Poet's Notebook: Take it black

Writers, coffee and cigarettes — cliché or necessity?

click to enlarge Poet's Notebook: Take it black
Jeanne Meinke

So much coffee, so many cigarettes

Gone down the drain, gone up in smoke,

Just for the sake of getting something right

Once in a while...

Long before I became a poet (if I did), I just wanted to be a writer. In high school I loved writing everything; my high school yearbook included a summary of each senior’s ambition, and mine read: “Peter Meinke. Wants to be: Writer. Probably will be: Censored.” In those days, my ideas about writers came from movies like Foreign Correspondent and The Man Who Knew Too Much. They smoked, and drank a lot of coffee, along with more intoxicating beverages. This vision was made personal in 1954, when I was assigned to show Hamilton College’s guest speaker, Edward R. Murrow, around the campus. But the distinguished anti-McCarthy correspondent had no desire for sightseeing; he wanted to sit down and relax with a few students, smoking and drinking coffee and scotch, which we did.

Hamilton was also where I learned about 18th-century English coffeehouses. In the innocent early ’50s, coffee and cigarettes were our drugs of choice, drowned by barrels of beer on weekends. I soon wished I had lived in London, sitting at Will’s Coffee House, or Lloyd’s (which later became the bank, Lloyd’s of London), or The Rainbow on Fleet Street. Paying a penny for my coffee, I’d smoke and debate amicably with writers I admired, like Alexander Pope, John Dryden and Jonathan Swift, along with Addison and Steele (I always thought of them as a pair), the famous journalists for The Spectator and The Tatler. These newspapers exemplified the educated tone for what became democratic England in particular and the rational Enlightenment in general, displaying civility, generosity, dignified wit: exactly what seems to be eroding in today’s America. Influenced by its poets and writers, England set a high bar for performance. (I concluded a term paper for my 18th century professor Tom Johnston — which I foolhardily wrote in pretty unheroic couplets: “And if this work’s not smooth as you might hope, / Well, then I’m not infallible, like Pope.”)

Even as I slid into the more solitary customs of poets, I kept those English habits, and for years I wrote while smoking and drinking coffee. Jeanne and I gave up smoking in 1980 (I was almost 50 then, and thought I might never write again). For months it was difficult, and I paced around the room with a pencil in my mouth; but eventually I got used to it, which is probably why I’m still more or less alive today, ready for yet another National Poetry Month. (At our age, a little acrylamide in our coffee only adds a touch of excitement: Hey, we’re living on the edge again!)

Today, I still like coffeehouses, and often meet other writers there. Starbucks started the American version, and now here in St. Pete we’re lucky to have Kahwah, Black Crow, Bandit, Southside and others to choose from. Every other Thursday, when this column’s published, Jeanne and I get up early, head out in the dark, pick up copies of Creative Loafing from the red boxes scattered around town and head toward the old Banyan Café. We proofread the column and I admire her drawing. Roy Peter Clark, the Poynter guru, often shows up, stops, sniffs the air, and announces, “I smell a poet in here!”

And then, back home, as it has been for decades, night after night, or day after day, this aging writer with hesitant fingers and blotched arms, arranges his coffee cup, sits down in front of the blank page, and begins again.

...[the] moment before disaster, before the storm,

In its peculiar silence, an integer

Fixed in the middle of the fall of things,

Perfected and casual as to a child’s eye

Soap bubbles are, and skipping stones.

—Both quotes from “Lion & Honeycomb” from The Collected Poems of Howard Nemerov (U. of Chicago Press, 1981) 

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