PHILIP MARLOWE’S POETICS – A BRIEF ESSAY IN CRITICISM
I walked into the office and he looked up like he’d been expecting the Nobel Prize committee, but all that had wandered in was little old me. Marlowe, the spoil sport.
“You aren’t Miss Stein,” he snorted, and I had to acknowledge that.
“Sorry professor, I’m just the detective, come to ask a question or two”. I showed him my Photostat, and, because he had such thick glasses, followed that with my card.
Universities were obviously doing a big business. The panelled walls, the rich leather, the mahogany desk, would not have looked out of place in the office of a company fat cat or Louisiana politico. The only difference was, instead of cigars and wads of cash, there were books piled everywhere.
“Porlock,” he sniffed. Professor Langwallner seemed to have some sort of deviated septum.
“Oh sure,” I nodded, lazily picking up a book by someone called Adorno, “Coleridge’s unwelcome guest. I read poetry myself. Did I stop your chain of thought?” I expected a snort, but instead, I got an eye-gleam.
“Now that you ask, Marlowe, I was working on this –“ he held up a sheet of paper. In the middle of it was a single word, framed by a small box. Someone had been very clever with a typewriter to get it all just so. The word was LANGUAGE, except each letter was spaced out, and the typist – probably Miss Stein – had gone to a lot of trouble to keep them apart with equal signs, like somehow a mathematician had gotten drunk at a poetry reading.
“What’s that, a poem,” I sort of chuckled. It was not exactly T.S. Eliot.
“Well spotted, yes.”
“I see I barged in very early, sorry to have ruined your fun.”
“Not at all, Marlowe. This here is a finished text. The whole kit and caboodle.” He handed it to me gingerly, like maybe it was made with thin radioactive linen. Professor Langwallner didn’t look like a killer. He didn’t even look old enough to shave without help from his psychotherapist, or nanny, or valet, whatever rich kids from Stanford used as help these days. No, he was young enough to be in a high chair, but he was also hallucinating if he thought this was poetry.
“It doesn’t look like a poem to me, Doc. Sorry.”
“Ah, but you’re expecting something else, more genteel, and romantic, aren’t you, Marlowe? Something sincere and self-confessional.”
“Sure that’s me all around, sincere and genteel. Not an ironic bone in my body.”
“Irony is old hat, Marlowe, we go way past that. What they’re doing in art now – abstract, conceptual, focused on the materiality of the process – that’s what the language poets do now. You should understand – we inquire, like you do, into things. Poems open out mysteries though, for poets, we don’t close things down with solutions or pat answers.”
I studied him like he was any other lucky stiff I had to come across in the line of work – not quite a duty, not fully noble, but a vocation that didn’t settle for much guff.
“Sure, and you also have some land in Florida to sell me, size of a postage stamp, and only a thousand times the price. Look, when are you academics going to settle down, roll up your sleeves and actually do something for a change? What do you want, a medal pinned on your chest for dreaming up yet another way to confuse the common man?”
“But this is work, Marlowe. I had to read every French and German text on aesthetics to get this right. This took months of planning. You don’t just spill the beans, you know – you don’t just actually express feelings onto paper. This was as planned and executed as a cold blooded murder.”
This got me interested, so I started on my pipe. This felt like a pipe place.
“Now we’re talking.”
He gave me a withering glance that might work on a bobby-soxer doing a BA in Arthurian Legend, but it wouldn’t knock me down. My socks had dials on them, and came all the way from England.
“No, Marlowe, not a real murder. An idea. Poetry is conceptual now – it’s about the theory behind the language as much as what the poem says or sounds like. You don’t come to poetry looking for beauty anymore!”
I paused, puffed the pipe, shrugged, and turned to go. Langwallner was maybe a good teacher, but he was a nutcase, and I wanted back up before I tackled him.
“Professor, it’s a good thing you work here in this ivy tower. Because where I come from, when you order a cup of Joe, it better look, taste and cost like coffee. And when you order a whiskey and soda, it better have a kick like a mule. And when you take a dame out dancing under the stars, she better be Lana Turner, not Mr Peabody the janitor from down the lane. In other words, pal, I stand for a world where men try to be decent, women try their level best to keep up appearances and we all shave and wash our hair once a week. A place were angels don’t fly off of church windows, and dragons are fat men who run the rackets and the goodtime gals; and life is cheap because life always has been. A place where a good man only has his word. And it better mean something. In that world, of slums, and cheap dives, and sawdust whorehouses, poems are things that make people feel better, that they memorise because maybe their mother or Irish granny once whispered it to them, and those poems have a music in them that’s half Armstrong and half Bach. I’m sure what you are doing here is something. It may even be art. But it’s not a poem if the hair on the back of my neck doesn’t stand up when I hear it.”
And with that, I left him gaping like a guppy in a fish tank without any water. It only looked like a fish tank, anyway, but was probably a metaphor. Then I went home, poured myself a drink, and never actually wrote this down.