by Con Chapman

Nyla Matuk and I have a few things in common; we are both poets (or in my case, claim to be), and we both know what sumptuary laws are, she having written a book of poems using that term as its title.  Me?  I wrote a white paper comparing sales taxes to such laws, which regulated what people could buy–down to the ribbons on their hatbands–according to their social class from ancient Greece to colonial America.  (I’ll let you decide which work you’d prefer to curl up with by the fireside.)

There, however, the resemblances end.  She is a more-than-moderately bodacious woman, and I am the opposite of those two predicates.  And she, according to a quote that pops up in my Twitter feed on @AdviceToWriters, “strangely enough” had “excellent high school English teachers” who taught her “to love poetry.”

That “strangely enough” is telling, because my experience in the American secondary–and primary!–education system was vastly different; through some unseen hand of lyrical fate, I was repeatedly placed under the tutelage of teachers who used poetry as punishment, if not outright torture.  As a result I ought now to hate poetry the way a man exiled to the Russian gulag despises black bread and porridge.  That I don’t represents a triumph of the human spirit over the storm troopers of the poetry-industrial complex.

My tale of woe begins in the third grade.  Our teacher instructed the class to write a poem as an English assignment.  The next day, a majority–but by no means all–of the girls handed in their work, the laggards being potential candidates for adolescent rebellion, teen pregnancy and the County Home for Depraved Women.  Of the boys in the class, only one turned in a poem.

Me.

The teacher fumed at the mass disobedience and, in a sentence whose injustice rivaled King Herod’s massacre of the innocents, she ordered everyone to write a poem and turn it in the next day.  Had there been a budding Clarence Darrow in the class he or she would have pointed out that the sentence was overbroad; by requiring everyone to write a poem, she was punishing those who weren’t guilty, but she was so angry that no one–including me–dared brook her unreasoning penal code.

As the lone male in the class willing to try his hand at poetry, I became the object of scorn, and worse.  Our playground basketball goal was attached to a brick wall, with no room out-of-bounds, making flagrant fouls on those driving in for a layup fraught with peril.  After a few instances of blunt trauma to the head that made me forget several of my favorite fractions, I limped inside to contemplate the unfairness of the world I lived in.
There, I formed a resolution to retaliate against the teacher who refused to recognize the effort I’d put into the first poem in my life; I decided to steal someone else’s poem, thereby taking my first step on the road to poetic glory.  As I would later learn, none other than T.S. Eliot had said “Good poets borrow, great poets steal.”
I pulled an anthology of poetry from the class library shelves and flipped through it until I found a verse so simple it might have been written by the pen of a third-grader.  The one I lit upon was Christina Rossetti’s “Who Has Seen the Wind?” whose first verse goes as follows:

Who has seen the wind?
Neither I nor you:
But when the leaves hang trembling,
The wind is passing through.

Using my poetic license learner’s permit, I transmuted this gem into a stone of lesser luster:

Who has seen the wind?
Neither you nor me:
But when the wind is blowing,
The leaves shake on the tree.

When I read this counterfeit aloud the teacher’s face screwed up into an expression of skeptical distaste, but her knowledge of poetry wasn’t so encyclopedic as to bring the object of my plagiarism quickly to her consciousness.  Like a night rider through the prairie town I grew up in when it was located on the nation’s frontier a century before, she passed on.

Following that narrow escape from poetry incarceration I was free for a decade until my junior year in high school.  As punishment for a class-wide violation of some breach of decorum that isn’t even a misdemeanor in most states, Miss Mitchell imposed a sentence whose punitive aspect is still a model for ayatollahs around the world; memorize two hundred lines of poetry–over spring vacation!

And so I was frog-marched into poetry prison, like some white-collar criminal with his hands cuffed behind his back; force-fed iambic pentameter, and then compelled to regurgitate it upon my return to school. At some point I took on the character of a Quisling; that is, an exemplar of Vidkun Abraham Lauritz Jonnsøn Quisling, the Norwegian politician who headed Norway’s government during the Nazi occupation of World War II, and whose name has become a metonym for one who collaborates with an enemy.  I suffered under the yoke of poetry, but it was getting to the point where I kinda sorta didn’t mind the stuff.

I didn’t actually read much poetry, and I didn’t write any except in jest, including a couplet I carved into my desk my senior year in high school, an ode to a homely sociology teacher named “Dorcas Doering” (pronounced “DEER-ing”), a couplet of which went as follows:

A Dorcas by any other name
would be much more en-doering.

In college I wrote only four lines of poetry, and not on foolscap but on the wall of a library conference room where someone had left a stack of chapbooks, presumably as sources for a heavily-footnoted term paper.  The wall is still there, but the poem was painted over at some point, perhaps by the author of that paper who feared it would be discovered and included in an anthology, taking precedence over his, her or its work.  It was not, so I reproduce it here:

Oh how I wish
I could write like the Bard
So that I might win
Yale’s Younger Poet Award.

After college, poetry would sometimes insinuate itself into my brain through external stimuli, such as the lapidary lines that I helpfully titled “Thoughts on Waking After Spending the Night in a Kosher Vegetarian Commune.”  No deceptive advertising there, as you can see from l’oeuvre its own bad self:

This is kosher, this is trayfe,
One unclean, the other safe.
All day long we work and slafe
Keeping kosher from the trayfe.

From time to time I would recall a line from Yeats or Auden that I’d read in freshman Humanities class in college.  At one point I found myself deep within the stacks of a library in graduate school studying something other than poetry, and jotted down–on the wall next to my carrel–some lines of Yeats that I misattributed to Auden.  When I returned to my favorite study spot the next day I found that someone had corrected my faulty memory with a critical graffito that dripped with contempt.  I realized it was time to get serious; poetry, like football, is a game that can’t be played at half-speed.

The problem is that I’m no good at serious poetry, which has been in fashion for so long it’s a wonder it hasn’t gone out of fashion.  The poetry I wanted to write was the kind you saw on the Burma-Shave signs that dotted the highways of my youth.  Burma-Shave was a brand of shaving cream known for its advertising gimmick of posting poems on small roadside signs.  As Mom, Dad, Sis and Junior drove by in their De-Luxe Dyna-Flow, the mystery of these poems would unfold in sequence, building suspense for the final line, which was also the punch-line of a joke. Deathless rhymes such as:

Hardly a driver
Is now alive
Who passed
On hills
At 75.

So instead of poring over Greek and Latin verse under the gimlet gaze of a pedophile professor in an English boarding school, I learned poetry on the open roads of the US of A, free from gloomy critical theories and close attention to trochees and spondees.  If my poetry suffers by comparison to those who benefitted from rigorous training in high-toned prep schools of the sort depicted in the Robin Williams’ film Dead Poets Society, that’s okay by me.

Because as my model Ogden Nash put it, I’d rather be a good bad poet than a bad good poet.

 

Con Chapman once sold a poem for $40. He is currently writing a biography of Johnny Hodges, Duke Ellington’s long-time alto saxophonist, for Oxford University Press.

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9 Responses

  1. James A. Tweedie

    Hilarious!

    Aside from eliciting laughter, this essay convicted me of having having erred my whole life in imagining that the phrase “pore over” was to be rendered “pour over.” My only hope and comfort in this matter is to remind myself that the Roman Papacy no longer dangles the threat of Purgatory over my head. I trust that this public acknowledgment of my sin will count as an effective and heartfelt expression of confession and repentance. Te absolvo.

    Con’s cogent commentary on his remembrance of things past also recalls Proust’s pithy bromide that “It is better to have tongue in cheek than to have foot in mouth.” (or was it Yeats?)

    Reply
  2. Amy Foreman

    Delightfully witty and irreverent (to “the storm troopers of the poetry-industrial complex”), Con! I am reminded of the blank look I received from a self-absorbed “serious poetry” scholar and teacher’s wife, when I mentioned enjoying Edgar Guest’s light, rollicking, sometimes sentimental verse. The message seemed to be, “If it’s FUN, then it must not be real poetry!” Any primary teacher who lives and teaches his/her young charges by such a gloomy maxim ought to do everyone a favor and find a different line of work!

    I agree with you and Ogden, ” I’d rather be a good bad poet than a bad good poet.”

    Thanks for the chuckles!

    Reply
    • Joseph S. Salemi

      You’re quite right, Ms. Foreman. A deeply rooted assumption in mainstream critical thinking about poetry is the one that separates “serious” verse from what is disparagingly called “light” verse. The assumption is strongly linked to modernist habits of thought, which tend to be self-important and self-congratulatory.

      It is what lies behind the almost universal belief (held by both mainstream critics and much of the general populace) that a poem must be lofty, gaseous, profound, inspiring, earnest, and packed with important sociopolitical meaning that will improve the world and the human condition.

      Any poem that doesn’t take this tack is dismissed as unimportant doggerel.

      Reply
  3. J. Simon Harris

    This is a very witty, funny, and truthful essay. Those who can’t appreciate Ogden Nash should re-evaluate themselves; he’s the best “bad” poet I know. And the poems scattered throughout the essay really conjure up Mr. Nash, for me. I love that they were carved into desks and written on walls; poetry is the best kind of vandalism! As to the critic who corrected your misattributed quote on the library wall: I’ve seen a whole back-and-forth graffiti conversation on a bathroom wall at NC State University, where I’m currently working. I found it humorous, although I didn’t contribute to the discussion. Anyway, thanks for this essay. I hope your brand of humorous poetry becomes fashionable again.

    Reply
  4. C.B. Anderson

    Apparently, everyone else here looks at their inbox much earlier than I do. Yes, it’s very funny, but sad at the same time. It causes me to wonder how much my high school English teachers really loved the subject they taught. As the recipient, upon graduation, of my high school English award, I wonder why it took me another thirty-five years before I wrote another poem. I ain’t scared no more.

    Reply
  5. Con Chapman

    Thanks all. I realize after I sent this in that I left out one painful encounter with poetry, which in retrospect I must have repressed: I had to recite Frost’s “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening” over and over in speech therapy. The theory at the time was that the rhythm of poetry would help youthful stutterers improve their fluency.

    Reply
    • Amy Foreman

      Ugh, Con . . . did you give your “harness bells a shake, to ask if there was some mistake?” I enjoy Robert Frost, but any poem, thrust upon a child over and over for speech therapy, would get old fast! When my daughter was quite young, she took a liking to that very poem, and would quote it for fun, but I think she would have felt differently if I had made reciting it a requirement.

      But now I’m curious . . . Did reciting it improve your speech?

      Reply
      • Con Chapman

        No, that speech therapist wasn’t much help. I eventually learned self-hypnosis, and through that overcame it.

        But I have no hard feelings about the poem.

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