Highway Poet Tells Bureaucrat to Hit the Road

ENFIELD, Connecticut.  Mike Abruzzioni is Assistant Deputy Commissioner of Roads and Bridges at State Highway Department District #2 Headquarters here, a position he earned after many years of service, plus frequent contributions to state legislators.  “It ain’t what a lot of people think,” he says of the keys to his success.  “In addition to hard work, there’s a lot of ass-kissing you gotta do.”

Image result for led highway sign

Still, after two decades climbing the bureaucratic ladder he thought he had achieved some measure of personal freedom to do his job as he pleased, including some latitude as to the messages he posts on the Department’s LED message signs.  “Frankly, I didn’t even know Connecticut had a poet laureate,” he says ruefully.  “Seems like a waste of money to me at a time when I got to lay off two brush-hog cutters.”

Image result for brush hog cutter
“I leave a wake where’er I go/That’s what you get whene’er you mow.”

Abruzzioni is referring to the run-in he had with Tristram Morgan, the state’s official poet until December 31st of this year, after he posted “Stay awake/take a break/for safety sake” along Route 1 over the July 4th weekend.  “I didn’t think nothin’ of it, then I get a call the Monday morning after from the Arts & Cultural Council saying they’re filing a grievance against me.”

The complaint referred to the terms and conditions under which Morgan took the largely honorary position of state poet laureate, which pays only a stipend of $2,000 plus a 5-minute shopping spree at Annie’s Gently Used Romance Paperbacks in West Harford.  “POET,” the rider to the standard state contract terms and conditions reads, “shall be the official source of all poetry purchased by the STATE until the expiration of the term hereof,” which the assistant professor at Trinity College says entitles him to craft the traffic messages that are flashed to motorists.

“I found Mr. Abruzzioni’s little doggerel to be deficient in many respects,” Morgan sniffs when the question “Who cares?” is put to him by this reporter.  “An elementary, almost banal rhyme scheme.  The abbreviated line length–surely the marks of a poetaster.”

Image result for state highway headquarters command center
“Take the detour round West Hartford/or what the hell is all my art for?”

In its place Morgan began to post verse that, in the formulation suggested by Archibald MacLeish, tended to “be” rather than “mean” and echoed the work of the state’s most famous poet, the notably obscure Wallace Stevens:

Nutmeg State, Dunkin’ Donuts
Please slow down folks, and don’t go nuts.

When Abruzzioni objected, saying his work was protected by civil service regulations, Morgan began to write poems that crossed the line into advocacy, as Byron’s late work was enflamed by his support of the Greek struggle for independence from Turkey:

Poems written by highway hacks–
They give me bad gas attacks.


Image result for highway line painter truck
“Hey–slow down/What the fuck?/Don’t you pass my/painting truck!”

Ultimately the conflict between the two public employees will be resolved by binding arbitration before a three-member panel composed of a writing instructor from the University of Connecticut-Storrs, an industrial accidents court judge, and Bob Nash, the driver of a line-painting truck who is hoping to move up from two-lane state roads to four-lane highways eventually.  “I’m gonna try to be an impartial judge,” he tells this reporter as he squints into the sun at the end of the workday.  “On the other hand, that D+ I got in senior English means I can never get a job at the Registry of Motor Vehicles.”

Available in print and Kindle formats on amazon.com as part of the collection “poetry is kind of important.”

Intro to Rock Poetry 101

It was one of those fashionable academic parties where emulation–in the form of whom, among the assembled group, possessed the most extensive knowledge of classic rock lyrics, and whose tastes in the matter were most discerning–was in the air.  The year was 2073 and the Oxford Anthology of Rock Lyrics had just appeared on our reading tablets, to be eagerly consumed by those of us whose first love was the classics!


Sometimes a cheeseburger is just a cheeseburger.

 

“How could they have overlooked ‘Somebody give me a cheeseburger!’ by Steve Miller?” I asked Devo Evans, a junior faculty member who was scarfing down brie on stoned wheat thins in order to make it to next Sunday night, when he’d be entitled to his next free dinner as dorm assistant on the meal plan.

“I was a little surprised that they saw fit to include ‘My baby does the Hanky-Panky,’” he said, although I could barely understand him through a mouthful of hors d’oeuvres.


The Shondellian Poets.

 

“Yes–Tommy James and the Shondells.  I think they were trying to seem recondite,” I said in an attempt to seem recondite.

Over our shoulders we heard the talk turn to Dylan.  God!  Haven’t we revived and re-flogged that dead horse about a thousand times?

“If knowing that my own true love was a-waiting,
and I could only hear her heart a’softly poundin’.”

It was Geoffrey Wolcott-Auberge, the Elton John Distinguished Professor of Lyrics, quoting “Tomorrow is a Long Time.”  Easy for him to say.  He was the last man over the drawbridge before they abolished tenure; he didn’t have to do any original thinking for the rest of his life.

“How trite!” I heard someone exclaim, and turned my head to see Jamieson Ray Davies, an up-and-coming Kinks scholar, his head cantilevered back as if he were a health textbook picture of whiplash.  “Who did ‘Bobby Zimmerman’ think he was–Elizabeth Barrett Browning?”


“You can purchase my Introduction to Kinksology textbook at the campus bookstore.”

 

Wolcott-Auberge drew himself up to his full 5’10″ height, and prepared to unleash the full fury of his heavily-footnoted monograph on “Dylan as Transformative Shaman: Subterranean Homesick Jew?”  “I’ll have you know that without Dylan, your adjunct professorship probably wouldn’t exist, young man!”  That’s how the old guys were; what did we tyros know, we weren’t there when Dylan became an evangelical Christian in 2012, after sloughing off in succession the slippery skins of Judaism, Catholicism, Buddhism, Islam and the Rosicrucians, yadda-yadda-yadda.  What a bunch of crapola.

Davies was having none of it.  “Lay his lyrics side-by-side with the beauty of Led Zeppelin,” he said, jutting his chin out for maximum masculine threat-posture effect.

“And what do you get?” Wolcott-Auberge replied.  “A diner menu to the table d’hote in a fine French restaurant.”

Davies was a Romantic, and wasn’t backing down.  “Listen to this,” he said, “Voted the #1 song OF ALL TIME in Worcester, Mass.–the Industrial Abrasives Capital of the World!

Davies cleared his throat, and began to recite the words that had launched a thousand joints:

There’s a lady who’s sure all that glitters is gold
And she’s buy-i-ing a stair-air-way to hea-ven.
When she gets there she knows,
if the stores are all closed, With a word . . .

“Dash it all–that’s rubbish!” Wolcott-Auberge shouted.  “It’s . . . it’s . . . CRAP!”


Led Zep: Sheer . . . freakin’ . . . poetry.

 

I turned to my buddy Devo, and he was smirking too.  “Don’t you love it when these old bulls go at each other?” he said.

“I do.  But it may be time for us to make our move,” I said.

“Whatcha mean?”

“As grad students, we’re supposed to be reviving dead authors, re-discovering forgotten lyrics, the way Shakespeare scholars would track down obscure anachronisms back in the days of print.”

He considered this with pursed lips.  “True,” he said, “but I’m still doing research for my intensive seminar on ‘The Troggs: Wild Things, or Mild Things?’”

“Not me,” I said confidently.  “I’ve uncovered an obscure artist whose simple, pure lyrics are invested with the naive power of William Blake’s ‘Songs of Innocence and Experience.’”

“William Blake?  Who’s he?”

“He subbed on lead guitar at the Stones gig where Brian Jones was found floating dead in the hotel pool.  No–I’m talking about Jesse Hill.”

“Never heard of him.”

“Never heard of him!” I fairly screamed.  Across the room Niles Bilswanje, a Dutch student in a dead-end M.A. program the department had created to goose up its revenues, turned his head.

“‘Ooh Poo Pah Doo’?” he said, with a knowing grin.

“That’s right,” I said.  “He’s been derided as a one-hit wonder, but he’s actually a two-hit wonder.  For pure, unadulterated nonsense, I rank ‘I Got Mine’ even higher.”

A hush had fallen upon the room, and I knew it was my chance to shine.  It’s moments like this, I thought, that one can turn to one’s advantage, even if one’s turning of one’s self makes one dizzy.

“Yo!” I said.  “You lookin’ real good.  You got some strong, strong lines.”

I heard a rustling over at the snack table; somebody had picked up a bowl of Cool Ranch Doritos, and had begun to shake them rhythmically.

“I got mine,” I sang, “I got mine.  Ever since, I been wearin’ new clothes, I been livin’ off chicken and wine.”

“Now that’s poetry,” I heard Emily Seals-Croft, a T.A. in Freshman Comp exclaim.  “Please, sir, I want some more!” she said meekly.  The phrase sounded vaguely familiar, but the divine afflatus was upon me, so I continued.

“I went downtown to see my gal, I wasn’t there very long, a man grabbed a shotgun–and he shot me in my back.”

Ba-doop-a-doop-doo.  “I got mine,” I sang, “I got mine–ever since I been wearing new clothes, I been livin’ off chicken and wine.”

We formed a sort of academic conga line, me at the front, Emily with her hands on my hips, and started to parade around the room.  I restored myself with some of the refried bean dip–risky, I know–and we marched out of the room, past the high-brow disputandas of the Dylan v. Led Zep camps.

We went out onto the quad, into the cool night air, and sat down in a circle, the better to swap rebel lyrics that had been unjustly excluded from the canon that began with “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds,” back at the dawn of self-conscious rock.  “Hey,” Devo said.  “Anybody recognize this one?”

He took a sip of Mateus Rose wine–the bottles make great decorations for your apartment!–and began:  “Hey where did we go–days when the rains came?”

Available in print and Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “poetry is kind of important.”

Me and Emily Dickinson in the 70s

          Prior to a recent restoration, the Emily Dickinson Homestead in Amherst, Massachusetts had an “unfortunate 1970s vibe.”

               The Boston Globe

I was in the lounge at the Emily Dickinson Homestead, waiting for the Belle of Amherst to come downstairs, and frankly I was getting bored.  I’d been playing Pong for three days straight, and while I was getting good at it, my wrists were sore.

A docent passed by and, despite her seventies-style clothes–miniskirt and platform heels–she looked quite decent for a docent.  I turned and called out to her.  “Excuse me?”

“Yes?” she answered as she flipped her Farrah Fawcett feathered bangs to the side.

“Any idea when Emily will be coming downstairs?”

“And who may I say is here to see her?”

I riffled through the cards in my literary hand and played the only one that could possibly cut any ice with the reclusive poetessa.  “Well, I’m a published poet.”

I thought I heard a sniff coming from the woman’s nostrils.  It could have been because she was a cocaine fiend, as were so many artsy types in the seventies, but I sensed it wasn’t the glamour drug of the decade but her contempt for my meager–some would say non-existent–literary reputation that was the source of the sound.

“What publications have seen fit to print your work?”

“I got a poem published in The Christian Science Monitor.

“Never heard of it.”

“You wouldn’t have.  It wasn’t founded until two decades after Emily died.”

“Anything else?”

“Well, The Atlantic Monthly published a little humor piece of mine.  Once.”

“That . . . might be of interest to her.  Let me inquire.”

I had, like a clumsy dentist performing a root canal, struck a nerve.  While Dickinson carried on a correspondence with Thomas Wentworth Higginson that lasted almost a quarter of a century, and at one point the two met, he contributed a number of articles, essays and poems–even a serialized novel–to The Atlantic.   She, on the other hand, never got beyond The Springfield Republican, Drum Beat, and The Brooklyn Daily Union in her lifetime.

While the docent brought news of a visitor from the 20th and 21st centuries to the eccentric recluse who rarely came downstairs, I sauntered over to the jukebox.  All the big hits from the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack were available.  I put in a quarter, which in seventies pricing got you three songs, and punched the buttons for Stayin’ Alive, Disco Inferno, and Jive Talkin’.  I was boogeying discreetly around the room when her penetrating gaze penetrated through my polyester disco shirt, causing me to turn and look to the top of the stairs. 

There she stood, as she must have appeared to Higginson in 1870: I had anticipated that she’d wear a mini-shift or jumper dress, or perhaps a drop waist or tunic dress, but instead she wore a turquoise jumpsuit that made her look like the love child of Elvis Presley in his Vegas years and a Smurf.  It was . . . exquisite.


“This one’s for you, Emily baby!”

 

“These are my introduction,” she said, handing me a brand-new Sony Walkman.  

“What’s on it?”

“I made you a mixtape.  It includes a few poems . . . and some bitchin’ cool songs I think you’ll like.”

“Oh wow,” I said as I scanned the handwritten playlist on the cassette.  “I’ll Take You There by The Staple Singers . . . Let’s Stay Together by Al Green . . . and Best of My Love by The Emotions!  Did you know I like that song so much . . . I downloaded it twice on iTunes?”

“What’s iTunes?” she asked.

“Sorry, I forgot that we’re stuck in the 70s.”

We sat and chatted easily in the front parlor of the homestead, then our talk turned–inevitably–to our shared interest.

“So . . . you’re a poet, too?” she asked timidly.

“Well, most editors and publishers don’t think so, but I’ve had a little success.”

“Are you going to make that stupid joke from Cracked magazine that you seem to like so much?”

“If you’re looking for someone who’s had a little success as a poet, I’ve had as little as anyone?”

“That’s it.”

“I could never pass up the opportunity.  I wanted to ask you . . .”

“Yes?”

“About your philosophy of poetry.  You seem to want it 100 proof.”

“What does that mean?”

“Hard liquor–like whiskey.”

“Liquor has never touched my lips.”  

“That’s a metaphor.

“Oh.”

“You’re on record as saying ‘If I read a book and it makes my body so cold no fire can ever warm me I know that is poetry.”


Thomas Wentworth Higginson

 

“Yes, I said that to dear Mr. Higginson.”

“And ‘If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.'”

“I recall saying something to that effect, yes.  Why do you ask?”

“Well, I wanted to try out some of my poetry on you, see if it meets your high standards.”

“Okay, hit me with your best shot,” she said, anticipating Pat Benatar.

“This is a little something I call poetry is kind of important.

“Why didn’t you capitalize any of the letters?”

“That’s an innovation in poetry that will be introduced after you die.  Anyway, here goes.”  I cleared my throat and launched the ship of my most famous poem onto the stormy seas of her intellect:

poetry is kind of important,
a poem can be a big deal.
you can write one about your girlfriend,
and how she makes you feel.

The August air hung heavy in the room as the breeze through the window onto the porch died.

“That’s it?” she asked.

“That . . . in all its glory . . . is it.”

She closed her eyes for a second, then rose.  “Miriam!” she called out to the docent.

“Yes?” replied the woman who had tried to keep our two poetic souls apart.

“Please show Mr. Chapman to the gift shop–I think we have a ‘Hope is the Thing With Feathers’ t-shirt in men’s double-extra large.”

At the Pine-Woods Golf & Poetry Club

For most of the 20th century, the poetry world resembled a country club.

                                     The New York Times Book Review

It was a Sunday afternoon, and I just wanted to get out of the damn house. I decided to head over to the club, see if I could squeeze in a round before dinner. I threw the old sticks in the trunk and, as I drove into the parking lot at Pine-Woods, saw Lowell, Berryman and Roethke heading down to the starter’s hut. Lowell had on those god-awful madras pants of his. What a preppy doofus.


Robert Lowell

 

“Hey guys,” I yelled out to them. They were absorbed in a deep discussion.  Probably talking about the club By-Laws, which had been under revision since Allen Ginsburg walked onto the putting green without a collared shirt.


Allen Ginsburg: “I didn’t know it was like a ‘rule’ rule.”

 

I caught up to them as they were paying for their golf cart. The starter—a guy named Skip Derosiers—was giving them a hard time.

“Which one of you knuckleheads left the tracks on the seventh fairway the other day?


Theodore Roethke

 

“Not me,” said Roethke. Or course not—Mr. Nature Poet.

“It was me,” Lowell and Berryman said together. Figures—two confessional poets, two confessions.


John Berryman

 

“Do you guys mind if I make a fourth?” I asked.

“There’s a guy on the list ahead of you,” Derosiers said.

“Who?” Lowell demanded.

“The Old Man—Wallace Stevens.”

“Oh, God,” groaned Berryman.

“Can’t you do something?” I asked.


Wallace Stevens

 

“He’s one of the club’s founders.” He pointed to the left breast of his polo shirt, which featured a bantam rooster before a stand of pines.

“You know he’s going to walk the course, hit the ball thirty yards every time and compose poems between shots,” Roethke said. “The course will be backed up for a week.”

“No can do,” Derosiers said.

“Do you know who I am?” Lowell asked imperiously.

“Let me see if I remember,” he said, a sardonic gleam in his eye, and began to speak in a taunting, sing-song manner:

And this is good old Boston,
The home of the bean and the cod.
Where the Lowells talk only to Cabots,
And the Cabots talk only to God.

“What’s your point?” Lowell asked, a bit defensively I thought.


“But I don’t even like fishcakes and beans.”

 

“When you talk to me, you ain’t talkin’ to a Cabot—you’re talking to a God,” Skip said, as he clicked the remote to see who was on the leaderboard at the Buick Open.

I tried a different tack. “What if we made it worth your while?”

Derosiers looked us over, one by one. “Talk to me.”

We looked at each other. Thankfully, Berryman had brought a six-pack of Budweiser with him. He tore two cans off the plastic yoke and, after checking over his shoulder, handed them over the counter.

“You know, some golf industry publications say that bribing a starter can backfire,” Derosiers said as he handed us scorecards and pencils. “Don’t believe everything you read in the papers,” he added with a smile, as he waved us onto the course.

“What if old man Stevens catches up to us?” Roethke asked.

“Humor him,” Derosiers said as he popped the top off a twelve-ouncer. “He’s really quite whimsical.”

That didn’t sound good, but we forgot about it as we waited the standard six-minute interval for the foursome in front of us to clear the fairway.

“You want to make it interesting?” Lowell asked. “Five dollar Nassau?”

Easy for him to say with all that old money to burn.

“No automatic press on the back nine,” Berryman said. On his second beer, he was already beginning to slur his speech, but like his verse, he remained in technical control and rooted in the conventions of his time.

“Sure, John, sure,” Lowell said as he made his way to the back tee. “Okay, ladies and germs, hide and watch.”

“Grip it and rip it,” Roethke said, egging him on. I personally think trash-talk has no place in golf, but ever since Karl Shapiro said Marianne Moore was “never more beatable,” suddenly everybody’s doing it.


Marianne Moore throws out the first pitch at Yankee Stadium—I kid you not.

 

The big guy shuffled forward, tall, slightly stooped, ran his fingers back through his dishevelled grey hair and stuffed it under his cap. He took a few practice swings, set himself, and—scorched a worm-burner into the rough! I stifled a laugh.

“I call Mulligan,” Lowell said without even looking back, as he pulled another ball out of his pocket.

“No way,” Roethke said. “Mulligans are allowed only when expressly agreed upon by all partners in advance.”

“Too late, Bob,” I agreed. “We’ve all got skin in the game.”

I knew what was coming.  A manic-depressive temper tantrum.

“God damn it to hell!” Lowell screamed as he threw his driver into a water hazard and stormed off to look for his ball.

“Ooo,” Berryman said in a mocking tone. “Huffy Bobby hid the day/unappeasable.

Roethke stepped up next. He’s a deliberate player—it took him ten years to write Open House, his first book of poems, fer Christ’s sake.


Walt Whitman: “Hey—that’s my line!”

 

He plucked some leaves of grass and threw them up in the air to see which way the wind was blowing. He fiddled with his gloves, his visor and his left shirt sleeve. He took in the natural beauty of the course, with all its mystery, fierceness and sensuality; the ball washers, the spike cleaners, the liquid refreshment stand at the tenth tee.

“While we’re young, Teddy-boy,” Berryman said, shaking his head, “while we’re young.”

“I don’t have to take that from you, Mr. Yips,” Roethke said out of the side of his mouth. Always lyrical, I thought with admiration.

Finally he took his stance, wig-wagged his butt a bit, then weighed into the ball–a nice clean stroke, a solid thwock, if I may be allowed just one little onomatopoeia.

His ball sailed down the fairway where a tall, austere man had wandered out of the rough. It was Stevens, and Roethke’s shot hit him square in the temple!

We jumped in the cart and tore off down the fairway, coming to a stop where Stevens lay on his back, apparently dazed.

“I’m so sorry, Mr. Stevens,” Roethke said, distraught at the thought that he had nearly killed one of the major American poets of the 20th century. “Are you all right?”

The great man propped himself up on one elbow, shielded his eyes from the sun and began to speak, a big groggily at first.

Call the smoker of big cigars, Stevens began,
The muscular one, and bid him whip
In snack bar cups, concupiscent frozen custard.
Let the wenches dawdle in such pink culottes
As they are used to wear, and let the caddies
Bring the clubs to the bag drop.
Let be be finale of seem.
The only captain is Walter Hagen,
captain of the Ryder Cup Team.

Lowell leaned over the great poet for a look.  “He’s fine,” he said, as he took his four iron out of his bag, and then–as he dropped his ball next to fallen bard–“You guys don’t mind if I play winter rules, do you?  The course is kind of scruffy.”

Available in print and Kindle formats on amazon.com as part of the collection “poetry is kind of important.”

Poetry for Cats

Call me crazy, but I like to write poetry.

For cats.

Cats are a good training ground for poets. They are largely indifferent to poetry, like the overwhelming majority of people, but that still makes them a more receptive audience than my wife, who is openly hostile to the stuff.

Writing poetry for cats is low-level mental stimulation, like doing crossword puzzles or Sudoku, but you make up the problem to be solved, not some faceless drone at a newspaper syndicate, so when you’re done you’ve created something.  Albeit on a par with a gimp necklace at summer camp.

It takes very little activity, or inactivity, on the part of my cats to serve as my muse. Here’s a cat poem I thought of just last night:

I take my laser pen in hand
and shine it in a circle.
My little cat goes chasing ’round,
it drives him quite berserkle!

Then I take what I’ve written, crumple the paper up into a ball, and throw it across the room. My cat pounces on it, extending our fun, and conserving precious resources through recycling. I’m trying to reduce our humor footprint.

Just because I write poetry for my cats doesn’t mean they’re sissies. They’re both males who will stay out all night, getting into fights with all manner of beasts. They bring us sustenance; field mice, birds, chipmunks. Once Rocco, the younger of the two, horse-collared a squirrel from behind, like a member of the New England Patriots’ defense, and dragged it, dying, to our back patio. As a former high school middle linebacker in a 4-3 defensive alignment, I found this to be a most gratifying spectacle.


Horse collar tackle

 

T.S. Eliot’s “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats” is perhaps the most famous collection of cat poems, but it has always struck me as a bit fuss-budgety, like its author, a native of St. Louis who became a British subject in 1927, thereby missing out on seven World Series titles by the St. Louis Cardinals.  What a dope! That book, of course, was turned into the hugely successful Broadway show Cats.


T.S. Eliot: And you call yourself a Cardinals fan!

 

My wife once bought us tickets to see the show for my birthday, assuming that because I liked cats, I would like the show, but she sensed my indifference to Eliot’s work at dinner. As we left the restaurant for the theatre we were approached by two show tune mavens who breathlessly asked us if we had tickets we were willing to sell. We gave each other a look that lasted as long as the flutter of a hummingbird’s wings, then sold the ducats at a premium. This is the first and only known instance of scalping by a Presbyterian woman since the church was established during the Scottish Reformation in 1560.


Cats: Thanks, I’ll pass.

 

Lots of poets have had cats, chief among them Samuel Johnson, whose cat was named “Hodge.” I had a girlfriend whose cat was named after Johnson’s. When we had her refined friends over she’d tell the story about how, when Johnson learned of a wave of cat-napping sweeping London at the height of the popularity of cat’s meat pies, he looked down at his cat and said “They’ll not have Hodge!” Sort of NPR humor, as Harry Shearer would say–loads of muted titters. We broke up; she got the cat, and I got the hell out of there.


Johnson: How do you know you won’t like cat’s meat unless you try it?

 

For my money, the greatest of all cat poems is For I Will Consider My Cat Jeoffrey by Christopher Smart (1722-1770), from Jubilate Agno. It’s a work that all pet store owners and cat groomers should have on their walls, in needlepoint. Surely you know its stirring opening lines:


Christopher Smart, wearing his “everyday” mortarboard

 

For I will consider my Cat Jeoffrey.
For he is the servant of the Living God,
duly and daily serving him.
For at the First glance of the
glory of God in the East
he worships him in his way.
For this is done by wreathing
his body seven times round with elegant quickness.
For then he leaps up to catch the musk,
which is the blessing of God upon his prayer.
For he rolls upon prank to work it in.

 

Musk is the smelly substance found in a small sac under the skin of the abdomen of the rodents cats kill, and to “roll upon prank” refers, in a charming 18th century way, to cats’ preferred method of applying it. Yep–that’s a real cat there, not some Broadway-bound dancer-pussy.

Oh–I neglected to mention that when Smart wrote the above, he was a resident of Bedlam, the London hospital for the mentally ill.

Call him crazy.

Available in Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collections “Cats Say the Darndest Things” and “poetry is kind of important.”

Summer Camp for Writers

The envelope was slim, as they all seem to be these days, and so I opened it up expecting the usual brush-off:  “Dear Poet: Thank you very much for submitting your work to the Alice Wambsley 2022 Villanelle Competition.  We received over 2,348,092 entries for the first place prize of $20 and a subscription to plangent voices, and we regret to inform you that your entry was not the winner, or the first runner-up, or even the consolation prize winner, despite its evident merit.”


“We’ll be making haiku out of gimp from 1:00 to 2:00 this afternoon, then . . .”

Same to you, pal, I got ready to say as I slipped my finger under the flap, tore it open, and slowly unfolded the letter, trying to delay the moment of bitter reckoning just a few seconds more.

But then, as at a natatorium, the room swam before my eyes.  “Congratulations,” the letter began, and that was all I needed to know.  I’d been awarded a two-week fellowship at the Zucchini Loaf Writer’s Conference!  My dream of spending sunny summer days indoors with fellow aesthetes had finally come true!


“It’s a beautiful day, so we don’t we break up into groups and go over each other’s poems line-by-line indoors.”

“Honey,” I screamed out to my wife, “I’ve been accepted at Zucchini Loaf!”

“Is that a culinary school?”

“No–it’s one of the top 65 summer writing programs in America.  Or at least the original thirteen colonies located in New England.”


Black t-shirts are mandatory for all campers.

“Where is it?”

“Vermont.”

“Great!  I can go visit Marci and . . .”

“Uh,” I began, cutting her off dubiously, “I . . . don’t think you’re allowed to come with me.”

“Why not?”

“It’s in the application.”  I pulled out the brochure with the Terms and Conditions spelled out conspicuously in 6 point type on 7 point leading–italic font–and read her the relevant part:  “Writers are not permitted to bring boom boxes, electric musical instruments or spouses to Zucchini Loaf.”

“That’s kind of a strange rule,” she said.

“It’s essential to the mission of writers conferences.”

“Which is?”


“Okay, I’ve assigned you guys to the cabin for coming-of-age/rite-of-passage novels.”

“That participants receive intense, personal one-on-one instruction and engage in the maximum amount of marital infidelity in a context where time and resources are limited.”

“Let me see that,” she said, pulling the acid-free, handmade artisanal piece of paper from my hands–not that she didn’t trust me or anything.

“Look,” I said, pointing over her shoulder.  “Here’s the first-day schedule: 6 to 8 a.m., check in; 8 to 10:30 a.m., swim test; 10:30 to noon, cocktails; noon, group grope/orgy, main dining hall, or ‘buddy-check sex’ for those who have already found their soul-mates; 2 p.m., post-coital bliss/remorse; 2 to 4, arts and crafts.”

I was somewhat gratified to see her face cloud over.  So she really does love me, I thought.


“I hope you remembered to bring a thesaurus!”

“Don’t worry,” I said as I put my arm around her.  “Everybody has to submit vaccination records and a clean bill-of-health–signed by their doctor–certifying that they’ve been STD-free for at least 6 months before they go into the pool or engage in intercourse.”

“That’s not much of a vacation for me,” she said with a lump in her throat.

“Hey–I’m just playing catch-up with you,” I said defensively.  “You get to go off to beauty spas with your girl friends while I stay home, slaving away over a hot stove, making sure the cats’ homework is done.”

She was silent for a moment, then she made that funny little moue with her mouth that I love so much, the one that signals that although I may be a clueless jerk–I’m her clueless jerk.

“I guess that’s fair,” she said finally.  “Well, what’s done is done.  So what do I need to do to get you ready?”

“Let’s look at the brochure,” I said, and we turned to the list of clothing and supplies that every camper was expected to bring.  “Fourteen (14) black t-shirts, five (5) black turtlenecks, four (4) pairs of slim, faded blue jeans, one (1) beret, one (1) pair huarache-style sandals (not to be worn with socks), one (1) whimsical pair of red, high-top Converse All-Star gym shoes.”


Ready for writing!

“You already have most of this stuff–except the red sneakers,” my wife said, “so you’re pretty much all set.”

“Not so fast,” I said as I pointed to the all-caps adjuration at the end: “WRITER/CAMPER NAMES SHOULD BE SEWN INTO ALL ARTICLES OF CLOTHING.”

“I hate to sew.”

“Not to worry, you can get little iron-on labels.”

“Still–that’s a lot of work.”

“Hey–my mom did it for me.”

“All right,” she said, and she began to busy herself while I packed my footlocker.  Space was tight, so I had to make some tough decisions.  Bring Confederacy of Dunces, or The Moviegoer?   Conrad or Dickens?  Flannery O’Connor or Eudora Welty?  It wasn’t so much a question of what I wanted to read as what I wanted other people to see me reading.


Walker Percy:  “I want you to get this Southern Gothic crap out of your system this summer, okay?”

When I was done I came back into the bedroom where my wife was finishing up with the labels.  She handed me a t-shirt, and as I started to fold it I noticed a safety pin holding a note to the inside hem.

“What’s this?” I asked.

“Just a little precaution,” she said, fighting back tears.  “I worry about you.”

I took the note between my fingers and read “Neo-formalist poet: If found, please return to Zucchini Loaf Writer’s Conference.”

I looked up at her and, hoping to allay her fears, said “I’m old enough to go to an overnight writer’s conference by myself,” with a little more confidence than I actually felt.

“You know how you are,” she said.  “Always wandering lonely, like a cloud, taking the road less travelled by.”

Available in print and Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “poetry is kind of important.”

Vieru Chiznu-Prut, Freedonian “New Wave” Poet, Dead at 84

DOS FLEDENS, Freedonia.  Vieru Chiznu-Prut, a seminal figure in the “New Wave” movement that transformed the poetry of this consonant-loving nation, has died after crashing his Vespa motorbike into an eggplant stand near his home here.  He was 84.


Freedonian “New Wave” Poets, 1939

 

“It was Chiznu-Prut, more than any other figure of the New Wave, who freed his people’s poetry from the monotonous Ø-æ-ç-å rhyme scheme of the past,” noted Barbara Wexford-Miluski, a professor of comparative literature at The College of Chillicothe, Chillicothe, Ohio.  “He cut a dashing figure on his Vespa, but his love of fuel economy eventually spelled his doom.”


Plangent Breadsticks, influential poetry journal

 

Prior to the New Wave, Freedonia’s poetry was dominated by the Old Wave, which had wrested the mantle of literary pre-eminence from the Even Older Wave at the end of World War I.  The New Wave poets chafed under the overbearing authority of the Old Wave, but broke free with a collective chapbook of poems defiantly titled “Dog Nearly Itches to Death.”


Marda Vleznik-Oerthke, reading her poems at a New Wave soiree

 

The New Wave began to experiment with “blank verse,” forsaking rhyme in pursuit of artistic innovation.  It was Chiznu-Prut’s “Vortex/Morning Breath” that heralded the dawn of a new day for Freedonian poetry in the inaugural issue of Plangent Breadsticks, an influential quarterly review:

ÈðÞåøûö üýþ ëýë
Ðûýøìþ üýþ øæçå
Î ûëöÞ çðòüòÞÿ
Êßá ÿüå éñç’ò šÅ¾œ¥!


Ezra Pound:  “I’m crazy, but not that crazy.”

 

As translated by Ezra Pound for English-speaking readers, the poem goes as follows:

Roses are red
Violets are blue.
I like goat cheese
and you can’t skate.

A celebration of Chiznu-Prut’s life will be held at the Student Union of the University of Freedonia-Gldansk, where he drank numerous cups of bitter chicory coffee over the years.  He is survived by his wife Glzena, his two mistresses Inirya Olgrsk and Nordinsk Phlegmats, and his cats, Orko and Desmond.

 

Available in Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collections “Fauxbituaries,” “Hail Freedonia!” and “poetry is kind of important.”

Whistling Monk to the Birds

It was late afternoon, on a Sunday,
and I was starting to grill.
I heard the birds singing,
and with time to kill
I thought I’d whistle them some Monk,

see if we could get something going.
I figured “Blue Monk” would be
a good vehicle for inter-species
communication.  They might not
recognize it, but if they were

hip, they’d catch on soon enough.
And so I started in B flat,
and waited to hear their response.
After a brief hesitation,
sure enough, they answered back

with the sub-dominant riff, and
we were off to the races.  Back
and forth; keeping time if not
precisely the melody, it was more
like Claude Messiaen than

Thelonious, but still—it was a
moment.  They were perched
at the top of the trees off our porch,
and when the wind stirred them,
they took off, to their next gig.

 

“Dead Boyfriend Club” Helps Poetesses Get Serious

CAMBRIDGE, Mass.  elena gotchko is the editor-in-chief of plangent voices (“upper-case free since 2003!”), a literary quarterly whose mission is to bring difficult, even impenetrable verse to its readers, but she’s tearing her hair out today for reasons other than the torments of artistic creation.  “let the whining begin,” she says as she hits the “Send” button to deliver rejection notices to hundreds of female writers whose poems have been turned down for the spring issue.


One of the lucky ones.

Within seconds, the anguished replies start to fly in, like birds scurrying for cover from a storm.  “You don’t know how much this hurts, elena,” writes Elizabet Virgule, whose “Seagulls at the Town Dump,” a six haiku cycle about the tragedy of summer vacationers who don’t recycle, was dinged with a form rejection.  “I was a charter subscriber, AND I bought the coffee mug, sweatshirt and mouse pad from the plangent voices website gift shop!”

But Gotchko doesn’t back down.  “elizabet, your poems still lack the tragic sense of life that i find in the verse of contemporaries of yours such as marta huinguis, whose ‘ode to ian’ dives deeper into the brackish hell of the human condition than your little ditties.”

But with an eye on the bottom line, which currently–as always–shows a deficit, gotchko throws a life preserver Virgule’s way.  “if you act now, you can join the dead boyfriend club for the incredibly low price of only $109.95, not including shipping and sales tax.”

The Dead Boyfriend Club is gotchko’s innovation to bring necessary misery into the lives of poetesses whose work shimmers on the surface but has no depth.  “Until you’ve suffered some grievous loss, you’re just tossing a word salad,” says Professor Ewing Carter, Jr. of Emory University.  “Some of these women go from editor of their high school literary magazine to English major to MFA without suffering anything worse than a campus parking ticket.”

For a one-time setup charge, the Dead Boyfriend Club provides members with a fictional deceased boyfriend they can mourn through poetry, including a facsimile birth certificate, childhood pictures, and bad juvenile doggerel that the poet himself tried to suppress, but which the surviving spouse/girlfriend either honors or criticizes for the false impression of her that it gave to a miniscule reading public.


“Double suicide?  Okay, you go first.”

A monthly maintenance fee adds details that can either further infuriate the writer–an affair with a fictional creative writing instructor–or hasten a downward spiral of mourning.  “When I found out that my ‘Mark’ was going to give me a festschrift for my thirtieth birthday before his life was cut short by an errant Frisbee, I finally found the voice I needed to channel everyday bitchiness into the universality of great art,” says Huinguis, who plunked down $450 for a lifetime membership.


“Wystan–look out!”

After a bit of back-and-forth with gotchko, Virgule signs up for a trial membership, which she can cancel within 30 days if she doesn’t like the dead boyfriend gotchko hooks her up with.  She downloads the software and, after reading through the bio of “Wystan Huber,” a promising young poet whose fictional life came to a premature end when his skinny necktie was caught in the automatic feed of a photocopier, is on the verge of tears.  The on-line options presented to her are “Pleasant memories” and “Painful memories,”and she clicks on the latter to discover that “Wystan” made a practice of selling her classical CDs at a used record shop to support his addiction to “healthy” snack foods.  Her cheeks flush with color, and for the first time in months the words that flow from her pen are alive with emotion and not just manufactured outrage over environmental issues.  I rage, she writes,

rage against
the words on the page that
limn a life led with lies.

She pauses for a moment to collect herself.

My Vivaldi–gone!
and so is my Britten,
all so you could feed
your hunger,
and neglect MY needs.
Such chutzpah–how brazen!
That you would sell my music
for a bag of yogurt-covered raisins!

Available in print and Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “poetry is kind of important.”

My Poetic Nemesis

April is the cruelest month, wrote T.S. Eliot, and as a poet he knew whereof he spake. (Archaic past tense provided at no extra charge.)  April may be Poetry Month, but April is also the month in which the rejection letters and no-you-didn’t-win-the-Alice-Wambsley-Memorial-Poetry-Competition notices from the autumn submission cycle arrive in the mail.


Eliot: “Darn it—I lost again.”

But I’d been through all that before, so last fall I put on a Bush-Obama-Petraeus Verse Surge, sending out over 400 poems. I would become a published poet before turning–well, I won’t tell you what I’ll be turning–or expire tragically trying.

The fruits of my labor arrived yesterday. “We are pleased to inform you that your poem Thoughts on Waking After Spending the Night at a Kosher Vegetarian Commune has been accepted by plangent voices. Due to our extensive backlog, it is anticipated that publication will not occur until the fall 2023 issue.”


A (much) younger Hazel Flange

This, I thought, called for a celebration. I got in the car and headed over to the Coach & Four, the faux-colonial watering hole where the elite of our little exurban town—insurance salesmen, CPAs, the local zoning attorney—meet to eat and greet. And to confront my poetic nemesis, Hazel Flange.

Hazel has been lording it over me for years. She’s got all the good accounts in town: McBride’s Super Market, where she composes rhymed couplets for the flyers and paper shopping bags (“Looking for something to eat on Easter?  Our ham and lamb will make a feaster!); Olney’s GMC-Chevrolet (“If you’re going to a gala, best that you should buy Impala!”); Muckerman’s Funeral Home (“We’ll bury your kin with quiet dignity—we promise our bill won’t be very bignity.”)

Then there are the special commissions—birthday, anniversary and pet poems. Have to hand it to the old girl, she was the one who came up with business model. Go to another biddie’s house for bridge club, compliment the household dog, cat or goldfish, write a poem about it for the local paper. Then, when the owner is basking in the reflected glory of compliments from all her friends, offer to make her a laminated copy, suitable for framing—for twenty bucks. “I just love your little Poodie, he is such a darling cutie!” Gag me, as the Valley Girls used to say, with a spoon.

But now the shoe is on the other foot. With Kosher Vegetarian Commune I’m not only published, I’ve introduced a genre of my own creation to the world of verse; poems whose titles are at least 75% as long as the poems themselves! Count them off:

This is kosher, this is trayfe,
One unclean, the other sayfe.
All day long we work and slayfe
Keeping kosher from the trayfe.

Pretty neat, huh? So it is with a new confidence that I stroll into the bar at the Coach & Four.  It’s not Les Deux Maggots, or The White Horse Tavern in Greenwich Village where Dylan Thomas drank himself to death—but it will do. Except for the bathroom stalls—you know the one that begins “Here I sit all broken-hearted” don’t you?—the only poetry in the house is composed by Hazel, recited to a table crammed with her fawning sycophants.

I wave my hand as I stroll up to the bar and make the announcement I’ve been dying to proclaim for lo these many years. “Marty,” I say to the bartender, “potato chips and snack foods for everybody—and see what the boys in the back room will have!”

With that a scramble the likes of which have not been seen since the Oklahoma land rush begins; there are only so many bags of Cape Cod Parmesan & Roasted Garlic Chips on the Snack-Rack, and it’s every man for himself.


Eyes on the prize.

I order my usual—a Smutty Nose Elderberry Lite I.P.A.—and lean back to take in the room, holding the tall-boy bottle Jeff Bridges-style, oh-so-casually around the very tip of the neck. I cast a glance in Hazel’s direction—she gives me the steely-eyed gaze that has caused so many budding young aesthetes to realize there’s room for only one poetess in our town, and she’s not going anywhere.

I stand up and begin to work the room—suddenly I’m every man’s hero now that the out-of-work “consultants” and “advisors” in town are chowing down on Andy Capp Pub Fries on my nickel. After many slaps on the back and congratulations, I mosey over to Hazel’s table and, with an affected look of surprise, greet her.

“Why, Hazel,” I say, beaming, “fancy meeting you here! How’ve you been?” I don’t try to party-kiss her—in her dotage she has taken to applying rouge to her cheekbones. She read in Marie Claire that Celine Dion does something similar to make her nose look smaller.

“Hello,” she replies in a measured tone and just the hint of a combination smile-sneer—a “snile,” a “smeer”?—on her lips. “I see you have something to celebrate—finally.”

That hurts. Hazel had her first poem published when she was in fourth grade. I spotted it for the Christina Rossetti rip-off that it was—“Who can see the wind, neither you nor me, but when the wind is blowing, it tickles both my knees”—but apparently the editors of My Little Messenger weren’t as well read as me.

“Yes, yes, that I do,” I reply, trying hard to retain my composure. “Of course, it’s nothing to compare with the success you’ve had. Writing rhymed couplets for discount tire and battery stores.”

Image result for tire and battery store
“Whence from your car you do dismount, check our snow tires at deep discounts.”

There is a collective intake of breath by the circle of admirers at Hazel’s table, but she’s as cool as a poker player sitting on pocket aces. “No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money,” she says, going all Dr. Johnson on me.

The flow of air is reversed—the little group explodes with laughter—but I ignore the obloquy they think they are raining down on me. I’m after the Big Tuna Salad on White Toast Sandwich her own bad self.

“How’s about a little mano-a-womano verse battle—right here, right now, you and me?”

“Une petite slamme de poesie?” she replies, using up all the French she knows outside a Chef Boyardee can.

“That’s right. Winner take all. Must be original, spontaneous work, rhymed and metered.”

“My apartment has a separate meter,” one of her followers says, displaying the level of ignorance that is required in order to appreciate Hazel’s verse.

“Stifle it, Maeve,” Hazel snaps at the woman, and then says to me—”You’re on.”

“Peachy,” I say with a smarmy smile. “Ladies first—and no crib notes.”

The room is so quiet you can hear a chip drop, and from the bar I detect that Bob Muldowney, head of the Public Works department, has let one fall to the floor.

“If I’m not mistaken, that was a Cool Ranch Dorito?” I say with a note of expectation in my voice as I wait upon the answer, showing off my ear.

“That’s amazing,” Muldowney says.

That’s the kind of ear it takes to be a first-class poet,” I say smugly. “Hazel—your serve.”

The dowager versifier clears her throat. She cocks her head a little to one side, like a parakeet—my guess is what she comes up with will be as derivative as “Polly want a cracker?”

She steadies herself by putting her fingers on the table, closes her eyes, tosses an errant spit curl aside and begins.

How lovely to be a poet
How wonderfully rewarding
It is like a free vacation trip
On a cruise ship you are boarding.

But each night when I’m finally done
I brush my teeth and floss.
A poetessa’s job is this:
To pluck wheat from the dross.

I’m tempted to yell “mixed metaphor,” but it’s the playoffs, and I know I’m not going to get the call.  No ref wants to blow a freestyle poetry battle in front of a big crowd and I have to say, even though it’s against my interests, that I agree—let ‘em play.


Woman with distaff: Whence it came, hence the name.

Hazel’s toadies are applauding politely but this is a bar, the audience is disproportionately male, and most of the guys are sitting on their hands, waiting to hear something from the non-distaff side.

“Great stuff, Hazel,” I say magnanimously. “I’ll give you the email address for The New Yorker when we’re done.” This is known as “trash-talking,” and as a Celtics fan during the Larry Bird Era, I learned from the master.


“Shhh—Larry’s going to recite now!”

The guys at the bar are looking at me with a mixture of hope and trepidation. They’re the ones who’ve been scratching doggerel on the walls of the stalls in the men’s rooms, inking haiku above the urinals, suffering under the yoke of genteel feminine poetry for so many years as Hazel asks them to turn down the games on the four giant-screen TVs so her umpty-dumpty-dumpty/umpty-dumpty-dump lines can be heard. If I can take her down, it will be a Spartacus-like moment; the joint will once again be free for belching and bad language worthy of Dizzy Dean, who drew the scorn of St. Louis English teachers for saying “He slud in there” on the Baseball Game-of-the-Week.


Dizzy Dean: He really said it.

“Hazel,” I begin with an off-hand, informal air that catches her off guard,

this is stupid stuff;
your pansies and violets—
your fairies at dawn or later in
the gloaming.

what the hell is a gloaming anyway?
and why would you bother to use it when poeming?
I do not like it, and no man could;
find another word please, if you would.

but in the meantime, hear me out;
the matter, we say, is free from doubt.
a bar’s not the place for poems like lace doilies,
and also I noticed your nose is quite oily.


Kudos!

I hesitate to use the word “claque,” but the guys are behind me all the way on this one, and the place erupts with a noise not heard since Jason Varitek stuffed his catcher’s mitt in Alex Rodriguez’s mug. They don’t call it “home court advantage” for nothing.

The ladies’ table is a bit taken aback by the rough tactics and the thunderous acclaim, but Hazel recovers like the pro that—I have to admit—she is.

“Nicely done,” she says, although I can tell that it pains her to put a smile on her over-glossed lips.

“Thanks—you’re still my favorite poet named Hazel,” I say. Good sportsmanship is contagious, I guess. “Have a drink on me, okay?”

Hazel considers this for a moment, then says “Yes—I think I will,” and advances to the bar where Marty says “What’ll ya have?”

“I think,” she says as she eyes the racks of expensive liquor behind him, “a Brandy Alexander—with Courvoisier VSOP Cognac.”

“Hey,” I say quickly before Marty can pour. “I meant anything under five bucks.”

Available in print and Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “poetry is kind of important.”