Barack Obama’s “Underground”

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Barack Obama’s “Underground”

In addition to his piece titled “Pop,” Barack Obama also published in Occidental college’s literary magazine, Feast, the short piece titled “Underground,” featuring a fantasy in which fig-eating apes breathe underwater, while dancing and tumbling about.

Introduction and Text of “Underground”

At age 19, Barack Hussein Obama II published in Occidental college’s literary magazine, Feast, two “poems.”  A piece titled “Pop,” in which he explores the relationship between a young man and a father figure and this short piece titled “Underground,” which reveals a fantasy world where fig-eating apes breathe underwater, while dancing and tumbling in rushing water.

Just as Obama’s piece of doggerel, “Pop,” thus not boding well for a potential writer of any stripe, the future U. S. President‘s poetic effort, “Underground,” offers further evidence that this hack scribbler will retain no place in letters. 

The title, “Underground,” indicates a location under the land, and it could also be indicating metaphorically some event or transaction not open to public scrutiny or awareness: an example might be a secret network similar to the Underground Railroad. However, no such meaning can be gleaned from this mass of confused doggerel.

Underground

Under water grottos, caverns
Filled with apes
That eat figs.
Stepping on the figs
That the apes
Eat, they crunch.
The apes howl, bare
Their fangs, dance,
Tumble in the
Rushing water,
Musty, wet pelts

Commentary

This three-pronged failure demonstrates even more clearly than the effort title “Pop” that this scribbler has no place in letters. It fails for three significant reasons: (1) misuse of grammar/diction, (2) awkward enjambment, and (3) lack of meaning.

First Movement: Underground, Underwater?

Under water grottos, caverns
Filled with apes
That eat figs.

The first line—”Under water grottos, caverns”— indicates that the setting for the activity is not “underground,” but, in fact, it is underwater. While the preferred spelling for the plural of “grotto” is “grottoes,” such an amateurish error is minor compared to the repetition of the similar terms, grotto and cavern. There is a difference in the denotative meanings of those two terms: grotto can be man-made and decorative while cavern is natural. Immediately, the bumbling speaker had befuddled the reader by employing those two terms, which because of their different meanings imply different connotations. Is the cave decorated by human beings or is it not? Is it a “grotto” or a “cavern”?  It cannot be both.

Those underwater caves, which may or may not be decorated, are teeming with land-dwelling, mammals who naturally breathe air, yet here they are—living and thus obviously breathing under water. The piece then perhaps becomes a verse of surreal fantasy. In any case, the reader must, at this point, suspend belief in order to continue, learning about those animals—”apes” that eat figs. This fact is nothing out of the ordinary, because apes do love fruit, but why the versifier chooses to employ “figs” must remain a mystery. No speculation can approach a satisfactory answer, and the context offers no clue.

Second Movement: Figs Stepping on Figs

Stepping on the figs
That the apes
Eat, they crunch.

In this three-line assertion, the misplaced modifier jumbles the message—who steps on the figs? It would appear that the apes would be doing so because no one else with feet appears in the grotto. Following an introductory gerund clause—in this case, “stepping on the figs”—the subject of the main clause must be the actor in the introductory clause. Thus, the subject of the introductory gerund clause, “they,” has to be the figs because it follows immediately the introductory gerund clause.

Because it is absurd to think that even an amateur would be stating such an impossible occurrence—that the figs are stepping on themselves—the reader becomes aware of the grammatical error called misplaced modifier. As Jack Cashill has pointed out, Obama has been consistent in misapplying grammatical constructions including but not limited to bringing his subjects and verbs into alignment.

Furthermore, word choice in poems is vital, and the writer’s choices in this poem offer nothing but speculation to the reader.  That flaw hinders meaning.  There seems to be no clear reason for choosing figs over any other fruit.  And that the speaker claims that the figs “crunch” remains nonsensical. Figs are soft and pliable; even dried figs would not “crunch” if stepped on.  Thus, not only is the choice of figs questionable; it is also unfeasible.

Third Movement: Maddened by Crunching Figs

The apes howl, bare
Their fangs, dance

It now seems that the “crunch” sound inflames the apes so that they start to “howl” and “bare their fangs” as they “dance.” The only reason for the ape-dance is that someone stepped on figs and made them crunch or so one would guess. Is the ape excitement motivated by anger or is it urged on to gladness by the crunching of their figs?  Such amateurish discourse demonstrates the lack of control in composing meaningful a piece that communicate clearly.  Ultimately, this kind of nonsense communicates nothing but does clearly reveal the lack of ability of the composer.

Fourth Movement: Awkward Enjambment

Tumble in the
Rushing water,
Musty, wet pelts
Glistening in the blue.

As mentioned in the commentary on “Pop,” often a sign of an amateur poet is a line ending with “the”: “Tumble in the / Rushing water.” The frivolous diversion of this awkward enjambment distracts from the list of activities engaged in by the apes after their figs were stepped on.  The reader will want to like the apes and want to know what they are doing and why they are doing it, but the confused grammar, lack of poetic control, and awkward phrasing demonstrates by the would-be poet obliterates any hope of a clear reading.

The reader may summarize the activities of the apes by quoting four lines: the apes “howl, bare / Their fangs, dance, / Tumble in the / Rushing water.” They do all of these things while their “[m]usty, wet pelts / [are] Glistening in the blue.” It remains ambiguous as to what “blue” refers: it would seem to be the water, but the scant amount of light peeping into the underwater cave would allow only enough to render the water’s color to appear black. This confusion offers further evidence that this amateur poetaster had little control of his thoughts and his language arsenal. It becomes especially galling that the poet could not even realize the nature of light and how it operates to illuminate color.

Ungrammatical, Awkward, Meaningless

This piece of doggerel, “Underground,” fails for three significant reasons: (1) misuse of grammar/diction, (2) awkward enjambment, but most importantly, (3) lack of meaning.  The apes could be charming, even endearing with their figs and their musty pelts, but the reader concludes the visit with them, baffled by the awkward execution of the piece, having no idea what has just transpired in these lines.

Readers might wonder what they might have communicated in the hands of a genuine poet, instead of in the hands of immature hack whose lack of a literary sensibility has misused them. Such confusion fostered by this poem offers further evidence that this poetaster had little control over his thoughts and the instruments in his poetry toolkit. Nay, it remains quite likely he possessed no poetry toolkit at all.

Sources


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