Before One Knows of Failure, Concerning “I Have Dreamed a Hundred Whispers”

A few times, in teaching creative writing classes, I have presented this poem as a failed poem. I wrote this poem, I think, in 1969, during the summer between my sixteen and seventeenth year. Maybe it was a year later. I think I was in San Antonio on a summer trip with a group of friends associated with a youth organization called The DeMolays.

Again, if I remember correctly, that afternoon had been spent in a baseball game with a DeMolay team from another city. I remember playing left field and we were trying to get the game in before a thunderstorm rolled in. There was a hit to left field. I could tell immediately that it was going to sail over my head and cut out of bounds foul. My memory is that I ran and ran and ran, the wind blew, and I ran, and then because we were playing in a field that did not have fences, I ran further than I would have in a regular field and finally caught the ball. I remember cheers and congratulations as I trotted the ball in and it was our time to bat. This memory has almost a dream like quality to it, and so, who knows, maybe it is not a memory of an event but a memory of a dream or of a failure transformed into success.

That evening, I wrote this poem, I think, but I know that I shared this poem with a group of girls and a mother or two who were on the trip with us. The girls were in competition as the State Sweetheart of DeMolay.   The fact that I shared a poem was not unusual—I was, like many poets, a shameless promoter of my work. It was, I thought, a rather cool thing to be a guy who wrote poetry. This year or another, I wrote a separate poem for each nominee for the Sweetheart of DeMolay for my hometown and published them in a mimeographed newsletter. So even at a young age publishing was a goal, and so were books. I collected my poems in little books that I typed up and bound in cardboard from my father’s starched shirts.

Like so many young men in small, Southern towns, I knew only a few poems. My father would occasionally quote Whittier and Bryant and Longfellow. In high school I had been introduced to Edgar Lee Masters, Emily Dickinson, Carl Sandburg, and Robert Frost. I had picked up a little Allen Ginsberg along the way. My sister, in college, introduced me to Rod McKuen’s work.   But the greatest influence was pop songs—the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, The Beachboys, Simon and Garfunkel, and, for me, deeply, Donovan.

I am telling you this because now approaching sixty years old, more than forty years after writing this poem, because I really can’t tell you why I started to write poems, nor why I have continued, with a few breaks, and why I try to publish them and share them with others.   When did I start writing poems?—maybe when I was fourteen or fifteen. I wrote something like 300 poems in high school—I know, I logged them into notebook (an early spreadsheet) and dated them. It was just something I had to do, something I did. It is, perhaps, the biggest mystery I know.

In grade school, I was a poor reader, and maybe I read only three or four books on my own before graduating high school.   I was and forever will be a terrible speller and proofreader. What I had going for me was a father who was a reader of history, a mother who was a reader of trashy fiction, and two older sisters who went to college before me. I also had a mind that wasn’t bad at analysis—I really liked English grammar and diagramming sentences, and algebra and geometry were rather fun—though I did poorly in geometry class, but that was the year my mother died, so I cut myself a break on that. I had something else going for me. I respected tradition: When Emerson, Lake and Palmer remade Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition I was among the first in line to purchase the album, as I was with Rick Wakeman’s Six Lives of Henry VIII. When Ginsberg did his readings of William Blake poems, and I attempted my own “readings on guitar” and thought my voice was more manly than his.

My point, I guess, is that as a teenager I was like so many other late bloomers. I was making my way. I was blindly working my way toward a destiny. I wasn’t aware enough to even say that it was a dream. Writing poems was a thing that I found I liked to do. I am not going to say that it was a thing I found that I could do. Because I am pretty sure that I did not write anything that educated readers would call “a poem” until between five and ten years later. I moved forward. I took classes in college, I began reading, and I tried sometimes to write poems, but there was a great deal of language had to be poured into me before any decent language was ready to come out. But if Malcolm Gladwell is correct that expertise takes 10,000 hours of practice, I at least began putting in my time fairly early.

So I call this poem a failure. Obviously, it is a poem that was begun in one frame of mind and was written line by line with no knowledge of where it was going until it came to a last line that seemed emotional and somehow conclusive and in another frame of mind. It begins with an image that an inexperienced writer would think was sensitive and poetic. The ghost thing was an attempt at sounding philosophical—What is real? What is ghost? What is real ghost? To my mind, the burnt out light bulb might actually possess some resonance, but I didn’t know how to exploit it. It is a bizarre simile. I have not yet begun to employ any lyrical or musical tricks—though I do believe the poem reveals “a voice.” To me, it does sound like a human being is speaking the poem, and this voice will remain with me, I think, over all my years of writing poems.

Unaware, I was working my way toward two myths that become one. The first, “Whispered in a moon lit sky” is the muse myth: creativity, voice, visitation, moon. The second, “grow a thousand feet tall,” is “Jack and the Bean Stalk” the story of the immature young man trying, stupidly, to be a hero, to steal the giant’s gold, to be and not to be a mama’s boy. Of course, I had no idea I was employing these two myths. I was just a somewhat lonely boy, trying to get a little attention and, as therapists say, “to heal myself.” I didn’t know it, and certainly no adult in my home town knew it, but my soul was yearning itself toward some sort of completeness.

So I call this poem a failure. I don’t think I could revise this poem to become a publishable poem. I have had students who have protested and accused me of being a snob or of being dismissive because I call the poem a failure.  But calling this poem a failure doesn’t mean that I am cruel toward this poem. I haven’t burned it, have I? I haven’t denied it the possibilities to having a reader. Heck, I am asking you to read it over 40 years after I wrote it.   It just means that it is not as emotionally satisfying, as intellectually engaging, as artistically arresting as other poems.  Compare it to, say, “Cancer,” which I think is a successful poem.

My point is presenting it in class is to emphasize that everyone starts somewhere. We are where we are. And there is nothing wrong with that. Life is long. The climb to heaven can take years. The moon can speak to us at any moment.

Assignment:  Buy a journal. Just begin filling the pages. Write anything and everything you have to write. Don’t worry if what you are writing is poetry or not. If you want guidance—make a list of the ten most emotionally alive events you have experienced. Write a page about each event. Use “I.” Be yourself. Assume no one will ever read these pages. Just write and write and write.

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About lymangrant

Lyman Grant is a professor of creative writing and humanities at Austin Community College. He has work at ACC since 1978. He is the author or editor of two textbooks, two books relating to Texas literature, three volumes and a chapbook of poetry. Recently he traveled the United States for a year in a 34-foot RV 5th wheel trailer with his wife and two younger sons.