Who was Carlos William Carlos?

A poem should not do, but be. This is a poet who will not do and cannot be.
–Archibald MacLeish

Nearing the centennial of his birth, it is only appropriate to organize a collection of Carlos William Carlos’ finest work. That being an impossible dream, it was then decided to concentrate on his best known and best loved works. Owing to his general obscurity and the unusually obsessive hatred his poetry engenders in the literary world, it seemed the simplest course was to reprint the pages most commonly torn from copies of his collection Portrait of the Artiste as a Jungfrau: Greatest Hits 1926-1969. This website is a celebration of his birth, and more precisely, his death.

Out of an exchange between Wallace Stevens and a similarly named poet came the famed observation that “a book of poems is a damned serious affair.” Of Carlos, Stevens had little opinion, though he expressed it a lot. He criticized Carlos’ Sarabande for Dog Lovers as simply “a damned affair.” Years later, he amended this, calling Carlos’ career “a series of one-night-stands.”

Some claim that his major flaw was an obvious scorn for traditional poetic forms. First off, I don’t know that we can claim any one of his flaws to be major, all things being equal. As for “obvious scorn,” I think scorn may be the wrong word in this case. Ignorance is more apt. Look, for example, at his infamous haiku, The Foreseasons:

In summer, take this job to shove.
In fall, think of migrating dove.
In winter, look for missing glove.
In spring, a young man dreams of affection.
Carlos didn’t see why haiku always had to rhyme.

His most ambitious innovation was the concept of opposable foot, a metrical system consisting of breaths, pauses, and inches. Carlos insisted that the o.f. allowed for both the idea of order and the freedom of speech in so-called free verse, which he maintained could only be obtained at a cost. He felt this was the equivalent of writing double-jointed verse. This reasoning later proved to be a two-edged sword. Because his own explanations of the device lacked precision and consistency, critics have questioned the legitimacy of the concept, one noting that o.f. in verse was as impossible as putting a man on the moon. Another critic put it into a more contemporary perspective, remarking that this was proof that Carlos wrote bastardized poetry.

Thanks to a former college roommate, radio mogul Sylvester “Puddy Tat” Weevil, Carlos eventually got a job writing for the Slim Skinner and the Cowhands of the Range radio program on the Mutual Admiration Network, despite opposing pressure from the sponsor of the show, Purest Farina, Inc. It is from this ten years of music and stories that he developed the collection we know as the Sonnets of the Pioneers . Sadly, the series ended prematurely in 1948 following Slim’s untimely demise at a trick-riding/ax-wielding exhibition in Elko, Nevada. The last stanza of Carlos’ See Them Tumbling Down is drawn from this incident:

it all goes to show, at a show
with an ax, when then fall the facts,
the curtain descends, and the
quatrain ends; we should not
ride side-saddle under a stallion

There are many other points on which Carlos scholars enjoy debate, points far too numerous to mention here, as this is simply a celebration of his birth. He wrote poetry. He wrote advertising jingles. He wrote novels and scripts. He cobbled shoes. His life, it could be said, was a feast of the imagination, a moveable feast he shared with all who knew his work. He continued to write until his death from an acute case of botulism. He will be missed. Presumably.

Carlos is, of course, from the nonexistent school, as is composer P. D. Q. Bach and artist Henri Pastiche. And as often is the case with these dead nonexistent artists, his work continues to crop up to this day. I have been involved in the Carlos renaissance, as it were, since 1986, and over the past few years, his following has grown and grown. And groaned.

As we spin our tangled deceptions across the Web, Carlos is no doubt spinning in his grave. He was a confirmed Luddite, and thus computers and technology were anathema to him. Game shows, however, were always enjoyed; he was, of course, an Allen Luddite. In any case, enjoy Carlos and his poetry. We’ll try to keep it as fresh as possible. Come back as often as you can stand…