While reading a book about Japanese literature, I came across an amusing passage about the 17th Century poet Saikaku.
Saikaku the poet, however, seems to have been more interested in quantity than quality. Engaging in one-man poetry marathons, he composed the staggering quantity of 23,500 haikai in a single 24 hour period, and thus established an unbeatable, if not necessarily enviable, record for concentrated poetic output.
But perhaps Saikaku’s record has been surpassed in an equally unenviable way. I immediately thought of a local hippie poet from the late 1960s, he called himself Mr. Alphabet.
Mr. Alphabet was the kind of dolt you’d be subjected to in an elementary school “cultural enrichment” assembly, as a visiting “artist” (and I use that term loosely). That’s where I first saw him, it was an incident that probably formed my lifelong distaste for poets and poetry. I vaguely recall he used to dress in a clown suit with letters of the alphabet all over it, which was supposed to make poetry less stuffy, but quite the opposite, he made poetry entirely ridiculous. Perhaps Mr. Alphabet was unaware that any child that might have any latent appreciation for poetry would not enjoy clowns.
In a great fanfare of public self-promotion, Mr. Alphabet declared he would write the world’s longest poem. Of course he didn’t mean anything reasonable like a poem with the largest word count, that would involve a lot of hard work. Instead, he declared that he would write a poem one mile long.
Mr. Alphabet wrote his poem on rolls of paper for adding machines, which are about 150 feet, I calculated he needed three dozen rolls. He set up a desk with two spools on either side, the roll of blank paper on the right, and the takeup spool on the left. He wrote the poem by hand, down the length of the paper in large letters. I thought this was cheating, and that he should have used the paper upright like an adding machine, using a typewriter. I wouldn’t even have insisted he used the full width of the paper, and I would have allowed double spaced lines. But obviously this sort of effort would take years of dedicated effort, an inconceivable task for a hippie clown poet.
After days and days of writing, Mr. Alphabet completed his rolls of poetry, and it was time for the public unveiling of the work. He took his bag full of rolls of poetry to the middle of town, taped the start of the first spool to the ground, and started walking, unraveling it as he walked. When the first spool ran out, he taped the end to the beginning of the next roll. He walked on and on until the entire poem was unrolled over the course of a measured mile. And then he walked away and left his masterwork lying on the sidewalks like so much litter.
I am certain that nobody has surpassed Mr. Alphabet’s record-breaking feat of poetry, because I am certain that such a stupid idea would never occur to anyone else. At least I hope it would never occur to someone to write a poem longer than one mile. I have no idea what ever happened to Mr. Alphabet, I have a mental image of him panhandling, begging for spare change in exchange for a poem, dressed in a filthy, tattered clown suit with the letters of the alphabet written on it.