Only Poem I’ve Written in the Last 15 Years…

…and it’s no surprise it’s about Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. This comes from maybe 6-7 years ago. I was teaching seniors at Hickman High School in Columbia, Missouri, and trying to persuade them to shoot high in preparing for our class poetry slam. Nothing was seeming to work (strategies, videos, models, exercises, live readings), and, mildly crestfallen at my failure, I was surfing YouTube when I came to this video:

As usual, contact with Wills’ music banished the blues, then it occurred to me, “Hey, I’ll write my own poem for the slam, and surreptitiously introduce them to one of my all-time idols. If you know anything about The Youth of the ‘Oughts, you know any hope of them welcoming music like Western Swing with open arms was going to be dashed on the rocks. Still, I plunged blindly ahead. Here are the results, and after almost a decade, I guess I like them, because I am posting it:

“Texas Playboy”

 After class one day,

Kid asks me about Howlin’ Wolf.

I submerge into pure joy for ten minutes

Channeling some Delta griot’s ghost that

Mastered me when I was the kid’s age.

When I surface, flushed but conscious,

The kid gapes at me with worried eyes.

Stutters, “So who’s your favorite?”

Speechless, I lie.

“That’s a parlor game, kid, shows

Free enterprise won’t even let you

Think about art without having to

Declare a winner. Good Lord.”

Kid shrugs, looks at his shoes.

“What a dick,” he thinks.

 

Fact is, I know all about such games.

Play them myself all the time.

Playing one now.

Have a favorite.

Looking at him now

On You Tube,

This portal for dead musicians

And hoarded cathode memories.

He is fat,

His belt sitting atop his navel

like a rough uncle.

Blatant toup wraps a head

Split by cophragous grin.

Squat, he struts the stage

Like a doctored chicken

In white cowboy boots.

White.

His axe?

A fiddle.

He is everything I know

Of cool.

 

This explains the lie, kid.

 

Old black and white short

From the Forties.

Crowded by a sextet,

Crouching as if to make,

He points fiddle bow at pianist,

And looses two euphoric syllables:

“Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhh-ha!”

Bouncing saloon tinkles

Trigger steel

Trigger guit

Trigger trumpet

Trigger drums

Trigger fiddles.

Swing emerges,

Magic, ecumenical,

Impossibly joyous.

 

Wine tasters raise my hackles.

But permit me this:

If you could drink this sound

You would taste

Africa

Germany

Scotland

Our own maligned Texas.

 

Two choruses in,

He whirls and stabs bow

at the other fiddler.

“Ahhhhhhhhh, Joe D.”

By tune’s end,

All have shone.

 

Foreground:

Couples shelve grievances,

Embrance and spin,

Imagine, believe in,

Harmony.

 

He takes it home,

Raises fiddle to chin,

Graces band with a

Smiling, peripheral gaze.

 

So, kid—Bob Wills.

In my fantasy, I both

Point the bow

And wait my turn.

It flowed out if me in about 15 minutes, then I took about an hour to hammer at it. I read it to the kids the next day–of course, I showed the above video, and had to do a verbal version of footnotes, but they did not throw anything at me. And…every student wrote a poem and participated. The class elected its own judges, and I held myself out from the competition, obviously, but guess what won?

A poem that read like the lyrics to an Usher song, but, as its punchline revealed, was about washing and waxing…a car. 

You can’t win ’em all. Or maybe you can.

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