I wrote this poem for an occasion, to be read at the Penny Lane Coffeehouse in downtown Evansville, Indiana. I then sent a copy of it to a dear friend. She said she loved it. Something in her letter (by e-mail, of course) prompted me to respond in kind. Perhaps the letter itself read after the poem will be an interesting combination. If you think so, let me know.
Also, this poem is experimental and even a bit risqué. At first it's a kind of self-parody, but then it takes on a kind of seriousness. I hope my readers will see it that way, too.

A Poem and a Letter

Steven C. Scheer

With a Song in my Heart

At times a bit of melody gets stuck in your head.
Or is it the heart that lodges these fragments
Of elusive strains we find outselves
Unable to resist?

Wordsworth once carried a tune like that,
Long after it was heard no more.
Yon solitary Highland lass:
Stop here and check her ass.
Our hearts they beat as one,
No more love on the run.

Oh, these fragments of incorruptible truths.
Whoever loved that loved not at first sight?
Bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang.
How much wood would a woodchuck chuck
If a woodchuck could chuck wood?

With insatiable urgency I search for phrases,
While bits and pieces of disconnected words
Lodge in the chemical currents of the idle brain,
As I dream of dreaming dreams,
For the only true paradise is paradise lost.

These fragments, these persistent lines,
These bits and pieces of consciousness interrupted,
These tidbits in foreign languages,
Can lose your way in the midst of life:
Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita,
Abandon All Hope Ye Who Enter Here!

But it is love at first sight that flusters me now.
Or the moment when Edna St. Vincent Millay says:
Read me, do not let me die!
Or when D.H. Lawrence claims that only the loving
Find love and they never have to search for it.

Our paths may be strewn with the sure signs of
Obliteration, but it is in the solemn surprise
Of that surpassingly seductive singularity
When a woman's presence, her face and her body,
Rudely interrupts the smooth flow of life
(For me in particular when her
Breasts are nice and small and her ass big -
For a woman without a big ass
Cannot have a generous nature).

This solemn surprise of surpassingly seductive singularity,
I repeat, undoes me quite, in spite of its innocence.
Damn! Why must I fall in love every time
I go to the supermarket?
Or every time I come to read a poem
At the Penny Lane Coffeehouse?
And always with the same woman?
In cunning disguise as a different person?

With a song in my heart
I behold your adorable face.

Golden lads and girls all must,
As chimney sweepers, come to dust.

A song of love is a sad song,
Hi-Lili, Hi-Lili, Hi-Lo.

The rose fades, the rose wants to bloom.
The thorn of the rose pricks your finger.

I guess I carry within me the burden
Of age in love which,
As Shakespeare would have it,
Loves not to have years told.
I guess I am sure that youth is
Wasted on the young,
For it was when I was young
That I wasted my youth.

Which lives on in me still in unpredictable ways,
In the unreliable strip-tease of memories,
In old songs and dances I once knew.
In the eternal return of the achy-breaky heart.
In unforgettable women who never again
Shall turn to me at midnight with a cry.

And I keep asking myself:
What is love? Which thinks no evil and is patient and kind?
Oh dearly beloved,
If I could tell you, I would let you know.

The letter (by e-mail, of course)


Melville in his Confidence-Man fools around a bit with the concept of originality. Chapter 44 is devoted to a "dissertation" on it, & the point of the chapter is that originality is rare in both life and letters. Even such characters as Hamlet or Don Quixote are "novel, or singular, or striking, or captivating, or all four at once," but still not befitting the words "quite an original" (the words used by a barber which end the previous chapter and which refer to the character of the confidence man). You said that you liked the poem, "With a Song in My Heart," especially its ending, even if it isn't original. Well, having acknowledged Melville's musings on the subject, I'd say that the poem is "quite an original" anyway :-).

I had mentioned "intertextuality." In certain circles literary critics claim that all texts are intertextual - that is, made up of bits and pieces of other texts. At the same time, it's also possible to say that even this sentence which I am composing right now has never existed before, until this moment. All the words in it have been used before (probably millions of times), yet the sentence is quite new and, to a point, "quite an original." "There is nothing new under the sun," (as the Good Book says) but as Shakespeare ends his Sonnet 76, "For as the sun is daily new and old, / So is my love still telling what is told." Both statements are true, of course.

All kidding aside, "With a Song in My Heart" is original enough, even though I incorporate into it bits and pieces from (I just counted them) 17 different sources. (This includes the wood chuck thing as well, which is a well-known "childish" play on words.) I identify a few of the references quite clearly, while some are so well-known that they may not need identification, but the line "whoever loved that loved not at first sight" from Shakespeare is already a quotation. It is used in As You Like It where the words appear in quotation marks. In a good edition a footnote will tell the reader that the line was originally used by Marlowe in Hero and Leander. And as for Shakespeare himself, all his plays are quite original even though it is a well-known fact that all but one use recycled stories.

In any case, two of the sources in "With a Song in My Heart" are relatively obscure. The first is the reference to women who cannot have generous natures without a big ass :-). (Though, as I recall, the line in the "original" goes like this: "a woman with a flat ass cannot have a generous nature.") The source of this is a movie called Reuben, Reuben, based on a Peter de Vries novel (based on Dylan Thomas, loosely, and his poetry-reading tours in America). The other obscure reference is the final line of the poem (which you said you liked a lot - and the source of which I will give you in its entirety at the end of this letter, as it happens to be a favorite poem of mine).

The poem itself (mine) is a kind of "stream-of-consciousness" running through the speaker as he (me, really :-) reflects on the fact that since he is a well-read individual, bits and pieces from songs and poems are constantly rushing through his mind, even as he also constantly succumbs (aging bachelor that he is) to the beauty of women in the world at large. All this is quite true of me, of course. Still, in the poem I am posing, acting a version of myself, with a bit of comic compassion thrown into the works (we should all have some comic compassion for ourselves, of course). Okay, enough of self-analysis.

PS: Here is the source of the poem's last line:


W.H. Auden

Time will say nothing but I told you so,
Time only knows the price we have to pay;
If I could tell you, I would let you know.

If we should weep when clowns put on their show,
If we should stumble when musicians play,
Time will say nothing but I told you so.

There are no fortunes to be told, although,
Because I love you more than I can say,
If I could tell you I would let you know.

The winds must come from somewhere when they blow,
There must be reasons why the leaves decay;
Time will say nothing but I told you so.

Perhaps the roses really want to grow,
The vision seriously intends to stay;
If I could tell you, I would let you know.

Suppose the lions all get up and go,
And all the brooks and soldiers run away;
Will Time say nothing but I told you so?
If I could tell you I would let you know.

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