100 Poems in 100 Minutes

“100 Poems in 100 Minutes” struck me as the worst idea to come down the pike in a while. Poetry is not speed dating! I thundered to myself upon receiving the invitation. Poetry is true romance that slows down time for us to notice the glow in our lives that we routinely miss. Poetry is our defense against efficiency, the clock, The 90-Minute Manager compelling us to use our time more successfully. At my readings I present eight to twelve poems in 20 minutes, which, along with my banter, is a full serving. Why try to stuff more down the poor audience’s ears? So “100 Poems in 100 Minutes” led me to envision a hyper-marathon of poets racing against the egg timer, each competing to make an impression. Pretty soon, the event would turn into a parody like a 33 rpm record sped up to 78 rpm to generate those silly chipmunk voices. (Do I sound like I’ve endured poetry marathons? Haven’t I sworn, “Never again!”) Yet, somehow, “100 Poems in 100 Minutes” had found fans, for the damned thing was up its third annual gathering at the Arts Society of Kingston—on April Fool’s Day, no less, though also the first day of National Poetry Month. I decided to go, if only to see the further collapse of civilization. ADD had now conquered poetry.

A funny thing happened. Sifting through my books for poems to share, I was reminded of how certain poems that had first taken about fifteen seconds to read had stayed in my brain for decades. (For the event, I chose e.e. cummings’s “Buffalo Bill” and Robert Creeley’s “I Know a Man.”) As a writer and reader usually drawn to longer pieces, I had to admit, sometimes shorter is a stroke of genius. Who doesn’t know “The Red Wheelbarrow” by William Carlos Williams? In my college freshman dorm, I’d organized a parody contest of this iconic poem because I honestly couldn’t believe that I’d worked that hard to be admitted to Stanford only to be handed this piffle in my English class. That contest was a rousing success, but more than thirty years later, the only poem I remember is “The Red Wheelbarrow.” I can’t help but smile at my youthful intolerance as I recite the poem to myself, having memorized it almost without trying. When I lived in the village of Woodstock, I often walked by a small ivy garden that had a toy red wheelbarrow, a plaster white chicken, and a signboard of this poem, proof of its lasting value and of Woodstock’s endearing quirkiness.

By the time April 1st rolled around, I’d already gotten great pleasure from rehearsing my chosen poems, all short enough that I wouldn’t be racing the second hand. And, lo and behold, the pleasure continued as the event began. We had a small turnout—perhaps the damp chill didn’t help—but plenty of cookies—I’ll confess to “20 Cookies in 100 Minutes”—and an appealing gallery atmosphere. The front room, in particular, had a gorgeous exhibit of Kodachrome-like paintings of snowy fields with the Mohonk Ridge often lying low in the background. At the mik, a dozen of us took turns reading a mixture of our own work and the tried and true by Emily Dickinson, William Blake, and Edna St. Vincent Millay. Betty and Ernst Schoen-Rene delighted us as a tag team. When she read William Carlos Williams,

This Is Just to Say

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

he followed with Kenneth Koch’s parody:

Variations On A Theme By William Carlos Williams

I chopped down the house that you had been saving to live in next summer.
I am sorry, but it was morning, and I had nothing to do
and its wooden beams were so inviting.

We laughed at the hollyhocks together
and then I sprayed them with lye.
Forgive me. I simply do not know what I am doing.

I gave away the money that you had been saving to live on for the next ten years.
The man who asked for it was shabby
and the firm March wind on the porch was so juicy and cold.

Last evening we went dancing and I broke your leg.
Forgive me. I was clumsy and
I wanted you here in the wards, where I am the doctor!

Though I’d fancied myself a contrarian, I was, by now, a convert. In fact, I’d published the perfect “book” for such an occasion, What I’m Glad For, an “origami book” about the size of a credit card that has a cover and half-a-dozen short poems. After I read from it, many in the audience were eager to hold and unfold this tiny book unlike any they’d seen before. Yet, for me, a highlight of the evening was hearing Lewis Gardner, the brains behind this mini-marathon, read his pieces, which were pure entertainment. Besides, it’s always good to acknowledge somebody who has proved you wrong. “100 Poems in 100 Minutes?” Afterwards, my only complaint was that it ended so soon. I still had half-a-dozen poems waiting to be read. But let me give the last word to Lew:

A Gift From Great-Aunt Prudence

In the early days of liberated consciousness—
1967, to be exact—
I was cashier in a shop of imported
goods. One cargo included hand-carved
wooden sculptures from Taiwan
of a hand with upraised middle finger.

This wasn’t the plastic gewgaw
you later saw everywhere, but something
no doubt crafted by carvers with generations
of tradition behind them, who assumed
this strange object had religious
significance for Americans.

One night a little old lady—
since this was Boston, a very Bostonian
old lady—brought six of them
to my counter. “Such lovely ringholders,”
she said, “just the thing
for my grandnephews this Christmas.”

So early in the days of liberated
consciousness—and in Boston besides—
I didn’t know how to tell an old lady
that these items were neither ringholders
nor suitable gifts for her grandnephews.
So I rang them up and bagged them.

Besides, I really enjoyed imagining
Christmas morning in Cambridge, Duxbury,
as one by one they would open
neatly wrapped packages sent
with love by Great-Aunt Prudence.

* * *

Thoughts While Downwind
of the Cat-Food Factory

There were two things everyone knew about
the cat-food factory: one, it smelled really bad,
even driving by; the other amazing fact:
the taster was a human being. If that’s hard
to believe, tell me—would you expect cats
to run the laboratory kitchen at the plant?

A cat’s brain is the size of the brain of an octopus.
Would you assign lab work to an octopus,
for all its prehensile limbs? No,
a human palate and brain are needed
to determine flavor and consistency:
Is there enough hog liver in this batch?
The proper note of muskiness?
Have these fish guts fermented sufficiently?

We imagined the need for expertise even greater
with the elegant brands, huge salaries tempting
Parisian chefs to oversee the fancy little cans.
We never met the cat-food taster, but I always
thought while driving by: To us it’s a nauseating
odor; to him it’s a craft, a calling, an art

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