An Old Cowhand Went Riding Out One Dark and Windy Day
The next time I’m at a party and somebody says, What do you do? and I say, I’m a professor, and they say, What do you teach? and I say, I’m a poet and they say, Are you published? I’m going to shriek so loudly that everyone will turn around as I look bewildered and blame it on the other person. Why are you shrieking? I’ll say. No one else is shrieking. Why are you?
Either that or else I’ll say, Oh no, I don’t really publish my poems. They’re just for me. What I do is I write them, and then I cry for a while, and I put them in a drawer. Then I go outside and skip a little bit. Skipping helps. I always feel better after I skip.
You want to skip with me? I’ll say. I’ll grab his hands in mine and starts tugging him toward the door. Come on, let’s skip!
When you meet a French professor, you don’t say, But you don't really speak French, am I right? When you encounter someone on the law faculty, do you say, I bet you guys watch a lot of Law & Order reruns? If it were an astronomer, you wouldn't say, Oh, I love your field! I'm a Pisces.
Oh, you’re a banker? So do you make loans and finance new projects or just jingle the dimes and quarters in your pocket? Oh, you're a doctor—does that mean you practice medicine or just put Band-Aids on your dollies? You’re an aviator? Have you ever flown a plane, or do you just run around in your underpants with a plastic model going EE-YOW!
I could also just sneak into this person’s house and widen the opening of his Pringles can. That way, when he reaches for a snack, he’ll think he’s shrinking.
Sometimes they say, You can’t really teach someone to write a poem, in which case you might answer, Well, not you.
Half the time, they say, I don’t get poetry, in which case you could quote Mark Strand. We feel we have to know what things mean, says Mark Strand, to be on top of this and that. I don’t think it’s human, you know, to be that competent at life. That attitude is far from poetry.
They say that more than half the time, actually.
Bet you never miss a trip to the dentist, you say. Bet you pay your bills on time. Did you check the expiration date on the side of the milk carton this morning?
Are you published?
No, I just saw a job opening and they thought I looked like a poetry professor. Lucky, right?
Are you published?
I try not to be, but people sneak into my study, take my poems, and send them to magazines and book presses. I’ve tried being really complicated and obscure, but that just seems to encourage them.
Are you published?
I am, I say with pride. Have you ever read the ingredients on a jar of Planter's Peanuts? That's me. Here, let me try it out on you: “Peanuts. Peanut oil. Salt.” What do you think?
I am, I say. I publish under my pen name, Agatha Christie.
Actually, I think I misheard them. They probably said, Are you punished?
I don’t get poetry.
“I don’t get bad poetry,” you mean. Saying “I don’t get poetry” is like saying, “I don’t get food.”
If somebody handed you a roast turkey sandwich with havarti, heirloom tomatoes, caramelized onions, and a honey mustard dipping sauce, you’d be happy, right? Now imagine a sandwich that consisted of boogers mixed with mud on month-old mackerel dressed in motor oil and asbestos roofing tiles for bread and a piece of barbed wire holding everything together instead of a cellophane-topped toothpick.
Or a word salad. Robert Nazarene says he avoids word salad poems the way a man with diverticulitis avoids real salads. Don’t read word salad poems, people—they’ll make you sick!
Maybe I should just keep my mouth shut.
Yehuda Amchai says, I think when you're a poet you have to forget you're a poet—a real poet doesn't draw attention to the fact he's a poet. The reason a poet is a poet is to write poems, not to advertise himself as a poet.
I could tell them people I’m an auditor with the IRS.
I could poke them gently in the stomach, say Beep, and walk away.
I could invite them to jump on my back as I gallop through the party singing “Ghost Riders in the Sky.”
On the other hand, the old Celts were terrified of offending a bard because “he would stand on one foot and make a satire upon them.”
It could be worse. They could say, I’m a poet, too.
What do you do at night? If you’re Annette Schwabe’s sister
and live in Montana and a grizzly bear falls through your ceiling,
you’ve got your work cut out for you—when I asked Annette
what her sister did, she said she grabbed her shotgun and killed it,
which is not what I would have done. I would have held up
a pound of ground chuck and said, “Here, bear! Look! Good bear!”
and tossed the meat out the door or back up through the hole
in the roof and hoped the bear would follow, partly out of sympathy
for the bear, who probably had other plans altogether, and partly
because of the logistics involved in hauling a 1,700-pound corpse
out of your living room. Also, doesn’t “grizzly” make you think
of “grisly”? “Grizzly” is actually the nicer word, as it stems from
the Middle English for “of hair or fur with dark and white hairs
mixed,” whereas “grisly” is Old English and means “terrifying.”
Not all bears have white and dark hairs mixed, but all bears are
terrifying, such as the one that burst through the wall of my tent
when I was a Boy Scout camping in New Mexico: the ranger had
us to put our food in a sack and haul it up into a tree, but this bear
ripped the canvas with his claws and put his head through the hole
and made bear sounds. Bear in tent, Boy Scouts out! There was
no food in the tent—it was all in a sack that had been hauled up
into a tree—but what the bear wanted was Ally Geraitis’s Mennen
Speed Stick, the bear not being able to distinguish between its odor
and that of a candy bar, though no doubt the bear found the propylene
glycol, sodium stearate, and other ingredients less to his liking than
chocolate, toffee, and nuts. And the bear on the roof? Same thing,
I’m so sure. The bear wasn’t on the roof because she wanted to use it
as a sliding board and glide down it and land on her fat bear bottom.
The bear wasn’t under the mistaken impression that she worked for
a local roofing company that was so committed to diversity that
it hired bears as roofing inspectors but only sent them out at night
so as not to startle homeowners. No, the bear was probably drawn
to the roof because she was about to consume a delicious meal
of soggy tree bark and raw field mice when the kitchen exhaust
belched out the smell of whatever it was that Annette’s sister
had cooked that night: beef bourguignon, say, or coq au vin,
wiener schnitzel, venison stew. We’re all hungry at night:
for food, for companionship, sex, love. My students tell me
that Insomnia Cookies is their go-to when they’re either
pulling an all-nighter and need an energy boost at 3:00 a.m.
or going through a big break-up and finding that alcohol
and calls home just won’t cut it. The Insomnia Cookies menu
includes such classics as oatmeal raisin and snickerdoodles
but also vegan birthday cake, gluten-free double chocolate chunk,
and even the Monster Cookie Sundae featuring classic cookies
folded into two scoops of ice cream and your choice of topping
with more toppings for an additional charge. You can even get milk:
whole, 2%, chocolate, strawberry. Who wouldn’t get milk? Suddenly
you’re a kid again: no history term paper or math sets, no sexual betrayal,
no failed love. Life messes with you every chance it gets, doesn’t it?
Some people call that the Second Law of Thermodynamics,
or at least Isaac Newton did. No broken heart because no grown-up
heart, really, at least not yet. Yours is a kid’s heart again: homework
is easy, and love, or at least romantic love, is yet to come. Love is
far out there on the ocean that is your life, and ten-year-old you
is building the ship that will sail toward it in another ten years or so.
Love is or at least can be an iceberg. Did you know that the Titanic
was considered unsinkable because it had lots of watertight
compartments, one or two of which could have safely taken on water
during a head-on or t-bone type collison, but what happened
is that the ship scraped along the side of the iceberg instead,
rupturing not one or two but multiple compartments. My students
hate capitalism, but they love cookies. I’m with them!
Some things you plan for, like collisions, and others just
show up, like the bear on Annette Schwabe’s sister’s roof.
My favorite staff person in the office where I work is the one
whose email signature reads Everything is figureoutable.