Needham was the eccentric éminence grise of the Poetry Giants. He is said to have inspired Sylvia Beach (5’4½") to raise the awning above her now legendary bookstore, Shakespeare and Company, a full 2 feet to facilitate his and a young Ernest Hemingway’s egress after the two became stuck in the store’s doorway while scrambling for a copy of Billy Budd. By spurning convention and espousing the need for a “break in traditional forms,” Needham also inspired the younger Poetry Giants. “… Rar … ¿Huh? Gooog,” from Needham’s opus Nearer, My Head, to Stars, illustrates the poet’s interest in what he called “palindrome for the people,” while simultaneously exposing the difficulty in finding a big-and-tall store in London after the Blitz. Kicked out of Oxford at 17 for loitering, Needham will be remembered as much for his steadfast prolixity as for his perpetual habit of resting a Harvey Wallbanger on the head of Kingsley Amis (5’11") during late nights at the Monaco Café on Great Russell Street. Indeed, Needham’s unflinching, unpublished autobiography, Sometimes Only I Can Hear the Birds Squawk, is apparently rife with these kinds of insights. Needham’s poetry is still largely misunderstood today, although, over the last few years, there has been a marked resurgence of interest in his work (attributed by some to the now infamous incident at a Cornell commencement in which Vladimir Nabokov [5’7½"] was approached on the dais by Andre the Giant, who produced a copy of one of Needham’s most byzantine poems, “Puberty Stinks Like a Thousand Dead Things,” and presented it to Nabokov, who, while apparently grateful, was dead at the time).
Gary Villanueva-Villanueva, né Jones
Convinced that his brief stint of celebrity in Paris during World War I could be attributed not to artistic greatness but to his lingering pituitary gigantism, Villanueva-Villanueva sought the help of the Imagists, who at that time were led by Ezra Pound (6’0") and his mustache (3½"). Pound urged Villanueva-Villanueva to abandon the “garish conceit” of “standing next to people” and to focus instead on a compression of expression that wouldn’t be “so goddamned looming—it’s like you’re everywhere, Gary.” Villanueva-Villanueva’s response was, of course, the ne plus ultra of giant poetry—the 475-line masterpiece “Attitudes of Altitudes,” written in a single hormone-induced blast at Les Deux Magots during the summer of 1917. It begins as follows:
These people think I’ve eaten too much.
Again … Again …
The inimitable William Carlos Williams (5’10½"), upon reading the poem, reportedly stood up, blushed, and announced that he was finally “OK” with Villanueva-Villanueva’s adopted name, which Williams considered eerily similar to his own. (After Williams published his collection The Tempers, a young Gary Jones, only 7’2" at the time, became obsessed with the author, adopting a string of noms de plume, including, but not limited to: Gary Jones Gary, Gary Gary Gary, William Carlos Gary, Williams Williams Jones, and, for a brief period, “Hoagiefeet.”)
Easily the tallest of the giant poets, Lecomte exploded onto the scene like a towering inferno. One story involves an evening, in early 1922, at the Algonquin Hotel, where Lecomte, who had been fruitlessly pursuing the sharp-tongued Dorothy Parker (5’3") for years, burst into a lunch gathering of the famed Algonquin Round Table to recite his pained masterpiece “Dorothy, You’re Going to Sit and Listen to This, and If That Little Robert Benchley Asshole Calls Me ‘Stretch’ Again, I’m Going to Flatten Him,” which contains perhaps the most poignant stanza penned by any Poetry Giant, then or now:
Dorothy, I will always love you.
Why are you laughing, like you always do?
Might I cut myself off at the knees to fit—
Hey, where are you going?
Come back … please … Shit.
Unfortunately, Lecomte was now to exit the scene much as he had entered it—this time, however, as a towering inferno, for a jealous Benchley (5’8½") had ignited Lecomte’s custom wool trousers with the ash of his Cohiba, and the flames soon engulfed the smitten colossus.
After Stevens was exposed, in the spring of 1927, as a fraudulent Poetry Giant, the renowned agitator T.S. Eliot (5’9") recalled how Stevens would trudge into a café wearing two huge granite blocks tied under his loafers. “Yeah,” remembered Eliot, “he’d announce that, after the summer, he was going to be over 8 feet tall. I didn’t really get that. Wallace was always more concerned with being a giant than with being a poet. Have you read Harmonium? Christ, it’s beautiful—but it took me six months to get him to change the title from Tip-Toppin’ It. I don’t know why the appeal of being tall was so strong in him. I’ve never seen anybody work harder at growing—not as an artist, you understand, but as a physical specimen.”
1 Stevens actually stood just over 6’2", at best.