Monday, 2 April 2012

Poetry Magazine Centennial

We future-obsessed Americans have a hard time paying attention to our usable pasts. An encouraging exception to this mindlessness is “Poetry Magazine”'s yearlong celebration of its founding in Chicago in 1912. Courtesy of a 200 million dollar grant from the heiress of an Indianapolis drug fortune, this centennial is aspiring to a nationwide reach. (Full particulars at its website.)

As it happens, there’s a strong Philly angle to the story. Ezra Pound’s mother couldn’t stand the cultural vacantness of Hailey, Idaho Territory so she took her 18 month old baby to Jenkintown. His urge to be a poet bloomed early in the Quaker run “dame schools” he attended. His first published poem was a limerick praising the populist politician William Cullen Bryan:

“There was a young man from the West/He did what he could for what he thought was the best,” Jenkintown Times Chronicle, 1896. He was eleven! With a lot of room to improve.

He entered Penn at 15, perfecting bit by bit, his idiosyncratic style. He was described as “clever, independent minded, conceited, and unpopular.” Except to one other Penn oddball, Hilda Doolittle, daughter of an astronomy professor, who fell for his odd line, and would eventually be dubbed H.D. the Imagist—after she followed him to London where she refused his offer of marriage (her father was, understandingly, skeptical.) Ezra blew his Penn dissertation on the plays of Lope de Vega. The stiff old school English chair, Felix K. Schelling, didn’t dig his class antics and cancelled his fellowship.

Meanwhile William Carlos Williams had entered Penn’s Med School with a friendly split personality,half doctor, half poet. He and Ezra plotted the victory of Modernism together. Harriet Monroe would set up shop in Chicago, and H.D. and Ezra would send her the poems they discovered.

Please get involved in Poetry’s Centennial. The provincialism you loose, you’ll never miss. And Poetry will become a structural part of your consciousness. And be sure to celebrate, not for heaven’s sake pontificate.

My life has never been the same—after celebrating my two friends, Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. The first was a lucky fluke. I was driving my girl back from celebrating her birthday at Cape May on Walt’s birthday, May 31. I was teasing her for having a birthday so close to Walt’s when she asked me what his mausoleum in Harleigh Cemetery was like. I had been in Philly for almost twenty years and I’d never once visited his tomb. Damn! I made a blind turn off the Walt Whitman bridge to head straight to Harleigh.

The site was a horror. The 1891 construction was disintegrating. I wondered later if Walt’s extemporaneous performances (he was no longer a great creative poet!) discombobbled the masons whose work was now falling apart. Another painful datum: It was 1973, the centennial of the stroke he suffered in D.C. that brought him to his brother George Washington Whitman’s side in Camden.

Luckily, the National Council of Teacher’s of English was holding its annual convention in Philly over Thanksgiving. (It’s what we Am Lits call a “remarkable providence”!) I wrote the Executive Committee and asked them if I could walk the aisles with billboards saying on one side “SAVE WALT’S VAULT” and on the other “A BUCK FOR THE BARD’S BONES”. Sniffily they said YES if I dropped the meretricious rhetoric.

Responding Whitmanlike, I still used my quirky injunctions and ended up with over a $1000, if you added Buckminster Fuller’s serendipitous last minute $100 check. (I thanked him for a hundred bucks for the Bard’s Bones.) The left over funds, after the mausoleum was repaired, helped finance a “Wake Up To Whitman” 1974 calendar for all the Beaver College faculty and student body.

Duly noted on that calendar was the date for Grave Yard Party at Harleigh (May 31) at which local poets read their odes to Walt and drank American wine (no fancy French stuff at this U.S.Party). Alas, I must report one failure: As a tribute to Walt’s poem “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed” (a poem on Lincoln’s assassination), we planted a lilac bush, and “blessed” it with a topping off of the wine.) The wine killed the foundling bush.

Better luck with Beaver College music chairman Dr. Bill Fabrizio’s composition “Far Luckier”, an allusion to Walt’s poem about Death being far luckier than Life because everyone spent an eternity as leaves of grass. This ceremony was broadcast live over NPR’s “All Things Considered.”

As I had decided that after my mother’s death I would quit classroom teaching and become a global alternative journalist, I pondered on how to celebrate Emily Dickinson creatively. Back I went to my pal Fabrizio. We decided to hold a Birthday Ball in the Castle on Emily’s 150th birthday, December 10, 1980. Bill even booked Jimmy Dorsey’s famous singer, Bob Eberle, to give class to our hoopla. (We would need it inasmuch as I would make my first (and most probably last!)appearance as a jazz singer.

We created a contest for the best couple dressed as lines from a Dickinson poem: First prize was a free, all expenses weekend in Emily’s Amherst on Walt’s birthday. (Cool!) Second prize, such a weekend in Walt’s Camden on Emily’s birthday. (Not so cool! In fact Too Cold.) Dean Margaret LeClair agreed to be the head of a jury of nine (the muses number) to assign the prizes. A lesbian couple won first prize as “buccaneers of buzz” (Emily’s image of bees stealing pollen to make their honey!) I was proud to make the M.C. of the whole shebang the Brooklyn poet Norman Rosten who was the first writer to get Emily on Broadway. And Bless the Beaver pairs who passed the night reading aloud, all 1787 ED poems.

And I drove my buddy Norman back to Brooklyn—with a pitstop in Princeton so we could personally praise Thomas H. Johnson, the Princeton prof who edited ED's corpus. Penn’s Bob Spiller was there to crown the scholar.

“Celebrate” stems from the Latin verb to “frequent”. America needs more anything else citizens who frequent their great writers and thinkers. Not their boxers, or movie stars, or millionaires. Our writers. Not because it’s better for them, though that’s a plus. But good for US! Not solemnly. Happily. Our literary past is moistly buried ! Dig it up. And dig it. They’ll be so happy you have. Think of 11 year old Ezra, In Jenkintown! And London. And H.D. In Chicago. It’s our past. Go for it.

Another version of this piece is published at Broad Street Review.

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