Tuesday, December 1, 2009

"Name Us a King", A Beginning of Sorts

Portrait of Carl Sandburg, by Edward Steichen.

Skate punks don't write poetry. As a rule. At least not the ones I rolled with. But rules are often fickle. Skateboarding, to some, is a form of expression. Poetry can find its way onto grip-tape, or tagging brick walls. It could happen.

I was sitting in the back of Mr. Springer's world history class. 14. Probably rocking a pair of Air Walk shoes, trench coat, bangs long enough to tuck into a shirt pocket. A good look, still ;) I don't know what was discussed in class that day, but I wrote a short poem, between anarchy symbols in the margins. I read it. Thought about it. Re-read it. Got it the way I wanted it. I was still tough--it was called "Duel to the Death." Or was it "Dual?"--there were two people. Maybe Springer was talking medieval warfare. I don't think so. I felt like I did more during that class than the rest of my freshman year at Easton High School. Those who knew me back then would likely concur. But something stuck with me, for having written it, without setting out to.

The next year I was at St. James School in Hagerstown. I still skated. I ran cross country. I got ready for lacrosse. I read and wrote poetry. I found a cat named Carl Sandburg. He wrote the first poem I ever wrote out long-hand and read out loud to myself. I still remember taking a copy of it to our English teacher, Mr. Taylor. It was the first poem that I found and read on my own that I can recall the name of. The poem was called, "Name Us a King." It went something like this:

Name us a king
who shall live forever--
a peanut king, a potato king,
a gasket king, a brass-tack king,
a wall-paper king with a wall-paper crown
and a wall-paper queen with wall-paper jewels.

Name us a king,
so keen, so fast, so hard,
he shall last forever--
and all the yes-men square shooters
telling the king, "Okay Boss, you shall
last forever! and then some!"
telling it to an onion king, a pecan king,
a zipper king or a chewing gum king,
any consolidated amalgamated syndicate king--
listening to the yes-men telling him
he shall live forever, he is so keen,
so fast, so hard,
an okay Boss who shall never bite the dust,
never go down and be a sandwich for the worms
like us--the customers,
like us--the customers.

Though I've thought about it by name, line, and word, I haven't read that poem, one of the ones that started it all for me, in probably 20 years. I remember trying to imitate it in my own style, with my own words and thoughts. I dove into Sandburg--this cat writing free verse, who had lived as a hobo after dropping out of school, who had served in the Army, who wrote advertising copy and worked as a journalist and wrote about life. American life. A Whitman for the city.

My grandmother gave me a copy of Sandburg's complete poems for my birthday that spring. I know because it says so on the inside page: "To Michael Valliant, Happy Birthday, 1988." Thinking about writing about this poem early this evening got me to go grab that book out of a box in the garage. And go back to one of the poems that started it all, for me. The one I found, not for a class, but on my own. And wrote down. At age 15. Funny what can spark a love of language. A love of writing. And a sense of kinship, a connection with a poet who died five years before I was born. Goes without saying I never met him. All the same, I'm glad he wrote it for me.

4 comments:

Runners on Trails said...

Way to keep it flowing.

Kelly said...

now this is fabulous. fabulous, for certain! i think we should jump on the momentum and in the meantime of looking to get connects down here to easton to read, punk-rock it call together a gathering and each of us bring those poems that promtped the birth of the duende or muse in us to begin with. a nite of sharing source power and light. what do you say?

Michael Valliant said...

Thanks, Mike!

And excellent, Kelly. I like the sharing source power idea. That could be a very cool exchange. We'll look to see when and how we can set the stage for that.

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