To Rhyme or Not To Rhyme

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A war has been raging for decades. It’s a war we don’t hear about on the news. Like religion and politics, it isn’t discussed in civilized company. This war is not fought with guns and bombs, it’s fought with pens. It is the horrible, ghastly war between . . . rhymers and non-rhymers. The iambic pentameter crowd versus the free verse crowd. No prisoners are taken and no mercy is shown by either side.

All kidding aside, I like them both, but only if both are ultimately understandable. “Ultimately” meaning after two readings. If the poem is so abstract that only the writer gets it, the writer failed, not the reader.

The free verse army says rhyming poetry is childish and unsophisticated, largely as a result of syrupy poems in Hallmark greeting cards. And let’s face it, they usually are. It’s hard to rhyme well (without sounding like a nursery rhyme) and tell a good story that accesses emotion.

The rhyming crowd argues that it takes as much or more talent to write a meaningful, emotionally impactful poem that also rhymes and has meter, structure and rhythm than it does to write one that has none of that. To them, criticizing rhyming poetry is like saying Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Robert Frost and even Shakespeare (who wrote a heck of a lot of sonnets) were a bunch of nincompoops.

Here’s a good example of a rhyming, emotionally moving poem. The story behind it is almost as good as the poem itself.

A friend of mine found it at the bottom of an old box in his parents’ garage. He asked his dad about it. He said the author was a man named Vernon Watson, who performed in theaters around London in the 1930’s and 40’s. He would sing, dance, tell stories and recite poems. A little bit of everything. The audience would start out laughing and end up crying, or vice-versa. He performed under the name Nosmo King, and thought up that name one night while looking at a “No Smoking” sign in one of the theaters. Here it is. I dare you not to get choked up.

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Providence

Have you ever been broke? Just broke to the wide?
With what you stand up in and nothing beside?
Living on scraps the best part of the week
When you can get them, and with nowhere to sleep?

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I’ve been like that on a cold winter’s night
When the streets were deserted and nothing in sight
But a slow-moving bobby whose job is to see
That the public’s protected from fellows like me.
Who get put inside to answer in court
Why they’re wandering around without means of support.

It always strikes me as a queer sort of joke –
To pick on a man just because he is broke.
Do they think he enjoys wandering around in the rain,
Soaked to the skin with a dull, aching pain
Through his stomach, forgetting his last decent meal
And just praying for the time when he’s too numb to feel.
Life isn’t worth much when you get to that state –
Of just waiting to die and nowhere to wait.

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I remember the time, it’s a long while ago,
When I stood on a bridge with the river below.
The last food I’d had was two days before
And I never expected I’d need anymore.
That night was the worst that ever I’d known,
With a dirty, wet fog that chilled to the bone.
I set my teeth hard and I set down my heel
On the rail that my hands were too perished to feel
When a sniveling pup came out of the fog
And whimpered at me, just a scrap of a dog.
Bedraggled and dirty, like me, just a wreck,
With  a sad, little face on his poor, scraggy neck.

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A few seconds more and I would have died
But he licked my hand and I just sat down and cried.
I wrapped up the poor little chap in my coat
And carried him off with a lump in my throat.
I took him along to the one place I knew
Where they’d give him a bed and a biscuit or two.

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They didn’t seem keen on taking him in
But the sergeant-in-charge gave a bit of a grin
When I told him, “The dog could do with a meal.”
He said, “I’ll fix him up, but how do you feel?”
It may be perhaps that the sergeant had seen
the state I was in, I wasn’t too clean.
The hunger and cold that I’d suffered all day
Exhausted my limits and I fainted away.

Well, they fed me and slept me gave me two bob.
The following day, they found me a job.
I’ve worked ever since and I’ve put a bit by.
I’m comfortable now and I don’t want to die.
I’ve a nice, little house in a quiet, little street
With a decent-sized garden that’s always kept neat.
I’ve worked there a lot when I’ve had time to spare
And I’m so proud of one little corner that’s there,
With the pick of my flowers ‘round a little old stone,
That stands in a corner, all on its own.
It bears an inscription, not very grand.
The letters are crooked, but you’ll understand –
That I wasn’t too steady, I couldn’t quite see,
At the time that I carved it, quite recently.

These are the words I carved on the stone –
“Here lies my friend when I was alone.
Hopeless and friendless, just lost in a fog,
God saved my life with the help of a dog.”

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~ Vernon Watson AKA Nosmo King, 1930

 

11. Homeless

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The photo of the dog’s tombstone was actually made by a friend of mine as a prop for a filmed version of this poem we made. (I played the homeless man.) The words on the stone are a little different because I wrote it from memory and didn’t have this – – –

A YouTube video uploaded by someone who had one of Vernon’s old 78’s. (For you youngsters, 78’s were vinyl LP’s that pre-dated 33’s and 45’s.) His diction and delivery is very heightened and melodramatic, as was the style of the time. His voice reminds me of Boris Karloff’s quite a bit. Oddly, the version I have also has a few more lines than Nosmo’s recorded version. Enjoy!

Carlos

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Carlos was probably the scariest-looking human being I’ve ever known.  He spent so much time lifting weights and was so gigantic, everybody at the gym was worried he might explode someday. He was covered with tattoos, some very well done and some that appeared to have been scribbled by a cellmate or a stoned friend. He was about forty years old and his face had recorded every one of them. It was crooked, smashed, pock-marked, scarred and generally beaten all to hell.

If any of the other hardcases in the gym ever thought about challenging Carlos, they were probably discouraged by the thought of where they might hit him. His bull-like thickness made his body almost invulnerable, and he probably wouldn’t care if he got hit in the face. As a wise person once said, “Never mess with a man with nothing to lose.”

A smile might have improved his appearance but I never saw it happen. He was so serious-looking, it was as if his face might crumble and fall to the floor if he attempted to smile. Because of all this, nobody spoke to him or wanted to. Nobody even looked at him. After all, people avoid danger, and Carlos looked dangerous. But it has always been a bad habit of mine to walk toward danger rather than away from it, as if there are answers to great mysteries hidden there, or behind my own fear.

So rather than avoid Carlos like everybody else did, I would always give him a friendly nod when I’d see him at the gym. He didn’t respond at first but after a while, he started returning them. Still, he never smiled and we never spoke until one day when Carlos was leaving the gym while I was arriving. Determined to see if it was possible for him to smile, I gathered my courage, smiled brightly and said, “Hey! How ya doin?” as if we were old friends.

I was surprised to see a big smile spread across his face, and his eyes lit up so wide, his face became almost childlike. And what a grand smile it was. A smile compliments a face that has been kicked around so much more than one that hasn’t.

I extended my hand. He grabbed it, squeezed it hard and said, “Fine! How are you?” There was so much spirit and gratitude in his handshake, I felt like I was handing a glass of ice water to a man wandering through the desert.

Slightly shocked by his friendliness, I said, “I’m doing well. Did you have a good workout?”
“Yeah, real good,” he said. “My back’s bugging me, though. It’s always giving me trouble.”
“Oh, man. Back problems are the worst,” I said. “Well, at least you’re still making it into the gym. You can’t keep a good man down.”
He laughed and said, “Thanks, I’ll try to think of it that way, too.”

I noticed a tattoo on his arm of a young woman’s face in the middle of a heart with cherubs flying around it. I asked who it was. He told me it was his mother, and that she had died five years earlier.
“She’s very beautiful,” I said.
“Yes, she was,” he answered, looking down at the tattoo. “I miss her every day.”

We talked about a lot of things that day. He grew up in Chicago. His father was killed in a construction site accident. Carlos was only three at the time so he had no clear memories of him. He was an only child because his mother never remarried. She kept a black and white photo of his father on her bedside table all her life. He joined a gang as a teenager, which was when he acquired most of his tattoos. He moved to L.A. to get away from the life when he realized how much the violence and mayhem was twisting his spirit.

He said, “I was ashamed of myself for worrying my mother so much just to go looking for trouble with a bunch of fools. I owed her everything. I owed them nothing.”
“That was a wise decision,” I said.
He said, “Yeah, but it’s too bad wisdom demands so much from us, especially time.”
I asked him what he meant. He said he made that decision after spending two years in the Cook County Jail for aggravated assault.
“I’ll tell you, man,” he said. “Jail really worked for me. It gave me a lot of time to think. And you know how many times those puto’s came to visit me? Once. One time. That was all I needed to know.”

When he got home, he asked his high school sweetheart to leave Chicago with him but she couldn’t because her parents didn’t approve of him after he went to jail. But she still loved him and it was a tearful parting. I asked him if he had ever married. He said he hadn’t because he could never find anyone to match her. I could tell he was still carrying her in his heart, preserved there at the age she was when he left her. Time would not find her as it had him.

He said the thing he was most proud of was saving enough money to buy his mother a small house near his own and fly her out to Los Angeles. He said she was like a kid at Christmas when he took her to her new home. He never told her that he worked two jobs for five years to pull it off.

“She was happy here,” he said. “We were together again and she made a lot of nice friends.”

I sensed great sadness and loneliness in Carlos. It became clear to me that weightlifting was a refuge for him, and an escape. I was also reminded of how utterly incorrect outward impressions of people can be, and all anyone really needs is for someone to show a sincere interest in them.

Not everything we talked about was so sad. We had a good laugh comparing my Irish culture with his Hispanic culture. We decided they were very much alike. Both are basically good-natured, quick with a laugh, a little hot-tempered, and of course, they both love their cerveza’s.

After an hour or so, we said goodbye, and he smiled that big smile again. After that day, Carlos and I always talked at the gym. We even worked out together a few times, though I could never match his strength. People always seemed surprised to see the medium-sized, conservative-looking white boy hanging out with the big, mean-looking cholo. And only I knew that he wasn’t in a gang anymore. Only I knew the sad and lonely man beneath the intimidating appearance.

A little while later, I went to Europe for six months. I got Carlos’ address and told him I would send him a postcard or two. I did. One from Rome and one from Athens. When I came home and went back to the gym, I asked if anyone had seen Carlos. Nobody knew him by name so I had to describe him.

“Oh, that guy?” somebody said. “He died. Suicide or something.”
“What? When?” I asked.
“A few months ago,” he answered. “Who cares? The guy was a jerk.”
My shock turned to anger.
“He was a friend of mine,” I said.
“Oh, sorry,” he said. “I didn’t know you knew him so well.”

Everybody went back to their workouts. I felt sick so I went outside and walked to the spot where Carlos and I had talked that day.

“God damn it, Carlos,” I whispered.

The tears welling in my eyes were caused by anger at him but also shame with myself for not reaching out even further to him. I had been unable to grasp the full depth of his despair. For a moment, I thought if I hadn’t gone away, maybe he would have had someone to talk to. Maybe he wouldn’t have . . .

I brushed that thought away. There was no point in thinking such things now. I went back inside and started working out again but my mind was on my friend. His spirit was everywhere, the spirit only I knew. Again, I thought about how wrong surface impressions can be. Carlos was the strongest man in the gym, but only on the outside.

He was already forgotten here. Nobody would miss him, nobody except me, because I remembered the guy with the big smile, the guy who missed his mother every day, the guy who squeezed my hand so hard, it was like I was handing a glass of ice water to a man wandering through the desert.