Why It’s a Good Idea to Recite Poetry at the Bar

Julia Klatt Singer


“Are you Finnish?” he asks, pointing towards the book on the bar. It is a volume of Finnish short stories, titled Sampo, and an obvious give-away to anyone who knows Finnish. Tells me he plays the violin in the orchestra, and is embracing sadness. Leans in closer, asks if he can finish my beer, drinks it, then continues—“it’s not valued here, sadness—we are supposed to be happy, happy all the time.”
         I am happy, more happy than sad, most of the time, but say because I feel it, “Let’s be melancholy, but not together—that would be too depressing. Better to brood alone.” The smile he gives me implies that he is not glum. He is lit up and talking fast.
         Molly walks by, reminds us that the poetry recitation is next week, between sets. I am ready. Already know To Celia by heart.
          “I’d recite a Keats,” he says—“now, he was a melancholy guy.”
          “And a romantic poet,” I add. There is no romance without misery, I fear, but do not tell him—although he does not seem easily frightened. He has just told me a story about a Finnish gypsy who approached him at a bar in Helsinki, said, she wanted to eat him alive. And she did, he said.
         Ben Johnson was jilted, and I wonder if he tires of hearing his rejection repeated all these years. Makes me think I should be careful—my words may haunt me, my failures march endlessly past. But I love the first six lines of To Celia, and even though it doesn’t work out, they are worth, I believe, all his misery.
         He tells me he’ll be in New York next week and will miss the recitation. Asks if I’ll recite for him now.
         I begin, “Drink to me only with thine eyes and I will pledge with mine, or leave a kiss but in the cup and I’ll not look for wine. The thirst that from the soul doth rise doth ask a drink divine…but might I of Jove’s nectar sup…” but find that I cannot say these words with him gazing at me, pause and say, “this is where I get lost.”
          “That’s my favorite part.” he says, smiling. “The part where you get lost.”
         I try to take comfort in this—know I cannot hide a single emotion—hope if someone is watching me get lost, that they might be able to find me, for I may not be able to find myself.
         I frown, and say, “it’s the small words that trip me up.”
         We both frown, shrug, try melancholy on for size.
          “Be sad,” he says, then, “but carefree.”
         I realize he is talking to himself now, as much as to me. And I realize, this is the definition of jilted. I give him a sad smile, try my damnedest not to look happy that I finally figured something out.