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Matt the barista and the Poem Elf display

 

National Poem in Your Pocket Day is a good day to be a poem elf.  So many pockets to fill, so many poems to share.

Why is everything I do slightly askew?

Why is everything I do slightly askew?

 

Last year I set up my very first take-a-poem box at the post office.  I saved the box to use again, but when I pulled it out of the basement, I understood why a certain person who lives with me often complains I hoard junk.  The display was sad:  lopsided, stained with copper-colored splotches of unknown origin, and housing a few dead potato bugs. So I made a new one and placed it in my new favorite writing spot, Great Lakes Coffee.  Great Lakes Coffee is a Michigan chain that lives up to its name.  Everything about this place is indeed great—the teas, the service, the staff, the atmosphere, the décor, and from what I hear from other customers, the coffee.

 

I didn’t take pictures of all the poems I put in the box.  There were too many, including poems by James Tate, Robert Frost, Ruth Stone, Lord Byron, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, W.S. Merwin, Yusef Komunyakaa, Eavan Boland, and my Scottish friend Angus Martin, among others. If you live in the area, stop by Great Lakes Coffee today and pick up a poem.  Or link here to find poems, suggestions, videos, and for those anxious souls who really need it, detailed instructions on how to put a Poem in Your Pocket.

12 by Eat It Detroit

 

Many thanks to the folks at GLC for displaying my box.

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poem is on shelf with coffee

 

A New Lifestyle

by James Tate

 

 

People in this town drink too much

coffee. They’re jumpy all the time. You

see them drinking out of their big plastic

mugs while they’re driving. They cut in

front of you, they steal your parking places.

Teenagers in the cemeteries knocking over

tombstones are slurping café au lait.

Recycling men hanging onto their trucks are

sipping espresso. Dogcatchers running down

the street with their nets are savoring

their cups of mocha java. The holdup man

entering a convenience store first pours

himself a nice warm cup of coffee. Down

the funeral parlor driveway a boy on a

skateboard is spilling his. They’re so

serious about their coffee, it’s all they

can think about, nothing else matters.

Everyone’s wide awake but looks incredibly

tired.

 

 

It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World 4 by Priority PR, Los AngelesThis catalog of frenzied coffee-drinkers, comical in their obsession, brings to mind an old movie favorite, It’s a Mad Mad Mad World.  If you haven’t seen this 1963 classic, find a way, post-Blockbuster, to watch it.  Jonathan Winters riding a little girl’s bicycle is not to be missed.  Winters and an all-star cast including Spencer Tracy, Ethel Merman, Terry Thomas, Peter Falk and Sid Caesar race down the California coast to find $350,000 buried under a mysterious “Big W.”  The characters become increasingly nuts as the chase ensues.  Their money monomania leads them to the top of an out-of-control fire truck ladder and eventually to the hospital.

 

Recapping the movie, I’m struck by how modest the buried treasure is by today’s standards.  $350,000, really?  At first “A New Lifestyle” seemed similarly dated.  Is obsessive coffee-drinking new?  I assumed that the poem was written pre-Starbucks.  When I discovered it was actually published in a 2002 collection, I read the poem a little differently.  It’s not a straight-up tub-thumping.  It’s also gleeful exercise in the pleasures of tub-thumping.  Tate invents a character, a Rip Van Winkle sort of man, who observes modern habits with a crabby and comic eye.

 

Clearly Tate has a lot of fun creating characters and listing silly coffee-drinking situations.  His list begins credibly, with pushy drivers stealing parking spaces. But as the speaker gets wound up, the list gets increasingly crazy.  Vandalizing teenagers in a cemetery drink coffee, not beer.  Burly trashmen sip from dainty expresso cups.  By the time we arrive at the dogcatcher racing down the street with his coffee, we know Tate is as intent on amusing as he is on complaining.  When was the last time you saw a dogcatcher anyway?

 

The speaker’s tirade operates on a logical fallacy, Post Hoc, as I remember from a rhetoric class, or maybe it’s Hasty Generalization:  drivers are drinking coffee; these drivers are rude: therefore coffee-drinking causes rude behavior.  Whatever the name, this kind of false reasoning is common to anyone ranting and raving on the ills of society.

 

“A New Lifestyle” would be a fun poem for an imitation exercise.  Substitute “coffee” with television, plastic water bottles, Facebook, ADHD medication, the internet, smart phones, or whatever a bile-eyed observer might deem harmful.  Invent characters.  Create absurd incidents.  Make a hasty generalization.  End with a killer statement that shakes up the whole poem and makes the reader shudder with recognition:

 

Everyone’s wide awake but looks incredibly

tired.

 

I couldn’t resist re-writing those lines for a poem about cell phone usage, a vice of mine (cell phones, that is, not re-writing):

 

Everyone’s connected but feels incredibly

alone.

 

Today being the first day of Lent, a season of giving up certain habits to make room for more important behaviors, it’s a good time to consider obsessions.  “A New Lifestyle” makes me think how sad and empty obsessions can be.  How we move from one obsession to the next.  How we define ourselves by our obsessions.  How what we seek so desperately can end up thwarting what we desire most.  But mostly how darn hard it is for me to give up sweets and Facebook and what I would give for a chocolate chip cookie right now.

 

gregory peck as captain ahab moby dick by Positively PuzzledOf course I left the poem at Starbucks, that mecca for all obsessive coffee drinkers.   Interesting that the name “Starbucks” comes from Moby Dick.   After rejecting “Pequod,” Starbucks’ founders chose the name of the Pequod’s chief mate, Starbuck.  They wanted to suggest international commerce and coffee trading.  The speaker in “A New Lifestyle” would say they chose well.  Nothing says “obsession” like an allusion to world of Captain Ahab.

 

James Tate - Youngest Winner of "Yale Younger Poets Award" visits CC by Columbia College Alumni AssociationPoet James Tate was born in Missouri in 1943.  His father, a pilot in WWII, died in a plane crash when Tate was five months old, and never met his son.  Tate has won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award and teaches at the University of Massachusettes, Amherst.  In a wonderful interview with Tate in the Paris Review (which you can read here) poet Charles Simic calls Tate “one of our great comic masters.”

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