Thursday, August 10, 2023

“To Walk Among the Giants”

“Just one or two pieces of wisdom I want to impart to you that might – maybe perhaps prove invaluable in your proposed career as a poet.”

“Thanks,” said Milford.

“Because,” continued Mr. Stevens, “what’s the point really of being a poet unless one cannot at least strive for immortality?”

“Yes,” said Milford.

“To walk among the giants.”


“Homer. Shakespeare. Milton. Byron. Browning.” Milford wished Mr. Stevens would get to the point if he had one, but the old man went on with his litany. “Gerard Manley Hopkins. Our own burly countryman Walt Whitman.”

“Right,” said Milford.

“Not forgetting our sterling contemporaries.”


“My good friends William Carlos Williams, Marianne Moore, e.e. cummings. Oh, the parties we used to have once upon a time, and I’ll tell you, Wilford, you haven’t lived till you’ve seen Marianne Moore dancing the Black Bottom at one of the jazz boîtes up on 52nd Street!”

“Um, uh –”

“And poor Hart Crane! Shame he jumped off that boat. Might have had a few more good poems in him, you never know.”


“Who else. Auden.”


“Eddie Guest.”


“Ha ha, just kidding, wanted to make sure you were paying attention.”

“Oh,” said Milford. “Heh heh.”

“Point being, the world doesn’t need another half-assed poet, Wilford, and that’s why I’m gonna give you a tip or two which I wish somebody had given me when I was your age, full of piss and vinegar but as ignorant as a rock.”

Mr. Stevens put his cocktail glass down on the bar, empty but for its twist of lemon peel. He signaled to the bartender for another.

“Sure you won’t have just one Rob Roy, Wilford?”

“No, sir, I mean Wally, I’d really better not. To tell the truth I drank a shot of brandy by mistake an hour or so ago, and now I’m going to have to start counting my days of sobriety all over again.”

“If you don’t mind my asking, how does one drink a shot of brandy by mistake?”

“Well – I was distracted.”

“By what?”

“By a woman,” said Milford, after a slight pause.

“Ah ha.”

“Yes, you see, she bought me the shot, and she’s very beautiful, extremely, um, alluring, and so, without thinking about it, I drank it, thus destroying months of sobriety.”

“Cherchez la femme,” said Mr. Stevens.

“Yes, I suppose so.”

“Good-looking babe, hey?”

“Yes, very much so. But even more than that, she has a certain, uh, disdainful, distant, um, regal -”

Je ne sais quoi. You should pardon my French.”

“Yes, uh –”

“So you’re not a poofter after all?”

“Yes, I suppose not.”

“She must like you if she bought you a brandy.”

“I’m not so sure of that, but –”

“But what?”

“Well, she agreed, provisionally, to have sexual relations with me later tonight.”

“No kidding! No wonder you wanted to get back to the San Remo.”

“Yes. She didn’t seem to care too much either way, but, well –”

“She just might take off before you get back.”


“Or maybe hook up with some other fella.”

“Yes, I suppose that’s a possibility.”

“With women anything is a possibility. Let me tell you something about women, Wilford.”

Milford said nothing.

“Well, don’t you want to hear it?” said Mr. Stevens.

“Oh, sorry, sir, Wally, yes.”

The bartender laid a fresh Rob Roy in front of Mr. Stevens.

“Thanks, pal. On my tab,” said the great poet. He picked up the glass and took a sip, sighed, put the glass down. “I don’t know why it is,” he said, “but the seventh one is always so much better than the first one. What was I talking about?”

“Um, women?”

“Oh, right.”

Mr. Stevens took a drag on his Philip Morris, and then stared at Milford out of his glassy and bloodshot blue eyes.

“I’ll tell you all you need to know about women, Wilford, all you need to understand.”

He stubbed out his cigarette.

God, thought Milford, will I be this tedious when I am old? Am I this tedious now? But maybe after all he will tell me something valuable, if and when he ever gets to it.

“What is that, sir, I mean Wally?”

“What is what?” said Mr. Stevens. He was shaking his pack of Philip Morris Commanders.

“What was it you were going to tell me about women, sir?”


“I mean Wally.”

“That’s better,” said Mr. Stevens. He offered the pack to Milford, and, since Mr. Stevens had crumpled up and tossed to the floor Milford’s pack of Woodbines, the young tyro poet took a Philip Morris and accepted a light from Mr. Stevens’s gold lighter. When at last both poets, one young, one old, had ignited cigarettes in progress, the older man exhaled an enormous cloud of smoke in the younger fellow’s face, and then spoke:

“The only thing you need to understand about women is that you will never understand a damn thing about women.”

Well, thought Milford, if true, then that was one less thing to worry about. And, indeed, why should he understand women when he understood nothing else about life?

“Y’know, Wally, I really should be getting back there,” said Milford. “So, uh –”

“So getting laid tonight is that important to you, is it, Wilford?”

“Well, it’s just that I was sitting there, with this young lady and a couple of other friends, and I was supposed to be just going to the men’s room, and that must have been forty-five minutes ago now –”

“God damn it to hell, boy, do you know how many aspiring poets would kill to be sitting with me here, now, and me about to spill the beans on how to be a great poet?”

“Um, quite few, I suppose –”

“Thousands, tens of thousands. And all you can think about is getting your end wet.”

“But –”

“Just hold your horses. If this chick takes off there will be loads of other ones down the pike, even for a lad as unprepossessing as you. Especially if you become a famous poet. Trust me, I know. I’ve been fighting off lust-crazed bluestockings ever since my first book came out. Beating them off with a stick. So just cool your brogans for a little while and let this dolly wait. Don’t you realize what an enormous favor I’m doing for you?”

“Okay,” said Milford. “Um, uh, but –”

“What? What is it now, lad?”

“May I ask why you are doing me this favor?” said Milford.


“Yes,” said Milford. “Why do you want to impart this wisdom to me?”

The large old poet paused.

“That’s a surprisingly good question, Wilford.”

Mr. Stevens picked up his Rob Roy. He sipped the golden liquid, sighed as if appreciatively and put the cocktail glass back down on the bar.

“Damn, that’s good. What was the question again, Wilford?”

“I asked why you want to impart your wisdom to me,” said Milford.

“Oh, yes,” said Mr. Stevens. “All right – call it altruism, or the desire to do good, by sharing this wisdom it took me many years to acquire the hard way. Or maybe it’s just because, for some unknown reason, or reasons, maybe I admire you just a little bit, despite your blandness and dull manner. Who knows? Maybe, just maybe, I see a spark of life behind those thick glasses of yours. Or, maybe – perhaps – there’s another, a deeper reason, which supersedes all of the above.”

Mr. Stevens paused here, and Milford felt it incumbent upon himself to give the old poet a suitable cue.

“What is that, sir, I mean Wally?”

“What is what?”

Milford sighed, but then spoke:

“What is this reason that you’re sharing your wisdom with me, which supersedes all the other reasons –”

“Oh,” said Mr. Stevens. “Maybe, Wilford, it’s because I just like to hear myself talk.”

Or, in other words, thought Milford, you’re just a tedious old self-involved blowhard.

“Shall I continue?” said Mr. Stevens.

“Of course,” said Milford.

He would give the huge windbag five more minutes, and then it was back to the San Remo. Would Bubbles still be there? He could only hope.

“And now,” said Mr. Stevens, “if I may slightly misquote the bawdy Bard, I shall unmuzzle my wisdom.”

Great, thought, Milford, and please just be quick about it.

Mr. Stevens lifted his Rob Roy and took another sip, a large one. He appeared to be gathering his thoughts, but maybe he was just drunkenly taking his time, in that timeless world of drunkenness that Milford knew all too well.

It occurred to Milford that if Bubbles had gotten bored or sleepy and gone home, that maybe Polly Powell was still at the San Remo. Polly had her own modest charms after all, and it was not completely fantastic to imagine a turn of events in which she relieved him of the burden of his virginity (possibly hers too), and, a bonus, without even charging him money for it. And, let’s face it, the company of any reasonably attractive woman had to be preferable to that of this pompous old sot, even if he was one of the foremost living poets. Yes, perhaps he, Milford, despite his own mother’s innumerable hints and downright accusations, perhaps he really wasn’t a poofter after all. Either that or he simply had personal limits to boredom which even he – a veteran of hundreds of deadly dull AA meetings – yes, which even he would not willingly go beyond…

“So,” said Mr. Stevens, suddenly roused from his revery, or his nap, “are you ready for it, Wilford?”

“Yes,” said Milford. 

As ready as he would ever be, which wasn’t saying much, but it would have to do.

{Please go here to read the unexpurgated “adult comix” version in A Flophouse Is Not a Home, profusely illustrated by the illustrious rhoda penmarq…}

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