I’m a lawn-mowing man.
I make the noise pollution.
I just do what I can
As I await the Revolution.
Noisy hours pass
As I live from day to day
Cutting all this grass
And never making hay.
Hay could feed some sheep
Which could feed and clothe the poor.
It makes me want to weep.
Just what am I mowing for?
As a poet my responsibility was not to make a lot of money. In fact I got points for being poor. Perhaps I took things a little too far, but it is proof the ego can fasten onto absurd things when I look back and realize I used to brag about my poverty. My friends would brag about making more than they made the year before, while I bragged about getting by on less.
Some stated money was a measure of how effective my poetry was, and the fact I made no money was proof my poetry was no good. I said that writing poetry for money was like having sex for money, and that bought-and-paid-for poets were basically gigolos. A true poet wrote about whatever came to mind, free from the demands of people who wanted them to crank out a poem praising Chocolate Sugar Bombs Breakfast Cereal. Not that I might not occasionally crank out a poem about some mundane thing, such as Aunt Mable’s birthday, but it would be because I loved Aunt Mable.
Others stated that if my poetry was any good I should seek fame, because this would allow a greater number of people to benefit from it. I confess this did grab my attention, for I did feel the world would be far better off, if only it saw the beauty I saw. However I also saw that all too often people who actually gained fame were in some ways perverted by it: A sort of rot set in and often they experienced horrendous downfalls into depravity, which was very sad and also seemed to make them even more famous. Lastly, I couldn’t stand the pushing and shoving involved among people who craved fame. They reminding me of little children screeching for attention and all wanting to come first in line. I tended to stand back and watch. I was very unassuming, for a raving egotist.
You have to be an audacious, raving egotist to be a poet, for you think you are important even when all the evidence states you are not. There have been times when all I needed to say was, “I have written a poem”, and it would cause a jam in the doorways as people tried to flee the room. You have to own a special sort of arrogance to not quit, after experiences like that.
Eventually all the evidence that I should quit resulted in a transformation of my ego which I can’t claim I fully understand. Poetry ceased to be about me anymore. Why? Because I really wasn’t getting anything out of writing it. Or nothing ordinary people use, to measure “gain” with. I wasn’t gaining money or popularity or power or sex or drugs or anything other than the beauty I witnessed. At times I didn’t really even have a person to talk to, who agreed the beauty was beautiful. It was like getting a joke absolutely no one thinks is funny, but you cannot stop laughing at, even when people demand you stop laughing and get angry about your laughter. All I got out of my poetry was trouble, and I could not call trouble a gain. But still I couldn’t quit.
I had to resort to a sort of mental trickery to keep myself from falling apart. I’ll share the tricks, because I think young poets might find the trickery handy.
First, I adopted a faux humbleness wherein I stated my poetry sucked. In actual fact I felt it was great, and everyone else in the world was stupid and blind, but for the sake of argument I stated it sucked. Then I had to say it didn’t matter that it sucked. I was like a small and tone-deaf child singing his heart out in church. It wouldn’t matter to God that the singing was awful; it was the heart that mattered. This enabled me to continue writing poems even if no one wanted to read them. I was doing it for my own good. It allowed me the happiness that was so obvious (to me) when I wrote. It accepted the reality spoken by the old song, “The doctor says: ‘Give him jug-band music; it seems to make him feel so fine.’”
Second, I established (for myself) the reality of the beauty I was attempting to copy with my poems. The poem might suck, but the beauty itself did not suck. I might be like an artist attempting to copy a crimson sunset using charcoal, but the sunset was untouched by my ineptitude. This enabled me to elude the doubt fostered by critics who derive a perverse joy from crushing young artists with sneering skepticism. It was the admission that God does not need me to prove He exists, to go on existing.
Third, I accepted the fact beauty does not have to be in the center. In fact beauty often occurs not in the center of cities, but in out-of-the-way places. People know this, when seeking the beauty of nature in wildness areas, but they don’t know that the same principles apply concerning the beauty of humans. The best music may not be heard in a stadium in front of throngs, but in a rural church before a congregation of thirty. This enabled me to feel I might be among the best, even though not famous.
Fourth, there may very well be media besides the mass media, a “grapevine” that publishes ideas without needing an editor or publisher, and without involving a “gatekeeper” who censors ideas that are not politically correct. This idea involves a good tale:
In the mid-1980’s I was living midst sagebrush next to a truck stop in Arizona, because it was free, and truckers would walk over to visit me, because I was an interesting character and driving trucks out west can be boring. One night a few fellows found me fuming, because my mother was worried about me and had written me a letter I found offensive.
At that time my mother was a EMT in Maine, and among other things dealt with car crashes caused by drunk drivers, and she also knew I drove after drinking. I’d never had an accident, but she had recently joined MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving), and was sending me all sorts of literature insinuating I was going to kill someone. Did I not know 39% of all traffic fatalities were alcohol-related? As I drank beer by my campfire with the truckers I composed a letter back to my mother, and they found it hilarious. (I’m not sure I ever actually sent the first draft. But she did chuckle at a later version.)
I informed her I was forming DAMM (Drunks Against Mad Mothers). Did she not know 61% of all traffic fatalities involved no alcohol whatsoever? What were we going to do about all this sobriety? Furthermore, at least some of the traffic fatalities involved men intimidated by MADD, who were not in the safety of a car, but rather staggering home on foot, or wobbling on a bicycle. (I later discovered 12% of alcohol-related traffic fatalities involve such people).
We all had a good laugh and then switched the subject to other topics, and I assumed that was that, however around a week later one of the truckers was passing through the area again, and he handed me a baseball cap with DAMM on it, that he had made up, and a month later I saw another trucker I’d never met wearing a DAMM t-shirt. Now it is thirty years later and I see DAMM hats and t-shirts and coffee-cups all the time.
I don’t claim to be the first who had the idea of DAMM as an acronym; it does seem a rather obvious response to the MADD acronym; but I “might” have been. And it does show how an idea can “go viral”. A little pebble can start a mighty avalanche. As long as one doesn’t want to make a profit and collect royalties and residuals, (greed), there is no telling the influence one might have, even when sitting by an obscure campfire midst sagebrush.
Fifth and lastly, there is something other-worldly about poetry, and it defies the material-minded. When one struggles late at night with their writing they are battling within a dimension the media cannot control, and in many cases does not even admit exists. Rather than using examples from my own life, I’ll turn to Mark Twain.
The first use of the word “telepathy” wasn’t until 1883, and apparently Mark Twain didn’t hear it, for he coined the phrase “Mental Telegraphy” to describe the uncanny coincidences he noticed, involving writing. He would write a letter to someone who was writing him at the exact same moment, a phenomenon he called “crossing letters”, and on some occasions it involved people he had not written to in a long time. He also noted examples of people who lived far apart, and didn’t know each other, publishing the identical idea at the same time. He had no control over such telepathy, but admitted it, as a reality.
When I chanced across and read Mark Twain’s “Mental Telegraphy” and “Mental Telegraphy Revisited” it was like having a secret idea I had never dared share affirmed by someone I respected. It also made me feel better about spending months battling to write something which even I myself couldn’t stomach rereading, when it was finished.
Often such writing was a rave, decrying any number of societal stupidities, unreadable because it answered objections no one but I myself would make, involving off-the-point side-tracks to further objections only I myself would make, and seemed a long argument with myself, or with echoes of critics buried in my dead past. In some cases such blathering can perhaps be justified, because the hundred-pages indicate all the thought that evolved and refined and incubated into something which is now well-thought-out and succinct, but in other cases the hundred-pages is seemingly senseless, involving things I no longer care a hoot about.
But there is no telling what was going on, deep in the darkness of those late nights long ago, within the mental landscapes of telepathy. Battles were waged and I survived. Foes were defeated and I strode onwards triumphant. All that the world sees is a hundred-pages thrown into the trash, but the young poet knows (without knowing the what or the why) that he feels great, and is walking down the street with his chest out and his heart singing.
Surely one must smile at the idea of a young poet seeing himself as a mighty warrior, when he may in fact be a ninety-eight-pound weakling, living in his mother’s basement. (I told you audacious egotism is involved). However danger is involved, and I advise young poets to avoid the dangers of living in a mother’s basement, not because I never did it, but because I did do it and know the dangers. For the same reason, I advise against smoking marijuana. When one speaks of the dangers of the mental battlefields one admits the possibility not all will come out of it alive, or sane.
Some poets do die young, but the power of poetry is the power of life, and of rejuvenation. It always seemed to me that John Keats packed more living into his twenty-six years than bankers do in a hundred, but then, that involves your definition of “living”.
This brings me back to where I started, which is, in case you forgot, what the responsibility of a poet is. I think a poet’s responcibility is to show what makes a poor man richer than a banker, but what is that?
Some call it “God”, but others prefer I not use that word. So let us call it “Truth”, (though some don’t like that word either.) Whatever it is, it is something worthy of a poet rhapsodizing about, though I admit some poets rhapsodize about unworthy things. In fact, unless a poet is perfect, they all will tend to attempt to portray a crimson sunset with charcoal, and fail, but here’s the amazing thing: If they escape bitterness and cynicism and really reach out to Truth, Truth reaches back to them, like the Michelangelo painting of God creating Adam.
Perhaps this is what makes many poets so giddy. One definition of “touched” is “mad”, but poets have been touched in a wonderful way. I honestly believe this is what hauls them out of the preposterous predicaments they often land themselves in. Because they stand by Truth, Truth stands by them. Because they reach out to Truth from their mother’s basement, a hand reaches down and hauls them out. Often they look like they have come to a bad end, and then you meet them a week later and they’ve started a whole new and surprising chapter.
This often takes guts, guts people didn’t suspect they had, but they gain those guts from outside of themselves. A hand doesn’t usually reach into their mother’s basement and pluck them up, but something gives them the courage everyone thought they utterly lacked, and they dare step out into the dawning of a new day. What gave them the guts? They simply saw the dawning.
An example of this from my own life involved my getting married at age thirty-seven. Absolutely no one saw it coming, including myself. But with incredible speed I went from being a confirmed bachelor (June 30, 1990) to being the father-of-three (July 9, 1990). How could such a thing happen?
One thing was that, when you have gone decades without understanding, you recognize understanding when you see and hear it. Upon meeting, my wife and I talked non-stop, quite literally, all the time we were together, without awkward pauses, for days. What is odd is that there was a lot we didn’t agree about. However there was a respectfulness in the disagreeing that I knew, in theory, was possible, but had never met face to face. It was an ability to harmonize, which also showed in the fact neither of knew how to dance very well, but, when we gave it a try, it was great fun, and people asked us where we had learned the dances we invented on the spot.
A humorous decision we agreed upon was that even though we felt instantly married we felt we couldn’t tell anyone, because we were quite certain they would tell us we were crazy. So we waited what seemed a long time, twenty-three days, before announcing we were getting married, and people still told us we were crazy. We were married in September, and here it is twenty-eight years later and we’re still crazy.
Abruptly becoming a father-of-three involved some radical adjustments in my life. For one thing, I’d have to stop sleeping in my car. Also I’d have to stop bragging about making less than I made the year before. I had to hustle more. However it wasn’t as hard as some felt it would be for me, and soon I was bragging how little a family of five (and then six, and then seven) could happily live on. The only thing I really didn’t like was working indoors, in factories, during the winters. As soon as the snow melted in the spring I went back to mowing lawns. However I never stopped the poetry.
Unlike most landscapers I didn’t invest in heavy equipment. I was dirt poor, and a rake cost less than a leaf-blower, and a shovel less than a backhoe. I took small jobs that required neatness; I could dig a ditch through a garden to lay a drain pipe without crushing the roses. The only noisy tool I owned was a lawn-mower, and I didn’t like the noise of it, as can be seen by the lyrics that begins this essay. That poem was part of a song I made up and sung as I pushed the mower, and is part of the reason I met my wife. A customer heard me singing and asked me if I’d like to join a church choir, and my future wife attended that church.
Even then I had no thought of dating her. I saw she had three children, and assumed there was a husband who didn’t go to church. A second customer had to serve as a matchmaker, and talk me into going on a blind date.
My wife later referred to these customers as “my harem”. I cultivated a collection of old clients who liked me (and my low prices), and I also liked them and enjoyed talking with them. Some were men but most were woman; (hence the “harem”). Often, when I stopped for lunch I was invited onto porches, and rather than “chowing-down” I “dined”, and rather than “shooting the bull” I “conversed”. They had seen some amazing things in their long lives, and were gratified that I was so interested, and also they were curious about me. They found it peculiar that a person who knew so much about English literature should be such a bum. I’d joke no one should study literature without a strong back, for they’d wind up digging ditches, and they seemed puzzled I was so happy about it. However it was a fact: I was happy, even before I met my wife. All those elders are gone now, but they were a wonderful bunch, and I knew there are a lot of rougher jobs to have than to potter about rose gardens, and harsher characters to deal with than old-timers retired from the stress and strain of battling for money.
Someday I hope to write a short book about those lovely summers, but there is one customer I recall who springs to mind, because our interactions pertain to something I think poets need to be wary of.
She was a very old woman, and her character held a strange mix of generosity and fierce suspicion. She’d seen some cruelty in her life, and kept her guard up, and never seemed entirely sure whether or not I might rip her off, as soon as her back was turned. Yet she paid me more per hour than I asked. We had long discussions during lunch about literature and history, and sometimes she’d follow me out after lunch and the discussions would continue as I went back to weeding. I took special care to always be trustworthy and honest, for example confessing if I broke a low branch of a shrub by mistake, or accidentally pulled up a petunia while weeding. As time passed I assumed I was included into her odd and interesting circle of friends. She knew she could call on me in minor emergencies.
However then a fellow entered from stage left, a nemesis. He was about my age and I think he was jealous, in some unspoken way. He whispered she should not trust me, because I was poor. I suppose the assumption was that poor people are driven to be unethical. It wasn’t true, but it preyed on the old woman’s mind, and finally she told me exactly what he had said, looking at me in the saddest manner. By that time I no longer worked for her, so it wasn’t like I was being fired. It was simply a withdrawal, the closing of a window. I hadn’t done anything, so there was nothing to defend. All I could do was shrug and say, “Well, that’s his opinion.”
After that I was quietly excluded from her life. It was the oddest thing, to feel a twinge of jealousy when I noticed the other fellow’s car in her driveway. It made me laugh at myself. After all, the woman was over ninety!
In the end I decided they deserved each other. Sometimes it is best to allow people to draw their own circles, and live in them. In fact, it is their right, and may be for the best, for some small experiments require small test-tubes.
Poetry, however, is anything but small. So look away, young poets, and look up, and look out.