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Poets on the Bum

THE ENGLISH DEPARTMENT at the University of Washington was, in 1956, housed in Parrington Hall, a Victorian monster of damp stone and warped wainscoting. To me the inhabitants looked like cadavers, gnomes, and phthic damsels haunted by some early tragedy. It must be kept in mind that I had come there, rather directly, from a boyhood spent in the logging and cattle towns of northern Idaho, and that Modernism was in full, evil flower: snobbery at best and fastidious Facism at worst, challenged only by Existentialism's bleak, intellectual ardors.

My own mind was understandably something of a mess. I was parking cars at the Outrigger Club at night, one of a bawdy, cretinous crew of jockeys from the nation's most corrupt chapter of Teamsters, while by day I slipped into my sportcoat and loafers to try and convince my profs that a natively acute sensibility made up for a deep ignorance of the classics. On weekends I drank home brew with my roommates, practiced my trumpet, or rode a bus many hours in order to neck all night with a girlfriend in Spokane.

Fatigued and disoriented by this schedule, I somehow allowed a good-hearted fussbudget professor to cajole ine into attending a meeting of something called the Undergraduate English Club. Only a half-dozen students showed up. Most of them knew and voted against each other, which brought about my fluke election to the office of president.

The fussbudget announced then that for years the UEC had been largely symbolic, and she thought it was high time for us to seize a more active role for ourselves. We could, for example, sponsor a series of informal lectures on Careers for English Majors, inviting various teachers and other professionals to talk to us about the lives we might ultimately lead. She had already ascertained that we might use the department's faculty lounge, a big room on the top floor with rugs, chandeliers, and soft chairs. It would be a lively and educational experience, she just knew.

Dutifully I accepted someone's motion to launch this project, though I doubt whether the maker of the motion or the second or I had even the faintest hope that anyone would be interested. We all assumed that ultimately we would have to teach. What else did English majors do? In the meantime we had avoided the Korean War and indulged an addiction to reading. A few, like me, nursed a secret hope that the poems we hid in a notebook would someday be discovered by an influential critic and lead to fame and wealth and many beautiful people falling tragically in love with us. But only one young man a friend of mine who is still at it, by the way openly confessed this preposterous and shocking ambition, and he dropped out after a semester.

In the first three programs, as I recall, a Shakespeare professor elaborated forebodingly on the rigors of graduate study, a technical writer from Boeing proved to us that making a living with one's typewriter was possible, and a book salesman confessed that his best advice was to get a second degree in business administration.

For the fourth program nobody had any ideas. We appeared to have exhausted the possibilities for our future. In desperation I asked my favorite prof, Frank Jones, who was, among other things, a translator, if he would talk to us. No, he said, but a former student of his and another young friend were passing this way. They were poets and might give us a reading. But, I replied, our series is on careers for English majors. Well, he said, poetry is a career for these two. They are on the road just now, hitchhiking and hopping freights, reading everywhere they can, sometimes in nightclubs.

The idea was so radical it took me a couple of days to come to terms with it. I thought you wrote poetry and then died, after which your career really developed. Or at best you wrote for many decades and were luckily discovered in time to have a career as an almost-dead writer. The hottest, hip-pest poet to blow through that year had been W H. Auden, who was not technically dead, but was at least English, a mitigating circumstance.

But a young poet? Two young poets? Reading in nightclubs? Ultimately, of course, the prospect of presenting so outlandish a program (especially after the book salesman) was irresistible. We did more than the usual publicity and bruited about that an evening out of the ordinary would finish our series. We had learned from Jones that these itinerant bards had recently been in San Francisco, where there was already, according to rumor, strange business afoot jazz and tea smoking and men impersonating women and so forth. Someone in some office also had the fatal idea of sending notices to the local alumni, of which more anon.

On the day of the program I came to Jones's office to welcome the new arrivals and discuss the format for the evening. I believe I shined my shoes. Certainly I wore a tie. So it was a shock to encounter this pair. One of them, a Mister Ginsberg, looked like an undernourished deckhand. Pale, wearing spectacles thick as bottle-glass, he hunched into a peajacket even indoors. The other, a Mister Snyder, I recognized instantly from his boots, his mackinaw, and a beard several weeks long. This was surely an unemployed logger. Each of them needed a bath, and I was stunned to realize that the allusion to freight hopping had not been a joke. These poets bore a striking resemblance to young bums, despite their free-and-easy manner with Professor Jones and the ragged notebooks they carried.

Still, I assumed there was plenty of time for them to wash and borrow decent garb before the reading. Jones agreed to introduce them, so I looked forward to a diverting evening with only nominal responsibility. I was already confident that attendance for this event would set the record for the Undergraduate English Club and redeem my term of office.

Indeed the department lounge was packed and buzzing with anticipation. A mixed crowd, too. Many faculty and their wives, dressed in the rumpled sweaters and flaring skirts of that period. Strong representation, too, from the cadavers, gnomes, and phthisic damsels. Then a whole row of vigorous elderly ladies, alumnae thrilled to be especially invited to an evening of inspiring poetry. These were matrons of some substance, wearing hats and giving off potent perfumes.

I had premonitions of the ensuing eclat when the two poeticals came into our well-appointed room, still in their dungarees and boots. My voice skidded around announcing that Professor Jones would introduce his young friends; my hand shook pouring a glass of water at the lectern. These intimations of immorality were entirely trustworthy. Mister Ginsberg, after very little ado, launched into a long poem entitled, fittingly as it turned out, Howl. He spoke with a ferocity I had never heard before, dragging this roomful of perfectly nice people down Negro streets toward unspeakable acts. Or he sang, rather. A nasal tenor that honked like a saxophone and blatted like a trumpet through a wa-wa mute. Images that blazed out of heaven into the mire, and vice versa.

We must recall here that this was all before the sexual revolution. Before you could obtain Lady Chatterley's Lover without going through a disapproving librarian and a locked case. Before you could see guitarists below the waist on teevee. Before Lenny Bruce was hounded to his grave for using the commonest words in American argot.

So here in dark, dank Partington Hall the unthinkable was happening right before the eyes and ears of the nice people. The first graphic sketch of the pastimes of lonely sailors went by most of the alumnae ladies, but soon even the most dumbfounded among them grasped that they were, in fact, hearing the very words they at first could not believe they were hearing. One by one they reeled to their feet, some with kerchiefs clutched to their lips, others supporting themselves on gallant volunteer cadavers.

The rest of us, however, had been effectively nailed into our chairs. There were gasps, of course, and inadvertent moans, but absolutely none of the usual symptoms of a poetry reading coughs and shuffles, vacant eyes, and the empty, knowing smile. I don't know if anyone present sensed a historical dimension in the scene, a creaking hinge or tide-shift, but I remember thinking to myself: This is tremendous. They can say anything they want to. This is like jazz, it really is.

I also remember thinking, as Mister Snyder took over the lectern, that he had a hard act to follow. It was impossible to imagine any further extremity of outrage, perversity, or hallucination. There were deep sighs, the rapid blinking of those waking from dreams, a redistribution of weight on chair bottoms. What could be next?

This stubby man with copper whiskers and eyes squinty from too much sun exuded high spirits, something approaching hilarity just under control. He brought us out of the urban maelstrom with the solid jerk a hungover wrangler gives to a string of balky mules going over a pass. He was taking us, he said, to the mountains and rivers. And he did.

Like a big, fresh, cold wind, he carried us out of poetry, out of school, out of all the particular madnesses of our time and deep into pine trees, ice-scoured granite, and the elusive brains of birds, frogs, deer, coyotes. And also into the laconic, lewd brain of working man. I was startled, exhilarated, to hear my own home language, heretofore unacknowledged in these chambers where Prufrock prevailed. The language of the woods chokers and cruisers and sawbuck saddles was now sung proudly forth.

For he was a singer too, this unemployed lumberjack. Deeper, resonant notes, with now and then a western twang. A guitar of a voice, meant to calm and thrill alternately. Again and again he gave us poems as pure, direct, and bracing as a sip of glacier-melt. No complex ambiguities. No trace of Greece or Judea. Only glancing allusions to Basho or Buddha, the Anasazi or Salish.

At some moment, in the midst of my intoxication and delight, I was stricken by a disturbing thought. Maybe this isn't poetry at all. This is too easy. Too clear. Too much fun. ]ohn Crowe Ransom wouldn't like it. But a moment after that, I knew it was all right. This guy didn't care what we called it. He knew and we knew we liked it. We were there clapping madly, sighing out loud, behaving in fact more like a crowd at a nightclub than an audience for a poetry reading because we wanted this to go on and on. We had never heard of Mister Snyder or Mister Ginsberg, and this was surely not poetry as we had been taught to appreciate it, but who cared? We were excited and alive, becoming aware finally that the world would not be quite the same after tonight.

The cadavers had fire in their cheeks; the gnomes sat straighter and took on stature; the pale young ladies exhibited a hectic flush that looked suspiciously like desire. When the pair did their final riff, long after the scheduled terminal hour, a party seemed the natural way to continue this lively and educational experience; so almost the whole audience (minus the alumnae ladies) stampeded for Professor Jones's place.

There we sat on the floor, listened to more poems, and consumed a deal of cheap wine. Rapt, we heard Mister Ginsberg and Mister Snyder confirm our wildest, inmost fancies. Poetry was possible for everyone. All you needed was some experience sitting in a lookout tower on a mountain, standing watch as an ordinary seaman, getting high in a flat in North Beach. And then of course the hard work, the craft, and so on. But at our age we tended to hurry past this less glamorous aspect of a career in poetry, which was by now the career we all wanted to pursue, the winner over professoring or tech writing or bookseUing by a huge margin of enthusiasm. 

Not least of the advantages of this new trade, for a group of us young men, was its apparent power to blow the hatches off the libido. What yesterday were dirty words we now perceived as allusions to exquisite, tender sensations that no healthy man or woman should resist. We understood from an offhand comment or two that even college chicks (pardon the unconscious chauvinism of that era) dug these heretofore unnatural acts. We were electrified.

We observed our insouciant hobo troubadours closely, and indeed they said things we could hardly believe to a surrounding bevy of admirers. A faculty wife broke down and cried over Mister Ginsberg's aloof, Byronic manner; a longhaired blonde sat so close to Mister Snyder that he was in danger of inhaling her. Flushed with drink, ties askew, some of our professors seemed to have forgotten the dead poets and sat deferentially at the feet of these young interlopers, just as we did.

Certain japes and anecdotes from still later in the evening do come back to me, but in the twilight of my middle years I have learned a measure of tact. Mister Ginsberg and Mister Snyder are distinguished men of letters now, approaching that antechamber of immortal fame, the almost-dead poets. Collected works are out, occasional professorships undertaken, honorary titles and royalty checks in the daily mail. No need, then, to recall the unruly and irrelevant; that is the material of second and third biographies.

I must note, however, our farewell in Professor Jones's driveway at three in the morning. Young, drunk, and maudlin, I got one foot into the last car leaving and then said that 1 wished oh how I wished that I could just drop out of school and go on the road too. Come ahead, Mister Ginsberg promptly replied. Travel with us. Mister Snyder shrugged. Up to me.

One foot out, one foot in, I hesitated. Memory plays a trick here, and my impression that this moment went on immeasurably and is still going on, still presenting me with some terrific challenge is surely inaccurate. I must have mumbled my reasons only a semester away from graduation, no money except from the Outrigger Club and fallen into the back seat in a matter of seconds. But I have never been sure that I fell the right way, and that uncertainty has been useful, over the ensuing thirty-odd years, in driving me to take other chances, risk other kinds of foolishness, consider the mad alternative as really possible.

What I did learn for sure that night was simply this: The purpose of poetry is to take over a life and make it generate incandescent language, which moves then to awaken a glow in other lives, to rouse in them feelings so deep and daring that no return to ignorant sleep is possible. This night, in the faculty lounge in Farrington Hall in 1956,1 witnessed for the first time this chanting of flesh into fire. I have learned since that it is just as these two young hoboes claimed: Anyone can do it, even the dead.