First, let me introduce myself. My entire family, on both sides, originated from Harlan, Kentucky, a coal town in the southeastern part of the Bluegrass State, a place of great importance to labor historians and country singers. My ancestry consists mostly of alcoholics and pill addicts, xenophobes, agoraphobes, preachers, toothless Felliniesque pinheads, veterans of foreign wars with unidentifiable diseases, attempted murderers, moonshiners and bootleggers, racists, golfers, magicians, disability royalty, suicides, freemasons, and a legion of mourners. Before I arrived on the scene, my mother and father and my two sisters moved north to Dayton, Ohio, birthplace of African-American poet Paul Lawrence Dunbar, actor Rob Lowe, and sibling aviators Orville and Wilbur Wright. If my father had stayed in Harlan, there is little doubt the man would have been a miner instead of a construction worker, which means I, too, might have gone underground to make a living (if there were any coal left in those mangled hills). I suppose this constitutes what William Wordsworth, son of a noble lord’s personal attorney and lifelong resident of the Lake District in northwest England, referred to in his “Preface to Lyrical Ballads” as a “low and rustic life” where the “essential passions of the heart find a better soil in which they can attain their maturity, are less under restraint, and speak a plainer and more emphatic language.” If so, I got lucky. I am the first person in my immediate family to graduate from high school.
To me, Dayton always epitomized a dying city. And, according to the one friend I know who still lives there, these hard economic times have caused this statement to ring true. I spent my early twenties trying to get out of Ohio. On the third try, I never went back. I have not lived in Dayton for more than twenty years. I have nothing against Ohio or Dayton in particular, but there was simply nothing to do in that town except walk around with a plastic cup waiting for someone to pour beer into it. If you wanted to check out any “professional” art and entertainment, you had to drive sixty miles south to Cincinnati. Though quite conservative politically, Cincinnati had the clubs, museums, the Reds and the Bengals, independent cinema, and the University had enough money to bring in some major poets.
Now, this happened twenty-five years ago, so the statute of limitations on bizarre decisions has run out. I purchased a sheet of forty doses of lysergic acid diethylamide from an acquaintance for the rock-bottom price of two dollars per tab. Like many troubled yet intellectually curious youth, I wanted to experiment with a drug akin to the one I’d read about in Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception—not Tom Wolfe’s Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, a book I did not read and subsequently despise until I was in my thirties. Ingesting LSD seems innocent enough when you’re young, but now I see it as a symptom of reality not especially working out for me. I’ve changed all that. Things are better now. Okay, no more disclaimers, push on, Williams.
One clear October night, two friends and I decided to travel to Cincinnati and see Robert Creeley read. During the mid-1980s, Creeley was my favorite poet. I loved his spare but filling lyrics—and he seemed so cool in Elsa Dorfman’s photograph that appeared on the cover of The Collected Poems of Robert Creeley in 1982. Sporting a Van Dyke beard and long slicked-back hair, he’s staring fearlessly into the camera with his one eye, his right eye, and the eyelid of his missing left eye is flattened and exposed. No patch or glass eye in this picture.
I borrowed my mother’s Pontiac Le Mans; picked up Tim and Stephen; and plotted a course to Cincinnati via I-75, an unassuming Interstate between two unassuming Midwestern cities. About halfway to the reading, I needed to make an important announcement. I said, “You guys, I have to tell you something. Before we left, I took a tab of acid and I don’t think I can drive anymore.” Stephen, an older graduate student at the University of Dayton, where Tim and I were undergraduates, reacted angrily. From the back seat, he said, “Are you out of your fucking mind?” or something to that effect. Probably he thought we would turn around and go home and he’d miss the reading because this dumb kid had chosen this exact occasion to drop acid for the very first time in his life, having no idea how seriously unlike every other human being on earth he would soon become. More like a cartoon character emanating a constant industrial hum. Both Stephen and Tim had experienced the drug on their own and knew what I was in for. My friend Tim, my best friend—somebody bless him—immediately went into LSD nursemaid mode and told me to pull over at the nearest gas station. Which I did. We went into the bathroom and he admonished me for exhibiting the chutzpah required to experiment with LSD for the first time in my life, alone, in this unregimented environment. He kept saying, “I’ll meet you halfway, I’ll meet you halfway,” as he took pull after pull of weed off his one-hitter.
Back in the car, we convinced Stephen to drive the rest of the way to Cincinnati. The drug had reached one of its several apexes. The Pontiac seemed enormous. Streetlights dragged their luminosity across the exterior. The other cars speeding past sounded like strafing fighter planes. Everything was or was not perfect. When we arrived at our destination, the Environmental Protection Agency (don’t ask me), Stephen parked the car and Tim and I ran for the front door, suffering from lethal cottonmouth and in dire need of a drinking fountain. Inside, the EPA building resembled the science floors at any university: bathrooms, classrooms, offices, bright lights, and finally—oh, thank god—a drinking fountain. Or what appeared to be a drinking fountain. Let’s just say the implication of water presented itself. Tim and I approached this contraption, and I started yanking on the pull cord and leaning against the push handle until two beautiful jets of water spouted up from the bowl. I drank my fill from each stream, listening to the sound of rain falling on solid ground behind me. Tim followed suit but ended up with some kind of weird shower. What a strange drinking fountain, I thought.
Utterly slaked, we followed Stephen into a huge amphitheater slash auditorium and marched down the steps to the front row. Soon, the poet Terry Stokes came out to introduce Creeley, who sat at a nearby table with his glass eye in and his glasses on, shuffling through what I assumed were poems he might read. (As an aside, I’ll mention that this was only the second real poetry reading I had ever attended.) By my invisible watch, Stokes’ introduction went on for about six months. The crops failed. The village had a new idiot (me). The mayor got caught with his hand in the till. A tornado destroyed the town’s only schoolhouse. A lot happened in six months. I will never understand why some sponsoring institutions send a faculty member up to the podium to introduce a writer by reading a dissertation on said writer’s work. Poor Terry Stokes practically talked himself hoarse.
By the time Creeley made his way to the podium and adjusted the microphone, thunderous applause erupted like a geyser. After the clapping died down, he began to read in that way he was famous for back then. I’d heard his voice on cassette tape and the intensity was unbearable, but to see it in person is to shit one’s pants. He responded to Charles Olsen’s Projective Verse manifesto literally, almost spitefully. The end of the line is always the end of the breath. And since Creeley’s poems are generally short-lined, he would nearly empty his lungs and read with very little air. The end of each line sounded like a dying man’s agonal respiration. Incredibly, he had perfected this technique to such a degree that every syllable could be heard throughout the amphitheater slash auditorium. Each poem seemed imbued with longing, no matter what the subject.
About fifteen minutes into the reading, Creeley removed his ragged wool sweater to reveal a simple white shirt. That took another four months. He continued to deliver his tender or brutal lyrics, and I began to feel as though I was watching a fish out of water recite these heartbreaking poems as he suffocated to death on pure oxygen at the water’s edge. It was or was not grotesque. In any case, I turned to Tim and whispered, “I can’t handle this. We have to sit in the back.” Still offering comfort to the wounded, Tim stood up with me and we climbed the steps and plopped down in the last row, quiet and appreciative from a safer distance. Stephen stayed put. The fish jumped back in the water.
After the reading, people started moving toward the exit, and Tim spotted Denise Levertov trying to sneak out before everyone else. He said, “Hi, Denise,” and she looked at him, shocked, and said, “Hello.” I ran into a couple of people I knew, and I swear I could see right through them. As we followed the crowd into the adjoining hallway, we confronted a nice big sign taped to what turned out to be an emergency eye wash. THIS IS NOT A DRINKING FOUNTAIN, the sign said. There was water all over the tile floor. Here’s the thing: From my perspective, thirst had triggered a crisis. Drinking from the emergency eye wash is about the only thing I do not regret from that night.
We waited for Stephen next to the car, then Tim drove us to an Italian place where we ordered coffee and a large pepperoni pizza. Stephen had lightened up by now, having survived an evening with two punks that barely knew how to act in the world. To pass the time, the three of us wrote a horrible exquisite corpse. I noticed that the entire restaurant was sweating—the people, the tables and chairs, the windows. When our sweaty pizza arrived Tim and I continued drinking coffee with our slices instead of switching to water, the thought of which makes me want to throw up a little in my mouth. Tim drove us back to Dayton. He dropped Stephen off at his house, dropped himself off at his father’s apartment, and then I drove the short distance back to my apartment near the University of Dayton. The car felt like a big rig instead of an aircraft carrier, so I avoided the trees and mailboxes and runaway semaphores. Statute of limitations, I’m cured, etc.
My roommate was staying over at his girlfriend’s, and I got into the headphones and listened to music—probably Brian Eno and Philip Glass. I fell asleep some time around dawn. I’m sure I skipped my classes that day. I skipped a lot of classes that semester, which explains why I flunked out of UD. Education really is wasted on the young. As a college professor, I’m an annoying stickler about attendance. Hypocritical, I know, but I don’t want what happened to me to happen to my students. In the twenty-five years between then and now I have wandered all over this country—from the most wretched motels in Nevada and Oregon to the majestic Valley of the Gods in Utah to Thoreau’s cabin in Massachusetts—and for my money and my time, sitting in a classroom, clear-headed, talking about poetry with young people who know how to be present better than I did—that’s the most satisfying place on earth.