The Impracticality of Poets


in Archive


I identify myself as a poet because I can’t do anything else. Really, I’ve tried. My journey to find a marketable skill took me all the way to Uzbekistan with the Peace Corps, where I found that my biggest success was writing a haiku everyday to entertain a summer camp of eager ESL students. So a few years later, I gave in to my proclivities, entered an MFA program, and moved to Boston.

Ah, Boston!  Such a friendly city to poets!  It’s ushered the likes of Frost, Sexton, Plath to literary greatness. It nourishes William Knott, Rosanna Warren, Fred Marchant…and countless others. Only in Boston can you hear one whisper with the enthusiasm of a paranormal investigator, “There was a Pinsky sighting last night!” 

So what about me? And the hundreds just like me who come to this literary city? Would the public respond with the same enthusiasm to the poetry of a reasonably talented graduate student?

That’s what I set to find out when I designed a simple test to determine the marketability of a poem. I had it all planned out: chairs, signs, and a great locale, right next to the Park T stop on the Common. There, my partner in crime, Liz — also a poet pursuing her MFA — and I would set up a vending booth offering for $1 a poem or a shoeshine (revenue from the shoeshine would serve as our control group). At the end of the day, we would simply count how much money we made from each service to determine the viability of our poetic futures.

I typed up a catalog of the kinds of poems we would offer for $1: a heroic couplet, an iambic tetrameter couplet, a terza rima tercet, a haiku, a quatrain with an envelope rhyme or an alternating rhyme, four lines of blank verse or free verse, a ballad stanza, and a limerick. We would offer more demanding poems, the sonnet, the villanelle and the ghazal, for $10, but as writing these would be so time consuming, all exchanges would have to be made over e-mail and would, of course, be on the honor system. Liz and I met at my house a few days before the big day to practice. We each took turns pretending to be a stranger who wanted a poem. The stranger would provide the context for the poem by sharing some details about her life with the poet:  Liz pretended to be “Lucy,” who liked rodeos and wanted more than anything a heroic couplet:

I gasped for breath when I saw Lucy there,
On rodeo night with her sweet, short hair.

I thought that we could use the Lucy couplet as a template if we found we were pressed for time, the demand for heroic couplets exceeding our expectations. We wrote poems for George the yoga instructor, for Bo Jangles who got hit by a bus, and for Joe who wanted a dirty limerick about his girlfriend, Carly. We made two white signs equal in appearance, resisting the urge to draw smiley faces on the “Poems $1.00!” poster so that the particulars would be constant and we would maintain our scientific integrity. With shoe polish and shoe brushes, Liz and I were sufficiently prepared for an afternoon of shoe shining and churning out our original, on-the-spot verse.

When the big day arrived, it was raining, but the report said that the storm would pass quickly and it would be sunny by the afternoon. I was ready at 12:45, huddled underneath an awning outside the Park T stop with two collapsible chairs, two signs, and a big bag with all my goodies. Once the storm cleared, I thought, I would dash and get the most coveted vender location. Liz was to meet me later, but I wanted to set up as soon as possible. I waited and waited for the rain to stop.

I waited. The rain wouldn’t stop. I got wet. My posters smeared. By the time Liz got off work, I was drinking a soy latte in a café. I sneered, “It’s raining.”

Well, like the weatherman said, the rain stopped and out came the sunshine. We hurried back to the Common. Liz suggested that we shouldn’t set up shop next to the park ranger in a bright fluorescent vest, but I disagreed. “Why would he care?” Within instants of our set up, the park ranger approached us.

“That sign there says you’re selling a shoeshine for $1.00.”

“Oh!  Do you want…”

“You can’t do that without a permit,” he said. “If you girls are serious about starting a shoeshine business, you have get permission from the park service.”

Liz and I shrugged and said thank you. We decided that we should take our “business” elsewhere, outside the park ranger’s “jurisdiction,” so we headed over to Copley Square. On the way, Liz said, “You know, a cop over there is probably going to tell us the same thing.” But it was a beautiful walk through the Common. • 11 June 2008