City Poet – Country Poet

It’s already October, and we’re celebrating with the first guest post from featured author John Morgan. Morgan has published three books of poetry and several chapbooks, along with a new collection, Spear-Fishing on the Chatanika: New and Selected Poems, coming out next year from Salmon Poetry in Ireland. In the sidebar photo to the right, he’s seen on a snow-day in Denali National Park.

“I can’t even enjoy a blade of grass unless I know there’s a subway handy, or a record store or some other sign that people do not totally regret life.” Franks O’Hara, “Meditations in an Emergency”

In 1976, I moved to Alaska from New York. I came for the adventure and because, with a wife and a four month old baby, I needed the job. At first, it was just a one year visiting position at UAF, replacing Dave Stark who’d taken a sabbatical to work on the pipeline. (Stark needed the extra money to build a house.)

I had grown up in the suburbs of New York City but didn’t much like it there. I preferred the city itself or the country where I had been living at the time of the move—in the village of Kent Cliffs, 90 miles north of Manhattan. Downtown Kent Cliffs consisted of a general store, a real estate office, and an antique shop. That was it.

We had furnished our old farmhouse with cut rate “antiques.” The house had its oddities. When it rained, water gushed through the crude stone walls into the basement, where it was gathered into channels, directed to a cistern and removed by a sump pump. Our property backed on a pond which emptied into a reservoir—part of New York City’s water supply—and we joked that the city’s celebrated drinking water took its distinctive bouquet from having passed through our cellar.

The previous owner, the town’s volunteer fire chief, had parked his engine in the front yard. He’d also set up a one lane bowling alley in the basement, to which cold beer was delivered through a plastic tube rigged from a keg in the kitchen fridge. The bowling alley and fire engine were gone but a sun porch that he’d converted into a paneled office remained, and that’s where I set up shop to write.

I wrote mornings and after lunch painted the outside trim and dealt with the rocks and rabbits that plagued our vegetable garden. I also upgraded the lawn, scything the waist-high grass, but my attempts to clear out the poison ivy only brought on rashes and frequent applications of calamine lotion. Meanwhile, Nancy stripped off four or five layers of faded wallpaper in the upstairs bedrooms and painted the walls.

I soon noticed that something new was happening to my poems. It seems that my attachment to our rural lifestyle had reshaped me. Other than a few unabashed love poems for Nancy, up to now I’d written mainly work that I thought of as imaginative voyages or free-floating narratives, that bore only a dream-like relation to my actual life. But most of my new poems were rooted in the place we lived, incorporating the flooding cellar and ragged yard, the bats in our attic and the occasional glimpses of deer and raccoons. Living in that big old farmhouse, I found that writing about the details of my environment was a way of placing myself. It was, I decided, the self seeking out its own image in the outside world, a willed reflection, as if my unsettled identity had finally connected to a particular place and without intending to I was becoming, at least in part, a nature poet.

Still, living only an hour and a half from the city, we made frequent trips, staying over at the my folks’ 8th Street apartment. Frank O’Hara had lived in that neighborhood and the Cedar Tavern, a hangout for New York School painters and poets, was only two blocks away. In fact, with my early poetry influenced by O’Hara and his buddy John Ashberry, I could have been considered a “New York Poet” myself.

This all comes to mind because I’ve been reading a biography of O’Hara, City Poet by Brad Gooch. (You may know Gooch for his wonderful recent biography of Flannery O’Conner, Flannery.) Both O’Hara and Ashberry had rural roots, having migrated from farming country in Massachusetts and New York State respectively to the city, which they felt was better suited to their artistic temperaments.

Since moving to Alaska, I’ve kept up my East Coast connections, visiting family, and taking a number of sabbaticals there. I feel it’s important for my poetry. In rural New York I caught the habit of writing about where I lived, but that’s not all I write about. History, fantasy, travel, dreams, and family provide material too. I like visiting the museums and bookstores. I even take some pleasure finding my way around on the subway. And since my poet-son Jeff, who grew up in Fairbanks, now lives in Brooklyn, I have good reason to continue visiting the city, stretching my sensibility between the wild and the urban and keeping the lines of communication open.

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