A poet and don't know it

Paul Greenberg

10/10/2006 12:01:00 AM - Paul Greenberg

I now stand accused of committing poetry.

The accusation is made by someone who identifies herself only as the Language Meter Maid. Instead of handing out parking tickets, she prowls the prosaic world looking for inadvertent poems. It must be like searching for sprigs of grass in the cracks of the sidewalk.

The lady stays on the look-out for found poems - writing not meant to be poetry but that is perceived as such by a reader. She claims to have found such a poem in a column of mine. It seems to have sprung up in a reply to someone who said I needed to decide whether I was writing a political or a literary column. The Language Meter Maid rearranged my response and - Voila! - a poem:

Do I have to stay obsessed

with politics all the time?

Could I not come out of my closet?

At night?

Like a vampire,

to delight in the taste and treasure

of the wine-red English tongue?

Modesty should forbid, but here is Language Meter Maid's assessment of the poem she found tucked away in my prose:

"The lack of pretension found in the plain language, the brilliant adjective Œwine-red,' which shines even brighter due to the lack of other adjectives in the poem, and the use of Œtongue' instead of Œlanguage' makes this a marvelous poem."

Goodness. I think I'm in love. Forget about the way to a man's heart being through his stomach; that's a slow and arduous route compared to flattery.

Just lather it on, ladies, and we're yours. (But you already knew that, didn't you?) Talk about the weaker sex - the male of the species has an ego so vast yet so fragile that it requires constant reinforcement.

Nobody need ever know that I, uh, adapted the adjective which so excited the Meter Maid's admiration (wine-red) from a blind old Greek. Please don't call it plagiarism; I prefer to think of it as a literary allusion.

Years ago I had a publisher who was also an editor - E.W. Freeman III of the Pine Bluff Commercial down in the Arkansas Delta. One of the inky wretches he employed for a time, the legendary Patrick J. Owens out of Hungry Horse, Montana, wrote of Ed Freeman that he was "interested in the way a word can sing, in how high a fact can bounce."

It was Ed who brought to my attention a line from an article in Max Ascoli's old Reporter magazine - a fine journal some of us still miss. I remember neither the name nor author of the article, or even its prosaic political subject, but one phrase was perfect poetry:

The simple sharkskin splendor

of a Beirut business suit.

Talk about a poetic line. I've borrowed it, too, from time to needy time.

A close reading of even political documents can yield a bountiful harvest of found poems, especially if they're speeches and meant to be spoken. See Lincoln's stirring Gettysburg Address:

Fourscore and seven years ago

our fathers brought forth on this continent,

a new nation,

conceived in Liberty,

and dedicated to the proposition

that all men are created equal.

Or the same president's sublime Second Inaugural:

With malice toward none;

with charity for all;

with firmness in the right,

as God gives us to see the right.

It is harder to find poetry in political analysis, but it is there in the best, by which I mean Tocqueville. Here is his description - in Volume One, Chapter 8, of "Democracy in America" - of the birth of the U.S. Constitution:

That which is new in the history of societies

is to see a great people,

warned by its lawgivers

that the wheels of government are stopping,

turn its attention on itself

without hate or fear,

sound the depth of the ill,

and then wait two years

to find the remedy at leisure,

and then finally,

when the remedy has been indicated,

submit to it voluntarily,

without its costing humanity

a single tear or drop of blood.

That's what political science raised to poetry sounds like.