Among the Painterly Poets

He brought his aesthetic approach to the inner life of colors in a series of 10 poems commissioned in the early 1960s by one of his clients, Fuller Paint Co.

Obituary of Ken Nordine, “word jazz” poet

We were sitting at a tiny table in the White Horse Tavern in Greenwich Village, calmly enduring the scornful remarks and sneering put-downs of the more-successful poets who bumped into us–sometimes “accidentally” spilling their drinks–as they made their way back and forth between the bar and the men’s room.

“Oh, excuse me!” they’d say in mock-apologetic tones.  “I must have been rocked by the poetic earthquake that’s shaking the world these days.”

“Ha-ha-ha,” I’d say, matching their contempt with a little of my own.  “So funny I forgot to laugh.”  Not exactly a new comeback, but–like all great art–it has stood the test of time since I was in fourth grade.

Dylan Thomas, admiring a freshly-applied coat of acrylic.


“Don’t let it get to you, Forest, it only encourages them,” my girlfriend Violet Orchid said.  I turned and looked deeply into her leotard, then–after she cleared her throat–into her eyes.

Violet Orchid:  “Crazy, man–crazy!”


We were nursing our drinks; none of us had any money in those days, unlike the capital b “Beat Poets,” who could command as much as $5 for a couplet, $7.50 for a quatrain, $20 for a sonnet!  But what did we care?  We were young, we were mad for colors, we could live on paint fumes and paint chips if we had to!

But still, we were all feeling a little down.  The Beats had captured the imagination of the nation–and try saying that five times fast–through a skillfully-executed plan of public relations.  They wisely decided to swim in a school, like fish, so that it was harder to pick off any one of them, while giving them the appearance of a full-fledged movement.  Dingbat reporters from TIME magazine swarmed the Village, looking for something to report on besides the loss of China to the Commies, notebooks in hands, asking their fatuous questions:

“So poetry–doesn’t have to rhyme?”

“No, daddy-o, don’t be a square!” the Beat Poet on Call to Answer Your Inane Questions would say.

The reporter would dutifully transcribe the obscure argot for readers unfamiliar with the crazy, wigged-out talk of the Best Minds of Their Generation, and the headline-hungry versifiers would snap up the next issue as soon as it hit the newsstands to find their slang immortalized in one of Henry Luce’s popular Glossaries:  “Chick: A female hepcat.”  Then the squares would flood our crowded little neighborhood, scouring our mean streets for espresso, bebop, and “reefer.”

“hey guys,” a voice said through the thick cigarette smoke.  It was our friend red menace, looking a little green around the gills, but upbeat nonetheless.  In pursuit of the purity of his e.e. cummings-style poetry he’d recently had the initial letters of his first and last names de-capitalized, and he was still a little puffy in the face.

“Hi red,” Violet said as he bent down to kiss her.  She had, of course, slept with him and just about every other crayon in the box, but I didn’t care.  We were into free love and no attachments; women, we guys had agreed, were basically public utilities, with periodic outages, harsh dunning when you didn’t come through with money, and spotty service during the hot summer months.

“why’s everybody so down in the mouth?” red said.

“Just look over there,” I said, my tone as bitter as my coffee.  “Don’t you get sick of The Beats hogging all the attention, when we have so much to offer the world of poetry?”

red was cool, slowly rotating his eyes sideways to take in our smug, bongo-playing competitors.  “call me crazy . . .”

“You’re crazy,” Violet said.

“i meant figuratively,” red continued, “but i don’t think the beats’ business model is sustainable.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“they’ve staked out a position as outsiders.  if they succeed, they’ll become insiders, with their pictures on the cover of time . . .”

“I think you have to capitalize the T,” Violet said.  “It’s a proper name.”

“fine,” red said.  “Time, getting teaching positions at the universities they now scorn, becoming tenured, comfortable old farts with interest-free housing loans, holding forth at sherry hours.”

“Maybe you’re right,” I said.  “That doesn’t mean I can’t hate their guts.”

“knock yourself out,” red said, “as long as you pour your rage into your poems.”

I sat there and absorbed what he’d said for a moment.  Something about it didn’t sit right with my personal aesthetic.  “I don’t think the ‘angry young poet’ style is for me,” I said.


“No.  I’m more interested in . . . art for decorating’s sake.”

“really?” red said.  “do tell.”

“Does the poet roll his words on smoothly so that there are no air bubbles?  Does he use a drop cloth so as not to spill ink on the floor?  Does he start on one side of the paper and work his way evenly around the page?”

“you make poetry sound like painting a living room,” red said.  “it’s just crazy enough that it might work.”

There was a commotion at the entrance, the kind of hubbub that only occurred when a publisher, an agent or a critic showed up, raising the possibility that one of us might be touched by fame or fortune.

I looked up and making his way through the crowd, I saw a stocky, balding man with a paunch, hardly the sort of avant-garde presence I expected.

“Forest Green?” the man asked, extending a hand that looked like a lump of recently-kneaded pizza dough.

“That’s me,” I said warily.  Had I knocked up some suburbanite’s daughter visiting the Village for a taste of bohemia?

“I’m Ed Kolewski, Finger Lakes Paint & Wallpaper, how ya doing?”

“Fine, fine.  Do I . . . owe you money?”

“No, not at all.  In fact, I want to pay you money.”

“You do?”

“You betcha.  For a twelve-poem cycle extolling the virtues of my wide selection of oil-based and acrylic paints.”

“Really?” I asked.

“Absolutely.  I’ve read your colorful poems, and they’re just the thing I need to move buckets of product.”

I scanned the room, and saw glimmers of jealousy steal across the visages of the poets who had, only a few minutes before, looked at me like I was moderate Republican running for New York City Council.

“At your service,” I said, putting on the manner of a cool businessman about to close a big deal.  “What were you thinking of in terms of price?” I asked.

“Let’s see,” Kolewski said, fingering his chin as he looked at the picturesque tin ceiling tiles overhead.  “How many poems are there in a gallon?”

Available in print and Kindle format on as part of the collection “poetry is kind of important.”

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