My first impression of a poet came from listening to my mother and her friends talk about their attempts at being hipsters in high school. Apparently, my mother was not aware that the dark sunglasses, black turtleneck sweaters, berets and bongoes came straight from Madison Avenue and Hollywood. In fact, the 1958 B-movie High School Confidential seemed to be a major reference point for the youth of Oak Ridge High School. In the movie, Phillipa Fallon plays a beat poetess who performs at The Drag, a teen hangout. As Poetess recites her verse, a band interjects snatches of ragtime.
"My old man was a bread stasher all his life.
He never got fat. He wound up with a used car,
a 17 inch screen and arthritis.
Tomorrow is a drag, man.
Tomorrow is a king sized bust.
They cried ‘put down pot,’ ‘don’t think a lot,’ for what?
Time, how much? And what to do with it.
Sleep, man, and you might wake up digging the whole
human race giving itself three days to get out.
Tomorrow is a drag, pops, the future is a flake.
I had a canary who couldn’t sing.
I had a cat who let me share my pad with her.
I bought a dog that killed the cat who ate the canary.
What is truth?"
Since I was not able to see High School Confidential until my early thirties, the image of the poet influenced me via my mother's interpretation: What she found pertinent became my experience. But now I giggle when I read the poem from the film and wonder how many teenagers took it to heart.
The stereotype of the beat poet was not confined to the big screen. As an adolescent, I constantly watched reruns of the 1960s television show The Munsters. In one episode, Herman Munster improvises a poem for the guests of his beatnik party. With earnest innocence and a nervous smile, Herman speaks:
"Ibbitty bibbitty, sibbity sab,
Ibbitty bibbitty, canal boat.
Dictionary. Down the ferry."
The poem continues with nursery rhyme and novelty song references, and the young, hip guests, dressed in black jumpers and trousers, are delighted. Albeit The Munsters was a comedy, I somehow interpreted the beatnik episode as a truthful portrayal of a poet. Of course, Herman's poem makes no sense in and of itself; the audience of hipsters is responsible for attributing meaning to the words. For them, the poem is a deep commentary on the establishment. For a ten year old, the poem sounded like nonsense but the reception of it by the audience infused the words with a mysterious meaning.
More recently, in Billy Bob Thornton's film Sling Blade (1996), the character Morris writes lyrics for a song that seem to be descended from beatnik genes. In the scene, redneck Morris and his band are drinking when they begin to discuss their future as musicians:
Doyle: Morris here is a modern-day poet, kinda like in olden times.
Morris: Yeah, I got a new tune in composition entitled "The Thrill." And it goes somethin' like this: "I stand on the hill, not for a thrill, but for the breath of a fresh kill. Never mind the man who contemplates doin' away with license plates. He stands alone, anyhow, bakin' the cookies of discontent by the heat of the laundromat vent. Leavin' his soul!" Then like in poetry I go dot-dot-dot, you know, kinda off center, then I drop down and then I go: "Leavin' his soul! And partin' the waters of the medulla oblongata of - -brrrrrr! - -mankind!" That was a damn good song, wasn't it Doyle?
Of course, Thornton intends the men in the band to be laughable, but I wonder how many viewers might find that the image is an accurate portrayal of a poet.
I imagine my preoccupation here is a concern about what other people think about poets, but it could also be that I think posturing is ugly. I'm not sure what a poet is supposed to look or sound like, but I do know that a stylized version of a bard is not what I trust.