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June 6, 2010 / johnoliversimon

Where I’m Coming From 1

I did kayak this Sunday morning, the Oakland Estuary very still under fog, women scullers going by, cormorants drying their wings out, Coast Guard guys on deck of their cutters, long wispy green cities of algae floating atop a sea-anchor of drowned fronds, tugboat Katha C. bearded with green moss nodding, back home by 8:40 am.

I should say where I’m coming from. Heroes and ancestors. This will take more than one session, so keep breathing.

My first hero of poetry, at 15, was Archibald MacLeish. “A poem should be equal to/ not true.” I have a selected MacLeish that belonged to my stepfather John Adler and somehow got swollen with rain, maybe during a Putney School rainy Long Fall Weekend, clambering shelter to shelter south of Mount Mansfield. I was enraptured with his suggestive silences.

I handed my sheaf of poems to my first English teacher at Putney, Jeff Campbell, an African-American former coal mine organizer, conscientious objector and Unitarian minister. I sat vulnerable as Jeff puffed on his pipe while his brightly damseled fish darted yon and hither in their tanks, finally turned to me. “that’s poetry,” he said.

Once I told Jeff — I blush with shame — that it would really sad to give your life to poetry and end up as a minor poet — like Tennyson! ”My mariners, you and I are old./ Old age hath yet his honor and his toil.“ My stepfather, John Adler, knew Tennyson’s Ulysses by heart.

At Swarthmore my teacher was Daniel Hoffman, a sweet man and a fine poet but a very conservative cacique of what we came to call academic poetry. The visiting poets were Nemerov, Merwin, Kinnell, Louise Bogan. We were taught to sneer at uncouth Ginsberg and Corso. I fumbled for four years, had a grand time in other ways, ran cross-country, was catastrophically involved with several very nice women, didn’t write any good poems. I was a Rhodes Scholarship finalist but got laryngistis for the only time in my life the weekend of the final interview with Milton Eisenhower.

I got out to Berkeley, California, my ancestral Bay Area — my mother’s family got here by 1850 — in time to sit in around the police car with Jack Weinberg in the back seat on Sproul Plaza, in September 1964. The Free Speech Movement. Soon I met local Bay Area poets, beginning with Facino aka Doug Palmer who wrote street poetry with a sign saying I WILL WRITE YOU/ A POEM FOR ANYTHING/A DOLLAR/A SMILE. Through Doug, I met other young poets, Sam Thomas, Lowell Levant, Eileen Adams, who had all met in Gary Snyder’s poetry class at Cal. Gary was my new hero, I read everything he wrote. I read the Allen anthology and the Kelly/Leary Controversy of Poets (my favorite was Joel Oppenheimer).

As I walked up Telegraph Avenue toward the monumental July 1965 Berkeley Poetry Festival to which I was mostly shyly and ignorantly indifferent, I saw a copy of Jack Spicer’s THE HOLY GRAIL in the window of Cody’s Bookstore, now alas defunct. I told myself if this guy Spicer is any good I’ll buy his book on my way home. Spicer read all seven books of the GRAIL with their seven poems each. His book was gone when I hurried down the Ave and I didn’t see another copy for years. The next copy I saw, Julia Newman of the Tenth Muse let me type up to publish a Pirate Edition.

At the Muir Beach party to welcome Snyder home from Japan in March 1969, I carried pregnant Alta over the steep trails. An older guy, vaguely louche, called me over with the GRAIL in his hand, which proclaimed “Anyone Caught Selling this Book Will Be Drawn & Quartered.””Did you produce this?” He questioned me sharply, then sent me on my way. Apparently my vehement idealistic innocence satisfied Donald Allen.

Through Doug Palmer, I met Lew Welch. As we climbed the boulder at Muir Beach, Lew told me, “this is Wobbly Rock.” I fombled, “I’m a Wobbly myself” for the underground printshop in the Boneyard at Fifth and Delaware where Richard Krech and I produced smeared chapbooks and flyers to the revolution. I have written a failed sci-fi novel in which Lew Welch doesn’t actually manage to kill himself but ends up crossing into another timestream.

Basta por hoy.

Lew Welch at an age I've long passed


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