Monday, December 12, 2016

Making Things Happen: An Essay


I am in love with words. Language, to me, is as water to the fish: in it, I live and move and breathe.
     I love poetry. I revere Dylan Thomas, guiding star of my adolescence. There are others: E. E. Cummings, Theodore Roethke, Seamus Heaney, Marianne Moore, Mary Oliver, Ted Kooser, Countee Cullen, Hart Crane, W. H. Auden – and these are only the recent poets! I cannot neglect Shakespeare, Campion, Catullus, Keats, Novalis, Hopkins, Owen, Dickinson, Longfellow, Tennyson, Whitman.
For the first two and a half years of my life, I didn’t speak. I made no sounds that were recognizably English. Well, once I started! People who know me have had a devil of a time ever since in getting me to curb my babble.
     I talk to myself. It’s almost constant. I have done it for as long as I can remember. An only child, I needed something to fend off loneliness. What better than the sound of my own voice? I wonder if there’s an element of clinical disorder about this habit. But I am reassured by the example of British actor-writer Stephen Fry, who tells of his lifelong tendency to repeat “Stephenese,” gibberish phrases, out loud when alone:

It was the journey from consonant to vowel, the tripping rhythm,
the texture that delighted me. As others get tunes on their brain,
I get words or phrases on the brain. I will awaken, for example,
with the sentence “Hoversmack tender estimate” on my lips. I
will say it in the shower, while I wait for the kettle to boil, and
as I open the morning post. Sometimes it will be with me all day.1

     At school, I rarely cared for what I was supposed to read. But I have always read on my own, often with more enthusiasm than understanding. At an early age, I’d take American Heritage into quiet corners, and try to learn as many new words as possible. And at Mass, I’d follow along in the missalette, enchanted by the gentle cadences of the 1970s liturgy.
     Words to me were mysterious, magical. They had charm—whether they were the words of pop songs like “A Horse with No Name,” or “Brandy (You’re A Fine Girl),” or “American Pie”—or the hallowed formulae of the Eucharist. Prayers and AM-radio songs were perhaps my first “poems,” the earliest specimens of what Auden called “memorable speech.”

Neither Mom nor Dad have a literary bent. To be certain, they “have a way with words”: colorful turns of phrase which I have inherited. Dad once said of someone, “If he had two brains, one of ‘em would die of loneliness.” And Mom once delighted me by pointing to a Maxwell House container and saying, “That coffee’s got coffee in it.” Mom sometimes has a Yogi Berra-ish twist to her speech, as when she spoke of the Red Sox “leading way behind” in an important game. Mom likes to read a good love story, and can still—half a century after St Peter’s High School—recite a few lines of Mrs. Browning’s famous sonnet “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.”


The motto of Boston Latin School is Sumus primi, we are first. BLS is the first public school in the nation, dating back to 1635. Illustrious alumni include Benjamin Franklin, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Phillips Brooks, Leonard Bernstein, Theodore White, Sumner Redstone, and others. It was an all-boys school until 1972. I arrived in September 1980 as an under-aged seventh-grader.
     It didn’t occur to me until then that I might be a poet; or, indeed, that poetry was a thing that living persons did! I can’t recall any books of poetry among my childhood reading. And so it was in Mr. Robert G. Waldron’s English class that I first encountered poetry in any meaningful way. At the front of Mr. Waldron’s Room 214, there was a handmade poster of a tree beside a forked rural path. This picture was captioned with the final stanza of Frost’s “The Road Not Taken”:

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less travelled by,
And that has made all the difference.2

     We “sixies” (as 7th-graders are called in Latin School, being sixth in line from graduation) met other poems under Mr. Waldron’s tutelage: Poe’s “Annabel Lee”; Burns’s “Of a’ the airts the wind can blaw”; Shakespeare’s “All the world’s a stage”; and Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” In fact, Robert Frost may have been the first poet -- apart from Messrs Lennon & McCartney -- whom I enjoyed outside the classroom. Even if the georgics and pastorals of Frost seem less lustrous to me nowadays, I am nonetheless conscious of a great debt to him. He inspired my first efforts at rhyme. And while my verse of 1981 would strike even the most indulgent reader as unpromising, I had found something at which I was confident -- if not yet competent!

                                    Widespread destruction throughout the town
                                    The gutters and streets are unclean
                                    Cars blow smoke for miles around
                                    The city cannot be redeemed

Rhymes were “doable.” They were fun! They didn’t require a helmet or shoulder-pads or teamwork. I had no poetic rivals (yet!). It was a solitary pursuit -- fine by me, an only child accustomed to as much solitude as school and parents and city would permit.


Before Latin School, there was Salesians.
     When I was ten, I became a member of East Boston’s Salesian Boys Club. I recall the friendly staff: Dave, Wally, Brother Pat, Brother Kevin, Father Sid; and Jim, a fellow in his late teens who helped the staff on a volunteer basis. Jim was literate, musical, creative, progressive. He strongly encouraged my creative side. He was very kind about my fledgling efforts at poetry.
     As my appreciation of literature grew, Jim would always recommend something by which he believed I’d be edified or challenged. He got me to try James Joyce. He was remarkably patient when I’d thrust into his hands my latest pastiche of Finnegans Wake. Pretending comprehension, I had read excerpts of the Irish novelist’s masterpiece via the Viking Press’s Portable James Joyce.
     As Jim went on to Suffolk University, he’d always share with me the items on his English curriculum. He sensed that I’d be stimulated by the literature he was reading, even if it was a bit “over my head.” Jim pointed me in the direction of T. S. Eliot, if only to show me that poems need not be written in ballad stanzas! The first book of poetry I ever bought was Eliot’s Four Quartets. I still have the yellow paperback, priced at (can you believe it?) $1.95. Between Jim’s helpful nudgings and my Latin School studies, I was developing an addiction to the written word, to any writer who would use language in an innovative way.
     Jim was one of the souls who helped make my adolescence in rough-and-tumble East Boston fairly tolerable. A wise guide, a mentor. (And he was alert to new music. I believe that he was the first to inform me of an up-and-coming Irish quartet named for a Cold War spy-plane: U2.) I have rarely found a more calm, temperate, measured, intelligent, perceptive, kindly soul. His influence on my undisciplined, intemperate self must be gratefully acknowledged.


I do not know the names of birds or beasts or flowers. I don’t know a bougainvillea from a bumbershoot. I can tell you the names of Blue Line subway stations. I can distinguish farfalle from orecchiette, pappardelle from capelli degli angeli. But I’m hard-pressed to tell a gladiolus from a goldfinch, or a hummingbird from a heliotrope. In Eastie, triple- deckers were more plentiful than trees. So, what little I know of nature comes at second hand: from Theodore Roethke or Mary Oliver, or from the poems and photographs on my friend Elena’s blog.
     At college, I lamented the lack of natural beauty on the UMass Amherst campus. I began to miss Boston’s attractions: the Esplanade, the Charles River, the Emerald Necklace. I like seeing butterflies and sparrows and bluejays and cardinals. (Who doesn’t?) I like mountains. I like the ocean, especially in winter, under a slate-grey sky. But as a city boy, I am most familiar with the beauty of the human person, with the diversity of human faces: the grandeur, the grace, the weariness, the pain, the joy, on the faces of my fellow MBTA commuters.


When I was fifteen, Mr Waldron urged me to read a contemporary Irish poet whose name I did not know: Seamus Heaney. Apparently, Mr. Waldron thought that my creativity would be energized by Heaney’s verse. Soon afterwards, I went to a Harvard Square bookstore and bought the thinnest, cheapest book of Heaney’s that I could find: Field Work ($5.95). It was the beginning of an abiding love!
     Heaney’s poetry was unmistakably poetry. It was passionate, violent, elegiac, forthright, worked-on, hard-fought. It was crafted. It was art. Soon, I had the last few lines of the first Glanmore Sonnet committed to memory:

                        Old ploughsocks gorge the subsoil of each sense
                        And I am quickened with a redolence
                        Of the fundamental dark unblown rose.
                        Wait then … Breasting the mist, in sowers’ aprons,
                        My ghosts come striding into their spring stations.
                        The dream grain whirls like freakish Easter snows.3

I started writing what I thought were imitations of Heaney. These knock-offs were wretched verses making bold to analyze the events of a maternally ancestral homeland I knew nothing about. But it was around this time that I had my first go at writing pentameter, clumsily counting out syllables until they added up to ten.


Dylan Thomas found me when I turned sixteen. I had already seen two of his poems in an anthology: “Fern Hill,” which I loftily deemed stodgy and uninspiring; and the deathless ode to his dying father, “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night.” I admired the villanelle: a tour de force in a difficult form, built on a pattern of binary repetition and only two rhymes in the space of nineteen lines. Though vexed by obscurities of diction, I felt that this was more potent stuff than the mistily bucolic “Fern Hill.”
     One day, in the Poetry section of WordsWorth, Cambridge, I picked up New Directions Paperbook 316: Dylan Thomas’s Collected Poems (as the ample selection was then wrongly called). I began to read the Prologue and was helplessly magnetized. In Thomas, I found kinship with the mud-tongued poems of Seamus Heaney. I also found resemblances to the turgid, disorienting idiom of French symbolist Arthur Rimbaud. (Neat trick, to resemble both!) It was as if I were encountering the English language for the first time.

                                    Seaward, the salmon sucked sun slips
                                    And the dumb swans drub blue
                                    My dabbed bay’s dusk, as I hack
                                    This rumpus of shapes
                                    For you to know
                                    How I, a spinning man,
                                    Glory also this star, bird
                                    Roared, sea born, man torn, blood blest.4

My reaction to Dylan Thomas illustrated Rilke’s aperçu that works of art cannot be reached by criticism, that only love can grasp and hold and judge them. Even “Fern Hill” – once I grasped its syllabic patterns and detected the skillful parallelisms – acquired a certain grace. But being sixteen, I preferred the early poems of adventurous (reckless?) diction, of crash and welter harnessed by iambic:

                        Altarwise by owl-light in the halfway house,
                        The gentleman lay graveward with his furies.5


In the beginning was the mounting fire
That set alight the weathers from a spark,
A three-eyed, red-eyed spark, blunt as a flower,
Life rose and spouted from the rolling seas,
Burst in the roots, pumped from the earth and rock
The secret oils that drive the grass.6

     After reading Paul Ferris’s fine biography of Thomas, I got the dangerous idea that strong drink might have something to do with poetry. But dear old Dylan wasn’t the first to plant this notion in my brain. It was Heaney, in his elegy to Robert Lowell (which paraphrases Lowell’s translation of Pasternak to great effect): “You drank America/ like the heart’s/ iron vodka.”7
     I drank Dylan Thomas like firewater, like moonshine, like oceans of Cymric ale. I spent a year locked in my room, writing imitations. Among these apprentice efforts was “The Holy Season,” an elegy to two girls whom I remembered from elementary school. Within months of each other, they had taken their own lives. I speak of them in the poem as sisters, but they were not related, except inasmuch as they both attended Mansfield Elementary, as we’ll call it, and both died by their own hand.


Despite the weather
(the orange winds of fall
and green of April),

God's children safely stay: the savior's hands
protect the small towns from the blizzard tides,
prevent the ark's timber from rotting
and keep the just-born babies, golden, asleep.

Never forgotten
(blessed by the raindrop)
is the landscape

where the youngsters learned to grow and fight
against adulthood creeping in from all sides.
Their wishes whispered to the dark have never
gone ignored, unanswered, wished in vain.

Words reach heaven
unseen through today's cry
of love and rain

but where is the saint or sage who can explain
the adolescent pair of sister suicides?
This question will echo long past the holy season
for the answer lies nowhere on this landscape.

The hilltop cross
sheds artificial light
each evening, despite.

Blameworthy, perhaps, to use the double tragedy as an occasion to test poetic rhetoric; but I must say I was deeply affected. I liked both girls when I was in grade school, though I did not know them well.
     The poem is flawed in other ways. I don’t know what I was thinking when I wrote of “small towns”; East Boston was (and is) unmistakably an urban community. And the sudden introduction of the tragedy into the poem was not a conscious parallel of the shock of the girls’ deaths, but rather an instance of my ineptitude at poetic orchestration.


My language was obscure and dense, in imitation of Dylan Thomas and other midcentury poets whom I discovered in old anthologies: Hart Crane; Wallace Stevens; George Barker. I had “the fascination for what’s difficult.”8 Combine the Dylan Thomas influence with the Symbolist influence coming via French class, and it led to poems such as the one that follows.
     In early drafts, I called it “Apostasy of Love.” I have revised it over the years; it is now called “This Unbidden Love.” If it seems a mature poem for someone of sixteen, please keep in mind that any alleged maturity can be attributed to years of revision!


The most unthinkable
Flower that ever will have grown
Is the explicit lilac with its lurid scent,
With its vivid hungering and tremulous lips,
A breath alive, a flesh unknown,
A world springlike and full.

The ripest sweetest fruit
Turned liquid on the swirling tongue
Becomes a wine-drunk whisper tasting loud,
Revives forgotten midnights in the gut
And bitter sinful saccharines
Stimulate the tooth.

Two souls, four lungs: each nerve
Breathes fulfillment of its dream
While this unbidden love, the tide's great surge,
Turbulent ecstasy of rapturous urge,
Makes live, in one climactic rhyme,
Epitome of sense.

     I always over-wrote. But I was learning to make verbal music other than the jingly four-three of half-mastered ballad measure. I learned to cut weak or hackneyed phrases and replace them with strange new phrases! Rather like jigsaw-puzzling: trying to find the word that fit best. My standard was a gut sense for the right sound.


Thirty years later, I am still writing poetry, inspired by ancestors, contemporaries, friends. It is a sustaining and vitalizing art. It may be true, as W. H. Auden once claimed, that “poetry makes nothing happen”9 in the arena of politics, but in the realm of Art, every poem is -- at least ideally -- a mini-genesis, a co-creation with God, a participation in the hallowed grandeur which helps the soul breathe and the heart live.


  1. Stephen Fry, Moab Is My Washpot: An Autobiography (New York: Random House, 1999), p. 89

  1. Robert Frost, “The Road Not Taken,” The Poetry of Robert Frost, ed. Edward Connery Lathem (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1979), p. 105

  1. Seamus Heaney, “Glanmore Sonnets: I,” Field Work (New York: The Noonday Press, 1979), p. 33

  1. Dylan Thomas, “Author’s Prologue,” The Collected Poems of Dylan Thomas (New York: New Directions, 1957), p. xvi

  1. Thomas, “Altarwise by Owl-Light,” ibid., p. 80

  1. Thomas, “In the Beginning,” ibid., p. 27

  1. Heaney, “Elegy,” op. cit., p. 31

  1. W. B. Yeats, “The Fascination of What’s Difficult,” The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats: A New Edition, ed. Richard J. Finneran (New York: Collier Books, 1989), p. 93

9. W. H. Auden, “In Memory of W. B. Yeats,” Collected Poems, ed. Edward Mendelson (New York: Vintage Books, 1991), p. 248


  1. Thanks for putting this into writing! And for continuing to put a great many other things into writing as well. We all have a story about how we became readers and writers, but all of those stories have mentors, friends, and authority figures in common. And your final paragraph really says it all.

    Wishing you a lovely Christmas and a productive, prolific 2017!

    1. Thank you kindestly, Jeff! I am indebted to you for years of encouragement, and for leading me to discover Agha Shahid Ali and the ghazal. Among other things! Joy, grace, and light to you and yours this Christmas season, and all best wishes for a happy and healthful 2017!



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