So there’s this joke I heard once—I forget where—that goes something like this:
A Dean of Humanities dies, and of course goes straight to hell, and the devil walks up and shakes hands and offers the Dean a tour. He points to the beer fridge and pickleball courts. They walk down the pier, out over the harbor. They go to lunch, and the waiter comes pronto and gives the Dean a glass of wine.
The view out the window, past the devil’s shoulder, is of a wide green golf course, where the Dean sees a caddy go up and club Donald Trump in the nuts about eleven times with a seven iron.
“I don’t get it,” the Dean says.
“Get what?” the devil asks.
“This place. I mean, how is this hell? It seems so…”
“Yeah, nice. It’s practically perfect.”
“I know,” the devil says. “But we’ve also got two English Departments.”
Chances are you laughed at that, but maybe not. The punch line hinges on your familiarity with the personalities and goings-on of English professors, especially in meetings, and that might not be the kind of thing everyone knows. A joke works best when it’s accessible, when whoever hears it is on all the particulars.
That’s true of poetry too. For instance, if you read a poem with allusions to Persephone and aren’t personally steeped in a sea of Greek-Myth Know-How… or if the language feels like a lock you have to pick, or you need a pry bar and hammer to start prying and pounding, well…
My friend Scott Poole writes poems that aren’t like that all, poems that people like. They’re good. They’re well put together is what I’m saying. And often they’re spot-on-timely no matter what year it is. Maybe they arose from the news, for instance, but they don’t require footnotes. And his stance is to speak as an Everyman, no allusions required:
About to Go Off
I wake up and the room is full of bombs: torpedo shapes and missile shapes, fins and no fins, cold and quiet.
“Where do you want this one?” says a guy in overalls, suddenly at my doorway, holding a smaller bomb like a steel baby.
“I didn’t order these,” I say. “You don’t order bombs,” says the guy, “they’re just delivered.”
“I have bowling tonight,” I say, “what the hell?”
“Yeah, what the hell,” he says.
I pick a bomb up and hold it to my ear as if something inside might tell me what to do with this fucking thing.
His language isn’t tricky—just some situational irony and expert play with the word “deliver”—but the feelings are tricky. The moral weight, the ethical X-ray: What do we do now?
What we don’t do is speak and act like Donald Trump, that’s for certain. Every day he’s a failure. I swear we’d be better off if the people with cameras and microphones just ignored the guy entirely. I mean, listen again to this one while he’s standing in the hellscape ashes, near the missing and dead of California, and tell me I’m wrong. Trump said, “You look at other countries where they do it differently, and… and it’s a whole different story. I was with the President of Finland, and he said, ‘We have a, a much different… we’re a forest nation.’ He called it a forest nation. And they spend a lot of time on raking and cleaning and doing things, and they don’t have any problem.” That was on November 17th, and then again on the 18th, on CNN and Fox News Sunday and every other station. And worse, while he said it, he waved his hand around vaguely and lamely, remember? Sort of in the direction of the ground. Proving forever that he’s never once raked in his life. Not one leaf; a total nada.
Or better yet, a nyet.
And so I wrote about it, a poem called “Fire Chief in Chief,” but I’d rather say here that poetry has jobs, and I think one of those jobs is just to be a rake: to take a look around at all the scatter of mess and beauty, and think about the words dropped everywhere and blowing by around us, then rake them into piles, these ordered arrangements that kids can jump in for fun or that grown-ups can stand beside and feel like progress was made toward change or completion, bagging them up and then giving them to city trucks, like passing on a message… pause, perspective, a kind of rightness. At least for a while.
I have a new book where I’ve done that, where I’ve tried to be a rake. Heck, the second section is called “Gathering.” Anyway, I’m not sure it will tie up this essay, but I’m going to end now with a page from The Book of Sharks. I think it speaks to what I’ve been trying to say—about being accessible, being humble, doing a job—and sort of rounds full-circle back to English Departments, if you think of a monastery as a kind of lantern-lit precursor to what we’ve got today:
[Spearing a shark means seven days of work—]
Spearing a shark means seven days of work— that long to do the rendering—
and all you get is a set of jaws and teeth, some fragment to hang in a window
or look at over the fireplace instead of at the fire.
I’ve heard there are monks somewhere using human skulls as paperweights.
Not to keep old scrolls from rolling up, or pages in place while they bind them,
but to bear in mind we aren’t the measure of Creation. Just a part.