Monday, July 14, 2008

The NYT Bestseller List Has No Place for Sestinas

The day job is a reality for every poet alive, though there may be those who’ve been tempted to take up a cup and stand beside freeway entrances with a sign reading “Will versify for food.” (I would consider this option if I didn’t suspect my cup would soon runneth over with wads of chewing gum and the occasional cigarette butt.)

There lies the rub: Unlike aspiring novelists, who can dream (pipe dream, perhaps) of one day publishing that bestseller that will catapult them into fame and the accompanying monetary rewards, poets are practicing a craft most people don’t value, don’t quite understand, and certainly won’t pay money for. Poets will never make a fortune with their scribblings—unless the scribblings are on the back of a winning Powerball ticket. They will never find that their lovely villanelle praising the pearlescent sheen on the breasts of mourning doves has been optioned by Hollywood. Unless they’re born James Merrill wealthy or happen to make a bundle in some other venture (will the awesome Ron Slate please stand up?), they will never share a lovely pinot with Brangelina, or rub elbows with Bono.

Thus Wallace Stevens spent his life at an insurance company, and Thomas Lynch directs funerals, and god knows how many poets are locked into the ivory tower, never to escape—though we can hope their poems will occasionally slip out, unfettered by chains of theory and footnotes.

I consider myself highly lucky as far as day jobs go: I get to write, and, I hope, occasionally make a difference by doing so. But the fact that I have a job as an editor means that I often get home in the evenings and find that the lovely blank page that tempted me exceedingly at 9 A.M. looks like a big gray wall I can’t imagine climbing. (Peeing on, maybe—but that’s likely the product of having spent the whole day writing about dogs.)

On such days, I find a huge comfort in the poetry of John Engman. I first encountered his poem “Another Word for Blue” when I was in my mid-teens, in a collection called New American Poets of the 90’s. And I thought, idiotically, “This guy is going to be famous.” What did I know of this craft’s austere and lonely offices?

Engman died young and obscure. He has no entry on Wikipedia and he does not appear on the website of The Academy of American Poets. But just the sight of his slightly pudgy, sweetly good-humored face makes me happy, and his poem “Work”—check out those last lines, especially—is enough to get anyone through another day in the cubicles.

I wanted to be a rain salesman,
because rain makes the flowers grow,
but because of certain diversions and exhaustions,
certain limitations and refusals and runnings low,
because of chills and pressures, shaky prisms, big blows,
and apes climbing down from banana trees, and dinosaurs
weeping openly by glacial shores, and sunlight warming
the backsides of Adam and Eve in Eden ...
I am paid
to make the screen of my computer glow, radioactive
leakage bearing the song of the smart money muse:
this little bleep went to market, this little clunk has none.

The woman who works the cubicle beside me has pretty knees
and smells of wild blossoms, but I am paid to work
my fingers up and down the keys, an almost sexy rhythm,
king of the chimpanzees picking fleas from his beloved.
I wanted to be a rain salesman , but that's a memory
I keep returning to my childhood for minor repairs:
the green sky cracking, then rain, and after,
those flowers growing faster than I can name them,
those flowers that fix me and and make me stare.

I wanted to be a rain salesman,
carrying my satchel full of rain from door to door,
selling thunder, selling the way air feels after a downpour,
but there were no openings in the rain department,
and so they left me dying behind this desk--adding bleeps,
subtracting clunks--and I would give a bowl of wild blossoms,
some rain, and two shakes of my fist at the sky to be living.
Above my desk, lounging in a bed of brushstroke flowers,
a woman beckons from my cheap Modigliani print, and I know
by the way she gazes that she sees something beautiful
in me. She has green eyes. I am paid to ignore her.


Maggie May said...

oh. oh!

this entire post is wonderful.

M. C. Allan said...

all of john engman is wonderful! if you haven't, go read "another word for blue" -- it's so amazing, and such a great poem for poets. he had the best voice: witty and tough and kind all at once.