The Poetry Years
Introduction to At the End of the Day: Selected Poems and an Introductory Essay, published by Marsh Hawk Press
Though I am known today mostly as an essayist, occasionally as a fiction writer, for about fifteen years I wrote poetry. I published poems in countless little magazines, gave readings all over, earned a living of sorts as a poet in the schools, teaching the art to children, and put out two collections: the first in 1972, the second in 1976. When I look back at those years during which poetry formed such an important part of my identity, I am tempted to rub my eyes, as though recalling a time when I ran off and joined the circus; yet at the time it seemed a logical enough pursuit.
How had I started writing poetry in the first place? I can honestly say I had no ambitions to be a poet when I was younger. True, in elementary school I was by default the class poet, just as there was a boy who drew horses well and another boy who ran the fastest at Field Day. When Thanksgiving approached, I would be expected to craft a few stanzas about the pilgrims’ feast. In junior high I wrote several tortured poems under the influence of the Beats. But by high school I had forsaken poetry for prose: if I had any literary ambitions, it was to be a novelist.
In college, joining the literary circle around Columbia Review, I befriended a number of emerging poets, including Jonathan Cott and Ron Padgett. Jonathan was my best friend and was highly cultivated, drawn to such serious, demanding authors as Holderlin, Lowell, Roethke. The Oklahoma-born Padgett and I had heard of each other before ever meeting, circling each other like gunfighters; he had even put the word out that he was going to break my butt. I, having hailed from the streets of Brooklyn, let it be known cockily that he was welcome to try. Of course when we finally met the conversation was amicable and respectful; he showed me a brilliant paper he had written about Pound and the medieval troubadours. Padgett had precociously started a poetry magazine back in high school, writing to poets he admired for contributions; and he came to New York to attend Columbia as part of a Tulsa émigré gang (which included Ted Berrigan, Joe Brainard, Dick Gallup) who affixed themselves immediately to the New York School of Poetry. The magnificent comic poet Kenneth Koch was the Pied Piper who had lured Padgett and others to Columbia, where Koch taught in the English Department. I attended the lunchtime readings Koch gave of his own poetry, and a memorable one of 19th Century Bad Poetry, which he delivered with robust oratory, cracking up every so often. Koch embodied what seemed to me at the time a zany poetics that incorporated Donald Duck, mock-epic parodies and neo-Dada game structures. I would later come to revere him as one of the most reflective, wide-ranging poets of our era, and in the last ten years of his life we became friends; but as an undergraduate I was too intimidated to take a course from him. So I settled for becoming a hanger-on in the New York School of Poetry scene, with entrée provided by Ron Padgett, all of us worshipping at the shrine of Koch, Frank O’Hara and John Ashbery.
The one whose poetry appealed to me most in that period was O’Hara, partly because of his unapologetically urban, movie-mad sensibility, partly because of his doctrine of Personalism. His example gave casual permission to construct a poem out of anything at hand, from a friend’s remark to a movie star’s collapse to a headline or honking car or sudden mood change.
Just as there was a politique des auteurs among film buffs, so a sort of politque des poètes existed, with battle lines drawn between the more Establishment-respected and prize-winning poets of the day, such as Robert Lowell, Richard Wilbur, John Berryman, Elizabeth Bishop, Richard Eberhart, Anthony Hecht, Anne Sexton, and so on, and the New York School, who drew their inspiration from the French modernist poets and the painting of Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, Larry Rivers, Jane Freilicher, etc. Koch’s poem “Fresh Air” was a manifesto against everything solemn, high-minded, ethically worrying— “academic,” in a word—and called for a poetics of sensuous, experimental linguistic play. Of course these divisions grew fuzzier the closer you examined the matter: Koch himself taught in the academy, as Ashbery later would, and who could be wittier or more linguistically playful than Wilbur? But there was still this seeming antagonism between opposing teams, the one (the “established” poets) using poetry as a criticism of life, the other (the New York School) as a celebration of art. I remember visiting second-generation New York School poet Ted Berrigan in his East Village pad, and being told by him that he never mixed life with art. Art came from art, he said, not life. Anyone reading Ted’s heart-breaking, autobiographical Sonnets would be hard-pressed to concur with his assertion; but that was at least the party line.
When I first began dipping into the poetry of Berryman, Lowell, Bishop, Sexton and Sylvia Plath, I felt guilty, like a Catholic reading books on the Index, and even guiltier for liking them so much. Lowell’s Life Studies was a revelation for me; Berryman’s Dream Songs and (much later) Love & Fame a grim delight. Surely it was possible to like both anguished confessional and breezy diaristic poetry? But I kept my taste for the former under wraps.
I remember attending a brilliant reading by Ashbery at NYU, when he premiered some of the poems from Rivers and Mountains. Perhaps trying to distance himself from the oracular, baton-beating style of Robert Duncan or the shamanistic intoning of Allen Ginsberg, Ashbery read his own poems with a curious ironic disdain, as if he had just bent down and picked up a piece of paper that had some improbable gibberish written on it. I hung around long enough to get invited to the cocktail party afterwards. At parties after New York School poetry readings, you would receive your literary marching orders. Reading tips were offered within an acceptably avant-garde framework that included such writers as Gertrude Stein, William S. Burroughs, Ronald Firbank…I remember talking to Ashbery after the reading: he recommended De Chirico’s Hebdomeros and Raymond Roussel’s Impressions of Africa, both hieratic texts in a Surrealist vein. On other occasions he might steer you to a set of unsung poets such as F. T. Prince, John Wheelwright and David Schubert. I always suspected he was throwing acolytes off the scent, and that he himself had been more deeply influenced by Wordsworth and Auden.
Myself, I could not get enough of Rivers and Mountains, and read it until the spine cracked. Later, after I began writing poetry, I spend a fruitless summer trying to imitate Ashbery’s weary, elegant opacity. (No one could have shown less aptitude to write like John Ashbery than I, given my penchant for straightforward transparency; but he was the most influential poet of the period, and so I had to give it a try at least.)
In the last analysis, what I took from my days as a New York Poetry School fellow-traveler was less aesthetic than social. I had the privilege to watch the way a lively poetry scene mushroomed at St. Marks’ Church on the Bouwerie, in the East Village, under the nurturance of Anne Waldman. This was the closest I would ever come to the Banquet Years, and though I have always considered myself a literary loner, it gave me a glimpse of how a circle, a generation, a movement, a bohemia functioned. I accepted the poets’ generous invitations to parties, to passed joints, to publications in mimeo magazines, to friendships and acquaintanceships. What they made of me I have no idea. My first wife Carol and I lived way uptown, at the northern end of Manhattan above the Cloisters: one time we threw a party and invited the St. Mark’s crowd to it, though they seemed wary ever of venturing above 14th Street. They arrived late, having brought with them on the A train enough reading matter for an ocean crossing, and immediately headed for the bedroom to get stoned, ignoring my other literary friends in the living room. But if the St. Marks poets were insular, they were also warmly loyal. I was fascinated by the way they supported each other. I once asked Ron Padgett how he and Ted Berrigan critiqued one another’s poems. “I just say, ‘That’s totally terrific, Ted,’ and when I show him mine he says ‘That’s totally terrific’ to me.” Whether this was actually true I have my doubts, but the lesson seemed to be that critical fussiness was passé. Another time I was visiting the poet (and future art critic) Peter Schjeldahl in his apartment, and I commented with surprise that he kept a top 40 rock station on all the time. What did he do when bad songs came on the air? Schjeldahl said obstinately, “There are no bad rock songs today.” Was he pulling my leg, or did he really believe that? I felt like a visitor from the 19th Century. I also watched with surprise and maybe envy how the poets and their wives (or husbands) swapped partners. Ted Berrigan read a poem at St. Mark’s Church that went something like: “When you sleep with your best friend’s wife/ She gets fucked/ He gets fucked/ And you get fucked.” Loud titters from the cognoscenti, who knew the poem’s other referents, both present in the audience that night.
As eye-opening as all this was, it did not necessarily make me want to be a poet. That came about another way.
Living on the brink of poverty, I was looking for some freelance editorial work (often a euphemism for ghostwriting, which I did extensively during this period), when I came upon a notice requesting readers to help edit a new poetry anthology. Reading was one thing I felt sure I could do; I did very little else. So I answered the ad and was summoned to a noon interview at the home of one Hy Sobiloff.
Mr. Sobiloff, often referred to in those days as “the businessman-poet,” was a wealthy investor and venture capitalist who lived in a very tony townhouse on East 77th Street in the Upper East Side. He had several servants, and his townhouse had its own elevator, which impressed the hell out of me. A Chinese houseboy answered the door, brought me into the parlor and told me to wait, as Mr. Sobiloff was just getting up. I had time to examine the antiques and indifferent paintings before the great man himself appeared, in a silk striped robe: his fleshy, curt, bald-headed, imperial manner put me instantly in mind of Louis Calhern in The Asphalt Jungle, some sort of mobster kingpin or political boss (Calhern also played the title role in Julius Caesar). Sobiloff explained the nature of the project, which was to revise the immensely popular poetry anthologies that had been edited by his late friend Oscar Williams. I was happy to tell him that my own mother had read aloud from them to us as children such favorites as Alfred Noyes’ “The Highwayman.” Poetically, you might say, Oscar Williams’ anthologies were mother’s-milk to me. Sobiloff gruffly cut me off, saying the point was that they needed to be updated. He had undertaken the chore as an act of devotion to a friend who’d passed away. He pointed to several precipitously tall stacks of poetry books on French Empire chairs and said, “I know all this stuff cold but I can’t be bothered to go through ‘em. I’m too busy. That’s why I need an assistant.” Somehow I doubted he was as familiar with the contents of these volumes as he pretended, but I played along, familiar as I was with my ghostwriting clients’ need to pretend omniscience. On my end, I bluffed like crazy about my knowledge of poetry. The interview lasted ten minutes at most. He seemed satisfied; we agreed on a salary, and I took away a few shopping bags full of books.
I had now to educate myself as quickly as possible in the English and American poetic canon. I was overwhelmed by the vast amounts of poetry I would have to absorb, but I began by plowing through the original Williams anthologies. I quickly saw that Oscar Williams had put his friend Hy in the books, as he had his wife Gene Derwood and himself, though their verse hardly seemed in the same league with Keats and Whitman. Sobiloff, I learned, was philanthropically active, and a heavy supporter of poetry societies and magazines. I was too shy to ask Sobiloff how he had made his millions, but someone in the know told me that he had started in the furniture business, and had perfected a scheme of buying a second, failing business and transferring all the assets from the first business to the second; then shutting that down, and transferring all the assets of the second to a third failing business…in any case, some kind of fiscal legerdemain.
Shortly after beginning the job I learned I was not the only poetry reader; Sobiloff had hired two others, like a gambler placing bets across the board. At first he kept us strictly separate; but in time I was able to contact them, and consolidate my position as First Reader, primer ante pares, by offering to coordinate the project for a slightly higher fee. He appreciated my ruthlessness, I think. It was Sobiloff who said once in passing that he was flying off on vacation to the Bahamas, leaving the city because he “was tired of all those ghetto faces,” a statement so shocking and appalling to me that I was almost charmed by its brazenness. In any case I never forgot it. I myself came from the ghetto and wondered when he would ferret this fact out. On another visit to the boss I met a lady friend of his whom I took to be his mistress, a woman in her fifties with the body of an ex-showgirl and a face that looked hard and cunning, to say the least. When Sobiloff left the room for a minute she warned me not to take advantage of her Hy, if I knew what was good for me.
Believe me, I had no intention of cutting corners. My work schedule consisted of reading four poetry books a day minimum. Most of them came from the library, some from used book stores—our boss had given us permission to augment his limited stock, and I saved the receipts for him. I would wake up and eat breakfast while starting on the first, get dressed, finish reading the book, take some notes about possible selections and go off for a walk with a bag lunch around noontime, often ending on a bench in Riverside Park (my wife and I had by this time moved down from Inwood to West 104th Street, near Columbia), where I would read a second book and begin paging through a third…By now I was starting to feel headachy from eye-strain and nauseous from a surfeit of poetic expressiveness, so I would give it a rest, then turn to book four in the late afternoon, and maybe book five that evening, if I had anything left in me. I recommend this brutal pedagogic method of saturation reading to anyone with literary ambitions. Over-stuffed like a goose for the manufacture of foie gras, I had no choice but to secrete my own poems. So mentally swamped with the elevated lyrical language of others, out of sheer defensive survival I needed to have my say.
Two other factors, besides the anthology reader gig, sparked my entry into poetry in the years I am describing, 1967–69: the political upheaval of the anti-war movement and the breakdown of my marriage. They were not unrelated. Living as we did fairly close to Columbia University, I got swept up in the 1968 student revolt and reentered my old Alma Mater as a trouble-making alumnus. Just as I had been a hanger-on at the New York School of Poetry scene, so now I became a fellow-traveler of the New Left, participating in demonstrations, political meetings and study groups, reading Marxist texts along with all the poetry. I never felt entirely comfortable with the posture of radicalism, nor could I embrace deep-down the hope of making revolution, being an ex-scholarship kid from the ghetto still trying to claw my way into the middle class. But the heady Sixties talk of sexual liberation and down with the bourgeoisie and smashing monogamy had a destabilizing effect on my domestic arrangements. Not that I can blame the failure of that first marriage on the revolutionary Left! I had married too young, at twenty, and hadn’t a clue; we both made mistakes, which I needn’t go into here.
Meanwhile, my first novel had not found a publisher; I was unable to take defeat in stride and start on a second one. Writing novels requires a calm, settled, bourgeois existence, and the payoff is deferred for years. The fragmentation I felt so painfully in those days would not permit me to submerge myself again in a prolonged alternate dream-narrative: I was too antsy, too much at the mercy of day-to-day reality. I needed a form I could turn to with quicker results, snatching a few hours here and there from a patched-together free-lance existence and the emotional confusion of whether to leave or stay. Hence, poetry.
My first poems seemed to emerge from conjugal dilemma. I still hoped we could salvage the marriage, if we both behaved responsibly and maturely. (Yeah, right.) These poems now strike me as tentative and hypocritical, the way a couple in their last stage bullshits during marriage counseling while secretly eyeing the exit. Formally, I was feeling my way into poetry at the same time I was feeling my way out of the marriage. By the time our marriage had definitively collapsed, I was on much firmer ground. Incidentally, I have always derived poetic inspiration from breakups. The rejection of love produces an emotional clarity in me, while the return to solitude arouses a need to solace myself with lyrical resignation—either that or revenge.
I had decided to leave Carol and New York for California, the promised land of youth culture. Before I decamped, I turned in my lists of recommendations for the updated anthologies. It’s funny to recall what I thought in my youthful exuberance would make for such substantial improvements. I had wanted the collections to seem less stuffy, less “academic,” so I added Bessie Smith and Bob Dylan lyrics, and Native American chants, and a slew of Black poets, and of course increased the selections of the New York School poets, and F. T. Prince, John Wheelwright, Robert Creeley, George Oppen, Ed Dorn and Allen Ginsberg, among others. Sobiloff looked them over without a word. Years later, when the revised anthologies appeared, I had a hard time finding any evidence of my labors. But the job had served its purpose: it had given me a condensed poetic education.
The poets who influenced me the most at the beginning of my poetic career were William Carlos Williams, Frank O’Hara, Pablo Neruda, Vladimir Mayakovsky, and Randall Jarrell. I was happy to purloin Williams’ three-line stanzas or O’Hara’s splattering of words across the page; to imitate Mayakovsky’s mock-megalomaniac outbursts, Neruda’s surreal inventories or the loquacity of late Jarrell. Later on I would fall in love with the dramatic monologues at the back of Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago, and Cavafy’s deceptively simple lyrics and history poems, and Pavese’s Hard Labor, with its dense materialist details of quotidian working-class life.
I was searching for something that made me happy whenever I found it, but I still didn’t know how to characterize it. Though I had been a fan of Neruda’s, when I attended a reading of his at the 92nd Street Y he put me off with his hammy, Stalin Prize delivery. It was another Chilean poet, Nicanor Parra, who crystallized for me what I was looking for, with his collection Poems and Anti-Poems. This taste for “anti-poetry,” for grubby reality, is addressed by Wallace Stevens in his preface to the 1934 Collected Poems by William Carlos Williams, when he describes Williams as someone for whom “the anti-poetic is that truth, that reality to which all of us are forever fleeing.” I was drawn to the antipoetic for a number of reasons. First, my training had been in fiction, and I was still very charmed by the sound of conversational prose. Though literary critics might disparage a poem as being “chopped-up prose,” that was insufficient to condemn it in my eyes. Quite the contrary: it interested me, perversely, to see how far one could go in that direction and still get away with it. I also found it attractive when poets employed a complex syntax that took a whole stanza or sonnet to uncoil—more so than a row of staccato end-stopped lines. A storyteller at heart, I continued to like narrative. Some of Parra’s and Cavafy’s narrative situations were like little short stories: a room, a memory, a pickup.
Second, I was much more intrigued by poetic statement than by metaphor, simile and image. When I heard it said that great poets were characterized by their gift for metaphor, it rankled me. I did not go out of my way to find metaphors; if an apt one swam into my brain while I was writing a poem, I put it in; if not, not. A profusion of metaphor and simile seemed to me, at this point, forced. I even developed a theory that the late manner of certain poets, such as Pasternak and Montale, favored unadorned poetic statement, because they no longer felt the need to show off with metaphors to prove their poetic bona fides.
Third, I was rebelling against the lingering idea that poems should contain words or emotions that were suitably “poetic”— the beauties of nature, flowers, finches, rapture, elevated sentiment; I was drawn to a more sardonic poetry that would traffic in mundane commercial objects, business terms, legalese, you name it. It pleased me beyond measure to be able to use a word like “bicameral” in a poem on Allende. A city rat, I had no command of the names of flora and fauna, and needed to stake my claim with vocabulary that would verge on the prosaic and anti-romantic.
Finally, being poetically self-taught and, despite having read books on prosody from Saintsbury to Hollander, finding that very little of it stuck to me, never able to master my quantities, meters and values, never having gone to graduate school to study poetry, I still composed poems largely intuitively, on the basis of what rhythms or combinations “sounded right” to my ear. This awkward situation made me feel at a disadvantage among trained poets. But it also drove me to embrace the anti-poetic tradition that ran like a heretical streak through poetic history. Essentially I was trying to turn a limitation (my ignorance) into a strength (my preference for the anti-poetic).
To some degree, I was taking permission from the era’s looser standards. The 1960s allowed for a wide open, pluralistic (some would say amateurish) poetics. The ascendance of the oral, first-word-best-word “rap” through the Beats and black activist poets such as Gil Scott Heron and the Last Poets, the cultural enthronement of rock troubadours, the proliferation of open readings and mimeo magazines, the promotion of children’s poetry and ethnopoetics, all contributed to the idea that anyone could write poetry, or had the right to call oneself a poet; you didn’t need a credential. It may have been an invitation to charlatanism and self-delusion, but it also made for a no-holds- barred, anything-goes sense of freedom; and I suppose I sneaked in under that umbrella.
A key determinant for me during these years was becoming friends with the poet Bill Zavatsky, a friendship I am happy to say has lasted forty years. Zavatsky is a large-hearted, open, funny man and a very fine poet, as well as a capable jazz pianist. When I first met him around 1968 he was writing ebullient verse that ran arpeggios in all directions. His verbal fireworks showed the influence of the French Surrealists, particularly Andre Bréton, whom he later translated. At the same time, he was trying to master a leaner lyric with more sincerity and humanity, to put more honest emotions, situations and characters into his poems. Robert Lowell once commented that he found it hard to “people” his poems. I, with my fiction background and interest in psychological cul-de-sacs, found that part relatively easy; my poetic struggles were on another plane. In any case, Zavatsky was drawn to what I was doing, and he encouraged me to keep writing situational, reality-based poems.
Zavatsky had recently gotten an MFA in poetry-writing at Columbia, where he’d studied with Stanley Kunitz and Harvey Shapiro, and he introduced me to a circle of young Kunitz/Shapirotrained poets, which included Hugh Seidman, Mark Rudman and Louise Gluck, who hung out at the West End Bar and other venues in Morningside Heights. Soon I was participating in their open readings, and learning from them. Through them I became familiar with another poetic model, the Objectivists (George Oppen, Louis Zukofsky and Carl Rakosi), and their younger allies, Harvey Shapiro, Armand Schwerner and David Ignatow. I was particularly taken with the hard-bitten, wry, tight urban lyrics of Shapiro and Ignatow. Certain of my poems seem to have come directly out of an attempt to write like them. But the poet in the Objectivist orbit who came to affect me most was Charles Reznikoff. He was still around then, though elderly, and had been rediscovered, championed by younger poets, who were as moved by his example of humility and noncareerism as by his spare, tender poems. Reznikoff had for years published his own verse, gone his own solitary way. He had fashioned a poetics of daily observation and reflection, taking long walks and then drafting his urban encounters into concise accounts in verse. His poems eschewed all verbal razzle-dazzle, yet they shimmered with a sympathy and humanity which never sentimentalized, including as they did the recognition of human cruelty. In person and on the page, he had a quality of resignation or acceptance (which was it? both, perhaps) that suggested spiritual wisdom. And no one was more exposed to the charge of being prosaic or “anti-poetic.” His long-lined autobiographical sequence, “Early History of a Writer,” reads stubbornly close to chopped-up prose—an engrossing personal essay with a ragged right-hand margin. What made him, in the end, truly poetic was his economical use of language and his limpid vision of reality, which might be compared to Basho and Li Po.
Reznikoff provided a solution to my guilt about not being able to achieve the proper (meaning, MFA-approved) poetic surface: I had only to write down what I saw, heard and thought, as honestly as possible, and the poetry would take care of itself. The problem was that I could never be as pure a being as Reznikoff; and some of my attempts to write like him misfired from disingenuous over-simplicity. I also had an incurable taste for the ironic rationalizing or mischievously analytical narrator, which led me in distinctly non-Reznikoffian directions (see, for instance, “Just to Spoil Everything” and “The Japanophiles”). But Reznikoff was never far off, once I had admitted him into my pantheon as a benign conscience, a figure of enduring through failure.
Two other, nonliterary influences on my poetry during that time deserve mention. The first was psychotherapy. I was seeing a Jungian psychologist named George Romney, a Cuban émigré who smoked cigarillos and had wavy black hair and an infectious laugh; it became my secret goal to provoke that laugh of his as often as possible in sessions. I would tell him about my experiences, and sometimes in the midst of relating them they would cohere into a kind of improvised poem, which would make him chuckle and which I would then go home and try to write down. In this way my long poem “The Blue Pants” came about. George also frequently asked me, as therapists are wont to do, what I was feeling in the moment, directing my attention to the emotion physiologically manifesting and gurgling in my body. Out of this practice of attempting to pin down emotional states came poems such as “Numbness,” “Not Sadness Which Is Always There,” and “Clearing a Space.” The very ambition to write poems based in the present moment—to open myself to the here-and-now, as it were— derived from techniques I had been learning in psychotherapy.
The second crucial nonliterary influence on my poetry was teaching inner-city children and teenagers. I worked as a poet-inthe-schools for over a dozen years, first helping high school dropouts in East Harlem get their equivalency degree, then directing a program for Teachers & Writers Collaborative at P.S. 75 in the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Poems such as “Satin Doll” and
“Rumors” (along with my first published prose book, Being With Children), resulted from that work experience, which brought me closer to my own memories of childhood and early adolescence.
Teaching kids grew partly out of a desire to be socially useful: to put my politics into practice. I was also looking for ways to incorporate my politics into my poetry. In one case, I had been leafing through a picture book of Cuban revolutionary art, and I came upon a propaganda poster with the title “Solidarity with Mozambique,” and wondered how on earth I could ever feel my way into bonding with a struggle that seemed so far away and so abstract. I began writing about daily occurrences in New York City, then tried to reach, by concentric circles leading farther and farther away from myself, the rebels in Mozambique. (Not that I ever convincingly made it.) My poem “Allende” required no such elaborate device: I was simply shaken by the overthrow of the Chilean leftist’s government and wanted to register my dismay and disenchanted skepticism without resorting to the usual consoling Venceremos clichés.Finally, I took scraps from everything around me and built a poetic nest with them: movie references (“Film Noir”), which were hard to resist, given my lifelong cinephilia; musical refrains (I kept playing Lotte Lenya’s double album, and her rendition of “Lost in the Stars” undoubtedly seeped into my “Furnished Room”); the economic recession and New York City default scare of 1975 (“The Last Slow Days of Summer”); the exploding gentrification that followed, all round my apartment on West 71st Street (“Saturday on the West Side of Assisi”); phone conversations (“We Who Are Your Closest Friends”); the parade of failed romances and breakup scenes (“Hearts,” “The Thrill of the First Night”).
Around 1977, I started writing personal essays and also went back to longer fiction. I see in retrospect the way I was handling the same material, the same themes, in poetry and prose. “The Second Marriage” reads like a poem-précis of the novella by the same title. A protest against “the bullying urge to feel” can be found in “Numbness” and the essay “Against Joie de Vivre.” “Secrets, Rehearsals” was like a dry run for my essay, “The Story of My Father.” The single person learning to be alone is a theme sounded in many of these poems no less than in the prose that makes up my first essay collection, Bachelorhood.
Regardless of the genre I happened to working in, I found myself resisting the transcendent. I was skeptical of all triumphalism, both positive (redemption) and negative (apocalypse). I threw in my lot with ordinary life, “the daily round.” This mistrust of transcendence was another way in which I felt myself out of step with the ideological presuppositions of much contemporary poetry. But again, I was trying to turn weakness into strength: the inability to reach the stars, to achieve anything like spiritual sublimity, became a stubborn claim that the earth is all we have—a brief for groundedness.
To go back to 1972: I had been amassing sufficient poems for a first collection when a printer based in Northampton approached me and offered to put them out in a chapbook. The plan was for me to spend the month of August at his print shop, learning to operate a letter press and assisting in the production of the book, to be entitled The Eyes Don’t Always Want to Stay Open. When I arrived in Northampton, however, I discovered that the printer and his wife were going through a messy divorce, and he was temporarily closing the business while they sorted out the division of conjugal assets. I was welcome, he said, to stay in their house for the month of August, now that it had been vacated by both husband and wife, who had moved in with their new lovers. As I had no other plans for summer vacation, I decided to stick it out and explore the town and the surrounding Massachusetts countryside. I was miserably lonely, and felt foolish and hollow. But as it happened, an elderly woman neighbor, highly cultivated, befriended me. She knew how to operate the letter press. So we set in type exactly one of my poems, the paranoid epistle “We Who Are Your Closest Friends,” as a broadside. (Anne Lamott, to my surprise, included this poem in her popular writing manual, Bird by Bird, thus bringing it to thousands of readers it would otherwise not have reached).
Returning to the city, discouraged that there would be no chapbook after all, I visited Bill Zavatsky and his wife Phyllis the first night back, hoping they might cheer me up. Zavatsky, who had already edited the poetry magazines SUN and Roy Rogers, had been mulling over the idea of someday starting his own small poetry press. Seeing me so disappointed he told me not to worry; he would put out my collection himself. To my astonished gratitude he began retyping the manuscript immediately, and he stayed up half the night finishing the job, while I slept (more or less) on his couch. In the morning he had a manuscript ready to put into production. Thus was born in 1972 the press called SUN, which would go on to publish books by Ron Padgett, Harvey Shapiro, Paul Violi, Raymond Roussel, Paul Auster and Zavatsky himself, among others, but whose maiden publication was The Eyes Don’t Always Want to Stay Open. My second collection, The Daily Round, would follow, also from SUN, in 1976.
What remains to be told is how or why I gave up writing poetry. There is a simple answer and a complicated one. First the simple one: In 1980 I moved to Houston, Texas, to teach in the University of Houston. I had been recruited as the creative writing program’s first prose writer, on the basis of my memoir about teaching, Being with Children, my novel Confessions of Summer and my soon-to-be-released personal essay collection, Bachelorhood. If in New York I had been accepted as a poet, such was not the case in Houston. I was not permitted to teach poetry courses, in spite of having published two books’ worth. I need not have taken it personally: my colleagues Rosellen Brown and Ntozake Shange, both of whom had written poetry books but were hired as prose writers, faced the same prohibition at that university.
A higher, “purer” standard of what it took to be a poet seemed to reign in that corner of academia, based partly on the possession of an MFA credential, and partly on the networking of the professional poetry world. I got a real taste of the way that poetry guild mentality operated: the mentoring and bestowal of the blessing on a chosen few acolytes, whose books would then be recommended for publication, and the whole priestly sense of the Poet as someone of rare vatic powers. The non-exclusionary ethos of the Sixties and early Seventies had ended, in the face of the writing program-generated mystique of technique. The impression was conveyed that there could only be two dozen poets at most in one era who had received the vision. I knew I’d never gotten a message from on high: I did not fit that bill. My sense of myself as a poet began to shrivel up.
But that simple explanation is false. It would be wrong to blame my colleagues for killing the urge, since anyone who can be discouraged so easily from writing poetry is not cut out to be a poet. The truth is that I had already begun moving away from poetry before I came down to Houston, having fallen in love with the personal essay and its possibilities. I found in the personal essay a wonderful plasticity, which combined the narrative, storytelling aspects of fiction with the lyrical, associative qualities of poetry. If, as Robert Bly recommended, American poets should learn to “leap” freely from line to line, from image to image and subject to subject, I realized I could do that as easily in the personal essay as in a poem. Moreover, I could never have been deterred from writing poetry if my Houston colleagues’ judgment had not gibed with something already inside me, some insecure spot that made me feel that, on some level, I was an imposter. It had been a good long run, but it was time to stop pretending I was a poet.
Around 1983 I drifted away from writing poems, the only exceptions being the occasional birthday ode or the e-mail poems I would exchange with my daughter when I was away, to encourage her to send me her own poems. But recently, when offered the chance to have these two earlier collections reprinted, along with any additional poems that were not included in them, I found myself going through this material and—liking much of it. As I retyped individual poems in my computer, I would change phrases, sharpen a rhythm, clarify an idea. I remembered how much fun it was to write poems, how happily engaged I could be for hours in tiny adjustments. Suddenly I couldn’t understand why I had given it up.
Will I take up the practice again? I certainly hope so. I’m well aware that established prose writers often publish their hobbyish poems out of vanity. I would like to think there is more going on here in this collection: the urge to give p1easure to new readers. When I read my old poems today, it strikes me with a mixture of regret and relief that I am no longer the person who wrote them. Some are obviously young man’s poems, and their callow hungers embarrass me now. Yet I cannot help finding that younger self touching, and in any case, revealing. It is not for me, finally, to judge them as poems. I will leave that up to you.
Copyright © 2010, Phillip Lopate
Phillip Lopate was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1943, and received a BA from Columbia in 1964, and a doctorate from the Union Graduate School in 1979. He has written four personal essay collections—Bachelorhood (Little, Brown, 1981), Against Joie de Vivre (Poseidon-Simon & Schuster, 1989), Portrait of My Body (Doubleday-Anchor, 1996) and Portrait Inside My Head (Free Press/Simon & Schuster, 2013); two novels, Confessions of Summer (Doubleday, 1979) and The Rug Merchant (Viking, 1987); two poetry collections, The Eyes Don’t Always Want to Stay Open (Sun Press, 1972) and The Daily Round (Sun Press, 1976); a memoir of his teaching experiences, Being With Children (Doubleday, 1975); a collection of his movie criticism, Totally Tenderly Tragically (Doubleday-Anchor); an urbanist meditation, Waterfront: A Journey Around Manhattan (Crown, 2004); and a biographical monograph, Rudy Burckhardt: Photographer and Filmmaker (Harry N. Abrams, 2004.) In addition, there is a Phillip Lopate reader, Getting Personal: Selected Writings (Basic Books, 2003). His most recent books are Two Marriages (novellas, Other Press, 2008), Notes on Sontag (Princeton University Press, 2009), At the End of the Day: Selected Poems (Marsh Hawk Press, 2010), and To Show and To Tell: The Craft of Literary Nonfiction (Free Press/Simon & Schuster, 2013). His newest publication is A Mother’s Tale..