From the Mad Mind
of Anthony Watkins
A Thing about Hot Coffee and Words
This morning, as I was reheating my coffee, I had a thought. I like my coffee black. I like it just this side of hot. I used to ice it with one to two pieces, now I rarely do. I usually don’t microwave my coffee, not because it damages it in any way that I can tell, like it does bread and a few other food items. But because I have a carafe, so it stays hot two hours, or at least hottish.
Today, as sometimes happens, I awoke at 2:30 am and made a pot. The thing is, today is Sunday. I have plenty of work, but I don’t have to leave the house to do it, so for many hours, nine to be exact, I was still drinking coffee. Even in my carafe, nine hours is a long time for coffee to stand, so it was room temperature. I tasted it. I drink room temperature coffee, but it tasted a certain way when coffee is “past” (or should it be “passed?”), so I thought a bit of heat might restore it. A warmed corpse is still dead.
This made me think of words, and poets and poems and spoken and written words. It’s not a direct line, but the way I like coffee, until I don’t, made me think of the odd way I like something except when I don’t. Gertrude Stein is a famous poet. In the event you have not read anything of hers, I suggest two things, start with Tender Buttons, and g-o s-l-o-w-l-y! She is hard and complex and rich and delicious. I had heard of her through pop culture, but somehow, I had her mixed up in my mind with Gloria Steinem. I had never read anything she had written until I started taking ModPo.
“I started taking ModPo” sounds more like it is a vitamin supplement than a college course. What I mean to say is about six years ago, at the suggestion of a friend of mine, I signed up for an online class from the University of Pennsylvania, on a platform called Coursera (pronounced, to my surprise ‘kor-sa-ra’.)
The class is a free class taught by the one and only Al Filreis and the title of the course is Modern & Contemporary American Poetry (“ModPo”). On its surface, ModPo is a pretty wonderful ten week look at everything interesting that has happened in American Poetry starting with Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman up to today.
The thing is, in a very pernicious way, ModPo has turned into a fifty-two-week course that I have repeated every year since and very well may never leave. It is the Hotel California of college classes.
I recommend anyone who has an interest in poetry, either as a writer or a reader, anyone who has an interest in the mechanics of education (pedagogy), either as a student or a teacher, or anyone who wants to learn how to think about EVERYTHING in life from a different, in fact from many different, perspectives, sign up. Signing up is easy, and always FREE!!!!
In this class, I had my head exploded by trying to really get inside of the poetry of Ms. Stein, among others, but especially her. The thing is, I love Stein and her “impossibility,” but she and I differ greatly on two points. Or at least from what I can gather, as she is dead and has been for a while.
She gave a great deal of thought to how and why we should use words, and I have to say that is obvious when you read her poetry. But for me, reading the philosophy behind the way she wrote, is like warmed over coffee too long in a pot. The other thing is she loved the sound of words and used words in ways that were poetic to her ear, but probably not exclusively to her ear.
On the other hand, while I have heard a few poets read and enjoyed them, mostly, I prefer the words on the page and to let them lie there silently, like a specimen in a lab, to be picked up carefully and at my own pace, to be turned over and picked apart, not to have them come flying at me like a flock of crapping seagulls, to be observed, ducked and dodged.
I used to give readings fairly frequently, and it never failed, someone would always come up and say something nice about the sound of my voice. I would be appropriately flattered until once I gave a reading and the host made a video. After listening to myself, even though I continued to give readings, I was persuaded my poetry also sounded better on the page.
The tradition of poetry is oral, being a close cousin of minstrel singing. Even bringing the news at the time was made to rhyme to make it easier to remember because either the populace was illiterate or the language, unwritten. I appreciate this, but somehow the taste in my ears of most spoken poetry, including Ms. Stein’s, is much like the reheated coffee.
And yet, I know many people who love the sound of poetry as much as or more than the look of poetry. I had wondered about this for a good long time. But then I was having a conversation with a fellow ModPoer, who said that when they read a poem, they heard it. And I thought, well that is it. Usually, when I read a poem, I see a picture, and generally, I expect my pictures to be quiet.