In college I never understood poetry. Certain distant acquaintances walked around in what appeared to be some sort of haze. People spoke of them, with awe, as poets. I didn’t grasp their poetry, but I wanted to be spoken of that way too.
Whether most poets begin with such crass aspirations I don’t know. Most things that are worthwhile in my life, though, have begun with some form of longing, some perception of their absence.
Nor was my motive completely gross. The adulation people had toward poets surely implied something substantial in their work. I suspected a rich dimension of experience that I was simply unable, as yet, to tune into.
I attended a number of poetry readings during my first year at Northwestern University. Invariably, walking into the appointed room, I would find an anxious, anemic-looking man (never a woman) in a dark suit, standing before a few rows of people sitting in desks. He would proceed to stiffly mutter words that I found as arcane as medieval spells.
One night in the spring, though, Allen Ginsberg came to campus. Several thousand people jammed into an auditorium to hear him. I soon grasped why. You could actually understand what he was talking about! He chanted about the Vietnam War, the moral and psychic state of America, sexuality—intimate matters that affected everyone. Ginsburg was an event as much as a poet, but he showed me that it is possible to use words in ways that are intense and close to home. I went right back to my dorm, opened a notebook, and started writing. Although I no longer regard those first efforts as true poems, at least I was trying. I sent the sometimes flowery and sometimes intellectual efforts to a friend who had a strong literary sensibility. He encouraged me to continue, gently suggesting I try to be “more poetic” and quoting back to me, as an example, a passage he felt was successful.
The first “real” poem came out of me in the summer of 1968, shortly after returning home from my second year of college. I was driving through an area of St. Louis, Missouri known as Gaslight Square. A few years earlier, the neighbourhood had been nationally known for its bistros and beatnik coffeehouses. Kerouac had even mentioned it in On the Road. Then, the way I’d heard the story, a tourist had been murdered there, some time in the mid ‘60s. After that, people just stopped coming.
By the time I drove past in June, ‘68, Olive Street looked like a bombed-out city. I was suddenly taken up by feelings of the transience of all earthly things. The feelings were so strong they brimmed over. I pulled to the curb, got out a pen, and opened a notebook. The lines started pouring out of my heart. In the piece that took shape, Gaslight Square became a symbol of a lost Mother. I no longer have the poem, but the one line I recall—“since your great hip shook itself to sleep”—conveys something of its essence.
Later that same summer, another trance-like experience resulted in a second poem. This one was an ode, growing out of an experience of the beauty of a peach tree full of ripening fruit. Each stanza had a refrain line: “You bear your smooth fruit,” a line that was ubiquitous and self-contained, like the growing peaches themselves.
This was the week during which Soviet tanks had rolled into Czechoslovakia, putting a chilly end to the “Prague Spring” that had recently thawed Cold War tensions somewhat. The last stanza of the piece extended the symbol of wholeness and generation even unto the troubled city: “On streets of Prague today/you bear your smooth fruit.” I felt myself participating, via the poem, in events half a world away.
The half active, half ecstatically passive experience of writing these poems left me addicted to the creative process. I remain so, four decades later. In my internal biography, events such as the creation of a poem or a painting have equal weight with the great political milestones of these years, and even with the external landmarks of my own life.
It was not until 1976, however, after a deep depression culminated in a dramatic spiritual opening, that the gift of poetic utterance began to flow out in a steady stream, sometimes a mighty torrent. I was 28 then. Quite simply, the awakening had been an experience of the overwhelming abundance and beauty of existence. There was so much there—here—that a million poets, working all day and night for hundreds of years, could not begin to exhaust the potential of what there was to say. Creative streams flowed everywhere, connecting to, and in fact centred in, the heart of Man. The heart was, you might say, a ringside seat on the ongoing miracle that was life itself. And even during the inevitable times when the abundance was not self-evident, still, once one had tasted it, it remained a reality. The times when it was inaccessible gave rise to longing, which may actually be the other true poetic emotion, besides joy.
During one period in the ’80s, poetry poured out so prolifically that I could scarcely drive. At every red light, a line would come into my head. I’d pick up my pen and notebook. By the time I’d jotted down the line, the driver behind me was likely to be honking. Poets will understand this.
2. Robert Bly
My verse has been, in its modest way, deeply influenced by the great Sufi poets Hafiz and Rumi, as well as by contemporary poets such as Ginsberg and Robert Bly. The latter pair have also, of course, been cultural icons of their times. Several years after I first saw Ginsberg, Bly visited a small seminar I was taking at the University of Cincinnati.
How can I describe this white conflagration in a colourful Mexican serape, hair blindingly white, voice nasally Scandinavian, mind blade-sharp? He spent the next hour and a half burning away cobwebs from my mind. I remember a rising crescendo in his voice as, in full nasal imperative, he told us: “Those logical positivist philosophers on the college campuses who say they’re value-free—they’re not value-free! They’re evil!”
Then Bly donned a gray face-mask, representing an advertising executive. In an emotionless voice he began to sing the Campbell’s Soup jingle—“Mmmm, mmmm, good. Mmmm, mmmm, good. That’s what Campbell’s Soup is, mmmm, mmmm good.” After the fifth repetition or so, we got the idea of what such “mantras” do to the human mind.
Bly went on to tell us, “Beware of professors of English who don’t themselves write!” He pointed to our own teacher, my friend (Dr.) Michael Atkinson, as an exception. Michael was an accomplished potter and a meditating Buddhist. In recent years, he has written a popular book, as well.
Finally, Bly helped the class work its way through a Thomas Merton poem that I’d brought in. He prefaced his comments on the poem with a few remarks about the poet, saying “An interviewer once asked Merton “What’s your biggest obstacle as a monk?” He answered “other monks.” They hated his free spirit down there at Gethsemane.”
As the poet began like a white tornado to make his exit from the room, I stopped him and asked a question. I can’t even remember. It must have been something about thought and feeling, because he looked at me and replied, “You have a lot of feeling!” That was surprising, because I was in the midst of a depression at the time, and wasn’t aware of feeling much.
* * * * *
That night and the next, Bly was giving readings in a large lecture hall at the university. I attended the first night sitting near the front. Around halfway through his reading, the poet looked out at his audience and passionately barked at us, “You people shouldn’t be here listening to me! You should be home writing your own poems!”
Considering what Bly had said as he went on to his next poem, I came to feel he was right. A couple of minutes later I made my way from the centre of the row I was in, out to the aisle, and then quietly exited to go home and follow the bard’s advice.
The next night two friends and I had dinner and then went to Bly’s reading. We got there five or ten minutes late. The poet paused as we came down the centre aisle to claim three vacant seats we’d seen. “We’re doing Yeats now,” he said, looking straight at me.
And then, to the audience, as I sat down, he commented, “I love that man!”
3. Words and silence: Meher Baba and Francis Brabazon
The poet who has been my primary contemporary influence, however, is Francis Brabazon, an Australian who died in 1985. Brabazon was a disciple of Meher Baba, the Indian master who has also re-vivified my own life and who, directly or indirectly, figures in everything I’ve written.
I can pinpoint a specific debt to Brabazon. It had to do with my becoming perplexed about using words, shortly after an initial experience of Meher Baba, one which took place in silence and changed my life forever.
For spiritual reasons, Meher Baba had not spoken from 1925 until he passed away in January, 1969. I “met” him—his spirit, fully alive and present—two years after that passing.
I had just pointed to a large, framed poster of the Master that hung behind the desk of a friend I was visiting. Prompted by the poster to ask many questions about Meher Baba, I received a satisfactory answer to each one from my friend. Then, after a little while, one final question popped unpremeditated out of my mouth: “Where is he now?”
I looked over at my friend to see him smiling broadly. But he was not answering. This puzzled me, at first. Then I began to feel the answer: an oceanic presence of love that, as it began to silently flood my being, I could only call God. Although that word, too, was inadequate, it was the best that language could offer. Most importantly, beyond what anyone might call it, I was Home.
It was after this experience that I became perplexed about words. God had come to me in silence. I soon came to realize that for the twenty-two years prior to that moment I had been positively deluged with words, and very, very few of them had “stuck.” I decided words were meaningless. How one could live that proposition, though, was not clear.
Then someone showed me a copy of Brabazon’s epic poem, Stay With God. The book stunned me. It contained glorious paeans of worship and love, as well as a critique of modern society that was poetically powerful and as scathing as Marx. Unlike Marx, however, Brabazon’s solution to the modern dilemma was a spiritual one.
Gradually, as I read, I came to re-orient myself toward language. Words could be useful: not in their own right, but to the degree that they had their origins in Silence, which was the same as Love (and both words deserved capitalization, in certain usages.).
4. Preface to my first book of poems
Whatever my “inner literary critic” may say today, my first chapbook, Young Man Gone West (now online http://www.realnothings.com/youngmangonewest/youngmangonewest.htm) was a true labour of love. In the summer of 1983 I had hitch hiked to Denver from Cheyenne, Wyoming to visit my friend Ed Luck, after my wife had abruptly taken our car and left Cheyenne with it. I felt a mixture of thrill at the prospective exploration of a new city, and confusion about my direction in life.
Those were the days when I was discovering self-help groups. After several weeks in Denver, my daily routine consisted of going to meetings, exploring the city, writing, and for several months, being a street minstrel in front of Woolworth’s at the big, new outdoor mall downtown.
The minstrel days ended when the weather turned. An angel whispered in my ear a possible new project: “Put a book of poems together!” I realized a number of my recent efforts would work well together, and kept writing until the same angel said one day, “That’s enough. This much will be the book.”
After that came the high-tech part. For me, high-tech meant, in those days, taking buses and trudging repeatedly in blizzards to Kinko’s, the new little shop near the university where you could make copies, collate, and even create a book cover out of coloured card stock. There was no other way to put my book together except to make the lengthy journey again and again from my apartment on Colfax Street.
I also needed a work space for writing and editing, and set about the hopeless task—given my paltry means—of finding an “office” to rent. Checking the bulletin board at Rainbow Foods, the new-age grocery store around the corner, was a good beginning.
Miraculously, I soon stumbled upon an old five-storey building that was owned by a progressive proprietor who rented space cheaply to the Sierra Club and various other liberal organizations. Incredibly, a tiny room was available for $35 a month! Even I could afford that! I bought a used desk and somehow lugged it up the freight elevator. Tipping it on its end, I pulled it through the office door.
By now, Young Man Gone West was almost finished. A little more writing and a couple of more trips to Kinko’s, and I was riding home on the bus cradling fifty copies of my baby in my lap. The first copies had gold covers. They felt like pure gold. I brought the books back to the office. The late November evening was cold, windy, and delicious. Deep snow lay on the ground. As I entered the building, a man about my age was walking in the hall.
“What have you got there?” he asked.
“A book of poetry I just finished writing,” I said proudly, holding up my beautiful cover.
“Wow,” he said. “May I read it? “
“Sure, I told him. “Here, you can have a copy.”
“That’s so kind of you,” he said. “Will you autograph it?”
Soon I was walking toward my own little space on the second floor, eager to make a cup of tea and go over the poems in the book one more time. I pulled my keychain from my pocket. It was heavy with keys to several churches I opened each week for self-help meetings. Closing the door behind me and putting the books down on the desk, I suddenly felt completely naked, as if my entire psyche was being x-rayed.
What’s going on, I wondered? As far as I knew, I was completely alone, and had been filled with nothing but expansive feelings.
Then I knew. The young man downstairs had opened his book and was reading. He was reading my soul. That was what poetry was: the book of one’s soul, shared.
But this little book only skims the surface of what I’ll have to say, I thought, savouring this delicious taste of the writer’s secret life.
I hear the trees
say “What’s your hurry?”
how in my world
we have to rush
to keep in step.
I haven’t even time
to stop and tell them
how on weekends, too,
It’s only on a sick day
when I have to venture out
to pick up medicine
that I understand the trees,
in all their fullness
in a world un-patterned
full of moments,
full of spaces,
been turned yet
on the lathe
lies open, light
and shadow. Breath
fills the body
easily. I step
into a world
that waits like
a quiet lover
* “Still Point” appeared as the daily poem on “Your Daily Poem Dot Com” in 2009