Alive with Words
I’ve been thinking about how poets become poets. My theory begins with Wordsworth’s lines about the child being father to the man. Here, the infant poet, awestruck by the powers of another poet, seeks the eloquence he sees in that poet. This seeking causes him to attempt to recreate in language the first experience of poetry, when it struck him down, when it caused him to feel alive with words. Infant literally means one without speech. That’s why we call infants infants, and the infantry are those who don’t have a say. When a would-be poet realizes his infancy, then his poetic career begins.
Canio’s Books is the place of my poetic birth, the place where my infancy began. I read my first poems there, those half-articulated drafts, which make me cringe now to read. The bookstore was still owned by Canio then. I remember Canio’s smile, those impossibly big glasses, his eyes blurred behind the lenses, and the way he always treated me like I was a poet already. I wasn’t. Not yet. I wasn’t confident or pretentious enough to aspire to the title, Poet. Even now I shy away from the idea. When people ask me, “What do you do?” I always lead with the teaching part. Sometimes the asking ends there, but sometimes my interlocutor will ask what I teach. “Poetry. I’m a poet,” I’ll say. Then watch their eyes fly open. A real life poet. It’s like they’re looking at a dinosaur or a caveman. But Canio Pavone, however encouraging of my poetic career, isn’t my poetic father.
There isn’t just one poet who fathers a poet forth. Poetic fathers tend to work in mobs. Still there must be an instant when a poet is born, and there must be a poet present, reading, being a poet, to act as the accoucheur, the midwife. The quickening poem is like forceps. It leaves a mark on the young poet’s head. I just read a poem I wrote in my late twenties, which was published in the Cimarron Review and later anthologized in Verse Daily. I hear in those lines the influence of Wallace Stevens, who is one of my poetic fathers, but he wasn’t there the moment I was born. So poetic fathers hide themselves behind other poetic fathers or stepfathers. Stevens certainly influenced me, helped me to learn how to speak, but he helped me in the way that I help my stepson, Harry. I get him up in the morning, fix his breakfast, make sure he gets on the bus, and when he misses his dad, his biological dad, like he did today, and he begins to cry and throw his head back, because there are no more words for what he feels, and his mouth makes that O, which is the center of a word like moan, I hug him and tell him, “I know this is hard for you. I understand.” And I do. After Harry left today, I started to miss my dad, too, but not my biological father. I missed my poetic father, William “Kit” Hathaway.
I met Kit when I was a student at Southampton College in the mid-90s. He was interviewing for a teaching position, and I picked him up from the airport in my little red Toyota pickup truck. He talked the whole way from Islip to Southampton. He said, “I’m not really a teacher. I’m more of a talker.” Boy, was he right. I never heard someone so intelligent talk so much. The other candidates were reserved, taciturn. Not Kit. He went on and on. His talk was wide-ranging, too. He leapt from subject to subject. One minute he’d point out that Microsoft Word recognizes Mickey Mouse, but Erasmus gets a little red squiggle when you type it (an oversight I see has been remedied, thanks if not to Kit then someone like him). Then he’d be off talking about Rock ‘n’ Roll’s influence on the poetic line or baseball or Plato.
Kit got the position, and that started a mentoring relationship that has proven to be the most important of my life. Everything I know about being a poet and a professor starts with him. When I tell my students that grades are the carrot or the stick, it’s because Kit told me that. And when I first started teaching, I’d overhear in my lecturing that quintessential verbal tick anyone who knows Kit knows: “You know what I mean?” He’d repeat that in a lecture between thoughts. “You know what I mean?” It was the indication he was about to leap. He even gestured like he was going to leap, where he rocked back and forth, from one foot to the other, shifting his hands side to side like he was dancing. Then his laugh, almost maniacal, but infectious, too, and generous. He liked to laugh, and when he did, I always felt like I wasn’t entirely sure I understood what he meant, because his humor was always ironical, intelligent, smart. “You know what I mean?” he’d say and elbow me. Not exactly, but I wanted to.
And I wanted to be a poet because I heard him read, “Wan Hope,” a poem from his collection Looking into the Heart of Light, at Canio’s Books one fine May evening. I don’t know if I could’ve said even yesterday that it was Kit who fathered me or that it was “Wan Hope” that left its mark on my head for bringing me into the light of day, but after my stepson Harry got on the bus, I found Kit’s book of poems, the one I bought that night, the night of my second birth, the one I was too shy to ask my friend and mentor to sign, and I read the poem to Shannon, my fiancée, and when I got to the end, where Kit says that whatever words he said, however churlish or wrong, he meant them for pity’s sake, and that he would if he could soak all of the world’s anguish up inside him and save the living and the dead, when I read those words, I felt a wound open up in me I didn’t even know was there. I stood before the sink, looking out the window into the greyish light and I wanted to throw my head back and cry. Even now, as I write, I feel that ache inside me because I miss my friend, and I guess it’s like remembering your birth, if you could, where suddenly you realized it will be a long journey, and that the real struggle isn’t into light but through it, and all the grey days in between.
Kit quit teaching and moved to Maine just as the old century gave way to the new. We corresponded for a few years, but somewhere along the way we lost touch. I heard he lives in Pennsylvania now, where I hope he’s happy. People always thought he was a curmudgeon. Even I saw him this way. It was hard not to. He griped a lot. But now I know, while he may have been churlish, mostly he loved me with a strong male love I reach back to find and often find in me. It means saying yes to no, and no to yes, when it’s the wrong yes and the right no. This was always his point. Choose. Like when Virgil shows Dante the souls of those who didn’t in the war between heaven and hell. Undistinguished in life, they spend their eternity a nameless, formless blur, whirling around in limbo.
Dante had Virgil, but I had Kit Hathaway, who once called himself a minor league player who almost made it to the majors. There is something ironic in this statement. Kit always looked askance at the majors so I can’t imagine he wanted to be one. Besides, there’s no way to tell who the majors are for real until the game is over. In the meantime, we etch into words and books of words what it is we were born to say. If I do this well, it’s because Kit taught me it was worth doing well. If I stumble, it’s because nothing is more difficult than finding the right words, those sentences that quicken, make us feel alive, like we’ve got something to live for. This morning that urge was opened up again in me, the way it was when I heard Kit read and I realized, “Yes. This is what I want to do.” There is nothing more lovely or loving than being who you are indeed, so that others may see you and so may become who they are, too. This is the example that fathers and mothers many children, and though I have issued none of my own, not biologically, like Abraham I might, as long as I’m alive, father multitudes.