A Life In Poetry


I’ve had this thing called a creative urge as long as I can recall.  I was too poor for piano lessons and my art work was never hung up at school.  As a senior in Ligonier High School poetry, the poem, the poet was what was part of English class.  Senior year was British literature.  It didn’t resonate with me, but I was a good student and I did my assignments and got good grades.

That year there was a student teacher attached to our English teacher.  He was a good guy, close to our age and part of the culture we were all immersed in.  In an attempt to spark our minds he would bring in poems that he felt might serve as flint.  He brought in lyrics from the Beatles and others.  One day he brought in a poem by a guy named Ferlinghetti that began: in a surrealist year of sandwichmen.  I read it, understood it and enjoyed it.  I thought,  if this is poetry I can do that

Ferlinghetti opened my many eyes to poetry, not the friable texts of English classes but something alive.   Without a conscious effort I took the first steps on the road not taken – before I even knew Frost. Before I would read Lao Tzu , who said the journey of a thousand li begins with the first step.

The life of a poet, I found out,  was not appreciated or rewarded.  There was a constant pressure to choose between poetry and pragmatism.  No one was impressed that I could write a poem – only that I could get a job.

But from a phrase from the saintly Jack Kerouac, I was on the road – physically, mentally and spiritually. To be a good poet my teachers in college would say you had to do your homework. You had to grip down and begin to awaken as Doc Williams wrote.

I flew the Ferlinghetti nest because it was time to go.  I was well fed and well kept by him but it was time to fly.  Around that time John Berryman jumped off the bridge and killed himself.  Reading about that incident led me to read his work. I read everything he wrote.  The one thing about him was that I couldn’t lapse into imitating him, which often happens with novice poets.  One day I was reading an interview with him.  At one point he said – the important thing is that your work be something no one else could do.  Read that again.  That became the litmus test against which I judged my poems and everyone else’s,  continuing to today.

I became voracious to live up to that idea.  Growing up we were told  -choose your friends,  don’t let your friends choose you.  In doing so I ran into a book called Haiku Ancient and Modern by Asataro Miyamori The best book on haiku ever. It’s still in print.   Asataro took a grandfatherly approach to haiku.  But what a grandfather to have.  What a beautiful thing haiku is.  It introduced me to Basho.  I never hesitate to say the best poet ever. His frog leaping in the pond in my mind still. The whole cosmos in a few words.  The 17 syllable thing is only relevant in Japanese. He got to the quantum level before the physicists. The flash in the mind, pure without cleverness.

When I first read the poem In a Station of the Metro I thought – there’s a guy who knows how to write a short poem – a great piece of comedic irony.  Ezra Pound was one of the creators of modernism.  His name today still in some circles raises the hackles.  But no one can consider themselves a truly worthy poet without having read the Cantos. It’s the Mount Everest of modernism, and stands along Picasso’s work of that period as one of the monuments of modernism.   Modernism is not a movement but the moment we find ourselves in no longer wandering like a lonely cloud.  Caught in the cacophony and crapulence with nowhere to go but forward.  Pound taught  – make it new.  When the moment of poetry arrives, no longer welded to the past constrictions or contemporary conventions.  Not unlike Basho’s call for freshness of expression. Pound also introduced the west to Asian literature with his translation of the Jade Mountain poets, like the lovely Li Po.  It was Pound’s vanity that caused the curse upon him – leaving that wrenching line in the Pisan Cantos- pull down thy vanity.  Another grandfather to me.

If I didn’t mention Allen Ginsberg there’d be a big hole in the page.  One of my personal favorite accomplishments was being able to produce a reading for him.  I always learned something from him when I would read his poems.  Learning the mantric realities of the word, the role of the poet in the world, similar to Pound’s idea of poets as persons of action in history.  Allen was a gentle soul and I wish he was still around.  I miss my friend Dennis Brutus every day.

I know up till now I haven’t mentioned any women but not through omission.  Gertrude Stein and Pound couldn’t be in the same room together, but they both birthed modernism.  Denise Levertov planted the seeds of organic poetry.  I had a sweet tooth for Leslie Scalapino.

These were and are still the friends I’ve chosen.  But there were so many more like Vincent Van Gogh and Salvador Dali, John Coltrane and Miles Davis, John Lennon and Keith Richards.

I loved Janis Joplin and am heartbroken even now. How could I not love Billie Holiday.

Poets are part of that larger family of artists and I’ve been blessed to be invited to join all of them as friends at the big feast – movable as it is.

About the contributor

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