Fran Landesman and the Sad Songs of Spring

“When the hounds of spring are on winter’s traces,” wrote Swinburne, “The mother of months in meadow or plain/Fills the shadows and windy places/With lisp of leaves and ripple of rain”? And who are you or I to gainsay that sentiment, however loaded it may be with hissing sibilants and fricking frickatives?

But those lines, depicted tongue-in-cheek by James Thurber, give no hint of an answer to a more troubling question that arises this time of year: Why are the best of songs about spring–sad?


Swinburne: “Konked,” as Lou Rawls would say, “to the bone.”

 

It’s that time of year. In spring, we ought to be happy; winter is over, and spring, so long longed for, is here. Perhaps the much-awaited fulfillment of a fervent wish is bound to disappoint.

In spring, as e.e. cummings put it,

when the world is mud-
luscious the little lame baloonman whistles far and wee.

A “little lame balloon man”–pretty sad, if you ask me, but you didn’t.

When we sing of spring, we tend–unless we’re idiots humming “Here Comes Peter Cottontail”–to sing sadly.


Fran Landesman

Like “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most”–lyrics by Fran Landesman, music by Tommy Wolf.

It is the anti-spring song, one for those who once threw their hearts away each spring, but who now say a “spring romance hasn’t got a chance.”

Here is a fine version by Ella Fitzgerald. Landesman has the look of a woman for whom lines of regret such as

Spring this year has got me feeling
like a horse that never left the post.
I lie in my room staring up at the ceiling.
Spring can really hang you up the most

were more than an exercise in poesy; someone who was a lot of fun, but who may have waited for some calls that never came as men chose other leggier, prettier girls for–as Cleveland Amory said of a young man from Boston backed by a long-winded reference–breeding purposes. She was called “the Dorothy Parker of jazz,” and many assumed (including me) that she’d been disappointed in love because of her acerbic lyrics.


Ella Fitzgerald

 

That view, as it turns out, couldn’t have been more wrong. Landesman was happily married for six decades to her husband Jay, publisher of the beat journal Neurotica, and yet he allowed her a wide latitude in romantic affairs. While there’s no registry or clerk’s office in which to record extramarital acts and deeds, it is widely assumed that Landesman was a lover to, among others, both Jack Kerouac, whom she called the handsomest man she ever met, and Lenny Bruce, who proposed to her. “Let’s you and me go on the road,” Bruce wrote to her, “and send Jay a little money every month.”

She described her relationship with her husband in the poem “Semi-Detached”:

We each have a side that’s as free as the air,
And people don’t see the side that we share.
Our set-up is sweet. There isn’t a catch,
The secret is living semi-detached.

“Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most” was a play on T.S. Eliot’s line “April is the cruellest month” from The Waste Land, and was apparently part of a high-brow self-deprecating trend among the beatniks to lampoon themselves by re-casting classics such as Shakespeare into hip argot. (Are today’s hipsters in Brooklyn or elsewhere doing anything similar–or even capable of it?) It was first performed, along with “The Ballad of the Sad Young Men,” in a musical developed from Jay’s unpublished novel about the beat scene in New York, “The Nervous Set.” The show was a huge success in St. Louis, but closed after three weeks when it moved to New York. A half-century later, though, “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most” is still being performed.

Happy or ecstatic as Landesman may have been with her love life, when she featured it in her work she tended to shine a melancholy light on it; she titled two collections of her poetry Scars and Stripes and How Was It for You? Freed from the convention of monogamy, she may have found pleasure but not necessarily fulfillment.

At the end of her life her sight failed, but she continued to perform her poetry–in a half spoken, half sung fashion all her own–from memory.

The woman who was sometimes called “the godmother of hip” died in July of 2011 at the age of 83, five months after her husband.

Ode to a Bespectacled Optometrist Maiden

Dorothy Parker, just for a lark,
wrote a poem we remember
for what’s now called “snark”:

“Men seldom make passes
at girls who wear glasses,”

rings down through the years
and one guesses its laughter is watered with tears.

Back in the day before contact lenses,
return with me now as her amanuensis
to tell you the tale of an optometrist
whose practice precluded all romantic trysts.

She could hardly tell people that eyewear’s a problem;
she’d lose all her patients as soon as she’d got them.

So she wore her glasses wherever she went;
she thus had no luck with unattached gents,

and therefore she suffered as Parker foreshadowed;
her first beau said “no,” and the rest all said “ditto.”

But I liked the look retro–
the sturdy black glasses
you saw on the metro
on avant-garde lasses.

It adds one more layer
For one to remove
After spending the day
Viewing nudes at the Louvre.

Horn-rimmed specs on
The bridge of the nose
Is the nasal version
Of legs with hose;

The greater the number of impediments
The hotter the erotic sentiments–
Nature creates romantic suction
By fences and snares to a woman’s seduction.

So when to her office I went for a check up
the hottest part of her was straight from her neck up.

I sat in her chair and I read rows of letters
The sizes got smaller–I didn’t get better.
She checked me for pink eye, and also glaucoma
I hoped she’d ignore my cheese pizza aroma.

My passions rose higher as she wrote my prescription
I lusted in ways that would beggar description.

I couldn’t let go— I needed her badly
So stalling for time I said to her madly:

“Please make sure that you have all the facts—
You haven’t run tests yet to find cataracts;
Or the dreaded curse of a detached retina—
In one of my two eyes, I’ve got one, I’ll bet ya.”

She leaned over on me, the better to see stuff;
’twas now or never To devour this cream puff.

I hugged her so tightly
Time entered suspension;
I came to myself
And she asked my intentions.

“I don’t care if your glasses
Are Coke bottle bottoms
Leave the things on,
as long as you’ve got ‘em.
Remove, if you would,
all your other accoutrements
Your harlequin frames
are a romantic nutriment.

“And then when you’re nekkid,
Except for your specs,
We’ll have wild if blurry
Astigmatist sex.”

Moral:  You never know what will turn a guy on.

From “The Girl With the Cullender on Her Head (and Other Wayward Women)” available in Kindle and print format on amazon.com.

On New Attention Being Paid to Neglected Abstract Expressionists

 

Sorry, but my distinct impression is–
We already have enough abstract expressionists.

There’s no use spelunking in artistic caverns
For the type once rife at the Cedar Tavern.

 

 rothko3

 

I mean, I think if you’ve seen one Rothko
you’ve pretty much seen them all, by gothko.
And as for someone overshadowed by Pollock
It’s a bit late for me to wax hyperbolic.

 

 rothko

 

The problem as I see it with this artistic school
is its foundation was laid by breaking all rules.
Once they’d been shattered into little fragments
There’s no point to re-smashing in different pigments.

 

 rothko1

 

There may be an AbEx I somehow missed out on,
if so, I’ll never know that sleeper.
I just wish I’d bought the well-known Old Masters

when their exorbitant prices were cheaper.

 

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 cost.)  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 2019 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 ten 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 so 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 aethetes 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 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.”


“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 Smuldowney, 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,” Smuldowney 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.”

Ben Jonson’s Ode to a Shopping Mall

               In 1609 Ben Jonson was hired to write a work in celebration of the opening of a new shopping mall.

                                                                 Ben Jonson: A Life, Ian Donaldson

 

Drinke to me, onely, with thine eyes,
And your lids will soon over-runneth;
You’d do better visiting our new Food Court
For a smoothie that’s lots of funneth.

When you’re done and you’ve expanded in size
Down the escalator you should runneth
To the Plus-Size Women’s Clothing Store
(Insert here another punneth.)

Or you could take several yoga classes
At Hatha Helpers, where tuition’s
So low you can pay it without a care–
We’re upscale but not patrician.

Now about those eyes—if you require glasses,
We’ve a resident optician
Who’ll make up specs for you in a flash;
I tell you, they’re truly magicians.

Three Women

women2

I want a girl like Simone Weil.
Built Renaults, and did it with style.
Wait—I know what you’re going to say.
It’s not pronounced “while”, it rhymes with “oy vey!”
Speaking of which, while she was born Jewish–
By the end of her life she was Catholic tooish.
She cut back her rations, didn’t heed fashions
You could take her to lunch for minimal cashion.
I swear, I could sit and read her all day,
this frail philosophe, sounded see-mone vey.

women

I want a girl like Flannery O’Connor—
Drank martinis, no flies on her.
She lived with her mom when she wasn’t at school–
from the looks of her photos she was nobody’s fool.
It’s hard to say which story I like most—
if I had to pick, “The Temple of the Holy Ghost”.
She raised peacocks just for the hell of it
right in her yard, enduring the smell of it.
I read her close, but write no thesis on her—
from Millidgeville, Georgia, Flannery O’Connor.

women1

I wished I had heard when I was a boy
Mary Lou Williams with the Clouds of Joy.
She made a piano a thing that could swing,
when you think about it, a difficult thing.
Not quite as well known as Edward “Duke” Ellington
but among musicians, regarded as wellington.
I had an LP with her picture upon it–
I wore the thing out from playing, doggone it.
I’m still looking round for a CD in lieu
with her deft, gentle touch–Williams, Mary Lou.

Included in the collection “The Girl With the Cullender on Her Head (and Other Wayward Women)” available in Kindle and print format on amazon.com.

The Poetic Embezzlement

Every poet cheats his boss.

–Russian proverb.

 

Into the middle distance
I fix my blankest stare.
I nod my head
at what is said.
My brain is God knows where.

office

“Our revenue’s declining”-
so says our CFO.
I hear the words–
it’s too absurd–
I care not ’bout his dough.

With every idle moment,
My fancy ventures free
spelunking mines
within my mind,
committing vagrancy.

cheat1

My body sits upon its chair
To earn its daily bread.
I’ve picked the lock
while on the clock–
the ghost within has fled.

Too bad we’re not in textiles–
at gathering wool I’m good!
Perhaps like Melville’s Bartleby
I’m just misunderstood.

cheat

The folks down in accounting
can’t figure out what’s wrong.
Lyric’s gain is mammon’s loss
’cause every poet cheats his boss.

 

Previously published in The Poetry Ark