Friday, July 31, 2009
Do something you can't do or hate to do
When I was in eighth grade, my English teacher was a miserable bitch -- hated by almost every kid in the class.
We were once assigned to write an essay about poetry. At the time, I pretty much hated poetry, except for funny stuff like one of the world's shortest poems, by Ogden Nash:
Basically my essay said something like I hated poetry because it is artificial and is much less efficient than prose for delivering a message.
I DESPISED faked/fudged/phony constructions like:
"My country 'tis of thee,
Sweet land of liberty."
I got an "F" on the essay. Elliot, one of my classmates, got an "A" for a few pages of bullshit about poetry "opening a golden door into the soul of the poet."
I was sent to the guidance counselor for guidance and discipline.
I did not get any discipline but I got some valuable guidance: Give the bitch the same kind of bullshit that earned Elliot the "A."
In other words, if you want to succeed in life, give the audience what it wants, even if you have to lie or sell out.
I didn't think it was good advice then or now. An audience can usually determine if a performer's heart is not in a performance.
A few weeks later, we were assigned to write poems. That was even worse than having to write about poems.
Rhyming is probably a natural activity and source of amusement for every kid.
But going from "Roses are red, violets are blue. Sugar is sweet but I hate you" to something of homework quality would have been a major leap for me.
I was desperate to avoid a second flunk from the bitch, so with help from my father I did come up with something that I still think is pretty good. It was about a windshield wiper destroying rain drops. I don't remember it all, but it started with:
"Oh wiper, you viper,
You snake on the glass.
You strike hard and swiftly.
You kill with each pass."
I got an unexpected "A" on that one.
I also got an "A" on a second poem that involved some event in international relations in 1959 or '60. Apparently President Eisenhower was being pressured by the dreaded commies to give in on some diplomatic negotiating.
I need a word to rhyme with "now," and my father suggested the phrase "but Ike would not kowtow."
I had never heard "kowtow" before, and thought my father had made it up just for my poem. Pop explained that it came from a Chinese word meaning "submit" and I kept the word. The bitch knew what it meant and was impressed.
(Impressing teachers is not necessarily a major achievement. One time in college I used "lifestyle" in an essay and the professor put a note on the page about it being an excellent choice of words. In my mind I gave the professor a lower grade for being impressed by such routine terminology. Apparently "lifestyle" was a big deal in Bethlehem, PA in the 1960s.)
In high school I became a pretty good rhymer. I wrote some silly poems and songs about bad teachers.
I've never bought a poetry book, but I do have appreciation for rhyming lyrics, especially:
"Lady Madonna, baby at your breast
Wonders how you manage to feed the rest"
(Lennon & McCartney)
"When your rooster crows at the break of dawn
Look out your window and I'll be gone"
I have no plans to write serious poetry, but being forced to succeed at something I hated has probably been useful to me as person and as a writer. I have gained appreciation for those who do write poems well, and I sometimes insert rhymes in my prose just for the fun of it.
However, today is probably the first time in 50 years that I used the word "kowtow."