I was lucky in high school to have been asked to help edit the first literary journal in the school. One or two poems were even selected to be in the journal, named appropriately as the sixties ended, Wildflowers. Temple was a small town, so the local paper promoted the journal and quoted one of my poems. I was even asked to visit a lady’s group and read some poems. What kind and sweet people to be so kind to such an innocent, struggling boy! I doubt if my father knew any of this. If he did, I don’t think it impressed him.
My first three years in college were a bit of a lost weekend, not because I was drunk the entire time, though I did drink. Whatever wildness and confidence that I possessed in Temple disappeared when I went to the University of Texas. I knew that college was supposed to be a transformative period, and more or less I treated it that way, expected to be transformed. In my senior year, Professor Leonard Lamm suggested that I read a book of essays by Hannah Arandt, Men in Dark Times, which contained an essay about Randall Jarrell. That led me to Jarrell’s “The Woman at the Washington Zoo.” That poem contains a line “O bars of my body, open! Open!” And I think that describes my feelings about college. I was a fairly unremarkable person, except, I think, I knew that I was developing. I never put much stock in who I was and how that may or may not limit me. I guess if I were to assign myself a mythic role model, it would be Percival, a country bumpkin going to the city.
So my first three years in college, I struggled to read what I could, tried to keep up with kids who possessed more confidence, who had better high school educations, had more free money and thus could purchase more experiences. My freshman year, I lived with my sister and brother-in-law in the suburbs, the next two with my friend, the artist Neal Adams, in a one bedroom apartment near campus. The landlord had a great collection of classical LPs that I browsed while I made a lot of B’s and C’s. I look back, and I just didn’t know how to care enough to make A’s. Maybe I couldn’t have made A’s, or maybe I didn’t want to try to and to fail. So I skated by. Still, I thought of myself as a budding intellectual with the goal of being a person with culture.
In this way, I think I have a lot in common with the students I meet at Austin Community College where I teach. My students are generally good people from good families but families who, often, have had some trauma—a divorce, a death, an accident, a child with an illness, just bad luck. Many of these students have been denied the lucky life of small advantages, happy parents, stress-less homework sessions around the kitchen table. One of the lessons we community college professors have to preach is “Brilliance is not something for someone else; brilliance is inside you also. Have confidence, work hard, and the rewards will follow.” You know, the American Dream.
During my senior year, I lived with Neal and another friend, Claud Payne, also from Temple, who was chemistry major. We rented a little house west of the university across from a railroad track that seemed to remain fairly busy. In the fall, I took my second course from Dr. Leonard Lamm. One of my fields of study was political science, and I had previously taken Classical Political Theory from him. The second class was called Faith and Politics. The first class was fairly hard going. We read Plato, Augustine, Nietzsche. He lectured and we students tried to keep up. If I piece things together correctly, by the second class, he was learning that he was not going to be tenured, so he opened up the smaller class to readings, discussions and individual projects. As part of the class, I opted to keep a journal, which is not necessarily something I do particularly well. I read a great number of interesting books, including essays on culture and religion by Eliot, Pound’s ABC’s of Reading, Berger’s Art and Revolution, Randall Jarrell’s essays and poems, probably my first brush with Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, since Jarrell’s “Woman at the Washington Zoo” references Rilke.
I would read those books, take notes, ponder, and look out the window of my bedroom and write. A few weekends, I went back to Temple to visit my dad and step-mother. One morning, perhaps it was a chilly, foggy November morning, I took my notebook on the back porch and tried to write a poem. The poem was written, developed, basically as it is now printed. I began with the quatrain, abandoned it, and wrote the free verse portion. This is how the sixth poem in a series I called “Morning Prayers, Night Prayers” was born.
I assume all poets write poems that are complete breaks with the previous poems. These are poems in which the poet learns something more about the craft of writing. In the long run, the poem may not be that good, but it served a good purpose. It opened the doors to new ideas and new techniques. For me, the door opened with the line “I hate the step-holes little boys leave in fields.” I had never thought about them before. Obviously, I had noticed them. I remember hearing that sucking sound of the foot coming up out of the mud as I wrote the line. I also think I saw immediately what a sad image those holes in the mud is—the track of holes across a field, a boy struggling to lift his shoes out of the muck, and the holes filling up with rain water.
But now I notice the vowel sounds in the line: “I hate the step-holes little boys leave in fields.” I hear tension of the e and i sounds with that of the o sounds. And I notice the tension between the soft l and v sounds with those of the closed t, p, and d. And perhaps they are held together with that hiss of the s sounds of step, holes, boys, and fields.
Is this too much talk about the craft of poetry, of prosody? I do not think so. What else is poetry, but a collection of techniques that a writer uses more of in poetry than in prose. You may very well ask, did I think about those sounds when I wrote the line. For me, then, “No.” The line just came out of me that way. Then, I was not aware enough of myself or the music of poetry to create a line consciously—that would come later. But saying that I did not consciously put the sounds in the line does not mean that their being there has no effect. In fact, the very reason that the line meant so much to me was that the music of the line somehow reflected/duplicated the meaning of the line.
The journal entry/poem retains that process as part of its development. One looks back and sees the early buds of one’s later blossoms, and I when I read this journal entry/poem, I see a certain early willingness to allow the chaos to remain in a poem. I believe part of this willingness comes from having had an artist for a roommate. I remember we studied a long time the drawings and painting of Paul Klee and of Andrew Wyeth. Wyeth, in particular, allowed his stains and drips to remain in many of his finished works. Many years later Neal and I visited the Cy Twombly museum in Houston. There is something really important in the unfinished qualities showing through.
The other point that I understand, now, looking back at this poem is that it pretty well sums up, in process, my bifurcated relationship with poetry. I will swing back and forth from formal verse, which this poem attempts to begin with, to free verse, where this poem ends up. There I was on the back porch and sensing the presence of a poem. Yes, I think that is how I and some other poets proceed. We are living in a moment and we feel that a poem is around the corner, is nearby, is approaching. Then we are stuck. How, how, we worry, can we entice it on to the page? Like holding out our open palm for the dog to sniff. One could trap it, capture it, or one can pat the cushion of the couch and speak in a soft and high voice and call it to sit beside you. How can one write the poem? For me, that November morning, it became clear that I was not going to be able to sit a trap for the poem in metered quatrains. I had to give up control and let it come. And, looking back, I think some cool things came up. “I hate the step-holes little boys / Leave in fields” is a pretty cool line, to my way of thinking. Biographically, it has no source that I remember. I was just imagining walking across a muddy field. And the little internal rhyme/association of “muddy” and “ruddy,” which is probably associated to “rutty,” as in step holes in mud—even if I don’t think the meaning of the word, “reddish,” has much relevance to the poem.
I submitted two or three poems, one year, to the University of Texas undergraduate journal. There was the poem to/about my friend Tim Grear, but they were not accepted. I sort of knew they were not very good, and I didn’t expect they would be accepted. I remember the disappointment, the confirmation of my opinion of the poem, that I was not a good writer.
Although I received a Bachelor’s Degree in Education from the University of Texas, I was basically an English major with a government minor, and I received certification to teach high school. In this way, I think, I was pretty much a disappointment to my father, who wanted me to major in business. Although I did take a creative writing class in writing fiction, I didn’t write much poetry during my first three years at the university, except for a longish poem inspired by the plays I was reading in a class on Shakespeare in my sophomore year. Since I had not been much of a reader in high school, I had a lot of catching up to do. In some ways, my goal was not to emerge from the university as a writer, but as a civilized and well-rounded human being. How old-fashioned of me!
Of course, I became quite familiar with the two great strands of American literature: Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. Free verse and common meter. Pagan and Christian. Ego focus and outward focus. Warm, cool. Dionysian, Apollonian. The first stanza of the poem in question was rooted in the Emily Dickinson tradition, and the rest flowered in the Whitman tradition. Did I have to choose? It would be a kind of unconscious war within me for many years until I decided I didn’t have to decide.
Assignment: Write two poems about the same subject matter or scene. Write one in a cool, controlled, rational tone. Write a second poem with a warmer, hotter tone. Or write one poem in a regular meter-say iambic tetrameter or pentameter, and then write the second poem in free verse.