The seeds of my lifelong vocation were sewn early. I spoke in sentences at one, and my mother taught me to read and write before I entered kindergarten. One of my earliest memories is the applause from my paternal grandparents when I wrote my name for them at the age of two. Another vivid early memory is the time I read the entire Fifth Grade reader to a packed P.T.A. meeting when I was in the First Grade.
It was an illustrated “chapter book” about a farmer. I can still visualize it, and the big, old-fashioned chrome microphone that made my voice boom out over the small auditorium. It was my first public reading.
Because I read at a Fifth Grade level in the First Grade, I was sent to the Fifth Grade teacher for reading and writing. It was the early fifties, when gifted programs didn’t exist in public schools. I went to that same classroom for five years, and got to know the teacher, Mrs. Jannick, quite well. I was initially wary of her, because she was the school disciplinarian who wielded a large wooden paddle in those days when corporeal punishment was allowed and even encouraged in schools, but over the next few years we developed a strong bond.
At first I was shy around the older kids and sat in the back of the room. I remember feeling anxious that I was different than my peers. After a while I gained confidence and sat in the front row, a habit that followed me through college and graduate school. Early adaptations can persist.
As early as I can remember, my mother read poetry to me and my sister on the living room sofa. She read all the children’s favorites such as Winken, Blinken and Nod, The Owl and the Pussycat, and the poems from Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses.
My mother was not generally a warm person, but when she read poetry to us she was more in the moment and attentive than usual, so I learned to associate poetry with mother-love. It was the way we connected. My lifelong love of and devotion to poetry began on the living room sofa, excitedly listening to my mother read from the big Louis Untermeyer anthology of children’s poetry or from another large anthology whose title eludes me nearly seventy years later.
As we got older, she read Tennyson, Longfellow, Kipling and other popular narrative poets of the day to us. Particular favorites of mine, which I’d always request, were The Village Smithy by Longfellow and The Highwayman by Alfred Noyes. The images in these narrative poems spoke to me. The blacksmith had “arms like steel bands” and Bess, the landlord’s daughter had plaited “a dark red love-knot into her long black hair.”
Although they were rural people, and immigrants, my mother’s family was into poetry. Even then, poetry had more standing in Europe than in America.
They didn’t have a television set, so they were more sociable, as rural people often are. In my mother’s family, people talked all at once, and excitedly. Poetry had an actual function in their lives, but it was more than mere entertainment. It had moral value.
It was a thrill to hear my grandfather, normally a man of few words, stand up at the head of the family table after supper to recite, from memory and in a sonorous voice, If by Rudyard Kipling, or Invictus by William Henley. His voice would tremble with emotion as he recited Invictus. These were words that he believed in. They gave expression to his own noble and idealistic beliefs. This early experience had a profound effect on me because of the power I saw flowing through my grandfather as he recited:
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.
– William Ernest Henley
My grandfather was a small, heavy man, but when he stood up and recited, he seemed somehow large, masculine and strong. I was very impressed early in life by the power of poetry. Later, when I fell in love with the dramatic and dynamic reading style of Dylan Thomas, I always thought of my grandfather reciting Invictus.
From the age of seven or so to my mid-teens, whenever I got in trouble and received a lecture, it ended with a recitation by my mother of Kipling’s poem If. The routine never settled into tedium, because whenever I heard that last line (“And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!”) my heart leapt into my throat. That poem made me want to be a man. Despite its overt didacticism, the poem still thrills me to this day. I confess that I’ve read it to my own sons a few times.
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:
If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!
– Rudyard Kipling
The first poem I memorized for recitation was I’m Nobody, Who Are You? by Emily Dickinson. I loved that poem for its sound and its message. It was simple but profound. This became a value I later pursued in my own poetry.
My grandmother wrote poetry, and so did my mother. They each had a notebook full. My grandmother wrote a poem about me when I was a year old, titled Little Walkie-Talkie. Grandmother had a much wider range of topics and styles than my mother, whose poems could only be described as religious. Grandma wrote what today would be described as folk poetry. They both liked a popular newspaper poet named Edgar Guest, who wrote about everyday topics and “common people.”
I wrote my first poem when I was ten years old. I had been running in the house all morning, because it was raining outside. It was a Saturday. My mother had tried several times to redirect my energy, to no avail. Finally, somewhat exasperated, she suggested that
I go and write her a poem. An instrumental album of Latin music was playing on the hi-fi. The song that was playing was Quiet Village. This is what I wrote:
Far away, a wild cry
Inspires a dozen faint echoes.
The night air is broken
In even sections,
As the crickets serenade
The ever-present darkness.
Across the shadow of the moon:
The sudden swish of an owl.
After that, there was no stopping me. I soon had a notebook of my own. By the time I was twelve, for some inexplicable reason, I developed a strong desire to publish them. I labored on an old Royal typewriter to type out four copies of each poem on half sheets of paper, which I stapled together under a hand drawn cover on manila file-folder stock. I gave copies to my mother, my sister and to Edwin Travis (an elderly man in the neighborhood who taught me guitar). I kept one copy for myself, which I eventually lost. Several years ago, my sister returned her copy, which she’d saved for over fifty years. As far as I know, it’s the only surviving copy of Abstract Poems, my first self-published book.
A Michigan poet named Gwen Frostic was a big influence on me. Frostic wrote imagitic
Nature poems and illustrated them with delicate linoleum block carvings. She had her own print shop in Benzonia, Michigan, where she sold her beautifully-designed illustrated poetry books. Her books were elegant, with fine papers. My mother was a big fan of Frostic and we visited her at her print shop. We had a full set of Frostic’s books. I loved the idea that a poet could produce her own books.
I grew to think that writing poems was only the first stage. Taking it all the way to published form completes the creative act. My first effort at making a little book of my poems was largely in emulation of Frostic, who was even more inspiring because she had severe Cerebral Palsy. Her poems were spare and in a free-verse mode. (Frostic received honorary degrees from Alma College, Eastern Michigan University, Western Michigan University, Michigan State University, and Ferris State University. In 1978, the governor of Michigan declared May 23 as Gwen Frostic Day in Michigan. In 1986, she was inducted into the Michigan Woman’s Hall of Fame. She died in 2001. In 2007, Western Michigan University named its School of Art after her.)
The poems I wrote after Quiet Village weren’t as good. Early promise is often like that. Quiet Village had been intuitive and natural, one of those Aha! moments that are few and far between in life. It took until my senior year of high school until I wrote another reasonably good poem.
The problem, in hindsight, was that I was trying to write poems. The results were imitative of what I thought poems were supposed to be.
Most young poets probably fall into the same pit. Years later, when I taught poetry writing to high school students and through the Poets in the Schools program, I emphasized reinventing poetry for oneself instead of referencing one’s received ideas of what a poem should be.
At the age of twelve, I got an after-school job. I used the few dollars I earned to buy books. I was particularly enamored of the Modern Library classics, especially the Library Giants, usually six hundred-plus pages long. Many of the great world classics were available in the series, and they were affordable, selling for $2.48 for the smaller volumes and $3.45 for the Giants. I bought a Giant that contained the complete poems of Keats and Shelly. I read and re-read the Shelly, trying to understand it. I carried this book around with me for most of Junior High School.
Around 1960, I became aware of the Beat movement. I discovered a small Bohemian bookstore in downtown Grand Rapids that specialized in alternative literature. I bought and read several of the small Pocket Poet books produced by Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Books in San Francisco, including Howl by Allen Ginsberg, Lunch Poems by Frank O’Hara and one by Phillip Lamantia, who was an American surrealist. I purchased Seymour Krim’s The Beat Generation anthology and wore it out from repeated readings.
When I first discovered the Beats, it was the Life magazine, television version that attracted me. Several of my friends and I dressed in black turtle necks and sandals and grew fuzzy little boy beards. My school photo from the ninth grade features a black turtle neck sweater, black horn-rim glasses (like Ginsberg’s) and a pretty respectable moustache for a fourteen year old. Some of us even donned the sacred beret. At that age, Beat style and the social role of poets impressed us more than their poetry.
Another big influence on my poetry came from the singer-songwriters of the early sixties, especially Bob Dylan, and to a slightly lesser extent Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon and Donovan Leitch. My musical involvement as a budding folk-singer and guitarist leaked into my sense of what can be done with poetry. I still love those artists to this day. I still sing their songs, listen to their recordings and consider them to be poets who work in a musical format. Recently I was thrilled when the Nobel Prize for Literature was awarded to Bob Dylan for his innovative and seminal fusion of poetry and music.
When I got to the Ninth grade and high school, I met another boy who also liked to read and write, named Ronnie Lane. He and I became Debate partners, so we got to spend non-class time together discussing our debate strategy in the “Debate Room,” a small office that we had all to ourselves. We seldom discussed the debate topic, preferring to talk about books and writing. We discovered that the school newspaper had been suspended years before for lack of interest, so we decided to revive it.
Our plan was to make the school newspaper a combination of news (mostly sports) and student literary work. I became the Literary Editor, while Ronnie took the position of Editor. I soon had a network of sources for student stories and poems, which mainly consisted of the two or three English teachers who gave creative writing assignments. I also created my own weekly column of silly aphorisms, which I called Ye Olde Chinese Proverbs. Every week I wrote seven short aphorisms, and people would quote them to me until the next series came out. They were a big hit, which buoyed my confidence. Here is the very first one: “A wet horse never flies at night.”
I wish I had copies of Ye Olde Chinese Proverbs. I must have written a hundred of them. My big inspiration for them was Mad Magazine, which featured silly aphorisms in the margins. At the time I was unaware that they were a kind of poetry. It was just fun.
We became a part of the sixties “mimeo revolution” without knowing it. All around America, young writers were spontaneously starting their own grassroots literary magazines, mostly printed on mimeo machines (A.B. Dick, Gestentner, etc.) like the kind that were popular for use in schools and offices.
My high school instituted an annual poetry contest, which I won four years in a row, receiving an award check each time for twenty-five dollars. These awards were good for my confidence, though only one of the poems, which I wrote as a senior, was very good. Here it is:
It Will Be Locked
This is my house. A part of me. A section of my heart.
You are my friend. A friend to me & my place.
When you come to my house, you will be welcomed.
The door will be opened to you.
We will do the things that friends do: think, talk, sing & fight.
We will have gatherings where all our friends will come
For a song & a talk & a think.
The fireplace will bless & warm our feet.
The house where we meet will be the center point
Of our friendship. When frost creeps into my bones,
& I feel alone, my friends will appear.
My bones will be warmed.
When I die, it will be of a loneliness no one can explain;
A fear no one can imagine. It will be in my house, & my friends
Will be around me. When you come to my house,
It will be locked by a fire; locked as the rest of my heart.
But this fire will make you cold.
Two of my high school English teachers had a strong influence on me. Maude Dawson was a wonderful teacher in her seventies who introduced me to the works of Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain and Edgar Allen Poe. These early American writers were exciting to me, especially Thoreau, whose philosophy formed the foundation of my own. He was a great visionary whose ideas still qualify him as the greatest American philosopher.
I was very influenced by American Transcendentalism when I was in high school. Thoreau’s Walden made concrete many thoughts I was already having, especially his idea that one needn’t travel far away from home to discover great beauty and meaning. Thoreau and Emerson also Americanized the Hindu concepts of an oversoul and of micro- and macrocosms that are fundamentally symbiotic. These ideas would continue to sustain me for the rest of my life.
The other influential teacher was Elizabeth Conrad, my Senior Composition teacher. She was an intellectual woman, who “talked up” to students. She gave me the best assignment I had in high school. The assignment was to write an essay entitled My Monument. When I gave serious thought, at that early point in my life, to what I would want to leave behind when I was gone, I realized (another Aha!) that I wanted to be a poet.
My high school English teachers introduced me to the poetry of Robert Frost and Carl Sandburg. Both of these modern period poets influenced me. Robert Frost is still one of my all-time favorite poets. I especially love his poems Birches, West-Running Brook, The Death Of The Hired Man and Acquainted With The Night. Later, I came to appreciate and practice a more progressive poetics, but I’ve always kept a place in my heart for Frost and Sandburg.
Carl Sandburg had a Midwest diction, and he used imagery economically but effectively. I still enjoy his minimalism and reliance on imagery. Mrs. Dawson also pushed Walt Whitman, but I didn’t fully appreciate Whitman until I was in college.
Having a great teacher or two is undoubtedly a factor in the development of a poet. Mrs. Dawson went above and beyond the call of duty, inviting me to her home on many occasions, where I became familiar with her husband (who taught literature at the local community college) and their huge library, which filled an entire room, floor-to -ceiling. Although I attended the poorest school in the county, the great teachers at Kelloggsville High School made up for it with their dedication and personal commitment.
Following high school graduation, I enlisted in the U.S. Coast Guard. While I was in the Coast Guard, I served on a Search and Rescue team days and wrote poetry at night. None of it was very good. You could say it was “experimental.” I tried many things, to pull away from received ideas and develop an original voice, which ultimately turned out to be a varied repertoire of voices.
After the service, I went to college on the G.I. Bill, majoring in English. I used most of my electives to take more English courses, eventually taking nearly every one offered. I was advised that this was unusual, but it worked for me.
I was influenced again by some excellent teachers. Lucy DeLoof taught a poetry writing course that helped me understand the “standards” of contemporary poetry while simultaneously inspiring in me a desire to test and/or break those “rules,” such as the ones against the use of public symbols and the predominant preference for particularity in imagery.
As I did in high school, I became very active in the college English department. I was President of the English Club, the elected student representative to the English Department and the founder/editor of the literary magazine. (Amaranthus, Grand Valley State University, Allendale, MI)
University president Arend Lubbers loved poetry and gave me great support. Despite his busy schedule, he met numerous times with me to discuss my poetry. We have continued to the present day through correspondence, though we are both now elderly and retired. Whenever I publish a poetry collection and send it to him, he writes me a wonderful, insightful letter about it.
Grand Valley State University brought in many poets for readings and workshops back in the early seventies. I attended week-long workshops with poets Ted Berrigan, Anselm Hollo, Robert Bly, James Wright and the experimental poet Jackson MacLow, among others.
Exposure to accomplished poets of an older generation can be very influential to a young poet in his formative years. My early involvement with several major poets had a far-reaching and profound effect on my poetry.
The First National Poetry Festival in 1971 was a week-long celebration of poetry that featured workshops and numerous readings by a large group of nationally prominent poets that included Paul Blackburn, Ted Berrigan, Gregory Corso, Sonia Sanchez, Robert Bly, Robert Creeley, John Logan, Anselm Hollo, James Wright, Jerome Rothenberg, Al Young, Philip Whalen, Diane Wakoski, Robert Kelly, Jackson MacLow and Joel Oppenheimer. A hundred student poets from all over the county also attended. I was awarded a fellowship and gave an evening reading.
We were given a wide choice of workshops and each of us chose two for the week, based on the poetic statements made by each poet-leader. I chose Ted Berrigan for one, and Robert Bly for the other.
The workshops were limited to ten participants each. One of the other participants in the Berrigan workshops was Anselm Hollo, Berrigan’s closest friend. (He named his son after Hollo.)
Ted Berrigan was the charismatic presumptive leader of the second generation of the New York School of poets. The younger New York School poets were heavily influenced by the first generation that included John Ashbery, Frank O’Hara, Barbara Guest and Kenneth Koch. They were also influenced by French poetry, especially the Symbolists like Verlaine, Rimbaud and Baudelaire, and the Surrealists like Celine, Char, Breton and Apollinaire. They were also interested in Pop Art and in applying visual approaches borrowed from painters in their poetry. Aesthetically, they were oriented toward surface.
Ted Berrigan felt that the distinctions between light verse and traditional serious poetry were no longer relevant. He was also big on the cut-up techniques of Byron Gysin and William Burroughs. He had received critical praise for his lengthy series of cut-up, free-verse sonnets. Berrigan was also a strong supporter of the small press and of self-publishing. His own small press was “C” Press, which published “C” Magazine. Ted published New York School poets alongside poets of the Beat generation, forging an alliance between those two avant-gardes.
Using Walt Whitman’s self-publishing of Leaves Of Grass as an example, Berrigan encouraged us to form small presses and publish ourselves and others. This advice was “preaching to the choir” for me, as I already had that proclivity, but hearing it from an accomplished artist was a timely reinforcer.
We went over each other’s poems with a fine-toothed comb during that week. Berrigan stressed the importance of originality and eclecticism. He felt strongly that poets should constantly expand their repertoires and also their reading. These values resonated deeply in my own sense of what poetry essentially is and potentially can be.
As a result of my exposure to Berrigan, I began to experiment with surrealism and symbolism, and a few years later, to do my translations/imitations of Rimbaud. A good teacher or mentor opens one up to new possibilities.
The workshops with Robert Bly and his protégé James Wright were quite different than those with Ted Berrigan and Anselm Hollo. Bly’s manner was less interactive than Berrigan’s. He lectured us about his brand of surrealism, which was based in that of the Spanish language South American poets such as Lorca and Neruda. His orientation was Jungian. He focused almost entirely on the use of imagery, which again had the effect of reinforcing my original poetic impulse. Bly believed that some images were archetypical and that the poet needed to go into a deep mental state to retrieve them. He also talked a lot about free association and associative “leaping.”
My relationship with Robert Bly continued through intermittent correspondence for decades. He was always encouraging in his letters. I sent him poems and he commented on them. After I did my translation/imitation of Arthur Rimbaud’s great poem The Drunken Boat, Robert was enthusiastically supportive and wrote that he liked my version better than the standard version at the time by Louise Varèse (New Directions, 1957). Because of Bly’s encouragement, I went on to translate other poems by Rimbaud until enough accumulated for a book collection. The book (The Drunken Boat & Other Poems From The French Of Arthur Rimbaud) has been through four editions now. For each edition, I added eight new poems. Each time I sent a copy to Bly and he responded with enthusiasm. He wrote that he kept a copy by his bedside and liked to read it before he slept.
My relationship with Donald Hall began when I wrote a review of his poetry collection The Yellow Room (Harper & Row, 1972), and Hall wrote me a “thank you” letter for it. I sent him some poems and he invited me to visit him at his home in Ann Arbor. At the time he taught at the University of Michigan. Our visits became quite important to me because Hall had very specific ideas about poetry and the role of the poet and the process of writing.
The atmosphere at his house was casual and inviting. Donald usually cooked lunch for us. Over time the discussions evolved into theoretical arguments about the value of spontaneity in writing poetry. Donald was a strong proponent of extensive re-writing. He also believed that poems should not be released for publication until they had “cured” for a while, sometimes even years. We participated in several readings and hung around together at a week-long conference on The Michigan Poet that was held in 1974 at Ferris State University. Between our in-person contacts, we corresponded regularly. Donald was then (and still is), an obsessive letter writer. He once wrote me a twenty-eight page letter about his poetic principles.
I learned that Hall and Bly had been roommates at Harvard and were the best of friends. They wrote to each other daily. There were times when I felt like I was in a literary love triangle writing to both of them at the same time. Here is a poem that I wrote for Hall in 1973:
for Donald Hall
The basking plants listen, breathe our conversation.
They thrill at one recognition, relax when smiles break
From bearded faces. They watch the secret cats slink
Lazy paths along the Indian floors.
Soup bowls smile wide from the table. From the shelves
The books are sullen & uninterested in plans
To father them baby sisters. Photographs & prints glare
Through their glass, sometimes flash our faces back at us.
My friendship with Hall was reduced to a correspondence when he got a chance to purchase his grandfather’s old farm in New Hampshire. He moved there with his young bride Jane Kenyon, in 1975. No more driving around Ann Arbor talking poetry.
Donald Hall probably experienced me as a stubborn young man, but I actually took his advice to heart. Today, although a large part of a poem may arrive spontaneously, I usually do five to fifteen re-writes, and I hold poems for months before I submit them to magazines. Sometimes the lessons we resist the most are the most valuable and the best mentors are the ones who let us argue with them.
During my college years, I was fortunate to attend many poetry readings and workshops. Somewhere in the midst of it all, I became a poet. It took aptitude, family influence, good mentors and teachers.
Today Robert Bly and Donald Hall are old men. Neither writes poetry anymore, but their influence on the art will live on.
Ted Berrigan died young, at the age of 49. His poetry is included in the Norton anthology of Postmodern American Poetry, a great accomplishment. But perhaps an even greater monument to his work is that he actively mentored many poets of my generation to help us reach our potential. He passed it on before he passed on.