PUNKY WOOD –Part 8– –A High Point–

When I look back over my education one thing I rue is my lack of gratitude, at the time, for teachers who did their best, and helped me in many ways, but who I felt compelled to reject. Twenty-twenty hindsight allows me to see that, even if their human imperfections made some degree of rejection inevitable, they still elevated me to the level where I became capable of rejecting them. Were it not for their labors I would never have become so high and mighty.

Not that I was actually high and mighty in worldly terms, but when you are seventeen you are a living legend, in terms of your own awareness. You have your whole life before you, and anything seems possible. You are less liable to be resigned than you are fifty years later, when you’re looking backwards.

One thing I looked forward to was freedom. School seemed like a jail and teachers like jailers. I failed to appreciate what discipline had done for me. Instead all that I could see was opposition, a power holding me back.

There are certain disciplines in life which feel like opposition, but which actually keep you uplifted. A good analogy is a tug-of-war. The opposition seems to be pulling the opposite direction from the direction you want to go, but if you let go of the rope you fall down. I assume it is for this reason that freedom often is not so sweet as it appears from the window of a jail cell. Partners think life will be easier after a divorce, but some later see how the opposition kept them upright. Men in the military crave the day their enlistment is up, but some wind up drunkards once they are free. Jailbirds wind up back in jail.

My teachers in Scotland were taskmasters, demanding far more from me than I felt was kind. But by demanding more they achieved more, and I saw I was capable of things I would have never known I was capable of.

One thing I had no idea I was capable of enduring was an intensely structured routine, where nearly every minute of every day was allotted to specific activities. There never was time to dawdle and dream, although I felt dawdling and dreaming were prerequisites of poetry. I often would march to my housemaster’s office and announce I’d had enough, and that my creativity was being stifled, and that I had to leave the school, only to be intellectually out-argued (and perhaps intellectually bullied) into accepting the fact great poets had overcome great hardships, and “that it is through struggle ones character is honed”, or some such thing. I actually have an old diary-entry describing such an episode:

Tuesday, October 13, 1970
As of now I am supposedly turning over a new leaf. If the past is anything to go by the only leaf I turn over will be the one I’m writing on.
Yesterday I skipped a triple period of Physics so I could do my Economics and I got caught. It seems it is a federal offense in this school. I went to have a long talk with the housemaster. I couldn’t tell him what a drag Physics was because my teacher is his wife. So instead I bullshitted about how all the work is piling up and is crushing my creative writing (he is my English teacher).
Time for Chapel
FIRST PERIOD, I have a work period now, but think I am going to write in this before I turn over my new leaf.
…is crushing my creative writing.
The housemaster went on to tell me how many great writers wrote under fantastic pressure and how I would write no matter what if I was serious.
Then he told me how important Physics is; not that I need it, but it would be great to have in my general knowledge as it involves a completely different type of thinking.
Stop it! Stop it! Have mercy on this poor child. I know all that. Why do you think I took Physics in the first place? It’s just that I’m so tired and I wanted to quit Physics so I could have a little time to think.
Yes…….I’m lazy…….I know I could do it all…….but it’s so much work and I love sitting around thinking…….Yes……Yes, conscience…….I’ll give it another try…….Yes, a new leaf…….
Shit.
I almost ducked my personal responsibility that time.
Fuck the Housemaster.
Fuck my weak will.
I hate it when they are right.

The cheerfully schizoid nature of a-mind-facing-discipline is easily recognized by any jogger who has ever faced a steep hill. He owns a split personality; two voices, one of which states “keep going” and another which says, “quit.” It is the job of teachers and coaches and drill sergeants to encourage the “keep going” and discourage the “quit”, so that the jogger or student or recruit gains the great joy of “breaking through the wall” and experiencing a “second wind”. However in an odd way it is the duty of a poet to heed the voice which whispers, “quit”.

This is not to say that poets are quitters, nor that they are undisciplined, but rather that their discipline is often a sort of anti-discipline, a sort of antithesis to a thesis, seeking a synthesis. In the case of a jogger facing a steep hill, poetry asks the unwanted questions, “Is this necessary?” and, “Is there an alternative? Can I go around rather than over?”

Such questioning is not welcomed by a tyrant who wants all his troops goose-stepping in time, but my New England heritage included Henry Thoreau’s statement, ā€œIf a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer,ā€ and Robert Frost’s poem that ended:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and Iā€”
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Consequently I was in some ways brought up to be questioning, and even rebellious. My opinions mattered, just as my vote would matter when I came of age. This made me audacious in a way that now makes me cringe. I gave far more respect to my own first impressions than to the teachers I was meeting for the first time.

For example, I somehow managed to be tricked into attending a boarding school without having the slightest clue what such attendance entailed, and therefore was utterly appalled by the fact young men were basically disowned by their lazy (or busy) parents and thrown into the custody of strangers. This British system might be centuries old, and have roots reaching back to ancient Greece, but I, at age seventeen, did not approve.

I hadn’t been at the school much more than forty-eight hours when my housemaster ended his English class by filling a final fifteen minutes by requiring us to write a poem. He likely expected a couplet or quatrain of doggerel, and not what I scribbled:

FIST OF A SCHOOL

Hunger’s lonely turmoil
Lives in flickers
In the eyes.
Feel the acne burning boil,
Hair-cut, knickers…
The baby cries.

Do not cry out alibis.
Afraid of the rush
You crush
Your baby born strength.
You’ll go to any length
To hide:
Drag your finger
Nailed across
Your blackboard pride.
Your chalkish finger
Points away
But if relaxed
It may say
What burns inside.

So echo on down corridors,
Prison tread on lonely floors,
Oblivious of other shores.

Next time that you hear your voice
Bleating what you didn’t say
Remember whose subconscious choice
Locked you up inside this way.

One nice thing about that school was that, rather than the class-size being roughly twenty, as it was in American Baby-boom classrooms, I think that class consisted of seven boys. Therefore I was able to scrutinize the teacher as the poems were handed forward, he leafed through them, and was given pause by the length of mine. After a further pause, as he read it, he shot me a smokey, piercing look. Likely he was thinking something along the lines of, “This chap is bloody talented, and is going to be a bloody handful.” At the time all I could see was that he wasn’t entirely pleased, and therefore was different from Audley Bine, who was more than entirely pleased by my poems, and would clap his hands and shout with glee as he read them.

Fifty years later I still like the poem, as it is a first impression. If there is any Truth in it, is the Truth of an honest child stating, “The emperor has no clothes.” It is not as judgemental as it may appear, for it is not directed towards the English Schooling System as much as it is directed towards my acceptance of such discipline. In fact, when I later went over the spontaneous outpouring, I couldn’t alter a word of the verse, but fussed over what the title of the poem should be, and one title I toyed with was, “For Myself, And All The Other Castle Prisoners.”

However it seems obvious the above poem is not the writing of a young man who is aware he is in need of discipline, and is grateful to the older men willing to supply the discipline he needs. Rather it is full of questions about the wisdom of the discipline. Such questions are related to the voice which whispers “quit” when a jogger faces a steep hill.

In one way this put me in competition with my housemaster. In a tennis match I was on the side of the net called “quit” while he was on the side called “be disciplined and keep going”. I’m glad he won most matches. For example, when I said, “Shakespeare’s archaic English is too difficult to read and I want to quit”, he demanded “Keep going”, and, just as a jogger has a “second wind”, I suddenly understood Shakespeare was brilliance personified. Shutters were thrown back and I gazed out over an amazing vista. However once in a while I’d win a match. I’d say something like, “If Shakespeare had only done what his teachers did he would have never been any different than they were, and they are not remembered as brilliance personified.”

My relationship with the housemaster was nothing like my relationship with Audley Bine. Audley Bine flattered me, which encouraged me to write more, but the housemaster was no more inclined to flatter than a drill sergeant is. Instead he was all about discipline.

In some manner the very reality of discipline creates a duality: The disciplinarian and the disciplined, which can initially look like a slave-driver and the whipped-slave. Because no man likes the indignity of being a whipped slave, discipline can create a resistance; a counter culture. The discipline of my housemaster created a sort of underground among the student body, wherein what the housemaster called good was called bad, and what he called bad was called good. If you obeyed and did your homework you were called a “suck”, which was a shameful label among the boys, but if you didn’t do your homework (and especially if you escaped punishment), you were a “skiver” and were greatly admired.

This duality struck me as stupid. It was too simplistic, and ignored the subtlety of reality, yet the teacher-student, boarding-school dichotomy was the reality I had to deal with. I got in trouble with the student body as often as I got in trouble with the housemaster. For example, when I was a “suck” and and disciplined myself to study Shakespeare, and abruptly saw the bard’s genius and raved about his writing, part of the student body regarded me with pity, and as a hopelessly mistaken lost-cause. On the other hand, when my reputation among the student body soared as a “skiver”, simply because I had detoured from a legal “community service” in a nearby town to a pub (which refused to serve a seventeen-year-old) and chatted briefly with a red-headed girl (who refused my advances) and teachers then learned I had strayed, and I wound up in trouble for my unsuccessful (and therefore harmless) detour, my housemaster regarded me with pity, and, if not as being hopelessly mistaken, as being disappointing. But me? I pitied both the student body and the housemaster. They were not as high and mighty as I, the poet, was.

This brings me back to where I began, which was, in case you have forgotten, the high and mighty attitude a seventeen-year-old poet has, even when he is in desperately need of discipline, not only from his teachers, but also from his peers. Fifty years later I am thankful for the advice I received from both sides of the duality, but at the time I only saw I was getting shit from both sides.

Neither side really cared for what I cared for, which was poetry. The next question should be, “But what is poetry”? Oddly, neither side wanted to face what mattered so much to me. My housemaster might rave about Shakespeare, and the student body might rave about the Beatles, but in my eyes they did so on a superficial level, and not on the deep level I felt I did. I wanted to be the next Shakespeare, or the next Beatle, and wished to blow the brains of mankind with the power of dazzling beauty. (Such aspirations are quite possible, when you are seventeen).

While I was outrageously arrogant, I was often unaware I was outrageous, for instead I felt misunderstood. Neither side of the teacher-student duality understood me, and I sought understanding by plunging into poetry. A blank page was sort of like a mystical crystal ball I looked into; I didn’t see blankness, but rather shapes which required expression. And the more misunderstood I felt the more prolific I became, until I think I must have been annoying to my housemaster. I was like a person who is too talkative and won’t stop yammering. He didn’t want me handing in damn poem after damn poem all the time, when I was suppose to be studying Milton’s “Samson Agoniste“. At some point he had to crack the whip and discipline me into doing the work required, if I was going to pass my A-level exam.

Of course, no English teacher is entirely comfortable with crushing the aspirations of a young writer; it just doesn’t sit well and pricks their conscience; they’ve read too many tales of bankers bloating while poets went unfed, too many tragic tales of poets dying young. They become a little uneasy when they are the one crushing the poet, even if the little punk deserves it.

While my housemaster was no Audley Bine, and likely felt the last thing I needed was any encouragement, he did make a little space for me and my damn poems. For example, he created a ten week poetry contest, which I promptly won because I was the only student who contributed every week. (The contest surprised me because I was unaware any of the other boys wrote poetry). But I suspected the contest might be an activity contrived to keep us boys out of trouble in our spare time, which there was precious little of, at that school (and we did enjoy our trouble). Most of our time was not spare, and was focused on the thing called “An A-level”, which, as an American, I’d never heard of before, and which therefore seemed quite meaningless.

Also the overworked man somehow found the time to produce a literary magazine, which I suspected made the struggling school look more prestigious. I wasn’t inclined to submit anything to it, as correcting my spelling sounded too much like extra work. However one day my housemaster came up to me and said, “I hope you won’t very much mind that I restructured one of your poems. It is too long when you only have one or two words a line. I think it scans as well with eight words a line.” I actually did mind, and explained I wrote it the way I wrote it so people would know how to read it, and he responded “Readers are not as slow as you assume,” and then handed me the magazine, opened to my poem:

Sunrise comes softly from somewhere below
To the land that the moonlight was keeping;
A coolness in the stillness where the thinking is slow
In the land where the children are sleeping.

Oh how I wish the fog would go
And how I wish a wind would blow
Away the mist and blinding snow
That keeps me here alone.

Sometimes I hear waters stretching away
Beyond what I see through the mist,
And in dreams as the blackness grows into gray
I remember the color it kissed.

Oh how I wish the sky would clear
And how I wish she would appear
To sweep away my muddled smear
That keeps me here alone.

I’m dreaming of sunrises gilded in gold,
An in-between lavender sheen,
And I know I won’t find it if I do what I’m told
For harmony’s never been seen

And sunrises cannot be sold
.

I blushed with pleasure, seeing my writing in actual print, with all my misspellings corrected, but also felt a vague sense of alarm, wondering why my housemaster chose a song that said so clearly, “I know I won’t find it if I do what I’m told.” It seemed a sort of standing challenge to all teachers: “I will not obey.”

If God ever grants me the time to write in detail about that school, a major focus will be the escapades of the boys. “Skiving” worked hand in hand with the discipline in a way difficult to describe, involving the tug-of-war principle I mentioned before. The discipline alone would have been too dry, and the boyishness alone too irresponsible, but together they created maturity, although when I first arrived and first looked at what was going on, both sides seemed utterly mad.

For example, when I first arrived at the school I had a fierce will to “get back in shape”, which involved exercising, eating, and quitting tobacco and amphetamines. (Oddly, I didn’t see marijuana as a problem). Amphetamines were easy to quit, for beyond strong tea there simply weren’t any available, (nor was there any marijuana), but quitting tobacco wasn’t so easy. Though I cut back on my consumption of tobacco from fifty cigarettes a day to three, at one point my diary mentions, “I haven’t quit entirely; it seems to be a social necessity at this school”.

Tobacco was forbidden at the school, but, my very first morning at the school, the student who was in charge of orienting me led me astray. There was a period of roughly fifteen minutes after we were dismissed from breakfast before the bell rang for the first class, allotted for collecting books and papers, but my guide turned out to be a “skiver”, and rather than showing me where to store my books and papers he took me down a bewildering maze of alleys and passages, down in the dungeons of the old castle, past black furnaces and dripping pipes, with everything dimly lit by dirty thirty-watt-bulbs and draped in spider webs, to an obscure back entry where the garbage was picked up, and where a group of roughly twelve young addicts desperately puffed at their “fags.”

The “skivers” seemed to very much like taking an ignorant American like myself under their wings and showing me how to break the rigid discipline, but my point is that every single cigarette was in some ways an escapade. And the skivers wanted to pack every day with escapades. When we were sent off to run four miles cross country, the route took us out of the eyesight of teachers, and stuff happened. But, if I digress into the wonderful topic of youthful escapades I’ll get lost and forget what my point is; my point being that there was a tension between teachers and students to begin with, even without whatever it was my poetry involved.

At this point I’ll skip ahead six months, from the growing gloom of the autumnal solstice to the blinding brilliance of spring’s. I am skipping all the hilarity and pathos of the ups and downs created by the tension between teachers and “skivers”, and arriving at a sort of high point.

Last chapter I described how becoming “straight” nearly led to my suicide. Getting “in shape” physically and mentally was not enough. One must also face a side of life neither physical nor mental, and get “in shape” spiritually, but this is hard to do, if you are an Atheist. As an Atheist it is hard to see anything can exist beyond the physical and mental. Your logic bars the door. However the process of poetry is a battering ram that can break down such doors.

One does not have to believe in spirituality to get in better “shape” spiritually. I know this because I have yellowing diaries and books of old poems, and can see that, even as I became somewhat ruthless with my logic, and more and more of a hard-bitten Atheist, I was becoming more spiritual. Eventually this culminated in a wonderful ecstasy.

I need to stress this high point, because it is followed by a confession, admitting a downfall. However a downfall needs to have some high place one is falling down from. Too many confessions are poisoned bouquets of blame, pointing away at other people and smearing them as being causes of the downfall. Too seldom is credit given to the processes and people who uplifted one to the high and mighty stance, which they later down-fell from.

As one’s physical “shape” improves one gives credit where credit is due, and hopefully thanks one’s coach or drill sergeant. As one’s mental “shape” improves one hopefully gives credit to their teacher’s. But who does one thank as their spiritual “shape” improves?

If one has the good fortune to have a priest or pastor who is helpful rather than harmful, that person will refuse to take credit, and instead will point at the sky and say, “To God goes the glory.” But such talk, as I passed my eighteenth birthday, made me want to puke. I sneered at believing in some Santa Claus superstition. I believed in Truth.

Fifty years later, I have come to the conclusion God doesn’t care what the hell you call Him, and that an Atheist who honestly seeks Truth may accidentally be more worshipful of God than the pretenses of a hypocritical priest can ever manage. Therefore an honest Atheist may get blessed even as a priest prays in vain. That is honestly the only explanation I can come up with, for the ecstasy I was blessed with.

If I bored you with the pile of poems I produced beforehand, showing the work which led up to ecstasy, you would see little respect for God, and nothing short of contempt for religion. Because I had grown up in a wealthy town I was well aware of the misery associated with money, and was disgusted with people who would do cruel things to gain such misery, and cling to such misery, and prefer such misery. I stated, (without any idea of how to get there), that an alternative to misery must exist. And my process for seeking the alternative was “poetry”, which, as I defined it, was to not seek money and to not prefer money, and rather to seek Truth, Love and Understanding.

Religion failed to further such a search, in my teenaged opinion. While I didn’t call religion “the opiate of the masses”, I did come right out and say the rich could not remain rich if the poor rioted, and it was the business of priests to keep the poor from rioting. Therefore priests were part of the process that misguided the poor, turning the poor into mere cogs in a machine that kept the rich sleek and comfortable. Priests were part of that exploitation, and sought money and preferred money, and priests therefore preferred misery. I preferred poetry, and joy, and human happiness. To me such idealism seemed an obviously preferable and superior goal, a “Truth”, and anyone else, who preferred cold gold instead, was a nincompoop. A priest was suppose to aim mankind towards sainthood, not turn people into cogs.

The problem with such radical ideas is that there are plenty of ordinary people who don’t have the slightest desire to riot. They just want to do a day’s work and receive a day’s pay, and raise happy families in humble homes. As long as they are left alone, they could care less about the miserable debauchery the rich invite into their mansions. If the rich want to suffer, that is their business. This complacency, on the part of the humble, struck me as in some ways being a problem, yet in other ways struck me as wisdom.

It’s surprising how many things in life can seem like both a problem, and a wisdom. As my young mind attempted to grapple with such issues it created symbols in poems which argued and swirled and fenced and danced, in a dream-like and perhaps sometimes psychotic way, as I attempted to see what the Truth was.

Fifty years later, I see such scribbling as the footprints of a spiritual search. Young poets may superficially dream of being published, and crave fame and acclaim, but in my opinion the deeper and realer reward they get is that they get in “shape”, spiritually. And the sign of such an attainment is sometimes ecstasy.

My personal ecstasy hit me on a sunny and windy Sunday just before Easter break. I’d done well on a series of exams, and that filled me with a sense of well being. Not that the the discipline of relentless cramming ever truly ceased, but it did let up a little just after exams, and “a little” felt like a lot at that school. In fact I have never gotten as much from “free time” as I did at that school, where there was so very little of it.

Sundays began with the same blasted hand-bell jangling down the hallway, rung by a teacher who was a kindhearted choir director, but a sadist when it came to that bell. We got to sleep a little longer on Sundays, a half hour or perhaps a whole hour, but I never felt it was any later. I’d learned to do a lot without truly waking up: Use the bathroom, wash my face, comb what little hair I had, dress in the damn uniform, make my bed, and trudge down stairways and along hallways to breakfast, where I actually awoke.

By spring I had contrived to upgrade my amphetamine addiction from tea to coffee, and, while consuming as much food as was available (never enough, though I put on weight) the coffee stirred my creativity, which included my sense of mischief.

The “skivers” were always plotting their greatest coups during Sunday breakfasts, planning to ask teachers for permission-slips to spend their afternoon free-time studying species of lichen on mountain heights off school grounds, when in fact they planned to go visit a pub. I derived great pleasure from hearing of such plots, even when I was not invited, and was honored that I was trusted and not deemed a “snitch”. However before such debauchery was possible we had to go to chapel and pretend we were saints.

I was in the choir against my will, for the supply of talent was very limited, and I had made the mistake of singing in the shower, when I first arrived in September. Most everyone else was in the choir against their will as well, and I think that included the choir director. He was a man who appreciated music greatly, but knew he himself was not gifted, yet was forced to pound away at a piano while attempting to discipline mutinous schoolboys into producing some semblance of holy hymns. Often the result was such a cacophony of discord that I couldn’t help myself, and dissolved into helpless laughter. What made it all the funnier was that the choir director, whose piano-playing was dubious to begin with, could be counted upon totally disintegrating when things went wrong, and to pound out five or six very-wrong chords in a row. Of course the “skivers”, rather than helping the poor man avoid such embarrassment, would try to provoke such breakdowns. Usually this involved substituting a rude word which happened to rhyme with a holy word, in a holy hymn.

On this particular morning the choir did well belting out our first hymn, which most of the boys liked. For an Atheist, I was strangely stirred by certain hymns, and this one had a fine bass part, and let one express joy, in a sense bellowing, “I feel good this morning!” It was the old hymn that begins, “Holy! Holy! Holy! Lord God Almighty! Early in the morning I sing my song to you!”

The next hymn, however, was a complete shambles. It was a hymn where one or two boys could be depended upon to substitute the word “fart” for the word “heart”, but for some reason spring put mischief into the choir, and it sounded like I was the lone “suck” who actually sung the word “heart”. The entire rest of the choir were “skivers”, and sung out the word “fart” in four part harmony. The choir director then set a new record for the number of mangled chords he could clash in a row, and I had to sit down, flushed and streaming tears of shaking, silent laughter.

Sometimes laughing got me in trouble, and even once got me punished with a “caveat”, but laughter always seemed good for me and to improve my mental health. As an Atheist I even found it a little disconcerting that church could heal me and make me feel so much better, even if the healing was by unorthodox means.

On this particular morning I went unpunished for laughing, but did have to go to the locker room after chapel and put on my rugger shorts and then run around a fountain in the castle gardens for a half-hour, paying my debt to society, for a half-caveat I’d earned for some other infraction. (I can’t recall what that crime was.)

Jogging on a spring morning was not bad, and actually I enjoyed it, running backwards and shadow-boxing and generally turning the punishment into play, which was easy to do when you only had a half-caveat, and far harder for the truly dedicated skivers, who had to run around that fountain for hours.

After jogging I took a shower, which was blissfully long, compared to the hurried washes of weekdays, and then I heard the great news, as I got dressed: The British Postal Strike had ended, and all the mail from old friends in America, going back to the dark days of January, arrived all at once. I got quite a heap of envelopes, and ripped them all open without reading any, for I had the selfish hope someone had smuggled me a marijuana cigarette, but I was bitterly disappointed. Only then did I face the letter I’d saved for last, which was from a girlfriend I hadn’t heard from since October. She was not verbal, preferring to express herself with paint, and what she had sent was a hand-made card with a drawing.

My girlfriend and I had pragmatically agreed that a year was a long time to spend apart, and that we could remain friends even while dating interesting people, if we happened to meet any. In October she mentioned a fellow I knew named Dave. This caused me a paroxysm of jealous despair, as I figured Dave was richer, smarter, and better looking than I, and I was therefore “dead meat and history”. In November I was equally honest, and mentioned a red headed girl I was failing to seduce in the nearby town. I sent a few more letters, but had received none, and then the silence of the Postal Strike descended. I figured things were over between us, and we’d become that bankruptcy former-lovers call “friendship”, however, in the world of my poetry, the fifteen-year-old girl took on a symbolic, epic stature, and strode about like a goddess. But now an element of reality had crept in, for the goddess had sent me a card. It was a magic-marker picture of a tree with our initials carved in it within a heart, and a girl looking at the carving and smiling, and the single word, “Remember?”

I walked to lunch all warm and fuzzy, and was less interested than usual in the plots and planning which skivers were hatching for the afternoon. I was unusually disinterested in excitement, because I was unusually interested in serenity. For all my talk about Peace, Love and Understanding, I felt this was the first bit of true Peace I’d ever seen in my entire, fucking life.

After lunch I walked down to the ocean, walking in an odd way. I swung my arms, but they didn’t alternate. Both arms swung forward and then both arms swung back, and then I’d gambol a bit, like goats and sheep do in a pasture the first warm day of spring. My good mood was getting out of hand, but I went with it, rather than attempting to discipline it out of existence. My hiking became a sort of dancing, and, as easily as a schoolboy whistles while walking barefoot on a summer road, a song came to me, and required words. Here are the words, without the song:

Sunshine’s shining
When a wild wind’s whining.
They madly mix me
By baffled beauty.
Big, bad billows
Of blue sky pillows
Spin my head around;
I fall to the ground.
I see through the window
But cannot get in.

Tree top’s talking
The forest’s walking
Quick to and fro,
As they’re in the know.
Great glad gusting
I find I’m trusting
The infinite sky.
I do not ask why.
I see the wind blow
But cannot get on.

Do you ever try to try try try
Grab a bolt of wind and fly…
Why…?
Wind! Wind! Wind!
Whooosh!

Sunshine arrows
Blow laughing sparrows
Like leaves in the sky.
I do not ask why.
My knees are laughin’
Like a new born calf in
Green by cow who lies;
The calf only tries.
I see the answer
The question is gone.

We’re not the ones who run away a way.
They make up rules and cannot play…
Hey….
Wind! Wind! Wind!
Whooosh!

See the sea gull;
It climbs clear cloud walls
And hear the wild cry
And do not ask why.
I know what the wind knows:
Some day I’ll be gone.


Gone…

As a young Atheist I possessed all the equipment I needed to cynically dismiss the above ecstasy as merely a “good mood”. Back in those days the word “bipolar” hadn’t been concocted, and instead the now-scientifically-discredited concept of “manic-depression” was all the rage. So I could sneer at my own joy as merely being “manic”, as if I was mentally ill, (in which case illness is something to die for).

If I’d been religious it might have made sense that, when I smiled at God, then God smiled back at me. However my Atheism made things far more difficult and abstract, yet the simple fact of the matter was that when I sung to the sky the sky sung back to me, and when I sung to the trees the trees sung back to me, and so on and so forth until I was drunk without whiskey, stoned without marijuana, and tripping without LSD. Just as a jogger, after fighting against pain, is rewarded with a “second wind” that makes running remarkably easy, and just as a scholar, after all the agony of cramming, is rewarded by facing a test with every answer easily at hand, so too is a spiritual seeker rewarded with an ecstasy.

Some might complain ecstasy is not lasting and fades away, and isn’t like gold you can hoard in a miser’s vault. But it is more lasting than gold, which robbers can steal, for it cannot be stolen. Nor can it be lost in the way we forget other things we crave.

I have a good appetite, and have craved thousands of meals, but do I remember many? For that matter, I have been lustful, and have had quite a number of orgasms, but I remember few, and for the most part all I remember about lust is that I want to do it again. Ecstasy is different, for you cannot forget it, even when it never happens again.

Ecstasy is a sort of milestone, marking a certain progress you have made on the spiritual path. A milestone does not say what the road ahead will hold. In my case the road ahead held a downfall, but I don’t want to spoil this chapter by going into details of that valley of the shadow. Let it suffice to say I had arrived at a very high place.

How high was it? Well, I am ordinarily shy, and reclusive, and when I sing I am most comfortable in a shower when no one is home. However for months after I experienced my ecstasy I was quite comfortable singing in public, and while walking between classes I’d burst into song.

How high was it? Well, where some need guns to battle the world, or gold, or political power, or lipstick, I reached into the arsenal of poetry and prepared to battle the world with sheer joy.

PUNKY WOOD –Part 7–Saved By The Ghost–

A swarm of brake lights on the highway ahead snapped my thinking from September 1970 to the present tense of January, 1975. As I slowed I sighed, for the traffic was coming to a crawl. Obviously there had been some sort of accident up ahead; the traffic was never heavy heading south into Massachusetts on a Saturday night; it must be a drunk driver, or a truck roll-over, or maybe both. The traffic slowed to a halt, and I saw I’d be bumper to bumper, just edging forward, for a long time. The accident was so far ahead I could see no flashing blue lights of a police car, nor the flashing red of an ambulance.

I drummed the steering wheel impatiently and lit a cigarette, wishing I’d brought a thermos of coffee, and tried to think of what sort of fuss might be causing the so-called “crisis” at Audley’s commune, but I knew whatever it was, it was likely lame and uninteresting. All the issues that brought things to a halt increasingly seemed like much ado about nothing, to me. I’d rather think about things which interested me, even if they didn’t interest anyone else.

So instead I tried to think about the characters Siegfried and Heinrich in my poem-in-progress, “Armor”, but that too seemed lame and uninteresting. My writer’s block was as bad in my car as it was at my desk.

Inevitably my mind drifted back to September, 1970, when my life in some ways was put on hold, or got stuck in a traffic jam, for ten months. Or that is how it felt to me, though I went through some major changes.

I knew I had to shape up, as my wild senior-summer had left me very scrawny and haggard, but I figured improvement was a matter of merely sucking in my gut and mustering some will power. There was not much awareness of withdrawal symptoms, back in those days, and the words “detox” and “rehab” hadn’t been invented. Also, I didn’t want people to know I’d done anything illegal, and, with the exceptions of cigarettes and coffee, all the things I was withdrawing from were illegal. Lastly, I had a great fear of being incarcerated in a nuthouse against my will like my father had been, and so, when I became shaky, I was very good at inventing excuses, such as “eyestrain”. When a sort of “battlefield flashback” (which afflicts users of hallucinogens) occurred, called “re-occurrences”, I just kept quiet about it, and was a bit like Audley Bine was when he managed to function despite hallucinating mummies, though my hallucinations were never so gross or graphic, and tended to involve firm objects shivering or melting a little, and white walls appearing blotched by faint hues of yellow and pink. In any case I was dealing with strange, psychotic stuff which people outside my skull were oblivious to, and I was glad people didn’t know me better. At the same time I felt very alone, and yearned to be better understood.

I suppose it is typical for teenagers to feel misunderstood, and to seek and find a sort of understanding, not by talking with anyone in particular, but rather by listening to the music of an artist who seems to speak what they themselves can’t find the words for. In my case the artist was Jimi Hendrix, and no sooner did I arrive in Britain when he drowned in his own vomit on the outskirts of London on September 18. Some stated the CIA and Mafia had killed him, but I felt misunderstanding had killed him. When Janis Joplin died of an overdose, three weeks later, I felt the same: Misunderstanding killed her. However I also had a strong sense I should be very serious about getting off drugs, or I’d end up like they did. It didn’t matter if it was the drugs or the misunderstanding that killed you; dead was dead. To be honest, on some level I became very scared.

It seemed the strangest thing to me that the very drugs that seemed to increase my understanding should increase my sense of being misunderstood, even to the degree where the loneliness threatened to kill me. I felt great empathy for Van Gogh’s crazed drama, when he so wanted to be heard he cut off his ear. I trudged about at times so moved by the violins of my own self-pity it is a wonder I didn’t walk into a tree, yet at the same time a far saner voice in my head told me to shape up and stop whining and to do ten push-ups. It made for some interesting entries on the now-yellowing pages of a diary, and for interesting poems as well.

To some degree poetry replaced hallucinogens. Despite the fact there was no longer any enthusiastic Audley Bine who wanted to see my poems, I wrote poetry far more than seems possible, considering the rigorous schedule of the school.

I felt like I had joined the marines. There were non-stop classes and exercises. You were never allowed to laze in bed, not even on Sunday mornings, and in a military manner you had to have your bed made and be on time for breakfast or you’d be punished with a “caveat”, which meant you ran around a circle during the one half-day of free time you actually were allowed, after Chapel on Sundays. You had to account for work you did even during study halls and “preps”, which led to some false accounting on my part, for when I jotted down that I had spent time reading assigned books I actually had written poems.

As a spoiled American from the permissive school system of a wealthy suburb, getting smashed into such a disciplined system was a shock, a boot-camp’s nervous breakdown, which involved withdrawal symptoms all its own. But one rather nice thing about the fierce discipline was that I had my nose pushed into the grindstone of British poetry. At first I was offended, but soon I began to understand the punishment was actually pleasurable. I was like an alcoholic plunged into a vat of cold champagne. I stopped struggling fairly swiftly, when forced to read Shakespeare and fifteen other British poets.

(Two things, which puzzled me about the old-school, stiff-upper-lip Englishmen of that time, were the facts that, despite seeming emotionless and macho, they all seemed fond of flower gardens, and poetry.)

Not that they seemed the slightest bit interested in discussing hippy topics like Peace, Love and Understanding. The teachers didn’t even show much apparent interest in lust, fame and greed (though they probably were interested, on the sly.) All that seemed to matter to them was passing tests called O-levels (which were the equivalent of a partial American high school diploma) and A-levels, (which were the equivalent of a partial American college diploma.) A teacher’s worth, his sense of self-esteem, was twined with getting recalcitrant boys to pass such tests, and there was greater glory in getting a teenager to pass an A-level than an O-level. After only six weeks at the school I was moved from an O-level curriculum to an A-level one, which hugely increased my work-load, as I had to learn in two terms what usually takes six, but also plunged me into poetry, poetry, poetry.

At the same time I was plunged into a society of roughly 120 schoolboys between the age of thirteen and eighteen who didn’t care about Truth, Love and Understanding, but also didn’t care about O-levels and A-levels and especially poetry. They were a counter-culture different from the hippy counter-culture, for neither sex nor drugs were available and rebellion had to take different forms. They had a jargon all their own. (If you did your work you were a “suck”, and the art of escaping punishment while avoiding work was “skiving.”) Getting slammed into this all-boy culture forced me to rethink many hippy concepts, for their ridicule was merciless, and having to deal with them also made me long for a woman. Not that I didn’t come to love my comrades, but I think even the most flagrant homosexual might have second thoughts if he had to put up with nothing but men, men, men; day after day, week after week, month after month.

It would take another book to describe the agony and ecstasy of that schooling, and the antics of my classmates. The two hundred poems I wrote would be a distraction, in this work. The three hundred escapades I was involved with would also be a distraction. Let it suffice to say that I did some hard thinking outside of the scope of the O-level and A-level exams. Much involved how the Scots differed from the English, how the upper class differed from the lower class, how teachers differed from students, and what made the American ideology of that time different from the English Empire’s fading glory.

To be honest, I would have avoided much of this hard thinking, if I could have. After two months I was ready to head home. I’d quit drugs, even cigarettes, and weighed more than I ever weighed before (or since.) I was back in shape, and eager to return to the fray. I lived for the letters I received from friends back in the States, which seemed too few and too far between, yet which gave me a sense that there was a sort of societal madness occurring in America, which I wanted to return to and fight.

Not only had Hendix and Joplin died, but the Beatles had broken up. No new albums would brighten horizons like dawn. However George Harrison had arisen from the ashes of the Beatles to write a hit song called “My Sweet Lord.” Also many hippies were joining a movement called “The Jesus Freaks.” At age seventeen this development, to me, seemed very much like a sign people had abandoned rational thought, and had stopped trusting first-hand experience. Where I would not trust any hallucination, they seemed to be trusting stuff without even a hallucination to back it up. Their so-called “faith” was, in my eyes, merely an abdication of responsibility. They needed to think harder, but preferred the sightlessness of blind faith. But I insisted upon seeing.

This involved me in a strange hypocrisy, for, though I knew I needed poetry like an oasis in the desert of life, I also deemed it a sort of mirage. Poetry was a hallucination, which rational thought might note, but also would disregard as “only a dream”. In a sense I was intellectually biting the hand that fed me.

My girlfriend turned out to be very bad, when it came to writing letters. She wrote a single letter in the fall, and sent me a card in the spring, despite the fact I wrote her a long letter every few weeks. Meanwhile my best friend wrote all the time, but wrote while high on LSD, so his letters held little that was comprehensible, and sometimes were a just smear of watercolors with no words. However a few other friends wrote scattered letters which mentioned things that piqued my interest, one of which was that Audley Bine had started a commune. I heard that “My Sweet Lord” was played on the commune’s stereo non-stop. I felt like I had missed something; obviously Audley hadn’t lasted long as a teacher at a boarding school in New Hampshire, but I received no answers to the letters I sent across the sea inquiring, and Audley himself never wrote me.

In a strange sense feeling so cut off from the people I had known turned them into dreams. My girl friend stropped being real and became a poetic image. I actually had vivid dreams about her and other old friends, and wondered a little if there was some sort of transatlantic psychic contact, but then I’d give myself a sort of slap and tell myself to get real. But what was real, if the people who meant so much could just melt away?

When I first arrived at the school the days were still a bit longer than the nights, but one thing that astounded me about that northern latitude was how swiftly the days grew shorter. If I’d been scientific I’d have noted that, where each day was three minutes shorter in New England, each day was six minutes shorter in northern Scotland, but rather than scientific I was poetic, and was struck by a sense of swiftly deepening darkness and growing gloom. Before I knew it I felt like I was fighting for my life, simply staying sane. The sun seemed to barely start rising in the sky before it gave up and went back down again, when you could see the sun at all, and it didn’t just rain. Some days were just a brief time when the blackness turned deep purple. Then, to truly test me, in the midst of this darkness the English postal workers went on strike, and week after week passed without any mail at all, from January to March.

Surviving the winter changed me. For one thing, I entered it seventeen years old and exited it eighteen, and eighteen seemed very old to me. I felt it was high time to stop being juvenile, and to grow up and be grim. But a problem with that northern latitude was the days grew longer with the same astonishing speed they’d grown shorter, and the increasing floods of intoxicating daylight made it hard to be grim and serious. I was given to manic moods and bouts of irresponsible behavior, which seemed less than mature to me, as my poetic inclinations warred with my newfound discipline.

I actually had achieved a lot, not merely in terms of becoming physically fit, but in terms of absorbing an amazing amount of intellectual stuff, (perhaps knowledge or perhaps trivia). While American schooling taught more, in those days, when it came to justifying thought (and coming up with excuses) American schools dropped the ball in terms of exposing one to other’s minds. Consequently I could write as if I was an expert on Mark Twain when I had read nothing but part of Huckleberry Finn, primarily focusing on my own thoughts, responses and opinions. The British schooling required far more actual reading, and I read more in a month at the boarding school than I had read in four years at an American high school. After an initial period of disdain, when I scorned being exposed to “old fashioned” writers, I suddenly became a sort of human sponge, completely absorbed in meeting a cast of witty characters who seemed strangely alive even when they’d been dead for centuries. My American teachers would have been astonished to see me work so hard, but the thing of it was: It often didn’t seem like work, any more than it seems like work to head off to a pub and hear an old sailor tell a good tale. It became obvious that, besides getting myself in physical shape, I was in good shape when it came to passing my A-levels in English, (and also Economics). However it was at this point that becoming sane came very close to killing me.

The weirder parts of my thinking had faded away with the winter darkness, and I’d climbed beyond the various withdrawal symptoms I’d suffered, and my thinking had become very “straight”. Not that I didn’t still venture off into poetic landscapes, but I knew poetry was just a form of dreaming-while-awake, and to some degree I belittled it as something that was less than “real”. I was increasingly a realist, and, until I could see some sort of proof beyond hallucinations, I was increasingly an Atheist.

One test to my atheism involved the castle ghost. Of course, you can’t believe in ghosts if you are a true Atheist, but a number of boys claimed to have seen the ghost, and I was not about to exclude myself from such fascinating discussions over some piffling technicality. Anyway, I could contribute to the discussion, though I called the ghost a hallucination, when I saw it.

The boys talked with great authority about the ghost, though they tended to disagree a lot about major details, and even about whether there was one ghost or several different ghosts.

The majority opinion was that the ghost was named Margaret, and that she was the daughter of a Duke who ruled back in the 1600’s. Margaret wanted to marry her true love, but the Duke wanted her to marry some person she did not love. He locked her in the top of the castle, but she planned to elope with her true love. As she started to escape, descending out the window on a rope, her father barged in and caught her, and she was faced with a choice of being hauled up and captured and forced to marry someone she didn’t love, or letting go of the rope. She chose death, but didn’t get to go to heaven, and instead had to hang around the castle trying to live out the rest of her life without a body to do the living with. She’d been at it three hundred years, and apparently still had more disembodied living to do. The boys claimed they saw her ghosting about the upper floors of the castle. Some boys said she cried out for her lover, and others said she moaned because she’d realized suicide was a bad choice, and that a couple decades married to a jerk was preferable to centuries stuck upstairs in a castle.

When I had my own hallucination I told no one about it, for I figured I’d just get put in a straitjacket if I did so. It was only months later, when I knew the boys better, that I entertained them with my tale, and was promptly mocked and derided, because they insisted no self-respecting ghost would ever haunt in the manner I described.

For one thing, my hallucination didn’t take the form of a young woman, and rather just was a black shape. It occurred in the fall, when the days were still getting drastically darker and a wind was roaring off the North Sea and beating against the windows of my dorm. The dorm had originally been a single, vast, guest-bedroom for the wealthy, but now had five, small metal beds scattered about, with foot lockers at the bottom of each bed. My four roommates were breathing the soft serenity of sleep, but I was tossing and turning in some private agony, yearning for sleep to come spare me. I flopped over and glowered out through the open door into the yellow-lit hallway, and then noticed a small, black sphere just hanging in the air by the door. I thought it must be some mote in my eye, and blinked to make it go away, but rather than going away it assumed the shape of a small, black, blunt comet, spiraling around and growing larger, speeding up, and then rocketing away down the hall. I swallowed, decided screaming would do no good, and flopped back over to my other side, and yearned even more desperately for the oblivion of sleep, and was granted my wish.

The other boys especially disliked my dismissive attitude. Somewhere I had read that people saw black shapes just before a migraine headache, and even though I hadn’t had a headache, I decided the black shape was one of those.

The subject of ghosts and suicide came up again one mild spring evening, when there was suddenly daylight after first prep and before dinner. We had a tiny bit of free time then, fifteen minutes when we were suppose to put books needed for first prep away, and take out the books needed for second prep, but actually was a time the boys used to hurry away into the castle grounds, just past the view of teachers, for a cigarette. I had fallen off the wagon, in terms of tobacco, and joined a group as it slouched down a groomed path through budding rhododendrons, puffing small, silver clouds of smoke that hung in the calm, until we paused by a small graveyard for the past’s various dukes and duchesses, noticing a relatively new grave just outside the wrought iron fence that marked the consecrated ground. Apparently a teen aged child of the current duchess had taken his life while away at boarding school, and apparently suicides weren’t allowed to be buried in consecrated ground. The boys were discussing their theories about why this rule existed, when one boy became exasperated.

It was Peter, a short young man with red curls, amazing freckles, big ears, bright blue eyes, and an amazing wit. He was an adept “skiver” who seemed to dislike study, but to be very smart, and to enjoy holding the most unlikely opinions. If there was a new way of looking at an ordinary thing, he’d go out of his way to find it, as if he found life boring and was trying to spice it up a bit. His dorm was on a different level of the castle, and I never had gotten to know him very well because he avoided all sports, the same way he avoided all study, and also because he hung out with a different group of friends, but the little time I spent with him was always rewarding.

Peter had spent five long years at the school, and I assumed he had never seen the ghost Margaret whom others talked about. If he had, it was inconvenient for the stance he chose to take at that moment, which was a stance of fierce Atheism. He spread his palms and shook his head and loudly wondered how his fellows could be so unscientific. Then he insisted at length that science had never grasped a ghost with calipers nor noted a change in temperature in haunted places, but instead had proven without doubt that life was only a coincidental concentration of electricity within a complex chemical reaction. When we died we just reverted to the chemicals we’d come from, and then, to prove his point, he nimbly pranced to the side and stood on the green grave of the suicide, stooped over, plucked a blade of grass, and claimed, “This grass is chemically no different from any other grass, and this doesn’t make me a cannibal”, and then he chewed the grass. The other boys exploded into exclamations over how disgusting and gross Peter was, as he laughed in delight, and I strode to his side and called the other boys cowards, stooped, and chewed my own blade of grass. Then we heard the distant bell ringing, snubbed our cigarettes, and hurried off to dinner.

After my initial delight over Peter’s antics faded away, I was struck by a profound wonder over how utterly meaningless life was. I shared a cramped study in a small turret with two other older boys, but for some reason both boys were away, and I was alone there, doing my studying, when the wonder overwhelmed me. I looked out the window at a beautiful view of green springtime by a benign, azure sea, aware I’d triumphed over the darkness of winter and the impossible work-load necessary to pass my A-levels, and it all seemed completely worthless. What did it matter, if in the end I’d just die and turn into chemicals feeding green grass? Success or failure, victory or loss, it all came to the same end; in the end it amounted to nothing. So why was I putting it off?

I smacked down my pen, stood up, and walked down the halls past the deserted dorms to a dorm with a window that overlooked a three story drop to a stone terrace. Why was I putting it off? Far away I could hear a house senior yelling at the rowdy boys in a second prep classroom, shouting that he’d give them all caveats if they didn’t pipe down and study. Was there some sort of caveat given for suicide? Through my brain drifted Hamlet’s soliloquy.

“…….To die, to sleep–
To sleep–perchance to dream: aye, there’s the rub,
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause…….”

Must give us pause? Why must it “give us pause”? Was the “pausing” not all due to superstition? There wasn’t a shred of scientific evidence to back up the taboo against suicide. It was just an inbred fear of death, some biological advantage that kept chemical reactions going and breeding and continuing to put off what was inevitable: Death. But why put it off? Why wait fifty years for what could be done now?

My poetic side had no answer. My pragmatic side, which had helped me survive all the symptoms as I went through drug withdrawals, had achieved a total victory, and I had become a complete Atheist. All poetic thought was dismissed as mere hallucination, all spirituality was swept into a dustbin made for all things irrational and unreal.

I leaned further out the window and dared myself to just do it. Why be such a chicken? Just do it. Why wait fifty years? It will all be over in just a second.

Just then, as I teetered on the brink, a black shape came through the wall at ground level and hurtled up at me. Startled, I fell back from the window. Then I hurried back to my study and went to work as if nothing had happened. It was only after five minutes that my stunned brains were able to wonder, “What the fuck was that?”

My pragmatic side immediately went to work explaining it away. I decided fear-of-death is a powerful instinct, a product of countless millennium’s worth of survival-of-the-fittest, evolved into a power ingrained into human biology and chemistry that defies rational thought. If you try to push against it it pushes back in a powerful way. What I had seen was that power manifesting as a striking hallucination, for I had felt no physical wind as the blackness hurtled up towards me.

But in a schizoid manner my poetic side was utterly unscientific, and mused, “I wonder if that was Margaret? She would know suicide is not an escape, I suppose. Maybe that was her way of advising me against it.”

Thirty years later, during a school reunion, I returned to that window, looked down, and shuddered. I alone know what a close call it was. The odd part is that there was nothing particularly wrong with my life at that time. There was no reason except that I had no reason.

At the time I still thought of myself as an Atheist, but the experience was a wrench in the works of my pragmatic certainty. A flaw existed in the diamond of my “straightness”, a fatigue in the metal of my will. It shows up in my poetry with the appearance of illogical things, like ghosts. It reappeared in my life as the desire to find some good marijuana, and to go back to error, seeking a window to another world.