A Life-changing Poem

Upon being asked what was my favorite poem, I wrote this:

My relationship with poetry has been fraught and complicated. In high school, William Butler Yeats was an awakening for me. My method of approaching poetry is piecemeal, a jittery chicken pecking a bit here and a bit there. I’ve never read a poetry book from front to back. I never can spend a long time reading poem after poem.

But I can catch one poem, seize on something that resonates, and stick with it for a while. I used to think the idea of poetry was to extract the “message.” After I turned in an essay on some poem in Ann Arbor, my English professor (actually a t.a.) made a note that said, “only Western Union sends messages.” That stuck with me all these years. It’s not about deducing the code, uncovering the secret idea the author wants to convey. If there is a message, why not just say the message? No. The poem is beautiful because the poetry of it, in all its elaborate musical resonance, does something that transcends the task of language to simply name things.

But for my so-called favorite poem, or at least one that first blew my mind, I guess I would choose “Ode to Severn Darden” by Paul Carroll. Carroll was a minor Chicago poet, I guess you could call him a beat generation guy. I did not even know who Darden was (figured out later he was a Chicago actor and comedian, one of the founders of The Second City).

But the story is what matters. I was an alienated high school rebel, hanging out with a group of precocious and pretentious boys (mostly) and yearning to get out of the suburbs. Among other things, we would drive to Chicago and haunt the used book stores, record stores, and coffee shops of Wells Street and Clark Street on the north side. This was our Bohemia and indeed there were even Bohemian restaurants like the Red Star Inn. In an earlier era, this was working class immigrant territory; the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre had occurred around here in 1929. Now it was frequented by beatniks, jazz artists, proto-hippies, and outsider intellectuals.

Wandering into a small performance space/coffee shop one evening in the spring of 1964, we arrived just in time for the mic to be set up for local poets to declaim. After a few guys (it was all guys) who I couldn’t understand, up stepped this guy Paul Carroll, a rumpled, sleepy-looking guy. He started reading and then let the page from a long paper roll unfurl and fall to the floor — it had to be five feet long. I was amazed. He went on and on, passionately, humorously, endlessly for maybe an hour. I have always remembered this moment. A few years ago, incredibly, I found a book by him, with the Severn Darden poem, at Moe’s bookstore — so I was finally able to remember / recreate the wonder of it.

It was one of those meandering observational poems, starting each few lines with “The weather today is. . . .” and then it would wander off into all kinds of observations about the world, some big and weighty, others just the everyday. Here is the beginning:

Ode to Severn Darden about Angels, the Common Cold, Nuclear Disarmament, and Popcorn

by Paul Carroll

The weather today, Severn, is as blue as the cerulean blue of the lovely artificial blue of the plastic tulips in the window of the Woolworths 5 & 10

It is like the mackerel which you bought at Burhop’s and swaddled in a newspaper and forgot beneath the couch of sorrows in the office of your psychoanalyst

Or like the odor of a 1937 Shirley Temple doll

Or like a Goodyear tire about to have a flat

Or like the fact that everybody is a poem

The weather today, Severn, is like all the girdles of the spinsters of Seattle

Or like a calendar that’s caught a cold

Or like the fact that Calvin Coolidge was not a homosexual

Or like the lilacs of insanity

Or an income tax return to be figured out and filled in the few hours that remain before midnight on April the 15th

The weather today, Severn, is like a tiny tornado of flies glittering

green and gold above a pyramid of horse manure on a bridle-

path that snakes about in Lincoln Park

Or like the tux of Daddy Warbucks finally being cleaned and pressed

Or like the Eden’s Expressway of Anxiety

The weather today, Severn, is like sitting on the terrace of a café in Corfu and wondering what to tip the waiter

Or like an old lady sucking coffee through a straw

Or like cracking the top of a soft-boiled egg

Or the fact that a laundry truck backfires on a boulevard in Baltimore

Or like a goatbell clinking in the breeze in a suburb south of Palestine

And it continued on the way, noticing everything, making meaning of the multitudinous physical environment around him, turning that world into a song. The poem changed me, made the world more abundant, more resonant, than all the enervating suburban mediocracy I was so sick of. And it made me realize that poetry could be free, could be delightful and spontaneous and adventurous. His recitation went on and on, and I didn’t want it to ever stop.

In my senior year of high school, I wrote a poem that was shamelessly derivative, starting each stanza with “the weather today” — and it got in the literary magazine. That’s a minor footnote. But I’ll never forget the moment, the poetic connection, that happened on that little beatnik stage.

As I think about how a poem means, I like what Jane Hirshfield says, “Great poetry is not a donkey carrying obedient sentiment in pretty forms,” but rather “it is a bird of prey tearing open whatever needs to be opened.”

And Langston Hughes invents an entire vocabulary to underline the potential power of poetry to illuminate, to educate, to nourish the human core:

Poetry possesses the power of worriation. Poetry can both delight and disturb. It can interest folks. It can upset folks. Poetry can convey both pleasure and pain. And poetry can make people think. If poetry makes people think, it might make them think constructive thoughts, even thoughts about how to change themselves, their town and their state for the better. Some poems, like many of the great verses in the Bible, can make people think about changing all mankind, even the whole world. Poems, like prayers, possess power.

That Paul Carroll moment possessed all kinds of power. So yes, art is not all castles in the sky or pleasant decorations, and poetry is not always sweet and succulent. Poetry plays havoc, art troubles the mind and shakes up the taken-for-granted, and artists are in the business of disruption, opening our social imaginations and insisting that there’s always more to know, new pathways to discover, fresh fuses to be lit. Always.

The great Chicago poet, Gwendolyn Brooks, once asked, “Does man love Art?” Her response: “Man visits art but cringes. Art hurts. Art urges voyages.”

“It may be difficult,” William Carlos Williams wrote, “to get the news from poems, yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is to be found there.”

In my life, I have gotten attached to certain poets, or at least some of their poems, over the years. Yeats, yes, and of course Pablo Neruda. I guess the poems I have taught in school have grown on me and become old friends. Sharon Olds is there, and Judith Ortiz Cofer (“Lesson one, I would sing”) and the T’ang Dynasty poets of China, Tu Fu the old Confucian and Li Bi the restless Taoist.

But I think that old beat poet in a tiny coffee shop in Chicago is the one who first invited me in.



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Rick Ayers

Rick Ayers is an associate professor of education at the University of San Francisco.