Walt Whitman’s Boys

daddywalt

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It was you that broke the new wood.

Ezra Pound, “A Pact”

Old Ezra said to ditch the metronome
and use the musical phrase instead,
locked doors, keyholes, camisoles, not ideas.

Robert Lowell made it personal.
Mental illness was his muse,
his fingers trembling as the typewriter clacked.

Seamus Heaney brought us down to earth,
his pen scratching old words across the page,
bogs, tors, spades, blackberries, frogs.

But Old Walt Whitman was the daddy of them all,
whirling his words like a hurricane,
snapping trees, flooding streets, derailing trains.

Half a Sin

Bells toll inside my head as I reach for my Alfred Lord Tennyson outfit. It’s Victorian black with matching cravat, mourning cape, matching hat. There’s even a beard, luxuriant and curling, that came with the costume, but I can’t find the whiskers anywhere. Been three years since I’ve donned this get-up, a Halloween present from sweet deceased Adelaide, who passed away in a Hampton’s Inn all alone in the not-so-new millennium.  Actually, she made the costume and bought the beard from Hocus Pocus.

I’m getting into character, reading “In Memoriam”:

I sometimes hold it half a sin

To put in words the grief I feel;

For words, like Nature, half reveal

And half conceal the Soul within.

I’ve taken to panhandling.

No, it’s not a lifestyle choice, but part of my thesis, a paper I’m writing on selling-and-psychology, a study in which I report on my experimentation with different modes of panhandling, comparing the hourly wage of me playing a wheel-chair bound Iraqi war veteran ($12.34) with the hourly wage of me playing a shyster hipster holding a sign that reads “Haven’t been high in two days ($4.56).[1]  I’m hoping to shed some light on what makes people part with their money in situations of charity, combining my love of acting, my interest in marketing, and my curiosity about how the human mind works.  So today I’m going out begging in the guise of Alfred Lord Tennyson.  It’s a dreary, leaden day, very Tennysonian.

I consider brain chemistry to be sort of like weather – sunny, rainy, partly cloudy, partly sunny.  Part of it, of course, is genetics — look at the Hemingways — but life events can affect brain weather, too.  Maybe if Tennyson’s best friend Arthur Henry Hallam hadn’t dropped dead Tennyson might have been a cheerier poet, like EE Cummings or Maya Angelou.  Who knows?

happyperson copy wilburlowell1 copy

 

 

 

I’ve decided to set up shop, so to speak, North of Calhoun in the bar district, which you might think is unsafe, but I’ve never had a problem, and anyway, I’m packing a Smith & Wesson. 22 LR Rimfire, not gun enough to kill someone but big enough to chase off a knife wielder or unarmed thug.

alfred-tennyson

The one thing that’s bothering me, though, is the lack of a beard. I’m only 26 years old, and a beard would help. Of course, I wear make-up. Thanks to the College’s Theater Department’s make-up department, I’ll be sporting a gray complexion and those woeful looking, sympathy-spawning bags under my eyes that made Tennyson look like the saddest creature that ever crawled across the face of the earth:

The sparrow’s chirrup on the roof,
The slow clock ticking, and the sound
Which to the wooing wind aloof
The poplar made, did all confound
Her sense; but most she loathed the hour
When the thick-moted sunbeam lay
Athwart the chambers, and the day
Was sloping toward his western bower.
Then said she, “I am very dreary,
He will not come,” she said;
She wept, “I am aweary, aweary,
Oh God, that I were dead!”


[1] The minimum wage in South Carolina is $7.25


It was through theater I first met Adelaide, a student production of Chekov’s Three Sisters.  She played Irina, I Vassily Vasilyevich Solyony.  It wasn’t bad as student productions go.  The only problem, though, is I had this thing for Adelaide/Irina, but she had a boyfriend, a spoiled preppy entitled piece of shit, so I didn’t make it verbally known to Adelaide that I had this thing for her, though from what others tell

Chuck Norris

Chuck Norris

me it was as obvious as Cyrano’s nose or Chuck Norris’s toupee. I kept waiting for her to make the first move, but she never did.  It goes without saying neither did I.

Kristopher my make-up man has done his magic, including providing me with a real enough looking beard, so I’m walking rather self-consciously from the parking garage to King with a folding lawn chair strapped to my back, a bucket for the proceeds, a book of Tennyson’s poems, and a sign that simply says “alms.”

I find a spot on the corner of King and Morris, put my sign out and start to read Tennyson, finding snatches of verse ripe for memorization, little ditties like

Me rather all that bowery loneliness,
The brooks of Eden mazily murmuring,

and try to ignore the occasional rude comment about beggars and street performers.  Of course, I could whip out the Rimfire and cap one of them, taking my performance art to a new level, but that’s not, as Adelaide used to say, the Buddha way.

Finally, after 4 minutes and 32 seconds, I get my first score, two single dollar bills dropped.  I say,

And if ever I should forget

That I owe this debt to you

And I for your sweet sake to yours,

O, then, what shall I say? —

If ever I should forget,

May God make me more wretched

Than ever I have been yet!

At the one hour mark, I start reciting Tennyson as I see people approaching, though I avoid eye contact.

Doors, where my heart was used to beat

So quickly, not as one that weeps

I come once more: the city sleeps;

I smell the meadow in the street.

At the two hour mark, I start making eye contact before chanting the quote, straining to counterfeit that stare dogs give when they think you might have a treat for them.

Since we deserved the name of friends

And thine effect so lives in me,

A part of mine may live in thee

And move thee on the noble ends.

So here I sit in this Halloween costume, chanting Tennyson in the name of soft science.  My thoughts return to that Halloween party three years ago.  Adelaide dressed up like Emily Dickinson, hair parted in the middle, a white dress, for she was the Empress of Calvary.  No one got the joke, two depressive poets on a date.  Perhaps she should have worn black because that’s what people picture when they imagine Emily Dickinson.

I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,
And Mourners to and fro
Kept treading – treading – till it seemed
That Sense was breaking through –

Ring out the old and all that jazz.  Adelaide OD-ed in a Hampton Inn in Conyers, Georgia, and that’s about as unromantic as it gets.

It’s time for me to move on, I guess.

Good, God, now I’m even starting to think in slant rhymes.  I get up, abandoning the role, take off the itchy beard, and look for some ragged someone I can pass the cash off to.

$14. 75.

Alfred_Tennyson,_1st_Baron_Tennyson_-_Project_Gutenberg_eText_17768

James Dickey and Me

james-l-dickeyIntro

Like hundreds of other po-dunk wannabe poets, I took James Dickey’s verse seminar course when he was poet-in-residence at the University of South Carolina. That semester — the Fall of ’76 – ended up being a significant one for Dickey, who in the course of its 15 weeks became a widower and a bridegroom.

I had first heard of Big Jim Dickey from my high school English teacher Mrs. Clarice Foster, who described him as “a brilliant young poet who had written a fairly good novel.” The novel, of course, was Deliverance, which came out in ’70, my senior year, two years before the release of the movie. Deliverance the movie made Dickey famous, a drinking buddy with Burt Reynolds, but perhaps exacerbated his propensity of making a colossal ass of himself.

Big Jim Dickey (by Robert Fowler)

Who started calling

Big Jim Dickey

Big Jim Dickey?

Big Jim Dickey,

That’s who.

Bobby’s poem summarized what the slumming literary crowd I hung around thought about Dickey. The cat could write dazzling poems, but his my-genius-gives-me-the-license-to-breach-the-customs-of-polite-society got old fast. He could make you feel uncomfortable, embarrassed, like your own father could in your late teens when you started to figure out a lot of what he pontificated was bullshit. I lacked compassion back then, I thought I knew more than I did, and I now rue my lack of respect.

James Dickey was a near great, if not great poet, and I squandered a chance to learn more from him.

From “Cherrylog Road”

We left by separate doors

Into the changed, other bodies

Of cars, she down Cherrylog Road

And I to my motorcycle

Parked like the soul of the junkyard

Restored, a bicycle fleshed

With power, and tore off

Up Highway 106, continually

Drunk on the wind in my mouth,

Wringing the handlebar for speed,

Wild to be wreckage forever.

James Dickey

dickey with hatFall Semester 1976

Smiling, stooped, gregarious, he sat at the head of the seminar table wearing two or three watches on both wrists. Dickey was often – I wouldn’t call it drunk – but more like inebriated – eloquent, narcissistic, rarely bothering to comment on the fixed-form ditties he had us crank out each week.

More typically, he’d talk about himself, famous poets he’d known, the goings-on of the set of Deliverance.   He called the good-looking females in the class “Sugar Face.” One week on Tuesday and Thursday, without providing us the text to see, he read aloud the same essay by Sir Herbert Read.   No one mentioned to him the error on that Thursday when he began reading the piece for the second time – not I-and-I, not the hanger-on poets who attended the class every semester without registering, not his grad assistant.

In short, he was a terrible teacher that semester, that is, until some veins in his wife’s esophagus ruptured, which he described in class with a graphic eloquence that was at once paradoxically impassioned and detached. It was like watching a poem coming to be in 3-D – he at first thinking a burglar had attacked her when he encountered her limp body bleeding profusely on the floor of their house. He held her in his arms there on the floor as she lost half her body’s blood.

Warning: the Following Contains Off-Putting Name Dropping

Several years ago our friend Jo Humphreys, author of Dreams of Sleep and Rich in Love, invited Judy and me to a party in honor of her mentor Reynolds Price. After Jo introduced us, Mr. Price and I got on the subject of James Dickey who had recently died. Price told me he had great affection for “Jim” but that Jim was “insane” in a way that was hard to characterize and that it was impossible to be a woman and to be his friend.   Mr. Price also said that one time at a party, Dickey had picked him up off the ground and said something to the effect of that though he — Dickey — didn’t sleep with men, if he ever were to, he’d want to sleep with him — Price.

Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell

Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell

Fall Semester, continued

Mrs. Maxine Dickey survived that night and hung on for a month or so before she died. While she was in the hospital, Elizabeth Bishop came to campus for a reading. Dickey — or his graduate assistant — arranged for us during our class time to meet Bishop and hear her read a poem or two.   The meeting hadn’t been announced, so we followed Dickey, leading the way down the street from our classroom to a Victorian house a block away.

So we met Elizabeth Bishop, I ignorant of what an honor it should be. She looked like an Episcopalian grandmother with her neatly coiffed white hair and  matching plaid blazer and skirt. Her demeanor utterly contrasted with Dickey’s, like George Will versus Screaming Jay Hawkins.

What I didn’t know was that Elizabeth Bishop and her friend Robert Lowell held Dickey in contempt. Later that night after the official reading, Dickey asked Bishop to sign some books and pose for a photograph with him and refused, saying, “Sir, I do not pose for pictures.”

One of the great things about having Dickey on campus was the writers he could summon. During my time in Columbia, in addition to Elizabeth Bishop, I got to hear Robert Penn Warren, Archibald MacLeish, and Robert Lowell.

For the Last Wolverine

They will soon be down

To one, but he still will be

For a little while    still will be stopping

The flakes in the air with a look,

Surrounding himself with the silence

Of whitening snarls. Let him eat

The last red meal of the condemned

To extinction, tearing the guts

From an elk. Yet that is not enough

For me. I would have him eat

The heart, and, from it, have an idea

Stream into his gnawing head

That he no longer has a thing

To lose, and so can walk

Out into the open, in the full

Pale of the sub-Arctic sun

Where a single spruce tree is dying

Higher and higher. Let him climb it

With all his meanness and strength.

Lord, we have come to the end

Of this kind of vision of heaven,

As the sky breaks open

Its fans around him and shimmers

And into its northern gates he rises

Snarling   complete    in the joy of a weasel

With an elk’s horned heart in his stomach

Looking straight into the eternal

Blue, where he hauls his kind. I would have it all

My way: at the top of that tree I place

The New World’s last eagle

Hunched in mangy feathers    giving

Up on the theory of flight.

Dear God of the wildness of poetry, let them mate

To the death in the rotten branches,

Let the tree sway and burst into flame

And mingle them, crackling with feathers,

In crownfire. Let something come

Of it    something gigantic     legendary

Rise beyond reason over hills

Of ice   SCREAMING    that it cannot die,

That it has come back, this time

On wings, and will spare no earthly thing:

That it will hover, made purely of northern

Lights, at dusk    and fall

On men building roads: will perch

On the moose’s horn like a falcon

Riding into battle    into holy war against

Screaming railroad crews: will pull

Whole traplines like fibers from the snow

In the long-jawed night of fur trappers.

But, small, filthy, unwinged,

You will soon be crouching

Alone, with maybe some dim racial notion

Of being the last, but none of how much

Your unnoticed going will mean:

How much the timid poem needs

The mindless explosion of your rage,

The glutton’s internal fire    the elk’s

Heart in the belly, sprouting wings,

The pact of the “blind swallowing

Thing,” with himself, to eat

The world, and not to be driven off it

Until it is gone, even if it takes

Forever. I take you as you are

And make of you what I will,

Skunk-bear, carcajou, bloodthirsty

Non-survivor.

                                        Lord, let me die       but not die


Out.

James Dickey

the author in 1976 photo by Judy Birdsong

the author in 1976 photo by Judy Birdsong

Fall Semester completed

In the other class Dickey was teaching that semester, Dickey had met his soon-to-be new wife.   He married her, one of his students, Deborah Dodsen, two months after Maxine’s death.

I myself had met and fallen in love with my future wife Judy Birdsong that semester.

Later Contact

When I started teaching high school in the mid-Eighties, I called Dickey to ask him if it would be all right if I had a student writing a paper on Deliverance phone and interview him to so he could use the author as a source.

Mr. Dickey — as I addressed him over the phone — couldn’t have been nicer. He asked what year he had taught me, who my friends were, claimed to remember me, and welcomed the student’s call.

The last time I saw Dickey was in ’97. He had selected a poem of mine to be included in anthology of his students’ work published by USC Press. There was a reception for the poets where we could buy books and have him sign them.

He was a changed man, thinner, the combover replaced by a buzz cut;  he was calmer, almost courtly. We chatted as he signed three books I had bought for my parents, my in-laws, and a friend.

I really regret that I didn’t have him sign one for me, but the line was long, and I didn’t want to be that person.