Sunday, April 5, 2020

Two poems from new edition of "Stark County Poems" appear in Illinois Heritage

Two poems from the new enlarged edition of Stark County Poems have appeared in the latest issue of Illinois Heritage, which is the magazine of the Illinois State Historical Society.  The poems are "The Proverb of the Three Hotels" and "The Boy Who Climbed a Tree," both of which concern the visit of Abraham Lincoln to Toulon, Illinois in October of 1858.

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

New enlarged edition of Stark County Poems released

Consisting of over fifty poems, from short lyrics in a variety of forms to lengthy blank verse and free verse narratives, "Stark County Poems" portrays the history of a small rural county in central Illinois, along the upper Spoon River valley. 

Chronologically arranged, and incorporating letters, newspaper articles, obituaries, family stories, early county histories and diaries, the poems cover a century of the county's history, from the 1830s through the 1930s. 

Map, illustrations. 59 poems. 225 pages. 

BJ Omanson was raised in the Spoon River valley of Stark County, Illinois, where both sides of his family have lived and farmed since the mid-19th century. 

~ ~ ~ ~ ~


In the autumn of 1893,
      Alpheus Wheeler Appenheimer
and his wife Olive arrived in Stark County,
      Illinois, after having traveled
from their earlier Illinois home in Pike County
      by way of Leoti, Kansas.
They arrived in a covered wagon drawn
      by a pair of worn-out mules conveying
a girl and two boys, implements, blankets,
      a plow and scythe and a chest of clothes,
tinware pots, some kerosene lamps
      and a Mason jar of seeds interred
in early May and exhumed in August,
       still unsprouted— it’d been that dry.
They almost starved on their journey back.
       In Missouri they stopped at a lonely farm
and asked at the house if they might pick a few
       ears of corn to boil for supper.
Go ahead, help yourselves, the woman barked.
      No one else even bothers to ask.
It was hog cholera that had wiped them out
      and sent them westward to make a new start,
and it was drought and the ’93 Panic
      that wiped them out for the second time
and sent them back east to begin again.
      They’d gotten their fill of living in sod—
dirt in your soup and dirt in your bed.
      Their youngest son was born on a night
in January that covered the state
      in three feet of snow as the mercury plunged
to twenty below. He was kept from freezing
      by his mother’s warmth and a crackling stove
that was fed from a pile of unshucked corn.
      At ten cents a bushel it made more sense
to burn it than sell it and, anyhow,
      the buffalo chips were long since gone.
In later years, when anyone asked,
      old Alpheus never had much to tell
about losing two farms in two different states.
      In an unguarded moment he said aloud,
You can pray to God. You can vote for Bryan.
      In the end it don’t matter a hill of beans.

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

The Persistence of Regionalism (introduction to Jared Carter's The Land Itself)

That Jared Carter, among living writers, is one of America’s premier regionalist poets is a claim few who know his work well would dispute. Yet describing any writer as regionalist in the second decade of the 21st century is in some ways problematic. The last high-water mark of American regionalism, the 1930s, was already on the wane by the time Jared Carter was born, and regionalism’s death knell was already being sounded by such critics as Lowry Charles Wimberly – who saw in the spread of national brands and national standards the inexorable homogenization of America’s regions. At the same time, John Crowe Ransom and the Agrarians were analyzing the slow death of Southern regionalism due to the spread of industrialism, the migration from rural areas into the cities, and a host of inter-related cultural trends.
          After the end of World War II, the homogenization of America’s hinterlands, due to the spread of the interstate highway system and television, received a quantum boost, with its effects becoming more far-reaching and virulent with each passing decade until, by the digital revolution of 1990s, it had come to seem as though regionalism could only legitimately be spoken of in the past tense. And yet it was through these same decades, when so much of what was most distinctive about America’s heartland was vanishing, that Carter was turning out poem after poem, portraying characters, situations and locations as singular and sharply defined as any in literature, and he was doing so with a honed plainness of style that left no doubt as to their veracity and authenticity.
          Beginning with Carter’s first book, Work, For the Night is Coming (1981), readers were introduced to a region which was at once literal and mythical: “Mississinewa County,” somewhere “east of Spoon River, west of Winesburg, and slightly north of Raintree County,” as Carter himself has explained. It is a fictional county named for an actual river (the Mississinewa, a tributary of the Wabash) which, like the fictional town “Spoon River” (also named for an actual river), Faulkner’s “Yoknapatawpha County,” Frost’s rural New England, Robinson’s “Tilbury Town” and a long list of other literary regions, is rooted equally in the American continent and the American psyche. Mississinewa County is a multifaceted, multidimensional “place” of such symbolic and allegorical richness that its hinterlands and far boundaries – despite several decades of appreciative commentary – remain largely unexplored. Altogether, Carter’s books contain much of what one has come to expect in a regionalist body of literature from the American Midwest: pool halls and funeral parlors, dilapidated barns and covered bridges, barbershops and taverns, and miles of highways, telephone poles and open country inhabited by farmers, druggists, drifters, drunkards, undertakers and real estate developers. Turning to any of the early and late poems in the current collection, one is struck once again by the assurance and authority in the poet’s voice. Carter’s descriptions are rendered with a pitch-perfect precision that can only come from long familiarity with his subject. He is a plein-air poet, portraying his region with a sharpness of focus and an eye for inconspicuous but telling detail that cannot be achieved at second-hand.
          The answer, then, to the question of whether a genuinely regional literature is still possible in the 21st century, when America’s regions have been all but homogenized, suburbanized, industrialized and digitized out of existence, is to be found in the pages of any of Carter’s books, where the poems, like palpable artifacts plucked from field or creekbed, constitute clear evidence of a region still very much alive. Precisely how America’s regions have survived a century of destructive “progress” – at what cost, and in what fashion – are complex questions beyond the scope of this essay. But one index and proof of their survival is to be found in the literature they produce, and Carter’s books are as strong a piece of evidence as one might hope for.

This essay may be read in its entirety on the blog: The American Midwest as a Literary Region

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

A new book by BJ Omanson on the American WWI poet, John Allan Wyeth

The first full-length study of the recently rediscovered American poet of the First World War: John Allan Wyeth. Contains a wealth of new biographical information, plus several extensive essays on Wyeth's technique and his relationship to the major British war poets.


“More than any other English-language poet of the war, Wyeth’s language is stripped clean of 19th-century tonalities and devices. A contributing factor to Wyeth’s modernist style might have been that, during the years immediately prior to the publication of This Man’s Army, when he was almost certainly composing his sonnets, Wyeth resided in the American colony in Rapallo, Italy, where he was known to be friends with Ezra Pound (see “Notes on Wyeth’s Years in Rapallo,” p. 99).\

While it is impossible to know the nature, or extent, of Pound’s influence on Wyeth, there is no denying that Wyeth’s stringently honed descriptions—where every word contributes to the presentation and every image is distilled to its essentials—accord closely to the Imagist principles which Pound espoused in the years before the war. Even the Imagist stricture that the rhythm of a poem should possess the fluidity of a musical phrase rather than the beat of a metronome, is not violated by Wyeth’s sonnets, which display an unprecedented metrical freedom within the general constraint of the form.

Whether Wyeth developed his acute descriptive powers under the influence of Pound, or from earlier influences, is a matter of conjecture. It is at least as plausible that the minutely observed and needle-sharp descriptions of Henry James provided the primary influence on Wyeth’s technique. According to Edmund Wilson, only he and Wyeth—of their literary circle at Princeton—read James seriously while they were there, and it was Wyeth who led Wilson to a full appreciation of James’ technique.

Wyeth’s reliance on chance, on working with whatever objects circumstance might provide, even when they serve no apparent thematic or metaphoric purpose, has a basic affinity with a precept of another major theorist of Imagism, T.E. Hulme, who was a direct influence on Pound. Hulme’s contention was that it is not the object itself that matters, but only its description. Any object will do as well as any other, including random objects served up by chance.

The idea of employing randomness as a compositional principle may have been unusual in literary theory in those years, but in the visual arts the notion of the objet trouvé (“found object”) had been in the air since well before the war, from Picasso’s Still-life with Chair Caning, to Duchamp’s “ready-mades,” to Dada’s reliance on whatever the artist happened to pick up in the street.  It is certainly no stretch to assume that Wyeth, with his years spent in New York, London and Paris, and his lifelong interest in contemporary movements in art, would have keep well abreast of such developments.

Wyeth’s reliance on circumstantial subject matter might tempt a less well-informed critic to dismiss Wyeth’s sonnets as mere documentary reportage, but if that were all his sonnets amounted to, they would lie flat and lifeless on the page.  What we find instead is a body of work where the unsettled randomness of actual events infuses each sonnet with an élan vital, a vital spark. Far from being the equivalent of old newspapers fit only for wrapping fish, Wyeth’s sonnets are living vignettes, rich in chaos, chlorine, and all the random particularity of war.”

Friday, November 9, 2018

Two new books of poems by BJ Omanson

Old Locksley among the Ruins

A long meditative poem describing an old man’s final days living in solitude in a decrepit stone manor as cold as a crypt. He divides his time between library and garden where he "considers and contemplates the melancholy decline of the year,” watching the falling of leaves, and succumbing to reverie as the ivy winds slowly around ankle and knee, and autumn gives way to the darkness of winter.

Illustrated in color throughout, on heavy high-gloss paper.

Two Nocturnes on Arnold's "Scholar Gipsy"

Two complimentary poems ("On Port Meadow near Oxford" and "Embers of a Gypsy Fire") inspired by Matthew Arnold's pastoral elegy, "The Scholar Gipsy"— written in the same stanza, and describing the countryside outside of Oxford along the upper Thames at the close of day. A meditation on mortality.

Illustrated in color throughout, on heavy high-gloss paper.

Each book can be ordered from Lulu by clicking on its title.

Friday, March 30, 2018

Stark County Poems receives its first review.

Stark County Poems has received its first review: "Meditation on the Past," by J. Robert Baker, in the current issue of Kestrel, A Journal of Literature and the Arts.

Note: Since this review was published, a new enlarged edition of Stark County Poems has been issued, with thirty additional poems.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Reminiscence: My own private Arcadia

It begins with my grandfather, Alpheus Appenheimer, who was born in a one-room sod dugout on the western Kansas frontier in January of 1891, during one of the most severe blizzards in the state's history.  Later, as a small boy in a one-room school-house in the Spoon River valley of central Illinois, Alpheus was in continual trouble with his teacher, who maintained discipline by the enforced memorization of poems, the length of the poem corresponding to the severity of the infraction.   Only when the miscreant had the poem by heart, and could recite it without error, would he be permitted to leave his desk.  Given this state of affairs, it wasn't long before Alpheus looked ahead to the longest poem in the book, Bryant's "Thanatopsis."   He figured it was only a matter of time before one of his pranks would warrant that supreme punishment, so he set about memorizing it in advance. Once that was accomplished, he was impatient for a chance to have some amusement at his teacher's expense. Waiting until she was in an exasperated, vindictive frame of mind (which she frequently was), Alpheus gave the pigtail of the girl seated in front of him a hard yank, at which the youngster shrieked Alpheus's name and cried out for justice. The teacher marched straight back to Alpheus's desk, opened his Reader to the dreaded page and planted her finger squarely on Bryant's poem. "That should you keep occupied for a while," she snapped. Then she marched back up to the front of the classroom with Alpheus right on her heels, matching her step for step. When she turned to sit down and found Alpheus standing in front of her desk with an angelic smile on his face, she nearly fell off her chair. Before she could say a word he launched into the poem, reeling out the entire verse--- all eighty-plus lines of it--- at breakneck speed like an auctioneer. After which the teacher just shook her head and murmured, "All right, Alpheus, you've had your fun. Now go sit down."

Vaches paissant dans la Clairière (detail)
c. 1840 by Constant Troyon
My grandfather had memorized what seemed to me, as a child, an inexhaustable store of nineteenth-century poems, and would recite them to us grandchildren whenever the mood took him, much to our delight. His favorite, in addition to "Thanatopsis," was Longfellow's "The Wreck of the Hesperus," but there were numerous other lyrics, wayward stanzas, ditties and songs from the war, and a ready supply of nonsensical doggerel. His slightly high-pitched, musical voice reciting poetry in an amused tone, was as much a part of my boyhood experience of the farm as the bellowing of steers along the ridge, the soughing of wind through the rafters of the barn, or the reassuring vista of oak-shaded pastures sloping down to Indian Creek. They were all somehow of a piece, my own private Arcadia, through which I ranged freely during the years of my boyhood.

Long before that time, in the Spring of 1912, as soon as he turned 21, my grandfather set out alone from his father's farm with ten dollars in his pocket to see the American West. He spent a year on the road, doing farm- and ranch-work along the way, even working for a time in Mexico where he almost married the ranch-owner's daughter--- then up the  coast to Washington State where he operated a combine during the wheat harvest, driving a team of over 30 mules. His occasional postcards home to his parents were famously stingy, such as the one that read simply, "I am not dead or crippled but am awful busy." Finally, after a year's solitary travelling, he made his way back to the family farm.

Sixty years later, at 23, I emulated his example, hitch-hiking out west and working on and off for a year as a mill worker and logger on the Washington coast while camping along the Hoh and Calawah rivers, taking off a month during the summer to hitch-hike with my cat through Washington, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Nevada and Oregon. My grandfather liked to say that he left on his journey with only ten dollars and returned a year later with ten dollars still in his pocket. I told him that I had done him one better, hitting the road with only five dollars and returning after a year with no dollars in my pocket. That amiable conversation was one of our last, for he died soon after, in December of that year.

Alpheus Appenheimer at 21, on his 1912 Western excursion.

At his death in 1974, the family farm was broken up and sold off, and I could no longer roam at will through the pastures I had known all my life. An uncharted region in the deepest part of myself was lost forever, and it is this loss that I have spent much of my life, ever since, attempting to come to terms with, and in some sense recover--- partly as an historian, partly as a farm laborer, but primarily as a poet. My grandfather's enduring presence thoroughly haunts the first two books of my poems. 

The first poem I wrote about him was actually less about him than about his house, just after he was gone.  I had to wait over fifteen years before I could write it, though once I started, it came all at once, for the potent image of that empty house had long since become one of the abiding features of my inner landscape.

      In Stark County, in his eighty-third year, 
      my grandfather died.  The tall gabled house 
      overlooking the creek and bottomland 
      from a rough oak ridge stands empty now, 
      but nothing changes.  The west-facing pane 
      of the window-bay where he watched from his desk 
      again glazes red as sunset crowns 
      the rim out beyond the timbered slopes 
      and, again, a raw wind sculpts the snow 
      into curving drifts across the back yard. 
      A familiar hour: the graying edge  
      of a winter evening, when day and night 
      walk the same bare fields.  An ice-refracted 
      ray of rose imperceptibly moves 
      among old mementos lying upon 
      the darkened oak of his desk, igniting 
      the interior of a glass paperweight 
      and warming the copper of four old coins. 
      In a matter of days, we will all convene 
      for the sorting out and dividing of goods, 
      the auctioning off of machinery, 
      of cattle and parceled land, the settling 
      of last accounts.  But for now it's as though 
      my grandfather's only just left his chair 
      and wandered off somewhere along the hall 
      or down the darkened stairs to the cellar. 
      Nothing has changed.  Once more, as in all 
      the uncounted winter days of his life, 
      the early dusk haunts the empty house, 
      the quiet rooms darken, the furnace kicks in.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Reminiscence: Wasted, with no way home

Coming of age in the late sixties, in the unrelieved wasteland of Rockford, Illinois, was an experience I would wish on no one.  I became a stranger to everyone who knew me and most of all to myself.  I ran away to places as disparate as Bimini island in the Caribbean and Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco.  I took up with new, more colorful friends as my old friends dropped away.  I become an unending source of grief and disruption to my family and a figure of suspicion to adults generally.  I was repeatedly expelled from my high school and finally dropped out altogether.  I served a brief stint on a locked psychiatric ward.   I went to work on the graveyard shift of a fasteners factory, and worked in a succession of factories for the next several years.  I partook of drugs and alcohol at every opportunity.    I read Hesse and Mann, Dostoyevsky and Mishima, Kerouac and Ginsburg, and listened endlessly to Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen.  I began writing poetry.  I took to the road with my thumb and travelled all over the Midwest, with no money and not even a change of clothes, visiting whomever I thought would put up with me for a night, and more often than not just sleeping rough, in a field, or somewhere under a tree.  I worked at a succession of dead-end jobs and lived in a succession of friends' attics, for $25 and $50 a month.

Marriage to Victoria

And then I met a slender Irish beauty named Victoria O'Dell, with a
singing voice that would break your heart, and I made a mighty effort to normalize my life.  We were married out in the woods, and lived in a beautiful little garden apartment on South Chicago Avenue with antique lamps and dishes and antique oak furniture that we refinished ourselves.  I worked as a tree trimmer for the Rockford Park District, an idyllic job which took me to wooded and pastoral landscapes all around the County and provided just enough danger to keep things interesting.  I truly loved that job, and imagined myself settling into a lifelong position, with modest but adequate pay and good benefits.  I purchased a blue 1954 Chevy pickup for $200 and a Homelite chainsaw, and started doing tree work on the side.  I was in a good place.

Her debut 

Victoria made her singing debut one night during a small party in our apartment, accompanied on guitar by a friend of hers from high school, who was part of our circle of friends, Robin Zander.  Though I had known Robin for a couple of years, and often spoken with him, he was so quiet and unassuming that I had no idea he was even a musician.  As for Victoria, I had only ever heard her singing quietly with records, when she didn't know I was listening.  So to hear them together, giving a polished rendition of a well-known folk song, was a revelation.  What I didn't know at the time was that Robin's particular gift was for singing, yet he on this occasion he only played, so as to allow Victoria her moment in the limelight.  Little did any of us in our apartment that evening imagine that in a very few years Victoria would become a well-respected performer throughout the northern Illinois region in both rock and folk music, while Robin, for his part, would become a lead singer of international reknown, later inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Pastoral days, Siberian nights

And then we went on strike for a number of weeks through the summer and into the fall, and the money dwindled.  Men began crossing the picket line, but I held firm with the strikers.  We lost the strike and I lost my job. ~~~ And then there was no money at all.  Winter was coming on.  I was reading bleak Russian novels and would awaken in a sweat, in the middle of the night, hearing wolves at the door.

Reminiscence: Wilderness sojourn

After working for several years as a tree trimmer for the Rockford Forestry Department and the Rockford Park District, I found myself, in November of 1972, at age 22 and married less than a year to my first wife, Victoria, facing a long, hungry winter without work. Having no wish to return to factory work, I happened to hear of a logging boom out on the northwest coast and, figuring I could handle any sort of work that called for a chainsaw, I kissed Victoria goodbye, and hit the road. I had $5 cash and my uncle's WWII Navy seabag packed with a change of clothes, a blanket, Kerouac's The Dharma Bums, the poems of Gary Snyder and Han-shan's Cold Mountain Poems.

Logging capitol of the world

After several days and nights hitch-hiking non-stop, I found myself in Forks, Washington, staring up at the cross-section of a huge log which announced in bold letters: Welcome to Forks, Logging Capitol of the World. Which it was: filled with big gleaming Peterbilt and Mack logging trucks, many of them hauling logs so large that a single log filled the entire trailer. All the men seemed to be in red suspenders, peg-leg pants and heavy caulk boots called corks. Almost as soon as I hit town I found work in a shingle mill. My job interview consisted of a single question: "Did you bring your gloves?", involved no paperwork, and wages paid in cash ($4 an hour, twice what I had earned in Illinois).

Work in a shingle mill

I started off working on deck where enormous red cedar logs were received and cut into great two-foot thick slabs up to seven feet in diameter. My job was to split the slabs into "bolts" using an overhead hydraulic splitter. I then passed the heavy bolts on to the next man who heaved them onto a  small platform and split them into boards with a foot-operated razor-sharp guillotine blade: a far more dangerous job (costing many a man his fingers or hand), to which I was soon promoted. For the first few weeks I wired my wages home to Victoria until I received a letter from her in early January, telling me she had met someone else and please not to come back. After that I kept my pay for myself.             

Hoh River, Olympic Peninsula

Living in a lean-to, salvaging cedar logs on the slopes

For the next eleven months I lived in the wilderness in a lean-to, along the Calawah and Hoh rivers, working on logging crews, in shingle mills, and as an independent cedar-bolt cutter, salvaging huge fallen cedars which had been knocked down and left behind during the initial clear-cutting, when the logging crews were only interested in spruce. This salvage work required working  on rainy--- often icy--- slopes, cluttered with fallen logs, stumps & slash, all through the winter months and into the summer. It was even more hazardous and difficult than mill-work, but far less boring.      

Encounter with a Sasquatch?

One morning, while it was still dark, when I was about two miles away from my shelter, walking down the center of a logging road on my to work at the shingle mill, I was astonished when a large conifer tree just behind me, up on the bank by the road, began to shake violently of its own accord.  There was no wind, and this  really sizeable tree, perhaps thirty or forty feet high, was shaking as   though some invisible Hercules or Titan had taken hold of it and was shaking it like a child's rattle.  
Then the shaking stopped.  And then the tree next to it started to shake in just the same manner.  The hair stood right up on my neck and I started to move quickly down the road.  After going some distance, I looked back and saw that the shaking had stopped.  So I stopped and and tried to calm myself down.  Suddenly another tree close to me started shaking.  I nearly jumped out of my skin.  I shouted and began banging my lunch pail on the packed gravel road.  I shrieked and jumped up and down and shouted threats.  Then I stopped, exhausted.  The shaking started again.  I took off down the road, not running but definitely not waiting around, and again the shaking trees followed me.  Otherwise, nothing else was moving or making a sound.  I knew it wasn't a bear or a bull elk, as neither beast behaves in that manner -- although only a very powerful bear or elk would have been strong enough to shake such large trees.  I knew if either animal wanted to intimidate me they would step into the open and probably charge.  I also knew that neither animal would be threatened by me in the first place if I were just out in the middle of the road by myself.  They would have no reason to step out and face me.  I also knew absolutely that no man, however large and strong, could even begin to shake trees of that size.  Short of Paul Bunyan, of course, but I was pretty sure he'd been dead for a while.  I had no idea what I was dealing with.  I was thoroughly rattled.  Eventually, whatever it was, left me, and I continued on to work without further incident.  I never did see it.

Only later did I learn that there is only one species of animal on earth that commonly shakes bushes and trees as a means of intimidation and display, namely  primates.  So it was either Paul Bunyan back from the dead, or one hell of a big Bonzo who'd missed his bedtime.. 

The inner landscape transfigured

Living for months at a time in a dream-like forest like no other on earth, cascading with moss and dripping with omnipresent moisture, where the air is drenched with oxygen and the sweetness of cedar, where the Pacific twilight lasts for hours at the end of each day, and where every sound is absorbed into a deep green silence--- all this brings about a transformation in one's internal cosmos that endures for years afterwards, and never altogether dissipates.  In my case, it brought about an all-    consuming hunger for finding an artistic equivalent to the primordial reality I had become a part of on the Peninsula--- a reality that was light-years away from the reality found in nearly all twentieth-century poetry.. The Beats came the closest, and the translations of Chinese & Japanese poetry which they championed, but even Snyder's poetry seemed inadequate in some essential way.  Jeffers was the one poet whose work came closest to capturing the scale of the land, but the sea and mountains around Big Sur, with its encroachment of comfortable civilization, made his poetic universe seem almost domesticated by comparison with the wilderness that still existed in the 1970s on the Peninsula.  Only with the early nineteenth-century Romantic poets did I find a satisfactory spiritual equivalence, and a comparably expansive scale, to match my sense of the world after a year living among the emerald corridors of moss and titan trees.  Wordsworth's Prelude in particular became a touchstone for me from this time onward.     

Hiking the coastline with a tomcat

Once I was no longer sending money home, I required very little to support himself as I was living in the forest, and even gleaning much of what I ate from the woods and rivers. I had much time to explore and spent weeks hiking the coastline--- the longest wilderness coastline in the lower 48 states.  I preferred traveling light, with only a mummy bag and no other equipment, and I generally didn’t bother with a fire. I carried enough dried meat and fish to last a few days, and very little else. The coast was broken up with immense headlands and, as I lacked a tidal chart, I never risked trying to circumvent the headlands at low tide, but always climbed up over them, which was sometimes rather steep going. Some stretches of the coast were barely frequented and it was not unusual to hike  an entire day without seeing another soul, especially in cold weather. I always traveled with my  inimitable friend, a nameless young tom cat, who rode on my pack during the long level stretches, but preferred to do his own climbing up the steep rock faces.

sea stacks, Olympic Peninsula

Nights on the sea stacks  

A favorite pasttime for both of us was to climb the sea  stacks, the sheer rock pinnacles which could only be reached at low tide, but which at high tide were surrounded by the  sea. The larger stacks had grass and trees on their summits, and we would pick our way up to them, which sometimes meant a near-verticle climb up a bare rockface. I had no climbing gear, and had never received instruction in proper  technique, but as I had earned my living for several years by climbing big trees with a chainsaw, I felt completely at home  on the pinnacles. As it was often growing dark by the time we reached the summit, we would generally just find a   grassy spot not too close to the edge, and spend the night  (praying that it didn’t rain too much), and then wait for the  tide to recede the next morning to make our way back down.

       When, in the following year I began reading Wordsworth's Prelude, I found the hours spent cliff-climbing with my cat almost mirrored in the following passage:
                                      Oh! when I have hung
Above the raven's nest, by knots of grass
And half-inch fissures in the slippery rock
But ill sustain'd, and almost, as it seem'd,
Suspended by the blast which blew amain,
Shouldering the naked crag; Oh! at that time,
While on the perilous ridge I hung alone,
With what strange utterance did the loud dry wind
Blow through my ears! the sky seem'd not a sky
Of earth, and with what motion mov'd the clouds!

Peyote vision

Toward the end of my year in the wilderness, I found myself in the back of a pickup truck in the foothills of the Olympic range, traversing miles of ancient forest which had been recently clearcut. It was a landscape of complete desolation, lying under a blanket of new snow. I had earlier ingested several buttons of peyote, and among the traditional methods of opening the mind to the primordial presences of the earth, peyote is undoubtedly among the most effective. What I experienced that morning would shake me to the core and haunt me for years afterwards. I found myself surrounded by a deep, agonizing sea of singing voices emitting from the thousands of great naked stumps--- a  profoundly powerful dirge of indescribable sadness rising right out of the earth. It was devastating.


A year in the wilderness as preparation for reading the Romantics

My year in the wilderness prepared me on several levels for my first encounters with the Romantic poets, particularly the long passages in Wordsworth, Byron and Shelley describing their responses to the mountains and the sea.  Snyder was fine as far as he went, but I was hungry for deeper and more sustained treatments, not only of landscape, but of the idea of Nature as a spiritual principal, of pantheism and transcendentalism, and their place in the history of Western philosphy and theology, ideas which I found especially in Wordsworth, Coleridge and Shelley.            

Such concepts of Nature had become discredited by the early twentieth century and, despite a strong identification with the natural world on the part of many poets in my own time, the sense of Nature as a universal principal had never again been so powerful and compelling as it was in the early nineteenth century, and it was there that I intended to pursue my most serious explorations.

My pre-dawn encounter with the “tree-shaker” the previous December, in the primordial landscape of the Olympic Peninsula, had awakened something deep within myself, probably more on the unconscious than conscious level, which rendered me especially sensitive to another aspect of Romanticism, namely the ancient bestial Other, which had formed a part of British literature from  Grendel onward, through the Green Man and Caliban, to the several culminating icons of the Romantic era, from Frankenstein’s monster, to Quasimodo, to Heathcliff on the moor.  

But to immerse myself properly in the Romantics, which meant criticism and biography in addition to the poems, I would need more books by far than I could cram into a wilderness lean-to.  And even finding the books on the Peninsula would be a tall order, requiring, at the very least, hitch-hiking to Port Angleles.  It was time for me to think about returning to Illinois, an apartment with bookcases, a steady job and--- maybe--- a return to college.


Reminiscence: A garden apartment by the river, becoming a poet in earnest

1974. Just back from the wilderness.
I returned from the wilderness to Rockford, Illinois in late 1974, and took up residence in a small apartment on the Rock River, close to the natural history museum, and surrounded by gardens and trees. For the next year or two, while working the graveyard shift on a locked ward for the criminally insane, I immersed myself in the poets of the nineteenth century and began building up a library, volume by volume. 

Building a library of vintage books

I took great pains, whenever possible, to acquire books which were in existence when the poets themselves were still alive.  I was indifferent to the finer points of bibliography, first printings, first impressions, and all that.  Second & third printings were just fine, as far as I was concerned.  What mattered were the age and provenance of the book: the fact that book & poet had been on the earth together at the same time. A fact which, I was convinced, gave the poems in the book an added dimension of resonance. Stark nonsense, most would argue, but the fact is, there was an undeniable difference between "Tintern Abbey" read out-of-doors in the mountains from a 1798 edition of the Lyrical Ballads, and the same poem read in a Rockford College classroom from an annotated Norton edition paperback. One was a magically living presence, and the other was as dead as a cooked duck. 

~~~Anyway, due to my nonchalence regarding bibliographic nicieties, my books tend to be  less valuable than they look, and would not pass muster with any serious collector.  Many of the Victorian bindings were purchased in the 1960s when I was still in my teens, when you could pick them up in any good used bookstore for $2 or $3 apiece.  Back when you could still find good used bookstores in any mid-sized town.  The books came with florid inscriptions over a century old, marginal notes, and pressed flowers in the pages, leaving flower-shaped stains on the poems. 

The working books of a working poet

After I had had them for a while, my books tended to became even more shopworn, for they were the working books of a working poet.  I carried them in my coat pockets & satchels, out into the fields and woods and parks where I wrote, day after day or--- in the case of Beddoes or Keats or Tennyson--- night after night into graveyards where I read by moonlight or candlelight.  I rarely missed a night of heavy fog, wore a down-to-the-ground coat, a wide-brimmed hat, and was generally accompanied by one or another of my many cats.  I took my apprenticeship as a Romantic Poet with the utmost seriousness, and persisted year after difficult year, never quite making enough to support myself, taking the odd class in literature or philosophy, but never quite taking a degree, falling in and out of love more or less continually, as one lovely woman after another saw me for the sad prospect I actually was and went off in search of greener pastures.  But the point of all this is not me, but my books, my poor beleaguered books.  They are still beautiful, but now quite tired and faded, with loosened bindings and frayed edges, much like the poet himself.

Reading the Old Poets: a sacred act in a sacred setting

Though never actually graduating from high school, I had begun taking college courses on a part-time basis in 1968 at Lincoln College. What drew me back to Illinois from the wilderness was the wish to study poetry in as much depth as possible, along with writing my own poetry in earnest.  But before venturing into the classroom, I spent my first year in Illinois reading the Romantic and Victorian poets on my own.  To do so was a sacred act, and required a sacred setting (woods, gardens & graveyards).  Only after I had had time to make the Old Poets an integral part of my inner world did I feel ready to face the rough-and-tumble of the classroom.  I suspected that my view of poetry would be challenged on many levels, and that I first needed to prepare myself.  On that point I was certainly correct.  What I underestimated was how thoroughly and intensely my views would come under assault.