Saturday, June 6, 2009
When I was a child
I played by myself in a
corner of the schoolyard
I hated dolls and I
hated games, animals were
not friendly and birds
If anyone was looking
for me I hid behind a
tree and cried out "I am
And here I am, the
center of all beauty!
writing these poems!
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!)