The Uses of Poetry

09/21/2009 05:12 am 05:12:01 | Updated Nov 17, 2011

When I was 19 years old I went to England. I arrived at Heathrow with $11 American in my pocket and great expectations. Obviously, I needed to find a girlfriend with money. As a recent graduate of the Richard M. Nixon School of Charm I was confident of abilities to do so, yet sadly, both amatory and monetary ambitions went unrealized. Imagine that.

I solved my insolvency in a time honored fashion; I became a beggar. I found a shady spot at Piccadilly Circus and propped a small sign against my upturned hat that said 'American Poems upon Request.'

"...ere, ow 'bout that Indian Gitchie Gume? By that whanker, Longfellow?" Ah yes, the whanker Longfellow.

'By the Shores of Gitchee Gumee
By the Big Sea Shining Waters
Stood the Wigwam of Nokomis
Daughter of the Moon, Nokomis...'

"I like that Benet guy, I do. Whatcha' got?"

Jesse James was a two-gun man,
(Roll on Missouri!)
Strong-arm Chief of an outlaw clan.
(Roll on Missouri!)

By dinner time I'd made four pounds, 10 shillings and was well on my way to the price of a room. I'd probably still be buskering for pence had not a large-hearted girl in a small Mary Quant mini taken pity on me and given me a job playing the tambourine in her jug band. As I recall, it was Frost's 'Two Tramps in Mud Time' that won her heart. Ps, I had no idea how to play the tambourine (and still don't).

Fifty years later I continue to find poetry useful. One of the poems I read often is David Zimmerman's 'Nautilus:'

A strong man comes to love
Towards the end of time
And brings with him the power of his age,

Each tender feeling amplified
Through all the chambers of the years,
The ardor of an ancient, well-worn heart.

The usefulness of this poem is that it reminds me that the old person my wife is married to -- yes, the one with hair spouting out of unfortunate and misaligned locations -- can still remember what it felt like to be 19 years old, and in England.

I also like Ann Carter's 'Since I Swore off Romance,' for obvious reasons:

Since I swore off romance, the full moon's rise
Is tonight's big event, a celestial floor show
Where a Mae West moon shoulders out in
Barely decent orange, and then lets those clothes
Drop for the snow-white skin she's in.

I may have gotten Ann's poem a bit wrong, but the idea of Mae West as Moon is absolutely hot and bothered, stunning and right, and I can hardly wait for this October's late night burlesque.

Every time I check into a hotel, I think of Auden's very funny book, "Academic Graffiti:"

John Milton
Never checked into a Hilton
Which was just as well.

About the only thing poetry isn't useful for is selling. I've got yards of the stuff lying around and I'm confident that it will be lying around years from now, a bit like the Unknown Soldier--much honored but, well, unknown. I don't care. It makes me happy.