again
Until he took the stiffness out of them,
And not one but hung limp, not one was left
For him to conquer. He learned all there was
To learn about not launching out too soon

These lines are quite literal. They simply describe how a young boy had fun on his father's farm by swinging on birch trees. There is no metaphor, no simile, no symbol. But some readers, tainted by the notion that words in poems must, at least, have double-meanings, read sexuality, specifically masturbation, into these lines.

But more importantly, the lines represent the speaker's memory of how he himself used to swing on birch trees when he was young. He uses this scenario to support his claim that he prefers to think some playful boy had caused the birch trees to droop, rather than some ice-storm, which he had just described.

Had the speaker's purpose been to evoke masturbatory imagery in the mind of his reader, he could have done so with imagery relating to specific body parts, but the speaker does not do this.

Thus, the poem's clear purpose is simply to demonstrate the speaker's nostalgic remembrance of himself as having been a swinger of birches and how he would enjoy engaging in swinging on birch trees again.

Readers Often Tricked by Literary Devices

The use of the most frequently employed literary devices such a metaphor, simile, image, personification, and symbol renders many readers powerless when faced with these devices in a poem.

Even Frost's widely-anthologized "The Road Not Taken" tricks readers, who are looking for a clear moral, such as a call for an independent spirit. Without one poetic device, Frost makes a statement about human memory and its penchant for deceiving itself.

Yet generations have looked to this poem as a call for non-conformity. Frost himself called this poem very tricky.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Linda Sue Grimes

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