The Uses and Misuses of April

Here’s a post to celebrate National Poetry Month on its final day. Sometimes it’s a knock-down-drag-out when poets get together; sometimes it is not. You just never know what they are going to say, so here’s an imaginary conversation between two poets who did the poetry thang well.

Time: the Present.

On a fine spring day, a large man, with an enormous appetite for the good things of life and enough zest to enjoy them, enters the Tabard Inn. He is a man bulging with good humor. He could be Shakespeare’s Falstaff or Robin Hood’s Friar Tuck, but he is not. He is Geoffrey Chaucer, and this is not a man who will tell the world that it is a dark and stormy night. That man sits in a corner across the room, writing in his notebook, nursing a martini. His name is T. S. Eliot, and he is the great modernist poet. Chaucer is here to question Eliot over the use and misuse of Aprils.

Chaucer orders a flagon of mead and walks over to Eliot. He extends his hand. Eliot takes a sip of his martini, then stands and shakes Chaucer’s hand.

Chaucer (sits): How’s the news?

Eliot: It’s that cruel April again. (Eliot opens his poem, “The Waste Land” with the line: “April is the cruelest month, breeding.”)

Chaucer: A good month to go on pilgrimage. Or simply do the Omar Khayyam gig: “A jug of wine, a loaf of bread, and thee.” Now that would make a nice picnic. (Chaucer quotes from Edward Fitzgerald’s translation of “The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.)

Eliot: Yes, but he didn’t mention the ants. Surely there were ants.

Chaucer (ignoring the ant comment): So you believe April is the cruelest month?

Eliot: I said so.

Chaucer: Seems to me you were misusing April.

Eliot: You were way too generous with April. (Chaucer opens his Prologue to “The Canterbury Tales” with the lines: “When April with his showers sweet with fruit / the drought of March has pierced unto the root / And bathed each vein with liquor that has power / to generate therein and sire the flower.”)

Chaucer: Why do you believe April is the cruelest month?

Eliot: It’s this lousy English weather.

Chaucer: By April’s end, all the lousy weather is washed away.

Eliot: If that wasn’t enough, we had just had the Spanish flu.

Chaucer: We had the plague.

Eliot: And World War I, the war to end all wars, had wiped out millions of our young men.

Chaucer: We had the Hundred Years War with France.

Eliot: My wife was getting ready for a mental breakdown.

Chaucer: I lost my beloved wife too.

Eliot: I was harassed by the government over taxes.

Chaucer: I had money stolen from me. It was not mine. I had to repay every farthing. And yet I remained cheerful. Can’t we just arm wrestle about this April business?

Eliot: You’d win.

Chaucer (going for the positive): It seems we do have something in common.

Eliot (smiles for the first time): Yes, we do. National Poetry Month. It was our words that inspired April as the choice.

Chaucer: Let me cheer you up with a joke. Something a little Wife of Bath-ist.

Eliot (covers his ears): No thanks. I’ve heard your Miller’s Tale.

Chaucer: Then let me tell you of a woman who was married five times.

Eliot: You just can’t resist, can you?

Chaucer throws back his head and fills the tavern with his laugh. This conversation continues for hours. The two poets discuss everything from the sonnet to the sestina. Finally, it comes to an end.

Chaucer: I must say you really let your hair down with “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats”. That was some mighty fine work.

Eliot: Poetry was always vox populi.

Chaucer: I know. The voice of the people.

Eliot: Better yet, the song of the people. Since I covered cats, I’m working on a new Holy Grail play. Calling it “Spamalot”.

Chaucer: I believe those Monty Python folks did that.

Eliot: Darn that John Cleese. Then it’s dogs for me.

Chaucer: Mary Oliver did that too. “Dog Songs” it’s called.

Eliot: Then what about Alexander Hamilton?

Chaucer: That’s a smash hit on Broadway.

Eliot: It’s true, you know. Old poets do not die. They just fade away.

The two men shake hands. Eliot goes back to his notebook. Chaucer heads out the door of the inn and joins the innkeeper and twenty-nine pilgrims. They are off to Canterbury.

Uncle Bardie’s Spotlight Creator: Derek Walcott, Poet

Once a week on Friday, Uncle Bardie celebrates the creativity in others by shining a Spotlight on a movie, a song or a creator. This week’s Spotlight Creator is the poet, Derek Walcott:

Derek Walcott on writing and painting.

Oh, what a beautiful language we have, this English. We strip it and we tear it down, we ignore it and abuse it and lose a bit of it along the way. It not only survives. It rises like a phoenix and soars. Especially when it is in the hands of a poet. William Shakespeare was that kind of poet, and Seamus Heaney too. So was Derek Walcott.

Derek Walcott was an island man, so he gave us islands and the sea. He showed us that poetry could rise out of the least of places. That it was possible for a black man from a very small place could become a great poet. And he did it with this magnificent language of ours.


Uncle Bardie’s Spotlight Movie: A Washed Up Poet

inOnce a week on Friday, Uncle Bardie celebrates the creativity in others by shining a Spotlight on a movie, a song or a creator. This week’s Movie Spotlight is “Reuben, Reuben” (1983):

National Poetry Month is coming up in April. So here’s a reminder to read a few poems during the month, the movie “Reuben, Reuben”. It’s charming and it’s funny and it has romance. The Reuben in the title is not the poet. It’s the supporting character dog in this small movie comedy. A very important supporting character.

Tom Conti is a washed up Scottish poet Gowen McGland. He has a huge case of writer’s block.  In his younger days, he wrote poems that became taught in college classrooms everywhere, though nobody seems to know what they mean. He has become more famous for his drinking and womanizing than for his poetry.

Julius J. Epstein wrote the screenplay. He adapted it from Herman Shumlin’s play “Spofford” which in turn was an adaptation of the Peter DeVries novel, “Reuben, Reuben”. There is a good chance that Dylan Thomas was a model for Gowen McGland.

Gowen makes his living travelling around, speaking to women’s clubs, small colleges and any other organization that pay a stipend. His latest destination is an affluent Connecticut suburb. There’s enough bored housewives there for him to seduce to make it worth the pittance of a stipend he’ll receive. But he doesn’t really do much seduction. A number of the bored are throwing themselves at him. After all, he has that Scottish accent.

Little does he realize that his life is about to change and it will be a Connecticut suburb that does it. He might even break through that writer’s block.

Root-a-toot Tavi, Ideas and All

Writers are asked, “Where do you get your ideas?””

The thing is every one of us get ideas all the time. The difference between the creative artists and the rest? We listen. When we have an idea we think is interesting, we don’t judge whether it is a good idea or a bad one. We take it out and play with it for a while.

And don’t forget it’s all about the play. We say musicians play, not musicians work. Actors role play, not role work. When we writers forget we are playing, not working, that is when we have a case of the writer’s block.

Once we are finished playing, we are not the best judge of whether the results are good or bad. Whether it worked or not.

I once heard the screenwriter William Goldman assert the same thing. He said that making movies was always risky. No one knew whether a movie would be well-received or not. Then he told the story about a movie he wrote the screenplay for: “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”. After the movie was released, he and the director were walking down the street in New York City one evening. They saw this line around the block. When they found out that the line was to “Butch Cassidy”, they were surprised. Pleasantly so. But still surprised.

And when you play, accidents happen. During a session in a recording studio, Bob Dylan was working on “Like a Rolling Stone”. The musicians took a break. Al Kooper was just hanging out. During the break, he sat down at the organ and started playing around. Dylan walked back into the room and said, “That’s it.” That organ music Kooper played became the beginning of the song.

All creativity is risky. So take a chance and be brave. Nothing is more fun, and rewarding, than playing with an idea. If you don’t believe me, look at how many creatives have long lives. That kind of playing keeps us young.

And the more you listen the more the ideas come. It’s a big sandbox out here. So do yourself a favor. The next idea you have, try playing with it. Who knows? You might be just as surprised as I was when I got “Root-a-toot tavi, I’m so savvy,” I just had to play with it. Here are the results:

Root-a-toot Tavi

Root-a-toot tavi
I’m so savvy
So savvy as all

Swinging on a star
Being who I are
Having me a ball

Root-a-toot chili
Burgers on the grilly
Cook’s standing tall

Running up the hilly
Jack and Jilly
Going to the mall

Root-a-toot billy
I’m so silly
Dancing down the hall

So just look up
Drink from the cup
Spring, summer and fall

Root-a-toot wavy
Stir up the gravy
Step out for the call

Lighter feet, baby
Don’t step heavy
Do give it your all

Root-a-toot tootsy
Don’t give a hoot-sy
Go break down that wall

Kick up your boot-sy
And doodley scoot-sy
Never ever stall

Root-a-toot dabby
Be kind of fabby
John, George, Ringo, Paul

Go catch a cabby
Take a trip happy
Have yourself a ball.

How about you? Any ideas lately?

Dirt on the Soles of My Shoes

Another pickin’ and grinnin’.

I got a bit of dirt
On the soles of my shoes.
Been trav’ling around.
Paying them dues.
Preacher hounding me
‘Bout what I’m done wrong.
Got a bit in his teeth
Of hell fire and brimstone.

I know I’m a sinner,
Sinning’s in my blood
Just like Old Man Noah
Who rode out that flood.
He was a drinking man.
The Bible tells us so
He could drink those boys
Under the table and floor.

There’s the hangover and there’s the hang under.
There’s the lightning and there’s the thunder.
There’s the magic and there’s the wonder.
But the promised land’s way over yonder.

Well, I take my blues
And I take ’em straight.
Not on the rocks.
I’m in a bad state.
A cat chasing his tail
Running ‘round and ‘round
Got no place fast.
I’m everybody’s clown.

You got heartaches,
Heartache’s my name.
If there’s a gray cloud
Bound to be some rain.
I never seem to learn.
I’m a sad sack case.
As plain as the tears
Running down my face.

There’s the hangover and there’s the hang under.
There’s the lightning and there’s the thunder.
There’s the magic and there’s the wonder.
But the promised land’s way over yonder.