When I was fifteen, I showed my sophomore English teacher several of my very first poems, which I had written out by hand. He read them eagerly at his desk and said, “Bill, this is poetry,” as if nothing in the world could have pleased him more.
He was twenty-four, had just begun his teaching career, and, in the revolutionary spirit of the times, liked to experiment in his class with words and music. I remember one assignment in particular in which he dimmed the lights and played the fluid second side of Abbey Road, the last album The Beatles recorded. He told us to write down whatever came into our minds — random thoughts, the meaning of the music, of life, anything.
By the time we were done, I had written several pages of flowery, mystical nonsense, and felt like I could have gone on for hours. Shortly after we turned in our papers, the class time ended and I wandered out into the second-story corridor of a place I had already begun to think of as a prison, feeling dazed and exhilarated.
It was a strange time, as all the time of my life has been — strange, beautiful, and blessed with inspiration and pain. Although I knew I didn’t belong in school, I was there anyway — partly because it was expected of me and partly for the social aspect, but mostly because it hadn’t occurred to me that I should quit and hitch a ride to San Francisco, or to other points beyond. I did think of it later, though. There was also a bloody, criminal war going, and this, in my mind, at least, had created an atmosphere of anger and gloom. Even then, it was clear to me that I could not, would not, could never participate in such an enterprise.
I continued to write, or to try to write, because the truth of the matter is, I had no idea what writing really entailed or that it was a distinct way of life — and yet there was no doubt in my mind that whatever writing was, that was what I wanted to do. Such is the nature, I believe, of a true calling.
I don’t know what happened to the poems I showed my teacher that day, or to the pages I wrote during his musical experiments. Back then, he and his wife encouraged me to go on writing and to not stay put. According to them, I was to get out of town as soon as possible and see the world. Their own restlessness and dissatisfaction were evident. I seem to recall hearing a few years later that they did not stay together. A shame. Or, perhaps not a shame. I don’t know. How could I?
Songs and Letters, April 24, 2006
Categories: Songs and Letters