Learning from the Masters, No Matter How Long It Takes, Concerning “The Dying Leaves”

“The Dying Leaves” is my first publication (other than my high school literary magazine). I wrote it while doing a summer graduate writing program at UT, which I attended while in graduate school at A&M. This style of poem was very much out of fashion in the seventies, but it is the kind I wrote in the mid to late seventies. Still the guest poet, a New York beat poet, who edited a journal of the program included this poem. I was flattered because I was not taking a poetry writing class, but a class in prose.

When I was in graduate school, I wrote my thesis on a Texas poet, Leonard Doughty, who wrote a great deal of poetry between 1890 and 1920.   He is still very much unknown and perhaps that is just. However, he also translated the poetry of the German poet Heinrich Heine, who wrote a great number of short lyric poems that were quite famous and influential on the next generation of poets in many countries, including England’s A. E. Housman.   Heine is a great poet by anyone’s standards and continues to find new translators in every generation.   A. E. Housman is also a wonderful, if perhaps minor, poet. So since I was reading a great deal of Doughty, Heine, and Housman (also the Roman poet Horace, who is the foundation of these poets), I thought and tried to write like them.  Or maybe it is better to say, I could not help but write like them.

I wrote this poem in response to an act by my friend, Neal Adams. There was a small potted plant—I don’t remember what kind. Maybe it was a small ficus tree—and it had some yellow leaves and he just walked up to it a plucked off a few of the dying leaves. The clear determination of his act astonished me and a woman friend of ours who was there. As I remember it, the two of them got into a fairly heated discussion over the best way to treat the plant. For me, his act and their discussion became the subject for the poem.

The part in the poem about drawings comes from the fact that Neal is an artist. Then and now, much of his art features black lines on white canvasses. The fact, though, is that his lines employ both bold contrast and very faint areas. So in the poem, I lied and said I liked one and he the other. My lying, though, serves the greater truth of the poem. This is something that all artists learn soon or later: you cannot let factual truth get in the way of artistic truth.  We are not historians or biographers, we are creators.

In this poem, I like the first hard declarative sentence: “My friend wants to cut them off.” Then I like the fact that we don’t hear about him until the end of the second stanza, in a kind of parallel line: “My friend likes dark lines that define.” [By now you know that I care about the music of a line. Notice the shifting sounds coming off the “likes.” First the “k” moves into “dark”; then the “li” moves into “lines’; then “a” from “dark” moves into “that”; then the “d” of “dark” moves into “define,” which also picks up the “ine” of “lines.” The “de” also picks up the vowels in “friend,” which also contains the “n.” And “My” has the long i of “likes,” “lines,” and “define.” I am not going to say that I labored over this line to achieve that, but I think that if one reads enough good poetry, then these things happen naturally—like I said, I began to think like Heine and Housman.]

On the other hand, I think there are several mistakes in the poem that should be corrected. I am not sure “amiably” is the correct word—though it does relate to friendship, as in amigo. I am certain that “alternate” is wrong. The idea I need is “merge,” or “co-mingle.” But those ideas do not have the right sound, so I am still at a loss on how to fix this. I also think the last two lines should read:

Paid for everyday. I will die of long

Disease; My friend of heart attack.

The reason I think this is that this poem is based on an eight syllable line. Those lines that deal with my friend are the right length or shorter. Those lines that deal with me are the right length or longer: thus reflecting the theme of the poem—I drag things out and he cuts them short. This is something that has come to me twenty-five years after writing the poem.

Lecture Assignment 3: Write a poem contrasting the life or views of you and a friend, or of two friends, of a parent and child, a man and woman.   Find a metaphor that embodies that distinction between the two. If possible, find different vowel and consonant sounds for the two people, views, or ideas. As an alternative model, think of Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” in which he describes two paths, one well-trod and the other overgrown.