Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The Road Less Travelled

Blogger Amanda Marcotte likes to write about a phenomenon she calls the "nice guy," a man who complains about how women like bad boys and don't like "nice guys" like him, and how he deserves sex with some hot chick just for not treating her like scum. There's a particularly funny post about it here. Alan Jenkins captures the essence of "nice guy" in his poem "The Road Less Travelled," a double-sonnet-plus that reads like part break-up letter, part justification for a staid life.

Jenkins poem begins by defining what the speaker is not:
I've never scaled the heights of Macchu Picchu with a backpack,
or trekked through India, breakfasting on hunger,
or listened in the African night to the insects' claptrap,
smoked a peace pipe on Big Sure, or surfed Down Under.
The rest of the first sonnet follows in much the same fashion--I'm not Indiana Jones, he seems to say, though your friends are, and you're terribly interested in their lives. He concludes the first sonnet with the couplet, in parentheses, "(I always sent my greetings from a caffe, camera or chambre / with a view of the Rose Window, Bridge of Sighs, Alhambra...)" His speaker doesn't even go to these places, which to a Londoner aren't particularly exotic--rather, he goes to a coffee shop or rents a room nearby, and looks at them from a distance. He's unwilling to commit even to a visit.

But commitment is what he wants from his partner, and he spends the next sonnet bemoaning her fascination with her friends who are spending days in Guam or San Francisco or Das-es-Salaam. Those are the bad boys, you see, sucking up all the excitement, always traveling to distant places, leaving her behind while he's steady, you see? He's constant. He's there for her, dammit, and he refuses to be taken for granted anymore.
I can get it clear: how one day you'll move earth and heaven
to have me here, but I'll have changed tack, I'll be gone

in search of some more fascinating place or person.
I'll have made a fresh start, with not thought, now, of failure,
it won't be my emotions that you play on (or rehearse on).
Because she doesn't deserve him, you see? And when he's gone, she'll be sorry, because then she'll recognize just how great he really was. This speaker goes on and on about the little things he did for her--the tea in bed, the "Dance to Morning"--but the tone is that of a guy who is trying to justify his stolid, unadventurous life by claiming that putting on a record of "El cant des ocells" by Casals is somehow as exciting as the lives her friends are experiencing in distant locales.

Even the songs of galahs and kookaburras in his suburban garden can't make this guy worth hanging around for, though he feels like she ought to appreciate just what he's trying to give her, just like any Nice Guy would.

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