Eleanor Lerman: Five poets who changed my life

Leonard Cohen

Forty-plus years ago, when I was a teenager, I went into a drugstore in Far Rockaway, where I lived. Back then, in the dark ages (actually, smack in the middle of the psychedelic days) drugstores usually had a revolving rack of paperback books you could look through, and as I twirled the rack I came upon a paperback called The Spice-Box of Earth by Leonard Cohen. Cohen’s name was familiar to me because, at the time, he was well-known as a singer-songwriter, and he had a song on the radio called Suzanne that I used to be played all the time. So I bought the book (I still have it; it remains one of my most cherished possessions) and read it as I rode the bus back home. I still remember the experience of reading that book—it was like coming upon the secrets of the universe. Like falling in love, deeply, completely and irrevocably. Up until that time, I thought poetry was something that was written by people like Robert Browning—I had suffered through writing an essay on the meaning of “My Last Duchess” which had about zero relevance for the angry, drug-addled kid I was, living on a windswept peninsula that was about to become the heroin-and-housing-project-capital-of-the-world (sorry, Rockaway, but that’s what happened to you)—and it had no meaning for me whatsoever. But by the time I got home, it was like everything that had every happened to me had been put into context. My mother had recently died, I was lonely, miserable and full of rage, but I had finally found the path that would lead me out of the darkness I was in and off into the rest of my life. I could try to do what Cohen did; I could write poetry that was about a real human being’s feelings, that dealt with contemporary situations, and that was written in the same language and syntax with which people actually speak but that was made lyrical by this particular man’s longing and his talent. I was a horrible student in school because I was too angry to let anybody teach me anything, but I knew that I could write and with The Spice-Box of Earth, I knew that I had finally found a teacher. In particular, the poem, “Travel” affected me. Its last lines are:

Now I know why many men have stopped and wept
Halfway between the loves they leave and seek,
And wondered if travel leads them anywhere—
Horizons keep the soft line of your cheek,
The windy sky’s a locket for your hair.

Reading that final stanza, I began to understand that the last line of a poem is the most important part of the whole structure. You can’t just let a poem trail off; it has to have a definitive ending, and it should be a real kicker. A real wallop. And I also understood something even deeper about how to end a poem: that you can, at the last minute, go off in a completely unexpected direction that is actually the essence of all the lines that preceded it. In effect, in “Travel,” it is as if all the stanzas that precede the windy sky’s a locket for your hair could be removed and that one line could serve as the whole poem. It’s magnificent and brilliant. Brilliantly done.

In more recent years, I hadn’t listened to Cohen’s music much, although my brother kept sending me his albums. Then one day, recently, I put one of his live albums on the stereo (I know, that dates me, too: I should say I played it on my iPod or my phone or something like that) and felt that old sense of revelation again, that feeling of confronting the absolute essence of poetry. In “The Tower of Song,” when Cohen, now in his 70s, sings, “I was born like this, I had no choice, I was born with the gift of a golden voice,” and the audience cheers, because his voice is sort of gone, which he knows and so do we but who cares, who cares? For my generation—for everyone in the audience—he will always be the man with the golden voice. Both in his music and his poetry. God bless, Leonard. I owe you everything.

James Tate

Ah, the blue boobies. In another lost world, Greenwich Village of the 1970s, when I was in my twenties and living on Charles Street between Washington and West streets (long before that area was invaded by glass hi-rises and movie star hotels; Richie Havens lived around the corner in Charles Lane and I could stand under his window and listen to him sing), there was a wonderful place called the Eighth Street Bookstore. I used to go there at least once a week and buy used books of poetry because I was still learning how to write and, besides Leonard Cohen, I couldn’t find much that I could relate to. That is, until I came across a wonderful book called The Oblivion Ha-Ha, by James Tate.  It sits on my bookshelf, now, right next to The Spice-Box of Earth. I don’t even have to open the book to recite some of the lines from memory, particularly the end of the poem entitled “The Blue Booby”:

The female though

asks little of him—

the blue satisfies her…

When she returns

from her day of

gossip and shopping…

she rewards him

with her dark body,

the stars turn slowly

in the blue foil beside them

like the eyes of a mild savior.

Never mind that those lines form so clear and perfect and touching a picture: just the juxtaposition of the words “mild” and “savior” was an enormously affecting lesson for me, because that’s a pairing I never would have thought of. Maybe it’s something about being Jewish: the word “savior” actually had threatening connotations for me because when I was a child, I lived in a neighborhood that was a mix of Jews and Catholics and the Catholic kids were always telling the Jewish kids that Jesus, their savior, was out to get us for murdering him. Yikes! (Otherwise we all got along just fine and this issue mostly came up around Easter.) So I didn’t think of a “savior” as anybody I’d ever want to meet in a dark alley. But here was James Tate turning that concept on its head for me, by making a savior someone who could be mild and loving. Making a harsh word (as I heard it, in my mind) into something gentle. As time went on, I was able to use that revelation as a way of experimenting with other word pairings, finding unexpected adjectives to modify various nouns. For me, there is a direct line from “mild savior” to something I wrote recently (decades after I read “The Blue Booby.” In a poem entitled “Sunday Brunch in Orange County, California,” I have this stanza:

Then there are the women’s arms

wrapped in sliding silver—real silver,

silvery to look at, like manacles of money

Both the words “sliding silver” and even the alliteration were probably born somewhere in the lines of “The Blue Booby.”  In later years, Tate experimented with work that is almost word salad—for me, hard to figure out quite what he was doing—but when he returns to poetic forms that are just a little bit closer to what I can parse out, I am still deeply moved and always in awe. He is a brave and extraordinary writer.

Richard Brautigan

One of the most under-appreciated poets of the twentieth century, I think. In the Eighth Street Bookstore I also came across Rommel Drives on Deep into Egypt and this book has become another of my most precious how-to manuals. Brautigan writes tight little bits of poems and I don’t know anyone who can do what he does with such spare, precise and evocative language. Just the title of some of his poems are worth a master’s thesis:  “Have You Ever Had a Witch Bloom Like a Highway?”; “The Net Wt. of Winter is 6.75 Ozs.”; “Propelled by Portals Whose Only Shame”; “Hinged to Forgetfulness Like a Door.”  I could insert here the whole table of contents of that book and each title would be worth analyzing.  The most important thing to me about Brautigan—besides how economically he writes (his work has the nuclear strength of a something tightly condensed: add water and kaboom!)—is how funny he is. That was so important to me! My father’s failed dream was to be a comedian, so my brother and I grew up listening to a lot of vaudeville routines (and once, watched my father dance on a stage in a blonde pigtail wig, wearing a skirt, and telling jokes between snatches of song) so comedy was a big part of our lives. My dad also wrote a column for the newsletter of the men’s club at his synagogue called “Laugh with Lerman.” Funny was important to me, and I know I can be pretty funny when I feel like it. But I thought poetry was Very Serious, so never the twain shall meet—until I met Richard Brautigan and realized that there absolutely was a place for humor in poetry. (And I don’t mean anything like the “light verse” of rhymers like Ogden Nash.) Brautigan is ironic funny, incredulous funny, amused and astonished funny. Subtly funny. Here, for example, is a perfect poem, the Affectionate Light Bulb. It’s gently, sweetly funny but also I can absolutely picture the crummy bathroom and the big, guy with his fat, hippie moustache and worn-out jeans regarding his friend, the amazing light bulb:

I have a 75 watt, glare free, long life
Harmony House light bulb in my toilet.
I have been living in the same apartment
for over two years now
and that bulb just keeps burning away.
I believe that it is fond of me.

In another of his books, The Pill Versus the Springhill Mine Disaster, the poem “All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace” appears. The title is also, actually, part of the last lines of the poem that ends with this stanza:

I like to think
(it has to be!)
of a cybernetic ecology
where we are free of our labors
and joined back to nature,
returned to our mammal
brothers and sisters,
and all watched over
by machines of loving grace.

I think a perfect poetry class would involve writing those last two lines on a blackboard—all watched over by machines of loving grace—and telling students to build a poem from the bottom up, using those lines at the end. Like Cohen’s The windy sky’s a locket for your hair, the words invite personal interpretation. They are endlessly interesting and beautiful—and mysteriously suggestive.

ee cummings

When I was 21 I had my first—and only—fifteen minutes of fame. In 1973, Armed Love, my first book of poetry, was published I remember sitting at my kitchen table and reading the review in The New York Times, which said, in part, that if books of poetry were given ratings, “Ms. Lerman’s book would deserve a double X.”  I think what riled the reviewer was that the poems dealt with sex, death, vampires, queers—all the things that, in those years, nice young girls were not supposed to be writing about. (Going back to the book now, the most “X-rated” line I can find is Vampires are happier when they’re homosexual, and actually, I still think that’s true.) Almost immediately after I finished reading the review, my phone began to ring. It seemed to me that the entire world was calling; after all, an X-rated poet was probably just the thing you wanted to have on your arm the next time you rolled out the limo and went slumming in a leather bar. One of the people on the phone was Andy Warhol, who had a weird, whispery voice; I was scared of him and I think I hung up on him. I hung up on almost everybody who called me after that.  The problem was that I was a barely educated, working-class kid who had spent much too much time sitting on the deserted beaches of that ruined peninsula I mentioned earlier (hello again, Rockaway; I hear you’re doing a little better these days) with my hippie friends, getting high and nursing our shared conviction that that there was no point in aspiring to anything other than scoring as much grass as we could in order to deal with Richard Nixon’s paranoia-haunted America. We hated the rich, we hated celebrities, we hated everybody who had all the things we didn’t have, and we had nothing. So I was not prepared to be popular, even for Andy’s famous fifteen minutes. But there I was, saddled with this “double X” thing, so I thought okay, that’s who I am now, I’m this weird, freaky girl with perverted tendencies who is Very Serious And Sad About Everything. It was an unsustainable persona, and it led to a lot of trauma and eventually to me not writing anything for a very, very long time.

However, for me, part of the remedy for the illness of being the Very Serious Poet was ee cummings. As a poet, he could write the nastiest things, as in one of his most well-known poems, “Buffalo Bill”:

Buffalo Bill’s
who used to
ride a watersmooth-silver
and break onetwothreefourfive pigeons justlikethat
he was a handsome man
and what I want to know is
how do you like your blue-eyed boy
Mister Death

Now, that’s pretty damn mean. (The poem also, by the way, satisfies my other obsessions with a really strong last line and a wonderful juxtaposition of a words to create an original and evocative image: a watersmooth-silver stallion.) He also, of course, wrote the one of the most famous put-downs in all of literature, “The Cambridge ladies who live in furnished souls,” which contains these lines:

the Cambridge ladies do not care, above
Cambridge if sometimes in its box of
sky lavender and cornerless, the
moon rattles like a fragment of angry candy;

(Again, note that last line: the moon rattles like a fragment of angry candy. Only a genius could have created that extraordinary image and married those words.) But on the other hand, cummings could also be almost remarkably tender and romantic as in these selections, the first from “I carry your heart with me”:

i carry your heart with me(i carry it in
my heart)i am never without it(anywhere
i go you go, my dear; and whatever is done
by only me is your doing, my darling)

…and the second from, “Thy fingers make early flowers of”:

Thy fingers make early flowers of
all things.
thy hair mostly the hours love:
a smoothness which
sings, saying
(though love be a day)

do not fear, we will go amaying.

So, I began to understand that a poet didn’t have to support a particular persona; there was nothing wrong with being a little strange one day, if that’s how you felt, and being a sweetie the next, if you were so inclined. That helped. And it helps still, since I’ve just had a new collection of poetry published called The Sensual World Re-Emerges, in which I think I circled back a bit to the edgier person I used to think of myself as, but the one poem people have written to me about at least a hundred times now—and I assume there will be hundreds of more messages on their way to me as the years go by—is “Starfish,” which appeared in my 2005 collection Our Post-Soviet History Unfolds. That poem ends with the following stanza, which I remember thinking might be just a little too sweet, but the more people write to me about it, the more I understand that it’s perfectly alright that I spent as much time watching That Girl and wishing I lived Ann Marie’s safe and happy life as I did crawling around some of the more suspect places I found myself in, back in the days when I thought I was immortal. I also remain amazed by how many people—including schoolkids, who write to me about it a lot—seem to find some sort of deep meaning and/or comfort in the poem. I’m as grateful for that as I am amazed—I think of it as a friend who I thought wasn’t all that bright but once he/she/it wandered out into the world, apparently had a lot to say.  Here’s a bit of “Starfish,” with thanks to ee cummings who was a real killer but at the same time, was obviously awed by love:

Later, you wake up beside your old love, the one
who never had any conditions, the one who waited
you out. This is life’s way of letting you know that
you are lucky. (It won’t give you smart or brave,
so you’ll have to settle for lucky.)…

And then life sends you back to bed, to dreamland,
while outside starfish drift through the channel,
with smiles on their starry faces as they head
out to deep water, to the far and boundless sea.

Arlo Guthrie

He’s not really a poet? Maybe not, technically, but as I noted in starting out this list, I came upon Leonard Cohen because I knew his music. To me, when I was young, what I heard on the radio (primarily the late, lamented WNEW-FM in New York, home of Rosko and Alison Steele, the Nightbird) was intrinsically connected to the poetry I had started to read after I discovered Leonard Cohen. Arlo Guthrie’s Alice’s Restaurant was a major influence on me because it was in listening to that long tale of discarding the trash on Thanksgiving and ending up on the Group W bench on Whitehall Street, where the Viet Nam-era Armed Forces Induction Center used to be, that it occurred to me there were other ways to tell a story besides in the form of written fiction. If a song could be a story, then perhaps a poem could be, too. Most poetry is deeply personal—unlike most fiction, poems tend to be direct reports about how the poet feels about something, or perceives something. That’s one of the dangers of poetry and why so much of it can be so bad: if you simply use poetry to spew out what’s going on inside you, you’re likely to feel better but also to produce a lot of inelegant work. A poet has to impose discipline on feeling; he/she has to make emotion serve language, not the other way around. Alice’s Restaurant helped me understand that another way to channel emotion was through storytelling—but storytelling framed within a lyrical structure. The song—all 18-plus minutes of it—also helped me understand the importance of being able to create different strands of a story that seem like they have nothing to do with each other and then bring them all together. I love that. I love doing that. Over the years, I’ve learned to use these important clues about storytelling to gradually try to ease myself out of my own poems—in other words, to stop writing about me, me, me. To try not to use the word “I” all the time and to construct poems in such a way that they are as much about the person reading the poem as they are about the person who wrote it.  I’m still trying, which is why I still like to listen to Alice’s Restaurant at least every Thanksgiving, as is still the tradition (I hope) from Woodstock to San Francisco. So thanks go to Arlo, too, because I will always believe that you can still get anything you want at Alice’s restaurant.