The Particle Poet’s Inflammatory Smoking Jacket

One colleague’s smoking jacket was rumored to be the same one he had worn for twenty years without being dry-cleaned.

Most faculty dressed casually in the once upon a time “love-in era,” shabbiness raised to the level of academic convention, but we weren’t about to “streak.” I still wore a three piece suit occasionally, a nod to the tradition of Great Literature.

Tweed Smoking Jacket by Robert Sheie
Photo by Robert Sheie,

One colleague — who kept random office hours lest someone interrupt him when he worked on his abbreviated Haikus (sixteen syllables instead of seventeen) — did wear a tweed smoking jacket. It was rumored to be the same one he had worn for twenty years without being dry-cleaned.

We both were exiled Manhattanites in Upstate New York, so I liked chatting with him now and then, but these were risky visitations because he smoked a corncob pipe that burned as fiendishly as the blast furnaces in South Buffalo’ s remaining steel factories.

His jacket-cum-patches smelled as if it been aged in Fitzgerald’s “valley of ashes” and made it hard to breathe in his office, but I wanted to find out how far a Haiku could be reduced and still be a Haiku.

This colleague, who went to the Riviera every summer to recover from the labor of trying to hammer those Haikus into fewer syllables, talked at length, if one did enter his “fumery” (as I dubbed it), about the “old days in Greenwich Village” where it seemed he had known most of the major American literary figures of the 20th century.

He regaled me with vignettes about these Washington Square literati who had praised his sixteen syllable Haikus as being “echt modernist.”

Each interval between puffs yielded the name of another writer who had praised his streamlined work in a shadowy corner of the Waverly Tavern: Joe Gould, Maxwell Bodenheim, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Eugene O’Neill, Thomas Wolfe, Dorothy Parker, and others, some of whom had died when he was in grade school.

I didn’t want to challenge him out of respect for his dedication to poetry, however sub-atomic it might be in size, and, once challenged, he doubtless would slam his office door, rarely open to begin with, and the literary history of my lost hometown would be reduced further.

The longer he talked, the less conscious I would become. As he lit a match during one visit, the left tip of his smoking jacket lapel began to smolder.

“Oscar,” I shouted, “you’re on fire!”

He kept talking, more interested in poetry than life, it seemed. Fortunately, there was a small fire extinguisher on his office wall, and I quickly doused him. He gurgled “Gertrude Stein” and thanked me.

That was my last visit.

In retirement, “O” sometimes calls from the West Village where he lives in a renovated attic with a fireplace above the former W. 13th Street Branch Library. It’s easier and safer to listen to him at a distance.

It may be at this point that I have more in common with him than I do with most young people who clutch their smart-phones as if they were electronic rosaries and who have substituted instagrams, tweets, and selfies for truly revealing memoirs, autobiographies, and stories that one used to tell around a campfire, if ever you were fortunate enough to be around one.

But it occurs to me, taking the long view, that there is after all some similarity between the aesthetically inflamed micro-poet and the typical Facebooker: a penchant for economy of expression and directness of commination. Didn’t Alexander Calder in a previous generation transform telegraph wire into mobiles, and didn’t one of my young colleagues write a dissertation on

The Meaning of “Nothing”?

In the fullness of time, the current generation may upgrade, as I see it, to verse whose poets (however many syllables they may use per poem) will try to reach an audience wider than the circulation of almost all literary magazines and journals.

Contemporary Wordsworths in-potentia may go viral, and podcasters may start reciting Keats, or something like this. The future is often a recreation of the past, and the past has often been a forecast of the future.

What didn’t Leonardo da Vince think of? How relevant today is Lincoln’s “a house divided cannot stand”? Thoreau’s father invented the No. 2 pencil; we read Thoreau for environmental inspiration.

The inflammatory professor published a collection of his reduced Haikus near the end of his life. The title – Fragments – reminds and urges us implicitly, to value all the remnants, swatches, and end-pieces of our lives in which we can find meaning.

No upper, however minute, is too small to celebrate.

I think of the “particle” poet when I see the smokeless-stacks of the abandoned steel mills in the distance if I drive just south of Buffalo on the edge of Lake Erie.

I think, “If you’re somewhere in the cosmos, I hope you’ve reached fifteen syllables. You kept the poetic flame flickering, if not burning.”

Howard R. Wolf often thinks of Camp Leonard (Kent, CT) where he first heard stories around a campfire and hoped to tell some one day. He is the grandson of a peddler who sold remnants on Mott Street whose voice is an echo in Howard’s novel, Broadway Serenade. He was raised among blue bolts which he has tried to turn into fictional bolts from the blue (ouch!).

Howard R. Wolf
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