Tuesday, March 14, 2017
Ode to Paul Carroll
The first writer I ever met was Paul Carroll. He was a poet, literary critic, and editor involved with and publishing the beats. He knew the poets and writers I loved: Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and William Burroughs.
I was a kid, 18 or 19, a sophomore at the University of Illinois in Chicago, taking English courses and dreaming about writing. I had discovered Kerouac the year before when I bought a copy of his The Subterraneans in a second-hand store, and I couldn't get enough of his spontaneous bop prosody. When a friend told me that the university offered courses in poetry writing, I couldn't believe it. I had never heard of such a thing. Courses in creative writing!
I signed up immediately and ran into Paul Carroll. He was a knock out. A writer who loved poetry in the way that I imagined Shakespeare and Keats and Whitman and Yeats and Eliot and Ginsberg and Kerouac loved poetry.
I ended up taking three courses from him, and they probably shaped my writing more than anything else I learned as an undergrad or grad student.
I never saw Paul Carroll after I graduated from the U of I in Chicago, but the lessons he taught me about writing and what it means to be a writer stayed with me.
A couple of years ago, I read an article by Paul Hoover about Paul Carroll's death. It was a sad piece about his last days, his problems with drinking, his personal problems, and his writing problems. It made me want to write something that would recapture what Carroll meant to me and to a generation of young writers in Chicago in the late 60s. The poem I wrote is called "Ode to Paul Carroll."
Ode to Paul Carroll
(dead these many years but still singing in Heaven
with the Irish angels and the Chinese saints
who drowned in their love of poetry)
Remember me, Paul?
I wrote those weird poems that bad summer of '69
about Jesus burning
the prostitutes up
with His exploding eyes
and about being a mind
with nothing to say
to the sun except,
Honey, I'm yours
You were the first poet
the one who told me
to believe all poets
are brothers and sisters
and poetry is all the poems ever written
and that if you're lucky enough
to still be writing poems
when you're fifty
then you'd know the true grace of poetry
Do you remember that guy
in the red plush beefeater's hat?
He said in class the revolution
would send old farts like you
to the camps with the other assholes proud of their money
and their dick pink ties
and all you said to him was
"Maybe you won't be able to get it up tonight
because you're tired or drunk-but
someday there will be weeks and weeks
when your penis
will just stay a penis
there you'll be"
We were young and nobody
knew what you were talking about, running
riddles past us like some
Irish Li Po from the back of the yards
I still don't get your Ode to Nijinsky, its blank staring page
And what's behind it?
The lesson that poetry and art
we can see their dance?
But surely that's not the lesson
you wanted to teach us
You always had faith in poetry and poets,
called them your pals, even the dead ones
like Wordsworth and Milton
Dickinson and Yeats,
pals sharing a ragged pencil nub and sneaking smokes
between visions of angels
and teacups and Picasso
bald and 80 among the true Chinese poets
Our brothers and our sisters
You'd tell us stories about poets drowning
in their love of poetry
and you'd lick your lips
And say, Yes, Yes, and Yes
As if some great meal
Had just been served
When you died I read in the Chicago papers
that your last days
weren't so lucky
your wife gone, you
drinking too much and searching for James Wright
in the yuppie bars around Division and Clark
When I read that I thought maybe
you were wrong
about how Yeats's Chinese grace
could keep a man alive
and a drunk sober
But reading your
last poems again last night
I saw you were right
So I went to the library and stole
a copy of Odes, your first poems
and read your Nijinsky poem again
Carroll's books are apparently out of print, but they are available at Amazon. I especially recommend his book Odes and Poem in its Skin.
There's not much about Carroll on the internet. I haven't been able to find any of his poems there, but there is a good short piece about him at the University of Chicago site. Also, there's a youtube posted by Bob Boldt of Carroll talking about poetry.
By the way, I got the opening photo of Carroll at the University of Chicago site. The other guy in the picture is Allen Ginsberg.
The second photo? That's me.