LET ME SAY from the get-go that I have never been the sort of person who appreciates poetry.
As a young journalist fascinated by the inherent power of the written word, my taste in poetry tended to run toward passages that began: "There once was a man from Nantucket . . ."
Over the years, my tolerance for the form increased very little, not even to the point where I could sit still for verse that had as its central theme:
"You deserve a break today . . .
"So come on and get away . . .
So you see where I'm coming from here. You ask me, poetry is all well and good as long as it's someone else writing it and (with any luck) reading it, too.
Nevertheless, despite heroic efforts to avoid it, I do occasionally stumble upon poetry, which I read only while observing certain ground rules.
Rule No. 1: The poetry has to rhyme. Cat, hat, moon, June . . . that's the sort of thing we're talking about here.
Robert Frost's "Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening" is a terrific poem which, incidentally, has a lot of words that rhyme. So does "Trees" by Joyce Kilmer, although Kilmer might have gotten a little carried away with his subject. I mean, I like trees, too, but . . . c'mon.
Still, if I had to list my top poems of all time (and this is a reach), the Frost and Kilmer poems would grab the top spots -- followed, in all likelihood, by the classic "Man From Nantucket."
Rule No. 2: Any poetry I read has to be spiritually uplifting. So much poetry these days tends to be dark and brooding, to the point where, after you read it, your first instinct is to swallow a fifth of brandy and stick your head in the oven.
If I want to be bummed out, all I have to do is turn on the evening news. Or, God forbid, watch the "Regis and Kathie Lee Show." I sure don't have to plunk down $2.95 for those sappy poems in "The New Yorker" or 20 bucks for the latest hardcover effort by some promising young poet from the Iowa Writer's Workshop.
It's really not the sort of thing you want to research, but there's every reason to suspect that my indifference to poetry began some years ago, when my sister dated a poet.
The poet's name was Andrew (let's face it, aren't all poets named Andrew?) He was a gangly, palefaced fellow who favored black turtleneck pullovers, black jeans and pointy black boots.
From what we could gather, Andrew had no job and no money. He also had precious little ambition, except to sit in the park all day and drink wine from a paper bag while scribbling free verse on nihilism in a huge yellow legal pad.
Yeah, Andrew was a real catch, all right. I often ask my sister what she saw in this loser, at which time she falls silent for several minutes before finally saying: "I was under a lot of strain back then . . . But he was different."
Oh, he was different, all right. Different in the way that, say, Jonestown was a little different. To me, it was just a matter of time before Andrew changed into combat fatigues and grabbed a deer rifle and climbed to the top of a highway overpass for a little target practice. Not that I ever mentioned this to my sister; people who date potential mass murderers are always the last to acknowledge the danger.
Anyway, one day Andrew and I were sitting around the house watching "Hollywood Squares" and the action, such as it was, was in a state of marked decline. (Rose Marie was holding court in the coveted center square; enough said.)
There being little else to do, I struck up a conversation with Andrew, who told me he was very excited about the new poem he was working on.
On the TV, Rose Marie was still flapping her gums about something or another, so I asked Andrew what his poem was about.
"Desolation," said Andrew in a voice barely above a whisper. "Bleakness. Despair. The anarchy in all our souls. The ultimate destruction of society."
Whew. Maybe you see what I'm getting at here: This wasn't a real upbeat guy.
He wasn't the kind of guy you'd invite to your New Year's Eve party, unless you didn't mind some weepy guy with grass stains on his jeans guzzling Yago Sangria over by the clam dip while discoursing on the end of the world -- which, according to Andrew's timetable, was always just around the corner.
Although not before his next poetry reading, I might add.