The Poetry Bum

I see poets in the world all the time, young minds that long to be poetic, to speak their emotions with musical voices. They try very hard. They scribble furiously into $30 journals. They get together and read their work in a cafe or a used book shop. I sit and listen, wander over from my browsing, reading first chapters of random books. I dress like a cleaned up bum, my clothes are usually torn, so no one pays much attention to me. I sit in the back corner nursing a coffee.

If I am noticed, there’s often a whisper: OMG! That guy’s probably fucking homeless! White middle class faces scoff from the front row. They have perfect teeth.

The poets stand up, one by one, and scream into the microphone. Some of them are angry at God or their parents or the government for doing this or that to those poor people.

Most of them are just venting, but sometimes—more often than you’d imagine—one of them fumbles upon a perfect iambic rhythm with a clever trochaic foot dangling at the end of just one line. The audience hasn’t been trained to hear it, though. And neither has the poet. But I can hear it, and it makes me smile—the music of it.

Other times, much less often, a poet doesn’t tell me things but shows them to me, hits me in the stomach with an image, makes my throat swell with a painful metaphor, a sudden flashing occurrence of cutting juxtaposition.

I approach these poets after the reading, maybe waiting for coffee, maybe waiting for the rest room.

“That one line,” I say, repeating it from memory, “write more lines like that.”

This from a broken old stranger that looks like a fucking bum, says the young poet’s face and body language.

I continue.

Poetry, I tell them, is not just about getting your guts on the page and screaming it at an audience. Poetry is about using every aspect of your language—the rhythms, the syllabic stresses, the fucking breaths between the words. A poet uses everything to make people read from their guts. Poets evoke emotions with the subtlety of a whisper. Poets coerce people into feeling a story.

Yeah, sure, but—

And no one is born with this skill, I cut them off as they try to interrupt. It’s not a magical, God-given talent, something you win in the genetic lottery. One must learn to write poetry. Writing poetry is a highly trained skill.

Most of them just ignore me, or scoff a “whatever,” and who can blame them? They came of age in The United States of America, the land of expression for its own sake, the land of “get ‘er done” and “Just do it!” Just say it! Ok! There, I said it. It’s done! Now grade me.

Rules and conventions aren’t slowly and methodically mastered until they can be skillfully bent and/or broken. Entire traditions and histories are sidestepped on the way to another task, and another, and another. To-Do Lists and Spreadsheets and Grocery Lists and Agendas with Checklists that are prioritized and color-coded: that’s where we live.

Sometimes—in my loftier moments—I fear for the future of my art. More often, I fear for the health of our written culture, of poetic expression and its ability to give us a sense of emotional camaraderie, a sense of not being so alone in our suffering.

Ultimately, I fear we are creating a future of writing that will only ever be accidentally poetic. How bankrupt our hearts will be if we actually let that happen, if we actually lose our deep sense for inherently poetic language because we fail to teach our children—all of them, from birth—how to hear the subtle music of our words.


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