Mugged by a Muse — The Poet And The Con

A man has dreams, and all too often, this one found himself drifting off on his pleasant and wishful clouds as he corrected yet another stack of undergraduate papers. Yes, being a professor had seemed so inviting—a life of tweed jackets, of dragging on the meerschaum, of good books and penetrating discussions, and of time for reflection and writing. But, alas, once that mountain was scaled, the Oxbridge-inspired visions melted into a rather more mundane reality of workaday academia filled with myriad meetings, tiresome tests, and piles of papers.

But now, a new dream. Living on the land, a homestead family, planting our crops in the dark and vibrant loam, the good earth bursting forth an answering chorus of peas, beans, corn, potatoes, tomatoes, and onions. Trees bowing respectfully with their burdens of fresh fruit. Stacks of wood, awaiting the chill winter’s breath to burst into warmth and light in a cabin hearth. Cupboards full of God’s plenty, stored against that same winter’s cold and dark. Most of all, a real family, a sturdy husband and devoted wife, children happy and red-faced from chores and pure play—all knit by the warp and woof of nature into a seamless fabric. And finally, time amongst it all to reflect and write.

There’s dreaming and there’s doing, and there comes a point when the former must give way to the latter or time will have stolen all opportunity. And so, as previously reported in these pages, I moved my wife and seven children out to the country to start a new life on a modest homestead. I’d phase out of teaching and support my family by writing and growing our own food—self-sufficiency such as to make Thoreau sweat with envy.

Well, as it turns out, merely tacking up one’s sign as a wordmonger does not exactly noogle the publishers into stampeding in one’s direction. Even more depressing, our little Garden of Eden had its share of thistles the first year, and so we weren’t what you’d call honking on the horn of plenty.

Just when things seemed to be getting darker, my son noticed a story in the literary section of the Cadooz Toot and Dairy, the fine local paper, concerning a poetry contest. Now I must admit I was a shade skeptical at first, but grumbling bellies accompanied by rather hollow plinking sounds in the checking account made me take a closer look.

First prize of $1,000. Grand prize of $10,000. No entry fee.

No entry fee? Here was something new. I didn’t just fall off a turnip truck, so I knew the old swindle of suckering poor literary hopefuls into visions of jumping the fast track to poet laureate by dangling prize and prestige as bait, and then switching in a hefty entry fee amidst the fine print. The poor fools, cherishing unfounded notions of hidden poetic talent, pour their money into the charlatan’s coffers and then pour themselves into cobbling out some viscous verse that, thankfully, never sees the light of day. The poems end up in the recycling bin along with the envelopes, and the swindler cashes the entry checks and disappears.

Of course, I would never fall for such a ruse, but growling stomachs and all, I thought it best to take a closer look at the Web site. After all, if it was legitimate, I would be a fool not to enter. In fact, one could say, given my present situation, I had a duty to enter. Why is that, you may ask? I must confess, in all honesty, that as far as poesy is concerned, I am on a first-name basis with the Muses. I might not be able to thrash a tomato out of the ground, but meter and rhyme flow effortlessly out of my very pores like sweat out of a camel. Thus, if out of some false humility I passed by such a contest, well then, my children would unjustly suffer by my neglect.

So I betook myself to the computer and looked up the Web site. And indeed, there soon appeared, right before my wondering eyes, winning poets, not crowned with laurel but holding giant checks and smiling. Not just one or two, but a whole half-page of them, lined up and beaming like the weekly lottery winners in the Toot and Dairy.

And there in big letters, “NO ENTRY FEE.” All I had to do was enter my poem of 20 lines or less in the little character fields on the entry page, and my work would be immediately entered into the next contest—winner to be announced next month!

This was almost too easy. I admit, I felt a bit guilty unleashing my formidable poetic powers against mere mortal adversaries, so I made a vow that after cleaning up a few times and paying off some bills, I’d leave a month or two open for the poetic groundlings.

That night, having stacked the children for night-keeping and kissed my wife, I betook myself, armed with a cup of coffee, to my ersatz office and brought up a blank screen on the computer upon which to paint my inspiration. Of course, given the echoes in the larder, I thought it best to lower the caliber of my gun, so to speak. Something with broad appeal that was sure to win.

I settled back in my chair, stared at the screen, and awaited the approach of Calliope, Terpsichore, and Erato winging it down from Olympus. Nor did I have long to wait, for soon enough the mental mists began to eddy, and glimpses of inspiration began to appear. Something with a moral tone, adventurous yet touching the everyday, the universal in the particular. And then, a torrent of verse:

The Sneeze

There was a man who sneezed so hard,
He blew his lips across the yard.
And when at last he finally found ’em,
Another man had grown around ’em.

‘Distraught at his unseemly gashes,
He went to buy some false mustaches.
But lo, these left him still afeared,
So off he trod to buy a beard.

The moral of this poem is easy,
Since human beings are rather sneezy.
Cover your mouth when in such grips,
And you’ll die old with your own lips.

I was near breathless—the Muses must have felt pity on my poverty to have so amply tilted their wine cups through my mortal veins. I had to put my fingers in the coffee to cool them down. My initially modest aim had yielded an unexpected classic, smacking of Byron, a whiff of Yeats, and perhaps even a spall of Donne. I called up the Web site and typed it immediately into the entry page, pushed enter, and with naught ado, there appeared on the screen “The Sneeze” rewritten in fine script with a rather fetching ornamental background.

Two days later, I sauntered out to the mailbox, and what ho!, a letter from the contest:

Dear Benjamin,

After carefully reading and discussing your poem, our Selection Committee has certified your poem as a semi-finalist in our International Open Poetry Contest, and your poem will automatically be entered into the final competition. You now have an excellent chance of winning the $1,000 Grand Prize, and even the $10,000 Golden Poet Award.

And that’s not all… Imagine your poem featured on a page by itself in the hard-bound, coffee-table size collection Everlasting Eternality, scheduled for publication in just two months!

Incredible turnaround on their part! But then, they were obviously men and women of discernment and weren’t used to getting hit square in the jowls by a classic. Probably thought they’d better act before I heaved my considerable poetic weight elsewhere.

I strode into the house dripping confidence on the rugs. Happily, my wife had taken the children to the library, so my piece of fortune could remain a surprise. Victory was coursing through my very bones with such violence that I erupted into an involuntary haka. “Yes, old boy,” I sung to myself, “you’re a giant among dwarves.”

Well, there’s nothing like adulation to seed inspiration, so I swooped down to my office. They say genius never strikes twice in the same spot, but what care I for such dowdy and gray prudence? I was being carried away on the torrents of creativity.

Something romantic this time, yes, romantic in the broadest sense, penetrating the wild heart of nature yet linked to what is most peculiarly human—a gentle twist of the great theme of love, an unexpected atavistic awakening of the primal bond. I bent over the keyboard and wrote with such frenzied bacchanalia that I teetered on the ecstatic.

After a mere half-hour, I drooped back in my chair, exhausted, and reread, as if awakening from a dream, a literary egg even better laid than my first. Certainly, I could not deprive the declining West of this sparkling of literary hope, so I immediately entered it into the contest as well.

The Elephant Seal

Could one imagine something uglier,
Than elephant Seal’s most ugly muglier?
He has a face like kneaded bread,
And where his nose should be, instead
There grows an elephantic snorter.
Of such a face, to be a porter!
It looks like rotten cauliflower,
Hanging from his visage dour.

But to the sea bull’s loving Mrs.,
He strikes a pose much like Odysseus,
With nose as noble as a Roman,
Which sets the giddy sea cows poemin’.
And she, the cow, who’s just as striking,
Is fitted to the sea bull’s liking.
The vision of her sea cow lips
Could launch a thousand sea bull ships.

I pushed “enter” and watched my poem reappear, dressed in appropriate script and sheltered by flowing grapevines on a mauve background.

I confess, I was spent. My head, having been a furnace for poetic gold, was now filled with the scobs of fatigue, so I lay down on the couch and looked over the rest of the contents of the envelope.

There were several glossy leaflets included. Not only could I purchase a leather copy of Everlasting Eternality complete with my first poem, but I could have “The Sneeze” put on a coffee mug, a pillow case, a doormat, a shower curtain, several different styles of sweatshirts, a high-quality velvet wall hanging, a window shade, a beer stein, or a key chain.

I had balked at buying a copy of Everlasting Eternality-$89.99—but what with the very taste of victory, it seemed like a shame not to have some small token of immortalization on hand. Then it hit me! A surprise, of course! I’d order the doormat, place it outside the next time my wife went erranding, and when she came back…I’d have the check under the mat! No, better—I’d just cash it and put the money there! No, better still—I’d get a couple of mugs and stuff them with $20 bills! She’d see the mat, wonder what’s going on, come in; I’d be sitting at the kitchen table and offer her some coffee… Boom! Instant hero!

I rushed over to the computer, called up the Web site, clicked on “Store,” and, shaking with giddiness, ordered a mat and two mugs using the ol’ credit card. Not five seconds after I moused the last button at the checkout, I heard the beep of new e-mail. Something from the folks at the contest! Could it be?

Dear Benjamin,

Pardon me for being so abrupt, but our editors just read your latest poem, “The Elephant Seal,” and we simply couldn’t wait for “snail mail” to inform you that we have decided — with your permission, of course — to record your poem for a new CD collection coming out in just two weeks. Now you see why we couldn’t wait! We have interrupted production in hopes that you will allow us the honor of including “The Elephant Seal” on this esteemed set of 3 CDs. Of course, these will be made available to you at the special author’s price of $55.99 — a full 35% off the price offered to the public.

Friends, as Socrates said, I am not made of oak but am a man like you. Could I withhold consent? Could I, in good conscience, deprive the parched masses of a deep draught of my poetical mead? My poem read aloud, no doubt, by some fine stentorian—probably a Shakespearean. I humbly clicked “yes.” Immediately, another e-mail popped up:

Dear Benjamin,

Did I say $55.99? Forgive me — I see that you have another poem, “The Sneeze,” a poem of such passion and unique perspective that you are a semi-finalist in our International Open Poetry Contest! In recognition of your achievements, the CD set can be yours for $45.99! Shall we reserve one for you?

A deep sense of gratitude welled up from within. Then, I remembered that we hadn’t yet gotten Christmas presents for my wife’s parents. I clicked “yes.” My full name, address, and credit card information came up on the screen. I finished the transaction and kicked back on the couch to rest on my impending laurels.

I should have thought, in all this, of the obvious difficulty of getting doormat, mugs, and CD set smuggled in without being noticed. Luckily, my wife and children were used to seeing me skulking around the mailbox, waiting for the latest batch of rejection letters and unopened brown envelopes returned without so much as an editorial peek. So the next few days, I coated up early to take up my vigil, trying to appear skulky even though I was half-crazed with excitement.

Thinking I had already had more good news than my share, I was knocked off my hoppers when, just two days later, I received an elaborate envelope from the contest. I tore it open, shaking like a homemade ladder.

Dear Benjamin,

I am delighted to inform you that your poem “The Sneeze” has been awarded the prestigious Editor’s Choice Award because of its original creativity and profound depth. Congratulations! You must be quite proud!

Indeed, comrade, indeed—I was on the verge of weeping. I shook myself, blinked away the flooding tears of joy, and read on.

As we had expected, Everlasting Eternality, with your poem in it, has already sold out! We have, however, reserved a very small number of copies available only to the poets — a special gold-embossed, leather edition. Since you have not ordered a copy, we thought you would appreciate an opportunity to purchase this limited edition before it too is sold out.

Of course! How could I have been such a fool! A feeling of remorse at my balking at the pecuniary trifle swept over me. Imagine Byron, Yeats, or Shelley worrying over a few pfennigs and depriving themselves of their own literary progeny. I imagined myself by the fireside, leafing through the Everlasting Eternality as I pensively swirled a snifter.

One more thing, Benjamin. Many of our poets have asked us to make available a commemorative plaque, and this plea has not fallen on deaf ears. For a limited time, your poem can be beautifully typeset on archive quality vellum with your choice of ornamental borders, all of which will be mounted on the highest quality walnut-finish plaque and protected with artist-quality lucite. We think you’ll agree this plaque will make a timeless tribute to your artistic genius.

Underneath these words, taking up a full half-page, was a magnificent certificate verifying me as an Editor’s Choice Award recipient. It looked better than my doctoral diploma. Then, through my tears of gratitude, I noticed a handwritten note running at a 45-degree angle near the top of the letter. “Bert,” it said, “Benjamin’s verse is wonderfully expressive—I suggest you also select it for inclusion in our upcoming DVD Poemarama Drama.” It was signed “C. W.”

I walked slowly back to the house unable to believe that dame fortune’s wheel kept spinning me ever upward. As I was about to mount the steps, the UPS truck came hurtling into our driveway. The man in brown leaped out with two packages and quick-stepped it up to me just as my wife opened the door.

“What’s that, dear?” she called.

Trapped! My surprise ruined! Frankly, I was too flummoxed by having my name so abruptly enskied to hatch another ruse.

“Come, my love,” I replied, “let me share with you a little secret.” I took my wife by the arm and led her to the table where I gently laid the packages. I dropped the latest letter in front of her. I was expecting her to burst into grateful tears. Instead, she burst into nearly uncontrollable laughter. She was so close to the crumbling edges of hysteria, I thought I was going to have to dowse her with water.

“You’ve been had!” she finally managed to say.

“What?”

“Snookered! Hoodwinked! They’re taking you on a snipe hunt in the dark! I can’t believe you’d fall for this! Don’t you see? They’re trying to hook you into buying a book and a plaque—you and every other person who sent them a poem, no matter how screechingly awful! Next, they’ll have you buying coffee mugs and doormats with your poem on them!” At this, she completely lost the grippers and was nearly consumed with laughter.

“Nonsense! I’ll prove it to you,” I challenged as I left the room, shuffling off with the packages under my coat.

I slumped into the chair at my computer, not even bothering to remove my coat. What to do… I couldn’t just call them up. I rubbed my temples to try to stir some needed blood into the porridge in the old brain pot. It took some time, but I finally landed atop a perfect scheme: I’d simply send them a bad poem under a different name—Percy Dovetonsils. Of course, it wouldn’t get a thing, and my wife would have to recant.

I mustered my wounded pride to the task, pulled myself together, and bellied up to the keyboard, hoping the Muse of Mediocrity would cooperate. I cast my mind back over some of the really malodorous verse I’d read in modern poetry courses in college to warm the porridge a bit. Soon, I had a solid test poem.

Sneaping Wafers

Deaf to my incongruities,
And supposing we had not so much as…
No, no, let me, like a gentle howling chipmunk,
remind you that, neither you nor I amount too much.
In the right or left bank, we have no
Currency, no…
Are these last year’s pickle lids or skids
Of worn out dream shadow melons?
Drifting like cows of sorts without remorse,
Sneaping our soul-embodied wafers,
A sneed to hold the blade against the cosmic grains that
Threaten all that yet remains
Ours on this little island we have built from flotsam
That drifts from other…
yes and yes.

There, carefully crafted to be without meaning or merit, written in under three minutes. I entered it into the contest, printed off a copy, and took it to my wife, who was by now beginning to recover herself.

“There, a test case,” I said, throwing the detritus on the table. “Pure rot, written without rhyme or reason. If they hand me an award, then I admit defeat. But, if they don’t, then you’ll have to admit they’re not glozing me for gewgaws?’

She read it, and a serious look slowly displaced the mask of mirth. “I’m sorry dear, but this won’t prove anything. It’s too good, at least by contemporary standards.”

“What?”

“In fact, it’s better than most of the gibberish I had to slug through in lit classes.”

I hadn’t thought of that difficulty. How to make a bad poem in an age when bad poetry is all the rage? Sure enough, when I got back to the computer, there was already an e-mail from the judges at the contest.

Dear Percy,

As I write this email through the clouded vision of my teary eyes, I search in vain for a way to express the appreciation of our editors for your poem, “Sneaping Wafers.” It so happens that it arrived just as we were meeting to finalize our decisions in regard to our National New Poets Recognition Award. The ringing depths of profundity so thoroughly sounded in “Sneaping Wafers” that we felt compelled to include it among the winners! Congratulations!

Curses! My wife was right! This was just the kind of pointless dribble that excited the taste buds of the idiot savants guarding the cultural gates. Obviously, I couldn’t just rely on merely recording randomly generated nonsense to prove my point. That would be like trying to lose an art contest by blindly heaving paint over my shoulder onto a canvas. It would take extraordinary talent and dedication to produce something so bad that even those who have gleefully trampled all standards underfoot would be forced to reject it.

I stared at the computer, feeling the cold fingers of defeat upon my heart. Another e-mail popped up:

Dear Percy,

I should mention that, as a National New Poet, you are among those whose work is eligible to be etched on a Silver-Plated Escutcheon, with a quality enameled border of your choice. What better way to hold this memory of victory as a lasting tribute? We have reserved your Escutcheon, and the engraver stands ready! It can be yours for the New Poet’s price of $145.49.

I sullenly deleted the e-mail and sunk back into the embrace of despair. Had I really been fooled, hooked by my own pride? Perhaps I really was devoid of merit, swollen by the ancient vice of superbia rather than by talent, not even worthy to enter the house of poesy by the postern gate.

And then a small, answering cry from within, a glimmer of awakening courage, a mustering of inner powers called by some distant benevolent force. “No,” I said with newfound fortitude, “No! I shall lose if it snaps every fiber of my soul in the effort.”

I resolved to burn oil far beyond midnight and, after kissing the wife and children off to bed, brewed an entire pot of coffee as my companion. Alas, nothing came, no noggin-knocking from the Muses, who apparently were expressing their collective umbrage at my summoning them for such insidious designs.

In an effort to inspire myself to wade the chill depths of badness, I brought up the poetry Web site. Scanning the homepage, I discovered that they also had an ongoing Haiku contest. Suddenly, I was filled with hope. For me, nothing starts the flow of subliterary effluvia quite like Haiku.

I clicked the icon to enter, and there appeared the requisite spaces for my entry. I knew the form. Robert Frost, when once asked why he, a modern, still wrote poetry that rhymed, answered that writing poetry without rhyme was like playing tennis with the nets down. Haiku seemed to me to present an even more formidable lack of challenge, like having a net but being able to fashion, at whim, any game around it. All that mattered was that it have three lines, with five, seven, and five syllables, and be somehow generally naturey. My fingers flew.

Must I powder twigs?
Lentil perambulation
Heef! Heef! The limpid leaf

I clicked the “enter” button, but a red warning reply immediately popped up. “The last line of Haiku must have only five syllables.” I did a quick count on the trusty digits, resubmitted a new last line, “Heef! Heef! Rakish leaf,” and clicked “enter” again. This time it flew right to the laps of the judges.

As by now I was quite used to the judges being ever-present, I absent-mindedly clicked on their list of Haiku entered that day, just to see, on a quick scan, if I could bottom them out. To my horror, I discovered that there were over 900 entries. Even more morbid, I was underbid by about every third entry. I wasn’t swimming anywhere near the bottom of the pool of talent. And then…

Dear Percy,

Late nights are the burden that we all too often bear here at the poetry contest —so many gifted individuals like you, and so little time on our part to read through all the entries, sorting the golden wheat from the chaff. But your Haiku, “Must I Powder Twigs?,” is ample reward for our late-night sacrifices. We have the pleasure of honoring you with our Nature’s Exaltations Prize, which qualifies you for the purchase of specially-crafted bakeware, with your Haiku artfully soldered on the bottom of each of the five saucepans.

I deleted the e-mail in anger, knowing full well that my wife had been right. Hook, line, sinker, rod, and reel, I’d swallowed the whole bamboozle. I looked down at my coffee cup, emblazoned with “The Sneeze,” and took a bitter drink of its now cold dregs, a painful metaphor of the truth I was now forced to swallow.

Staring at the black java and then the blackness of the night-draped windows, I fell into black thoughts, darker and darker, until I hit bottom. And then, a light. “Yes,” I whispered. “Yes. I resolve not to rest or take food until I have written a poem so hideously bad that it falls upon them like a pitiless harpy. Justice shall be served, and these cads shall pay for their crimes.”

I took to the keyboard, and it was just at the very first hint of dawn that I typed the last words. There before me, a poem so foul, so egregiously soul-grating, so dreadful that it would act as an acid of retribution bringing them to justice for duping me and my poor poetic companions. I nodded off in the chair, exhausted from the endeavor.

About two hours later my wife rounded the corner of my office, dressed in her bathrobe. “Dear? Are you all right?” she asked, seeing my cadaverous state.

I awakened. “Indeed I am.” Heaving my carcass up, I hit the print button, and the Poem-Whose-Very-Name-I-Cannot-Mention coiled out of the printer. “Please stay inside, dear, and keep the children in as well. I need to test it.” Before she could question me further, I galloped outside without a coat and shot off well away from the house.

The morning birds were merrily chirping, flitting back and forth, accompanied by the woodland sounds, rustlings of hidden and moving life, beneath the brush. I cleared my throat and read clearly and loudly in my best dramatic voice from the paper clutched in my hand (for your safety, dear reader, I have starred out the words):

***********
****** *** **** *****
**** ** ****** ******
**** **** ***********
***** ****** *** ****
****** *** ** ********
****** * **** *** ****
******

Before I could finish, several birds—a cedar waxwing and two cardinals, I believe—plummeted to earth at my feet, a crazed and desperate downward glance frozen in their eyes. I also heard a rush of scattering of small animals in the brush, grunting, squeaking, yowling in retreat. From off in the distance, the groaning, pain-driven cry of a deer gasping out its life breath split the morning air.

“That’ll do,” I smiled, filled with confidence. I hoofed it back up the hill and into the house and beelined it for the computer. Making sure the room was clear, I quickly typed in the Poem-Whose-Very-Name-I-Cannot-Mention and clicked it on its way. Then, I pulled up the Web site, waiting for the fallout.

As I stared with swollen eyes at the screen, it appeared to darken somewhat, then it blinked several times, and the light seemed to return, as if struggling somehow. An e-mail appeared:

Dear Benjamin…

The screen sputtered, writhing in electronic agony, and the gibbering current that had given it life fluttered away.

I smiled, feeling just like Achilles, my righteous anger having been sated. “Well, dear,” I turned and said to my wife, who had since entered the room, “let’s have our coffee in a couple of ‘Sneeze’ mugs.” Yes, I had learned a lesson. My wife had been right. But justice had been served.

“You know,” she said, reading the mug for the first time, “it really is a rather good poem.”

Benjamin D. Wiker

By

Benjamin Wiker is Professor of Political Science and Senior Fellow of the Veritas Center at Franciscan University. His newest book is The Reformation 500 Years Later: 12 Things You Need To Know. His website is www.benjaminwiker.com, and you can follow him on Facebook.

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