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Poetry and Me

by William McGaughey

 

In fifth grade, I was enchanted with poetry. I especially liked Longfellow’s poems such as the one that began:

“Under the spreading chestnut tree,
the village smithy stands.
The smith a mighty man is he,
with large and sinewy hands. ”

I think I may have been commended by my teachers for learning a large number of poems. This type of poetry rhymed. I still like Longfellow, antiquated though he may be.

In my senior year at Cranbrook School in Michigan, I attended an event in a cabin that included presentations by English teachers. One man recited from memory Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem “Kubla Khan”. I thought it was one of the most beautiful experiences in my life. I wanted to memorize Kubla Khan and later did. I also once visited Coleridge’s grave at the Highgate cemetery in London, as well as Karl Marx’s grave.

poetry in college, in the drop-out years, and in Minnesota

I was initially an English major at Yale. I took a course under Maynard Mack, a renowned Shakespearean scholar. My studies included a poetry course taught by Cleanth Brooks who was a literary critic. But my interests then turned more toward novels. I took Harold Bloom’s course on Romantic poetry. Thomas Green turned me on to works by the German novelist Thomas Mann. (We studied Magic Mountain in Green’s course.) I also took a course in the construction of novels taught by Robert Penn Warren, the Pulitzer-prize-winning author of “All the King’s Men”. My major work for that course was a discussion of Mann’s works. Warren gave me a 90, the highest grade I received for any course while a student at Yale.

During that time as a college student, I memorized Kubla Khan and also Wordsworth’s Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood”. They were both beautiful poems. I switched my major from philosophy to English literature. Among the poets I met at Yale were W. H. Auden and, of course, Robert Penn Warren, who later became the first U.S. poet laureate. Dropping out of Yale in the middle of my junior year, I stopped by Warren’s home in Connecticut to pick up my thesis which had not previously been returned. The future poet laureate treated my brother and me to a glass of whiskey before we went on our way home in the pouring rain.

I had dropped out to satisfy my military obligation, but the Army rejected me. So I lived in my parents’ home in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, for the better part of a year before going to live in West Germany. I spent much of my time then memorizing poetry and writing articles that I thought had philosophical value. My theory was that, if I memorized lines of poetry, the wisdom locked inside them would never be lost. Listening to well-known works of poetry or Shakespearean drama recorded on a Wollensak tape recorder, I memorized what I heard by repetitious attempts to recite the lines. I must have memorized several hours of poems. Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” was one of my favorites.

My poetry-memorization routine was interrupted by my sojourn in Germany, return to Yale, and a half year’s study of accounting in Newark, New Jersey. But I was still working on Whitman when I left the east coast and moved to Minnesota. I probably could recite one third to one half of Leaves of Grass in 1965, my first year in Minnesota. Truthfully, the rest of the lines were beginning to fade from my memory. Today, there is little left in my mind, either the lines or the wisdom contained therein.

The strange fact today is that I find it hard to remember lines of poetry or lyrics of a song. I have much better recall of musical melodies and rhythms. It were as if the intense exposure to poetry in the post-Yale days of 1962 had burned and purged my memory of such things, making it difficult to remember any extended set of words. Only the lines of Kubla Khan and the first part of Wordworth’s poem remain, albeit partially.

In 1966, I quit a job with the Department of Welfare at the State of Minnesota to fulfill my philosophical and literary ambitions. However, it was not poetry that I wrote but prose. I produced a set of five fictional stories in the late 1960s that might have been published by a Vanity Press publisher but I decided against it. I also produced two works of philosophy including “On Goals in Life” which appears on this web site. In retrospect, these works do not seem profound. Then I invented a board game, took more accounting courses, and went back to work in that field.

My writing ambitions continued in the years of active employment in accounting positions, but poetry was not part of the program. Instead, I wrote and published an economic treatise that advocated for a shorter workweek. Inspired by Arnold Toynbee, I later wrote and self-published a book, Five Epochs of Civilization, which presented a new theory of civilizations. I had no aspiration to develop a particular style of writing or make a name for myself in the literary or poetic worlds but only to write in the simplest and most direct way possible to expose the content of my writing.

Still, in the 1970s, I had two brushes with poets worth mentioning. First I attended a poetry reading by John Berryman at the University of Minnesota in 1971. The poet, wearing a cape, was reciting poems by Walt Whitman in a classroom. Without much success, some people were trying to sell his books to event attendees. My main thought then was that at a university whose faculty also included presidential advisors (such as economist Walter Heller) poets were a bit of an anachronism. Berryman’s cape seemed overly theatrical. Several months later, John Berryman committed suicide by jumping off the Washington street bridge over the Mississippi river near the University of Minnesota campus.

Several years later I met a kindly couple who lived in White Bear Lake at an Episcopalian church in St. Paul. They invited me to dinner at their home. The home was owned by the husband’s father, Francis G. Okie. We immediately engaged in an intense conversation about his work. The elder Okie spent all his time writing poetry according to an ancient technique of translating numbers into alphabetic letters called Gematria. It was at our first meeting that Francis Okie told me his unusual occupation had begun with a mystical experience that involved a vision of a fiery cannon ball. That subject never came up again despite several attempts to inquire. I had written a short story whose theme was that a human life had been transformed into a pile of gems. Francis Okie’s poetry-producing routine seemed to fit that pattern.

However, I subsequently visited the Okie home in White Bear Lake on a number of occasions and each time talked with Francis Okie. He would invariably recite some of his Gematria-produced verse. Francis Okie also hosted a small reception for my wife and me when we were married in June 1973. He himself died in January 1975. The Okie verses were compiled by historian Helen White, printed in a booklet, and the booklets given to guests at the fiftieth wedding anniversary of the poet’s son, Richardson B. Okie, and daughter in law, Mary Shuman Okie, who had been like second parents to me. After consulting their son, Jesse Okie, I published the verses on my web site at www.worldhistorysite.com in 2005. Traffic has been modest. But I considered Francis Okie’s poetry to be outstanding. Of additional interest, this man had invented the first major product of the 3M company, wet-or-dry sandpaper.

a political poem

I myself briefly dabbled with poetry in the 1980s, publishing three short poems in a self-published book titled “Punchdrunk Man Reader”. I was then becoming interested in men’s rights issues. That interest, developed in reaction to early feminism, led directly to this book and to its first poem, “To a WASP male”, which read:

“If you’re male rather than female,
I want you.

If you’re white rather than black,
I want you.

If you’re a Protestant, if you’re of
Anglo-Saxon ancestry, so much the better,
I want you.

I’ll bet you think I want you so I can
sarcastically tear you down,
like everyone else these days
you miserable WASP male.

Surprise! I’m on your side,
I’m your secret admirer and friend.
(Isn’t it about time someone was?)
You majority group member who is a minority, you
vestige of the power structure who is abused.

Just remember, you are a person too.
You have your personal dignity.
You indeed have human rights - same as
the blacks, the women, the ethnic and
religious special-interest groups.

Maybe some day in America bigotry will subside
to the point that an average man like you
will cease to be a punching bag
for every organized group that comes down the pike.

And you can live in peace in your own country,
undisturbed by rancorous insinuations,
who, charged with bias and oppression,
is himself a victim of the same.

Remember, then, I want you.
I’m your special friend.
You majority group member who is a minority
you vestige of the power structure
who is abused.

a poem about Curt Carlson

My second poem in Punchdrunk Man Reader was inspired by my interest in the issue of shorter working time. A newspaper article about the Minnesota billionaire, Curt Carlson, owner of the Radisson hotel chain, had strongly encouraged his subordinates to develop a “work ethic”, which meant that their work load would not be limited to five days. Carlson expected corporate comers to be at their desks on Saturdays as well. But there was no arguing with success. In that spirit, I wrote this poem, titled “Could you stand up to Curt Carlson”:

“Could you stand up to Curt Carlson,
the multi-millionaire?
He’s mean, he’s tough, he’ll tan your hide.
He owns your life, your soul, your pride.
Could you face him without despair?

Mister Carlson owns the big hotels.
He sells gift stamps and fast food, too.
He made it all himself, and yet
t’would seem as well, my friend - you bet -
with the help of folks like you.

‘Five days a week you only eat;
By working six you move ahead.’
We’ll see you, then, on Saturday
to clear your desk while others play,
And rise to the top instead.

You losers lack the wherewithal
with whom men do compete.
I want no shirking idiots,
with self-excuse or thought to pity its
failing to achieve the goals we meet.

Could you stand up to Curt Carlson,
the multi-millionaire?
He’ll shoot you down without a blink.
He’s got you licked before you think.
Could you face him without despair?”

zipper verse

My third poem published in the book represented an attempt to create something original. I was in an inventive mode. Being an idea man, I invented a new type of poetry called “zipper verse”. The idea was to put a zipper-like word in the middle of each line that would change by one letter each line. For example, the word “WAR” in the first line leads to “FAR” in the second line, and to “FARE” in the third line and ultimately to war’s opposite, “PEACE”, in the final line. I wrote a poem titled “Lebanon and Grenada, 1983”, employing this technique. It went like this:

“To WAR the nation goes,
to conflicts FAR across the sea.
For us they pay the FARE of victory
in RARE and costly rows
of coffins. Newsmen RACE to file
at frantic PACE their stories, while
in PEACE our fallen countrymen repose.”

Zipper verse was a purely mental construct - poetry with a visual component. I could try to write other such poems and collect and publish them but with little assurance that they would mean anything to someone other than myself. The other poems, too, seemed to have little appeal. The feminist editors who handled book reviews did not like poems sympathizing with white males. One told me that I should join a writer’s group to learn how to write before submitting anything further to her. Since poetry is sometimes subsidized by wealthy individuals or foundations, it also did not seem a winning strategy to write a poem attacking Curt Carlson. I did succeed, however, in getting it published in a small socialist newspaper. Simply put, I was not part of the mainstream group of those writing poetry. Punchdrunk Man Reader did not sell well.

connecting with Robert Bly

By chance, I did later connect with a popular mainstream poet through my interest in men’s rights. Around 1990, I was involved with Richard Doyle, a men’s-rights advocate who was living in Forest Lake, in several men’s rights activities. However, he and his cause were getting little respect. Instead, attention was placed on the mythopoetic men’s movement. The Minnesota poet Robert Bly was its undisputed leader. In 1990, his book, “Iron John” topped the New York Times best-seller list for the better part of a year.

Around April 1992 I received a notice in the mail that Robert Bly would be giving a talk about “The Future of the Men’s Movement” at the Hennepin Avenue Methodist Church in Minneapolis on a certain day and time. I made sure to attend, along with several hundred others. During the question-and-answer session, I asked about the relationship between Bly’s movement and the political or legal branch of the men’s movement. Bly said he had been thinking of stopping in Forest Lake some time as he drove up to Moose Lake, Minnesota, which I took to mean that he would visit Richard Doyle.

More significantly, Bly told the audience that he wanted to start a multi-cultural singing group that would include “Turkish” (Sufi) music. He asked interested persons to put their names and telephone numbers on a sign-up sheet. I was interested, of course. I loved to sing and I was also interested in Bly as a representative of the dominant wing of the men’s movement. So began a relationship with Bly and others in the mythopoetic men’s movement that has lasted for over twenty years.

A Minneapolis musician, David Whetstone, taught us our first songs. We met initially at Robert Bly’s house on Irving Street in the Kenwood neighborhood of Minneapolis. After Bly sold this house, we met in a room of the garage to his house on Girard street in Minneapolis, several blocks away from the earlier house, as well as at the homes of other singers. The Persian poem which, in Farsi, begins “Bia ta gol, Baraf shon nim” was one of the first songs in our repertoire. It was written by the Persian poet Rumi. There was also another song that consisted of chanting “Allah” in several successive pitches. Later, a musician named David Schmidt taught us Hindu songs. Glen Helgeson, a member who stayed with the group and was also a musician, taught us still other songs.

This was a new experience for me. We were not “singing” as in a chorus or choir but “chanting” words in a foreign language as the Persian Sufis used to do. Our discipline was more relaxed. We called ourselves “Sufis” (the plural of Sufi) but our affiliation with that religious movement was in name only for most members. Still I enjoyed it. It gave me an opportunity to be with other men, including Robert Bly, in a musical and poetic setting every week in the early years and every other week later on. We could clap when we felt like it, yell, sing nonsense words or sing in different octaves, or do whatever seemed to fit the occasion. My specialty was to depart from the prescribed melody with something that I thought was harmonious. Each group performance was different. Either the variations worked or they did not.

I have to say that, having been with Bly’s group now for over twenty years, I am still not on the same wave length as most others in the group. Others recite poetry during the performances. I seldom do. Part of the reason is that, as previously disclosed, I cannot remember the lyrics to songs except with a strenuous effort. My poetic tastes are also different. Socially and politically, I differ in being a landlord who has properties in a poor neighborhood of Minneapolis and whose politics is more conservative.

This group has little affiliation with men’s rights as a political or social movement. To my knowledge, Bly has not yet stopped in Forest Lake to see Richard Doyle and he is unlikely ever to do so. But I continue to participate in group activities as a singer, if not a participant in the group conversations. My view of life is rather different. For example, when I told of my arrests for domestic abuse, some others in the group said they did not want to hear about it. Men’s rights was not a burning issue for them.

Having gotten off to a fast start with poetry, I am now lagging behind others in the pack as a poet or a reciter of poetry. I like the sounds more and the intellectual or aesthetic constructions less. But I am also grateful to Robert Bly and the others for their generous efforts to make poetry and music come alive at particular times each week or month. This has been an enduring and stimulating experience in the later part of my life.

Finally, I will take a stab at being an internet publisher of poetry written by others. See the following: Poems Dark and Dangerous

 

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