“My adaptation of ‘I Know a Man’ … also links me to the popular reading practices I study and value—practices that respect and honor important texts not by preserving those texts in the unchanging museum space of an anthology, but by adapting them….”—Mike Chasar, on his tattoo of lines from Robert Creeley’s “I Know a Man”
In the following post, Mike Chasar, author of Everyday Reading: Poetry and Popular Culture in Modern America, talks about his tattoo of a line from a Robert Creeley poem:
In the Fall of 2012, I had two phrases from one of my favorite poems—Robert Creeley’s “I Know a Man”—tattooed on my arms: “drive, he sd” inked on my right arm, and “look out where yr going” on my left. For the design, I chose to enlarge the text of the poem as it appeared in the first edition of Creeley’s 1962 collection For Love, its first (so far as I can tell) of many reprintings in books and anthologies. Unlike many people, who choose highly stylized handwritten designs for their text-based tattoos, I wanted it to look as much as possible like the poem had been printed directly onto my skin.
I can’t remember when I first encountered Creeley’s poem—it was probably in an assigned high school or undergraduate poetry anthology—but it became newly meaningful for me during the completion of Everyday Reading: Poetry and Popular Culture in Modern America. While rewriting Chapter Four, which focuses on the poetic language play of automobile culture and how that play affected the poetry of William Carlos Williams, I remembered “I Know a Man.” In addition to the poem’s content (“why not, buy a goddamn big car, // drive, he sd”), it displays some of the contracted language and breezy diction characteristic of automobile speed reading and follows, I think, in a tradition of poets writing about automobile culture that Williams helped to inaugurate. Insofar as it helped, last-minute, to establish a historical narrative for Chapter Four, “I Know a Man” served as sort of capstone for the chapter and book, bringing the manuscript to completion.
The last lines of “I Know a Man” use the contracted language and diction imported from automobile culture partially to help confuse or blur the sources of the poem’s conversation between the narrator and his friend (famously not named John):
… shall we &
why not, buy a goddamn big car,
drive, he sd, for
christ’s sake, look
out where yr going.
Readers have long wondered whether “drive” is “sd” by the poem’s narrator or by not-John his friend—a moment of ambiguity created when both speaking voices slide together in the manner of many highway portmanteau words (like “motel,” which combines “motor” and “hotel”). For me, the sliding together of these two voices dramatizes the formation of a self, as an impulsive voice we might associate with the id (“why not, buy a goddamn big car”) combines with the voice of the superego (“for / christ’s sake, look / out where yr going”) to form an individual ego.
In analyzing “I Know a Man” this way, I realized that the two primary impulses forming my own personality and character are not, as the cartoons would have it, a devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other, but. rather, one type of voice telling me to buy a goddamn big car and another voice telling me to slow it down. As I am not a religious person—and as I didn’t want “for christ’s sake” poking out from under my shirtsleeves to be a conversation starter—I chose to leave out the religious (or irreligious) language of Creeley’s poem, and I tinkered with his line breaks a bit, preserving the integrity of the phrase “drive, he sd” on my right arm but breaking “look / out where yr going” differently on my left, so that the line is broken “look out / where yr going” across the hinge or blank space of my elbow.
Much of Everyday Reading studies how ordinary readers used and consumed poetry in the twentieth century, and they oftentimes did so—most visibly in poetry scrapbooks—by cutting it up, excerpting and quoting it, situating it in various contexts and in relation to other texts that authors couldn’t have anticipated. So, in addition to helping me to mark and remember the final stages of writing Everyday Reading and helping me to remember and mark a dynamic at the heart of my personality, my adaptation of “I Know a Man” (changing the line breaks, quoting incompletely, and making them mean differently in different contexts) also links me to the popular reading practices I study and value—practices that respect and honor important texts not by preserving those texts in the unchanging museum space of an anthology, but by adapting them and, as Ezra Pound called on modern artists to do, making them new.