It was during my sophomore year in college when the professor for my Introduction to Poetry course laid the tone arm down onto the record that was spinning on the portable turntable. This, she assured us, was poetry we might already be familiar with. In a moment, we heard a voice on the record singing “Morning has broken like the first morning/ Blackbird has spoken like the first bird/ Praise for the singing/ Praise for the morning/ Praise for them springing fresh from the world…”
I was sitting near the front of the class, and upon hearing the first sung notes of this song, I turned around to see how the rest of the class was reacting to it. That’s when I saw Claude, a big grin on his face, looking like this was the happiest moment of his academic career. He was a political science major—maybe even a “college republican.” Whatever it was, there was something about him smiling at recognizing a Cat Stevens song that was sickening.
I mean, Cat Stevens was OK. I might have liked his music more back then if I’d seen the film Harold and Maude, in which his music plays a big part in setting the atmosphere for what happens between Bud Cort and Ruth Gordon, but at the time I hadn’t. I only saw Harold and Maude recently, watching it with Heather and Maggie one weekend night after Julien had fallen asleep early. After several decades, I started to like Cat Stevens more. Back in 1976, though, my idea of poetic language in music included things like the work of Gil Scott-Heron and Chicago Beauchamp’s spoken word performance in Archie Shepp’s Black Gipsy. My poetry professor, I gathered, had a different idea. She let all of Cat Stevens’s “Morning Has Broken” play, and when it was finished declared, her eyes wide with the passion of a million sonnets, “Poetry is about the beauty of language, as such.”
That, of course, was the worst part of it. Hearing that cheap and easy declaration, I was sure, had to be both the lamest and most frightening moment of my poetic life. I felt like I’d been abducted by some horrible cult. It was sort of like that time between my Junior and Senior year in high school when I was at the University of Georgia on a program run by the National Science Foundation. A group of students from the university had befriended a number of us from the NSF program, and one weekend took us on a picnic in Watson Mill Bridge Park, then tubing down the shallow south fork of Broad River.
It was a fun afternoon. I was tubing down the river holding hands with Anne, this girl with long blonde hair from Texas who was studying math for her NSF program. She was beautiful and smart and, as I was a little slow in these matters, she was the first girl I ever held hands with. Everything was going fine until after we’d gone tubing, where our older friends from the university had one other stop to make. That stop was to their church. We had to listen to a talk about Jesus and being born again and all this other stuff. My mind wandered off toward thoughts I found much more pleasant, and I kept trying to distract Anne, but she was paying attention to all the Jesus talk.
I avoided our so-called friends from the university after that day, but Anne had come to the conclusion that they were cool. I started hanging out with Janet, who was also studying math in the NSF program but was an atheist, idolized Orson Welles, and at the time was making her way through the works of Aldous Huxley.
As for the poetry class with the professor whose mantra was “Poetry is about the beauty of language as such,” I zoned out for the rest of the semester. I sat in the back, staying out of it, wondering if, perhaps, this whole poetry thing wasn’t for me. Forty years later, not a day goes by when I don’t still wonder that. But then words start coming to mind again along with the sounds. Sometimes I just let them bounce off of each other in my head for a while. Sometimes I write them down immediately. Either way, it’s my work. It’s what I do, whether anyone likes it or not (and some people don’t). My poetry presents my ideas, my aesthetic, my view, my way of connecting with the world—as such. And every time I write a new poem, it is as if I am born again.
This is a photograph of the birds that flew over my wife, my daughter, my son, and I last year after we’d arrived in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware in the early off-season of the universe.
Photograph by Jose Padua