Palely loitering among poets and hacks
O, what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
Alone and palely loitering?...
(from 'La Belle Dame Sans Merci')
This forlorn interrogation by John Keats has always interested me. Not because of what happened to the poor knight, but for the adverbial parsing of pale. I've often tried to do something in a pale manner, but without much success.
Loitering, for instance. Try as I have, my loitering is always brisk and colorful, and folks always say, "But my word! Old fellow! How resplendent you loiter todayly!"
True, Keats was shooting for Palgrave's Golden Treasury, not Reader's Digest. He had to keep his poetic license paid up, whereas my whole poetic career has been loiterly and academically correct.
I was palely loitering just a week ago last Thursday, and when I awoke I dashed this off without a moment's thought:
When Luther nailed them to the
His theses wrought a big uproar!
This caused the people to relate,
And things began to percolate.
When I was small and was learning prosody, there was a syndicated poet named Walt Mason who produced a daily good-cheer message that was used by many newspapers across the nation. It amounted to what, in those days, was known as a "stick-full" of eight-point type, and it was set "run-on," without verse lines, as in Polly-put-the-kettle-on. Printed, it looked like any journeyman prose about the wheat crop in Saskatchewan.
I wondered then about the prolific output of Mr. Mason. He had Eddie Guest licked to a frazzle. His topics were timely, and his daily offering was well-read and much-quoted. I believe it was available from the feature syndicate at 35 cents the week.
Then I found one day that Walt Mason was a composite, and the syndicate had 35 poets working in shifts to compose his stint. Poets always lived in drafty garrets, starving, and here were 35 John Keatses fat in opulence. I think the morning Post used Walt Mason exclusively in Boston, and the public library can find him for you back in the 1920s. No Keats, he, and I think nobody in his poems ever loitered palely.
Much have I, too, traveled in the realms of gold, and I also knew Lowell Foss and Percy Pratt, our hometown Virgil and Homer, who unfortunately influenced me in my formative days.
Lowell was a friendly man, known to all, and was said to have a special gift of automatic meter. He couldn't bid you good morning without bringing in "yawning," "dawning," and "warning" of adverse weather. If he failed to rhyme it was all right to remind him and he'd produce.
One time I asked for a rhyme, and he said, "Aw, I can't tell rhymes all the times!"
But he could, and he did.
I believe there was a school of French poets back along that held a rhyme should be for the eye as well as the ear, and you could match "fool" and "drool" and "school," but not "school" and "rule," as some minor English teacher did with Mary's little lamb, which was a ramb instead of a you. Those French Pindarists should have heard Lowell Foss rhyme his way:
A decent dish of apple
Is very nice to come
Most any apple has
But I like best the Gravenstein.
Now, you take Joyce Kilmer, please do, and wonder, as I frequently have, about the beauty of a bird's nest in your hair, and what was wrong with Lowell Foss?
Lowell was followed in our town, a generation later, by Percy Pratt, who was more like the Sweet Singer of Michigan than Sappho. Percy stood maybe 13 hands high and was a clerk in our post office. He had not composed any significant verse until World War l came along.
When our town boys began to be drafted and sent to far places, Percy started a weekly town letter that he mailed to the boys in service to keep them informed of what was going on back home. He did this in unprincipled verse, outrageous meter, but with love. He knew his town, he knew his people, and from his post office wicket he knew what was going on. And, he found out what every poet needs to know, that everybody's hometown is just like that of everybody else.
Within a month, Percy's weekly sheet of poems had every GI waiting for it. Every soldier in the United States Army suddenly related to Lambert Griffin, who had finished shingling his barn on Bow Street. Percy didn't know a spondee from a misplaced ictus, but he suddenly became the greatest poet in the world and his town was the most important place.
When Shakespeare rhymed "ladies" with "Hades," John Kendrick Bangs objected, saying Shakespeare was big enough to rhyme "ladies" with "bicycle" if he wanted to. Percy was just as big, and he not only could, but often did.
At poetry I'm still a hack,
And if there's more, I'll sure be
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society