June 18th, 2017

More Than Anyone Wants To Know

Old notes I came across today, oddly tying in with yesterday's post about my father's birthday party:

I don't expect that many people will be interested in my development, particularly my early development, as a poet. But it interests me, so I am writing it down because I am curious about it myself, and believe I might get a better grip on it by committing it to words.

I grew up in a household where one of my role models periodically wrote humorous, clever, well-rhymed verse. This was my father. I would listen at the dinner table, reciting and sometimes discussing the technical mechanics of verse making. As I recall the form of the Limerick came under particular discussion. I listened closely.

My great Aunt Vera, on my mother's side, was also a writer of verses. As I recall hers ranged more toward the heartfelt and sentimental. So I thought of poetry writing a noteworthy activity that some normal people engaged in.

I mentioned that I listened closely to my father's thoughts on versification, so perhaps this is a good place to insert some mention of the fact that I had trouble talking as a young child, a trouble that was rooted, at least in part, in having trouble distinguishing some routine English phonemes. I can remember not being able, for instance, to distinguish the sound of This from Dis. This was not because everyone around me said "dis" although perhaps some did. Here's another, different example of my problem. I could not pronounce the word YES properly. I had some problem with the Y and some problem with the S as well. I remember it as extremely frustrating and embarrassing. As the years wore on, I mastered these phonemes, but at a self conscious level that involved really listening to how people spoke.

I think this made me more focused on the sound of words at a conscious level than most kids usually are. In later grade school I was actually better at phonetic analysis than my peers. I imagine it was a form of overcompensation for whatever was "off" in my original linguistic capabilities. I suspect that this overcompensation is one of the factors that drove me to writing and to poetry in particular.

The first poems I remember writing was a fourth grade school assignment. Our teacher wrote a single line on the blackboard: Do you like the sun?

We were supposed to take that as a starting line and write a poem.

Do you like the sun
And the stars that it passes?
And its fiery hot gases?

That's all I remember - 3 lines from the first quatrain. It went on for several quatrains more, exploring various facets of the solar system.

Two of us were chose for special acclaim by the teacher. The other student had taken a totally different approach.

Do you like the sun
Or do you like the moon?

He went on to compare the virtues of day and night.

This contrast of approaches - equally valid interpretations of the first line - struck me profoundly. I began to glimpse how a simple line of poetry can go off in very different directions. It's hard to say why this was experienced as such an epiphany, but it was.

The next poem I remember is one I wrote in my freshman year of high school. It was written to make fun of our elderly theology teacher, Father Lauer. It was written for the amusement of my classmates and included a lot of in-joke references to some of the peculiarities of his teachings. I recall the first quatrain.

God is syllogism.
Religion's diagrams.
Support the Lauer schism.
Pray in traffic jams.

I also remember the last 2 lines;

Just cheat, cheat, cheat,cheat, cheat
And you will get an A.

I wouldn't expect that to mean anything to anyone now, but it was wildly popular with my classmates, one of whom reproduced the poem and spread it around. It did fall into the hands of at least one other teacher who gave us a talking to, and who learned in the process that I was the satirist.

That same year, my freshman year in high school, I began looking seriously at modern, free verse poetry for the first time and puzzling over what it was about, and in particular puzzling over what made it different than prose. Were they really poems at all? I asked. One poem baffled me even more, Grasshopper by e.e. cummings, which just seemed to involve the letters of the word GRASSHOPPER arranged around he page in unpronounceable configurations that visually suggested a grasshopper hopping around. Our English teacher told us something like it was really a poem but we weren't ready to understand it. This bothered me no end.

I recall being puzzled also by our high school literary magazine, which was loaded with free-verse stream-of-consciousness stuff.

I studied the content of these poems, and wrote a poem on their model. It was a poem about drifting of to sleep, and I wrote it in a breathless style of successive drifting thoughts. It was not accepted for publication, but I heard later that the editors had wondered whether it was a parody. I suppose, in retrospect, they might have thought my "falling asleep" theme was a commentary on my level of interest in their poetry.

I think it was that summer that I read the book that really got me interested in poetic analysis. This book was The Design Of Poetry, which I found at the public library. I found the book riveting. The author did line by line analysis of a variety of poems. Specifically, I recall Because I Could Not Stop For Death, by Emily Dickinson, Ozymandias, by Shelley, and that poem about eating plums by William Carlos Williams.

The author was lined up, more or less, with the New Criticism school of interpretation, so he was quite keen on finding ironies and ambiguities in the text. I was quite taken with the analysis, particularly with the very close reading and very close analysis of metaphor and simile. It really was one of those books that changed my life.

The author had a theory about what made something poetry, something like writing designed for no purpose but its own contemplation. This easily included free verse. Later I decided it was an inadequate, over-inclusive definition, but for now it sufficed. I also started reading more poetry as an independent habit. I recall being most struck by 2 poets: Emily Dickinson, and Kenneth Patchen. Among moderns, I was partial to the Beat poets: Patchen, Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti, Corso. As an individual poet, I was impressed with Lenore Kandel, who published a single book of poems. Among classics, aside from Dickinson, I liked Blake for his short lyrics.

The Beats appealed to me in part because their meaning was manifest and strongly emotional.

I began writing free verse poems, continued writing rhymed poems, and also wrote some poems that combined the 2 modes.

By my Junior year, I was on the high school literary magazine, which had a new faculty advisor, a young Jesuit who was a big fan of Dylan Thomas. He did not care for free verse, said it didn't sound like anything in particular. I argued the other side of this case, but didn't feel I had that great a case, and wondered if I was wrong.

This brings me, roughly, to the development of my interest in Ayn Rand's philosophy. This had an immediate effect on my poetry writing in several ways.

Stylistically, the element of her thought that had the biggest effect was her withering analysis of the modernist revolution in art. She actually had only a few passing remarks about poetry. But I began to think that maybe free verse was in a class with non-representational painting and plotless novels. So I channeled my efforts into verse with more form to it.

A second stylistic impact came from her emphasis on clarity. I had been taught that good poetry was ambiguous. Now I was working with the idea that good poetry should be clear.

Shortly before getting really interested in Rand, I had been started on a study of William Butler Yeats. I was very impressed and he came to be another influential favorite for me.


This brings us to the start of my high school senior year.
It's already too much stuff, I fear,
But fortunately, it does end here.