Sidewalk Cafe Table Paper Napkin Poems

img_20161109_144329Afternoon walk close in and find a cafe with sidewalk tables to sit out with an espresso, on watch and wait.

Wait for some light that might soon start to seep through a cracked world.

World War II and the Nazi army advances on Paris. You can hear artillery fluster the banlieues. Do you try for a train or run the roads south with distraught families or take a table on the sidewalk of some tree hidden rue (for you are on the streets where all is rue) and order an espresso and write a poem on a napkin:

And the poem on the paper tablecloth is perhaps as typical of the way Prevert got around in France in the min-Forties as it is of his poetry itself – a poetry (his worst critics will tell you) which is perfectly suited to paper tablecloths, and existing always on as fine a line between sentiment and sentimentality as any that Charlie Chaplin ever teetered on.¹

When I was inducted into my Guard unit, the 140th Engineer Company, in 1969, they were still packing the M1 Garand rifle. Before firing, we learned to disassemble and reassemble the eleven part trigger housing group. The M1 was a fine weapon, as Woody Allen’s Hemingway character in “Midnight in Paris” might have said, but of course didn’t – that was Paris of the 1920s. The M1 was heavier than its successor the M14, which I was introduced to at Fort Bliss, but you fired them both like rifles, sighting in and taking aim, adjusting elevation and windage. The M16 seemed a light, plastic toy in comparison; you pointed it and sprayed. Even as a kid I was attentive and sensitive to words, but it wasn’t until Basic Combat Training that I realized the unique place nomenclature played from certain perspectives – the naming of things, the naming of parts, in particular, and how, in certain circumstances, you couldn’t simply go to a thesaurus for synonyms as variable substitutes. You had to find the real right word.

Henry Reed’s poem “The Naming of Parts,” from “Lessons of the War,” illustrates the uses of proper nomenclature, and of paying attention:

Today we have naming of parts. Yesterday,
We had daily cleaning. And tomorrow morning,
We shall have what to do after firing. But today,
Today we have naming of parts. Japonica
Glistens like coral in all of the neighboring gardens,
And today we have naming of parts.

This is the lower sling swivel. And this
Is the upper sling swivel, whose use you will see,
When you are given your slings. And this is the piling swivel,
Which in your case you have not got. The branches
Hold in the gardens their silent, eloquent gestures,
Which in our case we have not got.

This is the safety-catch, which is always released
With an easy flick of the thumb. And please do not let me
See anyone using his finger. You can do it quite easy
If you have any strength in your thumb. The blossoms
Are fragile and motionless, never letting anyone see
Any of them using their finger.

And this you can see is the bolt. The purpose of this
Is to open the breech, as you see. We can slide it
Rapidly backwards and forwards: we call this
Easing the spring. And rapidly backwards and forwards
The early bees are assaulting and fumbling the flowers
They call it easing the Spring.

They call it easing the Spring: it is perfectly easy
If you have any strength in your thumb: like the bolt,
And the breech, and the cocking-piece, and the point of balance,
Which in our case we have not got; and the almond-blossom
Silent in all of the gardens and the bees going backwards and forwards,
For today we have naming of parts.²

Whatever you happened to be holding at Fort Bliss in the fall of that year, M1, M14, M16, the proper nomenclature called for but one word: weapon. Call it a gun, and you got down with it for 20 or 30 pushups, kissing its butt and calling out, “One, Drill Sergeant; Two, Drill Sergeant”; etc. If you dropped it, you got down with it again. If you set it aside or missed-placed it, you were accused of having a taste for self-abuse, and got down with it again.

Help Wanted: Poet – Must be good at naming things

img_20161111_121309In his November 14, 2016 Financial Page article for The New Yorker, “What’s in a Brand Name?,” a one-page gem, James Surowiecki anecdotally mentions the time Ford asked the poet Marianne Moore to come up with a name for one of its new cars. She came up with a bunch, all rejected. Sometimes, the key to naming something successfully is found in the action word sublimate. But it is called advertising. Advertisements are arguments in which attempts are made to persuade us to do something that probably won’t be good for us. So we might, for example, get Arthur Godfrey telling us what kind of cigarette is best for us. Borrowing someone’s credibility to pitch your argument is a tricky business. Scholars describe it as a means of persuasion called ethos; others may call it a slang profanity, remain unpersuaded, and know it’s best to choose your own cigarette.

“They are playing a game,” R. D. Laing opens the first knot of his Knots:

They are playing at not
playing a game. If I show them I see they are, I
shall break the rules and they will punish me.
I must play their game, of not seeing I see the game.³

img_20161110_145049It’s fall, and soon winter will come in, and most of the cafes locally will move their sidewalk tables and chairs indoors, and it will be harder walking and wandering to find a place to sit out with an espresso in what might remain of the afternoon light (in the Northwest, the world is also cracked, but in winter, that’s how the water gets in). A certain discomfort is a necessary good for some kinds of writing.

Over the past week or so we visited several cafes for an afternoon espresso at a sidewalk table in the waning light of fall, hoping for some inspiration from the general rue for a paper napkin poem. Alas, we got no paper napkin poems. But we got some sidewalk espresso music, and enjoyed a few clean, well-lit places, and took a few pics we offer here in lieu of napkin poems.

¹ From “Translator’s Note” (1964) Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s introduction to City Lights Books The Pocket Poets Series: Number Nine, “Selections from Paroles,” by Jacques Prevert, San Francisco, July 1958, Sixth Printing February 1968.

² Reed, Henry. “Naming of Parts.” New Statesman and Nation 24, no. 598 (8 August 1942): 92 (.pdf).

³ “Knots,” by R. D. Laing, Vintage Books edition, April 1972, page 1. Originally published by Pantheon Books in 1971.

Poetry Footprint

Poetry High FiveAccording to the Global Footprint Network, the Ecological Footprint is “the metric that allows us to calculate human pressure on the planet and come up with facts, such as: If everyone lived the lifestyle of the average American we would need 5 planets.” There are several footprints currently being measured, carbon and water, for example, and we are encouraged to measure our own personal footprint and to reduce the size of our footprint, “to tread more lightly on the earth.”

Maybe poetry does not have a footprint, but a handprint. A print that shows who was here, and this is what they saw, what they heard, what they tasted, what they touched and felt, what they smelled. But also, what they and those close to them thought about this sensorium of experience, how they responded, how they changed, what they promised and what they betrayed, how they might have wronged and how they might have been forgiven. To do all of that, poetry needs a wide spectrum of possibilities. Some of these possibilities might lead listeners, readers, away from well worn paths, into uncharted waters, rough seas, or lulls, or blank spaces with no echo. Other possibilities might lead readers back into cities with crowded sidewalks, or into libraries full of musty, dusty books. Or into parks, or taverns, or beaches, or mountains and lakes and rivers, or nurseries or old folks’ homes, or orphanages or prisons, or churches or corporations, or onto ships or bicycles or cars or helicopters or surfboards. The point here is that any of these possibilities, for any individual listener, might wind up a dead end, but it can’t be wrong if it widens the spectrum, for the wider the spectrum, the greater the possibility of poetry.

I sometimes wonder if human nature improves over time. In other words, are we better than our ancestors? We might like to think so. Technology and medicine, the comforts of modern housing and transportation, what we call advancements and improvements resulting in higher standards of living might lead us to think we are smarter, more accomplished, in a word, better than our ancestors. But what of our essential nature? Has that improved? Does it improve? Can it improve? I have doubts. I think we’re probably the same inside as we’ve always been. It’s the same old heart beating in the same old chest.

In any case, what inspires this post is another skirmish posted in the poetry war, an internecine, academic argument. I’ll just point to David Biespiel’s response over at the Rumpus, and interested readers can follow the trail-links from there. Like most wars, it’s sometimes hard for an outsider to get what it’s all about, but like most fights, this one’s about territory and who’s to have the final word. But it’s also about values, what we value in poetry, and whose values ought to prevail. It might be important to remember that what we value is not necessarily what’s good for us. What we value is simply what we want.

There is something about poetry to value, to want, that is relevant to the discussion. One of my favorite books of poems is “Paroles,” by Jacques Prevert.* Prevert lived in Paris during World War II, during the German occupation. Writing in 1964, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, in his translator’s note introduction, said, “I first came upon the poetry of Jacques Prevert written on a paper tablecloth in St. Brieuc in 1944…a poetry (his worst critics will tell you) which is perfectly suited to paper tablecloths, and existing always on as fine a line between sentiment and sentimentality as any that Charlie Chaplin ever teetered on.” That “perfectly suited to” is important, for it values a poem for its success in achieving its purpose. Even if we might think the purpose is bad, it can still be a good poem. This is a sentiment many critics find difficult to stomach, but it’s vital to the health of a wide spectrum of poetic possibilities.

But there’s another reason I like Prevert, and that has to do with the idea of sitting out at a sidewalk cafe table writing a poem on a paper napkin, not even a paper tablecloth, a poem someone might read, or no one might read. Poetry was a way out of oppression for Prevert, and poetry remains a tool today for release from the natural malaise that comes from everyday life, even if that release is only temporary, and even if that malaise is from human pressure. The release comes in the act of writing the poem, not from the possibilities of someone else reading it or of having it published or some fantasy of poetic fame, but from the existential act that says, I am here, and this is what that means, for now. The act of poetry leaves a tiny Ecological Footprint. That sidewalk cafe napkin poem might be a good way to “tread more lightly on the earth,” even as it adds to the size of the poetry footprint.

*Jacques Prevert’s “Paroles” is Number 9 in “The Pocket Poets Series,” first published in the City Lights Books edition in July 1958, in San Francisco. I have the Sixth Printing, February 1968.

Related Post: Bukowski for President! David Biespiel and Poets for Democracy