My Life as a Poet – Attempts to be a Poet

(Note: Thumbnails displayed along side text are images from the original presentation. Click on a thumbnail to view an enlarged image.)But I want to leave T.S. Eliot on the screen for a little longer because in the end, he turned out to be my great roadblock in my early attempts to be a poet. As you know, he wrote a poetry of surface difficulty that borrowed from Classical mythology and literary history, and when I got to college, and then went on for my master’s degree, I discovered that he and his New Critic followers dominated the literary scene – all my professors talked about was these poets, and this was very discouraging to me, because I couldn’t find my avenue as a poet through T.S. Eliot. I didn’t really know what kind of poetry I wanted to write. All I knew was that I didn’t want to write like Eliot, and I didn’t want to go on imitating the other poets I’d been reading, either.
What I decided to do in the end was to quit poetry entirely and become a short story writer. That’s why there are so many short story manuscripts in my archive, all written in the period right after college. These are a few of them….
Believe it or not, I also wanted to become a cartoonist. Some of my single-panel cartoons had no captions, like this one. I’ll give you a minute with it… (It will help if you’ve ever played Monopoly.)
And now I’ll go to a short series of cartoons with captions, which are a little hard to read in the original versions, but then the captions are more than four decades old. So I’ll read them for you. The politician at the lectern is saying to the crowd, “What is needed is a candidate who is free of special interest politics and party manipulation,” and then you notice there is a very large hand coming up from behind the lectern, into the speaker’s jacket. I see now I should have drawn the head of George W. Bush on this guy.
Some cartoons were about art, a natural theme, I suppose, for a person who wanted to be an artist, and so this drawing  of two women examining a canvas that has nothing at all on it, with the caption, “He seems to have a way of letting you know what he means without really telling you.”
Or this cartoon of an artist at a cocktail party. “Tell me, Mr. Joffscovitz, to what do we owe so unique a vision of man as we find on your canvases?”
Here’s a different subject, from a series I did about cave men and cave women. “Maybe you should ask yourself whether it is making you grow as a person.” There has to be some autobiography in this cartoon, because when I drew it I was a twenty-two year old man between jobs with a family of two step-children, and one child on the way. So there’s my wife Diane in the cave with the newborn.
And here I am, about to meet the world with my spear.
Another cartoon from the period shows Superman at a bar: “Truth, justice and the American way seemed so right for awhile, and then I began to ask myself was I really happy.” Probably this cartoon, too, came out of the conflict I was starting to feel between the great dreams I had for myself, and my life in the real world. To put it another way, Superman’s secret identity in this cartoon was – me!
Like my short stories, my cartoons never got published in the major magazines I sent them to, as these rejection slips from the period show, some for my stories, some for the cartoons. But one time I did get a personal response for a submission of cartoons to The New Yorker.
There it is, in ball point ink, written by a human hand, “Sorry.”
But I see now that I had some success even without publication because it turned out that in these stories of mine, I was teaching myself what I needed to know for the poems I would eventually write. The stories, similar to my later poems, were lyrical or meditative narratives about the people I found around me, exploring their New England, and American, dimensions.
And in my cartoons, I think I was trying out something like the lyrical narratives of my later verse, too. Going back to this example, creating a cartoon was a matter of bringing characters together, and finding the exact words and tone of language in a brief caption that would – poof! — bring their story to life. Besides, the cartoon gave me a way to explore two things that became important to my poems, namely, humor and the popular culture.
Then a traumatic event happened to me and my family, and as a result of that event, I wrote a poem that made me put aside cartoons and short stories and return to poetry once and for all. This is the poem I mean, called “Leaving the Country House to the Landlord, Five Years Later.” I don’t intend to examine it in detail, so no need to squint at the words here. I’ll just say the event that inspired the poem – the traumatic event – was being forced out of a beloved rental house by a thoughtless landlord who wanted to move into it, and gave us a notice of something like a month. Worse still, Diane was pregnant with our fourth child at the time, and neither she nor I had a clue about where we’d go next.
“Leaving the Country House to the Landlord” appeared in Poetry Northwest – this copy from my collection — and it was the first poem I ever published.

And as I’m trying to relate the story of a poet’s life here, let me hold the slides for a minute and tell you what it was like to publish my first poem. This is a short passage from my prose book Mapping the Heart:

“People who lived through the assassination of President Kennedy remember where they were when they got the news. I recall exactly where I was when I learned that my first poem had been accepted for publication. [I was] standing outside the post office [in August, 1968, outside my in-law’s camp in Enfield, New Hampshire, the only place my family and I could find to live that summer, my life in tatters]. Too broke even to have my car aligned, I’d driven for weeks to a summer job on badly scalloped front tires. In short, things couldn’t have been worse – until I opened my letter of acceptance from Poetry Northwest. The steering wheel shaking in my hands, I drove all the way [home] weeping and shouting, ‘I’ve found a form!’ Though I now find a certain awkwardness in the poem that once rescued me from my formless life, the moment I arrived [in the doorway] to share my good fortune with my wife Diane is still vivid and perfect in my mind.