I knew Paul before I met him, and I don’t mean through his poems. When I decided to move back to Connecticut from Florida in 2001, I found a job at the now-shuttered Borders Books & Music in Simsbury. There I worked with Susan Coes, a woman who’d been involved in politics and PR her whole career, now retired, working with books.
Susan appreciated poetry but, like most people, well-read or otherwise, was afraid of it. As I’m wont to do everywhere I go, I started sharing some of my favorite poets with her, one of whom was Paul. Whom she happened to be acquainted with from her days as Susie Dowling, driving in from Stamford with her friends to hang out in the City. I don’t know how frequently they hung out or how well they knew each other, but later (perhaps not that much later) when I first met Paul—most likely through David Lehman, who’d introduced me to his poetry at Bennington, and most likely at the KGB Bar—I mentioned Susan’s name to Paul and his eyes sparkled with recognition.
Paul’s eyes. That glint, that squint, the examination of the world before him, not for dissection and collection, but for delight. Even when you were saying something that he completely disagreed with, he played a gentle Devil’s advocate, always implying, “Is that really what you think? Really? C’mon, you’re better than that!” And then that half-grin, the smirk, as if he knew something you didn’t, which he did.
I had the pleasure of hosting Paul at the Vermont Studio Center in 2007. Paul graciously filled in when another poet—John Haines, who also passed away this year—couldn’t attend as a Visiting Writer. I can’t remember the exact month, but I know it was at least a little warm. Why? Because when Paul and Ann arrived from Putnam Valley and got out of their car, there was a dead bird—a finch, I believe, possibly a chickadee—jammed into the roof rack, the victim of a wrong swerve. Paul and I agreed that it was an omen. And we both agreed that it was neither good nor bad.
Paul helped me with my first book, The Mad Song, while visiting Johnson. I could talk to Paul about poets like Shelley and Coleridge without receiving either a blank stare (most younger poets) or an academic discourse (some older poets). We could talk in terms of song and music, we could talk in terms of human.
At VSC, Paul gave one of the best talks on a poem I’ve ever had the pleasure to hear, in any setting. It was on Ezra Pound’s “Cino,” a poem I’m sure he’s discussed countless times with students at the New School and elsewhere. It’s one of Pound’s early poems, in the voice of Cino da Pistoia, a troubadour and friend of Dante’s. Pound took “Cino” as an early pseudonym. The poem begins:
Bah! I have sung women in three cities
But it is all the same;
And I will sing of the sun.
Paul taught me many things, through his poems and through his person. I remember one lesson especially, in which Paul’s Devil was not so gentle. At the end of my stint as Writing Coordinator at VSC, I was trying to find a job, the next place to go, and not having any luck. Paul had been kind enough to act as a reference on a few of these applications. After I failed to secure a position at some other important arts organization, I wrote to Paul, lamenting my lot, throwing ashes on my head in self-pity. He responded:
You’re feeling “utterly defeated” because a couple of jobs didn’t come through? Look, I don’t mean to sound like a know-it-all, but you have to slough it off and keep sending out applications, and in the meanwhile take any job that provides an income; even something you hate doing, if only temporarily. Adversity—in the short run—can be stimulating, in terms of writing; the very aversion you have can stir things up, sharpen your focus, and—who knows how?—allow for ideas and feelings and experiences you never expected. Anyway, you’ve got to take care of business, scramble for money to maintain some kind of freedom and independence, right? You can’t avoid disappointment, no one can, but you can control how it affects you. I usually wallow in self-pity, then get angry, then make something happen or something else just comes along, perhaps a greater disappointment! Perhaps good news, that makes one quickly forget the previous one.
I’d disagree on one point: He did want to sound like a know-it-all. And he could because he was. Because he’d be the first to admit that he didn’t know nearly all of it and that it wasn’t that you have to have all the answers, but that you keep asking the question.
It’s taken me so long to write about Paul because, like so many of his friends and relatives, former students, passing acquaintances, people who only met him once, I can’t believe he’s gone. Even while writing this, I’ve had to stop for long stretches because I can’t stop weeping. Weeping. Salt flats pour out of my eyes. The sun has broken on a beautiful spring morning—there was a hell of a squall last night—and the birds are chirping and Main Street is alive, even this early.
“It’s always alive,” I hear Paul saying. That’s why, even though I weep, I’m not sad. How can I be, knowing him, and having known him? Paul was open to everything. Not that he didn’t have opinions, or likes and dislikes, but, as a poet and a person, exclusivity was anathema, to shut yourself off from considering this or that was stupid. Everything is there and everything has value. A note on an Acura Integra, a catalog of rare books,a ransom note in the form of haiku. Paul was a transcendentalist. He was what Emerson wrote of in “New England Reformers”:
It is so wonderful to our neurologists that a man can see without his eyes, that it does not occur to them, that it is just as wonderful, that he should see with them; and that is ever the difference between the wise and the unwise: the latter wonders at what is unusual, the wise man wonders at the usual.
Paul wondered at the usual. Like Michael Gizzi, whom we also recently lost, he was a real Italian kid, from the streets of Brooklyn, and the shores of Long Island and the Hudson Valley. Paul’s work may be over in one sense, but it is truly just beginning. I know that whenever I look at the world, I’ll see Paul. And I know—now more than ever—that Paul will be there, just like always.
“And I will sing of the sun.”
(Ed note: This appears on The Unruly Servant)