Re-education of a poet
Note: A few weeks ago I was approached by Diana at Holistic Wayfarer to write something about childhood for her site. She was opening up her guest spots to a few poets (so brave, so brave). I misinterpreted her topic as writing about how my childhood prepared me to be a poet. This filled me with fear, because as it turns out I was entirely unprepared for my ultimate choice of vocation. So of course I wrote about it. The result, off-topic for the HW request, I have decided to publish here. If you’re not already a follower of the Wayfarer and her work, you might see some familiar faces among her readers… / JS
Being a poet was not at the top of my list as a child.
It had to get past spaceman (age 4), paleontologist (age 5), second baseman for the New York Yankees (ages 6-14) and then a few years of wanting to get into the advertising business after being a fan of the Tom Hanks TV series “Bosom Buddies” while I was in high school. It was actually a dust jacket of a book, accidentally encountered, which cemented my real intentions, but I’ll get to that in a bit. I wouldn’t want you to judge this book by that cover.
I may not have always wanted to be a poet, but I always wanted to be a writer. Before I knew a single letter of the alphabet I was making books of my own. Bat writing, I called it, long scribbles covering page after page I’d fold together into something resembling a book, and claim to be able to read. But it was real complex and personal stuff, you see, so you’d have to understand why I wouldn’t tell you exactly what it said if you asked. (Hmm. This behavior does start to sound a bit like that of a poet, doesn’t it?)
The paleontologist thing came because my first book, a Lippincott hardcover about dinosaurs, inspired me to want to write a book exactly like that one, even down to having J.B. Lippincott publish it. To write a great book about dinosaurs I’d clearly have to know my stuff, thus the desire to study monsters of the past. Not for the science, but so that I could write about it.
Many writers suffer early years of disappointment in the marketplace, and in this way my childhood prepared me for my life’s calling. In second grade I wrote and illustrated a story called “Sam the Shy Dinosaur.” My teacher Mrs. Gallagher sought out a publisher for it but could not find someone in all of suburban Rhode Island interested, apparently. In third grade, I wrote a long story called “Sherlock Holmes vs. Dracula,” which obtained a modest level of success in that my teacher Mrs Sullivan had me read the entire narrative aloud to my class. Also striking was it was the only of my works written entirely in orange magic marker.
Then, a bit of silence as the uneven hum of the decade spun me about, sometimes sounding like Paul McCartney and Wings, other times sounding like my father calling Muhammad Ali a “dirty nigger” as he beat Gerry Quarry senseless on ABC’s Wild World of Sports one Saturday, the same year I remember writing a book report on a short biography of Ali I found in the school library. I was impressed with the story about the young Cassius Clay purposefully missing the school bus so he could race it to his elementary school and beat it. That hum of change and its discomforts and confusions made its way in and held.
So the ‘seventies slunk by. Watergate. Serpico. The Osmond Brothers singing David Bowie’s “Fame” on the Donny & Marie show. (Can it get much more confusing than that?) The decade’s own borders were embattled, in that the ’60s didn’t apparently end until 1973 when we pulled out of Vietnam, and the ’80s started a few years early in 1977 with The Sex Pistols and The Clash and Elvis Costello and the punk movement in Great Britain. At least the Yankees won the World Series in 1977 and 1978, keeping my childhood afloat amidst the cultural wreckage of that wonderfully messy and realistic decade, sandwiched as it was between the two absolutely unrealistic decades of the ‘sixties and ‘eighties.
Somewhere in there, I still knew I wanted to write. I took a test for a creative writing correspondence school when I was 11 and received a letter back explaining that I was too young to apply. I remember tearing the letter up in an absolute fury and renouncing writing forever. My memory tells me my mother yelled at me for that, though my memory does not tell me why — was it that I was showing a lack of respect for the eminent mail-order education for which I was only a year too young to apply? or that I had never shown such negative emotion in my short lifetime and that the passion of my rejection of the rejection surprised her?
At any rate I did not think about writing again until my senior year in high school, when my English teacher Richard Lawrence re-introduced me to the potential of writing. Mr Lawrence, who for all I know is still teaching at Mt St Charles Academy in Woonsocket, RI, was a top-notch soccer coach and just as demanding with his honors English students as he was with his midfielders. His version of having us do laps would be to stop mid-sentence while talking about an inevitable Christ-figure symbol in any given 20th century novel and calmly say, eyes gleaming, “Take out a piece of paper.”
Groans from the peanut gallery. It meant a test, a quiz, an unexpected essay. It also meant writing. In his class I did my first bit of creative writing in 7 years, and realized I really liked it. We wrote plays and performed them. We wrote poetry. We wrote short stories. I remember at one point showing Mr Lawrence some poems I had written outside of class, based on an inspired mangling of reading Vonnegut, Whitman and a classic 1938 short story by Carl Stephenson called “Leiningen Versus the Ants.” He held the paper aloft as he read. Only his piercing eyes moved, back and forth, as he read across and down the page. He looked at me over the paper before handing it back to me, his gaze sparkling with something I could not fathom, and said only, “There’s not a lot of money in poetry.” I took those words, and that look, as encouragement. It was the sound of the first door opening to my calling.
Spin ahead a year to Cornell University. I’m in the bookstore as a freshman, testing the limits of my CornellCard, a brilliant marketing idea by university administrators designed to enable you to buy all the books you want at the campus store and have your parents billed for it later. As I was carrying my text books to a register I noticed the poetry section close to the store’s entrance, and in it a large black tome of the complete poems of EE Cummings.
You have to know that Cummings’ Complete Poems is the archetypal complete poems collection–big, heavy, and looking exactly like a great poet’s life work packed into a single volume should look.
The front cover of the book had only the enigmatic mug of the poet himself, against a black background. Cummings’ face was more than the face of a poet to me; it was the face of The Poet. You could tell looking at him that at the time of the photograph he had already found himself beyond everyday life’s marauding ways. This was a face immune to spiritual erosion. Intense. Serene. All characteristics of being that, frankly, I had not been prepared to feel in my suburban Rhode Island childhood. I knew as soon as I saw that book that I was in for a re-education. And that Dick Lawrence was right, as he always was. And with that my path was set.