Malcolm M. Sedam's "Desafinado"
Malcolm M. Sedam
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 it 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.”
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 2019—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.
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.
(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 horney 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 irrelevancyI,
who am more anxious than you
more plaintive than you
more confused than you
having more at stake
an investment in humanity.
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.
Malcolm M. Sedam
Life Sketch of Malcolm M. Sedam
The late poet, Malcolm M. Sedam, exemplifies the Socratic command implied in the oft-quoted, "The unexamined life is not worth living."
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.
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.
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.
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." He strove always for the authentic, the genuine, to the best of his ability.
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.
© 2019 Linda Sue Grimes