As a teenager, I lived in an apartment in Queens,
one of the so-called outer burroughs of New York. It was a staid, middle class neighborhood of sixteen story apartment buildings and, on the older blocks, single family houses. We lived in a complex of five buildings called Park City Estates. It was neither a park nor an estate. The buildings were arranged in a semi-circle, at the center of which sprouted a tall fountain lit by multi-colored lights. Inside our eighth floor apartment, in a corner of the living room, next to the terrace, stood a floor to ceiling bookcase. There, proudly placed, were an assortment of books from The Book of the Month Club. Carl Sandberg’s six volume biography of Lincoln, The Canterbury Tales with etchings, a book on Kennedy with a blue slipcase. Part of the household’s cultural furniture, they were rarely touched.
In the room I shared with my brother, I spent years poring through Palgrave’s Golden Treasury, a book of English and American poetry, with pictures of the poets. I loved those little pictures, which in some way seemed to bring the poets into our apartment. I also tried my own hand at poetry. Handwritten page after page, sometimes in green ink. It was all a very private affair.
When I went off to college in upstate New York, I met my first real poet. He was a huge man. Six foot two, weighing close to three hundred fifty pounds, he established presence. His weight had power. With the long reddish brown beard of a prophet, he could have stepped out of a page of the Bible.
I took a class from him, and attended every one of his poetry readings. Whether I understood his poems or not (and now I realize that I didn’t always), I was swept up in the deep river of his voice. He seemed like an alchemist, full of depth.
There was never a question that here, in this poet, was the real thing. In him, I saw the writer fully and vitally in the public realm. My secret life could come into the light.
But here is another part of being near, even occasionally talking to, my first author. While I have still never met any writer as well read, particularly in arcane fields of knowledge, and while I have still never met any writer as prolific, I’ve also never met another writer quite so obscure. This is hard to admit. At the time, his rare and intricate intelligence intimidated me. Did it perhaps also send me into a wilderness of complexity and nuance which it would take me years to find my way out of? The inspiration was powerful, but was his model the most appropriate one for my own writing? Coming from the desert of Queens did I sign on as his acolyte for too long?
I suspect that most writers have met an author who wound up being crucial to their own sense of self. My writer certainly did that. Through his work and the example of his life, he gave me permission to be a writer. But he also now makes me wonder. Just what sort of power does such a writer have over us? Just what needs do they fill?And, now that we are mentors for younger writers, what can or should we provide for them? Finally, how much of what we provide is up to us and how much will be determined, like it or not, by those younger writers, their own dreams and desires?
Posted on behalf of Mark Karlins