Sunday, May 27, 2018

Poetic Justice?

Beginning in elementary school until just recently, I have composed poetry in a number of modes, sometimes comic, sometimes more serious.   In high school I wrote verse for the student newspaper.  In college, I was poetry editor of the university’s literary magazine.  In adulthood, for years I regularly contributed poems to a Northern Virginia nature newsletter and read appropriate verse at my company’s celebrations.

This introduces a contribution I made in 1996 to “The National Library of Poetry,” an Owings Mills, Maryland, publisher that regularly advertised for poems to be selected for its annual volume.  It cost nothing to submit a poem and have it selected by this outfit, but contributors were expected to buy a $50 copy to see their creation in print — or maybe multiple copies to present to relatives and friends.

The entire enterprise seemed to me to be a charade.  The objective of the National Library was not so much a search for good literature but a way of selling expensive books.  It remained to prove my point.  As a result I set out to write as bad a poem as has ever passed through the human mind and send it in.  I called it “Life with Thea” and it goes like this:

Thea, she takes me from heaven into hell,
Her smile, it is heaven.  I know it so well.
Is it only for me?  I wish I could tell.

She tells me always that her heart is true,
She pledges daily:  “Honey, I love only you
Using me?  Abusing me? I wish I knew.

Refusing to disbelieve, but wondering still
Eternally uncertain, weak of will,
Life is passing, thinking of Thea, a chill

Yeasts through my body, my knees go weak
If I utter her name, I can hardly speak,
She is my present but the future is bleak.

Be my lover, Thea, be my friend,
Unique our beginning , uncertain the end,
Lead me again to heaven, let us ascend

Let us go together, Thea, do not hold back.
Surely you will be true to our pact
Help me on the way, find the track

Is this an inspiration I feel?  Yes!
Thea is true, I know — O bless, O Bless!

Now that you have finished “Life with Thea” you must admit that it is one of the worst pieces of verse you have ever read.  (Still and all I am proud of the image of a chill “yeasting” through a body — it is awful but perfectly so.) The folks at the National Library of Poetry, however, were positively ecstatic.  Note below the reaction of “M M” to it:

Not only were they going to print my poem in their annual volume called “Sound of Poetry,” but they found it fully worthy to be printed as well in “what promises to be the most historically important collection of poetry we have ever published.”  To be called “America at the Millennium,” this volume reputedly would drastically winnow down the 1.2 million contributions allegedly received by the Library over the years to a select few of the best poems and poets of the Twentieth Century.  “Life with Thea” had been chosen for that honor!  Wow!  Eat your heart out Robert Frost!

Yet this business is not all fun and games, as explained by Peter Armenti, a librarian at the Library of Congress, in a March 2012 post on his blog “From the Catbird Seat.”  The Library, he says gets about two hundred inquiries a year from people who mistakenly believe that the Library of Congress publishes and sells those anthologies. 

Armenti says the National Library may encourage the confusion by naming the Library of Congress in its copyright page.  Note it below.  The insert seems to identify the Congressional library as cataloguing the volume and assigning an ISBN number to it.  In truth, he says, the Library “only rarely” buys copies for its collection and that this ISBN number was arbitrarily assigned by the publisher.\

In the end, though tempted, I did not allow “Life with Thea” to be published.  As part of my test for the poetry “judges,” I had engineered the first letter of each line, if read down, to spell out a sentence — just to see if anyone was paying attention.  The letters read:  “This surely is bullshit.”  Check it out above. Somehow it seemed to go over the bounds of propriety to permit that to be printed.  If someday someone would recognize the scam it might lead to the firing of some underling.  In the meantime, anyone can feel free to reprint “Life with Thea” — if they dare.  

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