Saturday, June 21, 2014

Green Eyes and Yellow Gods

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That was a horrible song
Sing us another one,
Just like the other one,
Sing us another one do . . .

Today we go literary.

Not artsy fartsy literary that no one can understand, as Sir Les Patterson would put it, but real poetry, the culture of the masses.

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Just as The Hole in the Elephant’s Bottom was an example of music hall songs that were looked down on but which nonetheless were enjoyed by the masses, so there is a realm of poetry that is also not considered “serious art” by the critics but loved by the population. The Man from Snowy River is a good Australian example.

One blogger, John George Byrne, who goes by the blog name Fustar, says this about what he terms “bad art”:

Like most (unintentionally) "bad art" (define those words how you will) – bad verse pulls its audience in at least two directions. With one tug it produces giddy thrills – leading readers down a colourful, rubbish-strewn path to hilarity. With another yank it breaks your bloody heart – as the poet's wobbly (and painfully sincere) edifice of fragile beauty collapses under the strain of bathos, sentimentality, naïveté and sheer (tragic) incompetence. 
As the dust clears, there (in his/her creation's ruins) the poet lies. Naked and sobbing (and covered in piss…for some reason). An artless soul torn open & laid bare for a jeering world to see. 
Yet, for all that, "bad verse" offers pleasures beyond the mere mocking guffaw. It can be vital and rousing. Refreshing and (over-used term this) life-affirming. Deliciously weird and delightfully demented. It can (like a gormless but flukeily effective lover) touch parts that "good" and worthy poetry often struggles to reach.

In that vein here is a music hall poem that harks back to the days of Kipling, Boy’s Own adventures, the British Raj and the movie Zulu, when poets would stand in front of music hall and vaudeville audiences and recite gripping tales.

The poem is called The Green Eye of the Little Yellow God, dating from 1911 and it is by J Milton Hayes (1884-1940).

In his book My Brother Evelyn and Other Profiles, Alec Waugh gives Hayes's account of the writing of the poem:

"I wrote The Green Eye of the Little Yellow God in five hours, but I had it all planned out. It isn't poetry and it does not pretend to be, but it does what it sets out to do. It appeals to the imagination from the start: those colours, green and yellow, create an atmosphere. Then India, everyone has his own idea of India. Don't tell the public too much. Strike chords. It is no use describing a house; the reader will fix the scene in some spot he knows himself. All you've got to say is 'India' and a man sees something. Then play on his susceptibilities." 
"His name was Mad Carew. You've got the whole man there. The public will fill in the picture for you. And then the mystery. Leave enough unsaid to make paterfamilias pat himself on the back. 'I've spotted it, he can't fool me. I'm up to that dodge. I know where he went.' No need to explain. Then that final ending where you began. It carries people back. You've got a compact whole. 'A broken-hearted woman tends the grave of Mad Carew' They'll weave a whole story round that woman's life. Every man's a novelist at heart. We all tell ourselves stories. That's what you've got to play on."

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Here is the poem:

The Green Eye of the Little Yellow God

There's a one-eyed yellow idol to the north of Khatmandu,
There's a little marble cross below the town;
There's a broken-hearted woman tends the grave of Mad Carew,
And the Yellow God forever gazes down.

He was known as "Mad Carew" by the subs at Khatmandu,
He was hotter than they felt inclined to tell;
But for all his foolish pranks, he was worshipped in the ranks,
And the Colonel's daughter smiled on him as well.

He had loved her all along, with a passion of the strong,
The fact that she loved him was plain to all.
She was nearly twenty-one and arrangements had begun
To celebrate her birthday with a ball.

He wrote to ask what present she would like from Mad Carew;
They met next day as he dismissed a squad;
And jestingly she told him then that nothing else would do
But the green eye of the little Yellow God.

On the night before the dance, Mad Carew seemed in a trance,
And they chaffed him as they puffed at their cigars:
But for once he failed to smile, and he sat alone awhile,
Then went out into the night beneath the stars.

He returned before the dawn, with his shirt and tunic torn,
And a gash across his temple dripping red;
He was patched up right away, and he slept through all the day,
And the Colonel's daughter watched beside his bed.

He woke at last and asked if they could send his tunic through;
She brought it, and he thanked her with a nod;
He bade her search the pocket saying "That's from Mad Carew,"
And she found the little green eye of the god.

She upbraided poor Carew in the way that women do,
Though both her eyes were strangely hot and wet;
But she wouldn't take the stone and Mad Carew was left alone
With the jewel that he'd chanced his life to get.

When the ball was at its height, on that still and tropic night,
She thought of him and hurried to his room;
As she crossed the barrack square she could hear the dreamy air
Of a waltz tune softly stealing thro' the gloom.

His door was open wide, with silver moonlight shining through;
The place was wet and slipp'ry where she trod;
An ugly knife lay buried in the heart of Mad Carew,
'Twas the "Vengeance of the Little Yellow God."

There's a one-eyed yellow idol to the north of Khatmandu,
There's a little marble cross below the town;
There's a broken-hearted woman tends the grave of Mad Carew,
And the Yellow God forever gazes down.

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There you have it: theft, murder, racism, revenge, mysterious cultures and foreign places, it sounds like a modern day TV series.

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Hear the recitation by Bertram Selwyn at:

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