Spring semester 1980, I was a first-year student at Spartanburg Methodist College and the class was Public Speaking 101, taught by Steve Brannon.
At that point in my redneck life, I was mostly focused on golf (I was on the college golf team), playing pick up basketball (I carried a basketball to class often), and recreational drinking (buying shopping carts filled with beer on sale to smuggle back onto our dry campus).
But one class session changed a great deal of that, or at least pointed me in a different direction—the day Mr. Brannon introduced me and the class to e.e. cummings with “[in Just-].”
I suppose that moment and the days to follow are what many people call a religious experience, but for me, it was an awakening to the glory that is language, that is poetry.
Soon after the cummings epiphany, I was sitting in my third-floor dorm room, looking out the window. It must have been an early spring day, warm and sunny. Then, I wrote what I consider my first “real” poem—since no one had assigned it, and the poem had—as would be the case since that day until this moment—demanded I write it:
The years to follow, my life as a poet, would include many, many efforts to become other poets—always, always cummings, James Dickey, Emily Dickinson.
Poetry for me is the inextricable blurring of reading and writing poetry. Poetry is the verbal gymnastics of standing on the shoulders of giants.
It is no small thing, I think, to be a reader (a lover of books), a teacher, and a writer. I make no claim that this combination is better than other combinations, but I do argue the combination matters (in the same way being a teacher and a parent inform each other).
My teacher-who-is-a-writer/poet Self, then, existed in a constant state of anxiety over the formal schooling demand to dissect literature (at the bidding of the New Criticism gods) as that contradicted my love of literature and my poet-Self who wanted readers simply to enjoy having read a poem.
One of my soul cleansing moments was to share with students Archibald MacLeish’s “Ars Poetica” to linger at those last lines: “A poem should not mean/But be.”
It is National Poetry Month 2015, may I invite you to read?
“There’s time to teach”: Entering the world of literature through the music of R.E.M.