Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Strange Poetry

To mark the one-year anniversary of Ben Bodamer's death, Bertha and her children placed a poem in the Hobart News:

In Kind Remembrance
(Click on image to enlarge)

While the placement of memorial poetry in the newspapers was common practice, the verses almost always conformed to standard structures of rhyme and meter, and, if not original, came from popular religious or sentimental poetry. For example, when Mary Nolte died, her family requested the Gazette to print these lines with her obituary:
Weep not that her toils are over;
Weep not that her race is done.
God grant that we rest as calmly,
When our work, like hers, is done.
Till then we yield with gladness,
Our mother to Him to keep.
And rejoice in the sweet assurance
He giveth His loved one sleep.
Plug that first line into a search engine, and you come up with a plethora of similar uses; those verses were taken from an anonymous poem, usually called He Giveth His Loved Ones Sleep, that my hasty internet search found used as memorial poetry as far back as 1872.

But plug the first line (or the second, or third) of Ben Bodamer's poem into a search engine and you get nothing.

It doesn't scan. It's ungrammatical. It is raw and blunt. And while it expresses the New Testament hope in the standard language, it also, Ecclesiastes-like, alludes to the indifferent passage of time and the smallness of human endeavor — highly unusual topics in that context.

All in all, pretty strange. I wonder if perhaps it's a translation of a German poem? I wouldn't know how to begin tracking down the original. But I think that more likely it's original poetry by a non-native English speaker — and indeed Bertha Mueller Bodamer was born in Germany; but she came to this country at about the age of 13, so I would expect her to have a pretty good handle on English by the age of 49, unless she lived in a household, and socialized in a circle, that was mostly German-speaking. That might explain the poem's departures from grammar and idiom … but then I wonder that her sons didn't correct it for her.

I'm just saying whatever comes into my head, but I'm curious, not critical. For all its strangeness, I like this poem. It's memorable. In just a couple of lines it paints a distinctive portrait of Ben: "your happy and light-hearted disposition … [a]lways you were happy and always making fun" — something I'm going to think of every time I'm in Woodvale Cemetery and I see that gravestone with the hearts carved into the granite.

(On the other hand, I don't mean to suggest that people who didn't compose their own memorial poetry felt their bereavement any less. In the case of those quiet Noltes, the fact that they made even that much public demonstration of sentiment suggests to me that they were in the extremes of grief.)

1910 Census.
♦ "Death of Mrs. Nolte." Hobart Gazette 17 July 1908.
♦ "In Kind Remembrance." Hobart News 3 Jan. 1918.
The Bible Christian Magazine, for the Year 1872. London: Bible Christian Book Room, 1872. (accessed 10 Jan. 2010).

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