Saturday, April 04, 2009


Summer ripening

The first poetry writing class I took was in the summer of 1970, between my sophomore and junior years of high school. The class was part of a large summer program sponsored by Minneapolis and St. Paul schools, which included classes in the arts, social sciences, and other activities. The teacher was poet John Caddy, together with St. Paul high school English teacher Dave Evertz.

The summer program took place on the campus of Augsburg College in Minneapolis, a few blocks from Cedar and Riverside, which was a kind of magnetic crossroads of hippie life in Minneapolis during those years. The poetry class met five mornings a week, for about six or seven weeks, in an old house at the edge of the campus. An adjoining part of the house had a theatre stage, and was used sometimes by the Theatre class; the Poetry class used the large main room.

I remember the class having a dozen or so people, though my memory could be faulty on this -- a few people tended to drift in and out during the weeks of the class. The total number might have been larger.

Four or five times guest poets John knew came to class and read their poems and talked with us: Michael Tjepkes, Michael Kincaid, Franklin Brainard, Keith Gunderson, and a man whose first name was Larry, whose last name I can't remember, though John said he was widely known as "Larry the Goat." The poetry world was smaller then than it is now. It might actually have been possible, then, to name all of the living poets in Minnesota who had published books, after just thinking about it for a few minutes. Anyway the number wasn't huge.

The class met informally. We sat on the floor, due mainly I think to the lack of furniture in the room, also to get away from conventional classroom set-up. We spent many class sessions writing, from ideas or exercises John would bring into class. We spent a little time talking about writing techniques, what trochees and iambs are, etc., though more often John had us do things to get us closer to our physical senses.

The first day of class we formed pairs, each of us with one other student in the class, and we took turns leading each other around blindfolded for a few minutes outside the house. John used the word "tactile" a lot -- it was the first time I'd heard the word. In the blindfold exercise the girl I was paired with accidentally led me to step into a puddle left over from rain the previous night; when we switched places, she was nervous that I would take "revenge," and wouldn't go anywhere I tried to lead her.

I was awkward and adolescent and needed to spend less time in my head and more in the rest of my body. It's easier for me to understand this now than it was then. I'd been writing poems for just a couple of years, and was highly ignorant of what had been written previously. I'd heard of T.S. Eliot, but was somehow under the impression that he was about 25 years old, and I'd never heard of "The Waste Land" until someone mentioned it in the class one day. I'd heard of Allen Ginsberg but hadn't read or heard of "Howl." The world of poetry still mostly lay ahead for me.

One time John brought a bunch of oranges into class and handed them out. He had us peel, pull apart and eat the oranges with our eyes closed. It was a quiet meditative experience. John sort of guided us, asking questions, suggesting things to notice. "What do you smell when you peel the skin off the orange?" "When you bite into a piece of the orange, feel what happens in the glands in your cheeks." Then we wrote for a while.

Another time he brought in some kind of plants, wild weed-looking plants with long stiff stalks and fuzzy plant hair all over, and had us just spend some time sitting and observing the plants, feeling with our hands and faces, smelling, tasting, again while John asked questions and suggested things to notice. And then we wrote about it. We did a lot of that kind of thing in the class.

John brought in a half dozen pages of poems by other poets, with the heading at the top, "A Nosegay of Poems." The bundle included Gary Snyder's complex poem "A Berry Feast," so full of wild places and mythological images; several poems by e.e. cummings; Robert Creeley's famous poem "I Know a Man" ("drive, he sd...") and maybe one or two others by Creeley; and some of the odd small obscure poems of Stephen Crane. John would have us take turns reading the poems out loud, and then might ask us a question like "What's the poem about?" Creeley's "I Know a Man" -- what was it about, in the most basic literal sense. Two men driving somewhere? Two men arguing? A man remembering a friend, with humor, with irritation?

John would often ask similar questions when we would read our own poems in class. Always emphasizing trying to meet a poem as much as possible on its own terms.

He talked sometimes about how poems looked on the page, and how that shaped the rhythm and movement of a poem. Sometimes when he would read poems out loud in class -- his own, or by other poets -- he would gesture with one of his hands to try to illustrate how the lines in the poem were moving across the page. He talked about sounds in poems, a lot. We were talking about a brief poem, a haiku or something like, with the first line "treefrog on a limb." John commented on the lightweight sounds in the line, then said to listen to how the line changed if it said, instead, "treefrog on a branch."

The war in Vietnam was all over the news every day, was the great pervasive fact of life. All of the male students in the poetry class, and in the other classes in the summer program, would be draft age within three years, or two years, or a year. It was impossible to ignore, impossible not to think about, impossible not to have an opinion about. You would have to decide, you would have to act, somehow, or it would take your life. The previous spring I walked with 50,000 other protesters in a marathon anti-war demonstration from the University of Minnesota campus to the state Capitol in downtown St. Paul. During the previous year someone set off a bomb in a department store in St. Paul. National Guard soldiers gunned down students on the Jackson State and Kent State university campuses. The merest poem was, of necessity, on fire with the weather of those years. Weather that remains with us to this day.

One week that summer all of the arts classes in the summer program went to a camp in northwestern Minnesota. It was a built-up camp, with dorm buildings, a cafeteria, a camp library, a gym and other facilities. The camp was on a large lake with much marshland and wild rice fields, and groups of us went out in canoes a couple of times. I found it hard to adjust to life away from the city, even for a few days. A lot of that week is a blur in my memory, though I do remember a moment when I noticed large high clouds (possible storm clouds) far off above the forest, and for some reason it dawned on me that I'd heard no news of the outside world for several days; World War Three might have started, for all I knew, and I would have had no idea.

During the weeks of the class, we worked from time to time on how to read poems out loud. Someone in the class was reading a poem fairly quickly, and John suggested, "Read mouth speed, not eye speed. Your eyes read a page faster than your mouth says the words; try to read the poem at the speed your mouth wants to go, not the speed your eyes can go." I've remembered this ever since, and have found it highly useful when I've read poems to audiences.

And John told us, one day in class, a story from Hindu mythology, about poison-changing, in which Krishna was said to have swallowed poison, and transformed it inside himself into divine song. The significance, or usefulness, of the story didn't really sink into me at the time, though I kept it with me, and over the years I've come to understand it as a useful metaphor for what poets are sometimes able to do -- to take the poisons and terrors of the world, and through the making of poems -- through telling the truth in poems -- change terrible experience into something good and beautiful and essential.

During the year following the summer poetry class, many of us from the class continued to meet, usually once a week, to read and talk about our poems. We alternated meeting at each other's homes around Minneapolis and St. Paul. People came and went somewhat irregularly, and a few people started coming who hadn't been in the summer class; we managed to keep meeting regularly through May or June of 1971 before we more or less disbanded.

The poetry class in the summer of 1970 was not, at the time, a deeply transforming experience for me, nor was the weekly continuation of it through the following year, but I did take things from it that have been deeply important for me over the years since. Some things, I guess, just need time to ripen.

I've long since lost touch with most of the people in the class. One of the other students, Clare Rossini, eventually became head of the Creative Writing program at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, and more recently has taught elsewhere, and has published a couple of books of poems. Once or twice I've gotten fleeting word of a couple of other people in the class, though haven't had contact with any of them in decades.

John Caddy is still writing and has published several books of poems. In recent years he's been actively involved in a project to integrate poetry writing and the study and knowledge of ecology. More information on his work with this can be found at the website Morning Earth.

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