Last week, my writer friend Jim Walsh wrote a tribute to Robin Williams for The Southwest Journal (you can find the link below). In it, he writes that it is thanks to the movie Dead Poets Society that most of us learned the meaning of the phrase carpe diem — “seize the day.”
Dead Poets Society came out during my early years of college — perfect timing. I had just discovered hallucinogenic drugs and Arthur Rimbaud — a French Symbolist poet who gave up poetry in 1876 at the age of 21 to become a gun-runner in Algeria.
He wrote the line: “Magic flowers droned.”
I loved poems, rhymes, and songs as a kid, and I still do. One of the very earliest poems I remember being read to me was The Owl and The Pussycat by Edward Lear:
The owl and the pussycat went to sea
In a beautiful pea-green boat,
They took some honey, and plenty of money,
Wrapped up in a five-pound note.
The owl looked up to the stars above,
And sang to a small guitar,
“O lovely Pussy! O Pussy, my love,
What are beautiful Pussy you are,
What a beautiful Pussy you are!”
There are two more verses to the poem — you can look it up if you want to find out how it ends.
I was also curious to know, hearing that poem, “What is a guitar? And can I have one?”
(Also, you can reflect on the fact that there is a certain age everyone reaches where it becomes uncomfortable to say words like “pussycat” or “what a beautiful pussy you are” in mixed company. And that is the age that marks the end of innocence.
But then again, have you ever heard a person from Holland or Belgium or Denmark, or certain parts of Germany and France, call to a kitty? They say a word that to English speakers sounds like “pouss” or “pwuss.” And the cats always seem to love the sound of that.)
I learned to read early, and I knew automatically that writing — poems, songs, stories, and plays — was the thing for me. The compact was sealed forever on my sixth birthday when I received the gift of an old black manual typewriter and a ream of yellow canary paper.
I became obsessed with typing on my typewriter which sat on a little desk under the windows in my room. At some point I started writing plays, with the idea that my little sister and brother and I could perform them (which, surprise surprise, never happened).
I loved the way the scripts for plays were written — I mean, typed:
FAIRY PRINCESS: Now I wave my magic wand, and lo! You are under my spell!
EVIL LITTLE STEP-SISTER: No! I have stuck pins in your doll’s eyes, so now your spell cannot work!
SPIDERBOY: And I have found all of your Halloween candy hidden in the closet, and I did eat of it! I ate it all, ha-ha! Take that, bossy old Fairy Princess!
In high school I was introduced to the poetry of William Butler Yeats, Ireland’s Mystic Lion and my main man. From his writing I learned how a poem could be a song, a story, a feeling, and an ardent wish, all at once. You know how people sometimes ask “If you could sit down to dinner with any historical figure, who would you choose?” I would choose Yeats. Here’s a poem of his that is a favorite of mine:
When You Are Old
When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep.
How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;
And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon a mountain overhead
And hid his face among a cloud of stars.
Robin Williams was a poet, as most stand-up comedians are, I’m convinced. If you go to http://www.tunein.com and explore Talk –> Comedy radio stations, you can find dozens of stations that are playing recordings of Robin Williams’ performances. Listen: he was a poet on the wing, hitting highs that most of us can’t even begin to imagine.
And what a laugh. I think we tend to forget to remember our comedians as the great artists and poets that they were: Chris Farley, John Belushi, Gilda Radner, Richard Pryor, Robin Williams. My own personal Dead Comics Society.
And on a parting note, one more poem from my man Yeats:
He Wishes For The Cloths Of Heaven
Had I heaven’s embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.
Read Jim’s article here: Carpe Diem Mr. Keating