Saturday, November 12, 2005

The poetic look

The poetic look

When I’m in my car or other places where I can’t write a thought down I get a constant stream of good ideas. Most of the ideas are only good for a paragraph or so but some of them are really food for thought and some are just fleeting fragments that only leave me the feeling that I may have had a good idea … but the idea itself is far, far gone. Some ideas start out as a germ of a thought, embed themselves under a particularly sensitive piece of very thin skin and gnaw at you.

I had one of those thoughts driving home from the bagel-bards meeting last Saturday morning. Someone said to me that I didn’t look like a poet. It took an hour to realize that I didn’t know if I should take offence or not. The idea had embedded itself. That thought struck me as odd. What does a poet look like? I remember hanging out at the Grolier book shop when I was in my late teens and early twenties (in the early 1970’s), there were lots of people who made sure they looked like poets, complete with a poetic swagger, tortured souls all.

A “poet” of the middle Grolier period (1968-1975) wore black, black pants, a black turtleneck, a black beret and posed, whenever possible, in public, as if struck that very moment by an arrow from the muses, a black thought. Somehow poetry turned very dark in the 1970’s. That was, I suppose, a natural evolution from the beat stuff I loved, which was both profound and real. The 1970’s stuff was dark for the sake of being dark. I used to think the “poets” that hung around the Grolier in the 1970’s confused darkness with profundity.

I arrived in Cambridge Massachusetts in September 1970 with everything I owned strapped on the back of a Yamaha 250 motorcycle. I was 18 years old, an orphan, unemployed and without a home. I should have been in college but only Oberlin College way out in noplace would take me but only if I could find $3,000. I couldn’t. Scholarships, if you can call them that, went to jocks. So I rode my bike to Boston where I thought there might be a literary life. I found the Grolier before I found a place to live.

If you were an unknown 18 year old in a place like the Grolier Bookshop in 1970 you would have been made to feel if not completely unwelcome, then certainly way out of place. There were the real poets posing and want-to-be thought of as poets posing. Robert Bly would routinely make a grand entrance with his multi-colored poncho (and for weeks ponchos were in) then Robert Creeley would arrive with a pack of fawning grad students plucked from the sanctified halls of Harvard. The ever-present Else Dorfman would be photographing the scene. You were in if she made a point of shooting you.

I was out and so would have been Gordon Carnie, except that the crusty old man owned the Grolier.  Most of the fawning and posing went on about the grand old man of letters without his acknowledgement or so much as a nod to anyone but his select few. I couldn’t afford to buy books so I, like a lot of other people, treated the Grolier like a library. I could sit in a corner for hours, so long as there wasn’t a reception or some other event that filled the place, and read to my hearts content.

Every few weeks I’d buy a chapbook or some other cheap item to salve my conscience, but I honestly don’t think Gordon cared one way or the other if he ever sold a book. If Gordon never noticed me sitting in the corner reading most afternoons he eventually noticed my habit of buying older poets. I think the first thing he said to me was that he liked my taste and that he didn’t like any poets after e. e. cummings. A few days later we had a long chat. It turns out that he used to summer about a mile or so from my mothers house in Nova Scotia and he knew all the neighbors and characters of Poplar Hill. That started a friendship that lasted until his death a few years later.

Once I counted Gordon as a friend I made it a point of saying hello when I walked in and he would grunt something back that I took for a hello. The posers didn’t bother me after that. Gordon made me feel welcome even if I wasn’t a “know poet.” I came to realize that much of the posing was for my benefit. If I was a friend of Gordon’s then I was in the inner-circle.

How did that happen? How did he do that?

Even Elsa Dorfman has a picture of me someplace that used to hang way up on the upper right side as you walk into the Grolier. When Louisa Solano bought the Grolier after Gordon died she took down all the photos and replaced them with even higher bookracks. I can’t blame her but it’s not been the same since.

What happened? I’m not sure.

I didn’t like the academic poets, the “Yale younger poets,” that hung around the Grolier and neither did Gordon. He told me to visit the Stone Soup poets run by Jack Powers. I did and have visited that venue off and on ever since. I dropped out of the Grolier scene and indeed haven’t been inside the store in a decade. I dropped out of the poetry scene altogether for almost 10 years to raise a family and earn a living.

So what does a poet look like? What was meant by “not looking like a poet?”

The answer was something like … “well poets are … thinkers, you know deep … profound ….” Apparently a poet does not look fat, middle aged, reasonably well dressed (although I’m wearing a ripped, hooded sweatshirt and sneakers today) and is not subject many deep thoughts … at least not in public. So I guess I’ll have to stop keeping my thoughts to myself.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Gordon always claimed that he had never read a poem since Thomas Hardy wrote his last. Jim Tate whom Gordon adored was a Yale Younger Poet; Conrad Aiken his closest friend taught at Harvard; Robert Bly, Frank O'Hara, John Ashbery, Adrienne Rich, etc. were all from the academic branch. Sweeping descriptions never fit Gordon; he was the man of his own moment.