The poet is sleeping on his park bench in Montmartre again tonight. Occasionally, he wakes up in terror and pops a Xanax. Still, he is quite cheerful, in all kinds of circumstances. He probably isn’t the first poet to sleep on the same bench. Paris is, after all, the place where poets sleep on benches.
The poet was educated at one of the finest schools in New England; he has a photographic memory and is actually a very gifted poet. Despite his recent homelessness he still manages to MC at the open mic near St. Michel, where I sometimes go and play my songs. I like being at his shows, there is no feeling of snobbery and the atmosphere is congenial — sometimes real beauty is glimpsed, and an angel decends from heaven. Everybody is invited on stage — the good, the bad, and the ugly — and the poet/MC makes us all feel special. That is his secret.
Of late, the poet’s performances have been mixed, to be charitable. He forgets the lines of his favourite Yeats poem which he can usually rattle off with ease; he falls asleep in the corner, mumbling things to himself; he knocks over tables. His version of ‘Hallelujah’ is not exactly in tune — a broken hallelujah, quite literally. He’s lost his glasses and mobile phone again and broken his third guitar, to boot. Sometimes it seems like he has forgotten how to talk, how to walk properly, how to stand up straight. He has become even more hunchbacked than usually, dressing in scarecrow rags, his eyes gone somewhere on vacation. Still, he is ever-congenial, even if he seems a little sad. He has fallen in love again and stopped drinking, he tells me.
I’ve got a soft spot for The Poet— I like him more than most people. A bunch of us are trying to get him to go to AA, giving him electronic appendages, suggesting various support groups. There is something about the poet that makes you want to take care of him, to make him soup, for instance; he brings out the maternal instinct, also in his male friends. A couple of weeks ago, I offered to let him crash at my place for awhile but my wife wouldn’t allow it: she is wary of alcoholics, even if the poet is a gentle drunk. Also my flat in the suburbs is too far from the poet’s meds. What would he do if he ran out of Xanax?
It gave me a pain in my heart to leave you standing there, Mr poet man, to take the suburb train back to Versailles, with its wide and luxurious streets and its sumptuous boredom. God I hated to leave you in the wreckage, in your tavern of ruin. I felt terrible, helpless. I wondered how you would get back to his bench in Montmartre that night, without a metro ticket. I imagined you walking up the hill, or sneaking onto the subway. A poet has unusual means at his disposal, magic tricks, secret friends to help him survive nights like this, I reasoned.
So what the hell is a poet anyway, you have been making me ask myself? I suspect the poet is mostly incurable, except perhaps by luck and maybe love — he just isn’t really made of the stuff of this world. To cure him would be a disaster, though not to cure him is similarly tragic. There is nothing you can do really, to save a person with that kind of sickness — the sickness of the poet.
Writing poetry isn’t the half of it. Poetry is a place you live, beyond the hierarchies of the world. The poet is the double-faced Janus, with one face in each world — the liar who tells the truth. He has earned his poetry though suffering, found his joy though disaster. Sometimes the poet is the most despicable person in the world, at other times the most sublime. The poet can get to hell pretty fast when he falls in love with his own creations, as Milton put it. But that is all part of the poem. The poet must travels to the underworld to meet the beast first, before he has the right to call himself a poet.
I know what I am talking about. I’ve been the land of poetry myself — and I barely survived. I was on something similar to Xanax as well, I spent a few weeks in a half-way house in Newfoundland, I was saved by some decent people. Some half-decent poems were almost written during those times of debacle and crisis. I’m surprised I’m still here to tell you this, to tell the truth.
Personally, I’ve seen quite a few poets go down in flames, ‘starving naked hysterical in the angelic dawn’ as some other poet once said. The one who wrote that line got famous, but most poets don’t ever get famous, obviously. Still, this poet is not a normal person, famous or not. When normal people go astray they find Jesus or the Guru and get saved, but you can’t really save a poet. That’s because the poet is a conundrum, a lost cause, nearly doomed. He can’t really swim in ordinary waters. He is a tropical fish.
But, anyway, even though I am not a real poet, I’ve know a few — and the poets seem to like me. They like me because I don’t judge them, because I understand them a little. I’m not so different, actually. So why am I not sleeping on the park bench and popping Xanax as well then? Who knows? I’ve been given the gift of an ordinary life, that is all. I’ve stopped chasing after dangerous and beautiful prizes, I’ve settled down somewhere with a wife and a child.
But let me just say this: I know those lost island, I know their allure — I’ve seen the cyclops, the Lotus eaters, the Sirens — I’ve lived for eternities there. I got a little glimpse of the poet’s hell once, and it struck black terror in my soul. Consequently, I won’t allow myself to fall so far down — I have created walls of safety.
Is this island of domestic bliss any safer? How would I know? Anything can happen anywhere, a cyclone or a war. I just try to keep my house in order, that’s all, which isn’t easy for somebody like me. I’m just paying the rent, as Leonard Cohen put it. Which is underrated, actually. There is nothing quite like paying the rent. It’s even better than poetry sometimes.
Mr. Poet man, you cause a strange mixture of feelings in me. I don’t know what to think of you. Of course, I’m just a tourist in your word. But I see myself in you sometimes. I even lost my glasses last week, and broke my god dammed telephone. I was short for the rent and had to borrow money. It was just like being a poet. Was this sympathetic resonance? Maybe there is a park bench out there waiting for me too. Not tonight, however. I’m going back to the wife and child, to a quiet life in the suburbs. It’s true I burn more slowly these days, but not less brightly.
Sure, Poet-man, you are unique. Like every other person. Maybe on a cosmic level we are all just one person really, and that person is just one big poem. If we knew the gravity of that poem, maybe we wouldn’t fuck up so much, maybe we wouldn’t think that we could cheat karma. Maybe we would do everything we could to resurrect the living flame in us, to prevent this bloody ship of fools from sinking.