Of course you’ll want to know how I established my reputation as a poet. How I found my voice, and acquired my audience. But let me recite you one of my poems. What’s that? You’d like to hear my story first? Okay, I’ll do some poems for you later.
I’ve been reading and writing poetry ever since fourth grade. When I was a kid, I read everything by Dr. Seuss. In high school I started reading all the important poets of the English language, Rudyard Kipling, Edward Lear, Ogden Nash. Kipling won the Nobel Prize, you know. Ogden Nash didn’t, but he must have come close.
I wrote a poem for my first girl friend. It started,
Agnes, thy very name discloses
The gleam of candles, and the scent of roses.
But she didn’t have my commitment to poetry. She complained she could never get a word in edgeways. My next girl friend was named Tracy.
Tracy, thy very name discloses
The gleam of candles, and the scent of roses.
But when I did this for the third time, the girls got together, and after that no one would go out with me.
I believe the artist has an obligation to share his work. That’s my life’s mission, to spread poetry in the world. I’m a poetic Johnny Appleseed. When I was seventeen, I joined a poetry group in my home town. It used to meet at the public library. I went along and took my manuscript. It was already over seven hundred pages. I read quite a few of my poems. But the strange thing was, the next week when I went, there was no one there. I think they must have been intimidated by the quality of my work.
When it came time for me to find employment, I looked for a job that would allow me to practice my craft. I joined the Post Office as a letter carrier. It was perfect, because I could invent poems on my rounds. If I had to deliver a package or a registered letter, I’d often greet the person at the door with a couplet, like
I’ve come to the door of your castle
To give you this special delivery parcel.
You have to pronounce castle in the English way, which makes sense because they have castles over there and we don’t.
Not everyone appreciated my work. Some people complained about the verses I’d written on the back of envelopes they received. Lack of appreciation is a big problem for us poets. When I was laid off by the Post Office, I decided to devote myself full time to my art.
I’ve never had much problem writing poetry. Finding my audience was more difficult. Some Saturday evenings I’d read at the open mike sessions at one of the coffee houses. The other poets would mostly be listened to in silence, but when I used to read, people got quite excited. Some began throwing things. That confirmed my belief that good poetry is revolutionary.
The big discouragement for many young poets is publication. I’d send my stuff out, and back it would come again. Even when I sent editors sixty or seventy poems, all carefully hand-written. I got some nice rejection slips, though. Sometimes editors would complement me on my poems. One even said they were execrable. So I didn’t let rejection bother me, after all, you can tell what poor taste editors have by looking at the rubbish they publish. Hey, I think there’s a poem there, excuse me while I make a little note.
That was when I decided to take my poetry directly to the public. Kind of like a wandering troubadour. I took a bunch of poems downtown, and stood on the street and read them. The police came and told me to get away from outside City Hall, so I went down to the park where an evangelist was preaching, and every time he stopped I’d read one of my poems. When no one was looking, he hit me with his Bible. So I moved over to the other side of the park. I pinned some of my poems on a tree, for a quarter each. No one bought any, and not many people stopped to listen, except two social work students who were doing a survey of the homeless. So then I made a slot in the top of a juice can, and stuck a label on it, saying Great Poetry Support Fund, and sure enough quite a few people put coins in.
My family of origin? You mean my folks? Well, no, they weren’t all that supportive. My Dad said, “If he doesn’t stop reciting that gibberish around the house, I’m either going to slit my throat or his.” So I moved to a flop house and grew a beard like Walt Whitman.
By this time, I knew many of my own poems by heart. So if I was on a bus I could entertain the person next to me, or all the passengers. In some cities the buses and subways have poetry up in place of ads, but we’re not as advanced here, and sometimes the drivers would get real sore and throw me off the bus.
It’s too bad that our society has lost the taste for poetry. Perhaps you know the poem I wrote about that, it’s the one with the lines
All the time they are fewer and fewer
Those who love poetry and literature…
The other problem is people’s attention span. They’ve lost the art of listening. But it’s like with children, we don’t always give them a choice. So I’d block people’s way, or grab them by the arm until they’d heard a poem right through. I got punched out once or twice, but what the hell.
By now I was sleeping in a dumpster behind a liquor store. It wasn’t too bad. The dumpster was filled with cardboard, which made a comfortable bed, and on cool nights I could burrow down into it. I was dropping off one night, with a half-written poem in my mind. It was a tough one. You think there’s no word that rhymes with dumpster, don’t you? Wrong!
I’m wholly at peace, right here in my dumpster
My heart doesn’t bump, nor does it jump, sir.
That’s what we call para-rhyme.
I was wakened from my poetic reverie by the sound of shots. I kept out of sight, and a moment later, someone ran past the dumpster, and something hit me on the head. Police cruisers converged on the liquor store. After the police had gone, I found the gun the robber had thrown away as he ran past.
The next few months were the glory days. The high point of my poetic career. I’d walk around town in the evenings, and if I encountered a person on their own, I’d pull my gun—of course, I’d taken the bullets out--and say, “Excuse me a moment.” I’d tell them I wasn’t going to rob or rape them, I just wanted them to listen to a poem. They were so grateful. They’d cry sometimes, when they heard my poems. Especially the women. One lady even fainted halfway through a poem. That’s a real compliment. Mind you, it was a sonnet.
Then, after I’d done about a dozen performances, I stopped a man on the street. It was evening, what we call the gloaming. He looked like the kind of guy who would appreciate a man’s poem. So I started one of my cowboy odes.
My buddy Jim has fists like rocks
He stands six seven in his socks…
Well, this uncultured fellow grabbed my gun. Broke my finger. He was a private detective, and he turned me in.
I know you’re dying to hear some of my poems. I’ll get to them in a moment.
At the station, they charged me with felony assault. I was locked up overnight in the drunk tank. About twenty other guys there. I’ve never felt more keenly my responsibility as an ambassador for poetry. I stood on the toilet and began to recite. They knocked me off and jumped on me. The guards came and put me in a private cell. Great place for writing, but I had to memorize it all because they wouldn’t let me have a pen.
I’d never been in court before, but I knew judges were educated men. So I decided to conduct my own defense, and I wrote it out in verse. I talked about all the poets in the past who had been persecuted for their art. Dante. Oscar Wilde. Ezra Pound. The whole audience listened politely, and they had a steno typist taking down every word. I wasn’t able to deliver it all, because the judge stopped me after about a dozen lines. They’re busy people, judges. I promised I’d mail him the rest of the poem.
Well, the upshot was they sent me here. And you know what? I’ve found a new dimension to my vocation. Poetry therapy. Some of the people here are very good listeners. I think of myself as the poet laureate of the place. Anyway, let me read the poem I’ve dedicated to you, doctor.
When in your bonnet hums a bee
Think about psychiatry—
What’s that? The hour’s up? Well, I’ll bring it next week. Tell you what, I’ll write it out specially. It will look real good framed, next to your diploma on the wall.
Visit my other web site at www.theimpossibletakeslonger.com .