At the Viking Poetry Slam

                A mastery of poetry was a must for any young Viking.  A few Viking poems dwelt on love, but the heroes often undermined their happiness by chasing adventures that separated them from their beloveds. 

                                     The Wall Street Journal


“Who’s got the beer cooler?”

It’s 1230, and I don’t mean by the hands of the sundial.  I mean it’s 1230 A.D., and me and my buddies, Gunnlaug Snaketongue and Hallfred the Troublesome Poet, are having our regular Tuesday night poetry session.  We meet at Ericson’s, where they have 20 ounce King Olaf’s for only a clam, and pitchers for five clams.  Let me tell you, we usually set back the progress of Western civilization a couple of decades before the night is through.


Ericson’s:  Get there early for Friday Night Oxen Races.

We roll the bar dice to see who goes first, which is actually not the most desirable spot.  It’s better if your listeners have consumed a little mead before you start to bare the workings of your innermost soul.  Unfortunately, I roll snake-eyes.

“You go first Kormak Ogmundarson!” Hallfred says with glee.  I can tell he’s going to pounce on my handiwork like a blood eagle grabbing a baby chick.

“Okay, here goes nothing,” I say.  I take one last drink to wet my throat, then I launch the Viking ship of my verse onto unknown seas.

That night I dreamt of a maiden fair
whose dress I removed with a flourish.
What I saw underneath was a navel and hair
but a body that looked overnourished.

I looked up from my rudimentary parchment note pad to judge the effect of my quatrain on Gunnlaug and Hallfred.  “You say overnourished like it’s a bad thing, dude,” Gunnlaug says with a look of disapproval.

“But wait,” I say, anticipating twentieth-century cable TV pitchman Billy Mays, “there’s more.”


“There’s more bad poetry where that came from!”

“Let ‘er rip,” Hallfred says as he unleashes a belch that could be heard in Vinland.

“Okay,” I say, then compose myself and start in again.

She could have been my winter consort
if I’d paid more attention to her
But I was consumed by televised sport
and another Vike came to woo her.



Vinland, via the scenic route

I’m surprised to see a look of empathy on Gunnlaug’s face.  “That’s beautiful, man,” he says as he pretends there’s something in his eye in order to hide the fact that he’s wiping away a tear.  “Ain’t that always the way.  You’d like to have a relationship with a woman, but you want some freaking adventure with your guy friends, too.”

Hallfred, on the other hand, being the Troublesome Poet that he is, is unmoved.  “What the hell are televised sports?” he asks.

“It’s an anachronism I threw in for dramatic effect,” I say.  “This is a stupid blog post–you’re going to have to wilfully suspend disbelief if you’re going to get anything out of it.”

He takes this in slowly, and mutters a grudging “Okay–that was pretty good.”  He’s not the brightest shield on the battlefield, if you know what I mean, but he leaves a pretty wide wake at poetry slams because of his brooding good looks and primitive style.  Personally, I think it’s all a facade.  He’s so dumb his descendants will be going bare-chested to football games in Minnesota winters seven centuries hence.

“Show me what you got, big fella,“ I say to him throwing down the poetic gauntlet.

He pops a handful of squirrel nuts into his mouth, and washes them down with a gulp of beer.  “Here goes,” he says, and begins:

My old lady’s quite a dish
if I do say so myself.
She don’t come along when I icefish,
she eats tuna from the pantry shelf.

Gunnlaug emits a tepid grunt of approval.  “I sense the difference between your maleness and her femaleness,” he says looking off into the distance, “but you didn’t do much to establish dramatic tension.”

It’s clear that Hallfred is hurt by this faint praise, and he lashes out, bringing his pickaxe down on the bag of Astrix and Obelix Pub Fries that Gunnlaug’s been munching on.  “Anybody can be a critic,” he fumes.  “Let’s hear some poetry out of you, blubber-belly!”

“Well kiss my ass and call it a love story,” Gunnlaug says with a withering smile.  “Looks like Mr. Brutalist has a sensitive side, too.”

“Your doggerel smells like two-year-old Swedish Fish.”

“Actually,” I interject in an effort to keep the peace, “Swedish Fish stay moist and chewy forever in the patented Sta-Fresh resealable bag.”

But Hallfred isn’t letting his rival go.  “Come on, man,” he says angrily, as other patrons turn their heads in the hope of seeing a senseless killing.  “It’s Rhyme Time.”

Gunnlaug looks Hallfred up and down, then a frosty snort of Arctic air escapes from his nostrils.  “It ain’t bragging if you can do it,” he says, then clears his throat.  The silence in the room is broken only when he speaks in a low voice steeped in regret:

I once got a peek of a wench’s breasts
that made me forget I was a Viking.
I’m telling you man, they were the best–
I gave up my Harley and biking.

An audible gasp rose from the crowd.  The ultimate aesthetic error of Viking poetry–to succumb to the wiles of a woman!  How was Gunnlaug going to get out of the lyrical gulag he’d wandered into?

She had a big hat with horns festooned
and said “Dear Vike, please impale me.”
But a friend had some tickets to the Wild vs. Bruins
“Stay with me,” she cried, “and don’t fail me!”

Now it was Hallfred’s turn to snort.  “The first thing to do when you find yourself in a hole,” he said with a sneer, “is to stop digging.”

“Hold your freaking reindeer,” Gunnlaug said.  “I ain’t through.”

He took a deep breath, then began again.

I looked in her eyes, both drowning in tears–
Though watery, they still looked nice.
“Look,” I said, “I’ll make it up to you dear–
I’ll take you to Smurfs on Ice!”

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

The Night My Wife Got Oil Can Boyd’s Autograph

I’ll never forget, ‘til I slip into the void,
The night my wife got an autograph from Oil Can Boyd.
We were dining in a restaurant in nearby Newton,
where people take yoga, and sleep on futons.

Image result for oil can boyd wikipedia

The former Red Sox pitcher was sitting at the bar,
making cracks about women, both near and far.
“Who’s that annoying fellow in the baseball cap?”
He was drinking a beer, but it wasn’t on tap.

I told her that he was a man named Dennis,
who’d excelled at baseball, but I don’t think tennis.
At some point in his life a fellow man
had tagged him with the nickname “Oil Can.”

“What does that mean?” she asked and I told her,
it referred to his drink, in the can that was colder.
“Down South booze is sometimes called ‘ignorant oil,’
because your cognitive faculties it tends to spoil.”

He was holding forth, so that all could hear,
a breach of decorum, that reached our ears.
Normally she would have harrumphed,
and that would have been that,
but some impulse over reserve did triumph,
and she shot out of her chair like a scalded cat.

Image result for oil can boyd wikipedia

“Excuse me,” she said to the nutty right-hander,
“I was wondering if I could get your autograph?”
She’s normally not capable of such forthright candor,
but Can didn’t know that, didn’t count it a gaffe.

“Who’s it for?” he said with an upraised eyebrow.
He seemed . . . skeptical, and dubious somehow.
Was she playing the role of a distaff John Alden
while I—mortified—was the shy Myles Standish?
When a guy wants an autograph he does his own callin’–
instead of burying his head in his barbecue sandwich.

“It’s for my friend . . . David!” she said with a smile.
“Who’s David?” he asked, then supplied his own answer:
“I suppose he’s a kid who’s dying of cancer.”
I’d never seen her pull off such duplicitous guile.

Image result for blond yuppie woman autograph

Can eyed her up, then also down,
saw her wedding ring, made a little frown.
Cocked his head, made a little moue,
then signed a napkin, as ballplayers do.

She thanked him, and he watched as she walked away.
He didn’t seem to mind her, but down to this day–
I don’t know what happened, what turned her around,
to make her a late-in-life autograph hound.
She’d always been shy, and also retiring,
A mistress of etiquette, really quite inspiring.

She didn’t know Can from a hole-in-the-wall,
had no idea he’d begun his fall
in the ’86 Series, against the New York Mets,
that we’d watched together at a party one night.
He was the Game 7 starter, and he was all set,
to end Bambino’s Curse, the Red Sox fans’ plight.

But a rain delay allowed the Sox skipper
to start another hurler–Bruce Hurst.
Can didn’t like it, and not feeling chipper,
went to the clubhouse, and bad turned to worse.

He drank ignorant oil from twelve-ounce cans,
removing himself from relief pitching plans.
Except for one season, he was never the same;
with the Expos, in ’90, when he won ten games.

Image result for happy couples restaurant newton mass

So the next time you see a former major leaguer,
in a bar having drinks, and you’re wife’s feeling eager
to get him to add his forlorn scribble
to an ephemeral item, stop her, don’t quibble.

The man’s entitled to his peace and quiet,
and he might need a drink–go ahead and buy it.

About Those Glow-in-the-Dark Tasmanian Devils

Using ultraviolet light researchers at Toledo Zoo in Ohio discovered that Tasmanian Devils glow in the dark.

Chlloe.com

Let me give it to you on the level—
I’m leery of glow-in-the-dark Tasmanian Devils.
Perhaps I’m being less than chivalrous,
but Tasmanian Devils are, alas, carnivorous,
and a human, in case you weren’t aware of it
is a walking meat stick from feet to hair of it.

I know, I know, people get all goopial
because Tasmanian Devils are also marsupial,
but frankly, just because an animal’s got a pocket
doesn’t mean I want him nibbling on my lockets.
When feeding they’re apparently quite ferocious,
with a strong bite whether they’re old or precocious.

T-Devil mothers have only four nipples
for all of their young’uns to suckle and gripple.
Since a litter can run to 20 or thirty
manners at dinner can get kind of shirty.
As a result, not many newborns survive,
which sucks if they prefer to remain alive.

But glowing, you’ll say, makes them more visible,
which ought to be a good thing; I find that risible.
Tasmanian Devils are cute in cartoons
or on party favors, or mylar balloons.
But if there’s a chance one is lurking about,
rather than face his cute little snout,
I’ll stay inside while there’s any doubt
and firmly resolve not to come out.

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.

 

Her Poetry Sucked

She was frail, and lithe and wan–
Most delicate thing I’d laid eyes on.
I’d have killed to possess her by usufruct–
Except for one thing: her poetry sucked.

She had silver threads among the gold
that suggested loves once young, now old.
I’d have fallen for her like a loaded dump truck–
Except for one thing: her poetry sucked.

“Please read this for me, and see what you think,”
She said as she passed me her paper and ink.
“I’m not sure it works,” she modestly clucked.
I had to agree: her poetry sucked.

I scanned her lines–it was clear she had not.
I tried to make sense of what she had wrought.
“It’s . . . different,” I said, as her hair she plucked.
I concealed my conclusion: her poetry sucked.

I found myself poetically unstimulated,
but I was aroused, and so I dissimulated.
You see, in order for me to get–uh, laid–
I couldn’t have told her: her poetry sucked.

“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.”

Of a Painting Titled “Winter Sunset at Duxbury”

I bought it with my tax refund, a rendering in violet blues, greys,
deep greens and indigo of the winter sun going down over a hedge.
It gave me peace to look upon it, especially on those hopeless days
when I’d leave home and return in the dark, fulfilling my pledge

 

Duxbury

 

to wife and child; there’d be a time when I’d have a salt marsh view
down on the Cape, away from the city, the madman’s cry
each morning as I came out of the station, I thought. I called to
track the guy down–last name “Hughes”–and found him, first try.

 

salt marsh

 

I told him I liked his work and asked if he had anything else to sell.
“I gave it up,” was all he said at first. There was silence which I tried
to coax him out of. “There’s no money in art,” he said. I could tell
he was bitter, so I let it go. I figured something within him had died

 

but its ghost haunted him. I said “If you change your mind, call.”
He said “Sure,” we said goodbye. I wondered if I worsened his pall.

Among the Battling Subway Poets

        A program called “Poetry on the T” places poems on Red, Green and Orange line subway trains in Boston.

wbur.org


“I think that I shall never see–hey, watch it pal, that’s my knee!”

I’ve been a member of the Green Line Symbolists since I was a kid, busting out my first blank verse rhymes: Roses are red, violets are blue, I like chocolate and you can’t skate.  They say gangs fill the void left in the empty lives of fatherless youth, but in my case that’s not the case, in case you were wondering.  My fathers were Yeats, Delmore Schwartz and Coleridge, a good mix, sorta like a Kellogg’s Snack-Pack of versifiers.  You got a druggie (Coleridge), an alcoholic (Schwartz), and an Irishman (Yeats).  Sounds like a joke if only they’d walk into a bar together.

As the old saying goes, failure is an orphan while success has many fathers, so those are my dads.  The other guys in the gang, well, let’s just say it’s a wise child who knows his own father.  Some of their influences are good (Burma-Shave, Cole Porter), some are bad (Robert Service, rap), but all go into that great Crock Pot of language and what comes out of the slow-cooker of tortured composition is a pungent goulash of the American tongue.


Delmore Schwartz

We don’t go lookin’ for trouble, but if trouble finds us, we don’t back down.  And the principal source of trouble in the Park Street Station–the oldest subway stop in the country!–are the Red Line Romantics, a lousier bunch of stinkin’ poetasters than which you never met.

See, Park Street is where the Red and Green lines meet–there’s bound to be trouble.  My guys will come streamin’ in from the leafy green suburbs to the West, home of poets like Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, while they come cruisin’ in from Cambridge.  Well, Robert Lowell and T.S. Eliot went to college at Harvard, but aside from e.e. cummings, who was a local, they haven’t produced that many native bards.  I say advantage us, but then I may have a teensy-tiny bias.


e.e. cummings:  “The other kids beat me up and took my capital letters.”

I see a couple of my homies get on at Copley Square where, as every schoolboy knows, there is no inbound-outbound transfer.  All of a sudden poetry breaks out in the train, like spontaneous combustion:

We’ll stand for something,
we subway poets,
there are no open seats–
wouldn’t ya know it!

We get a few hairy eyeballs from commuters who just want peace and quiet, but it comes with the territory:  you ride in a car with subsidized poets, you’re gonna hear some fresh, imaginative poetic language, unlike the prosaic prose you gotta listen to for the rest of the day.  We’re trying to open up their eyes, the windows to their souls, and let a little sunshine and fresh air in, and the foul air out.  Or in the case of a Fugitive Poet like Robert Penn Warren, maybe the reverse.


Warren: “It’s stuffy in here–I like it.”

We roll through Boylston, then Arlington, taking things in backwards alphabetical order to keep our minds sharp after so many years of a-b-a-b rhyme schemes.  We’re up for anything we may find in Park (pronounced “pahk”) Street, and we let the world know it:

We’ll crush those Romantics
like late-fall stinkbugs
and sweep their remains
under our Oriental rugs.

The car slows to a halt.  Thanks to multi-million dollar upgrades paid for mainly by people who don’t ride the T, both here and across this great land of ours, we can exit on either side, and so we spread out, hoping to do more extensive damage than if we all huddle together like a rhymed couplet.

Our stratagem’s weakness is exposed immediately, as the Boo-Hoo Boys of the Red Line Romantics pounce on us as we go down the aging concrete stairs.

You guys think you’re poets?
Please–give me a break!
We’re from across the river
and have the poetic chops it takes.

We circle each other warily, like the Jets and the Sharks in West Side Story.  There is a squabble, a scuffle, a skirmish–once the Romantics latch onto a poetic tic they work it until all the life is squeezed out of it.  They’re not particularly good fighters, as they frequently have to sit down with the backs of their hands on their foreheads, like they’re some sob sister sitting one out on her fainting couch.  That’s when we attack; after all, we’re the only school of poetry that has a National Football League team named after a poem by Edgar Allan Poe, one of our precursors–the Baltimore Ravens.


“Now in at slotback–Edgar . . . Allan . . . Poe.”

We’re pretty much havin’ our way with ’em when somebody yells “Cheez it–it’s the Canon Police!”  We thought we were good because they’d all be off at the Modern Language Association plenary session at the Convention Center, but I guess they got out early.  Musta run out of footnotes or somethin’.

So all of a sudden we have to make common cause with each other, runnin’ from the guys who will nab you for the pathetic fallacy, or operatin’ a sonnet without a poetic license.  I’m just about to escape up the stairs into the cool fall air when I feel a hand on my collar and hear the thick Irish brogue of one of Boston’s Finest, the Poetry Bunco Squad, as he thoughtfully applies his nightstick to my cranium.

“Ow!” I scream.

“You got the right to remain silent,” he says.  “And after hearin’ you at last Saturday night’s Porter Square Poetry Slam–I wish you’d use it.”

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

An Indifferent Irishman Signs the Petition

I ask if he can spare a minute and he says yes.
This is about your ancestors and mine, I say,
how, forced off the land, they sailed west
to Boston where, if they didn’t die on the way,
they and their faith were scorned in the schools.

He listens, a bit distracted I can see.
He has work he’d rather do
than listen to a lurid history
told by a man too full of rue.
He lumps me with the zealots and other fools

who have yet to learn that the fight is done;
they won, but so did we, and a truce was called.
We have the jobs they kept us from
if we want them; why should history be recalled
when there is now a fair if tenuous set of rules?

He hears me out and signs the sheet;
it costs him nothing but a moment’s scribbling.
He hands it back, I sense his need to be discreet
with one who holds a grudge–there’s no use quibbling.
What would his forefathers say, the fierce O’Tooles?