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.


John Allan Wyeth: Lost Poet of the Lost Generation

Artistry & Authenticity in the War Sonnets of John Allan Wyeth

A Yank at the Battle of Amiens: The Chipilly Ridge Sonnets of John Allan Wyeth

Wyeth on Horseback

John Allan Wyeth and the British War Poets: A Preliminary Comparison

Poet, Painter, Spy: Did John Allan Wyeth report on Nazi Activities for British Intelligence during the 1930s ?


~~Notes on the Friendship of John Allan Wyeth and Edmund Wilson

~~Notes on Wyeth’s Years in Rapallo

~~The Rediscovery of a Forgotten War Poet: A Personal Account

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.


It is uncommon for a self-published book of poems to receive notice from an established literary journal, but it is not without precedent.  It happened to E.A. Robinson's first book of poems, which was also self-published, and it was as unusual then as it is now---and there, for my sake, all comparison had better end, for Mr. Robinson and I are in very different leagues. ---The point is, I take this review as an honor, and am grateful for it.

On the whole, writers are wisest not to respond to their reviewers.  Judges issue their sentences, and we who stand in the dock are well advised to accept their verdicts in silence. So let me state at the outset that I in no way wish to question the judgement that Dr. Baker has been kind enough to bestow.

There are, however, one or two minor points of clarification which ought to be brought to light.

Dr. Baker has offered an intriguing notion: that poetry can be a means of approaching the unknowable. He speaks of the writer's "ignorance" regarding the truth of his subjects' lives, and refers to this ignorance as "an essential human dilemma."  Several readers of this review received the impression that, in Dr. Baker's view, I was ignorant of my subject: that I was ignorant of the lives of my grandparents during the First World War and the Depression.  This surprised them, as they were familiar with the several decades of research which I put into those very subjects before feeling qualified to write about them.  But Dr. Baker's point, if I understand him correctly, is simply that the deepest truth of another person's life is, by its very nature, unknowable, and that this unknowability presents a quandary which all of us who seek to understand the lives of our forebears must reckon with. 

Implicit in Dr. Baker's elucidation of this quandary is the idea that poetry is--- or should be--- a means of approaching the unknowable, of expressing the inexpressible, of somehow saying what cannot be said straightforwardly.

This may seem a large claim, but it is no more than the basic business of poetry, and of art generally.  If poetry does not at least begin to approach the unknowable, then it had better call it a day and begin looking for another line of work. As to whether any of the poems in my book actually succeed in this endeavor--- well, that is precisely what Dr. Baker's review is about. You, the readers, can decide for yourselves. Personally, I find his descriptions of my poetry very generous.

The grandparents who appear throughout the Stark County Poems are my maternal grandparents, Alpheus and America Appenheimer. With one exception. In the poem just discussed, "A Place of Old Trees, set back from the Road," the grandparents described are my paternal grandparents, James and Hildur Omanson. There are no clues as to their identities anywhere in the poems themselves, so the reader cannot know this, and naturally assumes that grandfather and grandmother are the same persons throughout the book, but such is not the case.

Finally, there is one small error of fact which, as a native Illinoisan and lifelong baseball fan, I feel honor-bound to correct.  In my poem, "A Place of Old Trees....," I describe my grandfather napping in his Ford in the shade of a tree, to "the cheering from Wrigley Field" on the car radio.  Dr. Baker correctly identifies this as a National League game, but it is of course the Cubs my grandfather is dozing to, not the White Sox.  If I were to let it stand in print that my grandfather was a White Sox fan, there is no telling what mayhem might ensue from the Other Side.

~~ BJ Omanson

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.


Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Reminiscence: In the ivied halls of disputation

My primary reason for leaving the wilderness was to undertake an in-depth study of poetry and philosophy, something I could not realistically accomplish in the woods, at least in the primitive conditions under which I lived. I needed access to a library and to teachers, and I knew I would benefit by the discipline of a formal course of study.  

I had taken enough courses at Lincoln College several years earlier to be able to enter Rockford College as a sophomore.  (I omitted any mention of not having a HS degree, or that I had had a disastrous partial semester at Illinois Western at Macomb, and another at Bethel College in St. Paul, where I failed all courses in both places).  

By neglecting requirements for a degree, I had enough time
 to take nearly every upper-level course in English and American literature and Western philosophy that the college offered during my three years there.  While my advisor, Dr. Stanlis, naturally recommended that I first fulfill such requirements, he sympathized with my impatience to build up a body of knowledge as quickly as possible, and signed off on every upper-level course I wanted to take.  He even approved my taking the Senior Seminar as a sophomore, as only in that year would I have the opportunity to concentrate on Thomas Hardy.

And so it transpired that, after three years at RC--- my fourth year overall--- while I had more than fulfilled my major and minor requirements in literature and philosophy, and received a good basic education in the humanities--- I was still well short of earning a degree.  But that was a secondary consideration.  As for my primary purpose in returning to college: to begin building up a body of knowledge in literature, philosophy & history, I was more than satisfied.  My professors were first-rate, and I learned and retained more, and increased my understanding more substantially during those three years than at any other time in my life before or since.

My approach to the College

Before it fell on desperate times and sold off all its bequeathed lands and collections like a starving man selling his internal organs one by one, Rockford College was a place of modest beauty.  Situated along Aldeen Park, with extensive old woodlands and original prairie of its own, and with buildings mostly of a clean architectural style that blended unobtrusively into the woodlands, the visual effect was one of quietude and harmony.  

On the first day that I walked onto campus, being not long out of the wilderness and not yet having lost my wilderness ways, I came on foot, along Kent Creek and through the woods, pausing every so often to stop and view the college at a distance, as though it were a natural feature that I had stumbled upon by accident.  I was sizing it up, assessing it on my own terms, preparing myself to take the plunge into what was for me a largely alien culture.     

For the rest of my time at Rockford College I would almost always approach the campus in this way.  Sometimes I would walk the several miles from my apartment on the other side of Rock River, through the graveyard and any other semi-wild areas I could find along Kent Creek, but more often I resorted to the expediency of driving.  There was one parking lot in particular which was situated away from the campus, back in the woods.  I would park at the far edge and instead of walking towards the buildings, I would take a trail away from campus, circle wide through the woods for about a quarter mile, and finally step back onto campus among the dormitories which were set well back into the trees.  On my way in, I would usually take the time to strol l down into one of the secluded glens of Aldeen Park, close to the purling waters of Keith Creek, where no one ever seemed to venture, and sit for a time under a favorite old maple, pull out my copy of Wordsworth or Keats, and read for a half hour or so.  It was my way of preparing each morning for intellectual battle. 

The professors: Dr. Peter Stanlis

My initial encounter was with my academic advisor, who would also become my intellectual nemeses for the next three years, Dr. Peter J. Stanlis, a leading authority on Edmund Burke and the late eighteenth century.  As such, he was also the tri-headed Cerebus guarding the gates to the Romantic era.  If I was to undertake a serious study of Romanticism, I would have to go through Peter Stanlis to do it, for the pre-Romantics appeared in his period and he held the majority of them in undisguised contempt.  Moreover, during my years at RC, it was Peter Stanlis who taught the class on Romantic poetry.  There was no escaping him. 

Most of my professors conducted their classes from a position of disinterested neutrality.  Even when disputation among students was actively encouraged, they would stand aside and play the part, not of referee, but of "clarifier"--- stepping in to clarify a point which had become muddled, or offer an illuminating quotation or historical tidbit to keep the argument on track, or to divert it into a more fruitful line of inquiry.  Both the philosophy professor Donald Walhout, and English professor Dain Trafton were masters of this approach.  Walhout would remain strictly neutral and aloof, while Trafton would offer theoretical opposing points of view, "for the sake of argument," without actually endorsing them.  If Walhout offered a different or opposing view, it was always that of a particular philosopher, whom he would identify.  In both cases, we as students had very little indication about Walhout's or Trafton's personal views on any issue.  We had our surmises, of course, based largely on circumstantial evidence, but surmises they remained.

With Stanlis, on the other hand, there was never any doubt about his opinion on any writer or poet.  In his view, in the canons of English literature, there lurked a good many fakers, fools and imposters, and he exposed them for the entertainment and edification of his students with undisguised relish.  Tom Wallensis, and most of the stronger English majors, particularly the males, were delighted with this approach, as it made for a very lively show.  I enjoyed it as well, possibly even more than the others, for almost without fail his chosen targets--- Edward Young, Bishop Berkeley, the Earl of Shaftesbury, Rousseau, and all of the Romantics of course--- were individuals in whom I had the strongest and most sympathetic interest.  Each time he singled out one of these individuals for ridicule, it was like a gauntlet being thrown down in front of me, a personal affront, and I felt honor-bound to rise to their defense.  Stanlis, for his part, never failed to oblige me and, sooner or later in every exchange, would cut me to ribbons.  This would send me back to my books for more background and a firmer grasp of the issues. 

In later years and in other classrooms, such unfettered wrangling over specific points, particularly if the student were pressing a point against a professor, was distinctly frowned upon.  Professors would say, "That's enough!" and move on to some other topic, or, if the argument was not going their way, and they wanted to save face in front of the class, they might resort to some shifty syntactical sleight-of-hand and deliberately obfuscate and mischaracterize my argument before shutting me down.  Such a professor would lose all my respect at that point.   

Dr. Stanlis & myself, in a rare convivial moment
I didn't always like Peter Stanlis, and I have no doubt the feeling was mutual.  I saw my interjections bring the choler into his face on too many occasions to imagine otherwise. There were times when I thought his classroom manner verged on arrogance, though I suspect this was a fault we possessed in common.  He was openly derisive and contemptuous of a host of writers and thinkers from his period, who deserved better treatment, and I often thought he was harder on less-confident students than he had any need to be.

But Stanlis was a fair and open fighter, and never obfuscated or mischaracterized any student's argument, however heated things might become.  He would even admit in front of his class when he had been bested, which is something I almost never saw with other professors.  On one occasion, when we were going head to head on some philosophical point or other concerning one of the Romantics, the argument ventured onto the treacherous quicksand of Kant's metaphysics.  As it happened, I was in a seminar that semester with Walhout, devoted to the Critique of Pure Reason, and Stanlis was supporting his position with a claim about Kant which I knew to be mistaken.  I called him out, caught him flat-footed, and drove home my point.  He immediately admitted that, in this instance, I was more in command of the facts than he.

Stanlis always sought clarity in any discussion, and would even rephrase a student's argument to make it more direct and concise, whatever the student's point of view.  Walhout and Trafton and Karim all did this as well, but it was more surprising and unexpected when Stanlis did it.  Of course, no sooner had he clarified a student's argument than he would proceed to cut it to pieces. 

The more I contended with Stanlis, the more I came to understand his view of literature in the late eighteenth century, and it was, not surprisingly, a good deal more complex and nuanced than I had  imagined.  The most striking surprise for me was the discovery that the materialistic rationalism of Descartes and Hobbes, and of the Enlightenment generally, was not only broadly opposed by the early and later Romantic writers, but was viewed with a more incisive skepticism, and even antagonism, by such conservative thinkers as Swift, Dryden, Burke and Johnson.  Though they would hardly have made common cause with the later Romantics, they did share with the Romantics, in sharp contrast to the materialistic rationalists, a view of reality which was essentially spiritual.  

Samuel Johnson, in particular, was a major discovery for me, which I owed to Stanlis, and while still at RC I read the whole of Boswell's Johnson and the first few volumes of Boswell's Journals.  Later I would add a long list of Johnsoniana titles to my library, which I read at my leisure, including the magisterial Samuel Johnson by Walter Jackson Bate.

Johnson's conservatism was genuinely so, a belief in societal stability based on long-standing moral principles, with incremental changes for the better--- and not, as in our time, a mere license for the rich and powerful to gather ever more wealth and power to themselves.  Johnson, in fact, would be labeled a bleeding heart by today's standards.  Although in constant struggle with poverty himself, he handed out coins to the destitute whenever he encountered them, and at night he would slip pennies into the fists of sleeping street children so that they could buy breakfast for themselves when they awoke.  He also took in a number of impoverished individuals off the street and gave them a permanent refuge in his own cramped quarters, at no small inconvenience to himself.  When it was pointed out to him that a good many of the beggars he gave money to would only use it to buy gin or tobacco, his response was, "And why should they be denied such sweeteners of their existence?  It is surely very savage to refuse them every possible avenue to pleasure, reckoned too coarse for our own acceptance. Life is a pill which none of us can bear to swallow without gilding . . ."

If it is true that I liked Stanlis least of all my professors, it is equally true that no professor taught me  more.  For myself, at least, impassioned argument was the best possible means of gaining knowledge and comprehension.  Moreover, Stanlis was a first-rate scholar of his period with a concise elegance of style that clarified his subject without simplifying it.  As I continue to work toward a fuller understanding of the late eighteenth-century and the origins of the Romantic era, I still, all these many years later, rely on his scholarship to help bring the landscape into focus.

(this section still in progress; to be continued)

The Brothers Wallensis

  The first time I met Thomas Wallensis was in a state institution, a locked ward for the criminally insane outside Rockford, Illinois sometime in 1974. I was working as a nurse’s assistant and had gone over to a neighboring wing on some errand or other. Thomas looked a little like the lead singer in Jethro Tull, scraggly beard and shoulder-length hair, and a sardonic expression which I would soon learn never altogether left his features. He was on the telephone, intent on his conversation, and paid me no heed. I soon gathered that he was talking to a potential suicide. He looked supremely bored and not a little annoyed. Finally he said, very cuttingly, “Why don’t you just do it then and get it over with and stop wasting my time.” And slammed down the receiver. 

My jaw must have hit the counter. I was horrified and I’m sure it showed. I would later learn that the “suicide” was a chronic attention-hound, whom no one took seriously as a suicide threat. What they took seriously was how much time he took up on the phone, tying it up to no good purpose and making it impossible for anyone with a genuine crises to get through. There was a standing directive to keep the phoneline open as much as possible and to cut any frivolous calls short. But I had no idea that the caller wasn’t entirely on the level. Wallensis, for his part, was delighted that I was horrified, and did nothing to  disabuse me. It amused him to observe that I clearly considered him a callous and heartless bastard. When I objected to his handling of the suicide, he played his part to the hilt. “He was a sniveling worm.  The world will be a finer place for his absence.”  It was an appalling   sentiment, though nicely phrased. It was also all for show, his way of testing me, and having a bit of fun. I wasn’t easily put off, however, and having spent a good many weeks in the twilight existence of the night ward, I was more than ready for some conversation. So we got to talking.

Whether at the end of that night, or soon after, he invited me over to his place after our shift — a rented house he shared with some other joes—  for a congenial smoke, music, and more conversation. And so began what was to become— apart from the last two women I married— the most important friendship of my life. 

I’m not sure how well I ever knew Thomas Wallensis. He was never an easy read.    Though by no means dispassionate, he seemed, at least in comparison to myself, a thorough-going cynic and skeptic. Yet he was less so than his devilishly handsome younger brother,  Dennis, who in discussions with us tended to stand off unconvinced even after Thomas had become engaged with some idea or other. Of the three I was the undisputed enthusiast, the romantic, the believer. Thomas fell somewhere between Dennis and myself, though where exactly was never possible to say. The Brothers Wallensis were nearly the same age and were both students at Rockford College. They were  uncompromising, aggressive, argumentative, pool-hall lurkers, and devoted tournament chess players--- Thomas would later earn a black belt in Taekwondo, and both brothers would eventually become successful attorneys.  They frequently got into heated arguments over the pool table— never about women or sports or politics, as far as I remember--- but about ideas.  In particular they would become red-faced--- and in each other’s face--- on the topic of Stendhal’s The Red & the Black, which they both seemed to regard as a kind of scripture, or Dostoevsky’s The Grand Inquisitor

The difference between them can be summed up by their chosen majors. Thomas majored in literature; Dennis in philosophy. As I took every upper-level course on offer in both areas over a three-year period, I had one or the other of them in almost every class.  They weren't the only intellectual brawlers at the college in those days, by any means, but they were the best. 

Marriage to Virginia 

In the Spring of 1977, I married my second wife, Virginia DeCourcey, a brilliant, brooding poet, journalist, epistimologist and classicist, famous for her ability to demolish run-on philosophical arguments with a single, softly-spoken word, or phrase.  Famous, also, for being the first student in the college's history to earn an Honors Degree in Philosophy.  And famous, most of all, as editor-in-chief of the student newspaper, for publishing multi-page interviews with a number of professors who had been sacked for ideological reasons, which led to Virginia becoming the only student in the history of the college to be singled out by name for condemnation by the President in front of a mandatory campus-wide faculty meeting.

Reminiscence: In the Rocky Mountains.

In the late 1970s, Virginia and I moved to Green Mountain Falls, Colorado, where, for the next year, I drove a library van out of Colorado Springs, delivering books and mail to libraries in the mining towns of Cripple Creek and Victor. We lived in a tiny two-room cabin, on about $400 a month, and both of us spent hours a day reading and writing poetry. Virginia often visited her mother, who lived in Colorado Springs, and she also made plans to enter the graduate philosophy department at the University of Denver, where she had been accepted. But the scholarship she had counted on never materialized and the plans fell through.

On occasion I would climb the rocky slope behind our cabin and spend one or two nights in the open, meditating and fasting. More often I would simply sit and meditate in the wooden lounge chair that sat the edge of our garden during the period of twilight, staying until the darkness had fallen. It was on one of these occasions that the following incident occurred:

The Red Bear

Not long after having a vivid dream that I was wrestling playfully with a young male bear, colored entirely red except for a white star on its chest, I was meditating at the edge of a garden at twilight, sitting quietly in the wooden chair with my eyes closed. I heard a strange shuffling noise approaching and opened my eyes to find a young cinnamon-red bear about six or eight feet away, swaying slightly side to side and staring at me. As soon as our eyes met he rose up on his back legs and stood towering over me. He was not full-grown, but probably about 400 pounds and stood maybe six feet tall. He could easily have taken my head off with a swipe. I am normally deeply afraid of bears in the wild, but for some reason I felt completely peaceful as he loomed over me. I noticed that his head was blunt and squared-off and that his nose was red like his fur, instead of the usual black. I also noticed a sizeable hump between his shoulder-blades, and these physical attributes confirmed that he was a grizzly. During the several moments of our encounter our eyes remained locked, which of course is precisely what you most want to avoid with any bear, especially a male, and especially a grizzly. After these few moments of standing over me, he dropped down on all fours and ran right by me, so close I could have touched him as he passed. I turned around to watch him as he ran off behind me and just as I did so, he turned his head to look back at me as he ran, and once again our eyes met.

I had read somewhere that, in Native American lore, magical beasts are most often encountered at the portal times of dawn or twilight, and it was at twilight that I encountered the red bear. It is also said that you will know it is a magical beast if it returns at the same time the following day.

The next evening, just at twilight, I was again seated in the chair by the garden in a state of deep meditation, and again I heard the strange shuffling noise, only this time it came from behind me. Then I felt a cool, moist object touch my bare arm just above the elbow, and I knew the bear had returned and was touching me with its nose. I opened my eyes and turned slowly around. As our eyes met, the bear stood up over me for a few moments, with our eyes locked. Then, as on the previous night, the bear dropped down on all fours and ran back towards the mountains. And again, as it ran, it turned back to look at me and our eyes met for a final time. I continued to watch as it ran down towards the creek and disappeared into the forest.

The next day I described my encounter to one of my co-workers whose father was a professional guide and trapper, and who himself had spent his life trapping and hunting with his father. He confirmed that the bear I had encountered was a young male grizzly. Then he said two things that took me aback. First, he said that there were no grizzlies anywhere in the Rocky Mountains south of the Canadian border (my subsequent research confirmed this). Then he asked if I could smell the bear. Apparently bears have truly terrible breath, and can be smelled even by humans at some distance. He said there was no way I could have been that close to a grizzly without being more or less overcome by the stench. I told him there was no smell at all.

Prehistoric sources of poetry

I had long believed that poetry had its origins in the deep prehistory of our race, long before the development of writing, and certainly long before we developed agriculture and settled into communities. That the training to become a poet not only requires a thorough familiarity with the great poets of the past, and their techniques, but, just as crucially, a continual encounter on some level with poetry's primordial springs. The first could be attained with hard work, discipline, and a good library. And, with luck, a gifted teacher or two. But the second was infinitely more problematical. There were no maps into that territory, no guidebooks and, despite the claims of a multitude of charlatans, no reliable guides. Any pilgrim attempting to cross the frontier into that distant land is essentially on his own. 

After a lifetime of travelling on my own version of that journey I can report only that I am still somewhere on the frontier.  Inexplicable encounters with wild animals, any number of arresting lucid dreams, and other-worldly experiences that defy description or classification, have led in the end to no insights or new levels of understanding.  They have been, at most, reminders to my rather plodding, prosaic intelligence that some other reality than this one exists, and that whatever divides us from that other realm is, on occasion, porous.  I may have had encounters with that reality, but no real wisdom has resulted from them.  Therefore, I defer to the mystical traditions of ancient religions, and I have a growing conviction that our race, in earlier phases of its existence, understood such matters far more readily and instinctively than it is capable of doing now. 

I have long believed that the true nature of poetry is to be found in those earlier eons, and in those earlier cosmologies.  Long before poetry consisted of words on a page, it existed as song--- not only the memorized and repeated epics and ballads of heroic and mythic events--- but, even earlier, as spells, chants, invocations and prayers, the language of the spirit.  I strongly suspect that all poetry was originally shamanistic, the means of intercourse with primal forces.    


After a year in Green Mountain Falls, and the frustration of Virginia's hopes for graduate school, we scraped together a few hundred dollars and headed north to try our luck in Minnesota.


Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Reminiscence: Bohemia on the Mississippi

Around 1980, we moved to Minneapolis, where Virginia worked in a law library and was admitted to the graduate journalism school at the University of Minnesota. I worked for a time as a night waterman on a golf course, and as a custodian in a synagogue, and then went to work at a used bookstore in Dinkytown, next to the university, about a block from where Bob Dylan lived in an apartment over Gray's Drugstore.   

I look back on that time with a certain ambivalent affection, ambivalent because the pay was far from sufficient and the hours very long: six or seven days a week, 11 am to 11 pm.  It was not the job itself for which I harbor affection, but for the nocturnal world it made me a part of. Those evenings were filled the regular appearance of a whole cast of writers, musicians (in particular the perennial and kindly Jerry Rau, for whom Virginia & I would always try to muster up a few coins), street people and incorrigible characters, though it is the poets I most remember.  Two in particular come to mind, as they were the first poets I ever met who, like me, worked in traditional forms.  As far as I know they have both passed into obscurity.

John Macoubrie

The first was a small, slight, hunched man named John Macoubrie, who appeared to be in his sixties, though his circumstances were so hard that he may have been younger than he looked.  He was very much of the genteel, high-culture school of Wilbur and Hecht, and his knowledge of prosody was so much more extensive than my own that I never mentioned to him that I was a poet at all.  He was known to all the older established poets in Minneapolis and was well respected.  I was working as a clerk in a bookstore at the time, and he would come in most nights (we were open until midnight) after he got off his shift as a  dishwasher.  He rode an old-fashioned 1950s-vintage bicycle, and was always under-dressed for the weather, always the same thread-bare courderoy sports coat, like an impoverished professor.  He seemed frail, had a perennial cough, and was perennially cold.  I had heard that he had been living in a tiny rented room for as long as anyone could remember.  On every visit to the bookstore he would always purchase a book, but never more than one, and never for more than a quarter or fifty cents.  This restricted him pretty much to used copies of the old paperback Laurel series of pocketbook poets.  Most of the time he would conclude each such purchase with some lines from that particular poet which he had by memory.  The extent of poetry he could recite at will was something wonderful, and in that particular neighborhood, it was an ability which was widely admired.

(See "The John Macoubrie page" for reminiscences about John from others who knew him). 

The itinerant playwright 

The other poet was in his late twenties or early thirties, I would guess.  He was in most ways 
completely the opposite of Macoubrie, being full of nervous, aggressive energy and he was brash and outspoken.  When I was in a certain mood I found him intolerable, but usually he was worth  enduring, simply for his originality.  Like the older poet, he rode a bicycle, but it was an expensive racing machine.  He worked as a janitor by night, and read and wrote for most of each day.  I have no idea if he had any formal education.  All he wrote were blank-verse plays, in a dense but vigorous Elizabethan style, and what he wrote was remarkably strong.  He wrote every day, a hundred lines or more, but what I saw of his work was always highly crafted.  He would hang around the bookstore at odd hours, and when a literary-minded customer would come in, especially if he happened to be a professor from the university, my friend would thrust some pages under his nose and demand his opinion.  He was never quite so obnoxious that I had to eject him from the premises, and even at first glance his writing was impressive, so I just sat back at such times and watched the encounter with interest and amusement.

As he was my own age, more or less, and we were both in similar economic straits with no professional prospects, I showed him some of my poems.  He was only mildly impressed, and criticized my lack of prosodic rigor, but he approved my adherence to antiquated forms and since, like me, he had received nothing from editors and other poets over the years but admonitions to write in free verse, he accepted me as a fellow-sufferer.  He was a vagabond, just travelling through, as he said.  I don’t remember where he had come from prior to stopping for several months in Minneapolis, but the time came when he no longer dropped in at the bookstore and I never heard from him again.  Somewhere in the cavernous recesses of my old house, among hundreds of boxes, I have a typed copy of one of his plays, but I haven’t seen it in years.

James Naiden

   Regularly James Naiden, a stout, hardy-looking gentleman in corduroy coat and carrying a rugged leather satchel, would stop by to sell a handful of literary titles.  They were always very good titles from the store’s point of view, and always in new condition.  When I asked about them once, he said they were review copies.  I learned later that he reviewed books for the Minneapolis Star and for his own literary journal, The North Stone Review.  As it chanced we both favored a tiny cafe at the end of a covered alley about a block and a half from the bookstore.  It was situated between Gray’s Drug, above which Dylan had quartered in the late ’50s, and the longstanding Varsity Theatre, which had shown many a worthy ‘art film’ over the years.  The cafe was owned by two young sisters, Kris and Gretchen, who were tolerant toward writers and did not pressure them to move along if they wished to sit and write for an hour or three, taking up space and spending little.  Naiden always sat in his preferred corner, back to the wall, his satchel, books and papers spread out beside him.  Often I joined him at his table, but more sat off by myself, or with Virginia.  In the midafternoon the cafe was often nearly empty and as it was so small, we could converse easily back and forth without raising our voices. 

James had a brusque exterior, did not suffer fools at all and was accustomed to dealing with writers’ inflated and easily-bruised egos, for which he had no patience.  I would guess that he was heartily disliked in many quarters.  Of his past I could glean only that he had been a smoke-jumper for a time in the Canadian wilderness, and also that he had been a speechwriter for Eugene McCarthy.  James was the first true man-of-letters that I had met, by which I mean one who supported himself solely by his pen, by writing and editing, without resorting either to teaching or to hackwork.  He appeared to live modestly, drove a beat-up old station wagon, and seemed always to wear the same worn coat.

As he had been in the Minneapolis literary scene for many years, James had stories about every writer in Minnesota, large or small, living or dead.  He was unimpressed by reputation or celebrity and with a single phrase or word could cut through a mountain of hype.  I recall acerbic comments or stories about Robert Bly on several occasions, though Bly was a poet he published from time to time.

While I cannot recall any specific stories about Bly, I do remember very well a story he told me about John Berryman:  Once, many years before, Berryman stopped by Naiden’s apartment when James happened to be in the shower.  As the door was unlocked, Berryman let himself in, which he had done on past occasions.  As he was waiting on the couch, thumbing through a book, the front door flew open and in stomped the landlord, loudly shouting out for JN and demanding two months back rent.  Berryman rose up from the couch and blustered back, shouting, How much does he owe?  — A hundred bucks! the landlord shouted back.   Berryman pulled out two fifty-dollar bills, shoved the landlord out the door and threw the bills after him.  It all took place while James was in the shower.  By the time he emerged the landlord was gone and the rent paid up.  James promised he would pay Berryman back as soon as he could, but Berryman refused to take his money.  

Naiden could be a tough character.  Once he returned to his parked car to find a tow-truck driver with his arm though a partially rolled-down window.  The tower was from a local universally-hated towing company with predatory methods, and he had failed to notice James’ German Shepherd in the back seat, which now had his jaws locked on the tower’s forearm. James responded as though he were a thief trying to break into his car, and refused to order the dog to release the scoundrel until the police arrived, though he was bleeding and clearly in pain.  When the police arrived, James called off his dog.  The tower threatened to sue, but James never heard from him or his company again.  The police took no action.

Another side of James’s character is revealed by the following story.  During one especially bitter winter, he chanced to form a friendship with a homeless Vietnam vet, an Indian, Henry Walking Bear.  James was concerned about his sleeping in the open on nights when the thermometer was falling well below zero, and tried to arrange for shelter for him.  When such efforts failed, James would invite him up to his apartment for a game of chess and a sandwich, just to get him out of the cold for a spell.  This happened on more than one occasion.  One afternoon I found James in the cafe drinking coffee.  As I sat down across from him, he told me Henry Walking Bear had been found frozen to death in an alley, a kitten in his arms.   In his pocket was a piece of paper with James’ name and address.  James knew of Walking Bear’s death because the police had contacted him and asked him to come down to the morgue to identify the homeless man found frozen with a kitten on the street. 


Working in a used-bookstore wasn't everyone's cup of tea. The work itself was congenial enough, but the hours were long and the pay was scant. To anyone with larger ambitions, it was a job that promised nothing but more of the same, and was a stepping-stone to absolutely nowhere. If that sounds like a complaint, it's not. To the great majority of ordinary salary-earners, a position on the bottom rung of the used-book trade must seem the deadest of dead ends. But to a particular sort of solitary, self-sustaining introvert, who wishes for nothing more than to maintain the quiet tenor of his days and nights, the prospect of a life spent puttering contentedly among the dusty stacks is the fairest of visions.

There were two such independent souls who earned their keep in the bookstore besides Virginia and myself, and they were both men of considerable mystery.  The first, whose name I cannot for the life of me remember, was a mail-order bookman specializing in the history of jazz.  Whether he had a full-time day job, or was retired, or simply supported himself by means of an austere frugality, I was never certain.  We saw each other only in passing, as he was always going out just as I was coming in.  He was older, nondescript, wore glasses, and seemed a remnant from an earlier era.  Knowing so little about him naturally added to the intrigue.  I imagined him in a perpetually nocturnal world, in a small, wainscoated apartment of curtained-off rooms, laden with bookcases, deep leather chairs, and long, lovingly-tended shelves of sleeved LPs and 78s-- with perhaps a lingering haze of cigarette smoke and the fumes of old scotch.  

And then there was Bert.  A great shambling inscrutable bear of a man, loaded down with books, papers and who-knows-what-all overflowing from the over-sized satchel which was a permanent part of his attire. Yet for all his bear-like attributes, Bert was a master of invisibility.  He could somehow slip by you on the street, or in a crowded hall, as inconspicuously as a cat.  Settled into his chair behind the counter in the corner of the bookstore, he was as quietly magisterial  as a mountain in a landscape, yet, like a mountain on a Chinese scroll, he seemed to exist at an indeterminate distance, shrouded in silence and mist to the point of disappearance.  I could never decide what Bert thought about anything.  He was never vague or evasive-- not in the least-- but invariably what he said was never what I was anticipating.  Now and then I would attempt to comprehend his taste in literature.  I would ask him about Dickens, for instance, and he would bring up the long description of London fog at the opening of Bleak House.  He liked that, very much-- but that would be the end of Dickens.  Mention Houseman, and he would immediately quote ...the cherry now / is hung with bloom along the bow. He liked that very much as well, but the rest of Housman was apparently of no interest.  I decided (without any real evidence), that Bert didn't read books like the rest of us,  but consulted them like oracles, landing on obscure random passages by a mysterious process known only to himself.  I came to believe that, for Bert, a turned page was like an overturned tarot card, a glimpse into the workings of the cosmos. I had no idea, really.  The more one knew Bert, the less one could say about him with any certainty.  No one seemed to know where he lived, or anything about his past.  He didn't offer opinions on others, only brief observations-- but they were acute, and telling-- and  after a time I came to realize that Bert's salient characteristic was his compassion.  He missed very little, and much of what he saw in others moved him to laughter, but it was the benevolent laughter of a buddha. Virginia, who had suffered greatly at the hands of certain individuals in her past, and who was profoundly disenchanted with the human race in general, genuinely loved him-- and there were very few of whom that could be said.

Late hours, nocturnal poets

The graveyard shift in the book store was a perfect place for meeting characters as weird as they were literate.  One  dashing young gent, Emmett Smith, in sweptback hair and sunglasses, used to drive up in his 50s-vintage pickup from somewhere miles to the south where he raised goats on his farm.  I never inquired about his education, but he spoke in elaborate perfectly-formed sentences worthy of Dickens or Trollope, though his figures of speech were closer to Donne in their reliance on startling juxtapositions.  He just spun this language out off the top of his head in a kind of nonstop drunken reel:  long oratorial periods declaimed in a loud barroom voice with irreproachable grammar, the whole effect being rendered all the more surreal by his subject-matter, which was goat husbandry and long meditations on the Bedouin and TE Lawrence, punctuated by Persian proverbs in melodious Arabic, for he had sometime earlier in his life spent years in the middle east with the Peace Corps and the experience had crazed him in some deep essential way.

There were many other literate characters around Dinkytown and they all seemed to pass through the bookstore and to pause for conversation.  The owner of the store, James Cummings, had over 100,000 titles, but there was scarcely a “popular” title among them.  The store’s descriptor was “used and rare scholarly books” and that is all he carried.  It wasn’t the sort of bookstore you ducked into for five minutes on your way to the airport, looking for the latest John Grisham.  The usual patron of the bookstore spent a half hour or more, just browsing, and frequently commenting — to whomever might be in earshot — about whatever author happened to come to hand.  I had studied literature and philosophy intensively for years in college, but I got a wholly different humanistic education by working nights in that bookstore and listening for hours to the rambling near-soliloquies of patrons (most of whom were not professors).  In some cases they had known the authors personally and had stories about them, or had read them so thoroughly that they might as well have known them.

The nights I spent in that bookstore soon numbered in the hundreds, and by  the end had exceeded a thousand.  Literary  conversations begun in the store might be continued on the street, in the cafes or in bars, and I grew to believe that such a high level of literacy was a common state of affairs.  I forgot what a relatively rare and fragile a thing it was.

Remnants of Bohemia

A few years later the critic and poet Dana Gioia would write a worthwhile little essay entitled  “Towards a New Bohemia” in which, amid many other ideas, he suggests that the “old urban bohemia” had died out after the sixties due, among other reasons, to a rise in real estate prices.  This was certainly an accurate description of Minneapolis in the mid-1980s, though I would argue that old bohemia around the university had not yet breathed its last.  Virginia and I were only just barely subsisting, and after the first year made the questionable decision to move well out into the country where we could rent a place for a fraction of what it cost in the city and heat with firewood.  We continued to work in Dinkytown for several more years.  Many of the writers and artists we knew around Dinkytown were struggling through those years, and some, such as ourselves, eventually vanished.

At the time of his essay, which was some years ago, Dana Gioia could still find hope in the proliferation of small independent bookstores across the country which were hosting poetry readings and forming literary communities around themselves, but in the intervening years, with the rise of online commerce, most such small bookstores have gone under.   In any case, single bookstores can’t sustain a community by themselves.  In Dinkytown in the early 80s, there were still a good many poor literate individuals living marginal lives: poets, painters and street musicians, working as janitors, laborers and dishwashers.  Rather than a circle of individuals centered around a bookstore, it was a community living in a neighborhood.   It is the disappearance of such communities that Gioia acknowledges in his essay.  Unfortunately none of the succeeding “bohemias” have been actual communities, but only ghosts of the real thing.

The poets I knew in Dinkytown in the early 80s were unconnected to academia or the marketplace.  They lived close to the street, to the crumbling edge.  The price of their independence was often poverty and obscurity.  The “starving bohemian artist” may be a dated cliche, but I have known a number of flesh and blood individuals who fit the description, and most of them, perhaps a vanishing remnant, still lived around Dinkytown in the 1980s.

As a final note, it is worth mentioning that Dana Gioia and John Macoubrie, by sheer happenstance, crossed paths in Dinkytown in the summer of 1976, when Gioia was in his mid-twenties, working in business, and yet to launch himself as a full-time man-of-letters.  When I showed him my reminiscence of Dinkytown, the photograph of Macoubrie prompted this response: "I never knew Macoubrie's name, but I recognize him from his photo. I spent the summer of 1976 in Minneapolis. I went to Dinkytown after work 2 or 3 times a week to browse the bookstores--an antidote to my day job in business. I remember Macoubrie as one of the night time regulars in the poetry and literature sections of the bookstore. We even spoke a few times. How amazing to see his photo after all these years. He would also turn up at the strange poetry readings in local lofts around this time. I didn't know anyone in town, so I would just stand or sit in the corner and watch the crowd. Literary bohemians were a rare breed in the Twin Cities that bicentennial summer."  ---Having known each of them-- Macoubrie in the '80s and, later, a friendship by correspondence with Gioia in the '90s, I am struck first of all by what the two men possessed in common: an extraordinary range and depth of literary erudition, not paraded for its own sake, but welling up irrepressibly from within.  And then I am struck by what separated them: the disparate trajectories of their respective fates-- Macoubrie to an ever-deepening poverty and anonymity, and Gioia to the current laureateship of the state of California.  

The best of times, the worst of times

It is easy to romanticise bohemia, though less so if you are living it.  It can be a terrible life.   It wears you down, erodes your health and personality, and is absolute hell on relationships, but it leaves you free to read and write exactly what you wish, without obligation to anyone or anything, and that is not a small matter.

Those early years as one of the nameless nocturnal writers of Dinkytown left an indelible mark on my self-image as a writer, on my understanding of what a writer is and does.  To write has nothing to do with theory or intention or profession.  It has nothing to do with the classroom.  It has everything to do with hunger, the hunger for beauty, the hunger for love, the hunger for quelling the gnawing within.

Since knowing such poets — none of whom were professors, and few of whom lived in comfortable or secure circumstances — I have found it all but impossible to feel any essential kinship with academic poets — and academic poets seem to be the only poets left.   Looking back on my years in bohemia — the hardships of which I can hardly bring myself to enumerate— it was nonetheless the only place where I knew poets who, despite terrible cost and with no advantage to themselves, were poets because they could be nothing else.


After about a year, we moved a few miles north of Stillwater where, for the next five years, we lived in a little cabin on 18 wooded acres on West Boot Lake.  For a couple years we continued to work in Minneapolis, but then ceased commuting into the city much at all.  I found work on a neighboring farm, and Virginia took to spending periods of time staying with friends near the campus, when she was not at the cabin.  Our poverty was severe at this time.