Being a Treatise on Memory, Poetry and Life
Whoever does not want to fear, let him probe his inmost self. Do not just touch the surface; go down into yourself; reach into the farthest corner of your heart . . .. only thencan you dare announce that you are pure and crystal clear, when you havesifted everything in the deepest recesses of your being.
Life’s nonsense pierces us with strange relation.
Memory is an ambiguous friend. More often than not it comforts you allowing you to rest content with the beliefs you have come to wallow in; one reinterprets the past through the lens of the present making the meaning of the past bring into focus what you want yourself to be presently. What youremember, or what you allow yourself to remember is shaped by, and shapes, who you are now. “My memory is the history of time,” Charles Olson wrote. The summer following my third grade year I was nine years old. I remember forcibly willing a memory into my head. I lay across the smooth polished concrete walkway surrounding O’Conner Elementary School. The wide walkway covered the walkway’s entire length across thefront of the school. I was waiting for a friend and his mother to meet me at the Mayfair swimming pool across the parking lot from the school. The sun pulsed brightly upon the gray asphalt of the parking lot.
The splash and giggle of the swimmers filtered through the oleanders that grew on the other side of the wire hurricane fence surrounding the pool. As I lay there waiting, I watched a group of yellow-jackets fly about their gray paper nest, which hung from the walkway canopy just above the brushed metal letters that spelt out the name of the school. I was happy. I wanted to hold onto that feeling as if it were the most precious gem in the world. I repeated to myself, “ Remember, remember, remember.” For more than thirty years now every time I think about memory, I feel the coolness of the concrete; the bright sun glares; and the wasps dance laconically above my head. I do not have a memory of my friend and his mother driving up in their red Oldsmobile, although I am sure they did. I do not remember going swimming that day, although other days in the pool swim about in my memory. I could extrapolate from other occasions, fill in the misplaced details of that day with others of a similar nature; it would be an accurate memory of that day, but it would be the way I want it to be not necessarily the way it was. Truth is a complicated lie.
A few months prior to the afternoon watching the dance of the yellow-jackets, in Ms. Nugent’s third grade classroom I fell in love and had my first conscious encounter with the word. Kathy had longbrown hair and an infectious laugh. She was cool. She said, “Man” at the beginning of all her sentences. She wore love beads that were not made of different-colored candy wafers. This was 1969 after all. Kathy’s brother had won some kind of scholarship which allowed him to go to Antarctica with Jacques Costeau; a name I had learned from television, therefore it had to be cool. Kathy played the piano, or so I had heard. I was in love. I sat near her at lunch. I wouldn’t dare talk to Kathy; she was too exhalted: a Beatrice, a Laura. I talked to Rhonda, Kathy’s best friend. Kathy was oblivious to my infatuation. Around the classroom Ms. Nugent had set up learning stations. At the writing station various assignments were written on slips of paper, which we could draw from a perkily decorated box. One day I drew a slip with the directions to write a poem about a pet. In an effort to make a connection with the love of my life, I asked Ms. Nugent if I could write a song instead of a poem. Kathy played the piano; if I wrote a song maybe we could form some kind of artistic connection. I imagined us years later performing on television like Sonny and Cher, or The Captain and Tenille. Somehow in the depths of my primordial awareness of poetry, I had sensed the similarity between song and poem. Yet, they were not similar enough for my nine-year old aesthetic, so I wanted to replace “poem” with ‘song.” The importance of what something is called, the importance of using the right word, the attempt to control reality with language, obsessed me like the first untouched drink sitting on the bar in front of an alcoholic. Much of what I write now is an attempt to bring some sort of order, some node of meaning out of the Universe’s chaotic swirl: to be Eliot’s Still point in a turning world. The Rumplestilskin effect: if I can learn the name of something then I am free. Homer described Odyseus lashed to the mast of his ship: “So they sang, in sweet utterance, and the heart within me desired to listen.” Sitting there at the writing station, struggling with my “song” about a cat, my ear caught the first faint notes of the song that has been obsessing me for more than three decades. Kathy enthralled me, but I fell in love with poetry. I was oblivious.
Once in Vermont when hiking along a portion of the Long Trail, a trail that threads along the Appalachian Mountains from Georgia to the Canadian border, I stopped to rest on an outcropping of rock that jutted from the trees to overlook the path I had just traversed. The trail moved in and out of the forest doubling back upon itself as it back-switched its way up the mountain. Parts of the trail were visible from my vantage point, but most were obscured by the scraggly pine trees. Looking back from here, the next visible piece of the trail that has led me to where I am now emerges from the forest of my life seven years after third grade. I was in high school; I was fully in the grip of adolescence: angst, frustration with authority, hormonal wrath, boredom with the mundane mendacities of my teachers and classes. I sat at the back of Ms. Janak’s geometry and German classes scribbling franticly in spiral notebooks trying to explain myself to myself. The German poet Paul Celan wrote, “reality is not simply there, it/ must be searched and won.” In my notebooks I carved out a reality outside of the great South Texas coastal plain of football, beer binges, and stock shows. Then I met C.J. Berkman. Berkman had a job as an English teacher; I never had him for a class. He introduced me to a map that led into poetry. One day after an art club meeting of which he was a sponsor he handed me a copy of Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl.”
“Here, Neal,” he drawled, “You might like this.” No comment, no explanation. No sales job about the significance of “Howl.” Just, “You might like this.”
I read it. When I brought it back to him, I handed him some of what I had written. He read them. He didn’t correct. He didn’t mock. He didn’t wretch from the clichéd saccharine nature inherent in most adolescent poetry that lived in my verse like tapeworms in a dog’s heart. He read them. He laughed when he was supposed to laugh. He took me seriously, which was probably the kindest gift he could have given to me.
Tom Raworth, an English poet, said that he started to write because he liked to read what he wrote. Berkman allowed me to like what I wrote. After Ginsberg he fed me, “The Wasteland.” Listened when I returned the next day, babbling my excitement and confusion. I ate volumes and volumes, everything I could find at the Victoria Public Library, everything Berkman casually handed me; and I wrote. I had discovered on my own Pound’s advice to read poetry if you wanted to write poetry. Writing was easy. Open your heart, and dip your pen in. Red was my favorite color; I splashed it everywhere. Somehow the Romantic notion of spontaneous expression of emotion had settled into me. Ignoring the “in reflection” portion of Wordsworth’s definition: spontaneous expression of emotion in reflection. Gingsberg’s “First thought, best thought,” drove my pen across the paper. Not bothering to look at the extensive revisions of Howl evident from the facsimile of the manuscript. First thought, to me, obviously meant first way of expressing that thought. The jazz pianist’s hours of practice had nothing to do with the improvisation of the moment. The rythmn, the tight turns of phrase, the figures of speech just happened; no one actually sat down and worked out all that stuff. The words flowed: hogsheads of Whitman via Ginsberg via my arrogant egocentric adolescent confidence that what I had to say mattered gushed from my pen as if I could make up for my callowness with the sheer volume of ink I was able to lathe across the page. “I do not hear the scream . . .I am the scream,” wrote Edmond Jacobs, but I didn’t get it. It was the noise that mattered. The more over the top, flowery, “poetic,” or obscure I could become the better. The subject of the poem disappeared beneath the metaphor of the metaphor’s metaphor. I was pulled into the language like quicksand, not realizing the danger even as the sand filled my lungs.
Then I met William Carlos Williams. R.D. Taylor, the poor schmuck, came to Victoria from Austin to teach a class in creative writing at The Open Door Creativity Center, a project set up by one of the O’Conner women to appease her creativity. I was a senior; I knew it all. My teachers had noticed that I spent more time writing than paying attention to them and had recommended me for a scholarship to the class. Lisa Sparkman, a junior and my future wife, was also in the class. I was much more interested in Lisa than in listening to R.D. Taylor. Dr. Williams was one of the prescribed texts (I would have called it a book then not yet being brainwashed enough to call it a text). When I read “ The Red Wheel Barrow,” I couldn’t believe we had had to read something so un-poetic. I had yet another reason, not counting Lisa, to ignore the blatherings of R.D. Taylor. Yet, “The Red Wheel Barrow” haunted me. It became the first poem I memorized. First, in my arrogance, to mock it, but the simplicity, the pure stark image, the slow rhythm snaked itself into me. It was beauty. Williams, along with the objectivist poet Charles Reznikoff, the other book assigned for the class, created a strong counter point with their simple quiet lines to the howl of Ginsberg and the monolithic allusivness of Eliot. Cognitive dissonance creates new thought; a rock dropped into a pond sends ripples to the opposite shore. I had read Williams and Reznikoff reluctanly. I had read them, but I was not yet ready to hear the discordant strains that rippled beneath my comfortable, if not rigid, definition of poetry. The class came to an end; Lisa and I began dating, and I drove off to Austin to go to college and become a writer.
End Part One