TIMOTHY ERWIN | mid 1970s
[Poetry Staff, 1974; Editor, 1975-6; Advisory Editor, 1977-81; Guest Editor, 1981]
Most of my memories of Chicago Review are of good and lasting friends now scattered to the academic winds but there is one story I sometimes tell about those days. I came to the poetry staff of the magazine during the mid-1970s, long after the Big Table defection and long before the word postmodernism was well understood, a cultural lag that around the office actually served to dictate its knowing use for awhile. We staffers felt that our sole aim was to find and nurture young poets, and once a week great huge stacks of manuscripts were sacrificed on the altar of discovery. To a person we were absolute hawks for talent and could hover nearly motionless for hours over unsolicited verse in search of the well-turned phrase or metaphor. One spring we received a dozen remarkable lyrics from a young poet living across Lake Michigan whose name was Dave Smith. Many treated working-class themes, and most held at least one perfectly stunning trope. One called “In the City of Wind” evoked the harsh landscapes of our own city wonderfully. A dramatic monologue, it impersonated a laid-off steelworker who recalled spinning “pink ingots like babies” on the forging hook. We printed the poem along with others Smith sent us that year in an issue called “Talking American Poetry.” And as it happened, the following year we saw his work appear in The New Yorker. Bravo! That was exactly what we were there to do, to help promising young writers become established. We tried to print them in the company of their more settled elders, and though our part in the drama may have been small, we took great satisfaction whenever things happened as they should for them. And then we were called back to the classroom, because we were for the most part humanities students catching only a brief glimpse of the life of writing, and for years afterwards we might lose sight of our young discoveries.
Then as now, I’m sure, poets and critics were often invited to visit the quadrangles to read or lecture. Often as not, an editor from the magazine would meet them at the airport and take them wherever they wanted to go, to the offices of Poetry magazine, or to a local tavern, or if they left the choice to us, perhaps to a favorite room at the Art Institute. One crisp autumn Helen Vendler was visiting the University to deliver a series of lectures on the odes of Keats. Coincidentally, during her stay Dave Smith was also to give a reading at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Prompted by a friend, I went up to Helen after one of her lectures and asked her whether she wouldn’t like to go hear Dave read. She astonished me by saying that she would, and that Friday evening we took my car into the Loop. Smith was by now a past master of the poetry reading and prefaced each lyric with an interesting story about how the poem came to be. There were tales of eloping by driving across the Great Dismal Swamp to find that the gasstation attendant who was filling the car also happened to be a justice of the peace, and whose speech sounded to our young poet like nothing so much as the chanting of Allen Ginsberg. Or of taking a first job as a college instructor in the West with a young wife, a weaver, who one day found a black widow spider beneath her loom that through a mythic sort of professional courtesy she simply couldn’t kill. One after another, he told tall tales that began believably enough before edging toward improbability, so that we were never quite sure where the story ended and the poem began, where life crossed the boundary into artfulness. That was precisely the point, of course. To teach his audience to work with the tool of the imagination, he brought us all into the realm of fancy before we knew it through a certain metaphorical sleight of mind, and only then delighted us by reading the poem itself. There were more than 300 people crowded into the museum foyer on folding chairs, and Dave somehow picked Helen out of the crowed to dedicate the reading of a certain poem to her. Afterwards several other poets joined the three of us in a hotel lobby nearby where Art Hodes, the stride pianist, held forth on a baby grand until the thin shank of the evening. The talk continued strong well after the music stopped.
I’m a teacher in the West myself now. When students ask me what poets talk about among themselves, my joking answer is other poets. But if we have any time at all I’ll bring up the Ion of Plato and an evening twenty years ago. Poets, my students will hear me say, talk about everything under the sun. Poets talk about how fast they have ever traveled in an automobile, and will generally admit to twice the speed limit, though many have gone faster. They talk about the strangest tattoos they have ever seen, and may well describe for you a man with a hinge engraved on his elbow. Most of all, they talk about what it means to live the life of writing. And if you ask one of them in particular whether he needed to see Chicago in order to write a poem called “In the City of Wind” he will look at you and laugh and tell you no, in fact, he did not.