The following essay is from my forthcoming collection, The Music of What Happens, a compendium of newspaper articles I wrote as Vermont Poet Laureat (2011-2015):

People have often asked me, of course, why I chose poetry as my principal vocation. I like to joke that it’s all about money, women, and fame . . . which is, of course, just that: a joke. The best-selling poets in America would do well to attract more readers than a last-place major league baseball team might draw in late September of a hopeless season.

So there have to be other motives. I could go on at length about these, but I’ll try to distill my thoughts here.

I came to poetry late, not publishing my first collection until I was forty. Prior to that, I had striven to be a conventional academic, though from the start somehow, the whole effort felt a little misguided. I didn’t know why for some time.

In 1970, I was asked to teach a section of Dartmouth College’s first-ever creative writing course, not because of my credentials—I had none—but because the then chair of my department, a good man indeed, imagined the gig would give me time to finish up my Ph.D. dissertation, as I had not yet done. This would not after all be a “real course,” he assured me; it would demand neither class preparation nor any scrupulous commentary on the students’ work.

And yet in teaching that course (I use the verb loosely), I felt the return of an old itch to write, one I’d experienced in my undergraduate days, when I composed quite a number of short stories. None of these was created for a course, because in the early sixties there were no writing courses as we know them where I went to school either. In the interest of economy, I won’t go into my reasons for responding to that impulse by choosing poetry over fiction. Suffice it to say that I did so choose, and though I have written a novel and five collections of personal essays since, poetry has remained my chief métier.

A different and less kindly disposed department chair eventually came to me and indicated that, although my reputation as a teacher was pretty good, Dartmouth had now become a publish-or-perish institution. When I noted that my first poetry collection was under contract, this fellow, not quite concealing his smirk, suggested that, just as creative writing was not a “real” course, a book of poems did not constitute “real” publication.

I’d finished my dissertation by then. In it, I’d sought to ape the suddenly voguish posture of the theorist. For such a reason, it remained an obscure screed, even to its author, whose inclinations were and are, non-, even anti-theoretical. I decided nonetheless to mine the paper for a few scholarly articles (at that time, one didn’t have to offer whole books to meet the publishing requisite), but on reconsidering my own prose, I felt something very like nausea. I recall saying right out loud, “This is not what I want to do when I grow up.” I resolved to go on writing verse and to let the chips fall where they might.

I was denied tenure at Dartmouth, but was quickly hired at Middlebury, which had something of a history of writer-professors. This was a better fit. But all that aside, the real question is, why should scholarship have seemed a pursuit so ill-suited to me? I’ve thought the matter over many times. It was not because I felt contempt for scholarly enterprise; indeed, I still value the training I got in world literature, both as an undergraduate and as a graduate student. And I have published a book of essays that—although I hope it’s devoid of jargon and hyper-annotativeness—might legitimately be called a work of scholarship.

No, my choice of poetry had to do with the fact that it more nearly answered to my own mental tendencies. Whereas scholarship, even in its often impenetrable post-modernist avatars, still ultimately depends upon premise and conclusion, upon the dialectical approach, the realm of lyric poetry—at least for me—is roughly described by Carl Jung when he speaks of true psychology as the domain “always … of either-and-or.” That is, lyric can keep multiple perspectives alive within one frame without seeming merely to be a muddle. Perhaps this is what Keats meant when he famously spoke of Negative Capability, the capacity to live with “Mysteries, Uncertainties and Doubts, without any irritable reaching after Fact and Reason.”

Negative Capability, so understood, enables me to indulge what another great poet—T.S. Eliot—called the “necessary laziness” of the poet. To use a reductive buzz phrase, it is a right-brain enterprise. To relax the muscular, either/or approach to experience is to open oneself to unanticipated possibilities, and to let them come as they will.

And to let them come in all their fullness. It may be cliché to say that lyric captures the intensity of certain moments, but so it does for me. This is true, I think, even if the moment that catches my attention never eventuates in a written poem. I know I sound a bit fogeyish to say so (I am in my seventies, and have a right), but the fact that most of anyone’s moments are ephemeral and diffuse seems the more evident in the age of Twitter and (the very word speaks volumes) of the selfie. For me, the lyric impulse allows me to see certain “deeper” moments, to concentrate them in what I hope, however vainly or justly, may be memorable language. Among the very deepest of those moments in my own experience, for eloquent example, are the witnessing of the births of five children. The plethora of responses to such events could never be catalogued nor exhausted, but one can go farther toward rendering their impact—or so I believe—via the language of poetry than by any other mode of discourse.

Lightning scarcely strikes every day. If it did, I’d write 365 poems a year. But that it might strike at any moment makes me feel alive and attentive, makes me open to all manner of novelty, if I can adequately ignore mundane distractions (and of course I can’t; who does?). It feels that such newness is always available out there, no matter I have been recording my responses for more than four decades now. Until I take the long sleep, I’ll believe that something fresh may be right around the bend.

Fats and Little Richard would come to our rescue,
but before they did I ached for Patti Page,
“The Singin’ Rage,” as the radio deejays dubbed her.
I remember loving “How Much Is that Doggie in the Window?”
And “Mockingbird Hill”– maybe corny, yet it robbed my breath.
In her much older age, that star somehow fell in New Hampshire,

just across the river from where we live.
I suspect that six out of ten of my local friends–
and all of them younger, say, than sixty–five–
would give me blank looks if I were to mention her name,
same looks that Audrey Wurdemann– Pulitzer poet
for her volume, Bright Ambush, 1935 –

would produce if anybody referred to her now.
Tatters and shards. “Nothing beside remains,”
as Shelley said of his fallen king’s condition.
Like a dear friend’s death, this all might seem depressing.
Well, go that way if you want to. As for me,
my age-old unconcern for reputation

frees me this morning to change a grandson’s diaper,
marked by the bright effluvium of his life,
and improbably to imagine a hymn to that life.
Meanwhile, I notice– with that age-old catch in my breath
and that rage to sing about it to all who will listen–
the beauty of long winter shadows on snow outside.

Hank Nicci worked as the gas pump man
at Greville’s Sunoco all that summer.
He had a heart like a Valentine,
but softball-sized, tattooed on a shoulder.
It said Mom. What else would it say in those times?
His bleach-blond girlfriend looked like a star
right out of the movies, at least in my eyes.
She drove a smoking-hot custom car:

’48 Merc with some big new V-8,
and lowered so far that sparks would spray
from her bumpers whenever she drove on the lot.
Just to watch her show up made my own sparks fly.
The girl. Her street rod. Of course I got smitten.
She stole my heart, which she never imagined.
Of course she didn’t. Her Mercury glistened
like a red candy apple. Complete perfection.

I knew if I mentioned her, Mom would inform me
my dream-love looked cheap. Her name? Roy-Anne.
How she and Hank fought! I once heard her storming,
“You can kiss my ass!” as she peeled out. Gone.
If this meant cheap, it was what I longed for.
Bad language. Cool car. My whole soul was yearning.
I swear I’d have kissed her for weeks, wherever.
But Hank wouldn’t lay off his non-stop flirting.

If she were my sweetheart, I’d be much more careful:
whatever she wanted, she’d have her way.
I needed my thumb to get down to Greville’s
after mucking out stalls or pitching hay
or herding turkeys at my uncle’s place.
I could work, but couldn’t yet drive. I got lectures
from my mom about wasting the ends of my days
at some dirty old gas station. I never told her

what I’m telling you here, though of course if you’ve read
my story so far, you know it all.
Mom kept on about bright years ahead.
At college, she claimed, I’d “discover new goals,”
but I’d never found any in school, so why would I?
The real goal for me was to turn into Hank:
big arms, a tattoo, and giggly housewives
who blushed and spluttered as I filled up their tanks.

Roy-Anne screamed and swore– but she stayed with Hank.
If I couldn’t find someone exactly like her,
I’d die, or that’s what I heard myself think.
It turns out I’ve lived a long time after
without a Roy-Anne, but when I was fifteen,
Man, I ached for her. I’d have treated her well,
and I bet she’d have let me– at least now and then–
switch spots on the seat and take the Merc’s wheel.

…the only sensible impression left is, “I am nothing!”
–Coleridge

Farmwives conjure elaborate quilts.
Woodworkers busy themselves at their stations.
No shortage at all of craftspeople here,
but however deft these artisans,
their work’s no balm for my sudden unease.
Today I’ve sampled maple balls
and poutine, and from a provisory bleacher,
heard the roars of the Tractor Pull,
and outside of airplanes I couldn’t see,
the gunmetal clouds dropping ever downward.

I’m at the Tunbridge World’s Fair,
set in a town from a picture postcard.
I’ve been awed by oxen with legs so long
and stout that if my eyes didn’t wander
to mammoth heads (we’re all so small)
I’d imagine black-and-white trunks of trees–
the Holsteins– and winey red– the Herefords.
There’s a scattering too of paler breeds
like Brahma or Charolais. All wonders.

Wonders everywhere indeed:
200-pound Hubbard squashes and pumpkins,
Brobdignagian potbelly hogs–
“Kevin Bacon,” “Spamela Anderson,”
“Tyrone the Terrible”– that plod through the final
Pig Race, intent on the cookie reward.
Though I feel the weather grow ever grimmer,
the announcer rattles his comic words
at the crowd, consisting mostly of parents
with enthusiastic sons and daughters.

Are they gripped like me by nameless fears?
This morning, I shuddered less when leaning
from a Ferris Wheel car or crazily spinning
in the Tilt-a-Whirl or the Whizzer Demon
than when standing right here. Pink cotton candy
cones look like torches, puny beacons
in evanescing afternoon.
The ozone scent of imminent lightning
fills the air like the whiff of corn dogs,
funnel cake, hush puppies frying.

I sometimes come on headstones in backwoods graveyards
girt by their own shallow graves the size of bathtubs
and by brush, through which each one juts valiantly upward.
Lately, whenever I take to my local river,

small cavities in either side’s high sand tiers
look empty to me as those graves must be by now.
Once there were hundreds on hundreds of bank swallows there,
darting jauntily out of those minuscule lairs

to harvest the mayflies that rose from the silty streambed
toward the sun, like bright diminutive angels.
Now I find it lucky– a word too poor for what’s sacred–
to behold one or two of the birds, athletic, winged

wonders under dawn- or twilit skies.
Myriad assumptions, myriad cullings.
One tradition tells us our spirits will rise,
before which, however, a winnowing’s required.

How odd to imagine that such ideas might comfort.
The men and women beneath those knife-thin stones,
the vanished wildfowl– to me, of course, pure strangers.
Yet I feel the haunts of aerial things. They hover

over my frail boat as I remember and mourn.

In the pre-op room, my wife was given
a scalene block for a brief procedure.
She had shoulder surgery three months back,

and now again they’ll anesthetize her
to break up scars that have kept her in pain.
She’ll be comatose, however briefly.

I remembered right off how one’s love can seldom
appear so precious as she does on a gurney.
I feel what I felt on watching her labor,

giving birth, for instance; but I won’t be on hand
for this episode. I sit in the lobby,
alone but for a fellow old man

in a black cowboy hat, who’s waiting like me
for a wife to come to. He plunges his fingers
into her purse, and digs around

inside– in search of what, I wonder?
I can’t decode his half-audible mumbles
or his face’s expression. On the trip here from home

we hit black ice on a busy road
in this busy small town. My pickup spun
on the slick in what passes for rush hour here.

The fact we weren’t hurt defies all reason.
Like grace. The man keeps probing, and I
keep wondering why. His look’s still deadpan.

I know very well what it is to divert
one’s thoughts from hurtful or frightening matters,
to seek what can lift us out of the world

when it threatens to tear itself into tatters.
How on earth can love torture us so?
Its pain seems deepened by the length of its years.

An ambulance siren winds down outside.
I’ve been reading to keep myself busy but now
I look up to find my cowpoke in tears.

Some are apt to swoon over nature,
loving what they call harmony.
But Tennyson got it right on whoever
Trusted God was love indeed
And love Creation’s final law,
saying Nature, red in tooth and claw
With ravine, shriek’d against his creed.

The gulls that once patrolled the Bay
of Naples, for instance, long since shifted
attention toward the city’s landfill,
where pigeons, slurred as flying rats,
seek detritus like vegetable remnants,
fish-bones, fruit stones, clots of sauce,
what have you. They’re like gulls at that–

at least like gulls in ages past.
Now, in search of greater substance,
the sea birds have largely turned from refuse
and gathered rather in teams to maul
those pigeons. Not that gulls have teeth,
and not that we can rightly refer
to their blood-stained, webby feet as claws,

but you catch my meaning. The plunderers smash
their quarry to death, then like so many
lions or jackals, devour each carcass.
Is that what’s meant by harmony?
Our nation’s governed by a knave and fool.
Unnatural, you say? What’s new?
The raptor gorges on its prey.

In a characteristically compelling essay called “Grub: A Man in the Market,”1 Garret Keizer briefly muses on his distaste for upper New England farmers’ markets. He concedes that those institutions appeal to what his wife Kathy calls “our tribe.”  That’s the tribe, I suppose, one might equally associate with me and my own wife, yet on reading Garret’s essay, my inner Marianne Moore announced, right out loud, “I too dislike it,” by which I seem to have meant tribe and market at once.

The spontaneity of my response surprised me; and it occasioned the following reflections on things and people I have historically liked. I’ll get back to the farmers’ market scene in due course, but for a spell I mean to remember some chapters of my life and the persons I most fondly associate with them.

My father’s people, from Wiltshire, England, came to this country before it was a country. There were two Lea brothers; one set about farming in eastern Pennsylvania, the other in what became Tennessee. My mother’s Mennonite ancestors, so called Pennsylvania Dutch, arrived more than a century later, and put down roots in Berks County.

As time went by, the Leas, while none gained true distinction (unless you count Annabelle, the wife whom Sam Houston abandoned when he lit out for Texas), attained a degree of gentility. This sank back to a shabbier sort as they approached the generation of my father’s father. The Klines, my mother’s forebears, fared markedly better: her bachelor uncle took his father’s drugstore and in due course turned it into one of the most profitable prescription pharmaceutical companies in the nation. That uncle was the soul of the German Reform version of Protestant ethic, minus the religion, to which in fact he was unabashedly hostile.

  1. “Grub: A Man in the Market,” Raritan, v. xxxvii, no. 3, winter 2018

My mother may have coveted some of the accrued plumminess of the Lea name, however lapsed to lesser luster, so as to ballast what she perhaps regarded as bumpkin’s heritage on the Berks County side. I say this with some compunction, because after all her husband was a bright, handsome, and famously thoughtful man; so her choice must have surely been far from just venal. Whatever the case, in marriage she followed her mother, who’d married a WASP herself, moved closer to the metropolis, converted to Episcopalianism, and baptized her three children into that elastic denomination.

At all events, I’d have no grounds whatsoever on which to stake a proletarian claim. So it’s curious, even to me, that from earliest memory I’ve chosen some of my most significant friendships from working class people. I’m not clear whether I’ve ever reflected at any length on why this should be, at least on the page. It has been clear to me for ages that I find certain characteristics of the economic and/or intellectual elites abrasive, so that even in my life as an “academic,” at least technically, I’ve largely avoided prolonged association with such folk (with a couple of cherished exceptions, who know who they are).

I don’t dismiss rags-to-riches or subliteracy-to-Ph.D. stories, of course, though in plain truth these are rarer than our sentimentalism insists, and are becoming more so in the opening decades of our century. In the majority of cases, whether or not financially rich, our elites inherited a good deal of social capital: at the very least, say, parents who were literate and decently educated.  As for our alleged financial whizzes, many, perhaps most, inherited another sort of capital, as admittedly I did too, though whether I’m a leader I’ll leave to others. It’s not a theme that intrigues me.

What I’m getting at is an inexcusable inclination among elites of all stripes. Although, as former Texas Governor Ann Richards said of George W. Bush, so many were born on third base, they seem to think they hit triples. If these fortunate sons (and in fewer cases daughters) fill the uppermost niches of American society, why, isn’t that just the natural order of things?

I know a young woman in our part of Vermont whose background, to put it genteelly, is dysfunctional. She found herself pregnant quite early and soon fell into the lethal opioid epidemic that, as I write, enslaves so many. But she put herself into recovery, and went on to get her G.E.D. She’s raising a toddler son now, all the while cleaning houses to meet expenses. She’s also attending community college, holding a 4.0 GPA, with an eye to a B.A. in short order. Perhaps it’s too easy to compare her lot, say, to Donald Trump’s, but it doesn’t take me any time at all to decide whom I regard as the more admirable.

The myth of upward mobility, then, is not all mythic. So-called American conservatives will point to prominent examples, avoiding evidence that these are increasingly uncommon. Though his is not a real Horatio Alger tale, since he did have significantly greater advantages, for example, than the woman I just lauded, I might point to my own great uncle. By the middle fifties, he had sufficiently enriched himself that he could lavish funds on his sister, my grandmother, in whose exurban Philadelphia house my parents also lived, and where they raised us five children. He was also generous to his niece, my mother, for whom he had served as a paternal surrogate, her own dad having died before she turned five. She deserved such reward, devoted and useful as she was to him from a very early age.

Uncle (as we tersely called him) was a daunting presence, and not only to me. He could be frighteningly judgmental, even volatile, and one longed to be elsewhere once his fuse got lit. He never had a romantic relation with any woman, and my siblings and I, picking up on some other clues as well, have since supposed him gay. Thus, given his historical epoch, private challenges may well explain much of that famous impatience and clamorous temper. It’s a cliché of behavioral psychology, after all, that frustration engenders aggression.

With his considerable wealth, Uncle bought a gentleman’s property in the country. He was a skilled equestrian, and his high-bred horses were his heart’s only darlings. But he owned beef and dairy cattle, too, along with hens and sheep. To manage these animals, and the crops that sustained them, he hired a certain Charles Grant. Mr. Grant and his wife Esther, Irish Protestant immigrants, had two children, Charlie, Jr. and Edmund.

Young Charlie was enough older than I that he figured primarily as an object of awe in my eyes, though not for long enough: at regular army basic training, very shortly after his marriage at nineteen, he died, absurdly, of the flu. This was 1955, the year I became a teenager, and that death introduced me to the concept of pure ruin. I recall how I, his idolater, felt an earthquake in my very soul, not to mention my pure wonder to behold his tough-as-nails, bull-necked father weep at the funeral, and the utter blankness on Esther’s face, and the solemnity among contract workers, black and white, whom I’d always associated with hilarity and ribaldry (such as I understood it). All of this remains as stark in my mind as it was on the day that poor boy got buried.

But tragedy played no part in my feelings, on which a bit more directly, for his younger brother Edmund, or Eddie, who became my dearest friend from the first day I spent at what our family called, quite simply, The Farm.  That is, from about the dawn of memory.

The Farm was my refuge for years, crucially important years at that. I had no way of properly knowing why I needed such sanctuary, as I suspect she didn’t either, but family life was vexed in no small part by my mother’s inchoate alcoholism. I can see this very clearly in hindsight, as in fairly short compass I became expert myself on the curse of addiction, though by the grace of God (and I mean that literally), unlike Mom I was blessed by recovery quite some time ago.

I harbored resentment toward my mother for too much of my life, and, to a lesser degree toward my sweet-tempered father simply for so often taking her part. Yes, he was an enabler, but he always treated me gently, and he died far too young at 55, a shock, needless to say, that rattled me far more than Charlie, Jr.’s sudden vanishing.  It still does. But at length I recognized how unfair it was to curse anyone for sharing the same disease that afflicted me, the more so because that curse followed her to the grave. I could as fairly blame my father for the heart attack I had at 74, as if he had somehow willed his own on me, even if mine did not prove fatal like his.  I couldn’t change mother when she lived. Why try after she died?

In the cases of both parents, rather than anger, I now feel sorrow about their fates. This is especially true of my mother, who had the longer, but undeniably the more painful life. As a young woman, she’d not only been beautiful but also endowed with sufficient academic ability to be admitted to the highly selective Radcliffe College. This accounts for part of my mother’s attitude that especially galled me: her insistence that I never adequately applied myself at school. A-minuses were a disgrace, not to mention C-minuses (at best) for my performance in math, especially of the post-arithmetical kind, which no amount of application could remedy.  I now recognize that, as the oldest of her children, I had become her academic vicar, and by her standards, less than valedictorian results amounted to crass squandering of opportunities from which she had been so unfairly barred.

Why such an assessment from her? Well, it seems that when she announced her Radcliffe news to her uncle, his response was concise– and surely devastating.

“Women don’t go to college.”

Anyone who knew the old man would also know there’d be no appeal.

Again, perhaps, because she wanted me to redeem her frustrated intellectual aspirations, Mom felt disinclined, whether she knew it or not, to let me be a kid. Along with “Apply yourself,” then, “Grow up” was a too familiar directive. The Farm was the place where my nose needed be to no grindstone. I could remain a boy, could ride my pony, camp in the woods, fish in the pond, plink cottontails with my minuscule .22, and indeed all of these, often enough, in the course of one outing.

And I could do everything along with Eddie, with whom I played Tonto and Lone Ranger, Cisco and Pancho, Batman and Robin, or any other commander-subordinate dyad we could imagine. We took turns being leader and sidekick, there being remarkably little competition between us, something unusual, for certain, among males of any age.

In short, until I got old enough to drive, which is to say to be intrigued by the opposite sex, and in fact for some years after, I spent every possible minute at Uncle’s: winter and spring vacations, weekends, and those long, muggy, delicious summers. Eddie and I were inseparable companions there. My relations with Uncle reflected a mutual understanding: he was not a type to be much entertained by kids, and I was there not for him anyhow, but for the physical actuality of the Farm and for Eddie’s company. My dealings with Uncle were therefore pretty much limited to peremptory morning and evening greetings. I was tolerated, or rather ignored, which suited me just fine.

So Eddie and I built hay forts and woods forts. We invented games, like the one in which we tried to land the flimsy boomerangs from the Johnson and Smith’s novelty catalog in an outdoor watering trough. Once we got adept at doing so from one angle, we’d resort to a harder, and then a harder. Those were the cross-shaped boomerangs; when we graduated to the open V-shaped ones, we started to pretend that Esther’s scarecrow, say, was a bad guy, and we’d try to take his hat off with our throws. Later, after Esther shooed us from the effigy in her truck garden, we tried to sneak up on woodchucks and cottontails, though all we ever did was scare them back into brush or burrow.

We were neither of an age to swap emotional secrets nor to philosophize. Indeed, if it had occurred to either of us to try, the other would likely have been mystified beyond response. It was what we did together that cemented our love; to this day, the way my heart leapt up on seeing Eddie after even a brief absence epitomizes what friendship can be. In some measure, that notion of common enterprise, whether it be shared enthusiasms as diverse as the reading or writing of poem or novel or (a touchy matter I’ll glance at later along) the hunting of wild game– that sense of common enterprise is the basis of many a human bond to this day.

Not to hyperbolize nor fall into sentimentality, for us two this was an idyll– looking back on which, however, I sometimes marvel that we survived. We would smoke stolen cigarettes, for example, in our hayloft hideouts; having learned to drive the Farm’s 1949 Army-surplus Jeep, we rolled it into a brook one evening without getting hurt; on another day, we took our axes to a sizeable maple, which fell upon us in a sudden gust of wind, the thick branches somehow coming down everywhere around us without touching either. In short, our adventures were ones that, had I known they involved my own kids (who doubtless had their perilous adventures too, however different the venues), would have frozen my blood.

But, as the famous epistle insists, there comes a time to put aside childish things. This meant acquiring some skills that were not designed merely to amuse or entertain.

You could say that as poet and professor, I’ve more or less lived a life of the mind, but I have always considered it a misprision to assume that such a life is the only indicator of intelligence. If that were so, the nation’s intellectuals would have non-functioning cars, toasters, faucets, airplanes –that list is infinitely protractable, of course– and they’d soon starve to death for want of food.

On which latter note, I can say from experience, even if or perhaps because my learning preceded the mechanized age of dairy– which now includes robotics!–  that there’s a right way to milk a cow by hand; indeed, try the wrong way and get no result. There is a proper technique to mowing and tedding hay, even to tying off burlap wheat sacks while the combine is moving full speed ahead. I suspect this may be why, in order to have value in my own eyes, whatever I may offer of so-called creative writing must be grounded in the palpable world.

I can reflect on these matters with some authority, however slight, because, as I reached early adolescence, I actually went to work summers on Uncle’s farm, and on some others. Eddie was expected, nay required to do so by his parents. And what Eddie did, I did.

A local man named Roberts made a handsome living as a contract farmer; that is, he had the machinery and the crew for large-scale harvesting of crops. Landowners need not invest in expensive combines, bailers, what have you. Instead, they hired Mr. Roberts and crew as needed.

It may well be that this contractor hired me by way of staying on my uncle’s good side; as a somewhat roly-poly and still quite short kid, I surely didn’t make a very effective laborer. I couldn’t pitch hay, for example, even like Eddie, two years my senior and quicker to mature.  And of course I was truly feckless compared to seasoned adult co-workers. How painfully I recall struggling with heavy bales, chaff sticking to my neck in the dankness of mid-Atlantic summer, as I used every ounce of strength I had to heft my load onto a flatbed in motion. How red I must have turned when Willie, a migrant African-American laborer, a veritable Adonis, once chided me as he waited for a bale to reach him on the platform: “Boy, you’d ought to been born tall ‘stead of fat.”

Fact is, that labor was miserable in almost every respect, enough so that I check myself, as I would many a privileged professor, broker, or banker if I get to complaining about the work load I have to contend with.  I do know what hard work feels like.

Yes, that farm labor was exhausting and meagerly remunerated, but if anyone had asked me, I’d have claimed to love it.  I now see that this was, again, a matter of shared enterprise, one which, again like poetry itself for my money, has a definite bodily component.  There’s no doubt the field work toughened me up, and it showed me a whole dimension of life of which most of my suburban peers were entirely unaware. It inculcated in me a vivid appreciation of the physical fact, which, as Robert Frost somewhat mysteriously puts it in “Mowing,” is “the sweetest dream that labor knows.”

And speaking of the poet, I now believe early “literary” influences came upon me during our break times from field work, during which Mr. Roberts’s crew (not the man himself, who stayed clear, being almost prudishly religious), blacks, whites, Irish, whatever, would banter with one another. The conversation often had to do with the sexual appeal of women, though race track results and prospects, musical tastes, ball teams, automotive preferences, and so on figured in too.

I was struck not only by subject matter still more or less exotic to me (though, lying through my teeth, I sometimes let on otherwise) but also by the rich potpourri of idioms I sampled.  One evening, for example, as we were finishing up an oat field, the neighbor’s adolescent daughter, on whom I had one of my innumerable and impossible crushes, took a short cut across the fields to get to the paved road. The top was down on her dad’s Ford, and her blond ponytail streamed in the breeze. Jim Campbell, a white man from somewhere in the south, commented that the sight was “enough to make a horse eat his own beddin’.”  I played at swagger, saying I’d like to ask that girl on a date. A normally laconic giant named Bill countered, “Like the man say, I axed for water and she give me gasoline.” Everyone laughed, even the white laborers who, like me, probably didn’t know this was a quotation from the great Delta bluesman Howlin’ Wolf.

In short, what I came to see some time since is that nothing I write is other than a collaborative effort; what goes on the page inevitably carries the freight of myriad voices, and not just ones from the so-called canon or from academia but also from field and woods and alley.

One of the things that bonded me to Eddie was our shared enthusiasm for all that colorful palaver. We tried to import it into our own talk as often as possible. If we wanted to catch a grasshopper to fish for bass, we called it, like the so-called colored men we knew, a hopper-grass. I remember vividly walking out one morning to meet my friend: mist cloaked the pond, the farm animals were smudges out in the browning fields, and as we came together, we heard the single tock! of a woodpecker, a nostalgic sound for me to this day. “Peckerwood,” we said in chorus, again echoing one of the black field hands from whom we’d heard it, though whether with reference to the bird or to a racist landlord, maybe, we could not have considered back then.

When asked where I am from, I often cite the name of the little town near The Farm. This is not quite a lie, in the sense that my uncle’s spread became the home place of my imagination and in many ways persists as such, even if the neighborhood is no longer a pastorale but rather the domain of Staples, Domino’s Pizza, Costco and the like. In those days for me, the area was simply rife with actuality and variety, unlike my all-white, well-fed hometown. I can get almost swoony now if I smell the interior of a cow barn, for example. The clamor of crows flocking to roost has a similar effect, as does fog lifting off water, or a certain timbre in a random black man’s laughter. So on.

As I have made clear, I treasure an old cast of characters, in every sense of that term, some of whom played only cameo parts. I’ll never forget the indescribable reek of someone banally named Paddy, goat-shouldered County Kildare farrier who’d show up in fall to re-shoe all the horses that had idled in pastures during weather too hot for riding. Nor will I forget his brogue-inflected whisper on encountering some setback: “Oh, for the want of the breath of life!” I still see his half-toothless, self-satisfied smile when, having plunged a perfectly fashioned shoe into a water pail, he stood from nailing it onto a hoof and pulled a little vial from his bib overalls. Before tipping it back, he’d whisper “Slainte” –whatever that meant; it didn’t matter.

There was Normie, too, the slightly hunch-backed man of mystery who showed up in spring with a long, orange ferret in a burlap sack. The hens having all been shooed into an adjoining pen, he would release the ferret under their house. You could hear the scuffling and squealing until the predator had dispatched every rat and mouse he could find, whereupon Normie rang an oddly elegant silver bell, the ferret emerged, and back into the rough sack he went with seeming alacrity. The fetor of the tiny corpses under the house took a week or so to disperse.

If I were to continue this litany of recollection, I’d go on without stop. Come to think of it, maybe I have, at least for as long as I’ve viewed myself as a writer. I cited one poetic hero a paragraph or so, so how about another here? “The greatest poverty is not to live/ in a physical world,” says Wallace Stevens.

Amen, say I.

I had some other first-hand knowledge of a more colorful world via school, though not in the classroom.  My small private day institution had a demerit system: accumulate four demerits for misbehavior and you were sentenced to grounds work come Saturday. One year, I showed up at Saturday detention for 36 consecutive weeks, missing just one, I think, in the academic calendar. When I –I!– was invited to give a talk to students at my 50th high school reunion (the only one I’ve ever attended), I noticed the august enfilade of lofty firs and spruces at the building’s main entrance. Then it struck me:  I planted those trees!

Or I helped a grown man to plant them. You see, I was a chronic weekend recidivist not merely because I couldn’t control my impulses. True, I could not; but there was also the attraction of hanging out with Lovell, night- and weekend watchman and detention overseer. His collective name for the all-white student body was “cornfeds,” but he called me “Stack o’ Dollars.” In turn, I called him “Money.” We got on famously. I have encountered few with equal narrative gifts: his stories were simply charged with imagery and crackling dialogue. He could evoke the sights and sounds of a honkytonk club like no one I’ve ever heard since. His accounts of street fights were vivid and scary, his tales of romance both funny and stirring. He was a bad-ass too, a rule-bender like me. Sometimes, when it was just us two, as it often seemed to be, we’d start a bonfire so that I could sit behind the smoke with him and share a cigarette or two, hidden from the respectable world.

Do you wonder that I racked up the demerits? Some of my friends, I suppose, were playing tennis at the local country club. I wouldn’t trade places to this day.

Money also introduced me to a sort of music that had never been heard in my household or those of my friends. Crucial stuff. I mean not only vernacular music like that of the aforementioned Howlin’ Wolf, or Bessie Smith or Jimmy Reed or Elmore James but also what multi-instrumentalist Roland Kirk called Black Classical Music, as exemplified in those days by late bop artists like Monk, Davis, Rollins, Gillespie, Roach and so on. Some have noted the penumbrae of this music in my own writing, and the plain fact is that this literary influence likewise came from a source that I feel blessed to have tapped. God bless you, Lovell, of cherished memory.

Money was a city slicker, so in the end he may have had less effect on me than men and women who were exactly his opposites. I remember them from boyhood too, especially after my parents bought an island camp in Washington County, Maine six decades ago. If any of these men and women still lived, they’d be well into their centenary years. They’d lived in this part of the world well before the advent of electricity and power tools. The men were saw- and axe-wielding lumberjacks or river drivers who floated log booms down the Machias River to the ocean every spring; the women –whom it would be laughable to label “housewives”– literally kept the home fires burning, and much more: they made clothing, dressed and preserved game and fish, did carpentry, tilled soil, split kindling, raised kids, and managed whatever else was necessary under harsh conditions.

If I say so, I have a lot of outdoor skills, a lot of savvy about woods and wildlife, how to hunt and fish, how to ply a canoe in whitewater, how to corn venison, how to drop a tree where I want it to fall, how to coax a flame from a wet log, how to cook over an open fire. On and on.  These gifts were handed to me in great part by mentors like George and Creston MacArthur, Earl Bonness, Annie Fitch, Ada Chambers, and a dozen others.

But my professional debt to them is much akin to the one I owe that old scamp Money, because like him, they had extraordinary narrative talents (and in some cases, light-poetic ones too). Lacking any extrinsic entertainment, even from radio, they made their own, and, although many could scarcely read or write, their relish for the precisely eloquent detail and its perfectly apt rendering still motivates me.  I loved the way their stories, in the manner of oral tradition worldwide, became community property. Even at 76, I continue to hear their voices every day –and I mean every day. Indeed, when I decided, quite late in life, to be a poet, my first collection not seeing print till I was almost forty, it was the rhythms and cadences of their language that I wanted to capture. I hoped the properties of poetry would allow as much without demanding imitation, because I knew myself insufficiently skilled to offer dialect without implying exactly what I did not feel for these beloveds: condescension.

When Earl’s best friend Creston died, he looked out his shop window and into the dog-hair woods,  full of waist-high snow: I’ll never forget his expression as he said to me, “We made  lot of tracks together.” How could he have framed so much of a world in such short compass? My heart brims with a treasury of equally compelling turns of phrase. If I have ever written a poem with that sort of gravity, in every sense of the term, then I am blessed, and I know the ones who blessed me.

Another crucial service these men and women rendered was likewise akin to one from Money Crawford, who would catch me up if I showed what he considered too lofty an opinion of myself.  So did the Italian rogue Tony Calvano, who kept the building where I parked my motorcycle in grad school, and who always called me by both names at once. “Sydlea,” he once asked, “just what happens in them classes of yours?” I did my best to describe a typical seminar, and he responded, more justly than he probably knew, “Sounds like bull crap in a three-piece suit to me.”

Or how about Ernie Vauxhall, the African-American room inspector at Yale, who had stopped in while I sat at one of his and my favorite New Haven bars? The place was quiet but for us two and Ernie’s pal, bartender Ike Dees, and, having forgotten my Friday duty call to my mother that afternoon, I asked if I could make a collect call from the bar itself. Ike assented, and when my mother answered, I claimed to be in the library doing research. At that point Ernie called out, “Hey, Ike, would you pass me the Midsummer Night’s Dream”?

I assured Mom that that had been the voice of someone passing by in the Sterling Library corridor. Whether she bought it, I’ll never know. I’d not likely have been able to explain that I was absorbing an important principle: to be too dead serious about oneself is to be alienated from what I can only and ineptly call things that matter.

That by happy accident I came into prolonged contact, from early on, with people whose financial and educational circumstances were so different from mine is, yes, a great blessing. I was about to say that as a result I’ve long known how to find cogent subject matter in unlikely places. In point of fact, however, if by now I truly thought them unlikely, it would mean I hadn’t learned how misguided such a rubric is.

Indeed, the kinds of people I have been recalling turn out to be my most likely sources of “inspiration,” to use a much abused word, in my life. When Earl Bonness told me that he and his closest friend had made a lot of tracks together, he resorted to metaphor, but his figuration was grounded in a sensory world, just it was when he described a day as cold as a frog’s mouth, or claimed that the night before had frozen an Eskimo in his cellar. His remarks were not freighted with grandiose self-consciousness, and they were full of brotherly love.

Most of the members of my tribe, as Kathy Keizer called it, are at best uncomfortable with one crucial aspect of my connection to those old-time Yankees and their scions, namely that they and I are lifelong hunters. When I first came to the upper Connecticut Valley to teach, I was blessed almost immediately to befriend a number of the famously standoffish locals. The first friendship was with the road commissioner, Allie Pike, who noticed I kept a rabbit hound. Very soon we started to hunt snowshoe hares together. I taught the son of the local mechanic (himself another great raconteur) to hunt upland birds, and in due course became best man in his wedding. By the time I left that town, in order to stay above what my pal Tom Curren calls The Volvo Line, hunting had introduced me to just about every local family thereabouts, a matter that mystified other professors who’d moved there themselves.

And as I write, my dearest friend on earth is one of those locals; I’ve known him since his early boyhood too. (He is 14 years younger than I.) The man grew up, built our house, then broke our hearts more than a decade ago by moving to Colorado. He’s among the smartest men I know, and  hands-down the wittiest; but after a daylong jaunt in the woods with me, he confessed that he could barely read or write. He was in his late twenties then, and it was his admission that got me interested in adult literacy: soon after, I started as a tutor with Central Vermont Adult Basic Education, then joined its board for twenty years, for the last five of which I served as president.

Having outed himself, so to speak, my friend quickly corrected his problem, and has gone from being a hammer-swinger to a spectacularly successful contractor. We still get together for at least a week a year, and we stay in constant touch. I smile to myself each time I think, for example, of the clever nicknames he assigned to certain characters we both knew: “Woody Wide-Bite,” say, for a fellow with hyper-conspicuous dentures, or “Freddy Folktale” for one who tended greatly to exaggerate and romanticize his achievements afield.

How did we come to be friends? We bonded as hunting partners in deer and grouse and duck habitat. He learned about bird dog training from me, as I had learned them from New England elders. Once more, I revert to the notion of shared enterprise in a physical world. I’ll never explain to most salaried friends, let alone to PETA members, that the hunt for us is not simply a matter of slaughtering allegedly defenseless wildlife, but something sacramental. But I won’t go farther here, having written two full books that largely deal with such an issue.

One thing for sure: hunting wary game makes one conscious of how small a part one plays in the world’s grand design. Which leads me at last to some concluding thoughts on why I shy away from “our tribe.” The people I knew in my old town and their descendants– they are all gone now, as that part of the world turns into Fairfield County, Connecticut North. The new inhabitants believe they’re living in the country, and to survey the surrounding landscape one might concur. Yet as my friend Dennis Covington recently wrote, “Geography is both in us and outside of us. No tracking device can substitute for the human heart.” The heart of my old stomping grounds beats elsewhere now.

My instinctive predilection for working class companions has something to do with their straightforwardness. I don’t mean to sentimentalize, because, like us all, the best of them have their character defects, some pretty distasteful. But they’re aware of what they’re up to.  My aversion from the self-congratulatory “tribe” involves what I regard as their un-awareness.

Back to those farmers’ markets. Like many of their patrons, my wife and I do all we can to stick with organic food; but I hope we continue to remember that such fare is out of reach for at least half the people we pass driving home from the market itself. Having woven their skirts of wool from the alpaca they bought, with inherited money, for $8000, or having hewn the wood –as natives have done for generations without expecting applause– that heated the sap for their maple syrup, too many tribespeople seem smugly assured that they model how to live now.

From time to time, my wife and I venture five towns south to an upscale grocery store, where we are often frustrated by two shoppers who meet in an aisle and simply block anyone from passing for as long as they share gossip. Many of these well-heeled consumers have signs in their yard saying, for instance, “I Love My Muslim Neighbor,” but how often they ignore the fact that other neighbors are being inconvenienced by their self-absorption, not to mention the harried stock boys and girls, who might as well live on another planet for all the conversationalists appear to care.

Of course, I am being unduly judgmental and am scandalously over-general, but there it is. Such lack of consideration is borne, I believe, of a sort of abstraction, which is the quality of dealing with ideas as opposed to events. It derives, etymologically and aptly, from the Latin for drawing away.

Drawing away from actuality, the one too easily imagines that the world of his or her private construal is the only world that exists. In certain odd ways, my shoppers resemble many professorial types I’ve known, but also, to be fair, many poets. They spend so much time in one another’s company–all the while preaching “diversity”– that they come to think their special concerns reflect the concerns of a broader society. Many are what Teddy Roosevelt described as “parlor radicals,” elitists who preach anti-elitism, and who, in the presence of those they claim to champion, are as awkward as subliterates in a bookstore. In their relentless effort to come up with new insights, they fly at such an altitude that the proverbial common man and woman can’t even see them. They’d have been well served to know Tony Calvano as I did, the one, you may remember, who said my Yale seminars sounded like “bull crap in a three-piece suit.” The clothes may have changed, but some things endure, especially at our so-called great institutions of learning.

That so many of my fellow self-styled progressives do fly at an exaggerated height suggests a lot about the coming into being of the lurid and fraught Trump phenomenon– which, God willing, we may survive.

But that is surely stuff of another, much longer story.

At dawn today, the fog still slept on the river.
The sun of a seemingly endless, Hadean heat wave
had not yet broken through, so I drove to the launch
for a paddle. Green herons, smart as sentries, patrolled
one bank. A beaver sculled beside me, blasé,
for a full forty yards, peeled branches bright in its mouth.

I thought of Emily Dickinson’s famous claim:
Several of Nature’s People
I know, and they know me
I feel for them a transport
Of Cordiality
She lulls us dull with such sentimentality,

so that as the poem concludes her chilled reaction
on coming across a snake– well, it strikes like a snake.
I tried to focus on Cordiality.
Aware of my own delusion, I willed myself
to ignore an intrepid kingbird’s pursuit of an eagle,
bully who may have succeeded in robbing her nest,

and I looked away from the cove where last summer a doe
showed floating intestines, coyotes having ripped her
just as she made her leap for salvation by water.
I stifled such things this morning, my strokes narcotic,
my breathing steady, little else coming to mind.
Back at the landing, as I walked to get my truck,

I noticed a tree frog pathetically hopping across
the stove-hot asphalt, out of its proper surroundings.
I stooped to carry the poor thing to mist-moist grass,
then suddenly saw that this was one among hundreds.
An irruption, in fact. Now what could have brought them down
from safety among the branches and leaves and bark?

If I tried to fetch my boat with the car I’d crush
countless of Emily’s “people,” no way around them.
So although I felt tired, I righteously carried my kayak
by hand that little distance and hefted it up
to the rack on my roof and secured it, bow and stern.
When I heard the unmistakable crunch of tires,

I saw what racks me tonight: four stubbled men
in a monster truck, which towed a monster boat.
Through closed windows, I heard them, rowdy with booze already.
And here I sit, hours later, old man ashamed
he did nothing to head off inconspicuous slaughter.
No, I jumped behind my wheel and sped for home,

where I write this now, feeling zero at the bone.

To begin with, let me quote a bit from something written for George Jones in the 1990s by Nashville veterans Randy Boudreaux, Sam Hogin, and Kim Williams:

I started drinking and actin’ crazy
Way back in sixty five
Mama would pray and say, he’s my baby
Lord, please keep him alive

Sister came home with two little children
Her man had left her alone
Mama knew too well the hurt she was feelin’
‘Cause daddy had been gone so long

We all did our part to add to her pain
We all broke her heart but she never complained
She loved a lot in her time
She watched love grow and die on the vine

She stood in the shadows
So others could shine
She loved a lot in her time

In due course, the song reports that Mama’s prayers have been answered: George has sobered up, his sister has “remarried to a good ol’ boy – they don’t live far from here,” and Mama has “gone on home.” So the tale concludes:
The words in our hearts
Are engraved on her stone:
She loved a lot in her time.

All I have to say in this essay – not so oddly at all, as I hope to show – has been spurred by this song, which, the last few mornings, I’ve found myself singing when I wake up, trying and of course failing to catch the late country star’s inimitable “high lonesome” intonations.

I’ll get back to such a matter, but I need to provide some back-story, which may at first seem unconnected.

For one who spent all his professional life in rather tony English departments, I’m a person whose formal literary education has been pretty spotty. Whatever my secondary school’s virtues, by and large they did not include its English teachers. These men were not “literary” in any way I would later be expected, and would pretend, to be.

One of those teachers was an affable but extremely lazy southern gentleman (Mr. M.) who assigned a lot of papers but read them with little care if he read them at all. Indeed, my clique of friends often inserted wise-guy asides into our texts to prove his lack of rigor. I recall one of my own: If you get this far, Mr. M., I’ll buy you a steak sandwich. None of us ever got found out.

I pulled my most outrageous prank in a sophomore term paper, whose subject was a much under-noticed 19th-century author named Erwin Fiske. I quoted at length from his voluminous and once-popular work, and I ended with the ardent hope that his consignment to literary oblivion might be remedied.

This proved, alas, a vain hope, but only because Mr. Fiske’s disappearance into oblivion came of his nonexistence. The author, along with all the works I cited, was a product of my own subversive imagination.

M. nonetheless rewarded me with an A and, in his final remarks, commended me for my devotion to Fiske’s resurrection. I’m sure he simply skipped from page one of my screed to the final page, got the gist, and slapped on the metaphoric gold star.

The best of my English teachers, Mr. A., to whom I do owe a very considerable debt, made no real pretense of being a belletristic type. He’d been a journalist for years, and thus owned a keen eye for the sort of filler and froth with which I liked to lace my prose (as perhaps in unguarded moments I still do).

One valuable thing Mr. A. did was to invite various members of the community into the classroom so that we students could interview them. Wisely, the teacher did not limit these guests to the allegedly distinguished among us: we were as apt to query the janitor as the bank president. We not only had to prepare our questions but also to write up articles on these sessions by the very day afterthey’d been held.

The true virtue of studying with Mr. A, then, was that he had us write and write – and write some more; and he was scrupulous and deft in his critiques of affectation. B.S. was the flavor of the day each time we wrote for Mr. M., but Mr. A. wanted lucidity and concision. He once told me he saw nothing wrong with the theme I’d given him that couldn’t be rectified by a simple procedure. “Find a stiff scrub brush,” he counseled, “use it, and let me see the results tomorrow.”

Practice made perfect. Or no, not perfect, but, thanks to A., practice gave me sufficient mastery of exposition that I placed into an advanced English course when I entered college. It was an excellent survey, taught by a professor named James Boulger, who for whatever reason did not make the tenure cut at Yale in subsequent years. Together, we considered Chaucer, Spenser, Milton, Pope, Wordsworth and Eliot in that order.

I labored for a spell to find the sophisticated critical manner (in many cases, more stylistic than substantial) of my prep school peers, but in fact I did very well in that curriculum, and to this day, I feel I know these six poets as well as I do most writers in the Anglo-American canon.

I continued to take English courses and to do honors and high honors work in them, but I had no grand design, no strategic path toward command of anglophone literary history, themes or techniques. I assumed that such a path would be laid out for me once – at the end of sophomore year – I declared as an English major.

Which, as it turns out, I did not do. At the very last minute, under the influence of a charismatic senior I admired, I elected a special divisional honors major. It was, essentially, an intellectual history program, arranged by units: I remember a fascinating one called “Vienna, 1900,” for example, in which we considered the paintings of Klimt and Schiele, the music of Mahler, the pioneering texts of Freud, the frightening Mein Kampf, and so on. We sought – rather presumptuously, in retrospect -to arrive at synthetic views of crucial moments and movements in the evolution of culture. (We were not advised, as we would rightly have been some decades later, to remember that it was western culture we examined.)

Come senior year, each of us chose an honors thesis topic. I wrote a rambling paper on the gifted, fascistical French novelist Louis-Ferdinand Céline. This was an intriguing but perhaps eccentric choice, as I see it now.

After graduation, and a one-year stint of teaching English and French in a private school, a job that felt far too taxing to pursue for a day longer than that, and, frankly, by way of ducking the new war in Viet Nam that had already killed one of my college roommates, I decided to go to graduate school.

Virtually all my interests were literary, yet once again I chose an inter-disciplinary route, returning to Yale as a Ph.D. candidate in American Studies. While I took some valuable and absorbing courses, especially in American political and religious movements, once more I began choosing English and American literature offerings to the near exclusion of others.

At the close of one fine course – Four Modern American Poets: Pound, Eliot, Stevens, and Williams – Professor Louis Martz told me, “You really ought to be an English Ph.D. That, or Comparative Literature. There’s where your passions lie.” So, having successfully petitioned the American Studies department for an M.A., I did seek a transfer, choosing the Comp Lit option.

What was this anti-concentrative instinct in me? What is it now? I can’t fully answer my own question. Nor did I then know that Comparative Literature was the chief incubator of capital-T Theory, of which, like Flannery O’Connor, I am “constitutionally innocent.”

The results have of course been predictable: even after forty-three years of teaching at rather prestigious institutions (the latter half of that time, to be sure, as a so-called teacher of so-called creative writing); even after four decades-plus of trying to catch up, at 75 there remain great gaps in my command of the English-language canon, old-style or “open.”

If you asked me to comment on eighteenth-century British literature, for example, I’d have damned little to say unless the conversation centered on Pope, with maybe a side comment or two on Dryden. Medieval lit for me is Chaucer, period. Apart from the monuments of Spenser, I am comfortable with a few poems by Wyatt, a greater number by Ben Jonson, and with the magisterial prose of The Book of Common Prayer (though I am familiar with that last for extra-academic reasons). And I do know Paradise Lost, frontwards and backwards.So much for the English Renaissance and, apart from some Herbert and Donne, the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries at large.

But what of Shakespeare, you ask? Well, in addition to my lack of education in some areas, I seem to have certain bizarre dyslexias, the greatest of which involves, precisely, the Bard’s work, apart from the Sonnets and the major tragedies.

I should say, rather, I know the major tragedies exclusive of Hamlet, whose intricacies escape me almost the minute I finish re-reading the play; sitting here just now, I couldn’t offer a crib notes version if you begged me. Apart from Hamlet himself and Ophelia, the play’s characters run together in my mind. I can’t remember, say, whether Laertes is admirable or contemptible. All I recall of Polonius is that he (I think it was he) hid behind some arras for some reason. There was a play within the play, but what was its drift? Search me. And so on.

I would come to suffer acutely from these inadequacies, or rather from my relentless effort to mask them. In the late sixties at Dartmouth, my first teaching post, for example, there was a sort of tacit daily expectation of English department personnel to spend some time in the coffee room. A few gimlet-eyed elders occupied certain seats there as surely as if they’d been assigned. The putative basis of such gatherings was camaraderie; the hidden agenda, however, was to sound out younger colleagues and to declare them worthy or otherwise. Of course, in my paranoia, I likely over-estimated this darker motive…but it was there, all right.

The whole ritual felt rather Henry Jamesian in its archness and obliquity, and its threats, as I construed them, were veiled in wit. One elder, Thomas Vance, as well read a man as I have ever met, was not only a literary polymath but also uncannily able to quote immense swatches of material by heart. He would frequently do so and then, with a twinkle in his hazel eyes, assert, “Now that’s pretty good (or bad).” If you were slow in your assent, he would sit back in his chair and muse, “Perhaps you don’t agree” – whereupon I scrambled to offer my acquiescence, lest he query me further on my delinquent taste.

In fact, Tom soon proved a dear fellow, among the very few senior associates to encourage me in my early poetic efforts, for one thing, and he shortly became a real friend. Once we had established these closer relations, I admitted to him that my memory of our early dialogue consisted principally of my saying ,“Why, no, Tom, I don’t think I have read that.”

How well I remember the dread I tasted as I mounted the stairs of Sanborn House after a morning class. It didn’t matter if my oversight of a particular session had been vibrant, such a petty triumph provided no solace; my stomach’s contractions increased with every step.

Eventually, my modest successes as a writer of poetry, first and foremost, but also of fiction, personal essays, and even one volume of criticism mollified some of my anxieties. Both as author and as founding editor of New England Review, I also knew great quantities of literary material of which those elders had been ignorant – particularly poetry after the Moderns. In many cases, they excused their unawareness by mocking the work of most living writers as trivial, unless, that is, they happened to be British; but I took some small satisfaction in sensing their embarrassment, though of course it must have been mild, compared to what mine had been at its severest.

Let me go back to that corny song from which I quoted at the outset.

Wait a moment. Did I just call it corny? This goes to show that, despite what I will be claiming henceforth, I harbor at least a touch of the old gut-clenching fear: I am not smart or sophisticated enough. That is, my choice of that very adjective shows how conditioned I became over time either to hiding certain enthusiasms that leaped to mind or to ironizing them. I had after all been exposed for quite a long while to the edicts of trained excellence.

My purpose in composing these thoughts is to purge such acquired behavior as completely as I can.

Now I know that “She Loved a Lot in Her Time,” George Jones’s tribute to his mother Clara, is not great poetry, necessarily, that its strong hold on my heart and soul derives primarily from the late singer’s exquisite capacity to vocalize emotion. (Someone once said that Jones could sing the phone book and make a grown man cry.) But by God, that hold on heart and soul is strong, and I mean to stop apologizing for it.

No more masks, say I, stealing the title of Ellen Bass’s and Florence Howe’s brilliant feminist anthology of the seventies.

As I look back on where I was as a mere kid, on what happened, and on where I am at this very long-deferred moment, certain heroes shine in memory. Richard Hugo, a masterful poet whose reputation, unlike Erwin Fiske’s, is now in what I hope to be temporary eclipse, proved a wonderful mentor when I decided that my ambitions were more poetic than scholarly. A lot more.

I once sent Dick a poem, along with a note in which I worried lest it be, precisely, corny. He had some criticisms, needless to say. I do not remember what they were. What I do remember is the last sentence of his reply: “If you aren’t risking corn, well, you’re not even in the ball game.”

I likewise recall something the fabulous Maxine Kumin said in the middle seventies after a Bread Loaf lecture that had confused us both. The talk was delivered by what I suppose was a “post-modern” poet ahead of his time. Irony, verging on nihilism from my perspective, was at its core; that much we did understand. Maxine sighed, and told me that, for her money anyhow, “Poetry is strong feeling presented in the best language a person can find to render it. Period.”
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Reductive? Well yes, as she well knew. But that simplistic notion of a poem (or, in the case in point, a song) comes much closer to what I am looking for in life and art than does supercilious cool.

Both Hugo and Kumin helped set me on the path I have pursued as a poet myself, and as I’ve aged, that path has been widened by predilections I’ve had all along but have been hesitant to acknowledge, much less to exhibit.

Truth is, I know now, as I did from the start of my idiosyncratic academic career, all manner of things that those donnish elder academics had no idea of, including an all but endless range of American vernacular music, from the bluegrass tradition originating with Bill Monroe, to Hank Williams, Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson -on and on. I’m likewise deeply attuned to the twelve-bar triumphs of the great Delta bluesmen and their scions in r&b and Motown and soul. I’m quite conversant with the blues-derived music of great American jazz artists too, especially masters from the late bop era of Monk, Mingus, Rollins, Roach, Davis, and the glorious rest.

At 75, it’s about time to get unabashed about such knowledge, and to worry a lot less about my abiding ignorance of certain other creative efforts. No need to rehearse the dissimulation I practiced on my high school music teacher, say, a wonderful instructor at that, but one contemptuous of anything other than what he described as “true music.” Quite daringly by community standards, for example, he introduced me to Schoenberg, Webern, and Berg, and I made a show of pledging allegiance, even if in all truth their serial music struck me – and still does -as simply unpleasant, especially compared, for example, to the lyrical and gut-wrenching splendors of Bobby Bland, Etta James, or Ray Charles. I’d as soon have shown my private diaries to Mr. C. as I would that side of my tastes. But things have changed. Better late than never.

Whatever has become of me as man and author, it took all the omissions and inclusions, deceptions and candors, steps and missteps, first and second thoughts that I have dimly presented here to make me that man and author. Having no choice this late in the game, I’m trying to celebrate the whole bewildering process, to acknowledge that in all my pursuits, Sam Cook has been more important to me, for instance, than Samuel Johnson – and to feel no shame whatever in saying so.

So now, as the saw goes, I seem set in my ways. I’m aware that there can be real costs involved. There are too many historical instances of old men and women who have not “gotten it,” and taken bumptious pride in missing the point: there are too many of them for me to believe myself immune from such blindness. My own children’s lips lift into sneers when I admit, for instance, that what the rappers produce is neither music nor poetry to my ear, and, given that those children are if anything brighter than I am, no, I don’t have much reason to doubt I’m overlooking something. So be it.

If, to choose a more recent example, I read the poetry of the late John Ashbery (which I quite scrupulously do not do anymore), and if I conclude that there must be some clever inside joke going on there that gets by me but is clear to the intelligentsia; if I find the man’s poems to be so much gibberish, find them (along with other factors like that unreadable critical theory that has overtaken what used to be literature departments) inscrutable – if I find his opus to have spawned a mode of verse whose principal objective appears to be opacity: well, I am done with feeling stupid on that account.

Nolo contendere.

All I can say is, I don’t care what the smart people think anymore.

There, that wasn’t so hard, was it?

Hey, I feel pretty good.