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Malcolm M. Sedam's "Desafinado"

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

Introduction and Text of "Desafinado"

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, that is, it offered "a significant and enduring contribution to society and literature." They also testified that it was a “prophetic work” and “thoroughly honest.”

Justice did prevail for Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who should never had been forced through a trial to begin with. As morally bankrupt as Ginsberg's poem is, censorship is not the answer to refuting written works; only other written works are. And forcing individuals through the legal system because of what someone else has written is both stupid and utterly dangerous. Censorship is a much more dangerous act perpetrated on culture than the depiction of depraved sex acts.

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 Web sites even in the 21st century—even this one; thus I have had to block 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.

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 attempted degradation of the soul of humanity.

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.

~ ~ ~

Please note: The word processing system used by the HubPages site does not allow non-traditional formation of text. To see how the poet set this poem down on the page, please go to Maya Shedd’s Temple to view Sedam’s collection titled The Man in Motion; scroll down to the fifth poem.

Commentary

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 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 horney 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 hairy 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 hairy, 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 gamed 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.

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.

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, knowledgable editor should 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.

© 2019 Linda Sue Grimes