Thursday, August 26, 2004

Fabian, Avalon, Rickey Nelson, Too/Bobby Rydell and I Know Darn Well/Shakespeare's in There, Too

If any time during the telling of a story, the storyteller pauses to say, "You really had to be there," that is an admission of defeat. The memory of the event is apparently just too big to drag through the door, and even if you, the listener, aren't feeling shortchanged, the storyteller knows that you are.

That is why too much conscience can be a very bad thing in a storyteller unless it's some kind of package deal, and he is also going to change your spark plugs or guide you safely into Mordor. (And if you don't know what an evil storyteller and false guide in one slick package looks like ....)

So even though I have a suspicion I am not going to be able to bring this off .... Never mind never mind. Just talking to myself.


My friend Jefferson celebrated a birthday earlier this week. Our mutual friend The Corinthian was host, and the evening began well. Jefferson is a bit of a genius when it comes to talking -- he is a storyteller -- and he was doing what the birthday boy is supposed to do, which is settle down at center stage and accept homage and regale the crowd. It began well, and it was going well. We were drinking rare Belgian beer rolled on the thighs of monks -- or something -- and the talk was quite cosmopolitan, with a good deal of name, place and thing dropping.

Among us was a comparative stranger, a friend of The Corinthian with whom he worked on the Alaska pipeline in the 70s, and who stayed north and became a multimillionaire. The friend didn't broadcast this. I managed to suss it out on deep background, but I'm a journalist. I'm good. Put me on those Swift Boat Republicans, and soon enough we'll know more than we want about their blackouts, night sweats and serial impotence.

The Corinthian's friend was not there to self-aggrandize, but it did come out about his racing cars, his racing motorcycles, his planes, his wilderness adventures and misadventures and his showing up on the front page of the New York Times.

The focus of the party was wavering. Jefferson was talking about that summer between his freshman and sophomore years of college spent working at Lake Placid in New York state as a wine steward.

The Corinthian's friend interrupted: "I was at Lake Placid. For six months. When I was practicing the luge." Of course, we sophisticates know Lake Placid has been a center of crazy downhill sliding sports for years, so, of course, if you have the time and the money....

We groaned with laughter. The Corinthian's friend winced before he made the comment, but he knew a good laugh would have been wasted otherwise, and there aren't that many good laughs around. They are not the low-hanging fruit, and this joke had been ripening all evening.

Then we left the eating part of the evening for the poetry part. That was the plan all along, that we should adjourn to the living room and read and recite poetry. It is a thing the group at the party had done before, and Jefferson is just back from a month at Esalen where, with soul soaring at the setting of the sun (and clothes dropping at the hotting of the tub), he read much poetry, reaffirming in his memory so many of the poems he has loved over the years.

I was curious. I wanted him to recite, since he's quite brilliant at it, but I was curious about how it would go because the evening was just a little off kilter, somehow a little more competitive, a little more edged than I had anticipated. I love it when it gets edged. Punches right through to the energy, you know.

Jefferson was great, never better, and he recited this Shakespearean sonnet.

Not marble, nor the gilded monuments
Of princes, shall outlive this powerful rhyme;
But you shall shine more bright in these contents
Than unswept stone besmear'd with sluttish time.
When wasteful war shall statues overturn,
And broils root out the work of masonry,
Nor Mars his sword nor war's quick fire shall burn
The living record of your memory.
'Gainst death and all-oblivious enmity
Shall you pace forth; your praise shall still find room
Even in the eyes of all posterity
That wear this world out to the ending doom.
So, till the judgment that yourself arise,
You live in this, and dwell in lover's eyes.

You had to be there. On the page you get this poem quick enough, but it's too easy to imagine it plaintively said by a pleading lover. Jefferson let the poem boom, like a Salvation Army hymn. This is a confident arrogant poem. The poet has stripped to his poetical skivvies and is posing: Here it is and how much of it do you want?

This is more about the skill of the poet than it is about the beauty of the lady. Thou art rubber, I am glue, he is saying. Praise sticketh to me after bouncing off you. (Hmm. Your better poets sometimes resist paraphrase.)

At least that's what the poem meant the way Jefferson did it. Maybe he needed -- or, at least, profited from -- a little competitive edge. Poetry can be a contact sport.

Postscript: My wife and I had to leave early, and the party went on. I sent Jefferson an email in which I teased him a little: What did The Corinthian's friend do after we left?

Jefferson replied, "Do you recall Ray Bradbury's 'Fahrenheit 451' ?" It seems, Jefferson said, that later on "our friend recited Jules Verne's 'Around the World in 80 Days' in its entirety from memory."

I think he was joking. I suppose you had to be there.

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