Ode to Ben Burroughs
The Dead Syndicated Poet Finally Gets His Ode
by Kevin Monko (with R. L. Malloy)
On Lumpy Lang's porch in the summer of '69, the "Summer of Love" somebody once called it, my future came into focus as abruptly as the bursting clouds that had driven me to that refuge. It was the first week of my first job, delivering the Philadelphia Daily News. As I waited out the storm, somberly perusing one of my News's, I chanced upon my first Ben Burroughs verse, and I knew that one day I, too, would become a poet.
Eventually I struck it rich in the poetry racket, but there remained one faithful constant in my life. Day after day I turned for inspiration to the comics page of the Daily News, for it was there that I would find Sketches, the daily and immortal compositions of Ben Burroughs, that rarest of artists, the syndicated poet.
In nearly three decades of publication, Burroughs had become a guiding beacon to his millions of disciples worldwide. Here was a man who had thrilled boyishly at the sale of his earliest pieces for $1.00 per poem and went on to appear daily in over 80 publications. (Sundays, of course, he rested.)
With no recognizable influences or formal training, Burroughs persistently carved away the bark of insignificance to reveal the essential. His themes were not only those of love and fear, but pain and beauty, willingness and desperation. A common and shambling man, his images were culled from the world he knew--the sea where he toiled, the garden where he marveled, and the dictionary to which he often referred (as does any penetrating and inquiring mind).
I always envisioned Ben struggling in his attic, straining for just the right word, phrase, or tense in a furious battle with the clock to beat the daily deadline. As I would later learn, he was actually capable of finishing several poems in a single day, always turning them in way ahead of schedule. For this, too, I admired him.
Steadfastly sidestepping the clever, abstract, or obscure tendencies of many of his contemporaries, Burroughs' verses were bathed in clarity. Simple and direct, his poems never required that his audience stop and think. This approach is expressed in the first few lines of Burroughs' "Voice of the People."
- I hear a clear voice calling
- it echoes in my heart
- and from the din of others
- it sets itself apart
- not crafty elocution
- the kind which others speak
- but a great voice with a message
- that common people seek.
Burroughs enormous success never bloated his ego nor sapped his humility. True to his status as a man of letters, he maintained a postal position in addition to his poetic duties. Raised in the vicinity of 12th and Allegheny in Philadelphia, Burroughs never attempted to bury his roots in a launch for stardom. He was also quick to lay bare his own shortcomings, as in this excerpt from the memorable poem, "Confession."
- I rue the day I ever did a single shady act
- I sorrow for the many times I've misconstrued a fact
- I deeply and most ardently regret each passing day
- that I didn't do a deed to help lighten the way.
Because Burroughs accepted struggle and strife as "part of God's great plan," he had a unique ability to find joy where others might wallow sorrowfully. Just try to remain unstirred by this gem, "Hello Rain."
- all life is washed with heaven
- for raindrops come from there
- to cleanse the world of wickedness
- and purify the air
- so you will always find me
- that is when time allows
- out walking in the raindrops
- for they my soul arouse.
Who can argue with the genuine sentiments of such clearly envisioned poems? The titles themselves demonstrate the sweeping range of his emotions. Here, read a few for yourself:
- Dreams are Good
- The Righteous Way
- Life is a Test
- Be an Optimist
- Love You So Much
- Distorted Values
- Tribute to a Pet
Then on a chilly November morning in 1984, after fifteen years of faithfully ready Burroughs' "Sketches," I turned to the comic page just as on almost any other morning. I forlornly discovered that there would be no versely solace, no lyrical reassurance, no eloquent revelation. In the hallowed space beneath Marmaduke was an editor's note, a note so casual yet so full of consequence that it interrupted the rhythms of millions of stricken hearts. A cruel game had been played to its finish and, in ending, had revealed one vital truth. The Bard was not only dead, but had been so for over four years. The note further stated that since the backlog of Burroughs' work had been exhausted, the future of the space was in the hands of the public, Ben's public, and would henceforth be labeled (ahem!) "People Poetry."
Reeling and stupefied, I groped for answers, wrestled with my psyche, fended off a several streams of consciousness, and dozed off. Later, my reeling having subsided to a degree, I contacted R. L. Malloy, a fellow poet at the top of his game, also a Burroughs' disciple, who had also just learned of our mentor's previously unannounced departure. He too was suffering from some residual stupefaction. When he eventually regained coherency, I suggested we get together and pour sleeplessly through the nearly thirty year's worth of "Sketches" Malloy kept in as many cigar boxes, a collection widely recognized in poetry spheres as the "One True Source."
Our initial mission was to reach a higher understanding of the life and works of the acknowledged master, a man whose genius had been taken for granted by too many for too long. I balked when Malloy first suggested that we create an ode to our beloved Ben, attempting to capture his style. The bulk of my material is wrought in the neo-confessional style, while Malloy is blonde and has a penchant for hyperbole.
I convened with my agent who felt that the possibility of a humiliating failure made this project both a questionable tribute and an inadvisable career move.
However, it became clear that Malloy would forge ahead on the project with or without me, and the more we mutually absorbed, the more impossible it became for me to turn my back on the inevitable completion of a work of such obvious necessity and consequence, both personal and universal. And as far fetched as this may sound, the $35 prize the Daily News offered for the best poem of the month was barely considered and even less often discussed.
The most tangible culmination of our labor, of course, is the poem generally regarded as the singularly most significant work either of us will ever craft--"Ode to Ben." Written collaboratively, it is a painful, loving, and ultimately uplifting eulogy of Ben Burroughs. It was also, fittingly, the first installment of "People Poetry," the one by which all subsequent People Poems would be judged, and certainly worth another look.
Ode to Ben
- We sailed along with you for years
- on seas of love and joy
- through fretful storms you quelled our fears
- and lifted us up like a buoy
- but now your ship has come to dock
- at some far distant port
- anchored to the Eternal Rock
- of the holy and heavenly fort
- and so we're left with Sketches, yours
- clipped from the Daily News
- that keep us from gloom's dungeon doors
- and lift us to loftier views
- O Ben, dear friend, gentle, kind and wise
- your fate for us to bear was hard
- thank you for making blue, gray skies
- Farewell, fine public bard.
(Editor's Note: Unfortunately, "Ode to Ben" was not the winner of the first monthly People Poetry prize of $35. That distinction went to "Teach Me How to Stand at the Plate"--author's name not known.)
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