The Minor Leagues of Poetry

by Steve Cooper

I had been having trouble with my metaphors. As usual, I received all manner of suggestion.

Nothing was working. Then my parent club sent an instructor down to see me.

It all started when my father, for some strange reason, gave me a rhyming dictionary for my sixth birthday. My father was a poet who settled for pipesetting. Oh, he wrote a little minor league poetry for Rochester, but it never amounted to much. The "bigs" never even gave him a look. "Nice imagery, poor follow through" was the knock on him.

So it was entirely understandable, I suppose, that my father wanted me to be a poet. An "inherited dream," one could call it. And my father was always sitting there with an encouraging word or, say, a six-syllable word that rhymes with "badger."

In school, I starred on all the poetry squads. MVP three years running, all-conference, all-state, all-district, all-region. Some said it was my "arresting yet subtle detail" that made me such a contender. Others said it was my "use of consonants for onomatopoeic effect," especially the letters "q" and "k." The newspapers said I could "flat fill up a page."

That's when the scouts began coming around, taking notes and glancing over my shoulder as I wrote. They were a little disconcerting, especially the ones poised with blue pencils. But I knew this was the price (and reward) of being a "hot, young prospect."

Just after graduation I signed with the Pittsburgh Pens, who optioned me to their Savannah farm club in the Walt Whitman League. I signed for a $1,000 advance and ten free contributor's copies. "Bonus baby," they called me. Some of the veterans were bitter, but I guess that's to be expected. They were over the hill, hanging on by the skin of their metaphors. I was a threat to send them packing, back to the once-a-week creative writing classes from whence they came. Away from the smell of the vanguard.

Throughout spring training and well into May, I was giving Savannah their money's worth. I had published eleven poems outright, had ten in negotiation, and had yet to receive a form-letter rejection. "Swinging a mean ballpoint," the papers said. "Getting good ink on the page."

In school, I starred on all the poetry squads. MVP three years running.... Some said it was my "arresting yet subtle detail...." The newspapers said I could "flat fill up a page."

It's funny how quickly things can change, especially in a game like poetry. I had a bad week that became a bad month that became a bad two months. Nothing was going right. I had a string of thirty-six consecutive form-letter rejections. Thirty-six! And they were all justified. My poetry was strictly bush--freshman comp, if that. I was mixing metaphors all over the place, my meter had no hustle, my imagery no snap. My P.A. (Publication Average) went from .406 to .219. Opposing poets rhymed rings around me. And once again, I heard the term "bonus baby," this time with clenched teeth.

The fans got on my case. "Go write greeting cards!" they yelled. In unison they chanted, "Roses are red / Violets are blue / Anyone can write / Better than you." The news media followed suit. "Bonus Bard Renders Lard," they wrote. "If He's a Poet, We Don't Know It."

My father was the only one who stood by me. "Keep writing," he said, "or I'll kill you." I kept writing, but it was hopeless. I would concentrate for hours and end up comparing the sunset to a fried egg.

Had it not been for the bonus, I would have been gone. But the Pittsburgh Pens weren't about to shell out 1,000 clams for nothing. That's why they sent down their troubleshooter, "Similes" Gomez.

"Similes" was an ex-big league poet from the old school. No frills, no trills, just fundamental, basic poetry. Actually, the name "Similes" was facetious, because to Similes, the only thing like itself was itself.

Similes took a long look at my poetry and grunted. "Goin' tru dah motions," he said in heavy Brooklynese. "What you need is 'dah treatment.'" I didn't know what "dah treatment" was, but by the look in Similes' eyes, I knew it wasn't going to be no picnic. "Yer gonna write poetry til yer fingers bleed," said Similes, spraying me with tobacco juice.

The next morning, Similes had me dress out and meet him on the poetry field at 6:30 sharp. As the sun was rising in the east, resembling a fried egg, Similes turned on me like a panther. "All right, maggot, drop down and give me fifteen sonnets!"

"But--" I began to protest.

"Now, scumbag!" The veins were stretched and swollen in Similes' neck.

It wasn't easy, but I did as I was told. Fifteen sonnets, all comparing the sun to various methods of preparing eggs. With some trepidation, I handed the sonnets to Similes and waited.

"The sun ain't no egg, maggot!" Again Similes sprayed my face with tobacco juice. "Fall in for close-order rhymed couplets!"

I fell in. I was afraid not to. Hands on his hips, Similes' eyes were burning holes through me. "Driving, drenching rivulets of rain!" he barked, beginning a couplet.

I froze. I couldn't think. Similes was shooting me a cripple--anyone could rhyme with "rain." Anyone. Not me.

"Driving, drenching rivulets of rain!" Similes demanded.

I began to weep. "Please," I begged.

Similes showed no mercy. "Oh, is mama's little maggot cwying? Would mama's little maggot like to go home to mama? Well, it ain't gonna be that way, pig swill!"

"But--" I began.

"But me no buts, garbage dump! Ya got five minutes to write me an ode to the settin' sun. And don't fry me no eggs!"

So grateful was I for the chance to redeem myself, I grabbed my pen and started to write in a sniveling frenzy. I even finished in one minute, instead of the allotted five. It wasn't a great ode, but it was passable.

Similes looked at my ode as if it were a rotting corpse. "Hmh," he said, scratching the stubble on his chin. Then he turned his head and spit. I took it as a good sign that he turned his head.

Next it was poetry sprints. Similes blew a whistle--my cue to write as much poetry as I could until the next whistle. Gradually, the time between whistles grew shorter and shorter, forcing me to write and think faster and faster and faster, until ... I cast my pen aside and swooned in a sweating, puffing heap.

"You disgust me, you soft-bellied bag of snot." Similes was not letting up. "Fall in for unrhymed iambic pentameter!"

I fell in, this time eagerly. The pen felt light in my hand. I could feel my stroke coming back to me. Chest half-swelled with confidence, I stepped up to the paper, drew a bead on a poem, and wrote it right out of the park.

Similes was impressed. I could tell because he only looked at me with utter disgust, a vast improvement. "Don't get smug, sump pump, one poem don't make you no Cadillac."

I had to chuckle at Similes automobile metaphor.

"Oh, so you think it's funny, do ya? Well, Mr. Three Stooges, Mr. Martin 'n' Lewis, ya got thirty minutes to write me a 20,000-word epic poem using every one of the Seven Deadly Sins as a sea monster -- and it better be believable!" Whereupon Similes produced a stopwatch from his pants pocket, pushed the "start" button, and spit.

"I don't even remember the Seven Deadly," I started to protest.

"Ya got 29 minutes, 45 seconds, funny man." Similes was holding the stopwatch inches from his eyes, intently watching each second pass.

Now that I felt I had my stroke back, I was tiring of this old salt with his bulldog demeanor. "What if I don't write you an epic poem? What then?"

Similes' jaw stopped in mid-chew. He glared at me over the stopwatch. Instead of yelling, as I expected, his voice became low, ominous. "Ya ever heard of Bernard Beatty?"

I hadn't.

"Ever hear of Rodney Swope?"

Again, I hadn't, but I was beginning to get the message.

"How about Lefty Feinstein?"

This was the topper. I had heard of Lefty Feinstein. It wasn't a pretty story. Star pensman for the Baltimore Bards until 1958, when he became mired in the worst slump on record -- 0 for 356. Similes, Lefty's roommate at the time, tried to help him, but Lefty was too proud. To make a long, sad story mercifully short, Lefty became perverse, finally exposing himself at a Baptist convention.

"Yeah, I heard of Lefty," I said, "but who are the other two?"

Similes stared at his stopwatch sadly, a pained expression on his face. "Ya don't wanna know, kid." Tears streaming down his cheeks and mixing with the tobacco spittle on his chin, Similes virtually whispered, "Ya got 25 minutes, son. How 'bout writin' me that poem about the Seven Deadly Sins."

I was touched. I was inspired. "Pride, Avarice, Sloth, Gluttony," I shouted at the midday sun, "Lust, Anger, Envy!"

From almost that moment on, I set a torrid pace in the minors. My publication average rose to .453, and my name recognition factor (n.r.f.) improved to 1 in 710,000, up from 1 in 2 billion. Plus, I had a trunk full of contributor's copies.

At the end of the minor league season, I was called up to the parent club for the stretch drive. The Pittsburgh Pens, at that time, were locked in a tight race for first with the Kansas City O's ("O" for "Odes"). The Pens were a veteran group, and they needed a fresh pen in the lineup. That's why they sent for me.

It was destiny. My first time up in the bigs, I stroked a 456-word poem. The next time up, I laid down a perfect 8-line light verse that caught everyone by surprise. And the next 11,388 times up, as they say, is history. Or, collected works. Twenty seasons in the bigs and each one better than the last.

Next Tuesday, I am to be enshrined in the Poetry Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio (just down the street from the Pro Football Hall of Fame). On the verge of such a momentous occasion, I can't help but think back to those sunny days in the minor leagues of poetry. Back to that day with Similes. Similes is dead now -- literally, not metaphorically -- just the way he'd want it. The Pittsburgh Pens are now the San Diego CRT's. (Bunch of punks.) The Walt Whitman League, like all the minor leagues, went defunct years ago. Nothing's the same. Poetry itself isn't the same. Hell, they don't even have poetry parks anymore. It's all done at home on personal computers.

Still, they did select me for the Hall of Fame. They at least remembered this old-timer. And I hear they're expecting a big crowd at the induction ceremony (by today's standards). Maybe seventeen or eighteen.

(Steve Cooper is 5' 7", 150 lbs., has all his own hair, and has been published in other literary magazines, for which he was paid in copies. He was born and raised at zip code 27262.)

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