May a Chancre Lame You
Poets are a beggarly lot, but no poets are more desperate than those who are on the streets, trying to push poetry. One has a much better chance peddling herpes, and yet, in several cities now, I've encountered half-crazed and alliteration-prone poets trying to hustle you into taking what you clearly have no need of, but for which some of you're dying every day, or something like that. In New Orleans, I ran into two young poets for hire. Sitting behind typewriters on a sidewalk, they will instantaneously write a poem on "your topic," and, get this, at "your price," and in Boulder, there is a smudgy facsimile of Walt Whitman wandering around, wearing sandwich boards that announce, "I'm Reverend Friendly—a poet and I know it. I earn my bread by reciting a poem I have stored in my head, But if you're too poor, I'll do it for free instead. Halleluiah, praise be to the Holy One!"
When the Reverend says one, he means the same poem each time, but sometimes not even that in its entirety, as when he forgot the final, killer stanza to Baudelaire's "To The Reader." After some nudging from me, however, Friendly finally belted out, with flecks of spittle spraying my poor face:
Boredom! He smokes his hookah, while he dreams
Of gibbets, weeping tears he cannot smother.
You know this dainty monster, too, it seems —
Hypocrite reader! — You! — My twin! — My brother!
Those lines, here translated by Roy Campbell, are so memorable because of their sudden aggression coupled with empathy, but animosity alone is usually bracing and fun in poetry, since it is rather rare. Most poems are disguised love letters and suicide notes, so damn pathetic, so we don't mind being whipped every now and then, especially when it's preluded and lubricated by the appropriate foreplay. Here's one more example of rough and playful love in literature. From Rabelais' prologue to his Gargantua, as translated by Samuel Putman (always remember to acknowledge, and tip well, the translator!):
And now, my dears, hop to it, and gaily read the rest, wholly at your bodies' ease and to the profit of your loins. But listen, asswallopers--may a chancre lame you!--remember to drink a like health to me, and I will pledge you on the spot.
Linh Dinh was born in Saigon, Vietnam in 1963, came to the U.S. in 1975, and has also lived in Italy and England. He is the author of two collections of stories, Fake House (Seven Stories Press 2000) and Blood and Soap (Seven Stories Press 2004), and the novel Love...