The Decline of the Beat Poets
by David Sklar

December 1, 2009

It used to be we walked the city streets,
alert to all that happened there—sometimes
taking an apple from the grocer’s cart
as we walked past.  The grocer, well aware
of the risks we took, would turn his eyes away,
pretend he didn’t see.
				The worst of us
brought worse corruption than we took away; 
the best brought mercy to the shattered lands:
the tired houses with a missing brick,
the short-haired women with the sagging arms
were better for our passing—not transformed
but so much more themselves for being seen
by watchful eyes that cared but did not judge.
We saw them as they were and wrote it down,
we knew they wouldn’t read; we didn’t mind—
what mattered was they knew that we were there.

And after we had walked for several years
we learned that folks would come to hear us read
our works aloud, without the city noise.
In stilted silence.  Some got rich and famous,
some didn’t but believed that they deserved to, 
and all lost touch.  The best knew what was gone
but could not get it back.  The worst never noticed.
And those who did not drink themselves to death
gave up the stolen apples for free espresso
and hired bongoes and saxophones to make
the background noise our poems seemed to need.
Most people think that’s how we got the name:
the rhythm of the drums.  Most people now
don’t know that poets used to walk a beat.

These days the poets drive in black sedans
at twenty miles above the legal limit,
protected by the same impunity
that let us take the apples from the carts;
and if you need a poet you can find
our office hours posted on the wall
in college Lit departments or cafes—
or, if you have a real emergency,
you can call, and a poet will come to your house
and talk about himself for half an hour.

The unions are good.  We have full benefits:
malpractice insurance, vacation, and a pension,
and scheduled raises every half a year,
but we do not walk a beat.  The neighborhoods
grow cold.  Grow old.  Grow mold between the cracks
and crack between the molds.  Some people blame
their parents.  Some blame the City Planning Commission,
the Communists, the Democrats, the Jews—
I blame the poets in the black sedans
who don’t slow down and don’t roll down the windows—
their work is too important.  They’ve forgotten
the people on the corner are their work,
the people must be watched—not kept in line—
observed enough to know that someone cares.

And even stealing apples from the cart
’s a vital task that needs to be performed
by someone who knows how.  You take too little 
and people will forget to stretch their minds,
too much, and they might snap.  They need us there
to test the limits and to go too far
but not too much too far.  When that’s not done
the cities lose their elasticity,
get brittle.  Hard.  Develop tiny cracks
where mildew can get in, and bring decay,
and so the cities rot—for we are gone.

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