|ABOVE: Levitoff Arriving at the Final|
“You sit there. Just you. The page. And the clock starts. And you gotta work the words. We’re not in it for the fame, it’s just the game, y’all!”
So says Abraham Levitoff, Main Poet for the Boston Bardsters. He’s sweating. I watch the glistening beads form on that formidable forehead. Stadium lights flash on every drop. There are 90,000 people in the bleachers, waiting for the act of poetry that will turns the tables. If you look closely, all those 90,000 people are reflected in every single sweat drop that covers Levitoff’s face. He isn’t a man anymore. He’s the sweaty reflection of his verse-loving fans.
The 2012 National Poetry League Finals have not gone smoothly for the Bardsters. They had to struggle for poetic laurels against the Arizona Naturalists and the Cincinnati Sensitives. Meanwhile the Miami Jammers (a multi-ethnic team of poets who have benefited, and some would say cynically profited, from Central American and Caribbean influences) EASILY obliterated the Harlem Renaissancers and the Alabama Folkers. The Jammer’s Main Poet, Pablo DaRuda, has had a flowing streak of romantic and epiphanic visualizations that have audiences across the country breaking into revelatory tears.
“It’s words,” says Levitoff. “And DaRuda’s words are fine. They do what they do, we do what we do.”
“Goo-goo-ka-choo,” he added. Rhyming just spouts out of him, like the water that now covers him fully. He can pretend, he can act cool, because it’s what Levitoff does. He alone gets paid 50 million for each creative season. He’s a professional. But it’s just a pretense. It has to be. Too much rides on tonight’s final poetic creation. Each 30-second ad costs 2 million dollars. And there’s a lot of ads. Everyone’s eyes on America’s greatest poets.
This is gonna be a night of revelations. Words are gonna come together to unlock gates to the universes within you. You didn’t know there was so much WITHIN YOU. But Levitoff… or DaRuda… are going to make you FEEL. UNDERSTAND. You’re going to GROW and be TRANSFORMED because of this. Of COURSE you’re watching them do it! You’re wearing your “Favorite Poet” Jersey. How could you not? Everyone else is doing it. This is truly life-changing stuff happening RIGHT BEFORE YOUR EYES. Beauty is being created!!!
It’s come down to this. The main Jammer vs. the main Bardster.
And they each got five minutes left to express themselves poetically, to blast away the crowds with the searing, blinding beauty of their ideas.
|ABOVE: As thousands cheer.|
Oh, there’s been highlights all around in 2012. The New England Frosters had a premature hit with their: “Do I dare to buy a pear?/ Oh hell, yeah I’m gonna dare!” Six million shirts sold on that one line! There was titillation, when Dolan Bobbins from the California Objectivists brought twenty five poetry groupies to simultaneous orgasms by rhyming “My dick likes to throb” with“high-paying job.” “Oh, that’s facile and reductionist,” critics were quick to point out. But it happened, and it was humorous. There was also a dark side to 2012. Words like “classicist” were being thrown around. True, it rarely happened in front of the cameras. But when you have an event like the NPL Finals, there’s a lot of cameras.
So it was bound to happen. Carlos Williams Gonzo from the Jammers got caught calling Abraham Levitoff a “Rhymer.” Is “Rhymer” a slur? It certainly sounds like one in the controversial video where Gonzo, clearly intoxicated and with one arm around Kristen Stewart (the star of “Emily Dickinson: Zombie Killer”) unambiguously says:
“Levitoff ain’t nothing but a Rhymer. He was born a rhymer, and he ain’t never going to rise above being a rhymer. He just does NOT CARE ABOUT MODERN POETRY.”
Of course Gonzo was fined $10,000 dollars and made to apologize the very next day, explaining that he was, like most poets, very fucking high a good 80% of the time and nothing he said should be taken seriously. Some people thought that was too little, too late. For Gonzo, $10,000 dollars is a dashed-out sonnet, a lazy Sunday night's work.
|ABOVE: Anxious crowds outside the Williams Gonzo Conference.|
Philly Rollins, who teaches Etymology at Columbia University, was quick to point out on the Huffington Post: “’Rhymer’ is NOT necessarily a slur. At one point, rhyming was a NECESSITY, it was what qualified you to become a poet. If you were UNABLE to rhyme, then you would simply have to move into fiction. Sometime around the turn of last century the tables turned, and a rhyme seemed stilted, facile… low class, even. People’s feelings were hurt when they were called ‘Rhymer.’ But it’s just a word. If we give POWER to the word, it becomes destructive. If we CENSOR the word, it adds mystique. There’s some bad neighborhoods, and yeah, let’s face it, you might have a problem if you call the neighborhood’s elected poet a ‘rhymer.’ People love their poetry, it’s one of the most important aspects of humanity, so naturally, emotions cloud the facts. But ‘Rhymer’ is just a word. Rhymers can say it to each other, and somehow it’s fine, isn’t it?”
|ABOVE: The ubiquitous portrait of Levitoff. The original, of course, hangs in the Green Room of the White House.|
The bell is about to ring, Levitoff’s agent, a forbidding man with gold teeth, reminds me I get one more question. I waste it: “Do you care that Gonzo called you a ‘Rhymer’?” He replies:
“Look, I’ve been called worse
Since my mom was my nurse
This life ain’t no rehearse
You deal with jealousy
They envy you at the embassy
But between you and me
It’s all a fantasy.”
“Right, right,” I say. There is no way to conceal the fact that I am nervous. This is the man who gave us the line: “Summer, I stare at the eye at your reason” in the 2008 NPL finals, with ten seconds to go on the clock. This is the man who invented 20 rhymes for “orange” in the decisive 2010 beat down of the Kansas Stanzas. This is the man who made the Main Poet of the Louisiana Limmerickers, Sandra Bluth, go into a dead faint when he said, RIGHT IN HER FACE, and televised before 90 million people:
“Nothing, not even the sparrow spared by the spear
Can compare to the arrow of my love through the hole of your fear.”
Whatever that meant.
But then I relax.
Because all that sweat tells me I’m just looking at a guy. Sure, he’s got the millions, the adoration of the entire country. Love, freely flowing unto him. He’s a poet. Who doesn’t love that? But I look past the sweat. He’s just a man.
We all know what happened next in the 2012 NPL blow-out. It couldn’t have been scripted. DaRuda stepped out to the stage. Lights pulsing down on him. He had five minutes to find a poem and an inspiration. He looked into the crowd. There is a woman there, someone who is only a friend, does not find him attractive, and has resisted the ridiculous exposure of his heart. There. What more does a poet need? Failure. Rejection. That’s inspiration! Around the world, translated instantly in 85 languages, billions hush as he recites to her:
“I love that you don’t love me
It’s reassuring, it confirms
Fears I held close, and meant to strangle
(Elbow bent at an unlikely angle.)
Well, I gave all of my body, unimpressive, to you.
Surrendered some far fortress to you.
I love that you don’t love me
Because it makes certain
That you and I are meant to flirt behind a curtain
Two people who agree you’re far too worthy,
And me, I’m only dirt and far too Earthy.”
|ABOVE: The Muse.|
And then, it happens. Abraham Levitoff’s ruin. He can’t help himself! He madly cackles:
“That was a fuckin’ RHYME! You’re a RHYMER TOO!!! Rhymer, Rhymer!!! You’re just an old timer!”
The plentiful sweat must have dehydrated him into the drought of madness. How else to explain the slur? The crowd goes quiet on the bleachers. Levitoff wildly jerks his head about:
“It’s true! It’s true! Oh, why are you all so shocked? Oh, like this is a big deal? Guess what! It’s just some fucking poem! It's not 'powerful' or 'devastating'? An ATOMIC BOMB is powerful and devastating! Grow up, everyone! We don’t deserve to be paid millions for this! It’s not a great drama! It’s not a triumph of the human spirit! You’re just fooled into believing that by advertisers! We’re just some useless guys whose one sad talent is to come up with cute words! If we didn’t do this, we would be worthless junkies! Don’t worship us, you morons! Don’t give us your every hope and dream! Don’t tolerate our childish behavior! We are FUCKING SHIT! Turn off your TVs right now! You want to do something worthwhile? Go home and WRITE YOUR OWN FUCKING POEMS!”
No, it’s not been a smooth season for the Bardsters. I think of Levitoff. A man. Not the King of Poetry. Just some guy. Sweating and about to lose it. I think of the immortal words from Euscalius’ “Astromachia”:
“Why should we worship the Olympian
As if we thought he were more of a man
When he is less than most
A brute obsessed with the body?”
Euscalius was talking about sportsmen (men who dedicated themselves to running around while moving rocks from one end of a field to the other to no particular avail.) People in his time were weirdly obsessed with watching OTHERS exercise their body thusly to obscene, unprofitable extremes, instead of exercising their OWN to pleasing moderate shapes. But we don’t have to smugly smirk at their primitive, nearly animal ways. Look at the absurd, overblown way we treat poets nowadays. Look at the exorbitant paychecks, the unearned acclaim, the sexual worship, the insatiable obsession with their every act of creation. Are we really any better? Do we want to spend all our attention on some visionary obsessed only with intellectual beauty and clarity of expression? Why do we idolize? Fantasize? Fetishize?
|ABOVE: Sandra Bluth before a worshipping audience.|
I'm not saying that poetry shouldn't remain one of the pillars of our societies. Who would want to live in a world where schools don't have poetry teams, where children aren't taught to exercise their ability to express themselves, where the greatest poets aren't acclaimed and cherished? I'm not proposing that kind of prosaic, soulless nightmare. I just want us to stop. Step back. Examine our cultural obsession with poetic achievements- like Levitoff’s breakdown during the 2012 NPL finals. Because that’s what it was, wasn’t it? A poetic achievement.
The lesson he taught us was his greatest act of creation:
At the end of the day, it’s only poetry. Sure, it can move you, show you new ways to see the world, make you smarter, wiser. But that’s about all it does. Let’s not be fanatics. Let’s keep it in perspective.
It’s not like it’s the BALLET!