Columns » Bob Lancaster

Red poetry

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Our topic today is poetry, and the proper appreciation of it, this being Poetry Month in Arkansas, officially so proclaimed by the governor. As I understand it, we’re all supposed to do our part in honoring our poets and giving them to know that we care. All right then, here’s to our serenaders of the Muse: Salute!

My contribution was to dig out some of my Edsel Ford favorites of long ago, with the intention of maybe inflicting them on some of the shut-ins in our church visitation, or maybe taking them on public-access TV. But Edsel Ford died back about the same time the Ford Edsel did, and I realized looking over those fine old achey-breaky verses of his that his world — the one I also meant to dazzle — is dead as a hammer and doesn’t offer asylum. You can visit but not stay. And visiting soon loses its imperative. A whole lot of the dead poets are not much of anything now but dead. And not just the poets. Favorites across the board keep disappearing into the Big Nada, and, except for Old Timers’ Days and such, it’s no use thinking they’ll ever be coming back.

I recently got some poems on a CD from a South Arkansas poet named Red Hawk. I don’t know if he’s a Native American or a real hawk that writes verse and that has the first name of Red, like Red Foley, or Red Crutchfield, a classmate of mine back in grade school, or my Uncle Red, whose real first name was Arthur but who got the nickname from a rufous complexion and the auburn tincture of his hair back before he lost most of his hair and what little he had left whitened with age as it does for us all.

“There may be snow on the roof but there’s still a fire in the furnace” was a once-popular semi-poetic expression that you never would’ve heard from Uncle Red, not being possessed of a poetical turn. He was given more to coarser metaphors, as Hamlet was, an example of which was his telling of hooking and landing a largemouth bass with a bunghole the size of a pieplate.

Poetry Month wouldn’t have got much of an observance from Uncle Red, but that would have been benign neglect and not scorn. He didn’t dislike poetry or poets that I know of, but they weren’t much of a factor in his sojourn. They were certainly not a priority. He and his older brother, my dad, grew up in a tough rural isolation that is not even imaginable anymore and made no acquaintance with the fine arts or any other arts that didn’t have to do with thwarting starvation. Mention The Bard to them and they might’ve thought you meant an object that had been loaned, but more likely they just wouldn’t have been listening.

I remember one time when I was a college freshman and knew everything, coming home from Mulerider U. for the weekend and stopping by the sawmill where Pap still worked seven days a week at his first job (just six days a week at his second), and trying to convey to him my newfound enthusiasm for “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Pap didn’t know J. Alfred Prufrock from Jack Squat, and he might have cared a little bit about Jack Squat. But he heard me out, fiddling with his Masonic ring as I gave him the lowdown on cosmic ironies, existential crises, and other agonies that beset the sensitive people of the world. About all he said after I’d finished my little spiel was “Well…” It wasn’t a Jack Benny “well” or a Ronald Reagan “well.” It was a forgiving paternal “well” with an unspoken addendum: “Well, Son, nice talking with you but I reckon I’d better be getting back to work.”

Not Whitman or even Poe would have rung a bell with the senior Brothers Lancaster, not sonnet, ode, elegy, epic, or limerick; not Stephen Crane or Ogden Nash or the fog creeping in on little cat feet; but sitting here remembering them I like to think that either of them would have whistled at Emily Dickinson if she’d ever been so bold as to allow them to glimpse her bundled form passing by an upstairs window, and that while she wouldn’t have acknowledged either the old boys or their whistling she would’ve suppressed a smile, and would have liked them almost as much as we did even without ever knowing them as we knew them.

Uncle Red’s wife, my Aunt Ophie, still a pistol at 91, assisted Dr. John Cole in bringing me into the world back in the antediluvian, and she named me for another of her nephews. I think that was meant as a compliment but I’ve never been sure. That other Bobby John is from down around Rison, and it’s just a hunch that he has no great attachment to them Attic shapes on the Grecian urn, either. Nor is it highhatting Rison to suppose many of its stalwarts wouldn’t cotton to a poet like, say, Yeats, especially when he started in with the business about the seat of love being the place of excrement, and such as that.


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