I don't know why I ever agreed to go on Poetry Bandstand--like a lotta poets I'm just not the outgoing type. My agent, Maury, has been pushing it forever. "If you want to make the big bucks," Maury says, "the high three-figure annual incomes like Frost and Stevens and Williams, you gotta grab a partner and get out on the dance floor."
"This next number is kinda special to me. I call it--'Poets, Lovers and Madmen.'"
I've got two numbers, an A side and a B side, that we're pushin' and they finally agreed to have me on the show, right after Archibald Macleish, if that stupid donut can stop bein' so enamored of himself and get his butt over to the autograph table. Mr. "Poems Should Not Mean But Be."
" . . . and brand new this week on the Top 10, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock!"
Or maybe it's the other way around, I don't know, I can never figure it out. I mean, I try to be, but sometimes I just gotta mean, ya know what I mean? So be it.
"Okay everybody--grab a new partner like you're at a Breadloaf Writer's Conference."
I gotta wait for the new dances to be interduced, and the Clearasil commercials to be over with. Why do so many poets have bad complexions? And cut their own hair? I could never figure it out.
Okay, time for the Dance of the Week, the "Villanelle." You line up 19 kids, five tercets and one quatrain. It ain't easy, but the kids seem to enjoy fooling around with it, bumping into each other trying to form a couplet at the close. I notice more than a few of the boys are steppin' on the girls' toes. Can't tell if it's intentional or not. Probably good trainin' for the way female poets are marginalized by the academy. Hey--get your own canon, you screwy broads!
"Our next musical guest is known for his pathetic fallacies!"
Okay, I'm on right after this commercial. I clear my throat nervously--how else am I gonna do it?--take a drink of water, make a fake smile in anticipation of the moment when the camera pans over to me and the red light goes on. And wait.
"Totally blank verse!"
Dick is chatting casually to the kids, then all of a sudden he's on in five . . . four . . . three . . . two . . . one. "Our next poetical guest is a young man who's got a great future in front of him, and a hit poem in his pocket that's going to take off like a rocket--let's have a nice round of applause for . . . Emery Dickinson!"
Of course I'm lip-syncing my poem, but the audience out there in TV land don't know it. They also don't know my poetry label laid out big bucks in payola to get me on the show, but so what--everybody else does it, and they got tenure-track Professorettes of English crawlin' all over them. Why shouldn't I have a piece of that action?
I cast my eyes down, all serious like, and the music swells up slowly but inexorably, like a flood tide. "Who can see the wind," I say, "Neither you nor I . . . but when the wind is blowing, we feel it passing by."
I glance over at the stands and see I've got the girls eatin' outta the palm of my hands, but the guys are unpersuaded. Some of the kids hit the dance floor and, as the couples draw closer, I can tell the proximity of the adolescent bodies has produced its desired effect on the males. If I had X-ray vision like Superman, I could see the boners and stiffies through their pants as they dance--but I can't. Did you hear that just then, my rhyming interior monologue there? I just can't shut the poetry off!
"The only known antidote to Kryptonite is . . . Viagra."
I get some polite applause as I finish, and Dick comes over to "interview" me. I know what questions he's gonna ask, and he asks them; how old I am, and where I go to high school. Eighteen, and Hal Greer Voke-Tech, right here in South Philly, I say, and the crowd goes nuts--local boy makes good!
Dick asks me if I got another poem I wanna declaim for the kids and I say sure, I got a million of 'em. Okay, Dick says, and he retreats to the wings, while my chorus launches into something new, a genre I think is gonna sweep the nation and enable me to quit my day job and become a full-time versifier. It's a dance poem . . . with nonce words . . . named after an animal! Emily's Monkey--let's go!
Cat named Emily came from out of town, yeah.
Spreading new verse forms all around, yeah.
In just a matter of a . . . few days
Her poems became a new teenage craze, yeah!
The kids are up dancin' like crazy, and I know I got a hit on my hands. I work it for all it's worth--no lower case crap like e.e. cummings, not for me--and when I'm through the crowd explodes, no phony applause track needed.
Still, we gotta go through the formalities of the "Rate-A-Poem" feature, so we switch over to the panel, as usual, two gals and a guy.
I'm not likin' the looks of one of 'em--like Marianne Moore, she's gonna say "I too dislike it" and give me like a 70. Her name? Lucy Violet Digiandomico from St. Catherine of Siena School for Girls. Just my luck--a girl who every time she gets the urge to make out, goes to confession.
"Whadda ya think, Lucy?" Dick asks.
"I don't know, I couldn't really relate to the lyrics," she says, twirling a strand of hair between her fingers. "Is 'Lum-di-lum-di-li' dirty words, like in Louie, Louie?"
"Of course not," Dick says defensively. "If that were the case, you couldn't pay me enough money to play that song on my show until the internet's invented and the FCC has no jurisdiction over me."
"Um . . . I'll give it an . . . 85," she says. Better than I expected, but still--I'd like to stick chewing gum in her hair just to see the cockroaches crawl out.
"Okay," Dick says, and passes on to Sal Domencianaciaobella. Sal has to watch what he says today because he's on probation; he got a ticket this morning when his name blocked an intersection on South Street. South Street, South Street, where you hear that groovy beat.
"I, uh, kinda liked it," Sal says as he glances over at his duck's ass-coiffed buddies, looking for their reaction. "It had a good rhyme scheme, you could scan it."
"So what's your score?" Dick asks.
"I'm gonna give it . . . a 95!" he says, and cheers go up from the crowd. He rubs his fingers together to show me he expects a little monetary remuneration for his favorable review. I tap my head to indicate "capische" at the same time that I nod my head forward, poking myself in the eye. Gotta remember--one Italian non-verbal slang gesture at a time, dammit!
"You owe me . . . big time . . . you little twerp."
The last member of the panel looks like a future undefrocked nun; a little Theresa of Avila type--flat as a board and never been nailed. She's not gonna dig my groovy sounds absent a freakin' miracle which, since I don't smoke Pall Malls with their In hoc signo vinces motto on the soft pack, I don't think I can pull off.
"I prefer St. Dion of Belmont."
"The songs had their pluses and their minuses, as with all human endeavor," she says oh-so-seriously. Dollars to donuts she volunteers to take names when teacher leaves the classroom. "I think the slow number could lead to impure thoughts and deeds, while the fast one could cause young people to lose sight of the Eight Beatitudes, the Seven Deadly Sins, and the Four Preps."
Criminetly. How'd I ever draw such a goody two-shoes? All I can do is pray. Let's see--who's the patron saint of the Top 40. St. Frankie? Naw, he's patron saint of beach movies. St. Fabian, that's it!
Dear St. Fabian up in heaven or Seacaucus or wherever--please make this ice chest/ice box give me a high score so's I can stop playing Thursday night singles dances at Elks Lodges and Oddfellows Halls and start making some real dough, okay? In the name of the Father, and the Son, and Elvis and Buddy Holly.
I recover from my reverie and hear Little Miss Please Let Me Stay After School and Bang Erasers, Sister say--she's givin' me a 90! Thank you thank you thank you God, I promise I'll never feel a girl up under her sweater again!
I'll make her take it off first.