BREAKING NEWS – THIS JUST IN:
Who Governs Poetry?
– You could park a double-wide in the gap between my initial poetry performance and my decision to go all-in with the muse. In year years, the gap is forty-seven.
Late in 1969, shortly after a two month stint in Yosemite National Park, I was the helper assigned to the hosiery guy at Kennedy’s Department Store, across the street from the more famous but less fancy Filene’s (the one with the discount basement), in Boston.
Six months earlier, I’d flunked the draft physical, about six weeks after being run out of B.U. for over-cutting class! There were 4 or 5 college-age kids on the Thanksgiving-through-Christmas crew in adjoining departments at Kennedy’s and each of us had some urge to show off or to perform or to entertain or to make you laugh so you wouldn’t fret at the fact that before sunset 3 or 4 more American kids would wind up dead in Vietnam.
We thought that was normal, because it was our first time being teenagers, but that didn’t mean we liked it, or that we would put up with it indefinitely. Since Bobby Kennedy got killed the previous summer, just a couple months after they gunned down Martin Luther King, Jr., the excitement of being alive was starting to wear off.
Which may be why we creative types put on our little variety shows whenever we thought the coast was clear. There was one guy, a percussion student at Berklee,College of Music who made amazing sounds with the weirdest objects in the necktie department, which was kitty-corner to socks, where I was at the beck and call of Mr. Crystal, who has been there since the Depression.
Across the way was perhaps the most beautiful person I had ever laid eyes on, a seventeen year old girl of Armenian heritage. She was a freshman at Mass College of Art and lived across the Mystic River in Chelsea. Her trick was to do very quick sketches of anything or anyone you pointed at.
We went on a date New Year’s Eve and it was lovely but it would have been more lovely if it had lasted until the start of the 1970s, which happened an hour and ten minutes after the last train left Government Center for Chelsea, which she was on, or I wouldn’t be typing this, according to what I’d heard about Armenian guys, of which she had several brothers.
The only non-college age person in our troupe was the only one for whom performance was old hat – he was a wedding singer with a toupe, probably in his late thirties but plain old to us, and had a repertoire beyond Dylan, Cream, the Beatles or the Stones.
What I could do was riff with words – just let it roll, unabashedly, and some of it, though absurd or at least nonsensical, sounded good, sometimes quite funny. I was, in most settings, reticent, self-conscious, but the word trick was liberating.
My sensibility had been overwhelmed by an explosion of language in the midst of teeny pop and bubblegum rock, set off by Bob Dylan, who masked himself with a dead poet’s name and who used established masters like marionettes in his own traveling circus. He sees Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot fighting in the captain’s tower and tells us that calypso singers laugh at them.
So would I – I’d identify myself with the calypso singers, who wouldn’t, to see a couple old poets going at each other? And what in hell were they even doing in the captain’s tower – surely we’re not sailing aboard H.M.S. J. Alfred Prufrock?
The records of Bob Dylan sparked in me the liberation of language from school, where language was guilty by association with them, with the man, with the powers-that-be who say “be quiet, sit still, it’s not your turn.” Maybe I took it too personally when the nun in ninth grade accused me of plagiarism after I went rogue in my summer vacation assignment and said the fairway was emerald green? Whatever, I said that for the fun of it, not to pass ninth grade English.
In January 1970, my prospects in the Hub of the Universe, as Boston likes to call itself, were as bleak as New England weather and so, not long after reading Norman Mailer’s travelogue Miami and the Siege of Chicago, I determined to meet up with my cohort in the Sunshine State.
They weren’t there, not in evidence in Miami anyway, and I didn’t know enough to make my way down to the Keys. The majority of college-age kids I encountered in Miami affected a look likely to stand the wearer in good stead at a Nixon rally, whereas we Yankees adhered to S.D.S. guidelines, with blue jeans roots, topped off by a studied un-trendiness.
Not to say that we were the enlightened ones, with standards elevated above those of our peers in their junior exec. garb, not by a long shot. I knew that no shortage of us antiwar peaceniks were in it for the right reasons, but that plenty of us were against the war in Vietnam only to the degree of intensity that our fathers were in favor of it.
Just as every army on the march collects its band of camp followers, eager to be of service to the worthy cause, so too the army of kids mustered in opposition to an immoral invasion. Is that an echo I hear, or a siren’s song? Girls say yes to boys who say no.
Everybody showed up for a Led Zeppelin concert, at the Miami Beach Convention Center, home of the awesome Jackie Gleason Show, but also site of Richard Nixon’s nomination in 1968.
Led Zeppelin had knocked us all for a loop the year earlier; I went to the concert especially excited for a distraction from the glumness of the south Florida scene and I had heard about them playing three and four hour shows. Robert Plant sounded excited to tell us that the band were very happy to be playing material from their brand new second album. All around me though, kids only wanted to hear the songs they knew from the first album.
Honest to God, kids my own age booed Led Zeppelin for playing Whole Lotta Love because all they wanted to do was to sing along with Dazed and Confused. The band caught the vibe and called it a night after two hours or so. Get me outta here, time to move on.
As I understand matters now, the kids in Miami were the norm and I was the oddball. They were primarily attracted to a Led Zeppelin concert because Led Zeppelin were all the rage, and they wanted to be able to brag about attending their concert. Sure, they’d delight in sturm und drang of a throbbing rock concert, but they didn’t want to be led anywhere, they weren’t interested in no envelope-pushing.
To my way of thinking, we flipped out back home when Led Zeppelin made the scene because they were good and new or new and good – it was a time when our sense of rock ‘n roll was that it was a stream continually refreshed by new water flowing into it. And when Led Zeppelin hit the scene a year earlier, we almost drowned.
What was unseen, unheard, unknown, to and by my unlucky peers in Miami was of zero interest to them. Half a century later, it looks to me that most of my generation rejected their father’s lives of quiet desperation, only to proceed with their own lives of noisy distraction, instead.
Their fathers had grown up without TV; today, we see the cost to a nation where our innate bias toward lazy and dumb has been exploited by TV, has been manipulated by the corporations who own TV, enabled by office holders, either corrupt or unwitting, who permit TV to be used like a jackhammer, with the public busted into a pile of voting blocs, convertible into the demographic fragments that make marketing and propaganda easy as pie.
A few days later, sitting in the Manpower office near the boarding house where I crashed for twenty bucks a week, I almost exploded when I saw this banner headline above the masthead of the Miami Herald: “Dylan to play Winter’s End Festival.”
What the fuck? Dylan, who played the Isle of Wight the summer before, instead of Woodstock, but who otherwise hadn’t toured since 1966, is going to play at “the South’s answer to Woodstock,” as the Winter’s End Pop Festival was billed.
For weeks there had been stories about the festival, originally planned for Miami, and all the opposition it generated, led by Gov. Claude Kirk, a Nixon bootlicker and the first GOP governor of Florida since the 1800s!
But that was just a lie; who’s lie is anybody’s guess. The governor banned the whole festival, which had been scheduled for Easter weekend in a no-mans-land near Orlando, where Epcot now sits. That scared away many of the advertised acts, and all my pals from Miami U., but Mountain showed up, and so did Johnny Winter, and a local band we Yankees had not heard of called the Allman Brothers Band.
Another outfit not scared away by scaredy cat Kirk was the Hog Farm who showed up with enough peanut butter, rolled oats, and bananas to keep us hopping. Turned out a splendid, if sunburned, weekend.
Too much back-filling, the point is that my first poetry performance was to rap out spontaneous riffs as the 1960s came to a close, but that it would be another half-century before I could concede to myself that, indeed, I’m a poet.
My satori occurred in the midst of a scant acquaintance I managed to establish with Donald Hall during his last six years. His essay Out the Window, which I read in the New Yorker in January 2012, had a strong effect on me. I told a friend about it, who told me she had been his student at Michigan in the 1960s.
After she read the piece and told me she liked it, too, I suggested she send him a note of appreciation. “Oh no, he’d never remember me,” she protested. “So what, he’s an old man, he’d be delighted to know that you remember him!”
Long story short, she wrote, he replied by next post to say “you probably want to take me to lunch.” After she alerted him that I was part of the bargain and he didn’t flinch, we made plans for the first of three visits to Eagle Pond Farm and dinners with a man who had been Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress.
Donald Hall had had a scant acquaintance of his own with Robert Frost, once king of the world of American poetry, especially in the decades before Congress decided, before the outbreak of WWII, that we needed to be more like our old vanquished foe across the pond and established the institution of poet laureate.
I have yet to research the congressional rationale for such a deed, but I’d wager that it bears no relationship to the notion that federal patronage of poetry may have the effect of reining-in those poets who harbor aspirations of laureled loftiness. If he’d been on the scene, wouldn’t future Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan have insisted on language that references the Poet’s Rebellion of 1916?
As founding poetry editor of the Paris Review, Hall conducted canonical interviews with Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot. He’d gone drinking with Dylan Thomas, whom he said died owing him two pounds.
I am glad to have been ignorant of all that until reading Hall’s obituary. It would have adversely affected our relationship, especially the Dylan Thomas connection, because I was a big fan of the star-crossed Welshman. And not just his poems, either – when reading the opening speech of Under Milk Wood, I felt as if I were standing outside my own boyhood home, on a hill above Lake Ontario.
Weirdly, 45 years earlier, enrolled in my hometown state college, after completing the poetry courses in the Writing Arts program, my request to do an independent study of Dylan Thomas was denied because the director told me that he lacked the expertise to supervise my study of Thomas.
Today, I am grateful for that refusal, because such a project could have led me to graduate school then a career talking to college kids about Dylan Thomas, at a time when my mastery of whiskey was as weak as his own had been. If you care to know how bad his thirst was, skim through his widow Caitlin’s scant memoir, Leftover Life to Kill.
The other poet on the faculty had an effect on me, too. He wrote a year-end evaluation that blew my mind, “…your talent, by very reason of its considerableness, is difficult to assess…”. Already a couple years behind the kids I started school with, I was a confused young man, with a happy baby daughter, an unhappy wife, and no clue as to how to provide for them.
Lawyering had always been the presumption, since my father was a lawyer, but I couldn’t ask his advice because he died when I was in ninth grade. It didn’t matter who else I would ask, because when my dad left the scene, I admitted no successor authority to my life. I was bound to figure it all out for myself.
But the best I could do was dismiss my professor’s praise as nonsense; even if it weren’t, what practical use could it be? Poetry was not a paying job in the early 1970s, when colleges still professed to be about the individual’s intellectual development. Seemingly overnight, and in response to no public debate, American colleges have transformed into feeder labs for corporate America, as they fain pride in acceptance of that new role.
In the early 1970s, there were fewer than a score of colleges that listed creative writing/writing arts as a course of undergraduate study. Today, that number is around eight hundred. Yes, 800! Of course, poetry would be but one genre on offer, but doesn’t it look as if the ancient vocation of poetry has become a modern occupation, complete with academic hierarchy, governmental, and corporate patronage designed to keep it out of the wrong hands?
Instead, safe from the scent of filthy lucre, I dreamt a dream wherein I lawyer for twenty years, just enough to land me in a happy home with a mahogany paneled conservatory, wherein I compose heroic couplets and lamentations of heroes in their cups.
Just a few years ago I looked for that teacher and found his wikipedia page, but sadly he had died a couple years earlier. It amazed me to read that, soon after I was his student, he resigned his academic position, and accused his colleagues of being “devotees of an obscurantist cult.”
That puzzled me, so I looked at the wikipedia page of his colleague (and boss), the one who’d turned down my request to study Dylan Thomas. It lists him as being on a committee of an “artistic literary movement founded in Turin, Italy, with the patronage of Aeronwy Thomas (Dylan Thomas’s daughter).”.
Midway of my friendship with Don Hall, I had a medical emergency that required a couple weeks hospitalization and three months recovery at home. I was already ten years off the sauce by then, and had found enough discipline to write poetry on a regular basis and to participate in a spate of open-mic type events.
It was thirty years since college; my marriage ended soon after we enrolled in law school, which didn’t result in me doing any lawyering. Year after year, I worked a medley of miserable menial jobs. Early in the Reagan administration, though, I stumbled upon an oasis, in the Berkshires, when I was hired to teach English at a tiny residential school for emotionally-disturbed and learning-disabled adolescents.
It was a blast. One term we produced an Oscar Wilde one-act, another term we read The Dead, with the promise of the John and Anjelica Houston movie sufficient to keep the kids plodding along for months with Joyce. Also, since I had finagled student subscriptions to the New Yorker from the administration, when Neil Sheehan’s A Bright Shining Lie was published there, we all read lessons taught by America’s war in Vietnam.
I would have contextualized that study by introducing such poems as Death of the Ball-Turret Gunner, In Flanders Fields, and Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London.
Funny how these things play out, but my study of The Dead, and several screenings of the film, gave me the conversation starter I’d need when I sat down for dinner with Don Hall decades later. It was his seminar on Yeats and Joyce that my friend had attended at Michigan, and so I asked him how to reconcile the Joyce of Ulysses with the Joyce of The Dead?
I referenced the scene in the story where the protagonist senses that he hadn’t been the love of his wife’s life, by way of opening the conversation. Lucky choice, because that scene had some resonance with Hall, too, and he proceeded with such a spirited disquisition on Gabriel Conroy that it would have astonished Mr. Joyce himself!
On the four hour drive home, I pressed my friend for her recollection of everything Don had said, but her interest wasn’t as keen as mine was. The two of them, over the course of our three dinner visits, spun off a conversational stream around psychoanalysis, of which she is a practitioner and he was a long-time consumer.
One scandalous item I was able to overhear clearly concerned an episode when Hall’s analyst talked him out of dropping acid. (Hall wrote a celebrated book about Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Dock Ellis, wherein he “broke the story” that Ellis had hurled a no-hitter while tripping!)
I was happy as a pig in mud with such a level of proximity to such a celebrated and important scholar and poet. It was an honor to be welcomed into his now-storied home, and to get a close glimpse of how and where he worked. My primary concern was to not spook Don, not to appear as a supplicant, or as a poet manque on a quest for his approbation.
I knew in my bones that nobody could validate me as a poet but myself. There is no registry where one applies for a license to make poems. I did, however, do just that during my teaching stint thirty years earlier. After familiarizing the kids with the construct of “poetic license,” I devised a lesson plan the successful completion of which would result in the issuance of poetic licenses. Luckily, there was an apprentice forger in class who was able to design and execute with pen and ink documents that looked exactly like a driver’s license.
The thing that helped me make the call to go all-in with poetry, as my seventieth birthday loomed, was how comfortable it felt to be in the company of someone who so fully and so properly bore the Poet’s mantle. Through the years, I’d made the acquaintance of plenty of poets, and so many of them rubbed me the wrong way, as if they weren’t about the same thing as I was.
And maybe they weren’t? Maybe they followed a road taken by writers under contract to a publisher, or writers under the authority of a dean or a department head, or writers eager for some foundation’s sustenance or patronage? As a young man, Donald Hall followed a backwards road from New England to Old England; he toiled long in the sere soil of English formalism until his own poetic voice asserted itself in New Hampshire.
My college years preceded the appearance of an artificial market in poetry, created by the explosion of Creative Writing/Writing arts programs, combined with the coinage of the American poet laureateship, and by the bestowal of $200 million on Poetry magazine by a Big Pharma heir, and by the promise of genius grants from the bottomless pool of MacArthur insurance and real estate money.
Donald Hall remade himself in the 1970s when he resigned lifetime tenure at Michigan and returned to the first place he loved, his grandparent’s homestead in the shadow of Mount Kearsarge in New Hampshire, in New England, with a new wife, and new poems for him to work hard on.
Following his effusive riff at our first meeting, on Gabriel Conroy, a figment of the imagination of James Joyce, every moment in Donald Hall’s company moved me toward the recognition that the two of us were in the same lane, that we’d submitted to the same sanctioning body, that our utter amusement with the sturm und drang, with the lows and highs of mundane life, were the poet’s ample compensation.
Poets are day laborers, at the beck and call of the muse, who pays well, even if payday is not a thing set in stone. Asked why he chose life in Wilmot, NH – after his Ann Arbor professorship, Harvard, Oxford, and Stanford fellowships, he said “There’s no reason to live here, except for love.”
Donald Hall gave his last reading and poetry talk at the University of New Hampshire in November, 2017, upon the dedication of his Papers there. He reminded us that the best American poetry still is by Dickinson and Whitman. Afterwards, I sent a note to thank him for “…the tuition-free seminar…” that our scant acquaintance had amounted to. And I enclosed a new poem, “Afterparty,” which I thought was pretty good.
His reply, prompt as always, concluded with this tiny paragraph: “I like Afterparty.”
Donald Hall died in June 2018 and in August 2019, I read Afterparty at a bookstore in Cambridge, perhaps ten miles from the site of the old Kennedy’s Mens Store, from an anthology called Except for Love: New England Poets Inspired by Donald Hall. (Order from the publisher.)
We don’t bid our dead Godspeed to the afterlife
the way we did, in churches, where weeping echoes
off walls or gets absorbed by pipe organ blasts,
while incense spirals from an acolyte’s censer,
and the minister intones his woeful sound.
After we lowered our dearly departed into the ground,
back at the church hall there would be baked ham,
casseroles, and pies, supplied by neighbors and aunts.
Today, in function rooms, where event planners
have laid out aromatherapy diffusers and flowers,
we get right on with the afterparty and mingle,
nibbling fruit, veggies, and tiramisu, while a playlist,
synced to a slideshow, loops in the background.
– Dave Read