My Life as a Poet – Youth

(Note: Thumbnails displayed along side text are images from the original presentation. Click on a thumbnail to view an enlarged image.)My parents may have had their failures. But then I’ve had my own failures as a parent, and one of their great successes  – or so I feel looking back – was to introduce me in my youth to the New England and America of my poetry. The New England I mean was the Connecticut River Valley in West Claremont, New Hampshire, where this photograph was taken of my brothers and me by my mother in the 1950s. As you see, we’re still the central figures of a happy family with no apparent sorrows. But now we’re a little older, and we’re showing the vegetables we’ve raised on my stepfather’s land along the Connecticut, and taken to town for sale.
 And here we hold up prize-winning vegetables at the county fair….
In this new life of mine I learned about feeding chickens and guinea hens….
 and gathering hay for a flock of goats….
and I discovered the range of country people in the Connecticut River Valley who also raised goats….
My brother John and I appear in the background of this photograph, if you can make us out, behind the main group at the right in dark shirts – me with my head down….
Continuing with black and white for a minute, this is a snapshot from my mother’s album of the house all five of us and my stepsister lived in from the time I was in seventh grade until I was a senior in high school. I call it a house – actually, it was a garage built by my stepfather for an attached house he planned to erect later on.
And just behind it – a little blurry in this detail – is the cab of an old truck, the first of a series of backyard vehicles my stepfather bought cheap and tried to fix for farm work with makeshift parts. My stepfather was a child of the Depression who grew up on the other side of the tracks,
and everything he made or tinkered with, from that garage to his backyard vehicles, had the feeling of a jerry-built project improvised out of nothing.
That includes our ranch-style house itself, which he built in bursts of activity while working in a machine shop over a period of five years, and which was unfinished even after we moved into it. Here he is behind the garage pouring his first cement for that house, my brothers and I behind him….
But through him and through the marginalized farmers of the area I worked for as a teenager, I learned about the hardscrabble, make-do life of rural New England right on the ground, after industrialization and cultural change had come to the region, breaking up the big farms into small parcels of land like my stepfather’s.
 I also learned about what is now called ethnicity, since my stepfather belonged to a large family of French Canadians – shown here in this low-resolution snapshot – and his father, that white-haired man in black pants at the center of the photo with his wife, was drawn from Canada to Claremont for work in the factories there. My mother, at the left of center in the red shorts, and my brothers and I, in red T-shirts, are the new additions to this French-Canadian family. I’m the kid at the far right, standing slightly apart from the group once again, apparently trying to make up my mind about it. There’s no question that the on-the-ground New England, so to speak, of this photograph and the others I’ve shown you have little to do with the loftier region of poets like Donald Hall or Maxine Kumin or Richard Wilbur, but nonetheless, it became, as I say, the New England and the America of my poetry.
While I’m on the subject of my poetry, my archive includes my first poems in free verse. I was seventeen when I wrote them, and they certainly have their limitations, as you’ll see, but here they are, in their stack of mismatched pages, the handwritten originals for a book manuscript typed up for me during my senior year in high school, and I want to linger a bit longer with these than I did with the photos because I think they show what was going on in my head when I made my start in poetry – also what poets I was reading then.
This is one example from the group, with instructions for typing at the top – a little faded, so I hope it doesn’t make you squint too much. If this poem recalls the Beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti with its incantation and its lack of punctuation, that’s because the year was 1959, and I had just read Ferlinghetti’s brand new book, <em>A Coney Island of the Mind</em>.

Time you

peaceful quiet lull of the virgin countryside

that we try to pierce stomp kill with concrete and car horns

Time you

careful beautiful building schizophrenic [whoops – misspelled] who is

ruthlessly raping wrecking ripping down.

Time you

are the murderer at night on tiptoe –

i hear and lie still and hope you will not notice….

and so on. So Ferlinghetti has influenced this early poem, but in its anxiety

about the urbanization of the countryside, I find myself very much in evidence

as well, the 17-year-old kid who saw the pastures of old farms in the Connecticut River Valley under threat, and worried about this.

Here’s another verse about the forces of urbanization that the poems of the Beats and the prose of John Dos Passos helped me to express, so this poem does away once more with punctuation and uses run-on lines to convey a mindless sort of action in the city.

Sun beating concrete and steel with hot fierce fists sun

stinging many moving motor buses cars trucks

squawking horns bawling quarrelling horns red

light-yellow light-red light-yellow light. hurly-

burly voices jumbly mumbly voices loud

shouting voices…

…and on to a multiplicity of faces, and then to more traffic lights…

I was reading E. E. Cummings at 17, too, so this excerpt, in a very different mood, describes a northern New England snowfall in the Cummings topography that I’m sure you’ll recognize.

white earth

lay dreaming of

soft

somethings

asking

something

(but it was impossible to know what)

perhaps

asking

the trees

too

dreaming of

soft

somethings

looking

in the window of an old brook

nobody home

The erotic poetry of E. E. Cummings provided the perfect conduit for my teenage libido in passages like this one about a shared sexual encounter:

How can we be

this

(turned inside out)

fiercely a soft somehow bubble

Another change of tone. I was a child of World War II and the Korean War, so casualties in the battlefield were very much on my mind, as you see in the opening of this somewhat melodramatic poem about a war-damaged beggar.

Man that nobody dares to look at

Sitting on the curb, ashamed,

With one leg resting on the hard, cold cement,

The other resting on a battlefield somewhere, rotting….

But if you check this note at the bottom of the page, addressed to an English teacher I first showed this poem to, you can see that there was one more literary influence, namely Bertolt Brecht, in his play <em>Threepenny Opera</em>. Which is to say, I was doing in these poems what young writers do – that is, trying out a variety of writing styles, not yet ready to assimilate them into a style of my own.
And trying out people as subjects, too — the farm woman in this excerpt, for instance, who has, to quote the first long line, a “time-welted face bandaged by a dirty handkerchief….”
 Or the rejected black man in this next poem, which explores still another style — that is a spoken, vernacular language, maybe derived from Sandburg and William Carlos Williams, two favorite poets then – and now, actually.

There’s a guy that sells sweet cider in there,

a nice old guy – he

used to play his guitar when it was summer…

–and skipping a couple of lines:

he told us stories and winked and

laughed teeth across his wrinkly

black face when we wanted to hear another one.

–down to the last two lines set apart:

I used to like him when I was little,

but then Paw told me to stay away from that place.

I must have been very proud of that concluding twist when I was seventeen. By the way, the sympathy toward that black man has nothing to do with the Civil Rights movement, since this was the 1950s, several years earlier than the advent of Martin Luther King. So – and this is a discovery I made rereading the poem for this presentation — it probably dates back to my childhood with those black dolls I mentioned, and Little Brown Koko.

OK, just one more from the manuscript, in one more poetic style. It’s a poem about darkness coming on and departing the next day. I’ll read the whole thing for a change:

Tall clumsy dark,

stumbling over the buildings

and falling into the road

and getting up, brushing off his big black coat.

Arguing with the street lamps

he cursing in hard syllables of black

and shouting night

He walking along the street

and forgetting evening

in the alleys…….

And remembering it, coming

back for it in the morning

I distinctly remember thinking about nightfall in the nearby town of Claremont, New Hampshire, when I wrote this poem, but there’s surely a touch of T.S. Eliot in it, too – I’m thinking of that passage you might recall from the opening of Eliot’s well-known poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” a particular favorite of mine then, about the yellow fog that comes at evening and slides along the streets and alleyways.

But you might be wondering at this point, how did a seventeen-year-old kid in the sticks of West Claremont, New Hampshire, manage to be so well-read in the modernist literature

being written by T.S. Eliot and the rest? The answer to that question is that I met a literature student from Columbia University named John Huot when I was working at a summer job at Lost River Gorge, a tourist location in the White Mountains, and after John got back to Columbia, he sent to my mailbox in the rural boondocks a wonderful box of books – I think of it as my vocation in a box – containing all the authors I’ve mentioned and more, and giving me a sense of the modernist tradition that I might otherwise have taken years to acquire. And to top it off, he included a copy of the Columbia literary magazine with one of his poems in it, giving me the idea that I might one day be able to publish my own poems, too. So wherever you may be today, John Huot, thank you, for this little Cinderella episode in my formative life as a writer.