Fairfax Tentch, the lion of Georgetown now and one of the capital's intellectual starbursts, was scarcely known a year ago. And yet, even when he was a kid they called him the Culpeper Comet and said he would go far, though nobody knew it would be in sparkling verse.
They say that except for Rod McKuen he is the only poet in America who has made real money ($218,000 this year, he confesses). His first big flash was the now-classic Worcestershire Sauce which, somewhat surprisingly, is all about worchestershire sauce, rhyming all the ingredients required to be listed on the label.
"Directness is everything, in poetry as in life," said Tentch in one of his rare intervies. "Like Homer, I believe you should wade right in. My Worcestershire Sauce , as you probably know, begins with such clarity that he who runs may read."
Most people know the opening lines:
Ingredients of this sauce are Tamarinds and vinegar . . .
"People appreciate clarity," Tentch goes on, " and really require it. Get to the heart of it, I often say. One reason people admire my verse in Washington, especially since Watergate and Vietnam, is its honesty. I do not say there is anything in worcetershire sauce that isn't actually in it, and I say everything that is.
"The company wouldn't tell me what the 'flavourings' are - the label just say 'flavourings' - but maybe a poet wouldn't want to know. I had enough trouble with molasses, which rhyme, but the right one is something else again."
Tentch dates his general enlightenment and subsequent fame to the Hollins College Conference on Creative Writing and Cinema which took place in June 1970. He was just sitting there with his brain "disengaged from thought in case the Muse should strike," he says.
"Richard Wilbur, the poet, came on to be interviewed by John Graham," Tentch recalls. "The creative miracle never fails to amaze me. It just hits, wham. But you have to be ready to receive it. Clear the brain, empty it out.
"You know how you can sometimes have peak experiences, when everything seems bright? Like all the lights were on? I don't care if it's the Damascus Road or just some kid at Hollins, because that's all I was then, but it's all the same when the spirit comes.
"Wilbur said poets read, read, read. I remember his words - they opened up the world for me - when he said., 'I read all four - well, how many sides are there to a cereal box? About six, I guess. I read what's in the catsup and the worcestershire sauce . . .'"
Fairfax Tentch at just that moment achieved enlightenment and saw his own life unfold before him:
"Here I was just a scruffy kid from Culpeper, Va., and here was one of the big poets of our century telling me he read the labels on catsup and worcestershire sauce. I knew right then who my publisher would be."
But Tentch - his friends call him Fairfax - is not merely a clever poet of words. "He is intelligent," says Denise Girandole, herself a poet and editor of Croak."He can see trends and read our times. He can fill voids.He is a major intellect."
Tentch brushes all that aside and claims merely that he noticed nobody buys poetry books, but that everybody buys catsup, and that poet and critic in Christendom reads the labels.
"So I went to that audience," he says. "I did not wait for them to come to me." And within a month after his verses appeared on the worcestershire sauce bottle, he was known to every poet in America, and the general public soon followed them in praise.
But is it really true, you might ask Tentch, aht major poets read sauce-bottle labels and cereal box messages?
"Yes," he says, "and the big critics, too. Dunstable Fretley wrote me after he read a corn chips label I wrote, that he had never seen semiquadraholoxide handled with so much sensitivity in his life."
Noth that Tentch ever counted much on the average critic:
"Few of them could write their way off a streetcar, and some of them are snide. It's all right by me, I weep right into my Jaguar. The critic for Meadowvine called me Soy Boy, but all it did was make people buy more sauce."
He once saw the president of Deepwell Box Corp. at his bowling alley and said, "Look, people wonder how many sides you've got on your boxes, but nobody wants to come right out and ask. If you told them in plain print right on the box, they'd respond by buying more."
The box president said why not, and now Deepwell is an industry leader in volume of sales.
"You have to ask yourself," Tentch says, "both as an aritst and as a man what you can do to help people. It doesn't have to be much, but if it's genuine, then people will responds."
It was only gradually that it occurred to Tentch there are 1 not six sides to the ordinary cereal box. He was the first poet ever to come out singing on 12 sides of rolled oats:
"We had been wasting the insides all these years," he said. "Deepwell freed the interior from corn flakes."
He accepts his celebrity with good humor and enjoys the fast crowd he runs around with these days. The weekends at the Cape with the Anchelbaunes. He is often with Barbie Conkhead.
"The sparklers of this world don't sit around reading the paradiso , you know. Maybe I was the first to discover what they do read, and where they read it. I'm the only writer a lot of them have got.
"Why shouldn't the trendsetters like me?" Tentch asks. I'm likeable enough, after all, and I have the right number of toes and all that - about 10, I guess. And most people read my poetry whenever they buy catsup, which is more than most can say."
The American world also reads Tench whenever it buys corn chips ("Corn is in these chips somewhat). They are better cold than hot"). He is also noted for his blunt, frank treatment of chemicals, let the chips fall as they may ("Sodium nitrite, you know/Stops the stink and aids the glow").
Tenth is now negotiating with manufacturers of canned vegetables to publish rhymed recipes and seving tips on the label. "Stranger, look at these beets now/How to serve them? Here is how:" is the first of these. In addition to writing verse, Tentch now serves as consultant for 11 corporations who noticed the sales surge of worchestershire sauce after Tentch wrote the new labels.
He is also a leader in the movement against most food additives:
"They are very bad, if you want the poet's view," Tench says. But crusading aside, he is mostly just the good steady poet of the day, the "eminence piquant of 1975" as one critic called him.
"Readiness is all," says Tentch.
Which is especially true on April Fool's Day. Because of course, Fairfax Tentch, fortunately or unfortunately, does not exist except as a composite of Washington heroes observed by everybody. If he did exist, he would be, one is sure, enormously popular.