In this original essay for diaCRITICS, poet Linh Dinh reflects upon the absence of poetry in U.S. society, offering us a haunting glimpse into the Poetry Junk Yard “where every life form, radiant or otherwise, goes to die, with its dreams, Hollywood or otherwise, never coming close to being fulfilled.” Yet outside of this fatalism, Dinh etches a bittersweet cartography where poetry actually still lurks across the land. He recalls an exchange with a fellow poet, an American veteran of the war in Viet Nam, whom he meets at a dive bar in El Paso, Texas. The poets initially discuss Juarez, yet after the vet shares a confessional dream poem set in Viet Nam, the conversation becomes suddenly mired and weighted with conflicting associations over Vietnamese bodies. We are then left with Dinh’s bleak observation, “Nearly all of our poems are barely read now, much less in the future.” But as long as there are poems about us, we still exist.
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It is Poetry Month again, but most Americans wouldn’t know it, preoccupied as they are with forechecks, Mitt, Kim, Lady, Pippa and Doritos Locos Tacos. What a far cry from what Walt Whitman envisioned, since he actually thought our country would value poets more than any other. It has gotten worse and worse since his days. Just think of John Brown, for example, since Brown triggered an explosion of poetry, with hundreds of poems published in the immediate aftermath of his raid and hanging. Back then, Americans still considered poetry to be an essential response to, and perhaps even shaper of, national events and crises. Now, poems are completely irrelevant, and a major reason for this is the mass media. Americans are most indifferent to poetry because our country generates more nonsense and distraction than anybody else. Though shunned and drowned out, poetry still lurks across this land, however:
In New Orleans, two guys sit behind typewriters on a sidewalk in the exceedingly charming neighborhood of Marigny. Inspired by Jazz, no doubt, they will instantaneously write a poem on “your topic,” and, get this, at “your price.” Go ahead and try them, but don’t go easy now. Demand that they write a poem on Grimm’s law, gimcrackery, the Dust Bowl, viridity or the amazing life and death of Ioan Petru Culianu, for example, and pay them well, of course.
In Boulder, there is a smudgy facsimile of Walt Whitman wandering around, wearing sandwich boards that announce, “I’m Reverend Friendly—a poet and I know it. I earn my bread by reciting a poem I have stored in my head, But if you’re too poor, I’ll do it for free instead. Halleluiah, praise be to the Holy One!”
When the Reverend says one, he means the same poem each time, but sometimes not even that in its entirety, as when he forgot the final, killer stanza to Baudelaire’s “To The Reader.” After some nudging from me, however, Friendly finally belted out, with flecks of spittle spraying my poor face:
Boredom! He smokes his hookah, while he dreams
Of gibbets, weeping tears he cannot smother.
You know this dainty monster, too, it seems —
Hypocrite reader! — You! — My twin! — My brother!
In Boston, there is a young woman whose life is truly a poem. She said, “From the age of twelve, I’ve always wanted to be an animal,” and that’s why she goes barefoot and lives outside as much as possible.
Drifting around for the last four years, she has traveled as far north as Alaska, and as far south as New Mexico. In Montana, she slept outside in -20 degrees. She was staying with Occupy Boston until the police evicted their encampment from Dewey Square.
She has investigated the Transcendentalists and found them half-assed.
“If you want to be an animal, then Thoreau ain’t shit,” I said.
“Yes, Thoreau ain’t shit.”
In Chicago, there’s a Poetry Garage, and, no, I’m not making this up. Why would I make it up? I’m too honest, earnest and anal retentive to make anything up, ever. The Poetry Garage is at 201 West Madison, and for a modest fee, say, $2,000 a month, you can park your miserable, beloved poem in the Poetry Garage, where no one, but no one, will ever proposition it, not that it’s been getting lucky anyway, lately or ever. My primary and lifelong interest, however, is not in this Poetry Garage but in the cousined, digestively related Poetry Junk Yard, reputedly further West, where every life form, radiant or otherwise, goes to die, with its dreams, Hollywood or otherwise, never coming close to being fulfilled. Hey, but the road was fun and crippling! The Poetry Junk Yard is said to be larger than the Earth itself.
In Providence, some wise guy at Cafe Francaise has decided to scrawl some effete, literary hors d’œuvre on the chalk board each morning, and on March 11, 2011, at exactly 1:12PM, I was affronted with this nonsense from a guy I’ve never heard of: “Poetry begins when we look from the center outward–Ralph Waldo Emerson.” This nutrition-free yet pestering nugget was promptly redeemed, however, by a lovely coda–and all codas are lovely, my dear, in its proper lighting and coupled with a carafe or six pack–right beneath it, “Today’s Soup: Chicken Tortilla.”
As we all know, Providence is home to excellent Brown University, an ivory Watts Tower that mostly benefits folks parachuted in from divers brown stones, cul-de-sacs and walled and moated communities. That is, they ain’t quite germaine to Providence itself, with its million Dunkin’ Donuts and a few excellent Cambodian eateries. So here’s the punchline: Brown pays only 2 million bucks of city tax yearly when it should cough up 19, which is exactly the deficit of corn syrup and trans fat-mainlining Providence. Ah, but Brown has an excellent writing program!
Opening a Brown door to go outside, I nearly slammed into a white bearded and ushanka wearing character, so I shouted my standard greeting, “Yo, let’s go for a beer!” But this Russian caricature dude was not impressed. Though he seemed crazy, he probably thought I was crazy. It turned out he was the take-no-prisoner Keith Waldrop. Just so you know now, Keith doesn’t bullshit, and he has stopped going to poetry readings or lectures. He has enough poems in his head to last several millennia, so he has to use what little time he has left to hunker down and turn each one over, to examine each from all sides, to decide whether it belongs in the Poetry Garage or the Poetry Junk Yard.
In El Paso, there’s a gentleman with a vaguely rhythmic specimen permanently lodged in his head. I found him at The Tap, a divey, old man’s bar downtown. A retired Vietnam vet, he had spent 13 years in Juarez, but the increasing violence and extorting cops chased him back stateside. We did agree, though, that Juarez had its sweetness and charms. It’s not just cops with assault rifles and flyers everywhere seeking loved ones. At any time of the day, it’s more alive than El Paso, that’s for sure. With its bustle and colors, Juarez reminded me very much of Vietnam, I told him, and he concurred, “But if they feel like shooting you, they’ll shoot you right in the middle of a crowd. Even if it’s sixteen bullets, they’ll all hit you, with none hitting anybody else!”
After I admitted that I was more or less a writer, he said that he too wrote. He was a poet, to be more specific, “I’ve been writing since I was four!”
“Do you have any poem in your head you can write down for me?”
“Yes! In fact, I do. I’ll write it down for you right now.” And he immediately went at it.
Done, he motioned for the bartender to come over so he could declaim his poetry to her. She listenly patiently, though without much comprehension, even if there was no Norteno music in the background, yet at the end, she beamed in relief and shouted, “That’s beautiful!” Before scramming away.
As he handed his poem to me, he explained how he managed to compose it, “I wrote this after my first wet dream. Yes, my very first, when I was already in my 30′s! I dreamt that I was back in Vietnam, and I was in a firefight, and it was one of those terrible firefights when you couldn’t even think, when your mind went blank because you were so confused and terrified. My mind went blank, and I couldn’t think at all, but suddenly the noises stopped, and I was in this hooch, and it was completely silent, and in walked six or seven Vietnamese women. You know, when I first got to Vietnam, I couldn’t tell the women apart. The men, I could figure out, but the women all looked the same to me. I was sleeping with this one girl, and I thought I was in love with her, but then I couldn’t tell if it was her I saw on the streets. Is that her? Is that her? Anyway, here I was in this dream, and in walked these Vietnamese women, and they were all beautiful, but I couldn’t tell them apart, so I had to look at their legs. Suddenly, I could tell which woman was for me, because she had black legs!”
This vet was black, by the way, but as I started to comment how ironic it was that he couldn’t tell Vietnamese apart, when racist whites, and Asians too, would say that they can’t tell one black from another, he stopped me with volcanic irritation, “You have no rights to judge my feelings! This is my soul! My creativity! You’re judging my art! You have no rights to judge my art!”
And with that, our conversation ended, but I still have his poem here. Like most, the chance of it being even slightly good or readable is very slim, but who am I to say? Nearly all of our poems are barely read now, much less in the future.
In Austin, someone has scrawled on the bathroom wall of a cafe on Congress Street, “I don’t know if you or I exist, but somewhere there are poems about us.”
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