What the Hell Is a Poet?
I grew up with a poet. She wrote poetry in her bed. She had had two books of poetry published by the time I was born. I didn't like poetry. To me it was something school forced me to memorize and stand like a fool and attempt to recite. An episodic adventure in my case that inevitably ended up with me choking due to stage fright and then feigning insanity as I hub-doubled my way up the miserable hill of whatever dainty verse it was I was supposed to be reciting until the angered teacher slammed me back into my seat with a public scolding and then with a real bitch-or-rat-bastard flourish add an F by my dishonored name in her gradebook. I liked limericks, yes I did, and the more popular ones of the day I could spout back at you in perfect remembrance on stage out behind the proverbial woodshed. Truth is, I didn't really know limericks were poetry at that time, but I knew instinctively how to memorize them. I wasn't interested enough in poetry to want to study it or even wonder what it really was and where it came from.
And, like I say, I grew up with a poet. She lived with us, in her own apartment attached to the back of our house. She planted gardens, too. She had been a florist at one time in her hardtack life and she saw huge beauty and thrills in flowers, especially peonies, large mummish-headed flowers that come on quiet palettes of pastel colors. Her favorite color for peonies was white. But for irises, it was cobalt blue. Her flowers grew bigger than ordinary flowers because she talked to them, my mother told me. "She recites her poems to the flowers. As a poet, she is very close to her flowers and she says they whisper poetry in her ears." Those colossal flowers were symbols of miraculous expression to her, growing as they do from seeds you shoot in a tight deep hole in a moistened earth where they meet in that earth's womb and begin to grow into those flowers I could see out there in my grandmother's garden as I peered at her from behind my honeysuckle vine fortress just outside my bedroom window on a trellis of white holding-hand crosses now literally python-wrapped around by the strong and lustrously blowing up honeysuckle vine.
My grandmother would take her little stool, sit on it, then take her handheld gardening tool, dig a small hole, scrape the dark earth up into a tiny hill, then suddenly poke her middle finger of her right hand deep into that little mound, and as soon as that finger slid out, her left hand shot the seeds deep into the mound's wide open hole, which she then quickly with a two-hand movement closed and patted slightly down, to hop up and then sprinkle that mound, as if a god, with water from her watering can. Sometimes she would stop in the middle of gardening and take a dirty notebook from her gardening apron pocket and write, for what seemed to a kid like me a dragging-on-and-on of minute after minute. Everytime I looked up she was still writing madly in that dirty little notebook. Then you would hear her typing away during the afternoons as she sat at her L.C. Smith typewriter that sat gothically on her old mahogany desk she had facing abrupt to her picture window so she could look straight into her passionate garden with its cheering bed of flowers and its guestlist of hummingbirds, bottle flies, dragonflies, butterflies, sparrows, chicadees...my grandmother even knew and loved the bugs in her garden.
One day I learned in school about an alexandrine--and even today I still remember that an alexandrine was a type of poem some oldtimer wrote honoring Alexander the Great--and how an alexandrine fit a certain pattern based on syllabic time counted by iambs and I'll be damned if I learned where the caesuras go. Too many marching alexandrine feet for me, pieds, like the pied in the Pied Piper or the Piedmont, but not impediment, though I once saw a man wearing a pedometer the Lone Ranger had sent him. No lie. I believed him. The gadget had a picture of the Lone Ranger and Tonto on it. That's how young of a kid I was when I watched my grandmother writing poetry.
Once I tried to read one of my grandmother's poetry books but I couldn't finish it. The Christian Bible I could read, though I admit, even risking being dubbed a heretic, I really only liked to read the Bible for the nasty parts, where they talked about pomegranites and does and things like pomegranites and does, things like my mother had, though my mother wasn't blessed with pomegranites and does, more like lemons and cellos.
I didn't start writing poetry until I was in college and in love and drinking too much and galavanting when I should have been studying. I hated college but I loved the library. I loved books. I had grown up surrounded by books. Poets have a lot of books. They have a lot of reference books, too, especially a rhyming dictionary or a synonym dictionary or a dictionary of fables or a dictionary of pied a tiers, or a dictionary of dictionaries, and always large volumes of Shakespeare's sonnets, the British Poets, the New World Poets, Leaves of Grass, and my grandmother's favorite of them all, Lord Byron's works. I tried to read Childe Harold back then, and that got me nowhere fast. I may have gotten to Portugal with the good Lord B, except sleep, extreme sleep, attacked me once during that reading to the point I never attempted that work again until I was anciently older.
What exile from himself can flee?
To zones, though more and more remote,
Still, still pursues, where'er I be,
The blight of life--the demon, Thought
Oscar Wilde's Reading Gaol , however, I read with gleeful joy and surprise. Now ain't that strange?
Yet others rapt in pleasure seem,
And taste of all that I forsake;
O, may they still of transport dream,
And ne'er, at least like me, awake!
I once came rushing into my grandmother's room to trick her. "What's an iamb, grandmother?" "It's like 'ah-CHOO,'" she roared, " or it's like 'ahh-loftt.'" Poets must be eccentric. I mean, come on, a poet who isn't eccentric? Where you livin'? Out around those cowboy poets in Montana and Nevada? "I rode Old Paint till he stumbled through his gait/...ah his fate, I'll now relate/Old Paint did faint and we thought him dead/so we just up and shot him through his god-damn head." Yee-haw, I'm cowboy poet of the year, the year of the steer, and I'm steering away from the meaning of my play on finding just "What in the Hell Is a Poet."
Through many a clime 't is mine to go,
With many a retrospection cursed;
And all my solace is to know,
Whate'er betides, I've known the worst.
My grandmother lived to be 82. I thought she would never die. I was in college writing poems during her approach to death. I wrote a poem about a telephone pole and a flying red horse and it was accepted for publication by the Piggott, Arkansas, newspaper's poetry section. Actually a pretty good one run by a woman who herself was a poet. She was addicted to quail hunting, too, she once wrote.
What is that worst? Nay, do not ask--
In pity from the search forbear;
Smile on -- nor venture to unmask
Man's heart, and view the hell that's there.
I wrote poetry at my makeshift desk in my garrish room. My desk had an empty Cherry Kijafa bottle, that's what I drank in those days, a Percy Dovetonsils twuth, sitting on it. I used to put a fresh flower or just a stem in the winter in that bottle and use it for my inspiration to write my poems. I got another one published in the next semester, in the spring, and it was about a baby being eaten by a Persian rug. Later I found out Mark Twain had written about a man grabbed by a carpet-making machine and woven into a carpet. I'd never read Mark Twain at the time I wrote my poem. I was in love though with a high school girl who read T.S. Eliot. Damn she would read T.S. Eliot to me while I was undressing her and wanting to have sex with her. Damn, I've had sex with a girl reading away at T.S.-fucking Eliot while my refrains were yowlings of...oh well, but oh how I loved that girl. Every time I read T.S. Eliot now I think so lovingly and wantingly of her, with the short hair, the glasses, and the tight torredor pants that were poetry in motion, if you would pardon my crass exaltation. She was smart as a damn whip and cute as a bug in a rug, a phrase that reminds me of my father who wasn't a poet but a fine tenor; he sang poems very well, thank you.
And late in the spring just as spring sprang over into summer, I went home one weekend to see my girl and when I got there I found that my grandmother had suffered a mild stroke and she didn't recognize anybody and was acting strangely, goofy, discombobulated, raising up and asking what time it was, with a smile on her face, even though she didn't know you from a dog and no matter who you were she called you her dog's name, and he was there, too, always laying by her bed looking up at you dog-eyed sad.
And one fine afternoon, I was just sitting digging on her, watching her in rented hospital bed set up in her room, facing that window that faced her flower bed. The room full of flowers, her pot plants, and then the "Get well soon" flowers and plants in all sorts of enfoiled and baby's breath laced states that had come pouring in from her many friends and admirers. She was still surrounded by her books, her paintings, her life's work. A really great setting for approaching death. As I was poetically eying her, the doorbell rang far up in the front of the main house. My grandmother's eyes opened wide as pies and peonies and she looked over dead at me and said, "Son, you had better hasten to that front door, that doorbell's being rung by your friend Tee Moore, and your friend Moore is here to say, that he's here to see you, and it's a lovely day."
She died that night. My friend Moore was amazed by the story as I told it to him as he looked down at my now sleeping grandmother. He had always believed my grandmother was haunted. Nope, we all said, she's just a poet.
Note: the italicized verses above are from Childe Harold, by simply "Lord Byron"--and his was a weird Lordship, yere Lordship, from "Canto I, "To Inez," verses VI-IX. Voila! Lord Byron. What a life! Oh the loves!! And he limped.
for The Daily Growler