I did a very bad thing recently. It was an impulsive moment, but I’ll be dealing with the consequences for a long time. I’m not even sure why I’m writing about it, because it was so incredibly stupid. I just need to clear my conscience, I guess, so here it is: I bought books at a yard sale.
The yard sale part isn’t the problem. I’ve gotten some real bargains, like five bucks for a four-year-old printer/copier/scanner, with a handwritten tag that said “PRINTER STILL WORKS!” (in fact, it didn’t, which I should have guessed from the handwritten note, but it was only five bucks.)
Also got something to nurture my inner foodie–a meat mallet! I never thought I needed one enough to justify buying a new one, but this cost a dollar, fer chrissake! Everything’s worth at least a dollar, isn’t it? OK, in this economy, that’s not saying much. All I know is that I intend to start buying really crappy cuts of meat from now on JUST so I can tenderize them!
No, the problem with this particular yard sale is that I bought books. Eight…eighteen, eighty–I’m not sure, it’s all a blur. I am sure that on a list of All The Things I Need, ‘more books’ would rank below ‘a trampoline’ and ‘some Helen Reddy cassettes.’ I have enough books to last me well into my dotage, which I intend to begin very soon.
During one of my many relocations, a friend who was helping me carry a box of particularly heavy reference books suggested I needed to choose between being transient and being literate. When you’re leaving an apartment on short notice, you tend to travel light. I still have some boxes of books on garage shelves and in basements of friends across the country. I like to think of those as ‘branches’ of my library.
The embarrassing thing about my collection is that, of the 155 books I have managed to keep, I have read exactly 22. Sure, I’ve read parts of several others, but as far as actually reading, you know, cover-to-cover, I’m at slightly over fourteen percent.
The worst example is my ‘fiction section,’ which comprises sixteen novels, of which I’ve read four. Better percentage, but…why did I buy the other twelve? Was I just trying to…impress roommates? Yeah, that’s my copy of The Man in the Iron Mask…How ya like me now? What if I’m nothing but a sham-reader! What if I’m only faux-literate!
I own four books of poetry. “Leaves of Grass,” Sandberg’s “Chicago Poems,” a Langston Hughes anthology, and a collection of Gerard Manley Hopkins.
The Whitman I’ve travelled with every time I’ve moved, because it’s the perfect celebration of the sensual in nature, resonant with generations of bohemians, and because it’s under a hundred-fifty pages in paperback so it doesn’t take up much space.
I love the city of Chicago, and so I had to buy the Sandberg poems, which I’m told are quite good. The Langston Hughes I bought from a gorgeous woman in San Francisco, who, despite several minutes of what I thought was flirty banter over the bargain racks at City Lights, somehow decided not to sleep with me.
The Hopkins book is from last week’s sale, but unlike the rest of my poetry section, I bought it for a good reason. See, I spent thousands of dollars of scholarship money at U.C.L.A. to pursue an English degree (‘pursued,’ as in I didn’t quite catch up to it).
During that time I was force-fed thousands of pages of classic literature, and I remember maybe eight or nine things. One of those things is that Gerard Manley Hopkins created a style called ‘sprung rhythm.’ I don’t remember what ‘sprung rhythm’ is, but here was a chance to have a whole bookful of it. Don’t know when I’ll get around to reading “That Nature is a Heraclitean fire and of the comfort of the Resurrection,” but it’s good to know I have that option.
I think I’ve always admired poetry from a distance–a little intimidated by it. Poetry seemed to me like that girl in high school–you knew you were smart enough for her, but she always acted a little out of your league, and you never really understood what she was going on about.
It doesn’t help that I’ve had some tragic poetry experiences. I was at the coffeehouse that served as my office in my thirties, and found out, to the squeal of microphone feedback, that a poetry slam was about to start. I saw some notice on the door about a ‘poetry reading,’ but nowhere on it did they explain that people would be reading the shit out loud.
The stage being next to the only door, there was no way to leave discreetly, and I was forced to endure an hour of really loud, angry, soul-purging verse, most of it, as I recall, about how I’ve personally used my gender and race to oppress and torture. Afterwards, I felt so overwhelmed with privilege and guilt that, to make amends, I wrote a loud, angry, soul-purging poem. Good times.
As much of a romantic as I fancy myself, I’ve never been inspired to write a poem to win someone’s affection. The math is simple–
- Poetry is usually either loved or hated. Not too many people who read poetry are on the fence.
- If I write a poem and give it to someone who loves poetry, they will compare it to really good poems they’ve read.
- If I write a poem and give it to someone who hates poetry, well–they hate poetry. Therefore…
- Giving poetry to someone is a bad idea. Q.E.D.
I’m not even sure what poetry is. It has a defined structure, except when it doesn’t. It rhymes, except when it doesn’t. It’s broken up into verses…sometimes, and uses figurative language and metaphor, unless it’s concrete. Maybe it’s one of those things that’s makes more sense when you’re more mature, like jazz, or baseball. I’ve unfortunately just given Ken Burns an idea for another ten-hour series–‘Ken Burns’ Poetry’. Combine poetry with PBS, throw in some still photographs, and you might actually be able to stop time entirely.
Funny, I’ve always been able to appreciate the poetry in song lyrics, and short stories, and I’ve even described films as ‘poetic.’ The one art form whose poetry has eluded me, is poetry. My stepdad liked exactly one poet–Robert W. Service. Known as “Bard of the Yukon” (I’m sure that was a hotly contested title), Service wrote, well, serviceable poems about cowboys–here’s a sample, from “The Cremation of Sam McGee,” which may not be a great poem, but could be a good John Carpenter movie:
There are strange things done in the midnight sun,
by the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold…
As a country we don’t pay much attention to poetry. There’s a Poet Laureate–unelected, I might add, like the judges on ‘American Idol,’ or Chairman of the Federal Reserve. It’s my understanding that the Poet Laureate supervises all of the sub-laureate poets, assigning them subjects (“I need five hundred words about autumn on my desk by Monday–and they’d better be elegiac!”) but I could be wrong.
I say, screw the ceremonial, let’s have a Cabinet-level poet. The Secretary of Verse could sit in on diplomatic crises, and offer the perfect simile to explain every situation, or head a task force on metaphor. Then kids would have more inspiration to pursue the lucrative career of poetry, knowing that someday it could bring them to the inner circles of power.
There’s probably a limit to how up-to-date poetry should try to be. I’m pretty sure there’s no good reason for there to be a Twitter account called PoetryNews, promising “daily poetry news,” because things don’t really move that fast in the world of poetry. Poetry seems to be on more of a 24 year news cycle. Very little ‘breaking news.’
Of the poetry I’ve read, the only one that really kicked me in the solar plexus, that made me want more poetry, was Ginsburg’s “Howl.” This was a poem that I felt, that I tasted. And it was the first poem I’d read that didn’t smell like used bookstores and freshman year backpacks.
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by
madness, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn
looking for an angry fix…
If more poetry were this vital and felt less like ‘required reading,’ more kids would read poetry. Period. Far as I’m concerned, if schools started teaching poetry with Ginsburg instead of Milton, kids would be trampling each other to get to the library. Me, I’ve got a lot of reading to catch up on.