Saturday, November 19, 2011

How I Became a Poet

I became a poet during the passing bell from 1st to 2nd period on Monday, November 4th, 1985. I was seventeen. We had just finished reading ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’ by Wilfred Owen in AP English. The textbook we were using was Sound and Sense, edited by Laurence Perrine, 4th edition, 1973.

In W.H. Auden’s biography by Edward Mendelsohn, one paragraph mentions how Auden conceived the 1933 poem, ‘A Summer Night.’ Auden describes “a vision of agape,” “what it really means to love your neighbor as yourself.” After that, he was a different kind of poet. He was a different kind of man. I think that I had just such an experience in high school with Wilfred Owen.

After reading his poem, I looked down at Owen’s capsule biography. I dwelt on the dates. 1893-1918. I saw a young man, handsome, not much older than myself, dying pointlessly, one week before the war ended. My throat closed. I had trouble swallowing. I remember struggling to force something embarrassing down. “I might have loved him,” I thought, “I might have died for him.” Then, the bell rang. I moved mechanically to Calculus. The rest of the day dissolved in a fog.

I am probably the least mystical person you are ever likely to meet. My first major in college was Astrophysics. I have never been able to afford fantasies. Not since my parents divorced, anyway, when I was nine. Not since my disgusted stepmother discovered my diary in 1988 and learned I was gay and my father threw me out of the house.

I left that night with nothing but my wits, a little Latin, and my encounter with Owen. I survived. I put myself through school. I believe that brief moment I spent with Owen is why I write poems. It is certainly why I still love my parents. They are just as human as me. Even my stepmother. She drove me to school that drizzly November morning.

The only inhuman person I have ever known was Mr. Anonymous, an irritating roommate who liked to come home from therapy, flop on the couch, and compare family horror stories, in a sort of perverse version of Irving Berlin’s song, ‘Anything you can do, I can do better.’ One exasperating evening, while I was ruining a new shirt, I told him that the only truly horrible thing about life is that life is not entirely horrible. “The Devil is in the details,” I hissed, “these bleach spots are Hell.”

The problem of existence would be much easier to solve if we were able to walk straight from the womb to the grave unimpeded by beauty—if we were not tied so tightly to such sturdy chairs. If only we could stop imagining how excruciatingly lovely—how deep—how blue—lake Lucerne once looked to us as children, in 1911. If only we could stop comparing that impossible color to the eyes of this pimply, vaguely self-conscious youth—a virgin—removing his rifle from his shoulder, in order to rape our unconscious daughter, in 1943.

All I have is a voice. Someday, I would like a student to pick up something that I wrote and experience that feeling of sympathy I felt when reading Wilfred Owen. I am forty-three. I am gay. I am not wealthy. It is unlikely that I will have any children. Still, I would like to leave something behind for future generations. I would like it to be a generous vision, but a real one. For the lack of a better word, I would like to call it ‘love.’

5 comments:

Uche said...

Wonderful, Eric. Except for the horror of your getting thrown out of your home for being who you are.

Wilfred Owen is a cracking good place to start. Non dulce, non et decore, sed cloaca spiriti mundi.

Uche said...

Err, "decor" that is.

CHUCK WILLMAN said...

You've left plenty "behind" and have become an inspiration to many, I'm sure. Certainly to me. This is a wonderful, honest piece; a great reminder of how powerful words are. I think you're one of the 'strongest' men I've never met.
C.W.

Eric Norris said...

Thanks, guys. The piece started as a statement of purpose for a Residency at Poets House in NYC and morphed into something...different.

I am so glad you liked it!

Walter Beck said...

I really dig the piece, Eric and rest assured you are leaving plenty behind. I'm happy to call you my friend and excited to say that your honesty and openness is helping me become a better poet.