Do I Hear an Alarm, or is Someone Reciting Free Verse?

          Evelyn Waugh gave Edith Sitwell a pocket air-raid siren, which she would set off when people asked her whether free verse is more truly poetic than rhymed.

                The Letters of Nancy Mitford & Evelyn Waugh


Edith Sitwell

 

As I turned the lock on the vault at the First Third Short National Bank, I could tell I was thisclose to realizing my dream; rolling in piles of dough, rifling safe deposit boxes for jewels and rare baseball cards, maybe even finding a pen in a bank that worked.

“You’re a freakin’ master,” my getaway car driver Mitch said. “It’s like watchin’ Einstein play the piano or sumpin’.”

I smiled at him and said “Thanks,” but held my finger to my lips. “I’ll need absolute silence.”

“You got it pal.”

Click-click-click I heard through my stethoscope. One more turn to the right and the tumblers would all fall into place! I held my breath and eased the dial ever-so-delicately with my fingers, but jumped back startled when I heard an alarm!

“What did you do?” I asked as I turned to look at Mitch.

“Nuthin’–I didn’t do nuthin. Except . . .”

“Except what?”

“Well, I did mumble a little sumpin’ to myself . . .”

“You fool!” I screamed, packing up my safecracking tools. “What was it?”

“Roses are red, violets are blue,
I like chocolate, and you can’t skate.”

……………………………………….

The sky was dark and foreboding. There was a stillness in the air, an eerie calm that seemed to presage an unseen, unknown calamity.

The wind picked up a bit–I could tell by the way wisps of grandma’s hair were blowing where they came loose from her bun.

And then I heard it. The tornado warning siren from the National Guard Armory. There was no time to lose!

“Papa-daddy!” I shouted to my father. “Tornado’s comin’!”

My mom emerged from the kitchen, where she’d been canning okra and rhubarb for the winter. “Gramma!” she shouted, “into the root cellar–tornado’s coming!”

Grandmother turned her face to the wind and tilted her head towards town, the better to hear.

“We’re all gonna die!” my little sister Baby Elizabeth cried.

“No,” my grandmother said, slowly and thoughtfully. “That’s not the tornado alarm–”

“It’s not?” I asked as I tried to pull her out of her chair.

“No, sweetie,” she said. “That’s the siren they blow when a surrealist poet commits the pathetic fallacy.”

…………………………….

It was time for our monthly “duck and cover” drill, a routine we were all growing a little tired of. Yes, the Russians had the atomic bomb, yes Nikita Khrushchev had threatened to “bury” America, but still, the silly routine of getting down on the floor and covering our heads to protect ourselves from nuclear fallout had grown tiresome. We were all hooked on phonics, and would have much preferred to practice our “th” and “ph” sounds. Besides, I was tired of looking at Timmy Rouchka’s butt.

And then we heard it. A low moan at first, rising in pitch until it became a horrid scream–this time it was for real!

Sister Agnesita drew the blinds, the better to keep out radioactive isotopes such as strontium 90, the secret ingredient that enabled kids who wore Poll Parrot shoes to run faster and jump higher. “Hit the floor, kids!” she yelled as she comforted Susan Van de Kamp, whose show-and-tell presentation on the dikes of Holland would have to be postponed for the nuclear armageddon.

Just then the classroom door opened and we saw the principal, Sister Mary Joseph Arimathea. “Back to your multiplication tables,” she said brusquely.

“What happened?” Sister Agnesita asked with a mixture of relief and confusion.

“Some dingbat named e. e. cummings tripped the alarm.”

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.”

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 2025 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.”

The Gertrude Stein Look-Alike Contest

We’re getting up in years, we few forthright men who revealed to each other that we wanted to write back in our youth.  It takes a lot for a guy to open himself up that way to another man.


Is it Ed, or Gertrude?

 

There’s the odor of the effete about sitting down, waiting for inspiration, then scribbling your purple prose out on the blank page.  And there’s the sin of ambition.  You’re not content to become an accountant or an actuary–you want to become famous, huh?  You think you’re better than everybody else?

But we stuck with it with varying degrees of failure, and now find ourselves looking back on what we haven’t accomplished.  It’s about this time of year we get together for some wistful bonhomie as we slyly check out each other’s bald spots and paunches.


Faulkner:  Gave up a promising career as a postmaster and took the easy way out to become a Nobel Prize-winning novelist.

 

There’s Ed, the guy who was smitten with William Faulkner as an undergraduate and almost allowed his infatuation with the Mississippi Master’s stream-of-consciousness style to ruin his career as an air traffic controller.  There’s Rob, the Hemingway fan who had cosmetic surgery performed on his cat to add a toe to each paw.  And there’s me, the Fitzgerald nut with my inflatable Zelda love doll.

Regardless of whom we modeled himself after, we had to admit that four decades later we’d been worn down to the same nub.  When we hit our fifties, we all started to look not like our Lost Generation heroes, but like . . . Gertrude Stein. Stoop-shouldered, thick about the middle, not much hair.


“It was *sniff* cruel what he did to us!”

 

At first we joked about it in a nervous manner; keeping the horrible consequences at bay.  But after a few years of channeling the woman known for her sophisticated baby talk, we embraced our inner Gertrudes.  We turned competitive–as men are wont to do–and began to hold annual Gertrude Stein Look-Alike Contests.

When word got out there was the obligatory human interest story in the local paper, which got picked up by a wire service.  The next year we were overwhelmed, like Yasgur’s Farm by Woodstock.  Our little burg of twenty-some-thousand was transformed in a day to a mid-sized city five times that size by 80,000 grumpy, stocky, cross-dressing guys with close-cropped hair wandering around in baggy skirts muttering stuff like “I like this town but I don’t like that I’m in this town.”

You had to work to get it just right.  Some of the younger squads would come into town with fancy matching embroidered loden coats–”Milwaukee Gertrude Brood”–and then crap out when it came time to complete the phrase “a house in the country . . . “

“Is not the same as a country house!” I’d fairly shout at the laggards from the provinces who thought all you had to do was skim “Tender Buttons” the night before “Stein Time.”  Fat chance.  As the Great Lady herself said, “Do you know because I tell you so, or do you know, do you know?”

You’d hear guys at the cash bar complaining about the judges as they hitched up their loose-fitting dirndl skirts.  “Gimme a break,” I said to one loudmouth, and it wasn’t the absinthe talking.  “What did Gertrude say–’The deepest thing in any one is the conviction of bad luck that follows boasting.’”  That shut him up.


Best buds!

 

We went into the men’s room to relieve ourselves before we went on, and I caucused with Ed and Rob at the urinal.  “You’ve got to remember,” I said as I cleared a path through the knee-length scarf I’d added to my outfit that morning, “be paradoxical, obscure and repetitive.”

“What was the last one again?” Ed asked as he shook himself.

“Repetitive,” I replied.  “Like ‘I who am not patient am patient.’”

“Can I write crib notes on my sleeve?” Rob asked.

“NO!” I snapped, then lowered my voice when heads turned.  “The essence of a good gertrudesteinism is errant, antic circularity.”

“Okay,” Ed said over the roar of the hand dryer.

“You guys ready?” I asked.

“I guess,” Rob said.

“You guess?” I straightened him up with a stiffarm to the shoulder.  “‘It is funny that one who prepares is not ready.’  Got it?”


“I just don’t ‘get’ this Gertrude gal!”

 

A look of enlightenment came over him, as if he finally understood calculus, or Avogadro’s number, or the appeal of Kathie Lee Gifford.

“Got it,” he said.  “The one who ‘gets’ something is the one who is gotten.”

“Attaboy,” I said with a grin.  “Let’s go–in a direction we don’t want to go.”

Available in Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “Dead Writers Make More Money.”

Poetry on a Split Shift

The task of being a poet is not completed at a fixed schedule.  No one is a poet from eight to twelve and from two to six.

Jorge Luis Borges, lecture on Blindness, 1977

I should have known that my career as a singing waiter was doomed to failure.  I had the garcon chops, there was no denying that; I could remember four orders, with appetizers and salads, without touching the pencil behind my ear.  I could serve from the right and clear from the left.  I could even interrupt a conversation in an ingratiating manner to ask if anyone wanted coffee or dessert so as to speed folks out the door and increase my employer’s “gross” by faster “turnover,” to use the base lingo of the dining industry.  There was just one problem; I couldn’t carry a tune in a wheelbarrow, much less a bucket.


“Breathes there a man with soul so dead/Who never to himself hath said . . .”

 

And so  I was bounced, given the old heave-ho, kicked down the stairs as so often happens to tone-deaf singing waiters.  And now I try to make ends meet in a less remunerative field.  As a poetry waiter.

Believe me, demand is low, so none of the poetry restaurants stay open all day.  If you’re stuck in the “Verse ‘n Veal” field, you’re gonna have to work a split shift; 10 to 2 for the lunch crowd, six to ten for dinner.  Nothing ruins your day like having to be on call as a poet for twelve hours, even though you only work eight.  You can’t go to the beach, you can’t take the road less traveled by, you can’t wander lonely as a cloud.  You can’t do nothing!  Your whole day is shot.

Plus the money is nowhere as good being a poet waiter instead of a singing waiter; poets for show, minstrels for dough, is what they been saying since the Middle Ages, which raises the question:  How did they know they were in the Middle of history way back when, with so much more time to pass?

No, if you want the big tips you’ve got to sing.  Tips for poet waiters start at 15% and maybe–maybe–get up to 18%.  If you’re lucky.  Singing waiters are to poet waiters what rock stars are to poets; the take from the t-shirt stand at a typical rock concert could buy you a half-dozen poets-in-residence at four-year liberal arts colleges.  Singing waiters expect 20% minimum, and if you short ’em the next time you come in with your secretary they sing “Your Cheating Heart.”

poetryslam
“You say you want scrod, no doubt about it/But I tell you you’re screwed pal, because we’re out of it.”

 

This morning was rough, some guy tried to trick me by ordering “the juice of an orange,” knowing there’s no word in the English language that rhymes with the last word in that line, but I took his best shot and counterpunched:  “You’ve ordered a glass filled with juice of an orange/Your voice–it squeaks like a rusty door hinge.”

His jaw dropped, nearly killing one of his pigs in a blanket.  He should have rewarded me for rhyming on my feet, but no, he dinged me, tipping only 17.99999%.  I suppose if I had world enough and time (hat tip to Andy Marvell!) and could carry that out to a million decimal places it might turn into 18%, but the universe is expanding, I haven’t got time.


Andrew Marvell: *urp*

 

The dinner crowd begins to filter in and I recognize my least favorite customers; its Judge Samuel Fishback and his wife Dottie, who writes occasional poetry for our local paper, The West Haven Teapot-Picayune.  Dottie’s a sweet gal but for all the Yankee swaps and hostess gifting back-and-forth she engages in, there’s one present she’s never received; the divine afflatus that would enable her to write an actual, you know, like poem, as opposed to some galumphing doggerel with a meter like a Packard sedan, umpty-dumpty-dumptying along a bumpy metric highway.


Packard: Poetry in motion, at rest.

 

The Judge, by contrast, is all prose, proving the falsity of Clarence Darrow’s gag “Inside every lawyer is the wreck of a poet.”  If there’s a wreck of a poet in his neighborhood it’s probably one he ran over in his late-model American-made sedan.  On purpose.

“Good evening,” I say after the hostess seats them, although it’s rarely a good evening with the Judge.  He generally has a whiskey sour first, then a whiskey sour second, then hits the chardonnay.  If he’s coming from his club he’s already had a beer or two, so by the time he sits down at Chez de la Maison Pommes Frites, he’s more stewed than the prunes in the assisted living center I hope he’s carted off to before long.

“Hello there!” Dottie replies with a beaming smile, while the Judge goes out of his way to give me a hearty “Hrumph.”  Must have broken 100 on the golf course.

“Written anything lately?” I ask Dottie as I fill up their water glasses.

“I certainly have!” she says as she reaches in her purse, pulls out her “readers” and a sheet of lilac-colored paper.  “Listen to this,” she says as clears her throat:

 


Dottie’s whimsical “readers.”

 

How lovely to be a poet,
I feel bless-ed every day,
That I can put down on paper
My thoughts so light and gay.

If really makes me feel sorry
for someone who isn’t bitten by the “bug”
of verse so pretty and beautiful,
it’s like I’m a butterfly and he’s a slug.

The unspoken accusation hangs heavy in the air, and I move to dispel it by launching into my heartfelt recitation of the evening’s specials.

We’ve got lobster risotto that’ll float your boat-o,
and a steak au poivre that’s to die for.
The cost for each is $19.95 in toto,
so the bill won’t be something you’ll cry for.

“Oh, you are so witty!” Dottie says, but I demur:  “Really, that was nothing,” and for once I’m being sincere.  “Are you ready to order or shall I give you a few minutes?”

“How about a drink?” the Judge asks, like a Bedouin parking his camel after a 40-day trek in the desert.

“Sure–the usual?”

“Yes, a whiskey sour, and I’ll have the sirloin with baked potato.”  That’s the Judge for you; just when you think he’s going to order the same old thing, he surprises you and orders the same old thing.

“Don’t you think you should have a salad?” Dottie asks with wifely concern.

“Rabbit food!” the Judge snaps.

“It helps to keep you regular,” she adds as she touches him ever so lightly on the arm.  I discreetly avert my eyes–never noticed that exposed beam ceiling before!

“All right,” the Judge says with grim resignation, as if he’s a prisoner on death row who only got his second choice for a final meal.

“Et vous?” I ask Dottie with what I hope is a lilt in my voice.  She often writes-up the Judge’s tip when he tries to stiff me.

“You mean ‘Et tu?’–don’t you?” she asks coquettishly.

“You’re bad!” I say, not meaning it.

“I’ll have a Rob Roy,” she says.  The Fishbacks are dues-paying members of the Society for the Preservation of Antiquated Cocktails.

“And for dinner?”

“The lobster risotto sounds lovely!” she says with a big smile.

“That’s funny, they’ve been cooking it all day and I haven’t heard a peep out of it!”

“You’re a stitch!” Dottie says.  She’s brought her folding fan, and she gives me a little love-tap on the wrist with it.  “And I’ll have a Caesar salad, hold the anchovies.”

“I tried holding them last night, but they complained I was getting fresh!”

“You!”

I go back to the kitchen and place the order, but the manager is giving me a big scowl.  “I heard that alleged poem you recited to them,” he says surlily, and try saying that five times fast.  “You’d better shape up.”

“Why?” I ask.  “Am I undermining the vibrant bohemian life of your little boit de nuite?”

“No, you dingbat–there’s a restaurant critic here tonight,” he says and he nods in the direction of a table off in a corner where I see–elena gotchko, my former girlfriend and editoress-in-chief of plangent voices, the little poetry rag that I started with her back when we were demon lovers.

“She’s not a restaurant critic,” I say.  “She’s a lower-case poetess, and an awfully bad one at that.”

“That’s not what she told me when she walked in.”

“Probably just trying to cadge a free meal.  There’s not a lot of money in poetry, as you well know from the low-three figure checks you write me every week.”

He sniffs, and not because he’s checking the lobster bisque.  “I pay the going rate, so get going,” he says, before turning on his heel and returning to his maître d’ station.

And so I’m forced to confront my past, and the awful years when I wandered in the poetic wilderness after elena ejected me from the plangent voices offices, displacing me with that awful buck-toothed Brit Bendall Hyde as Managing Editor.  I was a ship without a home port, thrown back upon my own devices, which were mainly handy counter-top appliances and stereo components.  I eventually clawed my way back to the top of highly low-paid world of highbrow quarterly poetry, to the point where I now have three–three!–tote bags from college literary magazines to choose from when I go shopping at our local natural food store.

But to paraphrase Santayana, those who do not confront their past are still doomed to run into their old girlfriend when they work a split-shift as a waiter in a restaurant, so it really doesn’t matter.  All I know is, I’m going to put on the best damn performance by a waiter-poet since e e cummings told a woman “86 on the noisettes de porc” at Le Bocage, the first classic French restaurant in Massachusetts.

It’s salads first, so I come out with the small tray, a Caesar and a “house” salad, so called because it tastes like it’s made with materials bought at Home Depot.  I cast a gimlet eye in elena’s direction and begin:

Here are your salads, I also brought pepper,
in a grinder as big as a bazooka.
Don’t take too much, cause the stuff’s got a punch
that will deck you like you’re a Palooka.

For some reason I’ve finally tickled the Judge’s fancy, and he starts to laugh, drawing the attention of several diners, including my beloved lower-case elena.  Maybe–just maybe–I can make her jealous enough to ask me back into her life and a cushy sinecure at plangent, as it’s known by writers who want to preserve every precious syllable.

Now it’s Dottie’s turn; it’s a bit like playing tennis against your grandmother, you have to humor her:

I don’t want pepper, you ought to know better,
my digestive system it does not please.
I would, on the other hand, greatly enjoy,
a little more parmesan cheese.

“Coming right up,” I say, and as I walk away I catch elena’s eye, which she’s cast in my direction.  I saunter over, even though she’s outside my “zone,” and try to chat her up amiably.

“Well hello stranger!” I say in a voice that could have been exorcised from a Chamber of Commerce Sergeant-at-Arms.  “Long time no see!”

elena was always, if anything, more of a bear about avoiding clichés and small talk than I, so she greets me with a sort of sneer/smile–a snile?  a smeer?–that could flash-freeze a quart of strawberries.

“hello,” she says, sticking to her self-conscious lower-case attitudinizing.  “will you be my server tonight?”

“Sorry, no,” I say with mock regret.  “Although you should be able to hear my extempore poetry from where you sit.”

“and why would I want to do that?” she asks bitterly.

“I’ve always wondered–if you’re such a non-conformist, why do you use punctuation marks?”

“You’re”–I had her so riled up she started off with a capital!  “you’re playing with text versus speech now, and don’t think i don’t know it.”

“nice to see you,” I say, mocking her no-capitalization affectation.

I head off to the kitchen, where the Fishbacks’ entrees are ready, but I’m suddenly faced with a poet’s predicament; how do you summon the muse to inspire you over–meat and potatoes?

“Table 3 up,” the chef says, and I gulp with dread.  Steak, bake, cake, drake, fake etc.  All pretty pedestrian.  There’s no way I’m going to knock elena’s self-consciously artistic vertical striped socks off with that selection of rhymes.  There’s only one thing to do.

“Hey chef!” I yell.

“Yeah?”

“Give me the cooking sherry!”

He plays dumb for a moment, but I know from experience that drink on the job is the occupation, not the occupational hazard, of a cook.

He hesitates, looks around to make sure the boss isn’t watching, then reluctantly and surreptitiously pulls a green bottle of rotgut fortified wine out from under the counter.

“Leave me some, okay?  It’s gonna be a long night,” he says.

“I will,” I reply, “but I’ll try to make your evening fly past faster with some alcohol-enhanced verse.”

“Whatever,” he says, and tourns back to a tournedos of beef.

I take a pull, as much as I can stand, and the varnish-like finish of the jerez hits my soft palate like dragster fuel spilling on asphalt.  I shake my head not to clear my brain, but to mix things up.  I cast a steely glance across the dining room, and launch my boat laden down with verse across the godawful carpet towards the Fishbacks.

Here’s your steak, I say to the judge,
please chew each morsel thoroughly,
or else to the emergency room you’ll fly
and we’ll bury you tomorrow, quite ear-i-ly.

The patrons gasp–have I been so gauche as to recite a poem that hints at the death of a diner?  The only way I can redeem myself is with a chivalric tribute to Dottie, the fair damsel who suffers under the Judge’s pig iron rule.

To you, Dottie, I now proclaim,
I’ve brought the lobster risotto.
You were supposed to get a side of manicotti,
but I decided on you I would dote-o.
You have such a slim, girlish figure, you know,
and it’s surely one worth preserving,
so ix-nay on the carbs is priority uno,
as your profile I’m fond of observing.

There are, of course, some philistines in the crowd who don’t get my innovative a-b-a-b-c-d-c-d rhyme scheme, but elena–who’s been limping along with her trademark a-a-b-b-c-c-d-d pattern for what seems like decades now, is suddenly all ears.  And other facial features, of course, but her lobes are throbbing, as they once did when I nibbled on them while we stood over a hot Xerox machine, churning out our first edition!

She rushes up to me and says “you–you’ve progressed quite a bit since . . . i dumped you,” with more than a trace of rue, I might add.

“Poetry is hard work,” I say, chucking her under the chin so our eyes can meet through her sloppy self-cut bangs.  “If . . . we got back together, perhaps we could pull our oars in tandem, like double-scullers.”

She’s about to melt in my arms when a projectile piece of meat hits me in the ear, expelled from the throat of the Judge by the force of Dottie’s Heimlich maneuver.  She looks at me over his shoulder now that the coast . . . and the Judge’s throat . . . is clear, and she appears more than a trifle–miffed.

“My husband could have died while you were goofing around!” she says.

“Sorry about that, he’s never had a problem before,” I say.  “Are you okay?” I ask His Honor.

“I am now but it was a close call,” he says.  “I should have known better.”

“why’s that?” elena asks.

“Because his poetry always makes me gag.”

 

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

As Roadside Elegies Spread, Cops Take on Poetry Duty

FRAMINGHAM, Mass. As the Thanksgiving vacation week began Lieutenant Jim Hampy of the Massachusetts State DMVD was patrolling the Metrowest area of Boston, on the lookout for college students home from school with too much time on their hands and beer in their bellies. “I’m not sure how much longer I can take this beat,” he says with resignation as he watches a carful of twenty-somethings beat a hasty retreat when they spot his car parked behind Ye Olde Package Store, a faux-Colonial retail liquor outlet that is the last place to buy booze before a driver goes through two “dry” towns. “The things you see out here–it’ll turn your stomach.”

Hampy decides not to give chase and takes a sip from his “lahge” Dunkin Donuts regular coffee. “I got bigger fish to fry tonight,” he says. “I been tailin’ a gang of girls for almost a year now. I got a suspicion they’ll be out in force, since they’re probably sick of their parents already.”

The instincts of the “statie,” as his adversaries in this cat-and-mouse game refer to him, prove correct as a Volvo blasts down the highway loaded to the gills with six girls, singing songs from their senior year in high school. “Suspects heading west on Route 20, send backup,” he says as he accelerates out of the parking lot, without, however, turning on his siren or flasher. “I don’t want ‘em to know I’m coming,” he says.

The girls have a quarter-mile lead that is lengthened when Hampy is forced to stop at a red light, but he seems unperturbed. “It’s okay, I want to catch ‘em in the act,” he says, and his game plan works to perfection as he pulls up at the dangerous intersection where the girls have set up a makeshift–and illegal–memorial in honor of Amanda Skrulnik, a classmate of theirs whose cheerleading career was tragically cut short when she broke her femur in a car crash last New Year’s Eve.


“I . . . I tried to rhyme ‘awesome’ with ‘possum.’”

“Those things are a fire hazard, and people could mistake them for a traffic signal,” he says unconvincingly, referring to the tall votive candles the girls have kept burning since that horrible night. As he cuts his headlights and cruises slowly to a stop, it becomes clear that safety concerns are secondary to him, however. “Worst of all is the poetry,” he says, shaking his head. “I hope no daughter of mine ever writes nothin’ as bad.”

He exits the car along with this reporter and makes his presence known to the girls, who are sobbing quietly. “Good evening ladies,” he says, and it is clear to this reporter that he maintains an air of professional calm only with difficulty. “I thought we reached an understanding there last summer,” he says, as he plucks a piece of paper from the paws of a stuffed animal at the roadside shrine and begins to read aloud, his voice at times betraying his overflowing emotions:

We really miss you, Dear Amanda,
On the sidelines where you cheered with flair.
We know your favorite animal was the panda
but we could only find this Teddy Bear.

Hampy looks at the girls one by one, as if scanning a police station lineup. “I want to know who wrote this,” he says gently but firmly. “Tracy? Lindsey? Chloe?”

The girls from the back seat are silent, so he continues. “Siobhan? Whitney? Courtney?”

The last-named friend finally cracks. “It wasn’t any one of us–it was all of us, a joint effort,” she says.

Hampy groans involuntarily. “Haven’t I told you–poetry is the product of a unique and individual vision. It’s not something you write by committee, like the mission statement of a non-profit that wants to rid the world of trans-fats. Now clean this up and go home.”

The girls are properly chastened and get to work at a routine they have down pat; extinguishing the flames, removing beads, stuffed animals and signs, and crumpling up their roadside elegies, as commanded by a duly-authorized officer of the Massachusetts Department of Motor Vehicle Doggerel.

On Saturday morning Hampy spoke is the speaker for a public service assembly at Pumpsie Green Consolidated Regional High School, lecturing a gym full of bored and inattentive kids about the dangers of roadside poetry. “For the first offense, all you got to do is take the Junior Operator Scansion Adjustment Seminar,” he says, drawing no reaction from the students. “It’s three Saturdays,” he adds, eliciting sighs and the rolling of many eyes.

“Second offense, you got to go to the Do Not Go Premature Into That Good Night Retreat.” The young men and women are paying attention now, as Hampy pauses for effect. “That’s a whole weekend.” Groans are heard from several students, but Hampy cuts them off to let them know it could get even worse.


“These are good kids–they just write crappy poetry.”

“Finally, after three violations or refusal to comply with prescribed meter or rhyme scheme mandated by court order, we impose the death sentence.”

“What’s that?” asks Wade Aucoin, a pimply 15-year-old in the first row of the bleachers.

“Permanent revocation of your poetic license.”

Available in Kindle format as part of the collection “poetry is kind of important.”

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.”