The Poet Plague

  by Ross Stapleton-Gray

The summer of '90 the City witnessed such a plague of poets on the land as will likely never again be seen...

The causes are still disputed; most experts point to the adoption of stringent anti-smoking ordinances that drove the first small bands out from underground haunts to seek the hydrocarbon-laden atmosphere of the avenues. There they fed on espresso and ennui in the numerous coffee bars erected with reckless abandon in the late 1980s as roosting space for lawyers. (Before they had exhausted the capacity of the city to sustain them, vast flocks of lawyers had gathered in these rookeries by day, gorging on caffe lattes and torts; and flying by night. It is said that a man had to shout to be heard over the raucus chirping of the pagers, and prodigious mounds of their leavings -- fax paper, luncheon receipts and flyers en español -- once kept the recycling mills churning from dawn till dusk.)

The poets swarmed thick on the ground, and few felt secure.

Like a woman on the verge of issue, the city was wracked with contractions, from e'en's last light till the morn's glow appeared o'er the horizon. Innocent maids were prepositioned on the street, in the gloaming, and over their earnest protestations. Fully forty-seven separate women reported being accosted and compared to a summer's day; one rather stout woman was detained for braining a man with her umbrella after being compared to a summer sausage. A group of young men from a Nantucket bible study group, in town on a day trip, were anapestered by a bawdy quintet and driven, blushing and on the verge of tears, back to the safety of the church bus.

Incidents of guerilla poetry spawned isolated acts of prosaic anarchy. Someone threw a writer's block across 5th Avenue and snarled traffic. A terrified carload of Greek immigrants was stuck in developmental limbo for hours before authorities managed to extricate them as a series of character sketches with the assistance of a police artist.

Dour and monosyllabic federal marshals were brought in from the Midwest to stem the onslaught. Stolid national guardsmen erected checkpoints, and poetic licenses were seized and revoked by the bushelful. Large packs of poets were rounded up and bused to internment camps in the Catskills. (A few were later to be rehabilitated by the Children's Television Workshop, with decidedly mixed results, and every year a modest trickle of poets manage to bribe their way past the razor wire with NEA grant funding smuggled in by Red Cross observers, to be spirited up to Canada through a network of underground coffeehouses.)

What finally turned the tide was the drear of Fall and the exhaustion of the espresso supply; when the fog came in, on little caffeine, the poets sat in silent lunches, and moved on.

The last days of the great plague saw door to door searches by police, as the few remaining poets were rousted out of squalid efficiencies, and the smoky-scarred dens from which they had first emerged in great number. In a number of cases the citizenry took matters into its own hands. One unfortunate young man (not, as it turned out, a poet at all, but a recent immigrant from Finland whose reading from Berlitz was mistaken for a recitation of blank verse) was pursued for six blocks by a lynch mob, and left to dangle by his partisiippit until he was cut down by a pair of sharp-tongued critics from a certain literary magazine.

When the last of the poets had been accounted for, the city breathed a collective sigh of relief, and returned once more to arrhythmic regularity.

They came, soundlessly fluttering, driven by the wind. It was not until they began to pile up in stark, wintery drifts against unseen walls did people begin to notice the mimes...


Copyright © 1994, Ross Stapleton-Gray

"The Poet Plague" first appeared in print in the October 1994 issue of Art Times