The Poet on New York's Streetcorners

07/11/2010 11:49 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

The New York Times recently ran an article on a Brooklyn street poet named Robert Samuel Snyderman, who spends his days sitting on a white bucket with a powder blue typewriter, offering to channel his muse for a small donation. His hair appears to have exploded. A sign on his chest simply says "Poems."

Harvesting the inspiration required to write poetry is a tricky business. I can't fathom writing a poem every day, much less doing it immediately, under the looming expectations of someone who has just paid me. How does Brooklyn's poetry entrepreneur manage? Snyderman finds that it helps to ask patrons for sources of inspiration rather than topics. The Times reprinted a poem he wrote for a woman whose friend had outlived a doctor's dire prognosis by 15 years, (for a mere $7). Here's the result:

I came here
to life

from bright poison.

My feet
immediately demanded
more from
my inheritance, from
my blood, from your

Leak well,
blood. Leak well.
There is no time.

Snyderman attracts enough interest (and cash) to have lived solely on the written word since May. Not that he's living that well (the typewriter is on loan from a friend).

Brooklyn's plucky street poet reminds me of a great poet of the New York School of poetry, Frank O'Hara, known for plucking poems at will from his city surroundings. Here's an example:

Did you see me walking by the Buick Repairs?
I was thinking of you
having a Coke in the heat it was your face
I saw on a movie magazine, no it was Fabian's
I was thinking of you
and down at the railroad tracks where the station
has mysteriously disappeared
I was thinking of you
as the bus pulled away in the twilight
I was thinking of you
and right now

John Ashbery described O'Hara's concept of the poem as "the chronicle of the creative act that produces it," and often saw him "dashing the poems off at odd moments -- in his office at the Museum of Modern Art, in the street at lunchtime or even in a room full of people." O'Hara referred to his poetry as "I do this I do that" poems. At his best, O'Hara's this and that was pretty spectacular, exemplified by "The Day Lady Died" (for Billie Holiday):

It is 12:20 in New York a Friday
three days after Bastille day, yes
it is 1959 and I go get a shoeshine
because I will get off the 4:19 in Easthampton
at 7:15 and then go straight to dinner
and I don't know the people who will feed me

I walk up the muggy street beginning to sun
and have a hamburger and a malted and buy
an ugly NEW WORLD WRITING to see what the poets
in Ghana are doing these days
I go on to the bank
and Miss Stillwagon (first name Linda I once heard)
doesn't even look up my balance for once in her life
and in the GOLDEN GRIFFIN I get a little Verlaine
for Patsy with drawings by Bonnard although I do
think of Hesiod, trans. Richmond Lattimore or
Brendan Behan's new play or Le Balcon or Les Nègres
of Genet, but I don't, I stick with Verlaine
after practically going to sleep with quandariness

and for Mike I just stroll into the PARK LANE
Liquor Store and ask for a bottle of Strega and
then I go back where I came from to 6th Avenue
and the tobacconist in the Ziegfeld Theatre and
casually ask for a carton of Gauloises and a carton
of Picayunes, and a NEW YORK POST with her face on it

and I am sweating a lot by now and thinking of
leaning on the john door in the 5 SPOT
while she whispered a song along the keyboard
to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing

I expect that Mr. Snyderman could find a little inspiration in O'Hara (if he doesn't already). Here's to the street poet for bringing his city a little closer to the word. May his verses bring him wealth -- at least enough to let him purchase his own typewriter.