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"Jack Benny's Violin" [by James Cummins and David Lehman]

Jack Benny's Violin
Jack Benny’s Violin

I have always wanted to write a poem called Jack Benny’s violin.
How often have I begun a poem with that title.
At a key moment a mugger intercepts our man in sin
with a gun. “Your money or your life?”
There follows the longest pause in the history
of stand-up comedy.  “I’m thinking!  I’m thinking!”

Jack Benny’s violin was the thinking
man’s violin,
as if a scratchy sound symbolized Jack’s whole history,
metonymic for the man who wore the title
“King of Comedy” for most of his working life.
No, he couldn’t play it like Henry Mancini;

he played it straight.  Yet in his mind he was a man seen
hurling the javelin in the glory of his youth, not thinking
of his job, his boss, his wife, or of what life
after sixty has to offer.  At night he plays the violin
badly (Brahms’s concerto), but Y. A. Tittle
passes to Del Shofner when he dreams his story

is metonymic for the whole Giants’ story,
even as he might say Del was his main man in sin:
their opponents thought it a sin, to rob them of a title.
Could the mugger have been thinking
it was a sin to rob Jack of his violin?
Or was he just giving Jack the straight line of his life?

“Jack Benny was my role model,” John said.  Life
has been good to the deadpan master of the double-take.  History
to him was like a theme for solo violin:
playing it he proved that the love of god and the need to sin
can coexist.  It defied reason, but thinking, real thinking,
was like that—like a poem abandoned without a title.

We were listening to a new rapper, Li’l N Title,
when John said, apropos nothing and everything, “Life
was a joint, and the Firesign Theater, and poems that did their thinking
at warp speed, and on vinyl.  But I guess all that’s history
now.  Jack Benny shuffled off the stage as Charlie Manson
shuffled on — we should’ve listened better to Jack’s violin.”

And you, dear reader, are entitled to hear this violin
duet and imagine it is a hymn to life, to man and woman in sin,
because it wears its thinking on its sleeve and calls it history.

-- James Cummins and David Lehman (2012)

August 05, 2022

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January 01, 2022

December 17, 2021

September 09, 2021

September 07, 2021

September 04, 2021

August 05, 2021

June 04, 2021

June 03, 2021

June 02, 2021

February 04, 2021

January 29, 2021

January 22, 2021

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"Lively and affectionate" Publishers Weekly


I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark

from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman

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