by Dave Wheeler
Nothing is quite as potent a dose of humility as pub trivia. Ubiquitous bits of knowledge swirling like dust motes on a sunny afternoon are picked at random to be used as weapons to bludgeon anyone’s mind foolish enough to participate. And yet, we all do. (Have you been answering our anniversary trivia questions on our blog?)
Quick! What continent has never observed a tornado?
We don’t just want to know stuff. We want to know we know stuff, and we want others to know we know we know stuff, in a way that stuffs stuff we know in their faces.
Normally, I’m the team expert on books and literature. But when my co-workers invited me to local poetry press Wave Books‘s poetry trivia night, that badge was put to agonized shame. It was like that comprehensive final exam you knew pulling an all-nighter wouldn’t help with, so you didn’t study at all.
Round after round barraged us with questions like, What poet’s father invented Life Savers hard candy? (Oh, you know it was Hart Crane? I’m sure.) What type of vehicle killed Frank O’Hara on Fire Island in 1966? (Dune buggy? *eyebrow raise*) Who was the first African American to publish a collection of poems? (Of course it’s Phyllis Wheatley!) All right, smart kid, name all the poets who read at the Six Gallery in San Francisco on the night Allen Ginsberg premiered Howl.
The questions gushed from the heyday when people paid much closer attention to poets and their lives. I mean, I can tell you that Kathleen Flenniken is our Washington State Poet Laureate, but I’ll be damned if I know what she had for breakfast this morning. If you watch Mad Men you might know that tons of people were not only reading but talking — really talking — about O’Hara’s Meditations in an Emergency in the late Fifties.
Here’s a tough one: What contemporary book of poetry has had as broad an impact as that?
Like with ninety-nine percent of Wave Book’s questions the other night, I have no idea. Sure I can tick off today’s prize-winners, name backlist like a son of a gun, and spell Wisława Szymborska correctly, but it’s not so easy to see which contemporaries will live on in the revered tradition of their forebears.
And maybe that’s why I felt I should have known the answers to more questions. The people and times and places and poems have already been distilled by history into a concentrated tier of significance the years may never diminish. Strip away the retrospective lens of Fitzgeraldian romanticism, and you have poets who have stood the greatest test: time.
Sure. It was just trivia. Wave put on a spectacular evening, complete with Randy Newman cover band Lonely At The Top, and everyone — myself included — had a superb time. My ego hurt for a few hours afterward, though, and I went home and ate ice cream. But I made sure to read a few poems from Stephen Burt’s new book Belmont before I turned on the next episode of Scandal. Because when you aren’t paying attention, you might miss the question.