The Decline of the Beat Poetsby David Sklar
December 1, 2009
It used to be we walked the city streets, alert to all that happened there—sometimes taking an apple from the grocer’s cart as we walked past. The grocer, well aware of the risks we took, would turn his eyes away, pretend he didn’t see. The worst of us brought worse corruption than we took away; the best brought mercy to the shattered lands: the tired houses with a missing brick, the short-haired women with the sagging arms were better for our passing—not transformed but so much more themselves for being seen by watchful eyes that cared but did not judge. We saw them as they were and wrote it down, we knew they wouldn’t read; we didn’t mind— what mattered was they knew that we were there. And after we had walked for several years we learned that folks would come to hear us read our works aloud, without the city noise. In stilted silence. Some got rich and famous, some didn’t but believed that they deserved to, and all lost touch. The best knew what was gone but could not get it back. The worst never noticed. And those who did not drink themselves to death gave up the stolen apples for free espresso and hired bongoes and saxophones to make the background noise our poems seemed to need. Most people think that’s how we got the name: the rhythm of the drums. Most people now don’t know that poets used to walk a beat. These days the poets drive in black sedans at twenty miles above the legal limit, protected by the same impunity that let us take the apples from the carts; and if you need a poet you can find our office hours posted on the wall in college Lit departments or cafes— or, if you have a real emergency, you can call, and a poet will come to your house and talk about himself for half an hour. The unions are good. We have full benefits: malpractice insurance, vacation, and a pension, and scheduled raises every half a year, but we do not walk a beat. The neighborhoods grow cold. Grow old. Grow mold between the cracks and crack between the molds. Some people blame their parents. Some blame the City Planning Commission, the Communists, the Democrats, the Jews— I blame the poets in the black sedans who don’t slow down and don’t roll down the windows— their work is too important. They’ve forgotten the people on the corner are their work, the people must be watched—not kept in line— observed enough to know that someone cares. And even stealing apples from the cart ’s a vital task that needs to be performed by someone who knows how. You take too little and people will forget to stretch their minds, too much, and they might snap. They need us there to test the limits and to go too far but not too much too far. When that’s not done the cities lose their elasticity, get brittle. Hard. Develop tiny cracks where mildew can get in, and bring decay, and so the cities rot—for we are gone.