I do this sometimes: i get busy on a project and then decide to paste some of it into a blog instead of writing a new column. Below is a bit from the intro I’ve been reworking for a collection including every poem I’ve published over the past forty years. It becomes a kind of commentary on depression. I’ll try to pursue that particular topic further next time.
The Coelacanth poems may have been partially composed, in some cases, when I was still a teenager. Certainly I was in my mid-twenties when I pulled everything together to publish through a “vanity press”—having very correctly concluded that no “respectable” organ of the Muse at that time (the Seventies and Eighties) would let the leprous hand of such work touch its celestial hem. Let me explain.
I had a “very young youth”, in that I didn’t reach maturity for years—or at all—in the fashion common among my peer group, especially those who went on to “elite” universities. Everyone was experimenting in those days, early and often: experimenting with sex, with drugs, with haircuts and haberdashery. I had already staked my claim to oddballism well before high school. My family’s means were limited; many of my classmates had streets and museums named after their clan. I was quiet and given to daydreaming; these were the years of spilling your guts in “sensitivity groups” and “letting it all hang out”. High school and then college brought all of my environment’s unreconciled vectors into open collision. I became an incredibly unworldly lad adrift in the most worldly generation, perhaps, yet known to man (if “worldliness” may be understood as liberation from the traditional and from a default-value restraint once called “decency”).
Most peculiar of all, this unenviable position made me extraordinarily mature in strangely isolated, incoherent ways. I acquired a sense of wry irony that wouldn’t quit. How could I not have? The “liberated revolutionaries” all around me swept up the vast majority of college students my age into a lockstep march toward counter-conformist conformity. If one did not revolt in just their fashion, one was tarred as “the other” and shunned as fatally infectious. Some of the shunning, to be sure, was more on the order of benign condescension or amused pity. I recall being confronted now and then by a more affable footsoldier of The Movement about the poverty of a life such as mine, so sadly lacking in a “rich diversity of experiences”; and I further recall answering (or thinking the answer—for I was usually too shy to speak it), “To be twenty-one and not jaded by dead-end experiences is not only an experience unknown to you, but one from which you have now sealed yourself forever.” That, had it been said, would have been well said.
What I could not or would not speak found its way straight into my writing. A fierce spirit of independence (perhaps the fiercer for its self-suppression in social circumstances) is not difficult to make out in these poems of my twenties—that and, again, the wry misanthropy of the wounded young soul who doesn’t look for things to get any better. What has shocked me occasionally as I have transcribed the dozen Coelacanth scribbles (for we hadn’t so much as the first floppy disk back then) is the undercurrent of real despair: sometimes a complete tergiversation on the brotherhood of man (as in “The Tiger”), sometimes a religious mysticism that longs only for deserts (“The Prophet”). The somewhat melodramatic prose introductions to each section seem to me a rear-guard action intended to generalize and elevate some of the panic into a calm, even serene moralism… but a wild scent lingers between those lines, as in the verses. Young people, we should always remember, are dynamos of energy without clear direction. If offered no wise guidance by their elders (and never did Elder Authority abrogate its shepherding duties more shamefully than in the Seventies), they are highly susceptible to self-destruction.
Fortunately, the Gospel of Matthew became a literary sun that I orbited (the rest of the Bible much less so—for it is in Matthew that the drama of persecuted innocence shines through with the greatest fervor). I managed to stay away from the cults that often consumed castaways in my situation. To this day, I clearly remember a very simpatica young woman with whom I conversed lengthily as denimed, tee-shirted undergraduate drones trooped past us on Austin’s teeming campus (at the foot of the building from which Charles Whitman had gunned down two dozen people in his lunacy). She left me a pamphlet. A friend later sniffed it over and announced with a smirk, “She’s a Moonie!” I must have had that look of “potential charismatic recruit” about me… for some chanting Hare Krishnas also made a gift to me in an airport (perhaps during that very year) of a lavish volume whose Sanskrit I have just begun translating in this, my silver twilight. No, I didn’t fall into step with any of them… but I hope that God has touched them gently and led them to a safe haven.