T.S. Eliot

The Baddest Girl Around

Maybe Canadian-born rapper Drake has never read Rainer Maria Rilke’s advice in Letters to a Young Poet: “Do not write love poems; avoid at first those forms that are too facile and commonplace: they are the most difficult, for it takes a great, fully matured power to give something of your own where good and even excellent traditions come to mind in quantity.” Or maybe he has chosen to ignore it.

Drake was ranked #2 on MTV's Hottest MCs In The Game VII list in 2012.

In “Shut It Down” Drake writes, “Baby, you finer than your fine cousin / And your cousin fine, but she don’t have my heart beating in double time” and later asks, “Why do I feel like I found the One?” Drake was 24 when he composed these lines. He was by any definition, even T.S. Eliot’s in “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” a young poet. Yet his rhymes flow so easily.

In fact, according to a report at SOHH.com, Drake did not write “Shut It Down” with pen and paper, but rather composed it orally to lay over a beat in a studio. He created it out of the ether, as pure music, perhaps without Rilke or Eliot in mind at all.

Whatever their creator’s process or posture towards German Romanticism and Modernist criticism, the lyrics in “Shut It Down” are, arguably, rather dope. But are they among the dopest? A quick survey of love poetry written by male poets will help us find the answer. Let us journey backwards in time, beginning with Rilke himself, whose themes of blindness, shadow, nature, and the soul position him poorly to address a young woman in a nightclub:

It was a girl, really—there is a double joy

of poetry and music that she came from—

and I could see her glowing through her spring clothes:

he writes in “Sonnets to Orpheus.” But then: “she made a place to sleep inside my ear.” Should the young woman in the club decide to give this sonnet sequence a chance, she would discover that she has “no desire to be awake”; “When will she die?” asks the poet. “Do not be afraid to suffer,” he later writes. Scratch.

French poet Charles Baudelaire wrote poems often in prose and loaded with symbols, among them one particularly memorable love poem that begins, “Long, long let me breathe the fragrance of your hair. Let me plunge my face into it like a thirsty man into the water of a spring, and let me wave it like a scented handkerchief to stir memories in the air. If you only knew all that I see! all that I feel! all that I hear in your hair!”

The poem goes on and on about hair. By love-poetry standards, Baudelaire gets carried away and kills his subject. He’s enthralled, it would seem, not with the woman herself but with the memories and sentiments she evokes. By symbolizing her he objectifies her. The young woman in the club has heard this before and desires not to hear it again.

A century earlier Alexander Pope sat at his desk in a small, dingy attic room, “gnaw’d his pen, then dash’d it on the ground, / Sinking from thought to thought” (his own self-caricature from “The Dunciad”) while writing mostly satiric verse and, just occasionally, a love poem. “On a Certain Lady at Court” begins with a backhanded compliment:

I know a thing that ‘s most uncommon;

(Envy, be silent and attend!)

I know a reasonable Woman,

Handsome and witty, yet a Friend.

Not warped by Passion, awed by Rumour…

Then concludes by saying that this woman has one “fault”: “When all the World conspires to praise her, / The Woman’s deaf, and does not hear.” This form of compliment, though it presages Rodgers’ and Hart’s popular “The Lady Is A Tramp,” is just too witty for the woman in the club. Not to say she doesn’t get the wit, but to say it’s just too witty, too circumlocutory, whereas Drake gets straight to business: “These girls ain’t got nothin’ on you. / Say, baby, I had to mention / that if you were a star you’d be the one I’m searching for.”

Also in the 18th century, we find Robert Burns who lit up Scotland with not only sexy verse (sometimes downright pornographic) but scandal, and ultimately collapsed under the weight of his own continually multiplying passions. He gave the world

Oh my Luve’s like a red, red rose

That’s newly sprung in June.

Oh my Luve’s like the melodie

That’s sweetly played in tune.

He promises to love her “Till a’ the seas gang dry … and the rocks melt wi’ the sun” and finally refers to her as “my only Luve,” but Burns loved love itself more than the woman to whom this poem is addressed, as Robert Crawford’s astute biography, The Bard, amply illustrates, should the woman in the club take time to check it out from a library and read it. Burns had numerous short affairs throughout his life, frequently paid for sex, and died in despair. A true gangsta.

A century before Pope and Burns (now we’re in the 1600s), the Metaphysical and Cavalier schools produced poems even more wit-driven—clever constructions that, like origami boats, are fun to unfold. They’re also provocative and extremely sexual. John Donne’s “The Flea,” which includes in its first stanza the memorable line “It suck’d me first, and now sucks thee” (hey now!) proceeds to craft an argument that the woman addressed should also be the woman undressed—an argument based in clever logic.

While many readers revel in Donne’s wit, and cherish his later religious verse, too, there’s no way his love poetry is not overconceived for today’s audience. The woman in the club won’t entertain a contrived, if humorous, argument. She’s busy laughing with her girlfriends and checking her iPhone.

So what about Robert Herrick? Same century, a bit more direct, he liked to describe clothes and appearances, attempted to define beauty, but wrote nary a poem directed toward a singular maid. There’s no sense of uniqueness of one person, one beloved, in either Herrick or Donne. They were mesmerized by their own inescapable logic.

It’s tempting to spend some time discussing the medieval Italian poets Petrarch and Dante who, a few centuries earlier, had written of their loves Laura and Beatrice. But these were women who served as muses only. The great Italian poets’ love, about which they sang and sang and sang, was unrequited. So they, like others mentioned here, wrote about love only, love’s effect, love’s halo, its glow—not about a singular other, a beloved, the way Drake does.

Get dressed, says Drake, speaking with authority to the woman he desires:

Put those [cussword] heels on and work it girl.

Let that mirror show you what you’re doing.

Put that [cussword] dress on and work it kind of vicious

like somebody’s taking pictures.

Shut it down, down, down,

you would shut it down, down, down

you be the baddest girl around, round, round,

and they notice, they notice.

You would shut it down, down, down.

Shut what down, though? This complex idiom connotes both taking complete control—as of a social situation, perhaps in a club or at a party—and giving complete satisfaction in a physical sense. Drake is saying that this amazing woman, should she get dressed and go out on the town, would not only silence her would-be competition (to borrow a rap-world idiom, “all them other hoes”) but deliver, to her mate, in this case Drake himself, the most compelling sort of physical intimacy possible between two humans. Drake is positing authentic spiritual and physical epiphany.

The romantic poets imagined this sort of experience in very different terms, alone in nature or in the darkling plains of their own souls. The 17th and 18th century poets, so full of ahems and asides, so blessed with their own rhetoric, threw darts in love’s outer rings. Maybe Burns nailed it, but he also badly failed it. Drake, though, hits the bulls-eye, and his song is precisely what the young woman at the club wants to—needs to, according to the design of her imago dei—hear. Conclusion: Drake’s poetry is indeed among the dopest.

It is not the dopest, however. There is one poet in history whose conception of love and ability to authoritatively address his lover exceed Drake’s—King Solomon. “The Song of Solomon” proceeds in much the same way as “Shut It Down,” almost point for point, but adds even more energy to the mix. Solomon compares his beloved to other hoes: “as a lily among brambles, / So is my love among the young women.” She, he imagines (the poem is structured as a dialog), sees him in a crowd “as an apple tree among the trees of the forest … distinguished among ten thousand.”

Solomon admires his beloved’s clothes, jewelry, perfume—her hair, eyes, lips, neck, torso, everything. She, too, desires him physically: “While the king was on his couch, / my nard gave forth its fragrance. / My beloved is to me a sachet of myrrh / that lies between my breasts.” Loving him exhausts her to the point that she requests, “Sustain me with raisins; / refresh me with apples, / for I am sick with love” (so many double meanings here). She sees him as food, and she’s hungry for him. “His mouth is most sweet” she says. She “goes down to the nut orchard / to look at the blossoms of the valley” and becomes disoriented with desire. This language is both sexual and symbolic, plainspoken and complex.

From Solomon’s point of view, his beloved is “My dove, my perfect one, the only one … The young women saw her and called her blessed.” In short, she shuts it down. As a result, he wants to get with her. She responds in the affirmative, suggesting they “break out of this fake-[cussword] party” (to borrow a line from another rapper, Kanye West) and “go out early to the vineyards / and see whether the vines have budded, / whether the grape blossoms have opened / and the pomegranates are in bloom. / There I will give you my love.” Drake concludes his song along similar lines: “Take those [cussword] heels off, it’s worth it girl; / nothing is what I can picture you in, / so take that [cussword] dress off, I swear you won’t forget me. / You’ll be happy that you let me lay you down, down, down … / you still the baddest girl around, round, round.”

Solomon and Drake are not unique in their descriptions of how attraction becomes desire, desire becomes love, and love blossoms into euphoria. But they are doper than most in their positioning of the beloved as the one who, in both her finery and beauty, outshines all the others and shuts down the party. From now on, imply both poets, it’s just me and you. You are the one. It’s a message of hope and, as the rest of the Bible teaches, ultimate healing. The image of God in us needs total love and total satisfaction and will settle for no less. If we seek other loves, stopgaps, placeholders, we rain down destruction on ourselves.

For those of us of the Christian faith, what makes God’s love unique is that we believe he regards the Church as his bride, the exclusive, despite our earthly whoring. Drake reflects this in another song, “Practice,” in which he says “I taste pain and regret, / In your sweat /
You’ve been waiting for me, / I can tell that you been practicing
/…
All those other men were practice, they were practice / for me, for me, for me, for me.”

As full of sorrow as these lyrics are, they suggest the message of Hosea, in which God summons his beloved Israel from its worship of idols—false gods in place of the real one. “I will make you lie down in safety,” he says, forgiving them and assuming his position as only lover once again. This, too, might be a message the young woman at the club needs to hear, even as does the rest of humanity. Despite our falling so far short of the perfect lover for whom we were created, by His mercy, we’re still “the baddest girl around.”

I suspect English majors will quibble with the preceding argument as follows: “Drake is a rapper. His ‘poems,’ if you want to call them that, are verbally thin and embarrassingly direct. They lack artfulness. Maybe they’re entertaining, even somewhat moving, when accompanied by music, but Drake is no Rilke. And Drake is no Pope or Burns, crikey!” To which I will reply, you are correct. Drake might not find a place in a future edition of Harold Bloom’s Western Canon, but he still has something that many English and American poets lack: cojones.

A second objection might be: “Drake, forreal? He’s not a one-woman man in real life!” And again, perhaps that’s right, but he has something else poets lack: charm. He writes, he says in a recent MTV interview, “just to make women feel special”—necessary, affirmed, wanted. He tells them, it’s okay to dress up and try to be noticed. Drake is as charming as Solomon, whose wives, it is said, numbered in the hundreds. We can appreciate that Drake, like Solomon and—fine, whatever—Burns before him, writes poems that celebrate “the one”—the perfect beloved whose love, requited, outshines all else. We should still be allowed to believe in that.

Lost in the Four Quartets II – “Victims of Our Own Rigor”

To read the first part published last week, click here.

There’s more to the poem than I let on. If you’ve tangled with it already then you’ll know that. The Four Quartets is not composed entirely of enchanting melodies, and intrusive koans. These things figure, of course, but there are other voices, beyond the children in the apple trees hidden excitedly containing laughter, and beyond those professorial ruminations from the distant study –

What might have been is an abstraction

Remaining a perpetual possibility

Only in a world of speculation.

Some are the voices of dead masters proffering bitter pills and tasteless shadow fruit arriving like Dickensian ghosts out of the fires of Blitzed London. Others are shrieking, scolding desert chimeras, bane of the ascetics and silence-seekers of every age. Still others are interrogative, sublime angelic interlopers, commanding ‘change your life’. There are many voices, many of them Eliot’s own.

I didn’t intend to mislead you. It’s just that words are difficult tools, as Eliot would have it they’re inclined to slip, slide, perish, decay they often simply will not stay in place, will not stay still. Hence the wrestle with words and meanings. In dealing in words, especially metaphors, one can get lost, misled. This is what Eliot calls the deception of the thrush, the seductive but distorting metaphor.

In this light the last effort can best be read as a tribute to the power of Eliot’s own melodic lines. They are there, as I suggested, as an entry point, a luminous gateway

Sudden in a shaft of sunlight

Even as the dust moves

 

And they remain such even as we move into more difficult terrain. As one continues on in the journey, lines akin to this return as periodic releases into a further space, out of the struggle and difficulty, out of the action and thought that is the hard work of the poem.

Last time we introduced what you could call the base pattern of the poem, the “mobius experience,” the strange fact that in living in time, in confronting the new, we continually have to return to what we know, to where we started. In returning, however, we see the known place anew. We review. And on occasion and in its most extreme form this revisiting can be experienced as

a new and shocking valuation of all we’ve been

In case this seems like artistic licence, a romantic indulgence, let’s compare some statements from the poem to those from a number of sober-minded scientists working today in the field of molecular biology. From this point on they’ll be our companions as we journey together, in Eliot’s wake, into the rarely-exposed heart of the human experience. The proximate source for all of them is Connor Cunningham’s excellent Darwin’s Pious Idea:

“One of the greatest surprises of the Human Genome Project was the discordance between the count of protein-coding genes ([about]) 24,000) and expectations based on perceived phenotypic and behavioural complexity.”

– Lynch

As we grow older

The world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated

Of dead and living.

 

 

“It is not possible to do the work of science without using a language that is filled with metaphors. Virtually the entire body of modern science is an attempt to explain phenomena that cannot be explained directly by human beings. Physicists speak of ‘waves’ and ‘particles’ even though there is no medium in which those waves move, and no solidity to those particles…The price of metaphor is eternal vigilance.

– Lewontin

That was a way of putting it – Not very satisfactory…

Leaving one still with the intolerable wrestle

With words and meanings

In view of which the work of the poet and that of the scientist no longer seem entirely unrelated endeavors. There seems to be a unity of intent, if not of method. The methodological differences are obvious enough not to require illustration, but what is interesting is the suggestion that the fruitfulness of the work depends in both cases on this relentless underlying struggle with words and meanings. There is a shared sense that in order to arrive at something approximating the truth one must be perpetually willing to say again

That was a way of putting – Not very satisfactory

And then to keep on trying

our concern was speech. And speech impelled us

To purify the dialect of the tribe

I’ve encountered this line many a time, and only now, in the light of the words of Lewontin & co, do I realize that it describes the scientific enterprise every bit as adequately as the poetic. What is physics, what are the hard sciences, if not a search for a pure descriptive language? This impulsion toward purity of expression is what we know as rigor. And rigor demands continual openness to the possibility of the new and shocking valuation. Eliot suggests this is the only way to truly live the human condition, Lewontin that it is the only way to practice science. An interesting correspondence, to be sure. Lewontin’s phrase about the duty of the scientist captures the essence of Eliot’s poetic ethos in a manner that is quite uncanny. One could well imagine Eliot himself having said it, even as having chosen it as the loadstar of his entire poetic enterprise. And if The Origin of The Species, or Copernicus’ heliocentric model, or even Gibbons’ Decline and Fall were not a new and shocking valuation of all we’ve been, what on earth was?

As we begin to draw to a close we eccentrically quote yet again from a molecular biologist, largely, in this instance, because we want to co-opt his incidentally beautiful phrase as we progress toward our own (provisional) conclusions:

“With reference to the processes of embryonic segregation, genetics is to a certain extent the victim of its own rigor…”

– Lillie

At times, in reading the Four Quartets it does seem that one is asked to be, along with Eliot himself, a victim of his rigor. This rigor, this impulsion to purity of expression, is experienced in one of the poem’s climatic sequences, as a refining fire. A purifying force that is, Eliot will contend, the only true hope and only true liberty of the human spirit. It is what Polish philosopher and historian of ideas Leszek Kolakowski describes, in an essay on the place of philosophy in the wider world, as the spirit of truth:

“The cultural role of philosophy is not to deliver truth, but to build the spirit of truth, and this means never to let the inquisitive energy of mind go to sleep, never to stop questioning what appears to be obvious and definitive, always to defy the seemingly intact resources of common sense, always to suspect that there “might be another side” in what we take for granted.”

 

So this then leads us into another way of experiencing the poem: to be thus, along with Eliot, a victim of the spirit of truth. A victim because in this section of the poem rigor is applied not to scientific theories or existent accounts of history but is let loose in the core of the poet’s own being, as he painfully looks back on past follies, vanities, and meanness. This is an experience of

the rending pain of re-enactment

Of all that you have done, and been; the shame

Of motives late revealed, and the awareness

Of things ill done and done to others’ harm

Which once you took for exercise of virtue.

Then fools’ approval stings, and honour stains.

From wrong to wrong the exasperated spirit

Proceeds

These are awkward lines to dwell on aren’t they? They graze a little close to the bone, I find. Bringing back a flood, or at least a bloody trickle, of comparable moments from my own failed life with others. And yet it turns out that this refining fire is not, in the experience of the poem, a solely destructive force, it is not, as Dennet has imagined of Darwin’s theory of natural selection, a “universal acid”, it is, here, in tandem with a deep and hidden music, a restorative force, for the section continues and concludes with these lines

unless restored by that refining fire

Where you must move in measure, like a dancer.

The question of whose tune you’re dancing to at this point undoubtedly depends to an extent on your creedal persuasions. Regardless, though, in the life of the poem it is clear that a liberation has taken place and that the agent of this liberty is the spirit of truth in so far as this spirit is inflamed by a higher music who’s strains and rhythms carry poet and reader in and through the chard breakage of the past into a present and future music. So as much as the poem is a call to attend to the timeless moment, it is equally and vitally a call to pick up, and carry on. The struggle that is our journey through time continues, and yet amidst the hubbub of universal trial and traverse the poem insists one can still catch the sound of

a voice descanting (though not to the ear,

The murmuring shell of time, and not in any language.)

and what it calls to us, as Eliot has said else where, echoing Krishna, is

Fare forward, voyagers.

Lost in the Four Quartets

The first time I read it, at a conceited 23, it didn’t make much of an impression. I think I just ploughed through it, cover to cover without pause for breath, content to be able say ‘I’d read it’. Undoubtedly a phrase or two lingered on –

music heard so deeply

That it is not heard at all, but you are the music

While the music lasts

Four Quartets

– memorable, strange, and evocative. But other than that, the terseness, the obscurity and evasiveness of the thoughts, the general lack of bombast and salaciousness all rendered it a little dry and uninteresting. Obscurely Christian, I suspected. I seem to recall waving it off with a flippant dismissal, comparing it unfavorably with The Wasteland over a drink with a friend. By that point I’d no doubt gathered, somehow or other, that that was pretty much the enlightened consensus on the matter. Eliot, post-confession: not that good, give it a quick look, add it to the “read it” column, move on.

Which I then attempted, almost successfully, to do. But the strange thing is, sometimes, unbeknownst to you, a book gets a hold on you, and won’t let go. So it was with me and this slender 4-part volume of supplely intertwining meditations on time, thought, and eternity.

I don’t know how I ended up returning to it. It must have been those occasional lingering phrases, subtle and shifting like smoke in lamp light, drifting back into consciousness, suddenly congruent with an unguarded moment. The rising music of lines like

For most of us there is only the unattended

Moment, the moment in and out of time

The distraction fit, lost in a shaft of sunlight

were a moment of recognition, a moment to which I could respond, “yes, I’ve had that experience.” So that was it then, come to think of it, the poem returned to me. It wasn’t the other way around. All I did then was acknowledge that, yes, I too have drifted lost in a shaft of sunlight. But then having conceded that much, Eliot being the prickly interlocutor that he always was, would reply, yes but you…

missed the meaning

 

to which I would wonder, but what meaning was there to attribute to it?

I recall a vivid moment of having truly been the music while the music lasts. I was on vacation, one that I spent largely on my own, wallowing in books and music, taking walks on an Ottawa Valley lakeside. I was eating an improbably ripe mango, slicing off juice-sodden crescents with a sharp little knife, and I’d just pressed play on the stereo. And from the first note of John Tavner’s The Protecting Veil I was the music, and the music was me. Naturally I tried to repeat the experience. But listen to it as I might, never since have I had that same experience of total and complete transport. I even went so far as to buy another mango, but the moment was not ‘on demand.’ It seemed to be a ‘given’ something. A commonplace ecstasy that I was powerless to reproduce. Curious, yes, but a matter for further reflection? Yes, Eliot asserted, because

Approach to the meaning restores the experience

In a different form beyond any meaning

We can assign to happiness.

But what on earth could that mean?

The problem was, though, once I’d gotten involved in these questions there was little hope of escape.

I should warn you, the poem attacks from a variety of angles. The likelihood is that if you get entangled in it, it will be through one of those gorgeous melodic lines that first snagged me:

Words, after speech, reach

Into the silence.

That’s true, you’ll say, they do. What a beautiful observation. But the trouble is that Eliot isn’t content to leave it at that, look:

Only by the form, the pattern,

Can words or music reach

The stillness, as a Chinese jar still

Moves perpetually in its stillness.

Not the stillness of the violin, while the note lasts,

Not that only,

And you’ll say… okay… still basically lucid. Insightful, even. You’ve known time stand still around a note, right? A friend of mine once vividly recalled to me the first experience he had of such a thing as a child hiding in his brother’s closet, listening to a Creedence Clearwater Revival guitar solo and suddenly – there was the note and while it lasted the world ceased its turning.

But keep on your guard, because, returning to Eliot, something’s beginning to creep in that’s a little disconcerting:

No that only, but the co-existence,

Or say the end precedes the beginning,

And the end and the beginning were always there

Before the beginning and after the end.

Oh no. And now you’re in a very dangerous place. Don’t move. Don’t engage. Remember the T-Rex in Jurassic Park? Well, take the same approach here: just stay perfectly still, hold your breath, and let the terrible danger pass by. Because, let me warn you, if you engage this sentence, or any of the innumerable ones like it, you’re liable to get caught. It happened to me, and ten years later, as you can see, I still can’t get out.

These paragraphs – ostensibly ugly unwieldy and obscure – let me warn you, they’re koans. They’ll tie you in knots. Follow them and you’ll end up traversing a mobious strip only

To arrive where you started

And know the place for the first time

 

Over, and over, and over again. Repeatedly. And after a while you won’t even be reading the poem any more. You might even be trying to avoid it. And then suddenly a memory from the workaday world will return to you and you’ll think… hmm… I

had the experience but missed the meaning…

 

And on it goes. And if like me, you’re looking to “make some progress” in life– you’re going to start getting flustered. Because if you’re looking to “get somewhere” you’ll start to feel hindered by the action of the poem – because look, here you are, all of a sudden, back where you started.

And such, in fact, is the price of entanglement with this exquisitely crafted poem. It works on you, and as it does, as you run around and around its mobious melodies, or as they run around in you, you find yourself a little changed. A little more inclined to attend to the commonplace mysteries all around you be they the wild thyme, the waterfall, or the children in the apple-tree –

Hidden excitedly, containing laughter.

Because in getting lost in the Four Quartets it seems you found something, a gift hidden in the world of your own experience now, here, now, always. And turning to your own world of experience with new baffled eyes, hungry and vigilant for another sight of it, you’ll find yourself surprised that the poem has such an effect. At least such was the case for me, because as I said:

The first time I read it, at a conceited 23, it didn’t make much of an impression.

The Grafted Willow:
My Poetry Family Tree

Most poets can tell you who their poetic grandparents, cousins, brothers, and sisters are – maybe not every single poet who preceded them, but those whose work or style transformed or contributed significantly to their own voice as a poet, even if it was just with one poem. April is National Poetry Month in the United States, which makes it a fine time for me to consider my own poetic ancestors.

I realize my growth story as a poet isn’t uncommon. My mom diligently and passionately read to both my older brother, David, and me when we were children. She read The Swiss Family Robinson, the Bible, Sesame Street books, her own nursing books; you name it, and she either read it to us or encouraged us to read it ourselves.

The Psalms always stuck to my ribs. The Psalmists’ passion and range of emotion, not to mention their amazing imagery, comparisons, and figurative language, ignited me. I wanted the emotional freedom I saw available within those poems.

I started seriously writing poetry when I was fifteen, after an incident with my older brother. Later in high school, as I began reading more poetry on my own, I clung to poets such as Edgar Allen Poe, Langston Hughes, Anne Sexton, and Walt Whitman. Common enough figures in most high school English classes, they were also the poets to whom I returned, for various reasons. From Poe, I learned to cultivate an ear to hear the music which sprung from within words in a way I’d never encountered before. His Gothic subject matter was an added bonus for an already-somber kid.

Hughes, Sexton, and Whitman attracted me mostly for their subject matter: each of them wrote as a sort of outcast, or outside observer, who desperately admired the beauty they saw in the tragic world and within themselves. Hughes also played jazz with his simple diction and syntax, a musical style I hadn’t heard before. Sexton sang sad songs yearning for peace, God, and reconciliation with herself. I particularly dug her Transformations – fairy tales acknowledging the terror of being a wife and mother. And Whitman – he wanted it all, and I admit, he wooed me, too, with his lusty, inviting lines that spooled along forever.

But in high school, I also read a lot about the Vietnam War. I’d been molested by two different guys at two different times in my life, and so I shared some of the symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Reading poetry from Vietnam Vets in the anthologies, Unaccustomed Mercy and Winning Hearts and Minds, and other factors, enabled me to deal with my own issues and inability, and yes, initial unwillingness, to express myself vocally. I was also struggling with reconciling my religious beliefs and my desires and feelings. So poetry was for me, as it is for so many others, a much-needed outlet. But thankfully, I didn’t stay in the expunging stage of writing.

A good family friend, Dr. Sarah Bell, first read “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” to me in her office in Athens, Georgia. I’d graduated from high school and was planning on attending the University of Georgia. I’d passed over T.S. Eliot before, but wow, this was amazing-the sounds, the imagery, and the loneliness mixed in with sadness, wistfulness, and mystery; holy crap, how cool! I guess I got hit with Eliot at the right time, and maybe Sarah knew enough to see when the time was prime.

After Eliot, I started revising more – or rather, I had a slightly firmer grasp on the function and necessity, the power, of revision. And Sarah’s constructive criticism helped, too. I still kept at the Vietnam Veteran poets, and Sexton, Hughes, and King David. I continued writing consistently, too.

Fast forward to my last couple of undergrad years, now at the University of Southern Mississippi, studying under the guidance of Angela Ball and Dave Berry (one of the vet poets I’d idolized). Ball introduced me to James Wright and Frankie O (Frank O’Hara), while Berry encouraged his workshop students to laugh a little, to make jokey poems with serious punches. I had a lot of time to fail in my writing, to wriggle in various skins, most of them not my own. Wright taught me how to use a seemingly-simple image, and to whittle that image down through the process of the poem, to get to the heart of what I wanted to understand through images. Frankie O taught me to say it plainly, but that even saying it plainly can be complicated and fun. “It’s okay to be yourself,” he seemed to say. “If you like Cherry Coke, throw a Cherry Coke in there.”

At USM, in my own research, I also began focusing on contemporary haiku and senryu written in English. I admired the work of Gary Hotham, Stanford Forrester, and ai li, but I also looked back at older masters including Bashō and Issa, and the contemporary Yamaguchi Seishi. Haiku and senryu taught me the value of concision, of dynamite created when you pack words tightly.

Then, I moved away to the Ph.D. program at Texas Tech. I’d somehow gotten into this place poetically where I felt like I had to be smart because I had studied contemporary graduate school poems, and I included little of myself but my brain in the poems. One of my fellow poets, Aaron Rudolph, suggested that I put more of myself into my work, that I take those emotional risks which effective poems take.

So I did. My poems grew surprisingly more tasty, and less like sawdust. As an added bonus, an anthology of prose poetry, No Boundaries, fell into my lap. After researching the genre, I kept returning to Charles Baudelaire, Russell Edson, and Mary Koncel. I laughed at how Baudelaire’s flaneur treated people like crap and then, in the very next sentence, talked about how a beautiful cloud shone. The contrasting tones tripped me out. Meanwhile, Edson and Koncel challenged me to work in a magical realism with emotional significance, spiritual possibility, and interesting props.

Since Tech, I’ve incorporated prose poetry into my set of skills and have moved on. I’ve written, over the last five years, a book of poetic responses to others’ poems, in both verse and prose poetry.

I can’t say where I’m going poetically, and I’m not worried about it at all. I like where I am, but I don’t plan on staying here. Yet what does this mean for you? What do I want you to get out of my story?

I hope it inspires you to consider your own story, to think critically about how those who have worked in your own discipline before you have affected you, and what you’ve really learned from them. I hope to pass along these poets’ lives and works in the spirit of giving, with the chance that they might contribute to your own life and work. Finally, I hope this lights a flame of desire within you to create, to make the next poem, next song, next quilt, which future artists can warm their hearts and hands by.