John W. Marshall
How Many Syllables Are There in Leotard?
A Report from the Poetry Frontier
I have the perfect job, if such a thing exists. My wife and I own and operate a poetry bookstore. Since I like people (most of them) and love poetry (but only some poems), I couldn't do better. At least five days a week I'm in a poetry grotto which, on given hours, anyone else can enter. And they do. For instance...
a guy walks into the store, doesn't even glance at the books, comes over to me at my counter and says, If you were writing a haiku how many syllables would leotard have? The same number it would have if you were writing a haiku, I say. Three. Three? he says, Couldn't it be two? He tries to say leotard in two syllables, meaning he says it quickly, slurs it, but it always sounds like three to me. And to him, evidently, because he says, Oh well, turns, and goes out the door. The chimes hooked to the top of the door say goodbye for him.
A haiku with the word leotard in it? Now there's the real question. Would I ever write a haiku with the word leotard in it? We're told never to say never but, nope, never would. And what will he replace leotard with if he's a stickler for form? Jumpsuit? Tight clothes? Bought skin? Or maybe the form is the problem. Maybe he should try a leotard sonnet, or leotard blank verse. Heaven forbid leotard should ever be an end word in a sestina, eh? One of the essential tensions of poetry is the struggle between form and content, a struggle sufficient to get a guy to park his car, walk into a store, and ask for a syllable count. In any case, leotard is a chewy word, certainly worth all three syllables.
So was this troubled soul, driving along on a weekday afternoon thinking about his haiku, proof that poetry thrives outside our grotto as well as in it? At any given moment how many Americans are driving around the streets of how many cities trying to find a way to fit leotard into a haiku, or working on some other poetry problem? I expect the number is higher than most people think. The best evidence that poetry, or some notion of it, is increasing its claim on the U.S. collective consciousness can be found in the marketplace.
I recently saw a magazine ad for Absolut Vodka that read absolut cummings in its biggest type size. I couldn't figure what that meant and, having an incurably curious and distractible mind, I spent way too much time trying to figure it out. Finally my editor-eyed wife pointed out that the text on the bottle had no capital letters at all. Now there's always a chance this was an allusion to some other artist, but it looked then an awful lot like a nod to old double e. Unfortunately, there wasn't a hint of cleverness in the text, nary an adverb to be found, and certainly no parenthesis. The sad thing about the marketplace, maybe about this nation as a whole, is that it seems form most often rides while content walks. In this case, if I am correct, someone had recalled one tiny aspect of Cummings' form and decided to claim an affinity based on that shard. A shame.
Then there was the 1996 television ad for Subway Sandwich that sought to co-opt the Generation X open mic/poetry slam world. Here was a young, skinny, baggily-dressed woman reciting, with grand, dancerly gestures, some blather about wanting the whole sandwich. At least in this case there was a hint of metaphor, but let's not get into what whole sandwich the script writers meant to tickle. She performed this quote-unquote poem in front of a brick wall, and the scene was filmed in black and white to give that totally hip urban poetry look.
When people who make money by making money for corporations decide that poetry is worth being identified with, something is up in the culture. Perhaps Nike will come out with cross-trainers for the variable foot. But then who knows, maybe my store sold a poetry book because of one or the other of the ads. Should I be complaining? I can't complain about any of this, except maybe that...
some time ago a guy in the store said to me, after I finished a rant about the Subway ad, that he had seen it too and what got to him was that the poem wasn't any good. Was he kidding? No, he said, if they are going to do that at least they could pick a good poem. Now I am not sure which of us is closer to savvy, but I sure never expect to see and/or hear good poetry in an advertisement. For my money a good poem defines me, at least for a moment. It most certainly doesn't try to manipulate me into buying something. I'd sooner accept the notion that a good haiku can be written with the word leotard in it than that a good poem would serve commerce.
That's all for now from the poetry frontier. Take care of yourselves and, whether or not you write poetry, please read some.
Copyright 1997, John W. Marshall
John W. Marshall co-owns Open Books: A Poem Emporium (2414 N. 45th St., Seattle, WA 98103 / 206.633.0811) and is an editor of the literary magazine Fine Madness. Poetry and reviews of his have appeared in Switched-on Gutenberg and other magazines.