The Ballad of Old Buck Howland
For years and years he lived right here
in a tent on the edge of Folly.
He brewed his beer and wrote his poems
in the shade of a stunted loblolly.
He played at working construction,
could drive a nail I guess,
but what Buck was really good at
was downing his Inverness.
He’d have a drop in the morning,
he’d have a drop at noon,
he’d have a drop at midnight,
‘neath the light of a winter moon.
The cold on Folly ain’t that bad
(unless you stay in a tent),
but Buck would hum all through the night,
shivering but still content,
content because his poems would clack
from that old Underwood,
clack-clack-clacking, like a woodpecker,
on the edge of the stunted wood.
The VA doctors warned him
to change his lifestyle soon,
but Buck was a stubborn cuss.
He loved the light of the moon.
They found him dead inside a shed
on the side of Folly Road,
and in his hand he held a poem,
the last one he ever wrote:
Drunk me some wine with Jesus [it read]
At this here wedding in Galilee. He saved the bestest for second And provided it all for free. So I quit my job on the shrimp boat To follow Him eternally, No longer bound by them blue laws Enforced by the Pharisee. And we had us some real good times Till them Pharisees done Him in. Ain’t got no use for the religious right After I seen what they done to Him. Then when Saul Paul stole the show I sort of drifted away. Cause he never quite did understood What Jesus was trying to say. Paul was like a Pharisee, Cussing this, cussing that, Giving the wimmins a real hard time, Gay bashing and all like that. So I stay at home most nights now Trying to do some good, Offering beggars a little snort Whilst praying for a Robin Hood. Drunk me some wine with Jesus, It was the bestest day I ever seen. Drunk me some wine with Jesus, Partying with the Nazarene.
I can think of worse things
to have in your hand when dead
across the bridge on Folly Road
inside an old tool shed.
Early in July, my good friend and former college/grad school roommate Warren Moise wrote an article for the Charleston Mercury describing his former existence as a beach musician in the 60s and 70s. He admitted in the article that he had never learned to shag, which for me was a shocking revelation.
No, British readers, not that kind of shagging!
We’re talking about the venerable North and South Carolina dance known as “the shag.” According to the website NCPEDIA, the shag might trace its evolution back to early settlers of the Carolina in an attempt to preserve their European musical lineage. According to the article, in the 1920s and 30s, the shag evolved as dancers adapted it to swing music and jazz. However, the dance really came into its own in 50s and 60s with the advent of Beach Music, a genre made famous by such groups as The Drifters, Tams, and the Embers and performed at beach pavilions up and down the Carolina Coast.
Essentially, the shag is a two person hand-holding shuffle that allows room for much improvisation. Knowing how to shag is almost a social necessity if you live in Charleston or Myrtle Beach. Nevertheless, like Warren, I, too, never learned how, essentially because I didn’t have the inclination.
Folly Beach, where I live, used to have a shag dance club on Center Street where old people attempted to keep the fires of their youth ablaze, and you can still see lots of shagging at the Sand Dollar Social club on weekends.
Curmudgeon that I am, I saw members of the old shag club as victims of their youth, incurable nostalgia-holics stuck, like a stylus on a scratched record, in a repetitive rut, so I wrote the following rather acerbic poem.
If you look closely, you can detect the traces
Of teenagers drowned in the puddles of their faces.
Perhaps this is beauty’s curse, the clinging,
King Canute by the seaside singing:
Stop in the name of love. But the aging process
Stops for no one. There’s no recess
In decay’s school day, no stopping the seasons,
Even if you’re sockless and sporting Bass Weejuns.
In some ways my childhood homelife
was not unlike the sit-com Cleavers’ –
we lived in a house in the USA with a yard, slept in beds, and ate
On the other hand, my mother didn’t wear pearls
as she dumped overflowing ashtrays
into a pedal-operated plastic receptacle,
my father watching TV, cursing LBJ, baring his tobacco-stained teeth,
much less restrained in the den than Ward in tie and cardigan,
turning the pages of the afternoon newspaper, which happily
we had in those days.
In fact, Ward and June never watched TV or talked politics.
He never held his boys down, arms pinned, to tickle them
as they laughed hysterically in anguished howls on the floor.
There were apparently no black people where the Cleavers lived,
no juke joints on the edge of town, no bootleg whiskey,
no Wilson Pickett records, no Muddy Waters, no mojo magic.
Mr. Cleaver played golf; my father flew airplanes,
performed snap rolls and loops and hammerhead stalls.
On rare occasions I accompanied him in the cockpit.
More often, though, I was down below, neck straining,
calmly watching his daring acrobatics,
like the son of a trapeze artist who knows the act by heart.
It was an expensive hobby, but one well-suited to
an adrenaline junkie, paradoxically
terrified by the thought of undertow dragging him out to sea to drown.
Like the Cleavers, my parents never divorced,
Died, in fact, in the very same bed a decade apart,
Next to a window overlooking our overgrown lawn.
No tombstones bear the Cleavers’ names;
alive and well in reruns, they relive their lives
in thirty-minute arcs resolved with smiles.
When I taught senior English back in the Eighties, Nineties, Aughts, and Teens, Herman Hesse’s Steppenwolf played a pivotal role in the curriculum. We used the text to introduce students to psychoanalytical criticism, to show them that formalism – or “New Criticism” as it is sometimes called – is not the only avenue for analyzing literature.
If our schedules allowed a convenient free period, I’d invite colleague and Arch-Trickster Bill Slayton to engage in a short colloquy with my AP seniors on the Magic Theater sequence of Steppenwolf. One of Bill’s many talents as a teacher was to relate whatever the kids were reading to their lives, to make it relevant.
He’d begin the discussion by asking where they planned to attend college. Probably afraid they’d jinx themselves, they clamped shut and fidgeted, but Bill coaxed from them an admission that they’d narrowed their prospective lists to a finite number. Then he’d detail the inexorable winnowing that lay ahead by cataloguing the progression of self-limiting choices forced upon them – declaring a major, joining a fraternity or sorority (and its attendant conformity), specializing in a profession (divorce law, podiatry, the poetry of George Herbert).
The Podiatrist of Avon
Jungian psychology, he explained, is all about the opposite – expanding your mind by getting in touch with the hidden potentialities Jung called archetypes, cultivating the accountant within (if you’re Lord Byron) or your internal Lord Byron (if you’re Henry James). 
Bill subtly suggested that the Western Tao, i.e., mindless materialism, accompanied by a continuing narrowing of focus and interest, might not be the way to go. Of course, for most of our ambitious and high-achieving students, he might as well have been King Canute demanding that the sea desist (or, to update the allusion, Donald Trump screaming at the Coronavirus to stop spreading).
Bill didn’t mention having children, which, of course, is the ultimate wing-clipper in existential freedom flying. After my marriage to Judy, before we had children, I’d sometimes court danger, learn by going where I should not go, to echo a line from Roethhke. However, after my sons Harrison and Ned arrived, no more non-touristy Jamaican dance halls, no more high-octane chemical cocktails for I-and-I. Obviously, the responsibilities of nurturing and cultivating offspring are enormous. In my reckoning, dying foolishly before the job is done would be dereliction of duty.
Come to think of it, a Jungian analyst might deem my erstwhile adventurous Hemingway wanna-be shenanigans over-kill, an imbalance of energy. Transferring energy from oneself to others is a necessary step in mind expansion, a pebble-drop in the pond of consciousness that generates concentric circles expanding outward.
Of course, you don’t have to have children to accomplish this expansion – Mother Teresa comes to mind – and having children doesn’t necessarily accomplish it either. Selfish parents ignoring or exploiting their children is as old as the Bible and Greek mythology; Huck’s dad, Pappy Finn, is still alive, (if not well).
Teaching literature isn’t only about reading and writing and expanding vocabularies; it is also about employing literature as lens through which to observe the compressed lives of others. I think Bill’s point was despite the inevitable constrictions that the transition from childhood to adulthood entails, an open and inquiring mind is essential in a life well-lived.
 For Freud, you can’t go wrong with “Fall of the House of Usher.” For Jungian criticism, Thomas Wolfe’s “Child by Tiger” is also an effective text.
 According to The Norton Anthology of English Literature, in 1717, “Byron established himself in Venice, where he began a year and a half of debauchery that, he estimated, involved more than two hundred women.” Henry James, on the other hand, died without ever having a significant other, at least in a sexual sense.
Has there ever been an unrequited love that’s paid more poetic dividends than WB Yeats’s decades long pursuit of unyielding Maud Gonne?*
[cue Robert Johnson: “All my love’s in vain.”]
Here’s a slight sampling:
She bid me take life easy, as the grass grows on the weirs;
But I was young and foolish, and now am full of tears.
“Down by the Salley Gardens”
How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;
And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.
“When You Are Old”
Half close your eyelids, loosen your hair,
And dream about the great and their pride;
They have spoken against you everywhere,
But weigh this song with the great and their pride;
I made it out of a mouthful of air,
Their children’s children shall say they have lied.
“He Thinks of Those Who Have Spoken Evil of His Beloved”
O Heart! O Heart, if she’d but turn her head
You’d know the folly of being comforted.
“The Folly of Being Comforted”
Never give all the heart, for love
Will hardly seem worth thinking of
To passionate women if it seem
Certain, and they never dream
That it fades out from kiss to kiss;
For everything that’s lovely is
But a brief, dreamy, kind delight.
O never give the heart outright,
For they, for all smooth lips can say,
Have given their hearts up to the play.
And who could play it well enough
If deaf and dumb and blind with love?
He that made this knows all the cost,
For he gave all his heart and lost.
“Never Give All the Heart”
I could go on and on, but allow me just one more:
We sat grown quiet at the name of love;
We saw the last embers of daylight die,
And in the trembling blue-green of the sky
A moon, worn as if it had been a shell
Washed by time’s waters as they rose and fell
About the stars and broke in days and years.
I had a thought for no one’s but your ears:
That you were beautiful, and that I strove
To love you in the old high way of love;
That it had all seemed happy, and yet we’d grown
As weary-hearted as that hollow moon.
Given this inspiration, perhaps I should lament I’ve never suffered unrequited love.
I have, on the other hand, suffered numerous unrequited crushes, but compared to the unstaunched hemorrhaging of Yeats’s heart, my rejections add up to so many mosquito bites scratched to the point of bleeding but fairly soon forgotten.
Not very inspiring, not the stuff of poetry, merely the stuff of doggerel.
The Lazy Muse of Unrequited Crushes
She sleeps till one each afternoon,
The lazy muse of unrequited crushes.
Never gazes at the waning moon,
Stomps around my brain on crutches,
Lisping doggerel with an interrogative lilt,
Ransacking my drafty garret,
Looking for an obscure line to lift
From Mrs. Elizabeth Barrett
Browning. Womp, womp.
*When Yeats told Gonne he wasn’t happy without her, she replied, “Oh yes, you are, because you make beautiful poetry out of what you call your unhappiness and are happy in that. Marriage would be such a dull affair. Poets should never marry. The world should thank me for not marrying you.” Norman A. Jeffares, W.B. Yeats, a New Biography.