Attic Salt for April 29, 2012

Last chance to celebrate Poetry Month

You have a few more hours in April, which is Poetry Month, to buy a poet a meal or a rhyming app or new sandals.

The observance runs through Monday.

All poets aren’t poor. Billy Collins’ collections sell, and he’s big on the poetry reading circuit.

The former poet laureate of the United States pokes fun at himself for wanting to throw around the title when it suits him.

Put laureate in front of a poet’s name and you set him or her apart from other ink-stained wretches, academic wordsmiths and depressed persons.

Depression gives poetry a bad name though it wrung some pretty good stuff from the late Theodore Roethke, a fine, accessible poet.

Collins calls his poetry hospitable rather than accessible. Collins is always exchanging new parts for worn ones in the engine of his poetry.

A poet’s writing is said to be accessible if the reader can understand what the poet’s saying without taking a college course that bears the poet’s name.

Much of Collins’ poetry is humorous, especially when he reads it. But Collins prefers hospitable.

I think he means that not only can you understand what he’s trying to say, but that his poetry invites you into the kitchen, pours you a cup of coffee and makes you comfortable.

What makes him one of my favorite poets is that Collins might pull the chair from under me as I sit down to admire the wall clock or the branches outside the kitchen window moving in a breeze.

The other morning, as poetry month was downshifting for the final curve, I awoke to Cindy Carpien’s story on NPR about sidewalk poet Zach Houston.

Later, when I went to the NPR homepage, there was Houston plying his trade at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market in San Francisco.

Houston is proprietor, clerk and craftsman at the Poem Store. Looking like a character in a New Yorker cartoon, Houston was pecking out a poem for a customer on the poet’s 1968 Hermes Rocket portable typewriter.

Houston was sitting in a chair on a sidewalk, typewriter in his lap, beside a large sign that said, “POEMS”.

Houston, 29, gets anywhere from $2 to $100 for a poem. He calls his small, flat typewriter a “purse full of language.”

Writing poetry for drop-in customers is what Houston does full time. I don’t recall if Carpien’s radio story said Houston lives at home.

This rapper of typewriter keys gives poetry a public face that at once bolsters a stereotype and helps us see a new way to appreciate poets.

Why shouldn’t people get paid good money for expressing themselves succinctly and well? Why should the big bucks go to scribes whose thoughts consume thick books, scrolls of computer screens and reams of congressional paper?

“I Knew a Woman” (lovely in her bones) and “My Papa’s Waltz” should have put Roethke on Easy Street, even sold in the convenient two-poem, party pack.