By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Of all the poets I met, Priestley was probably the most fun to talk to. But talking to him was also confusing. One moment he'd rail against the "effete snobbery" of the "Yale and Harvard" crew, the next he'd make fun of "freestyle" rappers who thought they'd invented free verse. He believed young poets should practice writing in meter, but seemed uneasy with the idea that that might entail spending a lot of time analyzing poems already written in meter. He complained that he'd never been invited to read at UCLA, but then added that he'd been on a panel at UCLA during a Festival of Books. In a way, he seemed trapped. Cut off from the white world, estranged from his own neighborhood. And as with a lot of poets, his biggest problem was that he was practicing an art form that most people knew little about.
"To converse and have discourse about these things between you and I, half of the people in my neighborhood, man, they would have walked out of this room," he told me at one point. "They wouldn't know what the hell y'all talking about. Who is Pound?Who is Eliot? That's a problem. That's a serious problem. And it has to do with education."
Priestley waved an arm in disgust. "Oh, man, please. I started quoting Melvin Tolson one day, this guy says, 'Who's that you're talking about?' I said, 'That's one of the most celebrated poets of the Harlem Renaissance.' Even the advanced kids today, they wouldn't know Tolson."
Perhaps that was why, these days, Priestley was writing a lot more prose than poetry. A founding member of the Watts Writers Workshop, he had already published one novel (Raw Dog), and had written several more, along with a screenplay version to accompany each one. For Priestley, I suspected, poetry was a luxury -- or perhaps it really was a form of therapy after all. The day we spoke, he was wearing a cap with the words FINAL DRAFT printed on it. He'd gotten it for free with his screenwriter's computer program.
THE ONE REALLY FAMOUS POET L.A. HAS PRODUCED IS the late Charles Bukowski, and he has plenty of followers. Timothy Steele is not one of them. Steele, Vikram Seth's mentor-pal at Stanford and now a professor of English at Cal State L.A., is exactly the kind of poet Bukowski derided in his poem "The Replacements":
Jack London drinking his life away while writing of strange and heroic men. Eugene O'Neill drinking himself oblivious while writing his dark and poetic works. now our moderns lecture at universities in tie and suit, the little boys soberly studious, the little girls with glazed eyes looking up, the lawns so green, the books so dull, the life so dying of thirst.
Like a lot of Bukowski's poems, this one is as easy to read as an article in USA Today, and rather more appealing. Critics like Harold Bloom like to point out that, to be good, a poem must reward repeated re-readings; what they sometimes forget is that, to be read, a poem must also reward a single reading. This Bukowski's poems do. And if there isn't much to be gleaned from a second reading, well, you can always turn the page and go on to the next poem. Bukowski wrote a lot of them.
The problem is that single readings aren't what they used to be: ã These days, a poem's lucky to get a single skimming. We read like people with a train to catch. Perhaps this is why most people now think of poetry as a kind of performance art, something to be listened to in a club rather than read on a sofa. Even poets rarely ask if you've "read" a poet anymore; they ask if you've seenhim.
When I mentioned Bukowski to Steele, he made a wry face and told me that, as a judge for a book contest, he'd once read a volume of Bukowski's called The Roominghouse Madrigals. The memory made him smile. "After reading a lot of obscure poetry," he told me, "there was a certain charm about Bukowski which is -- this isn't fair, but . . ." (Steele started to laugh) "'I get up in the morning/it's ten o'clock,/baby, let's get a beer' -- you know, you could understand it." Still laughing, Steele then quoted a statement by Coleridge about poetry broadening our sympathies and told me how, after reading Bukowski's roominghouse poems, in which cockroaches were constantly being urinated on and stepped on and generally made to go SPLAT about once every three lines, he began to feel quite sympathetic toward the little creatures.
"Obviously you think Bukowski's been a fairly disastrous influence on young poets," I suggested when Steele had stopped laughing. "But he does seem to touch people."
"Yeah, and I think it's partly because they don't think of the art, they think of the artist, or the image of the artist, so they're drawn to him for that reason in part. He's a kind of rebel, and in that sense, I think you're much better off taking a pop star, because heaven knows, Lennon-McCartney and Dylan write in meter, so you at least get something of the art from them."