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The Visible Man
The Visible Man


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The Look of Things
The Look of Things

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"How I Grew"

When I was eight I received a typewriter for Christmas. It was not intended as a gift to the poet I would one day become; rather, in our lower middle-class household, it was a reminder that business skills would be necessary to improve my circumstances in the world. Inexplicably, I understood a higher purpose of my machine-a-ecrire to be the instrument of an artist. It was something like the human mind, to my Roman Catholic self, and was to remain uncorrupted, tenacious, and true. I knew better than to share this belief with my parents, who were unsentimental about life.

The principal of my elementary school drove a black Cadillac with shark fins. One day, as I stood beside my classroom desk with the other children jeering at my, I recognized that I was a stranger in the cruel citizenry of childhood, that my only nation would be the imagination. Passing out embarrassingly at the feet of my teacher, I woke in the principal's hearse-like Cadillac, the flesh of my arms and face adhering to the black vinyl seat cover. I was being driven from one shore of childhood to another.

Until I was in college, I had no artistic friends. My only dialogue was with God, whom I besieged with my prayers. For several years, I lived alone in a tree house in the woods behind our suburban Virginia home. It was there that I learned the true meaning of the state of being necessary to become a writer, the state of exile and aparthood. When a rowdy gang of neighborhood boys tried to make my tree house their own, I built a sturdier door and waged a war until they were driven away.

As a teenager I reconciled myself to life in a house where violence erupted in predictable patterns every few weeks. I was whipped and beaten from an early age. Hearing the household escalate toward danger -- the voices of my parents becoming hysterical, lamps being thrown across rooms, platters of food shoved from the dining table, one drunken parent sobbing over another -- I would pray for intervention from Jesus, who remained mysteriously silent.

When I began to make poems during my junior year of college, nothing I wrote was original. Everything I wrote was autobiographical. These were the poems of a closeted homosexual. There were about the men I knew and were filled with yearning and anger. From this early stage I was sensitive to tone. Reared in a house where I understood only one of three languages spoken (English, French and Armenian), I had learned to depend on tone to signal meaning. And hearing this braid of languages regularly spoken heightened my sense of words as a kind of loge in which desires were illuminated, memory was recovered and poems would be assembled.

The contemporary poets I have learned the most from have little in common stylistically, though all experienced some measure of aparthood: Bishop, Merrill, Rich and Heaney. Of these, I have had to guard myself most vehemently against Merrill's influence, for there were no poems by a living poet during my twenties and thirties that I loved more.

"Memory, the key to everything, brings with it nostalgia, which must be outgrown," Howard Moss write. In my own poems, I have grown accustomed to astringency; there is no longer any compulsion to hide or temper the truth,, as there was when I was setting out twenty years ago. I do not want to relive what I have felt or seen or hoped along the way, but I do want to extract some illustrative figures, as I do from the parables in the Bible, to help me persevere each day at my writing table, where I must confront myself, overcome any fear of what I might find there, and begin assembling language into poetry.
--Henri Cole

More Poets on Poetry

W.S. Merwin | Mark Strand | Kenneth Koch | Marge Piercy | George Bradley | Philip Levine | Frank O'Hara | Henri Cole | J. D. McClatchy | Wallace Stevens | W. S. Di Piero | Peter Davison | Edward Hirsch | Marie Ponsot | Anthony Hecht | Mary Jo Salter | Franz Wright