Thursday, May 3, 2012

Poets, Poe, & Me

The following excerpt is from the introduction to my poetry book First Kiss.

Poets are different from other people, perhaps not always in the exotic and idealized way Shelley describes in his essay "A Defence of Poetry" but they are more sensitive than others. They respond to their lover’s voice, the flight path of finches, or social injustice, intensely, and their thoughts and feelings become poems that form a lyric or narrative journal. To suggest that we are all poets reduces a Shakespearean sonnet to the status of a golden pie crust or a perfectly crafted handbag; all three are well-made, only one is a work of art.

Poets know a sense of mystery and of what, in another time, would have been called holy and though many people share similar feelings, masking them in more acceptable secular language, their experiences are not as acute as those with poetic and intuitive natures. Serendipitous moments – “accidentally” opening a book to the exact page one intended to search for; a friend phoning, only seconds after thought of; and other more extreme paranormal events, are regarded by most people as a bit of luck but poets suspect something else is going on, something not easily defined. In the library scene in “Wings of Desire,” the exquisite film by Wim Wenders, angels wearing overcoats whisper and inspire readers. This rare inner awareness is often the deepest part of the creative process and when I experience it, I feel a peculiar combination of awe and giddiness.

In grammar school. I was one of the “slow readers” seated in the front row, as if highlighting our lack of verbal prowess would somehow improve our reading skills. I felt like I was wearing an invisible dunce cap that even unseen, my classmates knew was there. As a convalescing and bored child, I reached for a book beside my bed. I don’t remember what book, only that it was intriguing. Without the pressures of reading out loud in a classroom and the sound of my voice struggling to pronounce words that were new to me, at seven years old, I slid into the delight of reading. There were no literary journals in my home, just everyday magazines, Time for my father and Woman’s Day for my mother. Between current events and advertisements or between recipes and advertisements, in the upper right-hand corner or bottom left of some pages, poems appeared. I read them out loud, often asking my mother to help me with “the hard words.” Even when I did not understand a poem, I still liked the sound of it. I started writing my version of poems. I also rode a two-wheeler bike and played second base on my brother’s baseball team but poetry owned my heart.

I was very fond of rhymes although my writing could not come near the master teacher, Mother Goose. My early literary efforts were aborted rather abruptly by a second grade teacher who perhaps should have been wearing a very visible dunce hat. Our homework assignment was to write a poem. I was particularly proud of mine because I’d shaped it in stanzas as I’d seen done in magazines. After I read my poem, the teacher announced to me and to the class that she knew I had not written it and accused me of plagiarism, a word I did not know the meaning of, and one I could not pronounce, at least without lisping. Like a lawn gnome, I stood statue still. Unlike a gnome, I felt feverish and faint. I did not write another poem until I was in my early twenties. Sensitivity can be as large a burden as it is a literary blessing, as shown by my extreme over-reaction to a childhood incident.

Poets are like other people in their desire for recognition. With the clear exceptions of French admirers and supporters like Baudelaire, the poetry of Edgar Allan Poe was not only unrecognized by his fellow American poets, it was openly scorned by them. Emerson called Poe “the jingle man.” It is no surprise that poets can behave as shabbily as other people and what is sad is the extent of the ungraciousness of Poe’s contemporaries toward him. Perhaps, if he had received the recognition his totally original talent and poetry merited, and he had not been pulled into extreme poverty, his despair and alcoholism would not have occurred or, at least, been greatly tempered by affirmation of his writing. His life might have been very different, and the number of poems he wrote, much larger.

Like van Gogh, Poe’s genius was acknowledged after his death. Posthumous recognition of an artist’s work makes art dealers and book publishers prosper; unfortunately, it also perpetuates the myth of the starving artist – the great lie that hunger is somehow conducive to creativity. Poets, like carpenters, scientists, chefs, and all who take pride in their work, desire acknowledgement of their work and recognition for poets is achieved when their poetry is known and responded to. I live in a rural area because it is where I can afford to live. There are no charming little book stores or nearby universities with ongoing poetry readings. Perhaps without realizing the irony of her remark, the woman who organizes programs at the local library confides, “I can get people here for line dancing and knitting classes but not for literary events.”

John Adams always kept a book of poems with him and advised his son to do the same saying, “You will never be alone with a poet in your pocket.” How astounded the second president of the United States would be today to find he could carry thousands of poetry books with him, on a device smaller than a tobacco pouch. And here, also smaller than a tobacco pouch, is the title poem of my poetry book.


Teddy O’Connor, I dreamed of you last night.
You were the age you would be now
and still handsome in your quiet way.

Remember us, in our Easter Sunday best,
beside my father’s mint green Chevrolet,
holding torch-shaped ice cream cones.

Ten years later, I’m wearing a prom dress.
You are Cary Grant in a rented tux.
You broke my heart that night,
being too attentive to another.

Somewhere between the Carvels
and senior prom, probably
when we were twelve, we paused
in a Long Island woods and
sat beside each other on a fallen tree.
You surprised me with a kiss
and I fell silent as a log.

In the dream, you said you live in Delaware.
I wonder how you are now.
The fool part of me is tempted to see
how many Theodore O’Connors
live in Wilmington but if I found you,
what could I say?

Teddy O’Connor, I dreamed of you last night.


  1. But Poe became very popular in his time. Even president Lincoln memorized "The Raven." Unfortunately success often brings disdain from others.

    1. Poe's prose was respected and appreciated while he lived but most of his contemporaries who were poets, especially Emerson and Whitman, were condescending and dismissive about his poetry. Like many people, I can recite much of "The Raven," "The Bells," and "Annabel Lee" but remember little poetry of those who ridiculed Poe's work.