“Nobody Dies Like Humphrey Bogart”

Sliding in with just over an hour of January to spare (in my time zone anyway), the first installment of 2015’s monthly series, which for this spin around the sun will look at poems about famous people. (Previous years having covered poems about Music, Animal poems, and poems —I was really hewing to the literal idea my first year of blogging, apparently—about Months).

I already know this topic’ll let me work in Linda Bierds, Ai, some more William Matthews, and a Frank O’Hara, maybe that great Barbara Hamby sonnet about Marlene Dietrich if I can find it again. I already fear it’ll devolve into a 12-part argument with myself about how much a reader needs to know about a poem’s subject (or be told in the poem, and how to do that) to really enjoy it/get it.

But to begin. Since I just came from hearing Patton Oswalt be smart and hilarious and movie-obsessed for an awesome hour and a half in downtown Seattle, and since it has a great line but is not a great poem (so this’ll be quick), for January’s Famous People poem a brief look at “Nobody Dies Like Humphrey Bogart” by Norman Rosten, which is a good lesson in how bogged down narrative can get, how hard it is to write about something you have to set up, and how much work a single line can do.

Rosten is a poet I know approximately nothing about except he seems to have been published in Poetry magazine in the 30s-40s-50s, and when reviewed in said magazine was skewered in that withering language of mid-century academic weariness I find so delish, and that his poem “Nobody Dies Like Humphrey Bogart” was quoted in a book of literary criticism focused on cinema poems (the name of which is totally escaping me and the only search terms I can conjure at this late hour are too generic for google to be a good disembodied brain).

It’s not a great poem, except for the last line. Or the title plus the last line. Oh, it sets up the scene okay,

Casual at the wheel, blinding rainstorm,
The usual blonde doll alongside — only
This time our man knows she’s talked,
The double-c, and by his cold eyes
We can tell it’s the end of the line for her.

And so on, setting up, in language that does little to distinguish poetry from prose, the scene. Though it does have a few nice touches in stanza three (of four), “And dead ahead the good old roadblock. / Quick shot moll — the scream forming. / Quick shot Bogey — that endearing look / Which was his alone, face and soul.” Quick shot moll, quick shot Bogey is great, but “his alone, face and soul” is really terrible.

So it’s not great. But it has this ending, this italicized last stanza in Bogart’s voice,

Anyway we go, baby, one way or the other,
You’ll look a lot prettier than me
When we’re laid out in the last scene,
You in pink or blue with the angels,
Me with the same scar I was born in.

That last line, that “Me with the same scar I was born in”, there’s something that gets Bogart-on-screen just exactly right, that makes me think of this poem, or that line anyway, when I see a picture of Humphrey Bogart now. There’s some flash of all he was on screen in that line, “Me with the same scar I was born in” — in, not with — it just elevates the whole blah rest of the poem. Imagine if Rosten hadn’t done all the set-up, or had done it quicker, imagine if he’d broken free of the cinematic driving play-by-play and let the syntax work like chiaroscuro does, say, and then that last line that’s odd and elevating and exactly right.

On this blog I usually don’t talk about poems that I don’t think are quite good, but it’s worth looking at a poem like this every once in a while, with one excellent quotable line and nothing else that needs holding on to. It’s like when I was in Europe during the Olympics once and they showed on TV the entire roster of ice skating competitors, down to the ones who were 100 slots away from the podium and could barely spin or land a jump, showed their entire routines. Gold medal performance after that, so much more impressive.

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