In this brief essay, poet Philip Clark shows us how poetry can enter our lives at any point, while at the same time challenging the assumption that success belongs primarily to the young.
Coming To Poetry, Age 58
“You want to, like, study poetry? Like, now?”
“What the hell are you going to do with an M.F.A. in Creative Writing?”
“I love you; do whatever you want.”
“Well. Well. Well…good luck.”
“It’s about time. Write your damn heart out.”
In the fall of 2012, I decided to apply to City College, for an M.F.A. in their Creative Writing Program. It had twenty-eight years since I’d graduated from Fordham University; thirteen years since I’d attended Queens College. I’d been with the New York City Law Department for ten years. I’d been writing a blog about artists for the last three. But it seemed as if I’d been writing poetry off and on for the previous forty. A look back at journals from my very young days shows that poetry was always trying to rear its head in my life and writing. It just never bloomed back then.
At the time of my application I’d only published ten poems in one poetry journal, Assaracus, the singular publication of gay poetry published by Bryan Borland at Sibling Rivalry Press. These were my juvenilia, age 58 at the time. In the words of Emily Dickinson, in terms of my poetry, I was “Nobody,” exclamation point! I decided to go “public” — just like that frog of hers, “to tell one’s name”, and find others who were “Nobody, too!”
Coming to one’s own late in the life of poetry, I share good company: William Carlos Williams, Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, Charles Bukowski, Elizabeth Bishop, Sylvia Plath, Marianne Moore, to name just a few, started as poets or wrote some of their finest work in poetry much later in their lives — after long years of observing the world, talking about the world, reading the world and engaging with those who transform it into art. Coming to poetry later in my life was a gift, not a second thought; it was directed by purpose, not accident. To be more accurate, I came to poetry early, but the actual serious writing of it, came later. It has always been in my life. I’d read and loved poetry at a very young age – after all, Dick and Jane were poetry! Dr. Seuss! Who was not captured by Green Eggs and Ham? I was, I am. I remember my older sister, Kathleen, wandering around our New York apartment, her stentorian voice reciting Shakespeare sonnets; I remember trying to parse through Gerard Manley Hopkins – still a favorite – at age 11 or 12; I was reading Plath at almost the same age, and I recited sections of Dylan Thomas’s “Under Milk Wood” once in a seventh grade English class for a poetry reading competition. I didn’t win, but that work is still one of the seminal texts that led me to poetry at this stage of my life. Without a doubt, there was a single poem that touched me so deeply – and continues to – that I can point to it as the poem which jumpstarted me writing seriously. It is Robert Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays.” Its final, heartbreaking line, “What did I know, what did I know / of love’s austere and lonely offices” made my hair literally stand on end.
We currently live in a culture that promotes and urges the precocious and young to get it all out there, and fast. This is fine. But not everyone is Mozart, or Picasso, or W.H. Auden. We now have art students hanging retrospectives at age 24; young musicians line up for Carnegie Hall performances by the time they are 13; first novels appear on the bestseller lists from writers at age 21. We rarely say, “Take your time; you have years ahead of you.” And yet, that is where I start. My years ahead are my now.
When I was accepted by the program at City, I was determined to do two things: to find out who I was as a poet, and to learn the craft as if it were food. Something of both sustenance and gruel. Someone said to me last year, “Philip, honestly, are you going to be comfortable studying with so many younger students than yourself?” Yes. Now two-and-a-half years into study, and about to graduate this spring, the wonderful part of being here is that I can completely share different experiences of age, and I have done so in a remarkable exchange of ideas and collegiality. I seek the energy and enthusiasms of my younger colleagues, and I have found that they seek my mentorship and experience. There has not been a limit to my engagement with them in any way. In fact, this has helped me answer my first question more often than not. As I find out who I am as a poet, I’m finding out too who those poets are that share my tribe.
Where do my poems come from? What are the things I see that inspire me to describe them in this form, rather than another? Why does one event or object catch my attention and not something else? My elderly mother placing her comb in the butter and then combing her hair; a beautiful diver high above, about to soar down in a twist; a particular priest I remember from a funeral in my childhood; starlings grubbing at garbage in the rain as a homeless person watches them. A lover walking away for the last time. A niece I am walking down the aisle on her wedding day. Why these things and not others? And why will my poems capture anyone’s attention? Who is interested in how I see the world, or how I translate the same space they are living in?
Since I’ve been in the program and actively writing, I’ve thought hard about how I might want to put myself out there; how to let people know who I am among all the other poets. The world of poetry is often transitory and finite. How does one approach creating a body of work that will define who you are? How does one do it successfully? Who are the names that rise to the top of our consciousness – what makes a Doty, a Sexton, or a Hayden; a Hopkins or a Plath; a Strand or Merwin? Fame is a frenzy of renown, and it disappears into thin air, very quickly. I know this. I’ve been on the receiving end of caustic stares, looking up at high noses. And I’ve also entered into one of the most generous communities of writers I’ve ever known. I’ve been supported and encouraged. I’ve written the introduction to Bryan Borland’s My Life As Adam, his first book of poems; I’ve had my poetry reviews published, as well as interviews with poets. I’ve gained an inch. More of my work is getting out there. I’ve met new colleagues and friends whose work I’d admire and respect, and whose friendship in the years ahead will always be on the greatest gifts I got out of attending City College and making this decision.
I’m not a sort of Octo Pop of poetry – I can’t fire out twenty poems a day. I’m lucky when I “receive” one poem in a month sometimes. And yes, like the winged-eared Hypnos, I keep myself cupped to what might be ready to fall into sleep and dreams and come forth as a poem. But sometimes, it’s nothing but a line, two words, one word, a vague idea, a glance, a color on a man’s coat, or the color of his eyes. Once it was the sound of a door closing behind my whole previous life. My poetry will always take time; I’ve answered that for myself. So I’ve calmed down about a few things.
One important thing I have kept close to me: mentors are the greatest resources we have. I have had the great fortune to meet and know a small group of poets who have mentored me with their guidance, critical eye, and clear thinking. I will make mistakes; people will love or hate my work for a multitude of personal reasons. But these mentorships – great friendships – help me understand why I too gladly mentor anyone coming to poetry for the first time. As one of the graduate editors of City College’s literary journal, The Promethean, I have had the pleasure to see such amazing writing across many experiences, ages, and perspectives. The engagement I have with those student and faculty writers has helped me enormously in my own work. And the great mentors of course have been the poet instructors at City College who have been absolute lights for me: David Groff, Elaine Sexton, Esther Weiner, Cynthia Zarin, Linsey Abams, Harold Veeser, and Michelle Valladeres, among others. Their encouragement permitted me to stand on that ledge of myself, and jump. Still jumping; for them I am forever grateful.
So what do I have as I continue to create my poet this late in life? I have the pleasure of not having to wait anymore. I have patience. I have eyes and ears; a sense of timing, and a sense of anticipation; a sense of humor. I have strange voices that speak in familiar tongues. Memory is a constant sheaf of paper in my hands; I have grief to remind me of what I am thankful for. I still fall in love. Every day I enter a world of people who are not like me at all; I am thrown together with them in any number of juxtapositions – comfortable or uncomfortable. New York is alchemy for poetry. And what good is a comfort zone, anyway?
A favorite poet of mine, Carl, Phillips, whose work has long helped me understand and be wonderfully mesmerized by poetry’s continual and mysterious beauty, has said, “Don’t worry about what anyone else thinks – write what you must!” And so I do.
I have bread to chew and savor, slowly. Poetry still makes my hair stand on end.
Editor’s Note: Want to see some of Philip Clark’s poetry? Check out his breathtaking “Lacrimosa.”
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