Sarah Montague, Senior Producer, Selected Shorts
Sarah Montague is in her seventeenth year as producer of the fiction series Selected Shorts for WNYC.
Just for the record, the man who wrote, “April is the cruelest month” — this was before April was “National Poetry Month” — T.S. Eliot, was then a bank clerk. Chaucer was a civil servant and Wallace Stevens was an insurance executive.
So there is nothing remarkable about Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s foray into verse in honor of the 10th anniversary of Poem in Your Pocket Day, which took place on Thursday. What comes as a refreshing surprise, however, is the dexterity and wit of his efforts.
Writing poetry as an amateur is akin to speaking in public — something at which the Mayor has improved during his tenure. Fatal to the novice speaker is the belief that it’s best to “just wing it.” Fatal to the one-time poet is the murky embrace of “free verse.” As any professional writer of poetry can tell you, “free” verse is actually governed by a lot of laws, most of them traduced by the meandering musings of the novice.
Mayor Bloomberg, on the other hand, for his poem, “50.5 Million Can’t Be Wrong,” has sensibly chosen, for the most part, to fit his lively and affectionate observations about New York City into a classic AABB rhyming structure, as in:
Where best to celebrate this whole affair?
The Crossroads of the World – Times Square
Historic site of many a saga
And on New Year’s Eve… one Gaga
I assume that the Mayor has his suits made to measure and a good rhyme scheme is the literary equivalent of bespoke tailoring: it holds your ideas in place and guides the listener easily to both meaning and lyric flow.
The Mayor’s poem does occasionally exhibit a common flaw in rhymed verse — the temptation to try to push too many iambs, trochees, spondees, anapests and dactyls (stressed and unstressed syllables to you) into a line to make the rhyme work, as in
Wanting to see all they’ve anticipated
Just follow directions – it’s not complicated
However, this line is followed by a charming sequence of internal rhymes linking popular city venues with their modes of transport:
Bronx Zoo? (Take the 5 or the 2)
Rockefeller Center? (Walk 6 blocks, then enter)
Empire State? (Bus to Fifth, then go straight)
Ferry to Staten? (At the tip of Manhattan)
Unisphere in Queens? (Get there via several means)
NY Aquarium? (Too far for kids to walk. Just carry ‘em)
“Mamma Mia”? (Right behind you. See ya.)
This also pleasingly sustains the poem’s overall theme. It begins by hailing a potential visitor to the city -- “Hey there, fella! Lady, hey!” -- and then invites him or her to sample the city’s many delights. (Missing, however, are stanzas warning against pickpockets and gypsy cabs.)
The itinerant poet Vachel Lindsay used to sell sheets of his verse on the street for 25 cents. Judging by this effort, if Mayor Bloomberg, whose net worth is an estimated $22 billion, chose to do the same, I’d snap up a copy in a New York minute.
New York City does not have an official poet laureate -- although there is a youth poet laureate, Ishmael Islam, this year -- but if we did, we could do worse than look to our own Mayor. Perhaps we can now paraphrase the famous Dorothy Parker (AABB) ditty:
If with the literate I am
Impelled to try an epigram
I never seek to take the credit;
We all assume that Bloomberg said it.