Thursday, October 13, 2022

From San Miguel Again: Review Of "Today In The Taxi," Poetry By Sean Singer, Veteran NYC Cabbie

 Ola from San Miguel

This week it's all about taxi and poetry, or poetry and taxi so if one or the other doesn't interest you, I suggest maybe it is time to take a snooze, maybe nap time is nigh.  But for those bold enough to trudge forward into what seems esoteric, you might enjoy the journey.  First you are getting an essay about poetry, and then the poetry book review.  After that you'll find a very odd Ogden Nash poem about cab driving and then two cab-oriented poems by yours truly.   I like Sean Singer's book and hope my review prompts some sales.  Poetry on the whole usually doesn't sell well so I am sure Sean would appreciate the revenue.  

As I know personally, most of us writing poetry never do it for financial gain, and if we did, we accurately could be described as "crazy poets, " and worth the label.   Biggest one day take I've had so far was reading at Chicago Coffee in Chicago, Illinois, making $100.00 after selling a small pile of books.  That I have made over a hundred in over an hour driving cab more times than I can remember perhaps explains why me, Sean Singer and other writers and artists have resorted to driving beneath the toplight.  It pays well but as Singer makes clear, it is certainly one pain-in-the -taxi-ass way to make a living.  So my friendly suggestion is, buy the book and forever keep Mister Singer away from the taxicab.  That would be kind.


"So my advise to mothers is if you are the mother of a poet don't gamble on the chance that future generations may crown him.   Follow your original impulse and drown him."

                                                                                                                Ogden Nash

                                                   What is Poetry?

Poetry can be many things, including funny but what really and truly is poetry?   Once oral, spread and sung over campfire and hearth, those songs, myths and ballads eventually spread to the written word, inspiring many of the newly literate to think, 'Hey, that's such a good idea I think I'll try my hand scribbling a few lines of verse."  Thus the tradition began, across many cultures, with rules and structures created to formalize what was then considered "beautiful speech."  While yes, sometimes lovely, too often these measured, metered lines boring and tedious pantomime, century over century this extended tradition pulchritudinous yet statuesque, not as in shapely and tall but immovable--- monstrous monuments better suited for the park pigeon's toilet.  

Yes, Walt Whitman, Robert Frost, William Carlos Williams and many others said, there is much we can  do with this medium called poetry, and so they did but opening the door to "poetry can be anything" and I for one remain doubtful that is true.  While early traditions wanted to make poetry difficult to write, poetry as high art, more modern practitioners said "screw all that sonnet and T'ang Dynasty crap" and let's provide poetry to and for the people, free verse for the masses, and let those Victorian versifying sophists wipe their golden asses.  

But oh my god! did they open the stable door, with any creature poking its head out, be it donkey, cow or sheep braying, mooing and bleating to the sun and moon: emanating through the air the contented munching of hay or the agitated stomping of hooves---perhaps lyrics best suited for barton rustics.  And while domestic elements should always be welcomed into the King James mix, barnyard music shouldn't be mistaken for W. S. Merwin or even Anne Sexton.  

Poetry, as I understand it, should be original language aiming for the most eloquent written communication that us humans can muster.  If it isn't that, then it isn't poetry, at least not in its purest sense.   Doggerel is easy but a bit too breezy is something Mister Nash might have sprouted, and that's the issue here, the making of good and permanent art not easy and not without pain.  Sylvia Plath killed herself on the mantle of poetic love, displaying how tragic even good poetry can be.  

But you don't have to commit suicide to write lasting verse, be it metered or free or some other form yet to be thought and considered.  Instead, become fluent in your native language while reading tens of thousands of poems lean and fat, and then sit as a poet beneath the Muse's tree reciting it's where I have sat, and that good old Greek Apollo, he'll like it like that.

Book Review: "Today In The Taxi" by Sean Singer, Tupelo Press, April 2022, 65 pages $18.95

What I find most invaluable about Sean Singer's book, the quality or not of the writing, of the poetry, is how it introduces the reader to "real taxi," taxi how it is minus fantasy or guesswork, the 64 poems therein leaving no doubt the cultural immersion, and horror that's driving a cab in New York City or any other American setting.  This is it, brother and sisters, slammed directly in your unprotected face!  Screwing any and all pretense,  Singer's poems puts you beneath the toplight, whether you want to be or not.  Why this is so important is the need to understand the various realities that comprise in total the reality of a world created by the human species.  And "Today in the Taxi" adds yet another written asset to our essential human library. 

There is long history to this.  Matsuo Basho's "The Narrow Road to the Deep North," introduces you to 17th Century Japan.  Anne Sexton's 1960 poetry volume, "To Bedlam and Part Way Back" tells you all you may not want to know about psychiatric wards and madness.  John Greenleaf Whittier's 759 line long "Snow-Bound: A Winter Idyl" takes you into a New England December winter.   Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner" brings you the despair of an ill-fated ocean voyage.   And Arthur Waley's two books of poetry translations from the Chinese, "170 Chinese Poems" and "More Translations from the Chinese," introduced us into a  world most westerners knew little: the glory that is Chinese history, culture and literature.  While some might consider Singer's contribution modest, it isn't, instead opening a door to an occupation few know, and fewer care about but not stopping the ignorant from commenting and regulating an industry opaque and mysterious to them. 

The grand irony here is that most cabbies would rather not know the crazy world of taxi driving but have no choice, that reality sitting mere inches behind you.  From "Glands and Nerves" page 46,

"Today in the taxi I brought two woman from 19th Street

 and 6th Avenue to 48th Street and Broadway.  Unfortunately 

they worked with Fox News, talked about Fox and Friends, 

and were excited to see the new Chik-fil-A and took pictures

 of it.  They were polite, visiting from Nashville, and awful."

Yes , the sometimes banality of the passengers and horror of listening to their gibberish.  You can't kick them out, they are perfectly nice yet awful, a scenario all cabbies know too well.   You can't turn up the radio because you must remain responsive to their directions. 

Another reality snapshot, from "Voyagers," page 45,

"Today in the taxi I was thankful for all the near misses and

sudden stops, times I nearly died or almost nearly."

Nothing fun about all those miles in heavy traffic, a sure prescription for accidents, or worse, death behind the wheel of a cab.

From "Ice Freezes Red," page 33,

Tonight in the taxi I picked up two 'dudes' from a steakhouse

on 44th near 5th.  They were going upstate, more than an 

hour away.   They were drunk.  They were constantly grabbing

my phone, the wires, and touching me.  I warned them several

times not to touch me or harass me, but they kept doing it.

Finally near New Rochelle I turned off at the

next exit and forced them out."

Ain't this commonplace is what I have to say, the cabbie treated like commonplace public property, no matter your protests, passengers grab and poke you and do whatever else they want to do.  Telling them to stop they say, "I am paying for this ride" which prompts the cabbie pulls to over and respond, "No you're not. Get out!"   And Singer is describing a big, over one hundred dollar fare.  You have no choice. Get Out!

And another version of trapped, "Empty," page 35,

"Today in the taxi I got a couple on Lafayette Street going

to the Home Depot on West 32rd Street.  The woman

was about eight months pregnant.  At some point the man started


"We're in debt every month!  We're so close to the edge. I

can't do this anymore.  The woman said,  "I'll return it...I

had no idea you were this upset...I've never seen you this

upset before."  The man was hysterically crying "We're in

debt every month!  And it doesn't seem to bother

don't care!"

You get the idea, there you are in this incredibly emotional scene, you the unwanted witness to their upheaval.   

Getting to the writing itself, there is obviously a strong prose element but usually after the introductory stanza, a more poetic sense begins, trying to explain emotionally what you just read.  One device Singer uses are references to other people or actual quotes.  In eleven poems he mentions or quotes Franz Kafka.  I thought that an alternative title to the book could be "Kafka Drives a Yellow Taxi."   I am guessing that over half of the poems contain these kinds of references.   Are they effective?  Are they properly used?  And I would say yes but original language I believe should be the poet's prime goal before anything else.  To me, the writer's goal, no matter the style, should be to write what they know, sharing their interpretation of the world.  Adding, like Singer has done, could be taken as a kind of diminishment, diluting his pen with the ink from another not his own.  

I'll end with the complete text of "Road," page 59, a poem of questioning, something all cabbies have done, wondering how did I get here in this cab:

"Today in the taxi I wished I had not done things, or had done

things differently.  Or,  I wished that I had done things, or

hadn't done things the same way.

I thought of all my faults---as a husband and man---concentrated 

in one hemorrhoid that cab drivers get from sitting all day.

She's right there, but I miss her so much.  I thought of parallel

wheel tracks in the mud."

Ah yes, a cabbie's lament.  But why do we do it?  The money of course very good, especially if you start thinking about it, making it the craft it is.  But Sean Singer is now out of the cab.  Buy the book and keep it that way!

All Sean Singer poems Copyright Singer/Tupelo Press _____________________________________________________________

More Taxi Poems:

"The Strange Case of the Pleasing Taxi-Driver:  by Ogden Nash, from "Verses from 1929 On"

Once upon a time there was a taxi-driver named Llewellyn Abdul-lah---White---Male---5' 10 1/2---170

Llewellyn had promised his mother he would be the best taxi-driver in the world.

His mother was in heaven.

At least, she was in a Fool's Paradise because her boy was the best taxi-driver in the world.

He was, too.

On rainy nights his flag was always up.

He knew not only how to find the Waldorf, but the shortest route to 5954 Gorsuch Avenue.

He said thank you when tipped, and always had change for five dollars.

He never drove with a cigar in his mouth, lighted or unlighted.

If you asked him to please not drive so fast, he drove not so fast, and didn't get mad about it either.

He simply adored traffic cops, and he was polite to Sunday drivers.

When he drove a couple through the park he never looked back and he never eavesdropped.

My boy is the best taxi-driver in the world and no eavesdropper, said his mother.

The only trouble was that the bad taxi-drivers got all the business.

Llewellyn shrank from White--5' 10 1/2---170 to Sallow---Male---5' 9 3/4---135

Cheest, Llewellyn, said his mother.

Cheest, Mother, replied Llewellyn.

Llewellyn and his mother understood each other.

He took his last five dollars in dimes and nickels which he had been saving for change and spent it on cigars at two for a nickel.

The next day he insulted seven passengers and a traffic cop, tore off the fender of a car from Enid, Oklahoma, and passed through 125th Street while taking a dear old lady from 52nd to 58th.

That evening he had forty dollars on the clock.

Llewellyn is no longer the best taxi-driver in the world, but his license reads White---Male---5'11---235

In the park he is the father of all eavesdroppers.

Couples who protest find him adamant.

Since he is the father of all eavesdroppers and adamant, I think we might call him an Adam-ant-Eavesdropper and there leave him.

Goodbye Llewellyn.


Editor Note:  My computer isn't allowing to eliminate spacing when I want to.  With the next two poems, both taxi poems written by me during my early taxi years, the originals have no spaces between lines.  Same goes for the Sean Singer poems.  No line spacing.  Anyway, that's how it is.  Both poems are from the "The Greyer Elements----Poems 1986-1995."  Should it have been Grayer?  Who can spell?  Not me.

I'd rather be first-up on nothing

than fifth-up or worse

on no chance whatsoever

on a dead Sunday

sitting in the late Autumn sun

knowing eventually

getting a fare somewhere, short

or otherwise,

(contrary to rumor, no cabbie ever died

upon a stand)

so I'll enjoy myself reading, writing,

or plainly doing nothing,

something I do best,

watching tourists idle by,

letting this day take its due course,

minus my usual frantic insistence.


This was written my first taxi year, Fall 1987, driving for a three-car company, Classic Cab, all original Checker Marathons.  Great cars.   The setting is the Space Needle stand.   First published in Caribbean Impressions 1991.



        I have no idea how I'm going

                to continue

        this mad routine of all work,

                little sleep

             restaurant cooking

        plus large doses of sorrow;

             as if I wanted this

             from the beginning

                      of what

                         I ask

    the beginnings I no longer pretend

                    to understand



              there is little fun in this

                   deluge of misery

              the justification of which


                  with nothing good.


Ah, the fun of taxi life!  depression the sometimes underlying theme of good old cab driving.  Written in 1995.   Ironically, the best photograph of me and taxi was taken at this time.  I am leaning against my Chevy Caprice, YC 92.  Later, in November 1995,   I was driving a cab that lost its brakes and suspension on a hill, E. Roy between Mercer and Melrose.  The previous day I told the mechanics there was something seriously wrong.  Picking it up the next day they assured me it was okay.  I took it out and all hell broke loose, the car beginning to spin down hill though luckily I almost had it straightened out when I hit the concrete retaining wall just above I-5 north-bound.  My nose will never be the same.  It is bent. Thank you taxi for almost killing me.   I don't appreciate it.




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