Monday, September 29, 2008

Shakespeare, the country boy

The city is a bully. It gets people to do its work for it. It invades your space. The bully turns people against each other or leaves them like deer in the headlights. (Capitalism, at work.)

Shakespeare caught people going mad so well because he was a country boy. He could admit his own fragility, his own sense of victim’s hurt. He understood a perpetrator’s madness, the wildness of a dark suspicious thought eating at you like a lion at your ribs. He heard the bedeviled moans. He clung to the thespian troops’ art to keep from shaking. He knew what a bully the city, the people of a court could be, the bear-baiting ring, a horrible and true metaphor. It was, in a way, a horrible risk for him to depict such things, much like and in keeping with the religious risks of the day.

People are natural creatures at the bottom of it all. In this way they are prone to craziness, is how a city draws its labels. A return to nature soothes them. (So are Ted Hughes’s poems about the appearance of natural creatures amidst our lives, to provide metaphor for our feelings, a baby fox, a swooping owl, all taking on meaning with regard to a relationship under a city’s pressure.)

The madness he rendered, it made the hairs on their backs raise, someone fucking with someone else. Invigorating, in a way, to playwright, to actor, to those standing in the pit, to throw down the veil and show what was brewing underneath. In nature, as when he put Lear out on the heath, or Hamlet on the parapet in the night, Shakespeare tapped into the beast as he is, the natural knowledge, the power of thought inherent in the creature. (Hamlet is both well and not well, balanced between the world of his own nature—somewhat reclusively—and the world of the court, with some candor and honesty, as if he was the initiator of a dialogue that would deeply consider the whole set-up as it was within Denmark.) His best villains are those adept at wielding a court's social devices, public opinion, power, etc., particularly in a moralizing way.

We know so little about him for the very reason. The country boy, with his differing encompassing seditious view, had no stomach for self-promotion or anything that smacked of giving into the fashions a city preaches (beyond what was going on organically in the theater of the time.) You wouldn’t want to admit your troubled mind to anyone, candidly, if you didn’t have to, outside of your art.
A natural creature, he cleaned up after the tracks he made and went back to the hills, the English countryside, the quiet stream, having lodged the best blows against the city he could. (We get some of that weird clean sense of self-satisfaction, real pleasure, in the oft-gallows oft-earthy humor he placed here and there into a situation, a giving of the finger to remember after curtain's fall.)

Jesus himself was a country boy, trying to get back to nature, to be in touch with the deep stuff within humanity that is merely instinct, not so much the things of craziness and mental breakdown. Jesus was a preserver of time spent in the natural world, grasping the richness of the metaphors nature offers. His metaphor about the tree and its fruit stands as one of his richest, lasting and most applicable.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Ambassador Hotel

All of humanity comes to a hotel pantry.
All walks of life. Like a restaurant or a barroom.
I’ve seen it myself. So has everyone.
Add to that the roiling boil of a primary,
The heights of the American theater.
Like a full moon.
All emotions raging, rage itself,
Ugliness to match all the good,
To say the least.

A shy man who liked the cloak of sorrow,
His brother’s old jacket,
A little too big for him,
He was an awkward fellow socially,
At least in some ways,
Who considered and thought about
Every word, well spoken.
A phone’s ring was enough to make him
Sick to his stomach.
(His brother helped him with that,
With gifts,
As if to say,
'Come, my shy one. Come to the miracle.’)
And yet, in that sorrow and anxiousness
He came to find a joy.
And the crowds came,
To touch him. Lowered through a roof,
They came.
And he gave himself to the poor
And a transcendent call for sorrows
To be joys.
Like he did in Indianapolis once,
Needing no teleprompter,
Quoting the Greeks.
Human nature is fine,
But ultimately,
Or at least sometimes,
At least now,
You need to transcend.

You cannot see behind you.
You cannot see what’s coming.
They put him in that car once,
The Lincoln,
Refurbished. How’s that for chills.
They didn’t tell him, and he didn’t say anything.
In Chinatown the day leading up to it,
A firecracker went off.
He flinched, his expression clinched,
But then he went on.
Shaking hands that reached up,
As normal.
As you know, he hadn't even wanted
To go down there.
He felt he'd earned it
To watch the whole thing at a friend's house.
The networks wanted him.
And one of the photos, just before it happened,
Shows a man, though gracious,
Kind of over it,
Just wanting to get through the hallway.
People enjoying victory
Can be a tedious thing.

To the pantry, as the quick speech had ended,
one man had come.
A kid. Really, just a kid.
Such people always show up,
Right at the worst moment,
The moment of vulnerability.
Like the perfect loudmouth.
The perfect asshole.
Manic, grandiose.
Perfect timing.
"I'm not disturbing you,
Am I?"
Just the way it is.
No handy herd of swine
To caste the devils into.
And you feel sorry for him, the rude individual, somehow,
Despite the real pain he causes you.
Because behind his wide-eyed smile,
He is hurting,
And cannot help himself.
That is why he's come to you.
One man in the pantry,
A revolver in his coat.

“And now it’s on to Chicago,
And let’s win there.”
The teacher, a thumbs up,
A hand brushing hair to the side,
a smile, a gentle peace sign
for victory.
Toward him, strangely,
He came, in through pantry doors.
A busboy ahead of him
In a white jacket.
And he, Bobby, little brother,
Could not be clear enough in that instant,
For he had no time to say even a word
When the arm reached around someone,
Over the metal table,
Not fast enough after a long day
To turn rage and the sorrow
Into an embrace,
As it was, it is, a man’s job.
An ecstasy from dung.
(The crowds too, remember,
Were nervous, ‘til they saw him,
‘til he spoke.
Even newsmen, highstrung.
And he put them all at ease.
For he had that gift coming from the deep.)

Unspeakable things he knew,
And they came to him, in flashes,
As he lay there,
On the floor, speechless.
He knew some things were true
The things he had been working on
And come to represent.

Long walks the man had gone on
To learn how to do it,
To turn the mourning into good,
After reveling in it, maybe just a bit,
(Who can blame him?)
As any Irishman would,
Knowing the logic of it,
The conservation of emotional mass to transmute,
Collecting a sizeable portion of grief,
His own Job’s share.
Joy followed him
Like a dog his master.

They took him away, clumsily,
In an ambulance.
He died a day later
And his spirit went away
To where they come from.
The funeral.
The remaining brother,
In keeping with the man,
Had it right as he spoke,
'A good and decent man,'
To say the least.
America watched the train pass
One hot day
On television.
A flag-draped coffin
In black and white,
As under glass.
America went down
To the tracks themselves
To see it go by, in person,
That day. A people who do things
Only for good reason.

There is something terribly gentle to us,
In love with nature, in love with the world.
Something wonderfully brave.
We might want to forget about it
As if to go on with our lives.
But we can’t.
It is our grip
On a planet that tilts
To keep us from sliding off.
Yet anyone who does that
Brave thing of love
Takes a risk.
The poor sweet guy, lying there,
With all his talents and his wisdom,
On the floor, keeping us all
From sliding away into cold vacuous space.

“What makes you so sad,” a little girl once asked him,
quietly, as he bent down in the crowd in some place like Indiana
To place his hand softly on her head,
As if to brush her hair
In the midst of all the things he had
To get done that day.
And he laughed and smiled,
As she looked up
Quizzically, blue-eyed
With innocent wisdom,
Upon his face
That look we all knew of him,
Unique to him,
A sweet kind of crinkle in the corners of his eyes,
The wide toothy smile,
But now a wetness to his eye.
“Oh, it’s not because I’m sad,” he said,
Quite softly and privately to her
As people and parents looked on.
“It’s just because I’m in love.”
Like Lincoln got his beard.
He touched her face and looked down at her again,
And then he moved on, on into the crowd.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

The Speed of Light

As a blog presents an opportunity to capture one's daily thoughts conversationally, I was thinking about light the other day. The sun was shining. I was walking the dog, my brother's dog, a chocolate lab bitch, while he's been away on honeymoon. I sat at a picnic table to write a bit, the dog nudging the tennis ball toward me now and again, throwing it, wiping my hand off on my Levi's, writing some, getting the ball suggested back to me from doggie's mouth.

Physicists like Einstein came up with a good model for light. Farraday's experiments led to a concept of an electromagnetic field that existed alongside the current traveling through a wire. The light we see, with its particular speed, is the mother of all electromagnetic energy. Sitting in a park, one feels the light energy that emanates from the sun. Traveling in a field, the light touches upon us, upon leaf, upon picnic table, gently, connecting us through this band of visible radiation to the celestial powers of the Sun.

So what is the light energy that accounts for our presence? What sort of field is our life a part of? What is the source of the particular shining that is our own landing in one particular part of the world? What is the speed of this energy's source, what physical laws apply to it? What is the basic fact of our condition that accounts for our energy?

I could only come up with the Beatitudes, if we had to find something describing what we have in common, what we are. We are meek, mournful, sick, poor, lonely, homesick, confused, and though we might disguise the condition, we can never really change from it. And you're going to learn more and be more and improve yourself acknowledging and living with the fact of this sort of suffering.

To my mind, moments of literature leave us little experimental moments that capture the nature of the shine of human light. Walking in the woods, and feeling the same energy I had with the sun on my back in the park, I thought of Big Two-Hearted River, Hemingway's Nick out on his own in nature, gently touching it, making his space in it. I thought of how it made sense to picture Saint Jerome outdoors. I thought of The Catcher in the Rye's image of a saint coming through the rye, 'when a body catches a body...' I thought of Levin mowing grain with his serfs. I thought of Kerouac feeling like an idiot for having to stay at his sister's house in North Carolina, that summer when he was the gentle "Saint Jean of the Dogs." (Rightly so, we have a picture of Kerouac in our heads of the outdoors, the open road, the mountain, the cabin, the found flannel shirt as token of a bare-bones life. Behind the seeming Beatnik frivolity and excess, a bit of the tickings of a saint, albeit in human form.) I thought of Sherwood Anderson's old writer with his aches and his old carpenter friend at the very beginning of Winesburg, Ohio, somewhere deep inside of him a Joan of Arc. I thought of Hamlet, who is being quite honest when he says, 'man delights not me.' Or something like that.

The writer offers, at the least, a refreshing change from the stale, oppressive and overdone versions of happiness littered upon a city and a mass culture through illusions of what The Self might need, behind which lurks an 'us against them' mentality. In starting out with a simple instinct to write, it becomes mainly about what you learn through writing, less about the craft of, say, a well-captured dialog between two characters. Any great mind, it seems, hurts, bears the sorrows that come from a principal identification with other human beings, and this in turn is what one would offer. Don't get me wrong, people can be happy too, and that's great, the whole point, just how to get there, or where to start trying, none of us being any particular expert regarding such a fickle thing.

(Sex, or simple bodily communion, presents the opportunity for the best expression of our beatitude. There we are, lonely, aching, aging, never able to really be certain we are communicating fully, fairly, directly, without lies given or received, and sex cures us of all our aches, momentarily, but lastingly. Maybe it's somewhere in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men we get that sense of the sad, the beatific to love-making.)

I have only dragged these thoughts back from the forest rendered poorly as I sit at my desk, back in society as it were, jotting some of it out.

A writer can't really relax until he realizes that life's not about joy and pleasure, that rather it is a very serious thing, and that the job of writing too is very serious. There is a responsibility to be a kind of poetic scientist.

Jesus came at the Beatitudes through his years with publicans and sinners, as it sounds like he spent time with them in tavern sort of places. It's like he was there through years of barroom laughs, of sinful pleasures and sorrows shared with mates, all the many people he'd seen going through life's up and downs, loudness and quiet. Finally, he figured it out, got what 'it was all about.' And he no longer tried so willfully to be happy, and then he found the happiness of the body of light within him, and an impossible wisdom, and gentleness radiated from him. Remember, like Buddha, Christ was--at least he could have been--a normal ordinary guy like you and I, who achieved enlightenment.

No one thing is, upon consideration, cause for either sadness or happiness, sorrow or joy, but rather a yin and yang mixture, and by being so, ultimately on the positive side of the sheet, as a thing to be treasured for it being in our lives, something to learn a life lesson by, therefore cherished.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

In Washington...

A writer who lives in Washington has an interesting life. He will not get very much respect, unless he is a Woodward. The creative writer finds himself out of the loop. By the habits of the town, everything he writes will have a twinge of the rude, the inappropriate, to it. An admission, or a creative consideration of a personal situation, a telling of how something might feel, will be, by the rules of the herd, be taken as evidence damaging to a career, something frowned upon, even if it is the juice that feeds the wagging tongues. A writer must try voices on, more or less publicly if he is to be acknowledged as a professional, and so he runs the risk of sounding like a punk, a distasteful guest. Good writing is often initially embarrassing, as Washington concentrates on what is happening at the moment, before being spun by time into an offering of common sense and wisdom that the public is not the worse for, the easy natural spin of a relaxed, accepting, healthy society.

The unfortunate thing for the Washington resident is that he cannot say anything readable or wise until he has been shepherded along the ways and routes of the fallen, the poor, the meek, the mistaken. It is not popular to be meek here. To the politician, to be so is an act of suicide.

And yet, when he has stumbled upon such ways, had too many cheap thrills that were immediately swallowed by a sense of loss and sadness, he will fall finally into a state of beatitude. He brings forth, from his sins, by his steadfast pondering and writerly habit, fruit. Filled with light, he blooms, a previously unknown kindness shining forth, as a ray of sun touching upon a leaf, extended all the way from its source.

Being a writer is a marvelous occupation. You can take it anywhere. If you live in Washington, you will have dreams of pulling your pants down in public. But you must live there, and it is your duty to say the things as you have found them to be true, if you do.

Admissions of the human nature and the erring of ways accounts for the broadness of Chekhov. As Chekhov knew such failures and transgressions with such an intimacy, admitting them as it were, there is to him an uprightness and an obvious dignity we would expect from a doctor, a good one at that.

This writer gets to bartend. It could be much worse. I get to live in a possibility of further transgressions.

Find me a good writer who hasn't made a lot of mistakes, who hasn't at one point screwed everything up.

Gaining the beatific state, I think it possible that his own human energies become aligned with the great body of electromagnetic energy, the light, which moves at speed, that is the flow we all tap into, a part of, to do our thing. Matter, remember, is conserved by the system; what is sin in one state is virtue in the next. This to me is the hidden meaning, the basic sense we find in a good story, that gaining of sympathetic light energy, so that we are not going against the flow, but with it. Maybe it takes reaching a state considered idiotic by societal functions. From it comes the fruit, for all to take joy in.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Changing the Channel on the Bush Years

The Beatific visions speaks to the people of the world because that in reality is who all of us are, what each of us is. The reality of our lives contain all such elements.

Democracy works because it includes everyone, thereby allowing room for the fundamental truths upon our existence. So do people flourish, in their great variety, in a system of government and society where people share and share equally, as ultimately they share the same end. (A war against the people will not be won.) Wine is a good metaphor for such a system, for all are the same before wine and the pleasure it offers. We are simple creatures who have a thirst for joy and reality.

So do we place faith and trust in humanity, and strive to give everyone a place, an equal voice and respect.

Not good for such a system of maintaining society is kind of cynicism that places faith in complex schemes, the Tower of Babel of unregulated greed that makes insiders wealthy and others without homes, the Tower of Babel of the War on Terror, an excuse to go and mess with the civilian lives of peoples from other nations identical to our own in substance, the Tower of Babel of taking power from the people and resting it in a veil of executive secrecy and false and arrogant claims of little merit

The earth too is poor and suffering, as are its creatures, and it too needs our attention.

It will be a good thing when the channel is changed.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Reading Hemingway's collection, In Our Time

Some of the best work a writer will ever do is a piece appreciating a work by another, an author who’s influenced him in the developmental years of his own writing. A writer will have thought years about an author’s work, and an understanding will develop over time. So I write about a work I find influential, In Our Time, the collection of short stories from early on in the career of Ernest Hemingway. I’ve spent years studying it, letting it sing to me.

You can’t blame Hemingway for recording what he finds he must do, how he must be, to be a man, in writing terms, in human terms, and by his own definition. That would contradict the long process of evolution, both within the species and all leading up to it. He lived and had to make his own choices, perhaps as much to survive as to live according to his basic desires. Perhaps it is his own taste in what manhood is about that leads him to be critical of other people, like Fitzgerald, for instance, a great writer in his own way, but not succeeding in Hemingway’s estimation of what it takes to be a man and handle your liquor. Hemingway's teasing Eliot, the guy who came up with 'infinitely gentle, infinitely suffering thing,' for needing employment as a bank clerk seems to be accusing someone else for one's own worst sins. Hemingway felt through different external pressures that the only manly way was for a writer to support himself through his own writing, that he must be 'good enough' for that to be that the case, as if such were the only proof of being good. But Hemingway lived in the knowledge that he couldn't have gotten started without his wife Hadley's family monetary support. And maybe part of him felt drawn to a kind of writing by which one did not care about the recognition and the income to show off, that the work had its own point, no matter how you did it, how often you did it, whether or not the publishers came knocking.

Each story from the collection highlights a certain facet of growing up from youth, to young adulthood, making the further and continual transitions that comprise being on one’s own. Part of the savor is that he is captured here en route, on the way, not totally there yet, each step an influence on him and what he will become, each experience new, interpreted by a mind wise enough to feel writing about it absolutely necessary. There’s also a sense of being relaxed in this adventure that sometimes happens more, as in certain situations, then it does elsewhere, more directly, more suddenly and with epiphany. Each story is a portrait of one of those meaningful moments, and each has its own pace to match the growing-up moments. The stories, not by coincidence, reflect the habit of observation the writing mind keeps, whether or not anything gets written or not. Growing up: it ain’t easy, but it’s worth writing about.

To me right now, it seems that growing up, or being a man, whatever you might want to call it, is a miracle of the DNA, of the DNA of life’s patterns, the DNA of evolution. The series of events is triggered by time, by outside events. Again, you can’t blame Hemingway for wanting to prolong, to carefully record, reveling somewhat, in this period of life. He had, I suppose, largely bloomed into maturity as these pieces were written, set with an obvious back-story of a writer finding his voice in his time. It makes the loss of the valise at the train station bearing stories of the same period all the more shocking and tragic. And yet, it would have been a growing experience as well, that also would have shaped the man and the sentences he wrote, not that we would have wished it.

Writing is often about transition, realization. Moving on from youth is a rich period of life, and even a great mystery that deserves homage in the religious, as we get Jesus Christ coming into his manhood, no one telling him what he should think, the Jesus of ‘render unto Caesar…’ A writer slows down the biology of the process to microscopic slide detail. And in the portrait, as if by coincidence, is a portrait of nature as well, a self-portrait worthy of naturalist study, as writers tend to be naturalists.

Hemingway was fond of cataloging, or matching himself with, other writers in boxing terms. How many rounds, whether not a knock-down, a knock-out, a victory or a draw. He would have appreciated being cataloged as a natural creature.

God will provide, the settler to a new land must believe, pray for, and hope. Growing up is new territory where one will have to live. The episodes from In Our Time are drawn out through an experience to a kind of end. And interestingly, where the collection begins with Nick as a boy trailing his hand in the water, as if to write as a way of figuring, we have Nick as the young man achieving the peace he anticipated in the act of thinking like writing in the end. In the middle there are good stories about handling distractions, dealing with intrusions on his fishing trips, and about finding fish. (Conversation is closed down into grunts, while the thinking remains clean and clear, more or less. Maybe such social reticence is another from of a beginning, encountering a real self beyond the illusions one has fallen into. The episodes bear the question, where and how will Nick fit in with society, if at all. His venture is somewhat like Huck Finn’s, existing alongside civilization, but on one’s own terms, knowing full well the craziness of trapping an actual human being in society.)

Hemingway, with typical humor, makes sense of the random discomfort of life, at least to his own mind. We have in his stories something akin to someone in the process of doing basically the right thing. Even if it’s becoming a writer. It was for him something to keep his faith in, something human.

An odd belief to think you could be a great writer. Armed with a vision, here's Hemingway, putting the time in. Interesting to see where it would lead him, that evolving vision that becomes almost Buddhist, almost beatific in The Old Man and the Sea, and A Moveable Feast. A career, interested in humanity. And basically, remember, his advice--call it what you will--for us was free, for the poor, freely given, as was appropriate, fitting and proper.

On the passing of a writer

You have to admit it is a depressing job, the self-imposed one (in Frost’s terms) of writing. Writers, not that they deserve any better necessarily from the rest of us, are treated barbarically. They will need some way of supporting themselves, another job entirely from the one they honestly pursue. (A rude awakening.) And even success, the success of wildest dreams, will be highly problematic, as the great gentleman practitioner knew. Quixotic as all of us, the gentleman of writing we have lost knew that there is always something fresh to write about, that even if a day comes when nothing happens, when even months go by, that around the bend there is something honest to write about, worth writing about, through the queer circumstances that the world throws up at us.

Some will take other jobs, jobs of toil, jobs offering ultimate disillusionment. Some will work at something simple, like tending bar, a bottle for some quick but real comfort at the end of a day. Some will have to endure the diabolical task of educating themselves in such a way that they have a credential toward the craft, made further diabolical by having to teach other people whatever it is you might need to know to write, and who really knows what that is, other than live life and ‘well, just go and write, if you want to be good at it, like anything else.’ It would be perfectly fine to simply be as Blake, doing your own thing, if you could get by.

For reward, you get published. Then what happens? You have to give readings, for one thing. Maybe you lose a bit of that straight path you took into the world, the one by which fresh things would of themselves come at you, little miracles to write about, telling you what you must, or what you can, write about. Throw recognition into that, maybe a good thing, maybe a bad thing. Maybe you don’t lose anything of your original perspective. You’re just famous on top of it. Then maybe you suddenly realize you’re no longer in the process of growing up (as Hemingway’s early stories depict), that what you have to write is looking back on how you came to be a writer and what it was like to practice the craft as you were discovering and through haphazard ways of trial and error, making it your own.

The writer is as the Border Collie to the dog world. Very intelligent. A herder. Even other dogs, in a playful way that speaks of the enjoyment of finding ‘one’s work.’ Maybe thrown in to a room with a whole bunch of potential herders—a facet of all people--is irritating in some way, maybe highly so. Maybe that’s why writers crave a bit of quiet and solitude.

A huge part of coming up with something, at least for some of us, is going down into the depths and finding your way out. Part of a cycle. He had so many fine things to say, so deeply sensitive and appreciative of human nature, so finely reaching out to those who, in reading, sought to touch him. The lowest of the low, maybe part of his job, a critical danger he must have bravely faced again and again and again. He was doing what he loved to do, the finest example he set. To him the lows were welcome, because he understood. As it was his job. Pursuing the wisdom of a beatitude.

An Irish wake, I wish him.

Monday, September 15, 2008

On Seeing The Pogues, A Long Time Ago

When I came to Amherst I brought my electric guitar. I played in garage bands back home in Clinton, New York, where, thanks to Hamilton College, there was a good local radio station. Sidelined by a growing-pain condition, my mom got me to take lessons on a borrowed guitar, and after a slow start I never looked back. There was good music, and bad music, and once me and the band caused a bit of a scene at the high school talent show. I cut my thumb doing a windmill and the blood got spattered over the pickguard of my Stratocaster copy. The principal sought to cut the power to our amplifiers. I ran up the aisles of the high school auditorium, much to the chagrin of my parents, but to howls and cheers and general liberation, and the next day, girls looked at me differently and asked how my thumb was. Bands got better after that, as we’d actually rehearse, and plan out our songs. We did English Beat songs, David Bowie, the Cramps, rockabilly, reggae, a bit of whatever New Wave you could bang out on a guitar.

At Amherst I played guitar and a bit of upright bass with the jazz ensemble. I tended to experiment with the tempo until I was clued in by Chicken, an excellent drummer, and the very nice fellow Don who conducted us. I tried to keep up with the chords, which were difficult ones, meant for jazz men, in need of simplification if I was going to play along. Improvisation was fun, and I wasn’t so bad at it, maybe because that was a part of being in a rock band in Central New York, Freebird and all.

One year Black Uhuru came to play UMass. I forget now how I knew about music back then, but I knew who they were and I got my ticket and walked down to UMass one warm spring night. I got there a little early, and as I was standing outside the hall where they played, a basketball court, if I remember, I saw these big Jamaican cats in their big leather hats holding their dredlocks, smoking a bit of weed. I approached them, not making a big deal about it, ‘til I was just sort of standing around like they were. “Hey, man, you go to school ‘round here,” a big fellow in sunglasses said to me, as the joint was passed. “I go to school up the street,” I said, my voice warmed up a bit by the sweet smell of pot. I took a look around at the band members, each with independent removal while remaining a band. I guess I had figured out by then the friendly man asking me if I read a lot of books was Robbie Shakespeare, the bass half of a famous rhythm section. Sly Dunbar, the percussionist, didn’t have a lot to say, but smiled quietly with a shy leather-clad congeniality from behind his own pair of reflective sunglasses.

“Someday you are going to be President,” Robbie Shakespeare pronounced. “Mr. President,” he said, pleased with himself, gently and with a happiness toward the world. He liked playing college towns, he seemed to be saying. He went around introducing me to the members of the band. Puma, the singer, and Johnny Danger, the guitar player. “You come on the road with us, man. Johnny Danger teach you a thing or two. That’s how you learn man, you have to go out on the road with Johnny Danger.” There was some private knowing laughter and Johnny Danger, without his black Les Paul slung over his shoulder, looked me over without looking at me.

Perhaps it is that musicians recognize each other, a certain friendly innocence music maintains in them a common habit. Robbie Shakespeare saw to it that I had a backstage pass stuck onto my dad’s old pale green and worn-soft oxford cloth shirt. And after the show I went backstage and drank Heinekens and shyly told Puma that her singing was beautiful. Robbie Shakespeare tried again to get me to out on the road in the tour bus with them, and eventually I ended up parting their company and heading back to campus with what to me anyway was a decent story. If I remember, there was a party at Chi Psi, and Flash, the bass player from the college’s finest band, heard me tell the story as he poured beer from a keg, and begun to believe me when he heard me tell it again. I didn’t look like much of a big liar back then anyway.

Now somewhere around this time, the North American continent grew more and more exposed to the punk coming out of England. The Clash, of course, I played London Calling on the old turntable in our house on summer nights without my dad minding because he understood I liked it. Sid and Nancy was a movie one of those winters, and I went to see it in Northampton. How the hell I ever heard first about The Pogues I cannot remember. Was it the Hamilton station? Or, seeing my punk qualities, did someone turn me on to them. Somehow, they fit the bill for me perfectly. The family had gone to Ireland the summer before first grade, and we kept a trove of Irish music records by the stereo. I remember in the big music room in the music building at Amherst there was a forgotten floor tom from a drum kit, and it sounded like one of those traditional Irish drums thumped upon for war marches and the like, and I thought, maybe even before hearing The Pogues, blessed as they are with an excellent drummer, Andrew “the Clobberer” Rankin, that such a drum was all one needed in a band. In fact, in the early days, The Pogues drum set pretty much consisted of one tom and snare, very simple, just something to pound out the beat on.

I think it was the late winter of my junior year The Pogues came to Northampton, a venue named Pearl Street, probably on old dance hall by the train station just as you came into town proper. I got my ticket, couldn’t convince anyone else to come along, and fuck it, off I went in the bus. (Steve Talty, a year ahead of me, also a bit of a punk, and an obvious music connoisseur, was on the same bus, headed to the same show.) There was a cute girl at Smith who’d grabbed me one night at a party, me in my dad’s old cashmere overcoat hanging about me, some silly haircut like Flock of Seagulls, and I really didn’t mind being a bit of a punk, even though my hair was a bit more conservative both when I saw Black Uhuru and when I got down to Noho to see The Pogues on their first North American tour ever.

I went in up the stairs, and stood by the bar, checking out the place. It was empty at the time, and there was a sort of post sound-check air to it. So I’m drinking my beer and standing not far away from the opening of the music hall when I see about five or so tall men in overcoats walking toward me, tipsy grins on their face, laughing about something as they sort of half-stumbled, half-sailed past me. And I can remember now Shane MacGowan, the young pure-faced Shane MacGowan, tall, big like a young horse passing by me, looking sort of like a young John F. Kennedy with different teeth and hair that stuck up sort of gotten a bit drunk. More than a little drunk maybe, maybe with a little sideways sway, maybe an arm over one of his bandmates. It wasn’t a long moment, and they didn’t stop. They made clear they were off for a bit of mischief, and certainly a barroom.

And being a kid back then, well, maybe I was too shy to ask if I could come back in if I left. Looking back now, I have to regret not trying to follow them out into the street. I could have told them about how I went to Ireland when I was a little kid, me and my brother touring it the backseat of a Vauxhall, east and west, north and south, Dublin, Galway, Mayo, Connemara, places in between. I’d been to Yeats’s grave, been to the jail in Dublin were the Irish Patriots of the Easter Rebellion were executed. I could have told MacGowan about studying literature up the street. I could have told them about my parent’s records of the old songs, and how I too had a punk band and bled in public to live music. I probably couldn’t have been able to keep up with them, I would probably had ended up puking out in the street, but it occurs to me how I could have gone a little further than I did, having gotten myself to the show at least. I think I remember them coming back in, with that drunken silence, trying to keep a straight face, breathing in and out, their caps over their faces, their hands stuck in overcoat pockets, mumbling the notes of tunes. They quickly passed by and were gone behind a door, then the lights went down and finally they came out.

They were Irish alright, and the guy banged on his drums just as he had in my vision of him, proud and loud with his thumping. The crowd was swaying and slam dancing and jumping and I didn’t go out into the middle of it. I stood there watching and listening to some miracle of music that in Brando’s Kurtz terms, hit me ‘like a diamond bullet.’ It was me, and I didn’t even know me. Tradition, and old school, and folk, and common wisdom, but also rebellion, bypassing the head, speaking from the heart, not the neat wasp stuff you’re supposed to go and ape but the raw beautiful poetry of life and its ups and downs. It was goddamn beautiful music, and a brilliant band, what else can I say. “Dirty old town,” it seemed to go well with Northampton, with all the towns you knew, in fact. It was all deep in my genes, in what I had to share with the world, innocent, beautiful, worldly.

As I look back on that that show, I realize how little I knew about The Pogues then, beyond that gut level total identification that sometimes makes my skin crawl a bit. There wasn’t much known about them back then, I guess. Amherst was a good place to find a record of theirs. After I graduated I went back to my first fall homecoming weekend, and there was this girl I wanted to see very badly. I’d gone out on the road and my car wasn’t doing so well, a head gasket problem so it wouldn’t go above 45 too comfortably on a rainy day, and so I got off the thruway, good thing I did, and by the time I got back to the apartment complex where my dad lived it pretty much died, the CV joints in the front axle giving out as I pulled up, never able to turn again. Dad let me borrow his car and I went, and that night I called the girl, and she said, ‘who’s this,’ and it didn’t go so well after that and I ended up fucking it all up by not doing anything because I felt so bad about how she couldn’t be nice to me, but anyway that’s another story, only vaguely related to this one. I felt so terrible about it, and the unresolved Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca nature of it that the only consolation I had before leaving Amherst to go back was finding Red Roses For Me, The Pogues first album in a record shop down on North Pleasant Street at the UMass end of town. And music has that ability to help you lift your chin up and carry on when you really don’t fucking feel like it. Maybe particularly Irish music because it’s raw and not overly defined the way more processed and commercially designed music is. It’s not hostile, it’s not syrupy, it’s just real. Irish music doesn’t tell you how you’re feeling, it just is how you are feeling, and for that reason it is tremendously uplifting and thank god for it and all its simplicity. That was all I had to take back, not a nice talk, not a hand held, no, just a lousy vinyl record of some raw drunken blokes from Ireland singing from the heart about human love and suffering, and even in my great not-wanting-to-do-anything I kept that record with me as a sort of magic talisman of my recovery, waiting for the day when it would finally come like the fairy who would come back and turn the seal back into the child you lost, or when simply the seal would turn into a child, or I would turn into a seal. Or when she herself would simply be nice to me, because I didn’t want anything from her anyway.

Over the years I would see Shane MacGowan play with a band once or twice, and then see the reunion of The Pogues as I did this year in Washington, DC, a show that brought me back to that night in Northampton. (He looked pretty good, I thought. And he sang, he sang.) I know better now, thanks to a couple of documentaries about him and a book called A Drink With Shane MacGowan, about the lives I passed in passing one cold night twenty something years ago. I know that as a school kid MacGowan wrote a piece about the very same poem I myself took a special liking to, the paper I wrote for Richard Elllman’s daughter, “Preludes,” by T.S. Eliot, a poem I knew so well back then, committed to memory, even though I never became an English teacher or an academic. (I remember a fine moment from Maud Ellman’s classwhen we were about to move on, after she had suggested the poem had a pessimistic note to it, and I raised my hand and said I didn’t see it that way, but just how it showed that we were just animals, that this was the source of the very best of us. I remember how my hands trembled as I spoke.) I learned about how he had witnessed a nervous breakdown of a parent when he was a kid, and how he had one too. I learned about the basic problem a healthy farm kid faces when he comes to a city, in his case London. I learned about how fucked-up life can be for a person, and how sometimes it’s poetry that saves them. Poetry and music, something uninhibited, free, that goes back to the land where one came from, that keeps one’s heart alive, not so crazy after all maybe. I read some words of his and found out that he wasn’t exactly a dummy when it came to discussing matters of the spirit as such matters have been discussed over the ages in light of words of people like Buddha or Jesus Christ or the Taoist.

Now I’m not going to encourage anyone else to be like, to live like Shane MacGowan. I’m not going to encourage anyone to go on the road with a band of heavy drinking Irish musicians. I’m not going to encourage myself to be like any of that, except in a quiet private way, maybe allowing myself to grease my throat with a bottle of red wine late at night in the garden after a shift or after writing something and lifting my voice and a guitar chord to the depths of night the last before the dawn, or maybe very rarely standing out on street corner not far away from my house and singing “Rainy Night in Soho,” or “Kitty,” or my own version of “Born to Run.” Yeah, why not? Doing one form of art always feeds the other forms you practice.

But I will say that after I left Amherst I didn’t feel so good. I can’t put my finger on it, at least if I’m trying to be as polite as one is called upon to be here in such a venue, but in my eyes there was something I found a little bit discouraging about Amherst. Maybe it’s because we’re showed the best, like when we read poetry with Benjamin DeMott or William H. Pritchard. Maybe it’s the discouragement of the world outside, beyond the old quadrangle of what was once a cow pasture or a stand of woods transformed by local farmers seeking a place of education, maybe it’s the discouragement that comes with realizing that the daily business of the world does not, by necessity I suppose, seem to place a great importance on literate understandings and literate works, at least those of some young punk kid who acts funny and who is apparently hard to understand. It’s not like the leaders of the world’s nations turn often and explicitly to poetry, at least not like Lincoln did, or not like Robert Kennedy did. But on the other hand, it is proper to leave poetry to the personal realm, simply remembering how very essential poetry and words and literary expression are for health, for retrieving stuff from the depths. While it seems enviable that someone can make a living out of literary and musical talents, perhaps that can be tiresome and unmagical. Let he or she who would want to have all the time they can to follow such pursuits, and let them do it without worrying about much beyond what they feel they have to say.

Anyway, I didn’t feel so good. Perhaps part of that speaks to the strength of Amherst, which is that, as liberal arts is supposed to do, an education puts you in touch with your dreams, who you really are, what sort of thing you might be good at and thrive upon. President Kennedy said it himself, not in his speech, but in his remarks at the groundbreaking ceremony for the Frost Library, that a student’s greatest opportunity is sometimes in neglecting his studies, something he would have understood, and probably could have explained better than the rest of us, brave man that he was. Maybe a kid discovers something about poetry, as from reading “Preludes” for instance, that leads him to healthy distraction. For who can answer, but himself, what he will need in life. There is the contrast, which suggests your uniqueness in the world, and the gift you will bring to it. Remember that Lincoln felt a bit depressed after Gettysburg. He had a cold, but maybe he wondered to himself, why had he gone on about all that stuff about government ‘by the people’ and other such mystical rot when all the crowd of the day wanted was something more of the day, maybe a story from the battlefield of blood and lust, just sort of stood there blinking at him when he finished.

I didn’t pick up the guitar as much as I had after I left Amherst in the shock of graduating. There was something about the way of an academic institution that sort of seemed to kill off a part of me, that bright hard-working kid who wanted to learn about everything under the sun, reduced him to a sort of survivor, unable to write his papers anymore. But at least I took to writing. That I did do. Maybe as a matter mainly and principally as a matter of survival. I’d go and sit outside in my lunch hour from my crap job as office clerk and if I wasn’t too tired from that or from the tables I bussed at night and the bar, if I wasn’t too depressed, I’d write, and writing felt good, and it was good for me. It felt some days like I had put together a song, and what I wrote, maybe was a bit like that masterpiece of The Pogues, “The Old Main Drag.” Simple old moaning, set meaningfully to some form of music and instrument. And every now and then I’d go treat myself to reading something I found was beautiful, like that early two-parted story of Ernest Hemingway from the collection In Our Time, about a guy who goes on a camping trip to fish a river when he comes home from something he doesn’t want to go into, having the courage to face himself, even all alone, whether or not that’s easier or harder one never knows.

You can’t really choose so much what your genes are, except in accordance with karmic law, if you believe in such things. But you’re born with a certain set of talents, instincts, desires for a way of occupying your time, and more encouraging than anything is not the word of those you might find around you. It’s great if they are encouraging, if they are kind, and seek you out, and corroborate with you. No doubt that is great. We all need to find in life people like ourselves. But it is often the case that you will find the best encouragement in your own feedback, in your own response to that which you are exposed to. And if you are lucky, you will learn who you are, even if it comes from a strange surprising night, a living Irish poet walking past you, as if to say, ‘it’s alright, kid,’ leaving in your heart a memory that grows upon you and shapes you quietly in the years of your adulthood, something that lets a kind of industriousness, a kind of energy, a kind of a guide come active in your life.

So my praise to The Pogues for their expression of matters of the heart and of life their music can bring to the listener. To me it is capable of warding off the discouragement that comes of encountering the differences people from different places bring with them in their attempt to state their own or understand another. For poetry speaks of the effort of graciousness, trying to understand, trying to be understood, without judgment. We don’t chose who we are, or where our talents lie, and to follow them is a brave thing, and something that makes you always feel good.