As I staggered out of the Quonset hut and stood at a crosswalk near the Old Capital waiting for the light, George Starbuck’s brusque question ricocheted around in my head. “Why,” he’d just asked at my first conference, holding a batch of my prize-winning undergraduate poems out at arm’s length as if they gave off a rancid odor, “are you writing this stuff?”
When the light turned green, I didn’t move. Why go on? Somehow I’d deceived myself into thinking I was a poet. Now that was over. The question inflamed my conscience as well, because if my claims as a poet were fraudulent, then hadn’t I been leading Nancy on exactly as her parents alleged, luring her into an unsuitable match?
I repeated his words in my mind, shifting the emphasis around to see if I could uncover a glint of hope, and realized that by placing the stress on ‘you’(“Why are you writing this stuff?”), I could conjure up the suggestion that someone with my strong background and verbal skills could (surely!) do better. But that brief flicker was quickly snuffed, since clearly I would have to start from scratch and discover a whole new way of writing if I wanted to measure up, and in that moment the best part of my life’s work, that sheaf of poems he’d just trashed, fluttered around me like brittle leaves and blew off down the street.
Already bald in his mid-thirties, with a shy, sly manner, that brimmed with confidence, Starbuck had dropped out of Cal. Tech. a decade before to devote himself to poetry. A brilliant verbal technician, winner of the Yale Younger Poets Prize, he crafted vivid poems that could embody both farce and tragedy at once. He might, for example, use an acrostic based on a zany pun as the ground for a heartfelt elegy. This sort of game-playing wasn’t to everyone’s taste, but clearly he was a master of verbal constructions and nobody else around was writing sonnets as hip as his. I tried to tell myself that George just didn’t get my stuff, but a more sober voice spoke up, asserting that he got it perfectly well but found it completely dismissible.
When the light turned again, I trudged up Washington Street to my Iowa City rooming house. That wide, tree-lined boulevard featured some impressive Victorian homes, at least one of which boasted a fully stocked fall-out shelter in back, but my place was basic. An ancient refrigerator in the second floor hall was the only amenity and when I ate in, I usually warmed up a can of Chef Boyardee ravioli on a one burner hot-plate. Food was far from my mind at the moment, though, as I fell defeated onto my bed.
To brighten my tiny room, I’d pinned the postcards that Nancy sent from Boston to a bulletin board above my desk. She was taking an art history class at Simmons College, and the latest card, from the Gardner Museum, showed a gleaming St. George, confronting a decorative and not very dangerous-looking dragon. Although we planned to marry over Christmas break, everything remained unsettled, with her parents urging us to postpone the wedding at least until June. They argued the delay would give our relationship a more thorough test and allow them time to adjust to the shock of losing Nancy.
June seemed a lifetime away, but now the questions Starbuck raised about my competence as a poet weighed on me as well. How could I draw this person I loved into a dubious marriage when my professional life was menaced with frustration and failure? But steeling myself against these gloomy thoughts, I managed to scribble an encouraging, playful, rather giddy love letter which recast the postcard she’d sent as an allegory of our vexed circumstances. And then, as an afterthought, I copied it over and set it out in lines like a poem, one very different from any I’d written before:
A LETTER IN LATE OCTOBER
My darling, The St. George, whom you gave me in token,
on the wall above my desk weighs with two hands a thin
gold sword, allegorical of December. The dragon of June
has already been probed by the barber pole spear of love,
and in the reddish distance under an orange sky, you,
dearest Nancy, kneel beneath the high walls of Simmons
Castle, whence St. George on his blue charger will
carry you to the fertile land of Iowa. The sword is light
in his delicate hands, and his face, as smooth as yours,
is calm, though the shaggy dragon squawks and the horse
rears and turns his head away. I take the postcard down.
The colors are as outlandish as they seemed, and I notice
that Crivelli has perpetrated on both the horse and dragon
rather oversized genitals. That must be part of the story.
A slaty turf and evergreens reinforce the impression
of winter. No more barren or fantastic nights, my wife-to-be.
Hesitantly, not sure it was even a poem, I handed it in to Starbuck and he inserted it on the class worksheet. With sections large and impersonal that year, the tone of discussions tended to be pretty ruthless. We were grad students now and poetry was serious business. Like dodge-ballers in sixth grade, we finally had the muscles to raise welts with our well-aimed taunts. Bracing for an onslaught, I declined to read the poem out loud and asked George if he’d read it for me. The comments that followed weren’t friendly.
“Why is this poetry rather than prose?” one student asked.
“If it’s an allegory,” someone else piped in, “then who’s this dragon supposed to be? I don’t get it.”
“I can’t see any point to these line-breaks,” another student complained.
Others attacked the personal nature of the writing and suggested that I ought to check out T.S. Eliot’s essay, “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” where the master explains that poetry must never flaunt the writer’s personal emotion.
Starbuck fielded some of the criticisms himself and let others slide, but I sensed that, in spite of its many flaws, he liked the piece, so after class, I went up to talk.
“Don’t let that guff get to you.” He waved a hand toward the emptying classroom. “Just
keep writing like this. You’re on the right track now.”
By transposing my personal letter into a poem I’d been able to find my voice. This was the key, I realized, and the next poem I wrote, another letter poem based on another Gardner Museum postcard from Nancy, won the Academy of American Poets Prize for Iowa that year. And so, to this day, when I sense a student is having trouble establishing a clear voice, I suggest they try writing a letter poem, one addressed to a lover or a close friend. The intimate tone will give them a leg up, and while it doesn’t guarantee success it opens fresh possibilities for a personal diction and believable emotional content that can help with whatever the student-poet tries in the future.