I maintain several lines of income aside from the day-job I’ve been lucky to have these past few years. Among them has been work on readers’ guides to a number of books, done as contract labor on a piece-by-piece basis for different companies. As I write this, I am working on a guide to FC Yee and Michael Dante DiMartino’s 2019 novel, The Rise of Kyoshi, and, as often happens, I find I have things to say about the book that do not fit neatly into the kinds of things my contract asks me to discuss. Fortunately, I have outlets such as this to indulge myself–and I hope you will follow along with me as I do, dear reader.
There’s a passage in the chapter “Honest Work,” near the end, in which Kyoshi and other characters in the novel find themselves extemporizing poetry (39-41). After an initial poor effort from a side-character, one of the major early characters, Kelsang, deploys ” a well-known shanty popular with sailors and field hands, where you improvised raunchy words from the perspective of your unrequited affection. It was a game for others to guess who you were singing about, and the simple rhythm made manual labor more pleasant” (40). In form, the shanty-verses are quatrains alternating between tetrameter and trimeter, with the first line beginning with a trochee (the “I’ve” with which the verses typically begin calls for emphasis) and the remainder being largely anapestic or iambic; they rhyme ABCB, with an internal rhyme in the third line (the second and fourth feet rhyme).
The form is relatively intricate, although not excessively so; it shows enough consistency and refinement to be plausible as a culturally transmitted form, but it is accessible enough to meet the stated purpose of easing manual labor among populations that, intelligent and diligent as they are, are not like to have the luxury time to spend on more convoluted forms. So that much comes off as verisimilitudinous, something that is always a concern for works of speculative and similar fiction such as the novel.
I note, also, that the alternating line-length and somewhat erratic metrical pattern lend something of a surging, pulsing motion to the text (in addition to seeming to call for a brief cæsura at the end of the second line). Given the description of the verse-form as calling for raunchiness (even if the examples present in the text are not quite raunchy–“bawdy” might well apply, and “lewd”), it is not much of a cognitive stretch to read the form as mimetic of penetrative sex. How much of that can be discussed openly in an avowedly young-adult work is an open question, of course, but teenagers are apt to see such things, and some folks don’t grow out of the tendency. And there is a long history of sublimating eroticism in verse and other arts, of course, amply attested and deeply felt; the versification in the novel is but one more example thereof, and one I admit to enjoying seeing.
Even aside from the pay for work, I’d wanted to read the novel; I was among the early watchers of Avatar: The Last Airbender when it premiered, even if I might not have quite been part of the presumed primary audience, and my daughter and I have enjoyed watching the series and its sequel series together in recent months. I’m glad to have had the opportunity to do so (and to make money from it!) and to have been able to spend some time thinking about it for my own purposes. I get to do such things a fair bit, of course, but another chance is always welcome.