Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Guest Blog: From Sherman Alexie's Totem Sonnets (Commonplace Book)

From his book "The Summer of Black Widows" (Hanging Loose Press).

Edgar Bearchild
Holden Caulfield

The Misfit

Cecelina Capture
Jim Loney

The Incredible Hulk

Wikipedia says this about the order of figures on a totem pole: 'Vertical order of images is widely believed to be a significant representation of importance. This idea is so pervasive that it has entered into common parlance with the phrase "low man on the totem pole". This phrase is indicative of the most common belief of ordering importance, that the higher figures on the pole are more important or prestigious. A counterargument frequently heard is that figures are arranged in a "reverse hierarchy" style, with the most important representations being on the bottom, and the least important being on top. Actually there have never been any restrictions on vertical order, many poles have significant figures on the top, others on the bottom, and some in the middle.'

I like the cognitive dissonance of this "Totem Sonnet" form. In sonnets we think of the final couplet as being the two most important lines. But as wikipedia notes, most of us are programmed to think of totem poles as being oriented in the opposite direction: the icons are more "prestigious" the higher you climb. In this particular sonnet, that cognitive dissonance allows the stanza's final couplet to work like a punchline -- a list consisting of twelve appropriately "literary" fictional icons concludes, unexpectedly, with two comic-book characters. This is surely the only sonnet in published history whose final line contains the phrase "The Incredible Hulk."


neilshyminsky said...

I'm with you, except that I'm a bit lost on who 'Lenny' is supposed to be. At first, I thought it was Lennie from 'Of Mice and Men', but the spelling is different. And the only other Lenny I could think of was of Lenny and Carl fame from the Simpsons. So that adds another wrinkle, doesn't it?

Jason Powell said...

I'd bet money it's a misspelling of the name of the "Of Mice and Men" character. It may be a mistake on the part of the website where I found the poem. I'd have to go back and see, but I'd guess it's spelled correctly in the book.

aniroo said...

Lenny Bruce??

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