Mingus at the Showplace
by William Matthews
I was miserable, of course, for I was seventeen
and so I swung into action and wrote a poem,
and it was miserable, for that was how I thought
poetry worked: you digested experience and shat
literature. It was 1960 at The Showplace, long
since defunct, on West 4th St., and I sat at the bar,
casting beer money from a thin reel of ones,
the kid in the city, big ears like a puppy.
And I knew Mingus was a genius. I knew two
other things, but they were wrong, as it happened.
So I made him look at the poem.
“There’s a lot of that going around,” he said,
and Sweet Baby Jesus he was right. He laughed
amiably. He didn’t look as if he thought
bad poems were dangerous, the way some poets do.
If they were baseball executives they’d plot
to destroy sandlots everywhere so that the game
could be saved from children. Of course later
that night he fired his pianist in mid-number
and flurried him from the stand.
“We’ve suffered a diminuendo in personnel,”
he explained, and the band played on.
In a memoir about his father Sebastian Matthews writes that he doesn’t know if this encounter took place, but that “the myth of it feels right.” Continuing, “For all of these reasons, and for a few, private, complicated ones of my own, I knew what music had to be played at my father’s funeral. Charlie Mingus’ haunting elegy for [Lester Young] would be mine to my father. “Goodbye Porkpie Hat” had to be his send-off.
Copying Out Poetry
I’ve been an amateur poetry anthologist for a long time (poems by Mark Strand and bits of poetic writing by John Cage were on my dorm walls in college, in far off pre-web days).
In that era, I frequently copied out poetry by hand, but now, like many, I am a maestro of copy and paste, and rarely even type in a poem, much less copy it by hand. As it happened, Monday was one of those rare occurrences: connection-less at Reagan Airport, I had to copy this Matthews’ poem out line by line. It’s a good task: Things that just slide by as lovely sounds become specific and legible: line endings (and how those endings get crossed over) become clear. Everything slows down a bit, and your attention becomes more acute. Even better if you read aloud what you have copied down, the bonus being you get a start on memorizing it.