Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Name Of The Thing

As kids, weary of Parcheesi or Chinese checkers, my friends and I played a game we called naming things. In turn we listed magazines, soaps, car models etc… I could hold my own in naming names but when it came to identifying the actual thing I ran into trouble.

My friends could look at the sky, listen to the motor and tell if it was a Lockheed, Douglas or Grumman. I’d lookup and admire the clouds. They knew a De Soto from a La Salle from a Chevy…blindfolded. Seriously. They could feel the fins or grille and Bingo.

To me a car was a car. They all had four wheels and a running board and got us from A to B. I had no shame in my ignorance as I remember. To this day I can barely find my car in a parking lot. Thank God for bumper stickers.

However my deficiency hasn’t served me well as a poet. In his Instructions To a Poet, Confucius said to First Know The Names Of Trees.

As a big city street urchin I couldn’t tell a chestnut tree from any other until a chestnut bopped me on the head. I identified them as the goal line which in six months became second base. The most Important feature of a tree was whether it had good elbows for climbing. Once I snapped off a branch and went fishing for a nickel in the sewer.

I wish I were a better noticer early on. It’s taken me a lifetime to say, Joshua tree or Jacaranda, with authority. Now I often stop and stare at trees; the architecture of the branch system, the coloration and shape of the leaves down to their slithering roots.

And while I’m at it I might list bird-watcher as yet another one of those avocations I wish I could claim. In my urban somnolence I didn’t know a sparrow from a swallow. To think of all the orioles and cardinals I consigned to baseball uniforms and left it at that.

Look, up in the sky, it’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s…..There is no generic bird visual enough to grow wings on the reader the way a hawk can or even a hummingbird. They all deserve a page in the Audubon book even if they never looked as good.

As for poetry I follow the injunction, Write what you know or at least what your imagination can reach. And what I know is that vacancy in my life, the loss that the birders don’t.

I recall an exchange between Zorba the Greek and the narrator in which Zorba says to the writer, What the hell good are your damn books if they can’t answer to life. Come out with me tonight, we’ll get drunk, dance and sing. The writer says, I write about the agony of not being like you, to which Zorba says I spit on your agony.

I won’t go so far as to call mine an agony; only a regret it has taken me this long to even confront all the doors I haven’t opened, the walls of my limitations.


  1. "Naming Things" was fun but did you know that in your adult years they made a game of it which you could buy for money. It is called "Facts in Five." I used to play it with neighbors. As a street urchin in The Bronx, where street urchins were far cleverer than the lads from Queens (note: No The) I could name and identify cars but nothing else except all the Yankees, their numbers and today's batting average.

    Come to think of it kids today don't need to identify or even name things . . . they've got Google.

  2. I Googled myself once to see if I existed. The result was inconclusive. Most Norm Levines were generic equivalents. But they've accomplished more than I so I think I'll become them.

  3. I also googled you a year or two ago and it said you were dead.
    Were you?

  4. Yes, I was, but my HMO didn't cover death so I made a remarkable recovery thanks to massive doses of One-A-Day vitamins.

  5. ... and so many people are dead set against HMOs.

  6. Unfortunately, I suffer from the same challenge of naming things. I understand the difficulty that makes for a writer.

  7. A follow-up thought. My wife and I have been raising a two-year-old child since she was two weeks old. She is in the language acquisition phase now. She is naming objects; tree, rabbit, squirrel, etc. She repeats the name again and again. Naming is part of human nature. Didn't Adam do in the days of the great creation myth?