The Mad Poet’s Name

Like the three devils who sat in a tree gabbling at William Blake, the idea of the mad poet seems nearly archetypal, speaking from somewhere deep in the human imagination of semi-divine inspiration.

The question of why a poet so unfortunate as Abender published under the fortunate name ‘The Good Poet Abender’ is an interesting one. Looking into it, I find the answer s fairly clear as to circumstance and not too difficult to trace as to motivation, either. I think we could show that whatever can be said of his poetic talent as a whole, Abender’s one literary virtue is his “ear” – his awareness of the musical sounds that words can make when they are set against one another in patterns. Sometimes he seems to set music above sense – or achieve sense through music when he can’t get at it through precision, as in this excerpt:

Upon his brow a hover smirks
His genius is the Haunt of Clerks

A smirk, we know, can hover upon lips. But a hover that smirks upon brows?

Nor can I remain entirely unimpressed by the following,

Asparagus is in poor taste
when in the shade it lies in waste

Of course, one notices the similarity in sound between “lies in wait,” a familiar phrase denoting passive hunting, and “lies in waste.” He is explicitly saying that asparagus, when it doesn’t taste good, lies there being wasted, but by saying it with a similarity in sound to this familiar phrase, he manages to mix the two meanings in our mind. Asparagus that doesn’t taste good is more sinister, we are meant to feel, than previously believed. A teenaged boy, for instance, who was about to be forced by his mother to eat said asparagus, might feel hunted. “In poor taste” of course has a similar double-meaning – his mother’s soul proves less than courteous upon this occasion, he feels.

Now suppose that an acquaintance of this Abender’s were to bestow upon him one day, whether facetiously or not hardly matters in cases of this sort, a sobriquet: ‘The Mad Poet Abender.’ What would the poet’s reaction have been?

Since I have access to his journal, I can inform us exactly what his reaction was the day July (as in the month of the year) Harmon did just this. July and Abender went to high school together, on the days when Abender bestowed upon the junior community one of his offhand appearances. Abender, in the journal, recalls and bemoans the fact that his “performances” of his own poetry at school were ignored by many and often shouted down by this July and his friends.

Now what Abender means by a performance does not appear to have anything to do with school assemblies or scheduled class events. In fact he bemoans his difficulty in getting the attention of his teachers in school – they tended to run the other way when they saw him coming, I gather. He was interested in one subject only- his own – and the school numbered no accomplished poets among its instructors.

So Abender, self-termed “Slave to Muse,” began jumping up on his (battered, orange) desk at any opportune pause in a lecture, or between classes while grown kids battled each other for door space, and shouting out his latest masterpiece. One such early work was this which I previously quote in part:

Asparagus is in poor taste
when in the shade it lies in waste
Upon a completely average, invariably obscure star,
wishes sprout full dull bizarre,
Hide away, hide away, white-face gawk
Among your nights your twilights stalk

Abender’s sensitive spirit was offended one day, it seems, by the sight of fat, white asparagus simmering in a pan. He protested its mundane grossness in verse; but towards the end of the poem his thoughts turned, unsurprisingly, back to himself and his plight in the community. In movies and television the social outcast was pictured as conveniently hiding, staying out of the way, drawing no attention to himself. From the journal:

No doubt that’s just what they expect and desire from me. They seek to make me ashamed of my genius, my angel of divine verse. They, the uninitiates, turn from me to make me turn from them. It shall not work. They think I am a stalk of asparagus – stalking them with beauty they don’t want – but I am a sapling of immortal verse, dropping gumdrops of poetry into their closed mouths.

With no more than a wince, let us proceed to shorten his narrative.

July and Co. – who had never before demonstrated any sensitivity to Abender’s verse, suddenly latched onto this one line. The next time he came to school, ambling into a math class halfway through, he saw July and his friends sitting in the back row, their faces painted white. When they saw him they stood up on their desks and shouted in unison, “Hide away, hide away, white-faced gawk!”

“What did you say?” Abender shrieked.

They obligingly repeated it for him.

“What did you say?” Flailing closer.

They gave it to him again.

Abender then fumes for a half a page that they got “white-face” wrong, saying “white-faced” instead, the bullish delinquents. White-faced people come by it honestly. White-face plays off black-face – it’s an unnatural whitening, which should never, ever happen to asparagus through lackluster cultivation.

July and Co appear to have found Abender’s reaction far funnier than if he had actually been embarrassed. And while we can hardly expect poor Abender to share the feeling, I can’t help noticing that their stunt showed some imagination. After wading through Abender’s rants on the subject I feel even a certain fondness of acquaintance for them. Perhaps if I am ever in Asp Hollow, Ohio, I’ll drop into the hardware store, which July now owns, and meet the famous prankster.

The white-face joke got repeated several times, delighting Abender with the opportunity to march around the school all day, far longer than he would normally have stayed, mouth pressed primly together, nose lifted heavenward, enduring nobly the taunts of the philistines for the sake of his art. He reports that July punched him twice, but not on what pretext, so I suspect it was affectionate, something which Abender was probably incapable of deducing.

That evening he still prowled the grounds; there was a game at school; he went out on the field during what he thought was half-time but wasn’t and shouted his poem to the partly-full stands.

This is when the magic happened – in terms of the bestowal of names, naturally.

July stands up, all dignifed, and bellows, “Ladies and gentlemen, a school institution! Our own Mad Poet Abender!” He begins clapping and after a moment everyone joins in; Abender is followed off the field with his first applause. He is furious. “Not true appreciation” he protests into the pages of his journal. At the edge of the field he turns and shouts back, “I’m not a mad poet, I’m a good poet!”

I won’t have you thinking that Abender was unbearably arrogant. The journal shows self-criticism aplenty. I believe he craved drama, and finding nothing in his everyday life worthy of his fine dramatic instinct, he dramatized that instinct itself. Most of his life was simply life; school became a stage.

What did he think of the sobriquet: “The Mad Poet Abender?” Apparently, he was captivated by its music. “It has a sound I can’t forget” he says. But “good” and “mad” both end in the ‘d’ sound – they make a similar music. From that day he began to sign himself “The Good Poet Abender.”

But not before belching out the following doggerel.

“Abender is not so funny
His garnished smile is far from sunny
Upon his brow a hover smirks
His genius is the Haunt of Clerks.

“Mad Poet!” All upon him cry.
He sure is mad, and I know why.

Now that we discussed the alternate titles of “Mad Poet” and “Good Poet,” we must touch upon his actual name: Abender. Where did this dignified-sounding appellation come from?

His mother, we are told, gave it to him in reference to her difficulty in birthing him. (July Harmon, in a side note, was born in April – draw your own conclusions on that one!)

“Whew,” said Abender’s mother, as the stringy, damp infant was laid in her arms for the first time. “You sure were a bender, little fellow.”

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