Alien Reading by Bill Vernon

An alien attending a poetry reading turns out to be a harsh critic; by Bill Vernon.

Tobor gazed at the clouds streaming east from the huge setting sun and repeated, "Vermilion! Vermilion!" The word rolled off his tongue in tri-syllabic sonority, and somehow its sound seemed to encase his experience of the wonderful sky.

Then he noticed a poster tacked onto a telephone pole: POET in huge letters. A person who made beauty out of words. FREE AND OPEN TO THE PUBLIC. EVERYONE WELCOME.

The serendipity of this announcement struck him forcefully.

He read more: INTERNATIONALLY FAMOUS AND ACCLAIMED, the poster declared, giving location and time, which was now, at this moment.

But did Tobor detect redundancy? If the poet were so famous, why list the titles of his 10 books or the PRESTIGIOUS national and international literary prizes the poet had won, none of which were in Tobor's encyclopedia. If this were not redundancy, then what? Possibly exaggeration. Was any living poet, in fact, famous in America? Tobor had observed very few people reading anything.

Tobor looked around, realized that his wanderings had brought him to Virgin Mother University, and his memory responded: VMU - a private institution, student full-time population 7,026 as of June 2014, founded in 1878 by a Catholic order of priests and brothers, the Maternists. Rated among the coeducational, Midwestern college leaders in athletic teams and parties, Number One in the amount of alcohol consumed per capita. Oddly enough, Tobor thought, his memory lacked one notation of academic, religious, or social achievement.

Mary's Hall, where the poet was appearing, was nearby, only 78.3 feet distant in fact, for Tobor saw the name emblazoned in black letters on a gilded metal sign. Tobor hurried there, and on the building's steps stopped beneath a life-sized blue and white plaster virgin, her arms spread, poised on a stone ledge near the cornice of the four-story, red brick structure.

Tobor gazed one last time at the descending sun, which was half gone now, resulting in darker, no longer "vermilion" clouds. Tobor turned away from the beauty reluctantly, but anxiously too, anticipating the verbal treat ahead.

Room 102 was the first door inside. He entered and found a lecture hall with 213 seats spread before a raised platform where a dark-haired man stood, leaning with forearms propped upon a wooden podium.

Tobor sat just behind the crowd, which seemed small in the enormous room, 26 people bunched in the first three rows.

"Whose fault is it if you don't understand a poem?" the man asked in a reasonable tone. The microphone trapped his breath and underlined the question with a whoosh.

There were three responses from the audience, who were mostly young people, students, Tobor guessed. "His!" one declared. "Not the poet's, man," said another. Another said, "Meaning lies in the mind of the individual."

"Consensus puts the responsibility on you, my friend," boomed the amplifier.

A middle-aged man in the audience stood. Only he and the man at the microphone wore a suit and tie. "I meant to imply that if a poem doesn't mean anything to me, whoever's fault that is, why should I read it? How am I supposed to enjoy it?"

The man at the microphone, who was the poet, Tobor guessed, said, "Yes, well, enjoyment is an elusive concept. You must relax with a poem. Let the associations of its words gather force. Obviously, the meaning depends on the reader's resilience. What he or she can bring to the poem."

The man in the audience persisted. "Isn't the poet trying to get something across? Doesn't he have a responsibility to communicate?"

The younger members of the audience groaned. Somebody muttered something about being old fashioned.

The poet said, "Please, everyone. Give the gentleman a break. Some people could be unfamiliar with modern trends in poetry. We have a mixed crowd here, of sophisticates and newcomers to the poetry arena. Let me review a few points. First of all, modern poets do not worry about communicating.

"My book THE ART OF DISSONANCE establishes that not communicating is impossible. What people usually mean when they say something has no meaning is that they cannot mentally dominate the utterance. Therefore, they balk at the struggle necessary to accommodate it. Anyway, for modern poets, communicating is not a goal. It is a given. In other words, you cannot say something that means nothing. Everything has meaning!"

Tobor's hands thundered, coming together, applauding, and every head turned, gawked at him, then turned back around.

The man nodded and when Tobor stopped clapping, added, "Every word has meaning."

Tobor applauded again, and when the heads all swiveled his way again, they seemed to take his measure: a huge man filling the fold-down seat with denim bib-overalls, checkered long-sleeve shirt, and red baseball hat.

The poet said directly to Tobor, "I've struck a chord here. I assume you agree?" It was more question than statement.

Tobor stood up, took a deep breath, and bellowed, "VERMILION!"

The man straightened up as if he'd been slapped. "Huh?"


"Okay?" He stared at Tobor, and two giggles rose from somewhere in the front row.

Tobor stared back, but the poet seemed unable to appreciate Tobor's enthusiasm for the word. Of course, how could he? Tobor realized the poet could not see into Tobor's mind.

Tobor said, "Please, is poet going to recite poem?"

Several in the crowd tittered.

The poet said, "I'm afraid you missed the main reading, coming in late as you did. But, yes, I planned to read one more in closing!"

Tobor sat down.

The poet paged through a book on the podium as if he had not planned which final poem to read. He stopped paging, considered for a moment, then said, "Someone at lunch today mentioned this poem, which is a bit long but is probably worth reading. It won an award from the APR - the AMERICAN POETRY REVIEW - and is called "The Undulation."

He read, and the words slowly filled the room, pausing, tumbling, rushing, slowing, continuing on unstoppably, reminding Tobor of a river he'd seen flooding, uncontrollably rising until an entire village was engulfed. Six minutes into the poem, the man wearing a suit got up and left. Three heads had fallen onto chests as their owners apparently slept, but the other heads in front of Tobor seemed aimed at the speaker, rapt with attention.

"Circles in the nether gate of Rome," the poet intoned, "the fulsome fuming of priapic noise."

Tobor looked through a window outside. Darkness had fallen, utter blackness. In fact, it seemed as if blackness were filling the room and attempting to enter Tobor's mind. Tobor would have also left with the gentleman except for an injunction in his compendium of earthly social mores. So he sat and let the man's voice disrupt the tranquility of silence for 13 minutes, 20 seconds, but for Tobor, individual words had ceased mattering after the first three minutes.

A few silent moments fell over the room. Then the audience began applauding, and the noise gained intensity until only Tobor's hands were motionless. The people stood. Tobor remained sitting. When the people sat, there were cries of "Beautiful!" "Too much, man!" "Like a collage."

As the people sat, Tobor stood. He was puzzled. Did these people understand the poem? Was there a hidden code he himself was unable to decipher?

The comments and movements ceased when the poet pointed over the podium at the only standing figure and said, "Yes?"

"I understand most words, most phrases, most clauses, but sometimes not. Understand no sentence though. You explain?"

Several audience members laughed, prompting the poet to smile. "I write them. I don't explain them."

A young man in front turned his head and said, "Explaining a poem is the reader's job."

A man with long, blond hair, stood, stretched his arms, put hands on hips, turned around to face Tobor, and said, "If you got to ask what it means, you'll never understand."

Tobor sympathized with the man's intensity. "Thank you. All right, I explain poem. Incoherent, confused, not clear."

There were several slurred comments. The blond man shook his head.

"Thank you!" boomed the poet's voice, drawing everyone's attention back to him. "That honest reaction may catch the poem's theme about lack of meaning. That life is confusion."

"Everything have meaning," Tobor said, "like you say yourself before."

"I see what he means!" said another man in the front row, standing. He turned a smiling face toward Tobor, who could see now that the man was middle-aged and wore tan corduroy trousers, white tee shirt and brown safari jacket with patches on the elbow. The man glanced up to the stage at the poet. "My advanced creative writing class has covered this very theme while we studied your work."

A young woman with long dark hair raised her right hand. When the poet nodded toward her, she said, "We learned how your poems show that language is insufficient? Dr. Fancy's essay argues that this motif is your main theme."

The poet nodded. "That does seem to be a fair assessment."

The man in the safari jacket said, "To be exact, my essay, which by the way ran in the APR also, repeatedly points out that language is inadequate for complex thought, and ultimately that language traps us."

The poet smiled. The teacher, his student, and the blond-haired man sat. Tobor continued standing.

The poet looked at him and said, "So you seem to have successfully apprehended the poem."

"No, I not understand poem. I think it have not much meaning. I think it bad poem. If it mean what they say" - Tobor swung an arm around, signifying everyone in the audience - "then why poem not say that?"

"It did!" yelled the blond at the stage, then twisted his head toward Tobor and said just as loud, "You just said it did yourself."

"More importantly, sir," the teacher said, standing again, looking at Tobor, "the poet created a text that enabled you to experience the very themes we mentioned."

The poet smiled.

Tobor shook his head.

The poet said, testily now, "You seem reluctant to accept this interpretation. Why do you hesitate?"

"Idea not true. Language let us communicate now. We understand. Have to put words together right to let readers understand. Follow grammar. Poem 'Undulation' not do that."

"Ever hear of figurative language?" someone asked.

The blond man stood and spun around so quickly, his long hair whipped across his face. He leaned over his seat toward Tobor and screamed, "Symbols! Metaphors!"

Tobor smiled at him. "Bad poem. Ugly. Nobody want to read it."

"Sir," the teacher said, "it won a great national award."

"How? Why?" Tobor asked. "Nobody memorize it. Beautiful poems people remember like songs. Poem 'Undulation' not even rhyme."

"Aha, rhyming," the poet said. "An antiquated technique that I am glad this gentleman mentioned. May I digress? Most of these young people here write poems, so techniques should be discussed."

He looked around the room as if for an objection, and the pause recaptured the attention of his audience, all of whom had been staring at Tobor, who continued to stand.

The poet lectured, "Very simply put, rhyming is trite. There are so few sounds in English, rhymes are too predictable. Plus, rhyming is too easy. I once wrote lyrics for an album of songs, collaborating with an Australian composer, and found out that I could write those things in a minute."

Tobor said, "Rhyming used by almost all great English poets until it stop a few decades ago. I memorize nothing written in last 55 years."

The poet ignored Tobor. "I also advise you not to use dream in a poem. It is always trite. Also, avoid using the pronoun that, and delete most conjunctions, articles, anything directive or explanatory because all those will be superfluous. Intensify and create mystery."

"What about heart?" a young woman asked. "Something like you got to have heart was in your poem. Isn't that trite?"

The poet grinned. "The metaphorical use of heart is never trite."

Tobor said, "Rhyming and meter give order that makes good poems come to mind, and they give pleasure. No pleasure in confusion."

Students murmured, and somebody said loudly, "He don't know nothin'."

The poet held up both hands. "Let's give the man a chance. What do you think are some good poems?"

Instead of giving titles, Tobor immediately recited "Fire and Ice," then the first two stanzas of "Annabel Lee."

Tobor looked around. The people were all staring at him. He said, "Very beautiful in sound and meaning."

After several seconds of more silence, the poet said, "Non de gustibus tandem est. You can't argue taste."

Tobor said, "My taste come from hundreds of years of writing. I don't know your standards. "

"Sit down and shut up, man. We don't want to hear you." The blond man stood and leaned over the seats and glared at Tobor. "Want me to get security, Dr. Fancy?"

Tobor said, "Great beauty harder without rhyme, but meter make beauty too. Like this -" He edged out of his row of seats, his mind dredging up an unrhymed poem he loved and recited loudly into the room as he left, "It little profits that an idle king,/By this still hearth, among these barren crags..."

He waved vaguely at the people, concentrating on the blank verse, noticing how its reverberations became more dramatic as he entered the hallway, then even more dramatic inside the small room between the building's inner and outer doors. He stopped there and finished the poem, allowing himself to experience more fully the sounds reinforcing the images and the meaning, imagining the old voyager portrayed. In these acoustics, he thought, it was as if he were bathing in the waves of sound. Their undulations. What a poem!

"Foyer!" Tobor said, naming the room he was in, enjoying the word. The FAMOUS poet's voice filtered to him then, muted and jumbled into an insect's hum that chased Tobor outside.

Immediately there, he was struck by the beauty of "the night/of cloudless climes and starry skies."


  1. Hilarious, sardonic and erudite - the ultimate culture clash that exposes the limits that our minds seize upon for no better reason than to be à la mode. Very well done,

  2. So many colleges, so many halls, so many poems and stories and novels, so many eager ears for the word of the day. Just a mention of Annabel Lee puts all in perspective for me. Nicely done.