I used to play in an Irish band – we’d tour around the central North Island (and one time we went to the top of the South Island). We went where the gigs were. It was a working band. Some weeks were hard slog; others were easy. Sometimes there was no work. Many times the hardest work was the people you had to talk to between sets, or when packing down or setting up.
This is a true story. This is a conversation (that occurred) in Levin.
So you write poetry do you?
I couldn’t lie – I had to say yes; you see I was in Levin! They know the truth in Levin. When you live in the most boring town in New Zealand; that’s a quote, from The Listener, December, 1998, you get pretty good at spotting a lie and besides I’d already been introduced as a writer.
My band was playing to a sold-out Levin Working Man’s Club but even with 240 people at $5 a head, I refused to see it as a glamour gig; call me levelheaded, I’ll never be a rock star. My job is to entertain…
So you read poetry? he prompted.
The band was on a break. I figured it easier and more honest to answer than to claim I
knew people from Levin.
“Yeah I do”, I casually started.
So what poetry do you read? He further questioned.
“My own”, I confirmed
No, he snapped, what poets do you read?
He was in his late-40s and self-appointed spokesperson for Horowhenua’s cultural life. I figured cultural-life to be something of an oxymoron in Levin.
“Um, I’m quite into Bukowski, I said, straightening up, serious in tone”.
“Charles Bukowski, American poet; 1920-1994 – I further enlightened, as if confirming specialist subject on Mastermind.
Nup. Never heard of him, the master minded. Can’t be any good.
“Well, um”, I stumbled, his feathers clearly ruffled “…I like Baxter, Sam Hunt, Hone Tuwhare…”
Well you would, he grumbled.
I looked perplexed.
He said you need to get back, way back, look back…
“Oh, I see”, I said in mock-joy, to annoy. “I really like Robert Browning”.
“Um…and bits of Keats and lots of Blake…”
For heaven’s sake boy, he pub-proclaimed, of all the poets you see to have named, only one is truly great.
“Browning?” I asked (I would have been nervous if I wasn’t so bored).
Of course lad! A genius! He’s the true spirit of the Romantics…
“I think he’s more in the Victorian period, isn’t he?” I queried with caution.
No. No .Romantic he was. Wrote all his poems in Italy.
“Oh I see”, I said, again imagining a room of brick walls and sole-invitation to a head banger’s ball.
“But that’s weird”, I offered. “Cos I figured him more as a bridge between the Romantics and the oncoming of the Victorian Age”…
No – ya bloody idiot! He was the spearhead of the Romantic Movement. Bloody clever, ol’ Browning!
“Yeah, well he musta been clever”, I continued, “to spearhead a movement that was in full swing at the time he was born”.
He looked at me. And I at him.
So, you’re a poet?
“I spose” – I supposed.
Yes, well, you’re young and wet behind the ears…
“Yeah well you live in Levin,” I tried to retort.
But he’d won. He’d had his fun. I realised I was there to entertain.
The irony of a guy whose mind is so small yet seems to know it all lingered longer than the melody of any of the songs I went back on stage to play.