Thursday, March 05, 2009

Let's Talk Poetry: Part One

'Round about 1994 or so, I sat in a crowd of students and seekers at the feet of Allen Ginsberg. This was at a gathering on the southern shores of Maryland and my first and only time seeing Ginsberg in the flesh. He had already had his stroke, and so his body was a bit frail and his eyes and mouth made a strange and wonderful sight as he rocked back and forth singing the verses of 'O, Father Death' along to the accompaniment of his little squeeze-box.

I had been an early reader. By kindergarten, I was on an eighth grade level. I remember the kindergarten teachers taking me up to the eighth grade classrooms like I was some sort of strange alien to be marveled at. Even then, I remember the whole thing being kinda creepy.

I remember reading 'The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn' at age six or seven. I read most of it aloud to my grandfather who had given me a copy and said, "I've never read this. Why don't you read it to me?" I consider him to have been a great reading teacher. He also taught me how to master the Rubic's Cube and how to use the dampers on the piano (though I couldn't reach them).

I read a lot throughout my school days. But not a whole lot of what I was supposed to. In lieu of doing homework, I'd hang out at the library and read as much as I could -- and not by particular author or genre, but by publisher. I quickly got hooked to all the great novels published by Vintage Classics as well as the noir mysteries put out by their mystery subsidiary a bit later on. One day, I think in eighth grade, I happened upon an Evergreen copy of Kerouac's 'The Subterraneans'. By the end of that day, I'd finished that book and gotten three-quarters of the way through 'On the Road'.

Which led me directly to Ginsberg.

I still remember the first time I read 'Howl'. I couldn't help but read it aloud. There I was, thirteen or fourteen years old, jumping around my room blurting out phrases like:

yacketayakking screaming vomiting whispering facts
and memories and anecdotes and eyeball kicks
and shocks of hospitals and jails and wars,
whole intellects disgorged in total recall for seven days
and nights with brilliant eyes, meat for the
Synagogue cast on the pavement...


I was a Catholic-school boy from Baltimore. My mother was a florist. So much as I'd remembered, with the exception of a trip to Disney World, I'd never traveled farther in the universe than Philadelphia. What in the heck were 'eyeball kicks'?!?

But it made sense to me. It made sense because more than anything else I was a READER. Reading was the one constant in my life. It was the one thing that really lifted me out of the shell of a rather mundane existence. And now I had discovered poetry. And I was hooked.

...to be continued...

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