An Essay

by Alan Catlin

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Poets Ranked by Beard Weight

The title of this fanciful book intrigued me on several levels.  We’ll get into the issue of the purported author’s name, Upton Uxbridge Underwood, later on, but the concept of declaring a poet’s worth in terms of facial hair seemed, well, preposterous in a way that defies easy imagining. 

First of all, the ranking system has nothing to do with the poet’s work.  Artwork by Gene McCormickThe poet closest to Shakespeare in beard design, Sir Walter Raleigh, sports a neat Van Dyck, and a very low beard score of 27.  Presumably, Shakespeare would not fare well either. Or any of the Bard’s contemporary poets with similar beards. That goes for the people who some say actually write Shakespeare’s plays for him.  I have always thought that was a game for scholars with nothing better to do, searching for a composer of his verse and plays. One wonder s if there isn’t an elitist social motive behind championing others from more noble birth and education for the post of World’s Greatest Poet, instead of a rude commoner with scant education.  Stuff happens  folks.

Contemporaries of The Bard, not shown in full facial glory in the book, but rated, did poorly as well: Sir Thomas Wyatt, 26, (he of the Cloven Plagrave, beard that is), Sir John Suckling, 25, (Tartuffe, beard style, not the play), Henry Vaughn, 30, (Belt and Scepter beard not his haberdashery), John Fletcher, 32,  (Florian) Francis Beaumont, 35, (Belt and Scepter Lightly Plumed-don’t ask, who knew there were so many beard types?) Thomas Campion, 29, (Grimaldi). Michael Fletcher, 28, (Sub-Florian), Christopher Marlowe, 34, (Plantagenet) and so on.

Only John Donne, 54, (Cordiform Philby) ranks as very, very heavy.  I Artwork by Gene McCormickhave never thought of Donne as a heavyweight poet, his sermons, for whom the bell tolls and all that, are heavy, in the sixties sense of heaviness, but his early poems, are suffused with joy, wit, sexual innuendo and even some ecclesiastical polity, often all at the same time, as his metaphysical musings range from complex to the extremely complex. If punning was heavy, it is now often considered, extremely low, or light weight, Donne is the heaviest of all his contemporaries. But I digress, judging a poet by his words, when  it is beards that should be the focus, according to this study.  Suffice it to say anything above 30 is somewhat heavy, anything below, weak.  For those who are curious, and still reading, the perfect beard is 60.  No one seems to have a perfect beard. 

The highest score awarded in book was to Samuel Morse, 58, for his Garabaldi Elongated, easily double that of Walt Whitman, his near contemporary, who scored a mere, 22, for his Hibernator. What exactly did Samuel Morse write, you might ask, as I did?  I guess some- thing that could be considered, juvenile verse.  He did, however, invent something we are all familiar with, the Morse Code, and is credited for inventing the telegraph system.  One might argue that the only association between these two gentlemen would be Whitman’s ”I sing the body electric,” of but that would be on an entirely different wavelength altogether. 

I don’t pretend to understand the logic or the complexity of this ranking system by beard weight.  Actual weight of the hair does not seem to be relevant factor but the grooming does and the styling and well, all kinds of esoteric factors not entirely clear to casual reader.  Suffice to say, the whole enterprise is highly idiosyncratic.  And begs a very obvious question, what about the women poets?

Artwork by Gene McCormickBy the time this Beard weight monograph, as it is referred to, was written, there were more than few respectable, if not major women poets. I am thinking of, in no particular order as to their worth as poets: Emily Dickinson, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Christina Rossetti, Emily Bronte, George Eliot and any number of others who are not coming readily to mind.  Two of those poets are more noted for their prose works and certainly no one would argue that a respectable core of essential women authors have survived and managed to become part of the literary canon, despite not sporting beards.  I suppose even mentioning this glaring oversight goes against the whimsical nature of the study, but the fact of the matter is, women were regarded as an inferior intellectual species and were accordingly not educated as men were.  I wonder then, if another study might be undertaken to judge women in an irrelevant way, as the men are: Women Poets Ranked By Wig Weight?  Women Poets Ranker By Hair Extensions?  Women Poets Ranked by The Natural Densities of Their God-given Hair…..

I also feel honor bound to speak for men who are not hirsute, through no fault of their own, but through some freak of biology.  I sincerely doubt that I could grow a beard sported by Mr. Morse for instance, or even poor Walt, given that hair just does not grow on my cheeks.  I suppose I could grow chin hair, my youngest son has sported a very tasteful Van Dyck for years now, and wonder if I chose to follow the path of Raleigh, would I become a border line lightweight poet because of my facial hair?

The more I read on in the book, about its fanciful author, whose biography in the introductory materials rivaled that of the now legendary baseball fraud, Syd Finch who, according to George Plimpton, threw a fastball that topped out at 163 miles per hour, pitched with one shoe, (illustrated with pictures), and was a Zen acolyte recently returned from Tibet, where he was practicing his French Horn. It was the French Horn that convinced me something was amiss, besides the already ridiculous assertions made in this Sports Illustrated article in 1986.

I was working nights at a tavern then and the day guy, a devout Dodgers fan, even after they deserted Brooklyn for LA. Dodger fans apparently will believe anything, handed me the current issue of SI grudgingly, and asked me what I thought about this new kid the Mets had who threw in the 160’s.  I read on with increasing incredulity until I reached the aforementioned virtuoso French Horn stuff in the Himalayas and flipped the magazine over to read the date April 1st.  “Tim,” I said, “this is a joke. April Fools.”  All of this was recalled reading about Mr. Unxbridge, author of Poets Ranked By Beard Weight.

I checked Amazon Books  and discovered a very reasonable copy of the full length book about the exploits of Mr. Finch, a work I look forward to reading during the pennant race of late Summer, when baseball turns from being a mere game but to a fantastic symphonic epic of accumulating statistics, stories, and  strategies both successful and failed, leading to an operatic finish in the Fall.

And in a more serious moment I recalled another inventor/scientist who wrote an occasional poem, J. Robert Oppenheimer.  As he never sported a beard, to my knowledge, and came well after this “study”, he cannot be ranked as light, medium, or of heavy weight on the strength of facial hair.  I suggest he is a true heavy weight though. His one extant poem evokes the Hindu Gods of Destruction, something easily connected to the greatest accomplishment of his career, guiding the completion of the Manhattan Project.  Every time there is an above ground test of an atomic weapon his destructive vision is realized anew.  One can only hope that the final farce of the satirical movie about the Atomic Age gone haywire, “Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and  Love the Bomb,” is not how the final judgment day plays out.

Oppenheimer's Garden

The radar dish is not for
receiving air wave transmissions,
clear reception, but for calling
down the bombs: V2 rockets,
ICBM's with silk parachutes,
B52 payloads, all their guidance
systems disrupted, gyroscopes
unbalanced, tilting the wrong way,
even the earth's axis warped,
spinning out of control, continents
like Oppie's yard decimated, all
life removed, ruined by what fission
has wrought, what science has
inflicted upon these unnaturally
tinted skies and by what he is
bringing back, laying waste to
what remains of this landscape
humped with the leavings of graves,
tarnished cylinders like metal coffins,
space pods ready to detonate on contact.