Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Peculiar, peppery men

Columnists, as William Safire once observed, like to write in circles. They like to start with one topic, raise another, and then bring them together into a whole.

That, frankly, is more easily said than done. But I do something similar, in my head, with things like poetry and music lyrics, which are the same thing. For instance, there is the Simon and Garfunkel song "A Most Peculiar Man." It's about a loner who committed suicide with gas.

"And all the people said, 'What a shame
that he's dead,
But wasn't he a most peculiar man?' "

Somehow, that lyric popped into my head as I was listening to lines sung by Natalie Merchant (in her new double album "Leave Your Sleep") and written as silly poetry called "The Peppery Man" by the American poet Arthur Macy (1842-1904). In part:

"His ugly temper was so sour
He often scolded for an hour;
He gnashed his teeth and stormed and scowled,
He snapped and snarled and yelled and howled."

Parts clanged together in my brain like 19th Century industrial cogs. What did a lonely suicide and a noisy crank have in common but an inability to get along and prosper in a modern world, be it 1965 in Paul Simon's world or Macy's world sometime in the late 19th Century? Their problems mesh, somehow, in a way that certainly hasn't gone away. When, as the world keeps changing, will we ever have a shortage of peculiar, peppery men?

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