It is something to note: If a poet and literary arts administrator throws a party in Wallingford on a Saturday night in a handsome house full of wonderful furniture, hardwood floors, fat volumes of fine poetry, great snacks, and bottle after bottle of high-end liquor, the earnest male poets who show up, buzzing with things to say about their MFA program or Wallace Stevens or Richard Russo's agent or Victorianism, will be wearing flip-flops. Or, alternately, Birkenstocks. Almost all of these men also wear glasses and shy, intelligent smiles, and they are learned enough that, if a two-time National Poetry Series finalist stalking around in the kitchen zeroes in on one of them and asks him, for the sake of fun-with-trivia, "Who did Melville dedicate Moby-Dick to?" he will answer successfully without having to think about it. This is the kind of party it was. (The answer is Hawthorne.)
These earnest male poets purportedly walk around with a heightened sensitivity toward matters of shape, texture, effect, etc., and yet they stride into parties in people's homes long after the sun has set wearing whimsical plastic footwear displaying their phalanges, keratin plates, and cuticles. It's surprising. It's unbecoming. A man's toes call to mind sausages, grapes, baby mice—things you don't necessarily want dancing through your imagination while you're trying to think. Many women—who, in general, look fine in flip-flops—agree with me. "I probably don't have as hard a line as you do, but it's not sexy," said the two-time National Poetry Series finalist. "It's not attractive or anything." Another woman, a former literary arts administrator now pursuing an advanced degree, and a great dresser to boot, said that above all she detests Birkenstocks; she gestured toward a man wearing what appeared to be a brand new pair. What does all this tell us? That earnest men who write poetry and academic stuff and consequently take pride in being far outside the American mainstream are also, in glaring ways, very much within it.
The next day, in a park, I saw someone reading War and Peace, his feet tucked under his knees, and on his feet, flip-flops. Granted, he was in a park, which is clearly where flip-flops, if they belong anywhere, belong. To complete the picture, he was reading the Barnes & Noble Classics edition of War and Peace. He professed to be loving it. I was reading the New York Times Book Review, which I was not loving—just when you think the New York Times Book Review could not possibly get more boring, a new issue comes out—and eventually I put it down and picked up Kurt Vonnegut's Bluebeard, which I am not loving as much as some people love War and Peace, although there's great stuff in it. (The one-eyed narrator compares moving to New York City to the birthing process: "[M]y mind really was as blank as an embryo's as I crossed this great continent on womblike Pullman cars... later I was born in Grand Central Station.")
Then I got a haircut. The guy waiting next to me was reading the New York Times Book Review. He looked bored. I was going to say something. Then I looked down at his feet.