As you know, this month finds America at an ideological crossroads, and on the cusp of a major transfer of power. Yes, we have a new poet laureate.
This year's selection was particularly significant because the new poet laureate, unlike the old poet laureate, has no umlaut in his name. This is a hopeful sign. An umlaut is arrogant. It says, "My name is beyond you, you unsophisticated American clodhopper. You can try to pronounce it if you wish, but your feeble effort will only amuse me, the way it amuses me when little children say 'bafroom.' "
Critics contend that I have had a chip on my shoulder about poets laureate ever since the last one, Louise Gluck[umlaut over the "u"] (pronounced "Gleauchghunczhoghczhcze"), declined my request for an interview and got savaged in this column. What nonsense. The new poet laureate -- Ted Kooser -- has a much better name. So, to show I have nothing against poets laureate, I decided that I would phone him, invite him to write a dueling poem with me, and, when he declined, savage him in this column.
My plan went perfectly until, alas, he agreed.
It was too late. I couldn't back out.
The deal was that I would write the first stanza, he would write the second, and so forth, and that we had to build on what the other had previously written. Ted Kooser is a Nebraskan whose poetry has been said to reflect the beauty of the heartland and the dignity of the simple man. I decided my only hope lay in making him so angry he would lose his ordinarily formidable control:
His fingers soiled, a farmer toiled to fill with food our bowls,
With verve he hoed, and then he sowed while squatting on his haunches.
Farm life's a poem (he thought, back home) to nourish hungry souls,
But he was a hick, 'n' so just ate a chicken, swilled beer and fell unconscious.
O columnist, upon whose frowning pate that green sun visor perches,
Within whose bottom drawer that fabled bourbon bottle stands,
While through your opening line that misplaced preposition lurches,
One wonders, could you have too much time on your hands?
"You cheated," the columnist bleated, Where's the farmer's story at?
It just died -- you cast it aside, like it wasn't worth a dime.
And if there's lurch in my verse, you did even worse, Mister Poet Laureate,
By flagrantly losing -- never once even using -- all my interior rhyme.
It troubled me, friend, that you had cast your toily, soily farmer
As a stereotype, an oaf, a drunken glutton to boot, and so
I lobbed my own one back, and seem to have dented your armor.
For my pique I'm sorry, but perhaps, now, on we can go?
Fine, I shall begin a wholly different tale -- but be on guard!
It's set in medieval times. The hero is a famous bard,
A man with many laurels on his brow, apt to crow and bray
About his cleverness; and so, to amuse himself one day,
He agreed to fight a war of mirth with a motley jester fool --
And when 'twas done, guess which one had up and won the duel?
I'd hope the fool won, and I'd put a little money on it,
That little dickens, silver bells upon his bonnet
And those pointy shoes, all somersaults and handstands
While the great bard flaunts and huffs and grandstands,
Wielding the sword of his wit with stylish thrust and parry.
I'd like it best if every prize went to the merry.
Gene Weingarten's e-mail address is email@example.com. Chat with him online Tuesdays at noon at www.washingtonpost.com. Ted Kooser's most recent book of poems is Delights & Shadows, Copper Canyon Press, 2004.