The quote in the above photo is from Wallace Stevens, a major American poet of the just departed century. Stevens was an executive for an insurance company and by many accounts kind of a prick. Certainly not the loft-lurking beret-clad chap that is the poet cliché. He had money and he knew what to do with it. He also had a brain and could do wonderful, creative things with that.
I was amazed to discover only very recently that a bust of Stevens’ wife, Elsie, was the model for the coin known as the “Mercury” dime that was issued 1916-1945 . Imagine that! Some poets are more equal than other poets.
The photograph was taken about 6:20 a.m. two Januaries ago in a small town called Ridgecrest, CA., which sits in the high desert region of California, oh, 160 miles from LA. Recently, I went back to try to get some more shots like that. Unfortunately, there’s a Beanster’s/Pizza Factory in the way now.
I sometimes carry a copy of Stevens’ collected poems with me. It’s my iPhone, PDA, gizmo, whatever the hell you want to call it, all between the pages. A world for the mind. It’s quiet and doesn’t ring or jiggle and never forces me to multi-task.
I am not, by the way, a big fan of most of his poetry. But what I like I will embrace to the grave.
“It can kill a man.” So ends one of his poems called, “Poetry Is a Destructive Force.”
At the age of nineteen I bought my first two books of poetry. Up to that time I had lived mostly below the belt, driven by quite primitive modes of behavior. A jock. But something happened as a sophomore in college. Who knows? Hormonal trickle down theory? But I walked out of a Pickwicks bookstore in Bakersfield one day with two books: “A Coney Island of the Mind,” by Lawrence Ferlinghetti and the collected poems of T.S. Eliot, Faber and Faber.
I don’t read the Ferlinghetti much anymore, sad to say. But I still love the cover, and the title. If I can’t find the Stevens, I often carry Eliot around with me. Sometimes it’s Yeats. If I can’t find them, any nice anthology will do.
My most cherished book of poetry is a hardcover edition of Down at the Santa Fe Depot, 20 Fresno Poets. It’s autographed in the back by all 20 poets! It was printed in 1970, and I know that at least two of the poets, sadly, are dead. I have never known any of these poets, even though I lived in Fresno at that time and attended Fresno State concurrently with some of them. I saw some of them read, and I own or have owned many of their books. I have one truly fond memory (which I hope is both accurate and true) of one of the poets, Dennis Saleh, reading his poem, “Frankenstein’s Journal,” one night inside the old administration building of Fresno State. A couple hundred students (and some faculty, I think) had taken over the administration building and we were waiting around for the police or worse to come and evict us. They never came.
I found the hardcover (I also have the paperback) edition on ebay. Just poking around, I think. I won’t tell you how much I paid for it, except to say that it was far more than any other book I’ve ever purchased.
The very first “famous” poet I ever saw read was Galway Kinnell, when he came to Fresno State. At least he was famous to me. He read “The Bear,” still one of my all time favorites. Philip Levine was at Fresno State, of course, but he wasn’t “famous” at the time, although he was becoming so and would certainly become “famous,” if a poet in America can ever be considered “famous.” I have been a faithful purchaser of Levine’s books since I was nineteen. I have a copy of what I believe is his first book, On The Edge, printed in 1964 by Second Press Books. “To Charles Edward Eaton, with thanks & best regards, Philip Levine” is written in the front.
I leave you with this image, also taken near Ridgecrest, also on a cold winter morning. The words are Sylvia plath’s. From the poem, “Kindness.”