Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Poet Laureates and the Ponies

"My girlfriend's a vegetarian. Which pretty much makes me a vegetarian." That's what Samuel L. Jackson's character Jules says--Big Kahuna burger in hand--to the stuttering, ill-fated Brett (he with the big brain) in Quentin Tarantino's movie Pulp Fiction. That's what I felt like attending the inaugural Living By Poetry symposium at Texas Christian University last week. For three days, anyway, I was more or less a poet, because my girlfriend, Ada Limón, is a poet, and a guest of the symposium, and so I tailed her closely through a packed schedule of readings, panels, museum lunches and sponsored dinners. At the cocktail party that concluded the run Saturday night, a student came to me and said how great it was for us poets to come to the university and support the local poet population. "You bet," I said. "You guys deserve it."

The highlight of the trip was a reading by Billy Collins, Poet Laureate of the U.S. from 2001-2003. Collins read selections from his 12 books, giving preference to humorous and wry-witted poems. He related advice, too. He said he encourages his students to put dogs in their poems. "For a stanza or two, at least. It might be a bright break from your self-absorption."

Billy Collins
After the reading, we received an invitation to dine with Collins and the other poets on the panel (which included not one but three Texas poet laureates). We went to Blue Mesa Grill near the universities, drank margaritas and ate Oaxaca chicken and avocado enchiladas. I told Collins what I did, and it turned out America's best-known living poet is something of a racing fan, too. He has a friend who owns several claimers at Tampa Bay, he explained, and often visited the racecourse. "What a great track," Collins said, and later he nodded along when I explained the allure of Zenyatta to one of the Texas poet laureates. 

Poetry and horse racing have been closely intertwined for me for the past decade, mostly because half my friends are into racing, and the other half are poets or artists in NYC. My friend and former roommate Shafer Hall, the poet laureate of Montechillo (what we called our old apartment), once wrote a poem for every horse in the 2006 Kentucky Derby on the morning of the race, and after I'd told him about Secretariat, wrote this good one:

Tremendous Machine

how many lengths later will they still whisper
about Bold Ruler's prince from the early years 
of stake, futurity, futurity stake
each faster than the last, until finally 
after 19 years, eyes rolling
he jumped out of his skin
as he was always threatening
and into the fog of Claiborne

Panel discussions at the Living By Poetry symposium in Texas could have been about horse racing. How can we draw more people into this? How do we stay true to our roots while looking forward? How do we employ technology while retaining the 'soul' of what we do? Regionalism was a hot topic. In short, a relatively small but passionate group of people trying to spread the word. Who knew we had so much in common? 

Last night, I looked through some of Collins's books for horse poems to share. I didn't find many. There was one about statues of horses in the park, plus the eponymous poem from his collection Nine Horses. The poem's about a photograph his wife has given him, of nine white horse heads ("or one horse the camera has multiplied by nine"). I was going to include it in this blog just because it was a horse poem, and you are, ostensibly, horse people, and that poem was more germane than the statue poem. But then I read Sue Finley's blog yesterday and thought it would be a good addendum to her post about raceday medication, and horse welfare in general, and what we think about first when making decisions about such things. "Nine Horses" ends with these lines:

Look down on the ring
of candles flickering under your pale heads. 

Let your suffering eyes
and anonymous deaths
be the bridle that keeps us from straying from each other

be the cinch that fastens us to the belly of each day

as it gallops away, hooves sparking into the night. 


Bill Opp. said...

Lucas, an excellent and interesting blog, thank you. It's possible you're a throwback to the beatnik era and would benefit from a beret. It's an odd -sphere, this blogosphere, and it's nice to read about people's arty sides. The greatest racing poem of all time, by the way, is "Old Pardon, the Son of Reprieve", by Andrew Barton Paterson, the 'Banjo of the Bush'

Lucas said...

Thanks much, Bill; still getting getting used to this odd sphere, but I'm positive a beret will help. As it is, the barber hasn't been visited in quite a while, so the shock of hair I'm sporting is serving as a capable stand-in. Am looking up "Old Pardon…" as we speak...

Anonymous said...


Fantastic piece. My personal favourite is Philip Larkin's "At Grass" which probably makes Larkin the first proponent of the ethical treatment of retired racehorses:

"....Almanacked their names live: they

Have slipped their names and stand at ease,
Or gallop for what must be joy,
And not a fieldglass sees them home,
Or curious stopwatch prophesies:
Only the grooms, and the grooms boy,
With bridles in the evening come."

Anybody lucky enough to observe a field of mares with foals at foot will recognize the accuracy of the urban librarian's observation. Certainly sounds a bit more beautiful than the Collins "suffering eyes and anonymous deaths"!

Keep up the good work.

John Osborne