The Poet As Cynic
Carl Wendt, poet and literary factotum, still adjusting to being
awarded the megabucks Dorian Pillsbury Prize in Poetry, finds himself
hitchhiking along a deserted Northern California backroad highway.
Excerpt from Ode To Sunset
A Year In The Life Of American Genius
A fiction by Pat Nolan
Coming out of his thoughts he found himself walking to the west end of the small one-horse town toward a tall conifer offering shade on the shoulder of the road. As Diogenes the dog once said, “I have come to debase the coinage.” Now I’m leaving, he added with a measure of self-satisfaction. He was a poetry curmudgeon, like Rexroth, but without the Wobbly cachet. He’d always thought of himself as different, eccentric perhaps, superior, some would say, certainly apart from the rest, an exile from the herd. And that bit of askew provided an off-kilter balance that kept him unique.
“What does it matter beyond gilding the breath for its own sake?” Was he to consider himself a cynic like old Dio Dog? Well, for one thing, he was pretty blasé and indifferent, like a stray, living the public life, making no bones about his lust, on the loose, running free. A dog is shameless, and he was as shameless as an Irishman, or setter. In fact he was one of a cult of the shameless, not as being beneath modesty, but as superior to it, and which included most poets whether they admitted to it or not. And as a cynical cur he had an infallible olfactory sense to sniff out what was bullshit and what was not when it came to the tenets of poetry. Like the mutt that he was, he was loyal to his friends and presented a lip curled snarl to those egotistical poetry pimps who would dare tread on his turf with their outdated presumptions.
On the other hand, he tried to maintain an easygoing temperament. That was his goal at least. To be thankful for a clarity of mind that penetrated the smokescreen of mindless ignorance, folly, and conceit, his own and that of others, particularly that of others. And his good nature came from living in accord with a common sense that allowed him to accentuate the positive while sidestepping the dog pile of the negative in the furtherance of his day-to-day survival. He had a rein on his arrogance most of the time because he knew that it led to false judgments which in turn led to negative emotions, unnatural desires of the fame and fortune variety. All the same he had a killer instinct for the emotional jugular. He walked the line knowing that his good nature depended on a single minded self-sufficiency, the mental composure of a Zen monk, a joyful participation in the sorrows of the world, that allowed him to glean nuggets of wisdom from the most mundane and insignificant moments of existence, what Basho had called the spirit of karumi.
For his good nature to flourish he knew he had to eschew such valueless concepts as wealth, fame, power. How then could he explain the wad in his wallet, his bank account, his sudden rise in visibility? He’d been nominated for The Holbrooke Foundation Excellence in Literature Prize, otherwise known as the HELP, and been assured that he was a shoo-in. He was being sucked into the mainstream by the attention of others, tagged for envy and spite, but also appreciated as a discovery much as the petrified bones of a fossil might be. His shameless impudence, his ridicule of social norms, of literary conventions, his violating the rules of conduct and social interaction taken for granted as civilized behavior were now being lauded as visionary and/or quaint.
He’d taken pride in his robust no-frills lifestyle that required only the bare necessities for existence, a liberty unshackled from any need to conform to convention. And it was essential that he apply himself to staying unfettered by dint of daily practice much as Buddhists put into practice the tenets of their beliefs, not only in exercising judgments and forming mental impressions, but also by keeping physically fit with his meditative constitutionals which also served to get him from one place to another.
As D Dog used to say, “There are two kinds of exercise, that of the mind and that of the body.” The healthy body creates in the mind split second intuitions by virtue of its vigor but the one is imperfect without the other since a healthy body and clarity of intellect depend equally on both. Of course he had strayed, often willfully, from many of these precepts yet had kept them in mind like a cracked and faded photo in the folds of a wallet. And it was not like he was a recluse or anything. He had lived in the full glare of the public’s gaze, indifferent in the face of criticism at his unconventional poetics. And certainly not cowed by the proscriptions of political correctness, he had the right to be outspoken, contrary, and irascible, vain and intractable. He considered himself, above all, a citizen of the cosmos, elbowing the stars and gods alike. And perhaps because of this heady company, he was always more than ready to point out the fallacies and pretensions at the root of everyday rote, and to question every aspect of interaction with the world as a clear path to integrity and purity of existence.
In light of events over the past six months, his was an ironic reversal of fortune. For starters he wasn’t in all that good of a shape, physically. Not since the night of what he self-referenced as the “Halloween Bash.” The time in the hospital, the months spent recuperating after the surgery, had taken a toll on his stamina. He still got around but less easily with his game leg, and his jaunts around the city required careful consideration and the hustling of rides from friends. It had slowed him down and subsequently he slowed down.
Then there was the money. The award had only succeeded in making his life more complicated. Suddenly he was back on the debt radar and being hounded by collection agencies over his unpaid student loan, back taxes, and medical expenses. Not to mention those of his acquaintances who suddenly and conveniently remembered a loan they had made some years before and couldn’t remember if he had ever paid them back. Wasn’t there a statute of limitations on that kind of thing? Not that it mattered. He was going to eat up that money like a termite with a sweet tooth through sugar pine.
In his vacillating self-concealment he was feeling the regret that comes with questionable success. What he had lost with this sudden celebrity was his shadow. He had become transparent so that light passed right through him, an invisible man practicing an invisible art. At one time he had been content with being a famous nobody or, better yet, nobody famous. Behind his cynical dog-like sneer he tried to maintain a core of innocence that allowed him to still write poetry. Yet the corrosive effect of fame on the innocents was well documented. Kerouac was a prime example, hounded and shamed for being just that, a pure product of America, harassed for the very innocence he proclaimed. “Fame makes you stop writing,” Jack lamented. He was also reminded of Michel Brazon’s story of hanging out with Bryce Dunnigan on the terrace at Enrico’s one night. Someone at the table was annoying the celebrated Confederate author of Fishing With Dynamite with suggestions as to how he could further boost his national appeal, such as making appearances on late night talk shows. All of which sounded exactly like something the predictably inappropriate Brazon would do. As Michel told it, Dunnigan fished a hundred dollar bill from his wallet and held it up, saying something like “this is what I think of fame,” and set it aflame with the centerpiece candle. When he heard the news that Dunnigan had put a bullet through his head, the thought had crossed his mind: much more effective than burning a C note.
“You know that there will always be an awful lot of good poets,” Dick Granahan once told him. “Some no one will ever hear of, and that’s what kills them. Some, on the heels of luck, are renowned from the first word that dribbles from their pens, and that’s what kills them. Everyone else is just twisting in the wind of slow death oblivion. Great artists are always offing themselves because it doesn’t matter that they’re great, they still can’t live with themselves.”
That he knew, but it bore repeating. Fame, like shit and death, happens. Then the times and fashion change and step right over you as if your entire life were nothing more than a crack in the sidewalk, a lump of detritus, a flash in the pan.
Pat Nolan’s poems, prose, and translations have appeared in literary magazines and anthologies in North America as well as in Europe and Asia. He is the author of over a dozen books of poetry and two novels. His most recent books of poetry are So Much, Selected Poems Volume II 1990-2010 (Nualláin House, Publishers, 2019) and the thousand marvels of every moment, a tanka collection (Nualláin House, Publishers, 2018). He also maintains Parole, the blog of the New Black Bart Poetry Society. His serial fiction, Ode To Sunset, A Year In The Life Of American Genius, is available for perusal at odetosunset.com. He lives among the redwood wilds along the Russian River in Northern California.
New To the Society’s Shelves
Sandy Berrigan, Listen To The Wind, privately published, 2019
Eric Johnson, This, Farflungland Editions, Iota Press, 2020
Mark Young, The Right Foot Of The Giant, Bumper Books, 1999
Jack Kerouac, Some Of The Dharma, Viking, 1997
Paul Fericano, Things That Go Trump In The Night,
Little City Press, 2019
John C. Thirlwall (editor),The Selected Letters of William Carlos Williams, McDowell Obolensky, 1957
Lee Perron, Kenneth Rexroth, A Bibliographic Checklist, Sun Moon Bear Editions, 2009
Ihara Saikaku, The Life of an Amorous Woman (Ivan Morris, trans.), New Directions, 1963
Richard Martin, In Defense of the MFA and Exotic (Vacationland) Writing Workshops, Fell Swoop #122