An old man, a poet of the generation of Kerouac, Corso and
Ginsburg, is at the lectern tonight in the auditorium of a small college
nestled in the Ozarks of Arkansas. Although widely published for many years,
both in the United States and abroad, he has never done a reading of his work.
He attended a reading once, back in the Fifties. It was held in San Francisco
and given by Gregory Corso. All the literati of the day were there, a number of
them under the influence of one thing or another. But the reader tonight was so
bored he swore he would never do a reading himself.
Not one to fraternize with other writers, the poet usually stays
home with his African Grey parrots and Scarlet macaws. He writes at an old
roll-top desk in what a romantic might call a garret, which he says is just a
drafty attic over his old garage, part of an estate he inherited from his
parents. He writes, off and on, day and night because he sleeps very
little--two hours here, two hours there. He disdains liquor and dope but is a
souse when it comes to milkshakes.
Tonight his friend of many years, an old professor at a local
college, has asked him to read. The professor, almost as old as the poet,
assumed the man had read his work often at various venues. The old poet for
some reason agreed to do the reading. Maybe the money was attractive, although
the honorarium was small. Long ago the poet's four books had been remaindered
and now money in any amount helps. Seed for the parrots and macaws adds up. He
lives on Social Security and an annuity given to him by his parents long ago
because they figured he would never be able to earn a living. They were right.
"I can't do a thing other than write verse," he has often
admitted. "Maybe a little prose if no poem pops into my mind. Sometimes I find
a poem works better as a short story. An editor tipped me off to that not long
ago and I make the switch when it's obviously the right thing to do."
At the lectern tonight, however, the poet is in his Sunday
best--bib overalls and a stovepipe hat set off by a white beard that drops far
south of his crotch. He is--as his first and only wife once said--a sight to
see but not too often.
"I would never have married the man," she said in an article in
1962, "had I any idea of his habits. He can write but that's about it."
Many of the students in the audience, almost six decades the
poet's junior, have never heard of him nor have they read his work. If they had
Googled his name with quotation marks around it, they would probably have been
amazed at the number of major journals his poems have appeared in since the
His work has been published more than a few times with those
major writers now remembered as The Beatniks. Most of them are dead now but
this man continues to write and publish not only in print but also online.
Hundreds of his poems, first published in print years ago, can be found
swimming on the web because he sends them out by email when he can't sleep.
"Print is in hospice now," he told the professor. "Maybe if I
get enough work out on the web, a hundred years from now someone might bump
into one of my old poems."
The students in the audience are there because the old professor
who arranged the reading asked them to attend. Besides there are other
professors in the front row the students want to impress. Could be the
difference between an A-minus or a B-plus.
After being introduced by the professor, the old poet begins to
read in a voice laryngitis would enhance. Since the students do not have a copy
of his poems in front of them, they can't follow him and they remain
unimpressed. Some nod off as the hour wears on.
At the end of the reading, the reader says he understands that
many students in the audience write poetry and he wants to tell them something
someone told him when he was young and new to writing poetry.
Clearing his throat, he removes his stovepipe hat, leans into
the microphone and says in a loud, clear voice absent during his reading:
"A noun is nothing more than a limousine waiting for the right
verb to drive it where it needs to go. Without the right verb the noun goes
"Adjectives and adverbs are dead weight, unnecessary freight, a
drag on fuel economy, an impediment to any poem in gestation or out and about
as an adult.
"Worse, adjectives and adverbs are cyanide ingested to any
writer hoping to create art.
"The secret, if there is one, is to write the first draft of a
poem and then dive back into the text like a surgeon and excise adjectives and
adverbs no matter how much you want them to stay there.
"Next, replace any impotent verb with one that has muscle, a
verb that can move its noun forward until the noun ahead of it is almost forced
off the page.
"Remember, a poem is not an essay for rhetoric class or a report
in a newspaper. A poem is a living thing. The first draft is a fetus no one
should abort. You should work on that draft nine months if you have to and then
bring it to term."
When the old man finished speaking, applause broke out among
students and faculty alike. The poet bowed and smiled. And then he moved back
from the microphone, put on his stovepipe hat, turned his wheel chair around
and rode off the stage. On this night he would have two milkshakes before going
home to feed his parrots and macaws.