The Poetry Of Life
The Poetry Of Life
We were sitting in a writer’s critique group in Amherst, N.Y. discussing a poem presentation that had just been given by the author.
“Magnificent symbolism,” one writer commented.
“Colorful and rich in meaning,” commented another.
A few other critiquers had a varying array of comments that would hopefully direct the poet to greater efforts in future works. But while listening, I could hear loudly in my mind’s ear a voice from a much younger me.
“Who in the good Christ, do these folks think they are bullshitting with all of the high flown rhetoric?”
And that cynicism drew me back to another era some forty years back, when I had witnessed one of the most emotion laden and wonderful poetry readings that I will ever have the pleasure to experience.
The setting was Three O’clock in the morning on a weekday night. The place was a working class bar on Seneca St in South Buffalo, N.Y. In that it was a weeknight, most of the thirty or so folks gathered at the bar were not your nine to five office types. Some were hard as nails iron workers, a few were just ne’er do wells or down on their luck types. And even one or two were whispered to be mobsters. The neighborhood bookie was also in attendance and doing a brisk business on the weekend’s coming sporting contests.
All of us had been “pounding” various libations for several hours. The term “pounding” came from the fact that the Genesee brewing company, in nearby Rochester, N.Y., produced a sixteen-ounce bottle of our favored brew. In the convoluted patois of a bar, we immediately called this bottle a “pound.” Thus, drinking several of them was called “pounding.” And as a natural corollary those who drank these were said to be “pounders.” The level of conversation rarely rose above observations on female anatomy, obscure bits of trivia and the relative merits of various sporting teams.
It was then that a short, balding and plump little man stood up and called for silence. He was about to give a rendition of a famous poetic work. Some of us were mildly amused and taken aback. Others who had seen him perform before shushed us and whispered, “Listen!”
The man had been pounding beers as long as we had. But, he launched into an impassioned rendition of the poetic work, “The Face On The Bar Room Floor,” by Hugh Antoine d’Arcy. It is a mournful saga of a man who had once ridden high, but now found himself broke and alone, begging drinks from people he had once known well.
The slight slur and obvious level of intoxication of the performer added to the pathos of the presentation. For twenty minutes there was absolute silence from this hard as nails crew of three A.M. drinkers. As I looked around the bar, I could see heads nodding in recognition of the poem subjects fall from grace and reduction in circumstances. Like works by Canadian poet Robert W. Service, the lines have a rhythm and a temporal beat to them that is mesmerizing.
Finally, the performer finished his oral presentation to loud applause from an appreciative audience. He bellied up to the bar, downed two shots of Corby’s whiskey and a swallow of Genesee beer and promptly fell asleep at the bar.
Since that time, I have been fortunate to witness grand opera at New York’s Metropolitan Opera House and scores of dramatic performances in a dozen cities on two continents. But I have never again witnessed a performance with such human pathos and emotional appeal as that given so long ago by that lonely performer who fell asleep at the bar. In that he was a fellow Hibernian, I would suspect that the innate ability to tell a spellbinding tale had been passed down to him by generations of Irish poets who had told and retold similar stories around smoky peat fires in Eire for hundreds of years.
In this context, I felt that all such discussions of “symbolism” and other grand topics pale in comparison. If you wish to write poetry or any other form of emotive literature, it helps to experience life from the tip of the spear, in the streets where real people live, work and die. Read for your self, the following poem, while placing yourself in that working class bar at three o’clock in the morning and see what it does to you. If you are not emotionally moved to a mist-covered eye, you are much tougher than I am.
Joseph Xavier Martin
'Twas a balmy summer evening and a goodly crowd was there,
Which well-nigh filled Joe's barroom on the corner of the square,
And as songs and witty stories came through the open door
A vagabond crept slowly in and posed upon the floor.
“Where did it come from?” someone said. “The wind has blown it in.”
“What does it want?” another cried, “Some whiskey, rum or gin?”
“Here Toby, seek him, if your stomach is equal to the work —
I wouldn't touch him with a fork, he’s filthy as a Turk.”
This badinage the poor wretch took with stoical good grace;
In fact, he smiled as though he thought he'd struck the proper place.
“Come boys, I know there's kindly hearts among so good a crowd —
To be in such good company would make a deacon proud.”
“Give me a drink — that’s what I want — I'm out of funds you know;
When I had cash to treat the gang, this hand was never slow.
What? You laugh as though you thought this pocket never held a sou:
I once was fixed as well, my boys, as any of you.”
“There thanks, that’s braced me nicely; God Bless you one and all;
Next time I pass this good saloon, I'll make another call.
Give you a song? No, I can't do that, my singing days are past;
My voice is cracked, my throat's worn out, and my lungs are going fast.
“Say, give me another whiskey, and I'll tell you what I'll do —
I'll tell you a funny story and in fact I'll promise two.
That I was ever a decent man, not one of you would think;
But I was, some four or five years back. Say, give me another drink.
“Fill 'er up, Joe, I want to put some life into this old frame —
Such little drinks, to a bum like me are miserably tame;
Five fingers — there, that's the scheme — and corking whiskey too.
Well, here's luck, boys; and landlord, my best regards to you.
“You’ve treated me pretty kindly, and I'd like to tell you how
I came to be this dirty sap, you see before you now.
As I told you once, I was a man with muscle, frame and health,
And, but for a blunder, ought have made considerable wealth.
“I was a painter — not one that daubed on bricks or wood,
But an artist, and for my age I was rated pretty good,
I worked hard at my canvas and bidding fair to rise,
For gradually I saw the star of fame before my eyes.
“I made a picture, perhaps you've seen, 'tis called the 'Chase of Fame.'
It brought me fifteen hundred pounds and added to my name.
And then I met a woman — now comes the funny part —
With eyes that petrified my brain, and sank into my heart.
“Why don't you laugh? 'Tis funny, that the vagabond you see
Could ever love a woman and expect her love for me;
But 'twas so, and for a month or two, her smiles were freely given,
And when her loving lips touched mine it carried me to heaven.
“Did you ever see a woman for whom your soul you'd give,
With a form like the Milo Venus, too beautiful to live;
With eyes that would beat the Koh-i-noor, and a wealth of chestnut hair?
If so, 'twas she, for there never was another half so fair.
“I was working on a portrait, one afternoon in May,
Of a fair haired boy, a friend of mine, who lived across the way.
And Madeline admired it, and much to my surprise,
Said she'd like to know the man who had such dreamy eyes.
“She didn't take long to find him, and before the month had flown
My friend had stolen my darling, and I was left alone.
And, ere a year of misery had passed above my head.
The jewel I treasured so had tarnished, and was dead.
“That's why I took to drink, boys. Why, I never see you smile,
I thought you'd be amused, and laughing all the while.
Why, what's the matter friend? There's a teardrop in your eye.
Come, laugh like me; 'tis only babes and women that should cry.
“Say boys, if you give me just another whiskey, I'll be glad,
And I'll draw right here the picture, of the face that drove me mad.
Give me that piece of chalk with which you mark the baseball score —
And you shall see the lovely Madeline upon the barroom floor.
Another drink, and with chalk in hand, the vagabond began,
To sketch a face that well might buy the soul of any man.
Then, as he placed another lock upon that shapely head,
With a fearful shriek, he leaped and fell across the picture — dead!