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.
“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?
“Not me,” said Roethke. Or course not—Mr. Nature Poet.
“It was me,” Lowell and Berryman said together. Figures—two confessional poets, two confessions.
“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.
“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.”