My Life in Poetry

by Tom Congalton

Friday, Jun 15, 2007

Please bear with me here for a minute, it might take me a minute or two to get to the point:

In the 1970s, before I was a bookseller, I worked intermittently at a biker bar in Asbury Park, New Jersey. One of my favorite, and least lethal patrons was known as Mel the Biker. Of course, this suffix was redundant, as virtually all of our patrons were bikers, but Mel the Biker he was known as, and as Mel the Biker shall he be known to thee as well.

Mel had three brothers: Tommy the Biker, Teddy the Biker, and Stumpy the Biker. This last brother is not to be confused with the other Stumpy the Biker who regularly attended our little salon. Of course, it should be readily apparent why there seem to be so many bikers named Stumpy: they are apparently in the regular habit of losing significant parts of their feet and legs in bike accidents.

On one occasion whilst attending the nuptials of a mutual acquaintance, I was seated at table with Mel the Biker and his longtime girlfriend, Sheri, an exotic dancer who was best known for having had the foresight to name her five children in such a manner that the first letter of each of their names, when compiled chronologically, as they had been, tattooed onto the knuckles of her right hand, spelled out the word "death." In Asbury Park, this pretty much qualified Sheri as Mother of the Year.

Befitting the formality of this particular occasion, and in a startling assault of sartorial ingenuity, Mel the Biker had borrowed from "my bruder Tom" (that is "Tommy the Biker" — apparently in family groups "the Biker" was assumed) a bright blue suit of astounding clunkiness, made of the widest possible wale of corduroy, replete as it was with inch deep clots of vertical fabric, which one imagined if called upon to do so could have easily repelled the odd hail of bullets or shrapnel, not an altogether impractical quality at weddings of this type.

As Mel the Biker, a mass of muscle, sinew, hair, and tattoos, usually clad only in the skins of slain animals described his festive wedding attire: "I dunno, it makes me feel "╦ťkinda fragile.'"

And eventually through varied and circuitous routes to my point: poetry makes me feel "kinda fragile." These feelings were called into examination recently when I purchased a library of 5,000 poetry books from a local poet and editor of an influential poetry journal.

Although much of my rare book business is devoted to literature, I've usually managed to avoid poetry. I don't read much poetry. Most of my post-Dr. Seuss readings of the genre could probably best be described as in the genre of regional poetry, because most of it revolves around the repetitive use of the name of the island off the coast of Massachusetts known as "Nantucket." Secondly, the books are usually too thin to scout effectively on a busy schedule, or with the ever diminishing eyesight brought about by age.

All of my own efforts at writing poetry have been at best unsuccessful, and at worst, actually traumatic. At the tender age of eight I wrote, for a classroom assignment, a rousing poem about the succession of Scottish kings, and their efforts to throw off the brutal yoke of England, inspired by my reading of the Classics Illustrated comic book version of The Scottish Chiefs, thus resulting in my mother being called to come down to the Principal's office to rebut charges of plagiarism.

Apparently my homely rhymes had reminded my teacher enough of Robbie Burns that she thought I had cadged some of his verse. This was less firm evidence of my guilt as it was testimony that my teacher was even less familiar with poetry than I was. One also assumes that Mr. Burns was familiar enough with Scottish history not to have bollixed up the royal succession as thoroughly as I did in the poem.

The following year, the completion of my poetry assignment again resulted in another visit to the school offices from my long-suffering mother, not for plagiarism this time, but for my composition of a particularly long poem, lampooning each of my classmates by name in rhyming couplets, this gentle and affectionate mockery apparently interpreted by the higher powers as a worrisome species of anti-social behavior.

After those failures, my poetry production was more intermittent, with the exception of some lachrymose teenage moaning (probably best assigned to the school of "rhymed whining") engendered by the rejections of the various and serial female objects of my affections, and which efforts are now lost to what I can only imagine is a relieved and profoundly grateful posterity. I did not suffer then, nor do I suffer now from any delusions about the many and diverse reasons for rejecting my affections, but I fancy not least among them was that some of the aforementioned objects of such had been subjected to public mockery in rhyming couplets a few years previous.

My final foray into the world of poetry was nearly a quarter century ago when I founded the First Annual Joe Blatz Limerick Festival (please note: as with Teddy the Biker, Joe Blatz can only be known or referred to as "Joe Blatz." Not as Joe, or Blatz, but only as "Joe Blatz." Don't ask, don't complain, it's just the way that it is).

The object of the Festival was to write the best limerick about Joe Blatz that started with the lines:

There was a boy named Joe Blatz,
Whose head was too big for his hats...

The aforesaid Joe Blatz was a young employee of a cabinet shop that I operated for a while when I wasn't scouting books or tending bar. Barely out of his teens, Joe Blatz would work in the cabinet shop by day, and perform in a rock band in New York City by night. In fairness to Joe Blatz, he didn't really have a big head, but it was the mid-70s, and no one would deny that he had big hair.

While it seemed like a good idea a the time, there was no Second Annual Joe Blatz Annual Limerick Festival.

However, perhaps the most important reason that I have avoided poetry is the conventional wisdom in the rare book trade that poetry doesn't sell particularly well. My understanding is that if a new poetry book sells a thousand copies, it is considered a triumph of marketing — numbers that one imagines would send such fiction writers as Ms. Rowling howling into a near suicidal depression — probably why one hears about so many poets wandering about in near suicidal depressions, that is on those occasions when they aren't actually committing suicide.

I fortuitously and recently had occasion to hire the principle cataloguer for an American book dealer who specializes in poetry. During her interview, when I asked her how poetry was selling these days, she responded with what is probably as close to a "snort" as this genteel young lady is ever likely to emit.

So, what have I learned from cataloguing the first thousand books of poetry? First of all I never realized how much poetry has in common with the Special Olympics. Much like that worthy competition, where there are no losers, and everyone gets a prize, nearly every one of the thousand or so volumes I've handled so far has been awarded a prize: the Pulitzer Prize, the Lamont Poetry Prize, the Discovery/Nation Poetry Award, the Walt Whitman Award, the Capricorn Prize, the National Book Award. The list grows ever longer, and those are just a fraction of the American prizes.

Perhaps if I hadn't been so hasty in destroying my mopey teenage poetry, it might have won an award and enjoyed subsequent publication. Is there an award for the creative uses to which one can put the word "Nantucket?"

This article
originally appeared in the April/May 2007 issue of Rare Book Review.