the bard’s complaint

by Charles Mumford 

Image: Louis Ruyl via The Newarker
Image: Louis Ruyl via The Newarker

I dreamed a dream the other night
That left all others “out of sight;”
Around the Kinney building surged
A mob of wild-eyed men, who verged
On panic, if a panic grow
From masses struggling to and fro.

The mob was decorous if wild,
As cultured gentlemen, beguiled
By visions of good things, though faint,
Would keep their hunger in restraint,
Although, when appetites are keen,
And limbs are shrunk, and ribs are lean,
A well-filled board, in time of need,
Will tempt an anchorite to feed.

These men, who thus besieged the Kinney,
(All far from fat, and mostly skinny),
Though eager as a hound in leash,
Were strangely reticent of speech.
With well-groomed men they would not pass
For fashion-plates, for they, alas!
Were chiefly garbed in sombre black,
Of cut and style a decade back;
Their “pants” (those of a later pattern)
Shone like the sun (the parts they sat on),
While rusty coats and hats betrayed
The pinching of the wearers’ trade.

One thing I’ll say, and oft repeat,
These men, in dress so incomplete,
For classic nobs could not be beat
Within a league of Market Street.
Though seedy most, yet here and there
Was one who looked quite debonair;
“O-ho!” I cried to one of these,
Who sauntered ’round, quite at his ease;
“Pray tell me,” (for my sense grew hazy)
“Have all these gentlemen gone crazy?”

“O, no,” he said:  “Each one’s a poet;
(Though all their verses do not show it.)
They’re here because a dozen prizes
In brand-new bills of different sizes,
—One thousand plunks in all, I hear,
Though it does sound a little queer—
Are offered to the poets who
Can put in odes the best review
Of Newark’s glorious career
For this, her Anniversary year.
There’ll be a ton of rhymes, at least,
For gods and men a bounteous feast.”

“One thousand—what!” I shouted: “Whew!
You’re guying me; it can’t be true!
How can some humble poets hope
To get away with so much dope?”

He said (and confidential grew):
“It is the truth I’m telling you;
But bards are few of either sex
Who ever see a double X.
Do’st know why poets fare so ill,
While plodding tradesmen get their fill?”

I answered: “No; tell me.” He said:
“’Tis competition with the dead.
The heroes of the shop and plow
Have only rivals living now
To test their wits, while every man
Who wrote in verse since time began,
Is just as much alive to-day
As when he turned his toes up (say)
Some forty centuries away!
You surely know it is not so, sir,
With your shoemaker and your grocer!
Had Homer dealt in ducks and geese,
His fame long since had found surcease.
Could eggs of Virgil’s day compete
With fresh-laid eggs on Commerce Street?
Yet fresh-laid poets of today
Find ancient bards blockade their way!”

Just then the crowd thinned out; a few
Received their checks; the rest withdrew
To brush their threadbare coats anew.

A sunbeam through my window broke
And touched my eyes, and I awoke.

The Newark poetry competition of 1916 awarded prizes to only thirteen of the more than 900 poems submitted. The governing Committee of One Hundred did not, in fact, distribute checks outside its Kinney Building headquarters, but mailed them to the (female, as well as male) winning contributors.

“The Bard’s Complaint” appeared in The Newarker of September-October 1916.

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