Poetry in Jeopardy!

Len Krisak wins the gameshow on a rhyme

Photo credit:  Steve Jurvetson  courtesy of Flickr/creative commons

Photo credit: Steve Jurvetson courtesy of Flickr/creative commons

The green room at Sony Studios put the Arctic to shame.  The air conditioners were set at what I estimate to be 38 degrees Fahrenheit, while the warm California sun outside went on oblivious to what the massive HVAC system inside had done. I was about to be on Jeopardy!

Later on-stage, under the lights, I would learn to appreciate that blasting cold, but for now, awaiting my turn to be called onto the field of play, and surrounded by other nervous contestants fitfully partaking of cold cuts, cookies, and mini-wraps, I was shivering . . . and only praying my tie was on straight and that at least two of the six categories might be Poetry.

I knew I was going to have bet almost everything I had if I was to have any chance of maintaining my one-day crown.

Finally! The call. Contestant coordinator Glenn, a tall, dark-haired smarty with a slightly off-putting attitude I would later grow used to and almost come to like, carefully escorted me down the brief corridor behind the studio seats and positionedme at the stage lip to await Johnny Gilbert's “now entering the studio” cue (this was 1995, back when the program had not yet begun to shave every conceivable millisecond off its allotted 30 minutes of taping time to squeeze in more commercials). On the way to that fateful moment, I was not allowed to look at the audience behind me, smile at my wife in her seat, wink, or in any other way communicate with the sentient world (Why? Google “Quiz Show scandals” or “Charles Van Doren”).

Jeopardy! tapes five shows at a time—that's five episodes per day, with about an hour needed for re-takes and pick-ups (voice-overs on mispronunciations, etc). So if anything technical goes wrong, contestants may find themselves being called back a second day, either to wait their turn or to continue their winning streak.  There by the grace of God I was, my second “day” (hour, really, with a whole change of jacket, shirt, and tie—they advise five changes of clothing).

People ask me, even years after my appearances on the show, what Trebek “was like.” Reader, I hasten to disabuse you. The only time we lowly combatants got to meet and chat with the man was during the Talk to the Animals break, when he read from the information cards we had filled out and tried to elicit something the TV audience might find even remotely interesting, and at the very end of the individual show's taping, when we posed for the cameras and got about 30 seconds of “face time.” Reading Trebek's true spiritual condition, let alone his personality is, trust me, impossible. He seemed congenial enough, but is all business. When the camera went off, he nodded good-bye to us and disappeared (time for another wardrobe change, for the next taping). At one of these 30-second meet-and-greets, I was able to exchange a sufficient quantity of words with him to get his agreement about George Stevens and William Wyler as high-quality movie directors. A quick handshake, and that was it.

Reading Trebek’s true spiritual condition, let alone his personality is, trust me, impossible.

But he's definitely human. I can prove it. He's smart and knowledgeable and proud of his own ability to pass the Jeopardy! test. During one game, the Chiron (the massive computer-driven camera device that controls the answer board and hovers over the edge of the studio proscenium) froze the board. It just wouldn't go on to the next answer—sort of like a computer's Blue Screen of Death. Frustrated, but laughing, Trebek stopped, turned to the board, slipped off an expensive loafer, and shied it at a $200 question.

Readers of Partisan may wonder what any of this has to do with the great art of poetry. Aside from the fact that poetry in general (or British, American, and “world” sub-sets of it) may occasionally appear as an answer category on the show, there are those blessed moments in cultural history when the age-old battle between free verse and metrical poetry crystallizes in an exquisite example of just how much “old-fashioned” and oft-denigrated meter and rhyme can pay off in ways Bly, Creely, and Olson would never have dreamed of.

Returning as champion on my second “day,” I found myself positioning my 5'7” figure on an upturned apple crate (honest) behind my podium, and looking to my left. There stood my first competitor, a young Midwesterner who could find nothing more exciting to say about herself on her information card but that she and her children had a special interest in The Flintstones. To her left: a 40-ish lawyer who appeared to have lost a Robert Reich look-alike contest.

The game was close. I found myself in possession of only $7400 (1995 dollars, remember. When the program doubled the money amounts a few years ago, I cursed the year of my birth). Ms. Flintstone had $3800. Mr. Reich had managed to rack up $10,400. I knew I was going to have bet almost everything I had if I was to have any chance of maintaining my one-day crown. When the “Final Jeopardy!” subject was revealed, I couldn’t believe my good fortune: American Poetry. Well, that settled it, I thought. My final bet (which the show primly insists on calling a “wager”) would have to be $7,399. And remember, dear reader, should you ever appear on the show: always save that one dollar. Contestants who bet everything may find themselves wiped out at $0, losing to a contestant who ends up with $1. On such trivia, trivia triumph sometimes depends.

Then it came: the final answer was revealed and I had thirty seconds of that iconic jingle to write my question.  For reasons known only to Hollywood perhaps, the show's writers had looked at poetry in general in a broad, musty, culturally old-fashioned, and thoroughly un-hip way, and come up with this:

“She's ‘the Arrow-maker's daughter, . . .
Handsomest of all the women.’”

I had thirty seconds of that iconic jingle to write my question.

Too obvious? Well. As I said, the non-poetry world of “civilians” tends to think of the art in terms of meter and rhyme—and probably rhyme before meter. Jeopardy! still fits into that category of The Public at Large, and so I knew that any famous American poem they chose was pretty likely to be a 19th-century work. That narrowed the field to Whitman, Dickinson, and Longfellow, and Jeopardy! was highly unlikely to go for so esoteric a poet as Emily Dickinson. But the “arrow-maker's daughter?” Mr. Reich clearly recognized the lines as something from Longfellow, and risked $4500 on “Who is Evangeline.” Not a bad guess, I thought. Ms. Flintstone had wandered off into Whittier and come up with “Maud Muller.” Good, grief, I thought. Had they forgotten that the answer had to be the daughter of an arrow-maker?!

But far more important than that (and here is where almost all the fun lay for me) was the instantly recognizable, pounding beat of Longfellow's trochaic tetrameter. You know—“By the shores of Gitche Gumee,/By the shining Big-Sea-Water.” The poem is the classic (kitsch to some) “Song of Hiawatha,” and that lusty brave's inamorata could be no other than Laughing Water herself. Who is Minnehaha? Score another triumph for the beauty and endurance and power of meter and rhyme. Those qualities could still out-shine free verse, and they made it possible for me to say that I had won Jeopardy! again. Remember that the next time someone tells you meter is dead. Not only is it thoroughly alive, but occasionally it pays to know a thing or two about trochaic tetrameter.

Len Krisak's books include Afterimage (original poetry),The Carmina of Catullus, Ovid's Erotic Poems, Virgil's Eclogues, the Odes of Horace, and Rilke's New Poems (all translations). With work in the Hudson, SewaneeAntioch, PN, and Southwest Reviews, he is the recipient of the Robert Penn Warren, Richard Wilbur, and Robert Frost Prizes, and a four-time champion on Jeopardy! 

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