Friday, May 27, 2016

Violets are Blue

Once in a great while you have a teacher worth remembering. The great ones make lasting impressions and make learning fun and interesting. It’s clear that they love what they do.

In 1972 I was a freshman at the University of Illinois at Chicago. I commuted to school. Two trains got me there in a little over an hour if I timed connections right. Factor in Chicago weather and it was often an unpleasant beginning and end to the school day.

Following a brief “encounter” with the school of Engineering, I spent most of the next two years taking the 100 level class in just about every discipline, hoping to find something that appealed to me and that might lead to a career. Poetry 100 was a brief stop on my journey to self-discovery.

Consider the times. As I went through high school, men walked on the moon, students were killed in protests at Kent State, riots broke out at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. They were turbulent times. The music of my generation was super-charged with emotion and passion. Disco music had not yet arrived.

Paul Carroll
Purely by luck of the draw, I found myself in a class taught by the famous Chicago poet, Paul Carroll. I didn’t realize until much later that he cast a long shadow on the turf and the times. He was a contemporary of Jack Kerouac, James Dickey and William Burroughs. His friend Allen Ginsberg was a leading figure in the “Beat Generation” – the countercultural movement that opposed militarism, economic materialism and sexual repression. Ginsberg’s principal work, “Howl” served to coalesce disparate factions of the emerging beat generation.

Carroll conducted the April 1969 interview with Ginsberg for Playboy magazine. He reminisced openly about their friendship during class. Recounting a typically scandalous event that made local headlines, Carroll chastised his friend,

Allen Ginsberg
“Oh Allen, what are you doing?”

The class also served as Carroll’s personal open mic. It was a treat to hear him read from his own work, and in one case from a draft of the poem he had been commissioned to write for the dedication of the “Bat Column” located outside the Harold Washington Social Security Administration Building at 600 West Madison Street.

The professor disdained grades. On the first day of class he told us that all we had to do to get an “A” for the quarter was to write twelve poems. Often we had to read them to the class. His was a tough act to follow.

He also loathed rhyming poetry. He introduced me to free verse. I unwittingly stepped into a trap with the reading of my first of twelve poems. It was a rhyming masterpiece that Carroll ripped to shreds, going on a tirade about “moon and June” and other such rubbish. I think it bothered him that the class applauded after my reading. I sunk into my chair and never openly rhymed again.

The Bat Column
In 1974, Carroll founded the Program for Writers, a graduate level program for creative writing. I had moved on to other 100 level courses by that time. That program is an opportunity I regret missing by perhaps a few months.

I walked between classes with Professor Carroll one spring morning. I recall it being unusually sunny and pleasant, despite the almost overwhelming abundance of granite and concrete that comprised the campus infrastructure. During our conversation, I apologized for missing several classes. My mother was suffering from Lupus at the time. Things at home were rather unpredictable. I mentioned that my father had died several years earlier. Carroll had lost his own father when quite young. The look on his face was one of uncharacteristic vulnerability. I had hit a nerve. That’s what poets do.

Paul Carroll retired as professor emeritus in 1992. He died in 1996 in North Carolina where he lived with his wife Maryrose.

Visit the following link for a short interview with Paul Carroll

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Never the Twain Shall Meet

Assumption: you have a time machine. You can go back in history and have lunch with one person. Who would it be?

I wager that many people would quickly respond, “Jesus. I’d meet Jesus.”

Well, that might be great if you’re prepared to find out that he looks nothing like Jeffery Hunter. I suppose just being in his presence would be enough for most. But lunch will most likely be bread and fish, and you’ll need to speak Aramaic. At least you won’t need silverware, but the crowds might be a problem.

No, I’d like to have lunch with Mark Twain. He was arguably the most famous man of his era, he speaks English and conversation would never be lacking.

Recently I came as close as I’ll get to meeting the great American writer. My wife, daughter and future son-in-law had second row seats at the Bloomington Center for the Performing Arts for the legendary Hal Holbrook’s show, “Mark Twain Tonight.”

I’ll be honest. If you had asked me last summer before we bought our tickets I would have said that Holbrook was dead, or was at risk of not lasting until a show eight months later. At age 91, he may not have a lot of time remaining, so it’s truly remarkable that he can still do a one man show supported by nothing but a table, chair and podium for two hours. He carries some notes that he gingerly removes from the inside breast pocket of his white linen jacket, but it’s never clear if he’s using them as prompts or props. He returns them with great care, raises his unlit cigar in a wave of his hand that emphasizes a point in his monologue and then strolls across the stage.

One of his sketches relates the tale of an acquaintance that took forever to get to the point of a story. So long in fact, that “Twain” sits in his chair and drifts in and out of sleep over a period of several minutes. The audience becomes uncomfortably quiet during this sequence. It is a convincing portrayal. So much so that my wife whispered to me with a sense of urgency, “If he dies on stage I’ll never forgive you!”

He didn’t die, or even fall asleep. Eventually he stood and casually commented, “And that’s why we never found out about…”

A woman in our aisle struck up a conversation with us. She has seen this show about twenty times, and labeled me a fellow “Twainiac” when the depth of my interest was revealed.

The evening took me to new heights of my obsession. Upon returning home I downloaded a copy of “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” to read again, and dug deeper into volume one of Twain’s huge autobiography.

Holbrook was the second oldest performer we’ve ever seen. At 93, classical guitarist Andres Segovia remains the record holder. And there is a certain sadness that accompanies leaving a show, given the unlikely odds of seeing performers of this age again. I simply recommend, if there is someone you’ve been putting off seeing, don’t delay any longer. Whether it’s Tony Bennett, Paul McCartney, The Monkees, Gordon Lightfoot, Brian Wilson or Willie Nelson, you just never know how many shows they have left to perform.