The Hollywood screenwriters strike is only two weeks old, and already my life has changed. Why, you ask? You see, I write poems. Normally, I am treated with lightly veiled condescension. “I understand you’re a poet,” a new acquaintance will observe, in the same tone that he might say, “I hear you’re a wheelwright” or “I was told you’re a court jester.” Occasionally, he will hazard a feeble poetry joke: “I bet you’re rolling in money with that gig!” The occupation of poet is at best archaic, and at worst laughable, like being a professional perfume-tester.
Suddenly, in the absence of Hollywood film-writing, my social role has changed. I walk into a party and am treated with a kind of awe. “You’re a poet, aren’t you?” a woman with too much lipstick will ask me, with an air of desperation. “Do you have any poems with you?”
Now, I am the sort of writer who always carries a small satchel of verse. So I will, after a moment’s hesitation (meant to suggest humility), whip out a page and begin declaiming:
I sold my cow
to buy three quarts of milk.
Afterward, I’ll hear that phrase so rare to a poet’s ears: “Do you have another poem?”
In ordinary times, two poems is the maximum a group of strangers will tolerate. But these are no longer ordinary times. With the strike on, a group will patiently listen to five poems—including a sonnet! Living without David Letterman’s monologues makes Americans needy. No doubt, as the strike wears on, the public’s attention span will lengthen further.
Let me quickly add that I sympathize with my fellow writers who labor in the smoggy vineyards of Hollywood. I hope they receive just compensation for TV shows they wrote that are downloaded onto cellphones. But we poets inhabit an entirely different economy. We are lucky if we receive five dollars from The Ruptured Ox Review. Money, for us, has a largely ceremonial value. Payment suggests a certain respect, and a level of poeticism. Plus, of course, one may use the money to buy a falafel.
All this is a long descent from the 15th century, when Sir John Stanley, an English nobleman, alienated an Irish bard who composed a deadly lampoon against him, “and he lived only five weeks till he died from the venom of the lampoons.” Irish poets, it was believed, could also blight crops, exterminate rats or raise a bolg (an ulcerous blister) on the face with their poems. Meanwhile, the poet John Skelton was tutor to Prince Henry, who became Henry VIII. Simultaneously in India, Kabir Das inspired Muslims and Hindus with his mystic word wisdom.
So thank you, O crusading Hollywood writers, for inadvertently returning our former glory to us long-neglected versifiers!