He's a Poet, But They Don't Know It
As I recently reported with zealous accuracy. I lately took up poetry as a nonprofit amusement. It has been a great pleasure to me and has stimulated some meditations of high quality. To show the eager masses how I've been doing with the wing-ed word, I offer a joyful sample:
Now shed a tear for Tiger McTeague,
who wanted to play in a major league.
He tried out first with the Braves and Cubs,
and then with other baseball clubs.
The kid was good; he could field and hit,
but they turned him down: He couldn't spit.
The reason for returning to this scholarly subject is that while exposing myself to the beauties of well-composed verse I began to wonder how the rhyme-grinding trade is doing nowadays and if the poet's lot is a happy one. That is, could a Shelley or a Dante make a fast buck in these computerized times, and is there anybody except me banging the old lyre at what the sports announcers call "right now"? This came to consume me, and I began waking up at night with starving sonneteers on my otherwise able mind.
Traditionally, the poet lives in a drafty garret, beset by either savage indignation or recollected tranquility, and his spondees are wrought in hunger and despair, polished by frustration and deprivation. How goes it now?
I like to think on Coleridge, while he was writing "Xanadu." His fingers blue from attic chill, his breath a-steam and his larder meager, he rises at last from the pickle crate he uses for an critoire, wraps his tattered shawl closer, and walks down the front stairs to cross the street and rap on a door.
The shabby scene brightens when the door opens and William Wordsworth peeps out, a quill pen behind his ear. "Why," he says, "as I live and breathe! Sam, old boy, how are you? Come in, come in!"
What a golden treat to live kitty-corner to Bill Wordsworth! What glory, no matter who you are, to live next to Sam Coleridge!
So Bill says, "I say, old top, you look bedraggled. What prevails?"
"I'm stuck, Bill, just plain stuck. I've got this money-dangling king off down the Alph River and he's building a new high school gym and I'm stuck for a rhyme with 'ferrous cement.' Stuck, stuck, stuck! Please help me, Bill!"
This may not be exactly the way it was, but my alterations are merely to adjust things to the passage of time. The cheap lodgings are the same for Sappho and the Sweet Singer of Michigan, for Horace and Catullus, for Shakespeare and Walt Whitman.
So, wondering about the market for verses today, I got the telephone number of a New York literary agency and dialed with chubby finger.
Immediately a warm voice of - undoubtedly - a superior female told me I had reached Shagnasty & Glooply, Literary Agents, and asked if she might be of help. I introduced myself in the usual manner, and to emphasize this was a toll call I said I was at the pulpwood peeling parlors of Joe-Pete LaTouche in Township 13, Range Letter W. I said I would like to speak to somebody familiar with the present posture of the attic poet in today's prosaic but preserved environment.
She said, "What'd you say?"
We were off to a good start.
I explained that I had their number from a small-engine mechanic in Skowhegan who writes Valentines for Hallmark, and I was merely seeking information that might lead to friendly words in a certain newspaper I will not mention by name at this moment. She said, "To whom did you wish to speak?"
WE poets are not necessarily short-tempered by trade unless we decide to make an exception, and I already knew I would get little help from Shagnasty & Glooply. I said I would like to speak to Mr. Chaucer if he had a moment. I report this sequence:
"We have no one here by that name."
"Geoffrey, the poet."
"There must be some mistake."
"I think probably. Do you expect him soon?"
"Who?" The voice then said, "What you have to do ...."
To which I made reply in this exceedingly pleasant fashion: "I am elderly and I don't have to do anything."
"We never confer with applicants until they have been evaluated."
My reply, I believe, was in context. I said, "What's that got to do with Geoffrey Chaucer?"
What she wanted me to do was go to another office of Shagnasty & Glooply where they would look over my poetry and decide if I had talent, and if so they would give me an appointment with somebody whose name I didn't catch. I never reached Mr. Chaucer and Shagnasty & Glooply had never heard of him.
Being "evaluated" by somebody in New York sounds as if it might be a lot of innocent fun, but there is no need of it. Fred Tucker, who goes to work every morning at the spool mill, looked at my incipient chapbook and evaluated as follows: "If you murder somebody, you can prove legal insanity." Fred is often right, although the spool mill went out of business 30 years ago. Better still, I was evaluated in Boston by acknowledged experts just 56 years ago, and that's good enough for me.