BECOMING A POET
In college I never understood poetry. Certain distant acquaintances walked around in what appeared to be a kind of haze. People spoke of them, with a kind of awe, as poets. I didn't grasp their poetry, but I wanted to be spoken of that way, too!
Whether most poets begin with such crass aspirations, I don't know. Most things that are worthwhile in my life, though, have begun with some form of longing, some perception of their absence. Nor was my motive completely gross. The adulation people had toward poets surely implied something substantial in their work, and I suspected a rich dimension of experience that I was simply not tuned into
I attended a number of poetry readings during my first year at Northwestern University. Invariably, I walking into the appointed room, I would find an anxious, anemic-looking man (never a woman) in a dark suit, standing before a few rows of people sitting in desks. He would proceed to stiffly mutter words I found as arcane as medieval spells.
One night in the spring, though, Allen Ginsburg came to campus. Several thousand people jammed into an auditorium to hear him. I soon grasped why. You could actually understand what he was talking about! He chanted about the Vietnam War, the moral and psychic state of America, sexuality—-intimate matters that affected everyone. Ginsburg was an event as much as a poet, but he showed me that it is possible to use words in ways that are intense and close to home. I went right home, opened a notebook, and started writing. Although I no longer regard those first efforts as poems, at least I was trying. I sent the sometimes flowery and sometimes intellectual efforts to a friend who had a strong literary sensibility. He encouraged me to continue, gently suggesting I try to be “more poetic” and quoting back to me, as an example, a passage he felt was successful.
The first 'real' poem came out of me in the summer of 1968, shortly after returning home from my second year of college. I was driving through an area of St. Louis, Missouri known as Gaslight Square. A few years earlier, the neighborhood had been nationally known for its bistros and beatnik coffeehouses. Kerouac had even mentioned it in On the Road. However, in the mid-'60s, a tourist had been murdered. After that, people just stopped coming. As I drove past in June, '68, Olive Street looked like a bombed-out city. I was suddenly taken up by feelings of the transience of all earthly things. The feelings were so strong they felt like they were brimming over. I pulled over, got out a pen, and opened a notebook. The lines started pouring out of my heart. In the piece that took shape on the page, Gaslight Square became a symbol of a lost mother, or Great Mother. I no longer have the poem. The one line I do recall, though-- 'since your great hip shook itself to sleep'--conveys something of its essence.
Later that same summer, a second trance experience resulted in another poem. This ode grew out of an experience of the beauty of a peach tree full of ripening fruit. Each stanza had a refrain line: “You bear your smooth fruit,” a line that was ubiquitous and self-contained, like the growing peaches themselves.
This was the week during which Soviet tanks had rolled into Czechoslovakia, putting a chilly end to the “Prague Spring” that had recently thawed Cold War relations somewhat. The last stanza of the piece extended the symbol of wholeness and generation even to the troubled city: “On streets of Prague today/you bear your smooth fruit.” I felt myself participating, via the poem, in events half a world away.
The experience of writing these poems--half an active experience, half an ecstatic, passive one--left me addicted to the creative process. I remain so, four decades later. In my "inner biography", events such as the creation of a poem or a painting have equal weight with the great political occurrences of these years, and even with the external landmarks of my own life.
It was not until 1976, though, when I was 28, after a very deep depression that culminated in a dramatic spiritual awakening, that the gift of poetic utterance began to flow out in a steady stream — sometimes, even, a mighty torrent. Quite simply, the awakening had been an experience of the overwhelming Abundance and beauty of existence. There was so much there--here-- that a million poets, working all day and night for hundreds of years, could not begin to exhaust the potential of what there was to say in celebration! Creative streams flowed everywhere, connecting to, and in fact centered in, the heart of Man. The heart was, you might say, a ringside seat on the ongoing miracle that was life itself! And even during the inevitable times when this Abundance was not self-evident, still, once one had tasted it, it remained a Reality. The times when it was inaccessible gave rise to longing, which may actually be the other true poetic emotion, besides celebration.
During one period in the '80s, poetry poured out so prolifically that I could scarcely drive. At every red light, a line would come into my head. I'd pick up my pen and notebook. By the time I'd jotted down the line, the driver behind me was likely to be honking. Poets will understand this.
My verse has been, in its own modest way, deeply influenced by great Sufi poets like Hafiz and Rumi, as well as by contemporary poets like Ginsberg and Robert Bly, who have also, of course, been cultural icons of their times. Several years after I first saw Ginsberg, when I went back to finish undergraduate school at the University of Cincinnati, Bly came one day to a small seminar I was taking, entitled "Eastern Thought and American Literature."
How can I describe this "white conflagration" who showed up in a colorful Mexican serape, hair blindingly white, voice a nasal Scandinavian, mind blade-sharp? He spent the next hour and a half burning away cobwebs from my mind. I remember a rising crescendo in his voice as, in full nasal imperative, he told us: "And those 'logical positivist' philosophers on the college campuses who say they're value-free--they're not value-free! They're EVIL!!!"
Then Bly brought out a gray-faced puppet representing an American corporate executive. Projecting a “gray” voice into the puppet, he began singing: "Mmmm,mmmm good. Mmmm, mmmm good. That's what Campbell's Soup is, mmmm, mmmm good." He repeated the jingle. After the tenth repetition or so, we got the idea of what such mantras of advertising do to the human mind.
Bly told us, "Beware of professors of English who don't themselves write!" He pointed to our own teacher, my friend (Dr.) Michael Atkinson, as an exception. Michael was an accomplished potter, as well as a meditating Buddhist, and his personality integrated masculine and feminine elements in an gentle, harmonious way.
Bly helped the class work its way through a Thomas Merton poem I'd shown him, first quoting what Merton's had said once, asked the question, "What is your biggest obstacle as a monk?" His reply: “Other monks.”
As the poet began like a white tornado to make his exit from the room, I stopped him and asked a question I don’t even remember. It must have been something about thought and feeling, because he looked at me and replied, "You have a lot of feeling!" That was surprising, because I was in the midst of a depression at the time, and wasn't aware of feeling much.
* * * * *
Bly was giving readings in a large lecture hall at the university, that night and the next. I attended the first night and sat near the front. Around half way through his reading, the poet looked out at his audience and then passionately barked at us, "You people shouldn't be here listening to me! You should be home writing your own poems!"
Considering what Bly had said as he went on to his next poem, I soon came to feel, “He’s right.” A couple of minutes later I made my way from the center of the row I was sitting in to the aisle, quietly exiting to go home and follow the bard's advice.
The next night, accompanied by a two friends, I arrived at Bly's reading five or ten minutes late. He paused as we came down the center aisle to claim three vacant seats we saw near the front of the packed room.
"We're doing Yeats now," he said, looking straight at me.
And then, to the audience, as I sat down, he commented, "I love that man!"
The poet who has been my primary contemporary influence, however, is Francis Brabazon, an Australian who died in 1985. Brabazon was a disciple of Meher Baba, the Indian master who has also re-vivified my own life and who, directly or indirectly, figures in everything I’ve written.
I can pinpoint a specific debt to Brabazon. Shortly after my initial experience of Meher Baba, one which changed my life forever, I became perplexed about using words. For spiritual reasons, Meher Baba had observed silence from 1925 until he passed on in January, 1969. I “met” Meher Baba--his spirit, fully alive and present--in an atmosphere of silence, two years after that passing. I had just pointed to a large, framed poster of the master, which hung behind the desk of a friend I was visiting. I had asked many questions, and my friend had answered them to my satisfaction. “Where is he now?” had been the last one.
After asking this question, I looked over at my friend to see him smiling broadly. But he was not answering. This puzzled me for a few moments. Then I began to feel the answer: an oceanic presence of love that, as it began to sink in, I could only call God. Athough that word, too, was woefully inadequate, it was the best language could offer. Most importantly, beyond what anyone could call it...I was Home.
It was after this experience that I became perplexed about words. I realized that as I had “come to” Meher Baba in silence, I had also, prior to that moment, been positively deluged with words for twenty-two years. However, none of them, or very, very few, had "stuck". "Words are just meaningless,” I decided, wondering how one could live that proposition.
Then someone showed me a copy of Brabazon’s epic poem, Stay With God. The book stunned me! It contained glorious hymns of worship, as well as a critique of modern society that was poetically powerful and though, as scathing as Marx. Unlike Marx, Brabazon's solution to the modern dilemma was a spiritual one.
Gradually, as I read, I came to re-orient myself toward language. Words could be useful, not in their own right, but to the degree that they had their origins in Silence, which was the same as Love (and both words deserved capitalization, in certain usages.).
4. The Preface To My First Book of Poems
Whatever my 'inner literary critic' may say today, Young Man Gone West (now online at http: //www.realnothings.com/youngmangonewest/youngmangonewest.htm) was a true labor of love.
In the summer of 1983 I had hitch-hiked to Denver from Cheyenne, Wyoming to visit my old buddy, Ed Luck, after my wife had abruptly taken our car and left Cheyenne with it. I felt a mixture of thrill at the prospective exploration of a new city, and confusion about my direction in life.
Those were the days when I was discovering self-help groups. My daily routine consisted of going to meetings, exploring the city, writing, and for several months, being a street minstrel in front of Woolworth's at the big, new outdoor mall downtown.
The minstrel days ended when the weather turned. An angel whispered in my ear a possible new project: "Put a book of poems together!" I realized a number of my recent efforts would work together, and kept writing until the same angel said one day, "That's enough.'This much will be the book."
Then came the high-tech part. For me, high-tech meant, in those days, taking busses and trudging repeatedly in blizzards to Kinko's, the new little shop near the university where you could make copies, collate, and even create a book cover out of colored card stock. There was no other way to put my book together except to make the lengthy journey again and again from my apartment on Colfax Street.
I also needed a work space for writing and editing, and set about the hopeless task--given my paltry means--of finding an 'office' to rent. Checking the bulletin board at Rainbow Foods, the new-age grocery store around the corner, was a good beginning.
Miraculously, I soon stumbled upon an old, 5-story building that was owned by a progressive proprietor who rented space cheaply to the Sierra Club and various other liberal organizations. Incredibly, a tiny room was available for $35 a month! Even I could afford that!
I bought a used desk and somehow lugged it up the freight elevator. Tipping it on its end, I pulled it through the office door.
By now, Young Man Gone West was almost finished. A little more writing and a couple of more trips to Kinkos, and I was riding home on the bus cradling fifty copies of my baby in my lap.
The first copies had gold covers. They felt like pure gold. I brought the books back to the office. The late November evening was cold, windy, and delicious. Deep snow lay on the ground.
As I entered the building, a man about my age was walking in the lobby. 'What have you got there? ' he asked.
'A book of poetry I just finished writing! ' I said proudly, holding up my beautiful cover.
'Wow, ' he said. 'May I read it? '
'Sure! ' I told him. 'Here, you can have a copy.'
'That's so kind of you,' he said. "Will you autograph it?"
Soon I was walking toward my own little space on the second floor, eager to make a cup of tea and go over the poems in the book one more time. I pulled my keychain from my pocket. It was heavy with keys to several churches I opened each week for self-help meetings Closing the door behind me and putting the books down on the desk, I suddenly felt completely naked, as if my entire psyche was being x-rayed.
What could be making me feel this way, I wondered. As far as I knew, I was completely alone and had been filled with nothing but expansive feelings.
Then I knew. The young man downstairs had opened his book and was reading. He was reading my soul. That was what poetry was: the book of one's soul, shared.
But this little book only skims the surface of what I'll have to say, I thought, savoring this delicious taste of the writer's secret life. ..