Fear of poetry

July 7, 2020 § 6 Comments

If you want to scare people, tell them that you would like to recite a poem. It’s worse than telling them you’d like to sing them a song, or telling them you’d like to show them an album of your drawings.

Offering up something artistic or performancey uninvited is like an unattractive stranger saying “Hey, I’d like to take off my clothes and show you some stuff.” It’s almost criminal.

How did it get to be this way?

After (maybe) music, poems are the oldest form of art. In English, prose literature didn’t even come into being until, arguably, 1719, with the publication of Robinson Crusoe. Before that, the person who wrote about life and love was the poet.

Nowadays, of course, poets are strangely unfavorable people, never invited to the great feasts to recount an epic of love or war, never first (or even last) at the betrothal to speak a few stanzas from memory, rather they are oddball sorts somehow chained to an outdated thing called “poetry” that few understand, few read, fewer write, and fewest of all recite.

Yet poetry somehow soldiers on, clutching at the hearts and minds of people when they least expect it, like the time in a coffeeshop in Ventura when a cycling buddy recited a poem of Lord Byron’s that he’d learned by heart in high school. He claimed that he had learned it to “impress the girls,” but since I wasn’t a girl and since the days of being single were for him decades in the past, I was unconvinced, particularly as I listened to the cadence, inflection, and feeling with which he spoke.

In my own case, as I slowly close in on being able to recite the first 3,800 lines from the Canterbury Tales, it occurs to me that only two people have ever actually asked me to recite any of it. One is a friend; the other was a stranger who invited a recitation but made sure I knew that “just a minute or so” would be enough.

As Manslaughter put it, “Really looking forward to hearing something I can’t understand.” Which is a good point.

On the other hand, with poetry you don’t really know what you’re going to understand until you hear it. The things you might think are opaque can be brilliantly clear. The things you might think you know might be swirling, dark enigmas. This is in fact all, in my opinion, that poetry really is: Putting the best words to the right feelings.

In this way, all cyclists are more or less poets because bicycling is putting the best actions to the right feelings. Whether you’re stomping out your aggression, lazily wending a happy and carefree way, thoughtfully threading a cross-country course, or necessarily pedaling to the grocery store to quell a hunger, cycling has always been described as poetry in motion, not because the motion is always graceful, but because the motion always seeks to match itself to the way you feel.

But don’t worry. I’m not going to ask you to listen to my recitation the next time we cross paths on the bike simply because I’m a poet and you’re a poet. Unless, of course, you have five hours or so to spare …


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One Chaucer at a time, or A Tale of Two Cities

June 15, 2020 § 7 Comments

On Saturday I rode down to Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade to do a Chaucer recitation. This would have been my first one since the covids closed everything down.

Pedaling through the city was surreal. It was a sunny, beautiful, cool summer afternoon and the place was empty. When I got to the Promenade, around 11:00, it was whatever is emptier than empty. I’m not kidding.

There were maybe a dozen people in three blocks. A lone guy was setting up his guitar and amp. “Are they still allowing street performances?” I asked.

“Who the fuck cares?” he snarled.

“Just curious,” I said.

“If they don’t like it they can tell me to leave or throw me in jail and confiscate my shit. Fuck ’em.”

I nodded. There were great swaths of that sentiment I shared. Still, today seemed like much too pretty a day to spend behind bars, so I sauntered along, looking at the boarded up stores. “Property and things,” I told myself. “That’s what makes America go ’round.”

I passed four old men in lawn chairs under a tree. “Wonder what they’re doing?” Then I thought about the old men who used to sit at Pearson’s Rexall Drug Store in Daingerfield when I was a boy. They sat there every morning from 7-8, drank coffee, caught up on all the gossip from the day before, then went home and shared it with their wives, who then broadcast it all over town via telephone.

One thing about four old men sitting under a tree, if I knew anything about old men, is they wouldn’t mind talking to someone new. So I turned around and walked over. “What are you guys doing?” I asked.

“We’re sitting here talking,” the oldest guy said. “Are you one of us?”

“Not yet but I’m working on it.” I had taken off my sunglasses, which are prescription, so I couldn’t see anything except talking blobs.

“No time like the present,” said the nearest guy. “Here,” he said, offering me a big blue book. “Take it. It’s yours.”

“No, thanks,” I said, and tried to refuse the proffered bible politely. I wasn’t going to become Christian on such a pretty day. It was awkward, though. Then the oldest guy started talking and I put my glasses back on. That’s when my eyes focused and I saw that they all had the same big blue book, and it wasn’t the St. James Bible, but rather AA’s Big Blue Book.

“Oh, hell yes,” I said. “I’m for sure one of you.” They all smiled big again and asked me for my story, like that part in Alice’s Restaurant where Arlo tells his fellow jailmates that he was arrested for littering, and they all moved away, and then he adds “and making a general nuisance,” and they all moved back again. I told them a few bits and pieces and then we chatted about other stuff.

“What you got in the backpack?” A big rolled poster was sticking out.

“Something no one here’s ever seen before.”

“Show us, then!” They were excited now. Old guys have seen everything, and the best thing about being told you’ve never seen something before is that you either get to say, “Oh, hell, I’ve got two of those in the garage,” or you get to say, “Well, I’ll be damned.”

I took it out and unrolled my giant Chaucer Recitation in Middle English vinyl banner. It was my turn to be surprised. They all knew who Chaucer was and were excited, genuinely excited, about my vanity project. “How much of it can you recite?” the guy nearest me asked.

“Right now I’m up to about 3,200 lines. Takes about five or six hours.”

“Oh gosh,” he said. “Let’s hear it. But not all six hours, if you please.”

“Yeah,” another guy said. “We could probably do with just a minute or so.”

I let loose. What with the Promenade being empty, the boarded up storefronts created a kind of sound tunnel, and the words boomed pretty big. The handful of people on the Promenade stopped to listen, which tells you how empty and devoid of anything to see the place really was. Anytime Chaucer wins out over the Apple Store, something is wrong in paradise.

They invited me to one of their meetings before we parted, and I said I might come, although that type of fellowship has never exactly been my thing. Trying can’t hurt, I guess.

The next day I rode down to the pier at Redondo Beach, and let’s just say it was … different.

The covids were every bit as active in RB as in SaMo, but the people in Redondo weren’t scared of no covids. The beaches were thronged and the pier was packed. “People are so over the covids,” a friend had said.

I wondered what he meant. How do you get over a covid unless you get sick from it and recover? I think he meant that people have priced in the risk of getting bitten by a covid (high), the risk of getting sick from the covid bite (moderate), and then the risk of having them write “Murdered by the Covids” on your death certificate–low.

They then compare that combined risk, which they get by listening to Fox News, and compare it with the risk of going stark raving mad at having to stay home without football. That risk? Very close to 100%. So they do the logical thing, which is go to the Redondo Pier, eat junk food and get drunk. People are a lot of things, but they are not irrational.

I parked my bike on the pier, cleared out a little space, and belted out the first part of the General Prologue, up to the end of the Franklin’s introduction. Took about 40 minutes. I had to quit because my voice was giving out. Turns out that speaking at top volume for that long is, um, hard. But what was amazing is how many people stopped to listen. Of course people will stop to look at a car wreck too, and I must admit that there were a few, ah, shall we say, distractions that helped them focus on something other than the unintelligible Middle English gibberish, but even so, Chaucer would have been pleased to see that people in the 21st Century were appreciating his poetry in their own way, washed down as it was with deep-fried rat tails and beer.

I got home and started reading about voice care. The first thing I learned is that although the leg bone is connected to the shin bone, mostly none of it is connected to the larynx. Maybe that’s why the covids haven’t gotten to it yet. That’s what I’m hoping, anyway.


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Vanity project

March 7, 2020 § 17 Comments

When I got the invoice, Greg said, “It’s a bit pricey for a vanity project.”

Actually, it wasn’t. It was the bargain of the century. Greg Leibert had designed from scratch, then hand-drawn, then created with his own calligraphy, then integrated my text with his own artwork to make this amazingly wonderful brochure:

Of course the words lingered, “Vanity project.” Ouch! And it reminded of a dig that Patrick Brady once sent my way, “Sadder than a self-published book.” This was shortly after I’d … self-published a book.

But then I thought about it a bit, and this piece of wisdom from the Book of Ecclesiastes popped into my head: “All is vanity.”

If you think about it, the rest of the passage sums up, well, everything:

What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun?
One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever.
The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose.
The wind goeth toward the south, and turneth about unto the north; it whirleth about continually, and the wind returneth again according to his circuits.
All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full; unto the place from whence the rivers come, thither they return again.
All things are full of labour; man cannot utter it: the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing.
The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.
10 Is there any thing whereof it may be said, See, this is new? it hath been already of old time, which was before us.
11 There is no remembrance of former things; neither shall there be any remembrance of things that are to come with those that shall come after.

King James Version

In other words, life is a vanity project, so I suppose the questions are 1) Is it meaningful to you? 2) Does it harm anyone?

If the answers are “Yes” and “No,” I figure you’re good, and if the artwork is great and the price is right, well, so much the better.


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