Saturday, June 6, 2009

Autobiographia Literaria

Autobiographia Literaria

When I was a child
I played by myself in a
corner of the schoolyard
all alone.

I hated dolls and I
hated games, animals were
not friendly and birds
flew away.

If anyone was looking
for me I hid behind a
tree and cried out "I am
an orphan."

And here I am, the
center of all beauty!
writing these poems!

Frank O’Hara

The Weekly Poem is serving a dual purpose this time around. Of course, O’Hara’s poem is fine & funny & well worth a read. I’ve been a fan of his poetry for years. But rather than going into any details about Mr O’Hara & his work (I did post about him earlier here), I’m using the poem as a jumping off point for my own “autobiographia literaria.”

Earlier this week René Wing of the excellent Yes is Red blog told the story of the connection with poetry that has run thru her life from an early age, & asked if other folks, & particularly those who’ve posted on Original Poetry Sunday, would do the same. Sandra Leigh of Amazing Voyages of the Turtle did so here in a moving & thought-provoking post.

So I’m taking on this subject. My challenge is doing so is not what to say, but what not to say—fact is, to quote Lorenz Hart, “If they asked me, I could write a book," & of course that’s not possible in this space.

But to write something the length of a blog post—even a longish one—that seems difficult. Because my connection with poetry runs very deep & is interwoven with some of my most personal experiences—childhood memories, not altogether positive ones; an 8-year bout with booze & chemicals that came at a young age (15 to 23) & led me to some very dark places; the loves in my life—since in many ways, my poetry always has been addressed to them. I’ve often said half jokingly that I have a very 16th century attitude about the relationship of poetry to audience, but it’s true. I almost always write with certain specific readers in mind, whether or not they will ever see the poem itself.

& as I look back at the poetry I’ve written, especially since my last few years in Charlottesville, I see these features as a constant; it does seem that I’ve been haunted by “ghosts”—not necessarily in the literal sense of people who are actually dead, but in the sense of absence. I know—that’s a pretty old poetic story. On the other hand, there’s a lot of “presence” involved too—because if someone were truly absent than there wouldn’t be any impulse to communicate. So in this way, I suppose poetry—or mine at least—involves a bit of magical thinking, because there is this impulse to “summon” someone; & an impulse, too, Ancient Mariner like, to “tell the tale” when the impulse to write comes over me.

Because I do write by impulse; an old girlfriend of mine used to tell people that I lived off “air & inspiration,” & while the first part’s no longer true, I have never been a particularly disciplined writer. I have written a fair amount in my time simply because the need to write has come over me fairly often & fairly powerfully.

But does this tell “the story” of my connection with poetry? One thing I’ll say: I did identify with some parts of both René’s & Sandra’s stories. Like René, I exhibited an interest in & a knack for writing at a relatively young age. Also like René, I eventually came to feel some of the pressures that can develop as one tries to move into the “serious” art world. & like Sandra, I grew up in a setting where some very negative emotions went on display, & the world of writing gave me both an imaginative escape & a way of trying to deal with emotions I couldn’t name; music was another such outlet for me, but as a teenager I talked myself into the idea that there was no future in music for me.

There was a time I gave up writing poetry & the giving up seemed permanent. I’d written almost constantly since my late grade school years at that point, but I consciously put it aside in 1996. I quit smoking in September of that year, & realized at that time I simply couldn’t write without chain smoking; a very destructive habit, needless to say. But then in the intervening years, I became convinced that poetry itself was, for me, an embodiment of destructive impulses that had dogged me since my teenaged years, & I turned again to music, which seemed a healthy creativity for me, not so burdened with the freight of a destructive past, & also a social art rather than a strictly interior one.

This changed last May. I’m choosing not to go into the specifics of why it changed, because it’s a personal matter, but change it did & in spades. Then, after a torrent of writing over a few weeks, I stopped again, again convinced that poetry was inescapably destructive for me.

I’ve come to see this isn’t necessarily true over the past year, & as regular readers know, I began writing again this April—the ghazal sequence. I’m trying to come to peace with this whole endeavor of poetry, at least as much peace as I can achieve. Robert Frost’s Banjo has been a big part of that attempt, & I’ve appreciated the support of all you folks as I wander done these lanes—some bright & sunny & others dark & stormy.

So did I tell the story? Yes & no—my mother reading to me when I was a child; my need to escape a world that seemed harsh & hostile; my successes; the tumultuous years in graduate school & following; a decision not to pursue a teaching career (the “logical” result of obtaining a Master of Fine Arts); various relationships that shaped my life….these are the “story” too of course. I’ve tried to tell the interior one.

The photo: not Frank O'Hara, but yours truly as "the poet" on the UVA campus with Camel straight, probably in the early spring of 1985 (despite what the photo says about August, even I wouldn't have worn a leather jacket on an August day in Virginia!)


  1. thanks so much for that John. I love the O'Hara poem, that wonderful pic of you, and your whole story. It makes this whole sharing of our poems more meaningful to me, to know what writing them really means to you, and to Sandra, or at least to know some of what it means. thanks again for sharing that. And yes, you told both the story and the missing story very well. I'm so glad you are writing your poems.

  2. The picture is beautiful! You look just like a poet! (Whatever that means.)

    I should tell Rene this: I came to poetry late in life, sometime in my 30's, I think. Never "got" it until I started reading Mary Oliver's poetry.

    There's much about your form that I still can't get. Every poem requires three read-throughs before I understand what's happening. Three more read-throughs and sometimes, just sometimes, I can take it in.

    I salute all of you who get it. Your neural networks are far more intricate and elegant than mine. Bravo!

  3. Hi René & Reya:

    René: Poetry is & always has been about the personal for me. For a long time I fought that because it didn't seem "right." I try not to fight that anymore. & I'm so glad to know your story & Sandra's too!

    Reya: That's interesting, because from your writing you seem to have an inherently poetic way of thinking. Poetry travels between the worlds--whatever they may be--just as you wrote about dreaming this morning! Mary Oliver is a very good poet-- very grounded & grounding, I think.

    & of course, thanks for your kind words.

  4. Poetry as "the embodiment of destructive impulses". I nearly wrote 'self-destructive', but then realized that's not what you had said. Poetry as a weapon, pointing either in or out? Maybe that's why we often think we need to be disinhibited by one drug or another in order to write.

    I identified strongly both with the tobacco/alcohol story and with what you said about writing with specific readers in mind.

    Thank you for letting us in behind the curtain, John.

  5. Hi Sandra:

    Thanks-- interesting that I wrote "destructive," because I think I always so immediately jump to the self-destructive idea that I see it as self-evident.

    Thanks to both you & René for pointing in this direction!

  6. Thank you for your openness and honesty. It can't be easy to share so much (although there is much more, I'm sure). Having read a few of your earlier poems, I felt there was that darkness in your life back there, somewhere. I think we all have our surprising secrets - none of us is unscathed. We would never be able to write if we were.

    I'm sure, I join a good number of people in saying that I am glad to be witness to your periodic need/decision to write poetry and greatly appreciate when you share it. Thank you.

    Kat (The photograph is great - a bit rebellious, a bit risky.)

  7. I love the whole story, too, John. Knowing about the creative impulses of others is helpful to a fledgling like me. I'll follow your links to the others in a bit.

    On a side note, I perked up at the mention of C'ville, as I have a couple of UVa connections. Both my sister and daughter got their degrees there. Both ended up working there, too, although my sister just left after 30 years. My daughter is directing one of the libraries now, overseeing the digital research lab and doing things I don't even understand. I love Charlottesville.

  8. Hi Kat & Karen:

    Kat: Thanks-- yes, there's plenty more-- things stayed kind of dark & crazy in a number of ways long after I stopped drinking & doing drugs. I appreciate your support a whole lot!

    Karen: Thanks as well. I also love Charlottesville & have some very deep & important memories from there-- not least by far is that's where I first met my wife Eberle, tho we didn't get together until long after.

  9. A searingly honest post: I am honored to be your reader. (I love the photo!)

  10. Thanks T: I'm honored to be a member of this blog community. Thanks again.

  11. Thanks for sharing, John. Out of times of darkness comes much light. Poetry is the language of feelings and intuition and I believe the bridge between the physical and the spiritual worlds. So I would guess your poetry has always been an exploration of yourself. I suppose that is what writing is all about.

  12. Cool photo and an insightful read. I'm glad poetry hasn't deserted you entirely and hope it never does.I'm interested in Frank O'Hara too,the stuff I've read and heard I've liked.

  13. Hi Linda & TFE:

    Thanks to you both! TFE: I recommend O'Hara highly!

  14. All the great poets had their challenges, no? My father was always hold up in his study, working out his masterpieces. Poetry was like his mistress. Either that, or maybe his muse. Is that picture of you? You didn't say, though I am assuming, yes. You have so many great pics. You're luck in that way.

    So, has blogging helped you? I left writing for a long time, but I think blogging has helped me find my way back to to it.

    Writers always seem to lead such difficult lives. The difficulties are internal and external. Presently, I deal with the forces pressing me from the outside - people disappointed in what I write. No wonder writers connect, no matter what they're genre or dissimilar life experiences. In them we find advocates and understanding for the challenges we face.

  15. Hi Jen:

    Yes, that's me in 1984 in Charlottesville, VA. & yes, blogging has helped me-- in unexpected ways. It's not so much about the ability to write or to feel good about the actual things written for me-- it has had to do with sorting out what were the destructive/negative impulses & what was positive.


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