muldoon and me, me and poetry
(What follows is exactly the sort of confessional post that makes some of my readers, in particular those that I see in person with relative frequency, cringe a bit. So be it. I work things out on here – makes me cringe too, trust me! Especially this one!)
It’s been ten years, just about this month, since I graduated from college. So that’s what all those emails with “reunion” in the subject line were about – I summarily and instantly delete anything from that place. Which I shouldn’t do. I have daughters now, who might one day be what they call legacy applicants. Look at that – all that I believe in, and believe in deeply, disappearing across the haze of parental anxiety!
I know it is a bit embarassing vis a vis the poet types that read this blog, and poet-types do seem to be a major sub-demographic, but I was just thinking about the way my relationship with this guy (watch it, it’s funny – sorry can’t be embedded in wordpress) has sort of indexed or paralleled at least my life since the start of my academic work, since I left home.
The first time I had a sense that I might be good at all of this came during my first year of college. I wrote a paper on The Annals of Chile for a course called Reading Poetry. I really loved the book, and went all out in writing the paper. Spent time with an Irish dictionary in the library and everything, but I am sure – despite the fact I can’t now find the paper, but also knowing what I know about the predilictions of the department I was in – that the paper was hung on good close reading.
I got the paper back in the mail that summer. The professor (who would soon become my advisor) wrote across the bottom, “Ads, this is fucking great! Amazing!” The “fucking” echoed, made me a bit dizzy, and a tiny turn that would in the course of years become highly significant, encompassingly so, shaped itself into the road that I was on.
It bears saying that at the same time I was also taking a course called Writing Poetry I. Now, it was nearly impossible for first-year students to get into this course. It was capped at 15, and generally speaking you had to be in the second or third year to get in. I submitted a sample of my work, and along with one other first-year, was allowed into the class.
The other first-year student was an interesting case. Her work was very good and was often chosen as the material for group discussion in the weekly workshop. She was a slight and attractive girl from Georgia. Unassuming but had a real way with words. After the first year, though, she disappeared. When I finally got around to asking someone what had happened to her, I learned that she had in fact gotten pregnant and had decided to keep the baby. She had moved back to where she grew up – the suburbs of Atlanta. I don’t know the rest of the story, but really wish right now that I did – or that I even remembered her name.
My work, on the other hand, was rarely chosen for class-discussion. Something went a bit wrong. I waited until the last minute to write my stuff; I didn’t follow the rules of the assignments. After this class was over, I never took another creative writing course again. I had come to college thinking that I was a poet, first and foremost. I ended the first year, given the differential between the comments on my critical and creative work, thinking I was a critic. That doesn’t quite tell the whole story, but it’s a start, an approximation. Other things happened – thing I haven’t thought of for years – in that writing class, but nothing for me to share with you now.
Time passed. I kept reading Muldoon. I decided to write my senior thesis on Pound – a senior thesis that somehow got me into a good grad school, though my secondary advisor’s letter to Helen Vendler at Harvard didn’t seem to do the trick. Their bad – I have been a model post-grad student. I have filled the “Our students have taken jobs at….” with good proper nouns, attractive places – places that even Harvard would be proud of.
The guy who picked the poems for the workshops, and who wrote “fucking great” on my paper on Annals, was in his late sixties. He’d never published a monograph, or a serious piece of criticism. After I left, he placed a single poem in the New Yorker, the publishing coup of his entire life. A pseudo-vanity press published a slim volume after that. He was a good teacher, I suppose. Once his wife had caught him cheating, and had tried to run him over with the family car on the little street in front of the English Department. Later, he married someone else and bought a Lexus.
In my final year of college, I would hop in my own car (not a Lexus) and drive down to the city to see Muldoon read at the 92nd Street Y, elsewhere. I never stopped writing poetry.
It’s about to get a bit complicated in light of my pseudonymity. But I ended up, next, living rather proximately to Muldoon. One of his best poems was written about a canal that ran right past my first post-undergrad apartment – a canal that flooded rather badly during my first months of grad school. I assigned the poem to some of my students this year for a writing exercise; I had to provide ample footnotes.
One of things chronically misunderstood about the place where I went to grad school is the fact that the creative writers aren’t a part of the English department – they exist in their own part of the school, with a separate building and everything. This had some hilarious effects. Year after year, we were ranked by US News and World Report as the top department in African American studies in the country, despite the fact that we had neither a single African American working in the department for most of the time I was there, nor a specialist in African American Studies. I won’t explain – you can do the arithmetic if you like.
I did not work on poetry during graduate school. I worked – and I continue to work – on the novel. There are reasons both simple and complex why this happened – a sense that I’d done my work on Pound, and that was enough for awhile, the persistence of theory at that point and the tendency of theoretical work to focus on narrative texts, brutal self-repression and a sense (wrongheaded and not) that prose is actually more difficult to work on than poetry.
Later, toward the end, I went out for dinner with Paul Muldoon and a few other people. It’s not like he was inaccessable – some of my fellow students were working with him in one capacity or another. But as you might imagine, this was a bit momentous for me, given all I’ve said above. Since then, there’s been a men’s room run-in, at a conference somewhere for something where he gave a keynote reading, and during which my look of surprise and recognition (I am guessing, I am safely assuming) provoked him into a polite look of slightly baffled recognition. “Ah hi again!” I am sure he didn’t remember, why would he, but there you go.
I have continued ordering all that he writes, and I have continued writing poetry, on nearly a daily basis, and I have continued not sending any of it out. Perhaps I’ll do something about that in the next week or so, if I get a minute. Recently, Waterstones sent me by mistake two copies of some new and trendy poetry that I’d ordered. I gave one of them to a colleague, my “mentor” or “buddy” or whatever he is semi-officially called. He is a fairly prominent poet. He said to me, when I gave it to him, But Ads, I did not think that you were a reader of slim volumes. Oh, but a secret one, a sureptitious one, I am.
A little while ago, Muldoon made an appearance on the Colbert Report. (Sorry – video only available in the US or if you have a slicko proxy like me….) I watched the segment with great pleasure, you can be sure, as it’s been awhile. And then I showed it to my wife, who said something like, Oh dear. He is looking so much older, isn’t he? I snapped back Of course we all are, aren’t we? We’re all looking a bit older since the 92nd Street Y! And then, that night, I started to write this post…