In which Carl Wendt, not quite Charles Baudelaire, not quite Charles Bukowski, with the look of a well-worn Alex Trebek but the pit bull demeanor of a Mickey Rourke, flaneur, art critic, jazzbo, and last of the two fisted hard drinking hard boiled poets in a city not quite Frisco, hustles some much needed operating funds by delivering a lecture to a creative writing class at City College, and encounters the future of poetry.
from Ode To Sunset
A Year in the Life of American Genius
a fiction by Pat Nolan
He was late partly due to Angie. She had to get ready which meant that after she was fully clothed, she had to dress her face. She was heading to South City to look into long term storage options and agreed to give him a lift to City College and the morning class. Then finding the classroom on a campus he’d never been to before took more time. The security guard was only a little more familiar with the layout than he was. Finally it was determined that the class was being held in a basement classroom in the Science Annex.
Russell Kennston was pacing outside the room in a poorly lit green hallway chewing his cheek.
Wendt didn’t bother to explain as Kennston hurriedly opened the door to the achingly white artificial light of the windowless classroom. “You have my fee?”
Russell frowned and rummaged through his soft case and extracted a number 10 envelope. “As we discussed,” and handed it over.
Wendt peered inside to ascertain the amount. He nodded his approval. As he’d explained to the young professor over drinks a few days earlier, anything that involved explanations was extra. If it was just a poetry reading, he’d charge his standard hundred bucks an hour, but since he’d be explaining shit, it would cost more.
He turned to the class as Russell called for their attention. “Everyone! This is Carl Wendt!”
Everyone was less than a dozen youngsters, some barely out of their teens, only a few trying to look radically different than their peers. A white guy with a mop of unruly curls slouched in a desk near the front with an I-don’t-give-a-shit smirk of skeptical nonchalance. Three girls, their desks close enough together to signify that they were BFF’s, the girl, woman, with the cobalt dye job in the center of the triad doing nothing to hide the mischievous sly smiles she cast his way. A couple of young guys, nondescript black and or Chicano, looked like they’d made a wrong turn at Riordan High. An Asian woman, girl, sat in a row toward the back, furiously and seriously copying down every word her professor was saying.
Wendt waved a dismissive hand. “A PhD is like a prison tattoo, stay in an institution long enough and you’re bound to get one.”
“Mr. Wendt is a well-known poet, author of numerous books of poetry, most recently, Synthetic Lament, and a critic who has published many articles on literature and esthetics in some of the top literary journals in the country, internationally, in fact, including Poetry Now and the Pan-American Review of Literary Esthetics, and in such collections as Reconsidering Language, Examining the Puritanical Roots of American Literature. According to another well-known and respected poet, Mitchell Tjantor, someone whose views on poetry we were discussing just last week, Carl Wendt and his work have had a significant influence on the poets of the younger generation. You may know him from his weekly column Gone With The Wendt, a running commentary on the rich and sometimes scandalous art and literary scene in the city. As a young poet very close to your own ages now, he was chosen by the legendary editor and publisher Dorian Pillsbury for the prestigious Singled Out Foundation Award, also known as SOFA, and the publication of his first book of poems, Pay Attention.”
Wendt had stopped paying attention. Done checking the student fare, he let his gaze drift across the professor’s desk. There were two books among the scatter of stapled handouts and assignments, one, a thick poetry anthology he assumed was a reference text for the class, Advanced Creative Writing 1B, and another smaller volume sprouting numerous colorful page markers.
“Please welcome our guest, Carl Wendt.” Kennston swept his hand toward him, yielding the floor. “Carl, it’s an honor to have you here.”
“This book!” Wendt held up the slim volume, “Nonsense and Stuff, How To Read Modern Poetry?” He glanced at the cover. “By Bertrand Stephens! This whole book is total bullshit! Do not believe a fucking word this asshole says about modern poetry or poetry in general!”
Russell stiffened as if he’d been stung. “Wait, he has a PhD!”
Wendt waved a dismissive hand. “A PhD is like a prison tattoo, stay in an institution long enough and you’re bound to get one.”
The white guy gave a loud guffaw, everyone else suspending judgment, not sure on which side they were going to land.
“And this anthology, edited by the same guy, PoMo, Hybrid Poetries at the Beginning of a New Century? PoMo stands for postmodern or in this case, postmortem. These clowns are dead and they don’t even know it.”
Kennston, still aghast that the recommended reading was being so summarily criticized, interjected, “But he teaches at Harvard!”
“Every time I hear the word ‘Harvard’ I reach for my mental spray can to tag it, Americano style, con safo. The English Dept. there is bent on ruining American literature.”
The young Asian woman now visibly incensed, partly due to her affection for her professor and partly because she perceived Wendt as being rude, blurted, “That’s better than you could do!”
Wendt laughed. “Hey, look at that, someone’s awake.” The outburst had the effect of easing the formality and tension.
“Alright, let’s get this straight. First of all, Pomo are a Northern California indigenous peoples, not a collection of sanctioned poets picked by a self-appointed committee. This boat anchor is more of a directory than an anthology, and if anything, acts as an annotated bibliography for the commercial purposes of those listed. The notion that it is in any way representative of the art at any one time is sadly mistaken. Political concerns always override esthetics.”
“How come you’re not in there, Mr. Wendt?” It was the white guy.
“Good question. Actually mediocre question, but what can I expect, this is a friggin’ junior college. However, the very good, actually excellent reason I’m not in that anthology is because I’m a Marxist Lennonist. Groucho said, ‘never belong to a group that would have someone like yourself as a member,’ and John said, ‘love is all you need.’ In other words, I don’t need to be included in no stinking misleading misnomered employment list of poets to know that I am a poet. The middle class definition of which, incidentally, implies being employed.”
“I got another question. I know the Lennon Beatle dude, but who’s this Groucho?”
If he hadn’t noticed it before, the immensity of the generation gap hit him across the face like a wet flipper. He paused a beat as a few late arriving students found their desks, a large black woman who sent a myopic frown in his direction, a skinny black woman, actually café au lait with incredibly straight hair, and a young man of the same beige complexion with a head of dreadlocks, his half closed eyes and sheepish grin saying LOADED loud and clear.
“So you think you wanna be a poet. Well, you’re gonna need a toolkit, because being a poet depends on your tools and how you use them. Out there in the cold cruel poetry world, and let me emphasize cruel, it’s just you and your toolkit on the way to the job. Except for most of you going to a job is like putting on a suit and goosing the receptionist at the office.”
There was an uncomfortable chuckle from the class and Russell cleared his throat.
“Or a skirt and being goosed at the office. On the other hand, being a poet is like gearing up to go spelunking, it’s physical, you’re going to sweat, it’s mostly dark and close, and it can be dangerous which is why you need to have the right toolkit.” He cast a glance around the classroom to make sure they had followed him thus far.
“In case you think I’m pulling monkeys out of my ass, let me remind you that it was Wittgenstein who said, ‘Think of the tools in a toolbox – there’s a hammer, pliers, a saw, a screw driver, a ruler, retractable or fixed, a glue pot, nails, screws—the functions of words are as diverse as the functions of these objects.’ Experience, of course, is important, as long as it doesn’t make you careless. It provides you with content. Personality is no less important as that is the source of your wit. And intelligence provides the form, how you actualize your wit and content. It’s a formula, P plus I plus E equals PIE. The formula for being a poet.
“Everyone has access to these tools. A poet, unless he’s a minimalist, and nothing wrong with that if don’t you mind having orange crates and cinder blocks as your literary furniture, has to learn the use, and practice the use, of necessary tools, in this case, parts or figures of speech.
“Let’s start with the basics, simile and metaphor. Simile is what the name implies, similarity, the comparison of one thing to another, animal, vegetable or mineral. I could say this class room is like a dungeon.” The class snickered, rasta-head giving a loud guffaw in spite of himself. “And you are obviously seeing the similarities that are essentially square, windowless, and enclosure. The handy thing about a simile is that it doesn’t have to be perfect, you’ve got wiggle room. Unless you’re a sphincter tweaker, and that’s largely a matter of personality because some things don’t always line up, specifically. Dungeons are generally thought of as tiny, dark, and dank, and primitive. This classroom is not small, nor is it dark, and only a little fetid. More like a cell or an interrogation room, but still generally confining. And there I’ve added more similes by my further comparisons. We use similes every day, all the time, to express general ideas to relate more easily what we hold in common.
“The downside of similes, particularly in poetry is that they’re too easy, cheap, common, and eventually too formulaic. A good simile is a needle in a haystack. And what I just said is a metaphor.” He paused to gauge their attention. The stoner was going to nod, that was a given.
Your generation unfortunately is at a disadvantage because you’ll never be as smart as your phones.
“I could have said like a needle in a haystack but in this case the fit is a little tighter, not as much wiggle room, and I’m not making a comparison, I’m equating an abstract concept, a figure of speech with a physical object, the needle, and by placing it in a haystack, a collection of similarly shaped yet unlike objects. I am emphasizing its rarity and at the same time capitalizing on the assumption that you’ve heard the trope ‘as difficult as finding a needle in a haystack.’ Like similes, a good metaphor is hard to find. A good metaphor will have the reverberation of a brass bell, a shimmering presence for as long as it’s contemplated. Similes are basic arithmetic in that ‘like’ serves as an equal sign. Metaphors, depending on their resonance, are a more complex calculus. Metaphor attaches a picture to meaning, and simile invites a comparison, subjective at best”
He stopped and looked out at the scattered desks only sparsely occupied, essentially by children. He might as well have been singing a lullaby. One of the BFF’s, the one with the bad complexion and numerous facial piercings, had dropped her eyes to the watch on her wrist. There was a thick silence in the large airless classroom crowded with stale personal scent, off the shelf deodorant, and someone’s half-eaten salami sandwich saved for later.
“Why is metaphor in poetry essential you might ask? One way of focusing on our lives is through metaphor—we do it every day. Something is always compared to something else, and how closely the match is made is how its intrinsic value is established. Symbolism is an attempt to synthesize or institutionalize metaphor which is essentially a spontaneous act of consciousness available to every conscious being. The vitality of poetry relies on its ability to remain spontaneous. Metaphor is what we place between ourselves and the mundane to renew experience. And from this you get the satisfaction of the straight forward, the unwavering line drawn by analogy.”
He could never be a teacher. Not that he didn’t have the chops and an autodidact’s insatiability, he certainly knew what he was talking about. It was that other thing. He didn’t care enough. A good teacher gives wholeheartedly the requisite knowledge and delights in the comprehension when it blossoms in self-realization. He wasn’t interested in giving anything. He’d heard it said before, he was a selfish son-of-a-bitch. Interest, curiosity would lead to discovery, that’s the way the game was played, and he had no desire to spoon feed a bunch of unformed psyches into thinking that they were poets. You’re a poet when you know you’re a poet. Advanced Creative Writing 1B wasn’t going to change any of that.
“Now what I just said, you could easily find online. It’s all there. That’s the advantage over having to physically search through books, page by page, looking for what you want to find or think you want to find. Metaphors and similes are known as parts of speech because we use them every day, without thinking. The same goes for most literary or rhetorical devices. And writers teach themselves how to organize these parts of speech on the page so that it sounds like someone talking to you when you’re reading it, trying to convince you, convert you, instruct you, dissuade you, entertain you, lie to you, make you laugh, make you cry, jump for joy, drop into the abyss.
“Metalepsis, antonomasia, hypallage, catachresis, metonymy. . .not monotony, that’s what’s going on here. . .metonymy is like when you say uniform when you refer to a cop, or suit for a businessman, and maybe somebody in upper management as corporate.” Wendt shrugged. “Well, you get the drift. And there’s synecdoche, not a place in upstate New York as a certain film maker would have you believe. Litotes and antiphrasis, pleonasm, hypotyposis, and lest we forget, hyperbole. Nothing like a little exaggeration to make a body feel good about themselves.
“A poet’s job is to learn these components, these rules, and how they relate to their sense of language and twist them, pervert them, turn them upside down, maul them, mangle them, stretch them, ignore them, and then break them. Wittgenstein was full of shit about the tool box after all. You think you’re gonna build a poem with a hammer and saw? Sure, a novel, maybe, but not a poem. A poem is a house of cards, you need a steady hand, a cool reserve and the understanding that the entire thing could collapse at a moment’s notice.”
A hand shot up, the young black woman who had come in late, and Wendt nodded his assent. “Don’t you have to be, like, really smart to be a poet, I mean. . . ?”
Wendt shrugged. “It doesn’t hurt to be smart or educated as long as you don’t let it get in the way. Poets don’t need smarts, really. A poet needs guts and the determination to stick with it. Like the great Frank O’Hara once said,” he paused looking for glints of recognition, but nada, “‘you go on your nerve.’ Your generation unfortunately is at a disadvantage because you’ll never be as smart as your phones.”
One of the post high-schoolers asked, “Why did you become poet?”
“Because it’s the most dangerous thing, in all existence, that you can do and requires nothing but your nerve, like walking a tightrope. Without a net. From the tallest building in Frisco. To the tallest building in El Fuckin’ Ay. Naked. A poet needs perfect balance to survive. To fail is to fall. That’s why some so-called poets can’t do it without a safety net or the assurance of a zipline harness. By safety net, I mean a nine to five that has nothing to do with the art of poetry, and a zipline can be equated to a teaching job or professorship at some university which is like the ultimate dream job for wannabe poets.”
The Asian woman. “How does that translate into success?” The pen in her hand pointed accusingly.
“The successful writer is of a class, mostly middle, educated in the better schools, and with a worldview that really has nothing in common with the real hard scrabble world, and everything in common with a privileged point of view that is entirely self-serving. There are other writers, actually great writers, who are self-taught either because they couldn’t afford better schools or would have little patience with them in the first place. You may never hear of them unless you are, or someone you know is, an intrepid scholar and goes looking for them. The assumption of privilege is what success is all about. There are two avenues open to what you might term success, the public and the private, as a means of gaining entry into the poetry world. The government will fund those who can or will fill out the necessary forms in triplicate and have the connections, i.e., name recognition as a social gadfly. One can eke out a ‘living’ in poetry by constant application and tenacity, and an undeniable belief in one’s own worth. In other words, you get a job at a college or university or you live by your wits.
“And it is for this reason that the role of the ecstatic, the real poet, will always be marginalized because it is essentially an antisocial role. We tend to forget that poets are descendants of shamans. They practice the techniques of ecstasy, and are basically eccentrics, off center so to speak. What writing classes like this one, and workshops and writing programs, attempt, and which you will encounter if you continue in this course of study, is the socialization or the normalization of the ecstatic experience which, because of its individualistic character, can’t be done or done without destroying or diluting that ecstatic quality or nature. Much that is done in the name of literature is self-advertisement. It has a purpose or aim beyond the function of the art, and that is to promote the poet. Once poets cum artists achieve acclaim they can slough off their art like a snake with its skin.
“Poetry is not a means, it is the end, a practice, and in many respects, it is the ultimate end, that’s to say the terminal point of sentience, death itself. A true poet should always be on the verge of literary suicide. The achievement of poetry is self-negation through the discovery of self, through an understanding of self that leads to a point of vanishment. Know yourself to the point of no point and integration with everything visible and invisible, as an ecstatic oneness.”
The café-au-lait student with the straight hair raised her hand. “What if I don’t want to walk a tight rope to LA naked? What if I just want to write poetry?”
Wendt smiled at the question. Someone was paying attention. “Poetry is the most inclusive form of thought yet devised. It is a conscious call upon those resources which underlie all language and all thinking. If you are involved in any working system of thought, recognized or not, then poetry, identified by your somatic complicity, is in fact nearest to reality. Poetry, metaphor, mythology are highly realistic and down to earth. It is logic and mathematics which are the imaginative and fantastical exercises. Besides, being a poet means that you believe in yourself in a very basic way, that you have faith in the unknown.”
If he listened carefully he could probably hear the cosmic microwave background above the rock bottom glassy-eyed silence. He gave a quick glance at the clock above the whiteboard at the head of the class. A quarter hour had passed. That was probably enough.
“Alright,” he clapped his hands in a clasp, “I’m good, how about you? What say let’s go get a drink? I seem to remember a friendly neighborhood bar around here, The Kit Kat Club?”
Some of the students frowned not sure if he wasn’t exceeding his authority by dismissing them. Others got to their feet tentatively, wide grins that class had been dismissed, looking for confirmation from their prof who, leaning back against the front edge of his desk staring at his shoes, looked like he didn’t know what hit him or that he’d made a huge mistake by inviting Wendt to speak to his class and was momentarily unable to respond.
“That place still open?” curly mop wondered aloud.
“Yeah, I think so, but you know it’s kind of like a dive,” one of the chinegroes offered.
“Then what a better place to continue our discussion on the merits of poetry!” Wendt declared with triumph at the obvious. “Like Orpheus we must descend into Hades in hopes of winning the release of our fair muse, Eurydice!”
The large black girl with the bright yellow backpack and matching plastic eyeglass frames sitting at the back of the room joined her classmates gathered around Wendt. “I don’t know what the hell he just said, but I’m with him. I wanna know more about this UR A DC in hell.” Then as an aside to the skinny black woman, “Sounds kinda like my life.”
The flirtatious one of the three BFF’s proffered her smart phone. “Look, my friend just wrote a poem on her phone and texted it to me!”
He glanced at the device and read the future of poetry.
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.
Hey, Pat. Thanks for the fun read! My favorite line: “Experience, of course, is important, as long as it doesn’t make you careless.”