"Is that Pegasus?" He knew nothing about astronomy and this was a guess.
"Which one is that?"
"My name is Colin." He put out his hand.
After she got her drink, she lingered to talk to Colin. Somehow they ended up discussing poetry.
"I love contemporary poetry," he gushed. This was a lie. He hated all poetry, indiscriminately. It was one of many things he considered too pretentious.
"Do you write?" She was eager and leaned towards him. He could smell her perfume.
"On occasion. When I'm in the mood." Another lie.
"Do you ever read? You should read, at a reading, I mean. My friend, Emilio, he's a poet, he reads every week at a place not too far from here."
"I couldn't do that." He tried to excavate himself. The lies were catching up too soon.
"You don't seem shy. You hit on me."
"I did not," he replied, blushing exaggeratedly. He was putting on a grand show, playing the shy type, and it was working.
"And you don't seem like a moron. I'm sure your poetry's fine."
"It's just that I never let anyone read any of it. Never. Never mind read it to a room full of discriminating experts." This made sense. She would accept this. Very sound argument. And you can't go wrong exposing reasonable insecurities. It's humbling and endearing.
"Come on." She touched his arm and cocked her head coyly. "I'll go with you. It's only like ten people. It'll be fine."
And he eventually made the commitment to meet her and her poet friend at a bar, with the explicit understanding that he would read a poem (or two, she suggested) in front of the supportive audience. Now that he had charmed her, all he needed to do was write a few poems. He had an entire week. No problem.
He reasoned that the natural process would be to examine some pieces of critically acclaimed poetry, develop a sense for redeeming characteristics, and then create his own aesthetic. The rest would work itself out.
This proved more challenging than he had anticipated, however, and he hit a snag.
He couldn't write.
He lacked ideas. Because his outlook on the world consisted primarily of pessimism, cynicism, and apathy, he had difficulty finding a topic about which he was passionate. He didn't particularly care about anything. He had no concerns. No drive. No vision. There were topics he could discuss enthusiastically among like-minded friends, but nothing that he could use as inspiration. He preferred to criticize rather than create. He was empty handed. But after two days without a single legitimate idea, he forced himself to write. He needed something to work off of, a starting point. Anything.
He was not entirely proud of his creations. Here are some excerpts:
Apologizing for slavery,
Caustic leads and paragraphs,
We come in to this world naked and alone,
Latin: nigerFinally he had written something he was proud of. He took his uber-hip, incredibly culturally-sensitive audience into account. This poem wouldnít go over well. Maybe he could explain that he was actually commenting on the idiocy of being offended by a word and not saying it merely to use vulgarity or be offensive . . . but this was much too complicated. After deliberating with himself, after trying to fine tune the words that would summarize his underlying theme, he had only managed to muddle his initial motivation and message. He could no longer explain himself and knew it would revert back to ignorant vulgarity, which was potentially hazardous.
Thinking about the poem made him feel that he too was becoming pretentious in a self-loathing manner.
He forced himself to read more contemporary poetry and observed that only a small percentage of poets still employ rhymes. This was dismaying. Rhyming, he concluded, has been left to incompetent rappers. So be it. Colin proceeded to immerse himself in rap for a day or so and then tried to write again. The only noticeable result was a clipped rhythm.
He had four days remaining and decided to consult a friend, Chris, who holds a law degree. He jokingly asked if it would be appropriate to read someone elseís poetry.
"Like who?" Chris was visibly appalled.
"I don't know. T. S. Eliot maybe." Colin hadnít really considered this option. He had said it because he knew it would irk Chris. And it did.
"It's not karaoke."
"Fuck. I'm screwed."
"So don't go."
"I have to go."
"Forget about the chick."
"But I want to fuck her so badly."
"Why? So you can lie on the floor of her furniture-less industrial studio listening to Sara McLaughlin and bad feminist poetry while eating meatless hamburgers? Sounds very exciting. Nice and wholesome. I'd rather shoot myself. Since when do you like those kind of chicks?"
"They're cute. They have tattoos and nose rings."
"You know there's a big difference between wanting to create poetry and simply wanting to be a poet."
"I'm aware of that. I don't want to write good poetry or any poetry at all. You're absolutely right. I have no interest in the artistic process or poetic creation. I want to be a poet, live the hip lifestyle, and maybe screw this girl."
This confession freed Colin from the mess of moral inhibition surrounding artistic plagiarism. He was free, in theory, to proceed down this path. But now he had an entirely different set of obstacles with which to deal. He had to find and then borrow a few poems that were simultaneously good and not well-known.
He elected to avoid anyone still living. Too risky. The poet could be present, confront him, possibly punch him. His ideal target was someone who was prolific, and whose most popular verses were so popular that the remainders were virtually ignored. A tragedy, but who really cares. Maybe there was someone whose early poetry was decent but not as brilliant as those pieces written later.
T.S. Eliot hadn't written enough poetry to allow anything to be ignored. Pound was too omniscient. He didn't like (or know of) any others. He remembered that a friend had recommended a novel by Nabokov, Pale Fire, and told him all about the poem and its subsequent discussion. He found it in a bookstore and skimmed the poem section a few times. Convinced that some of the stanzas would suit his needs perfectly, he bought it and a composition book in which he planned to scribble the chosen lines and maybe doodle a little. And he would be sure to crease the pages, fold the entire book, and put it under his pillow. Coffee stains would have to be carefully applied, too, of course.
He chose sections quickly and scribbled them into the composition book. He added cryptic, illegible notes in the margins, and then complimented them with forceful underscores and arrows. Afterwards, he gave some of the reborn poems titles. Curt, descriptive titles. Then he practiced his delivery in front of a mirror. He felt that he needed to be passionate, intense, ironic, comic, or dramatically ephemeral when it was appropriate. He avoided making operatic arm gestures or exaggerated facial expressions. He worked on his tone, developing a sense of self-deprecation. He was ready.
On the night of the reading, he was early and sat at a bar across the street for a half an hour, where he sipped cheap whiskey and unenthusiastically flirted with the bartender. He had never been to a poetry reading. His preconceived notion was formed by Jack Kerouac and other various parodies of the beatniks. Candle light, small round tables, berets everywhere, men who crossed their legs, cigarette holders, solemn expressions, everything black. To his amusing disappointment when he entered the poetry bar, only one young woman was wearing a beret, and it was yellow. The small tables were replaced by spacious tall ones with high stools surrounding them. Church pews lined the walls. The bartender was jolly and missing a tooth. This was merely a bar. But it was one where once a week for a few off-peak hours, people could read poetry and the staff would tolerate it. Apparently poets tip well.
Melanie, her poet friend Emilio, and Emilio's girlfriend were all sitting on one side of a table, enraptured by a lanky, energetic female poet. Melanie whispered a greeting to Colin and turned back to the proceedings. Colin approached the long bar and quietly asked for whiskey.
The poets read their work and often interjected to explain a particular mindset or influence or to provide circumstantial evidence. Eventually Emilio was urged onto the stage by his fans. He was humble and shy. He hunched over the microphone instead of adjusting its height. He read a single poem. Colin wasn't really listening, but everyone else seemed to like it.
Colin got nervous and combated this with larger sips of whiskey. When Emilio was done reading, he invited Colin to the stage, telling everyone that he was a rookie and asking them to have mercy on his soul. People laughed. How supportive of them. Colin avoided looking at the audience until he was on stage.
"Hello everyone. Yes, I am virgin, and I do appreciate your pity. I just hope I don't fumble over my own words. Uh . . ." He paged through the mainly empty book, thought he knew exactly where the poem was. "Okay, this is one called 'Guilty'." He leaned to the microphone and held the book far from his face.
"What moment, in the gradual decay, does resurrection choose? What years? What days?" he said gravely, and then changed to a more light-hearted tone.
"Who has the stopwatch? Who rewinds the tape? Are some less lucky, or do all escape?" He emphasized the rhyme here, and then switched to a declarative, proper tone.
"A syllogism: Other men die. But I am not another. Therefore I'll not die." He paused, stole a look at the crowd.
"Space is a swarming in the eyes, and time sings in the ears." He had made a mistake but didn't correct himself. Who would know? He adopted a conclusive tone.
"In this life, I'm locked up. Yet, if prior to life we had been able to imagine life, what mad, impossible, unutterably weird, wonderful nonsense it might have appeared."
He corrected his posture and the crowd took its cue to clap appreciatively. "Thanks. Shall I . . . do you mind if I read another?" He knew that these supportive people would never deny him this request. "This one is still in need of a title." He hadn't bothered to name it. A nice work-in-progress touch.
"Who can teach the thoughts we can roll-call, when morning finds us marching to the wall? Under the stage direction of some goon political, some uniformed baboon." Here he eliminated a couplet he hadn't fully understood.
"Listen to distant cocks crow and discern, upon the rough, gray wall, a rare wall fern. And while our royal hands are being tied, taunt our inferiors, cheerfully deride the dedicated imbeciles, and spit into their eyes, just for the fun of it." He paused and took a dramatic breath.
"Nor can one help the exile, the old man, dying in a motel, with the loud fan revolving in the torrid night." He intentionally eliminated a single word here, "prairie," which precedes "night" in Nabokov's version. He didn't live anywhere near any prairies and the image would seem a bit out of place. He slowed his cadence for the end, striving for poignancy.
"And from the outside, bits of colored light reaching his bed like dark hands from the past. Offering gems. And death is coming fast." He ceremoniously closed the book and took a subdued bow as people clapped.
Emilio made a probing observation. "You use rhyming couplets." He had anticipated critique and prepared rebuttals.
"That's how they come to me."
"It's rare these days. We've moved past that." Colin wanted to ask who "we" referred to, but refrained.
"I know, but I donít know why."
"Too constraining. Hinders imagination." Colin detected disapproval, but repressed his aggressive, violent urges.
"Well I disagree."
"I really liked the second one," Melanie saved them. "It's a nice comment on tragedy and helplessness. Is it about September eleventh?"
Colin smiled. He had foreseen this conclusion. "Not specifically about it, perhaps inspired by it, but also by tragedy in general. Sudden, massive tragedies, but also just death on a personal level, as a personal tragedy. It's like the syllogism in the first poem." Colin had been forced to look up the definition of the word when he read it for the first time. "We never expect to die, not really. We can't accept this fact and still live happily. Itís unbearable. So in that moment when we understand that we will die soon, there's a tragedy. Every day, with every death, there are millions of tragedies. Tragedy isn't only when a few thousand people die at once, it's everywhere."
This drew no response.
His poems, or rather Nabokov's or John Shade's, were not addressed again. A steady stream of poets came and went. Colin didn't like any of them. There was tremendous feeling of self-worth in the bar and Colin left feeling elated. Again he went home alone.
He recounted the evening for Chris, who admired Colin's courage despite the offensive charade.
"Do you think he knew?"
"The jackass poet. What's his name? Enrique?"
"Emilio, Enrique, whatever. So do you think he knows?"
"If he did, he didn't say anything. Wouldn't he say something if he did? I mean, wouldn't it have offended him morally and artistically?"
"Non-confrontational pussy," Chris deadpanned.
"How could he know for sure? Who has that poem memorized?" Colin was challenging Chris.
"I don't know. Isn't it something people study?"
"Probably. It's pretty famous." He resigned himself to the truth.
"Then why the hell did you use it?"
"Because I'm a moron," he said without shame.
"You're practically begging to get caught."
"I'm a moron."
"I think you like this whole thing."
"Are you kidding? Of course I do. I love it. It's a challenge now to see how far I can go. Lying, acting, it's fun. You get a nice adrenaline rush. I'm going back. I rather like being a poet."
"You're an asshole."
"You should come."
"Have you talked to the chick?"
"Called her twice and she hasn't called me back."
"I don't really care. Now it's all about me being a poet and seeing if I can keep doing it without getting caught. And maybe I'll find some other chick who digs poets."
"But you're not a poet."
"You know that and I know that, but no one else knows that. That's the beauty. Don't you want me to keep this going?"
"It is an interesting little experiment."
"Yes, an experiment. I want to see how long I can go. I have to. I suppose I'll have to find some other stuff to borrow though."
"Steal, borrow, write. What's the difference?"
"Cute chicks there?"
He went to what was called an "Open Mic Affair" at another bar. He went alone. There were guitars and bongos tucked under a few tables. From across the room, he watched a pair of girls who were sipping red wine and chain smoking. Colin let the tone of the evening develop and stepped on stage after an ascetic Buddhist practically put him to sleep.
"These are some shorter things I've been needing to hear aloud. You're guinea pigs. Congratulations. Critiques and commentary are encouraged and appreciated. But please don't throw things, at least at my face." This drew laughter. He was in a boisterous mood. He began eagerly, speaking briskly.
"My god died young. Theology," he had altered this word from "theolatry," which meant nothing to him or the dictionary. "I found degrading, and its premises unsound. No free man needs a god." He had an authoritative tone.
"But was I free? How fully I felt nature glued to me, and how my childish palate loved the taste, half-fish, half-honey, of that golden paste."
He quickly turned the pages and read another short poem.
"A thousand years ago, five minutes were equal to forty ounces of fine sand. Outstare the stars. Infinite foretime and infinite aftertime. Above your head they close like giant wings, and you are dead."
He flipped through the pages while people applauded, although he knew he wasn't going to read anything else. This was meant to make him appear disorganized, scattered, artistic. "Well, I guess that's it. Thanks." He maintained his humbleness and eyed the girls one last time.
Sitting at the table, watching a parade of guitar-accompanied pieces, he watched the conversations at other tables, expecting to see someone eye him suspiciously. But everyone smiled at him. No one knew. He was succeeding fabulously.
Chris was now interested in the continuing success.
"But you're going to run out of things, you know."
"Nah, I'll just read the same ones."
"Never thought of that."
"And I've got some weird Samuel Beckett crap lined up if I get bored of the Nabokov." Chris looked around the bar before he spoke again.
"Don't get me wrong, this shit is amusing the hell out of me, but what's the point?"
"Why does there have to be a point?"
"I don't know. Because you're spending all this time doing it."
"Not really. I'd be at a bar anyway."
"You haven't met any girls," Chris pointed out.
"That doesn't matter any more. It would be too much work to keep up the image outside of the whole reading scene."
"You know, the people at these things probably don't even care enough to wonder if you're stealing this stuff. Why would they ever think about it?"
"I know. I'll never get caught. It's for my own enjoyment."
"So if someone does call you on it, what are you going to do?"
"We'll see. I'm sure it's just a matter of time."
This prediction came true just nine days later, when Colin read a
Whispering, he said, "Just for the record, I know what you just did."
The man had a handlebar mustache. Colin smiled and said, "Nice 'stache."
"I said that's a nice mustache. Seriously, nice work."
"I know what you did, that's all I want to say. That's all I want you to understand."
Colin wondered if this was a threat and sized the man up. He figured that the man outweighed him, but was supremely confident that he could take the man in a fight. "I don't know what you're talking about." He was still trying to decide on a strategy.
"Yes you do."
"No, really, I don't."
"Just don't do it again."
Colin rose and positioned himself a few inches from the man. "Do what? What exactly are you accusing me off?" Denial was his strategy. Violent, proud denial.
"You didn't write that poem."
"I prefer the term verse, and you're making a very serious accusation."
"It's also a very accurate one. Samuel Beckett. How It Is."
"How what is? What are you talking about? Am I to understand that you're accusing me of plagiarism?" Colin spoke loudly now, wanting everyone to hear.
"Why don't you just leave?" Colin sensed the man's condescension.
"We all know what you did and now you got caught. So just leave."
Colin snagged an empty beer bottle off of the bar and broke it over the man's head in a swift motion. He was out on the street before anyone understood what had happened.
Colin came to two conclusions: that he couldn't return to that particular bar; and that he had to find more obscure poems.
[Forever after at http://eyeshot.net/roberge.html]
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