As I was browsing for something to read the other night, I discovered a book–hidden away at the end of the shelf–that I hadn’t read since my freshman year in college. First Principles of Verse by Robert Hillyer was a gift from my favorite high school English teacher, Mae W Allen. It never occurred to me that Miss Allen knew that one of my ambitions at that time was to be a writer as I hadn’t shared anything with her that I had written except the work required in her class. Between my junior and senior year in high school I had started experimenting with writing poetry but had never disclosed my activities to anyone. In fact I deflected any suspicions that my writing may have aroused among my peers by authoring a running farce based on sketches of some of the more colorful members of my class; not surprisingly, this tapestry of vignettes was often scatological. I don’t remember when the manuscript that was passed around among a close circle of friends got out of hand but it did. Thankfully, I came to no bodily harm as a result of my ribald brand of humor and biting sarcasm. Although I never made her a character in my little fabrication, Miss Allen’s middle initial–W– was occasionally the topic of conversation among several of my friends. She could never be confused for Diamond Lil; however, there was speculation among the teenage boys in her classes about her middle name. True to the male stereotype that our imagination had its origin below the waist and was fueled by testosterone, we quickly concluded that the “W” was short for West. To this day I have no idea what the “W” stood for in her name and I never had the courage to ask her throughout our friendship.
Over time Miss Allen gave me four books as gifts, three during my freshman year in college and one many years later, in 1989. After Hillyer’s book, three more books arrived: The Bat Poet written by Randall Jarrell and illustrated by Maurice Sendak; The Ballad of Reading Gaol by Oscar Wilde; and, a book, Miss Allen told me, needed someone like me to appreciate, Biographia Literaria: The Collected Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
Unlike most of my classmates who were college bound in the fall following high school graduation, I remained at home and got a job to earn enough money so that I could enroll the following year. From the summer of 1963 until the fall of 1964 I worked and read as many hours as possible. I was fortunate that my commitment toward saving rivaled my passion for reading and was able to achieve the goal that I had set for myself. I was also pleased that encounters with classmates home from college during breaks revealed that my imposed regime out-paced the quantity and the variety of the literature many of my contemporaries were required to read in college. The year following high school was notable for a number of reasons; one of chief importance was that I matured in a way that I probably never would have had I entered college immediately after graduating high school. I began to understand and appreciate the sacrifice many must endure, my parents, for example, whose dreams may lie hidden or deferred beneath the inexorable yoke of work-a-day labor, provisioning for endless hungry mouths and demands of life. I indentured my dreams to work, a year of service in exchange for a chance at the exotic lure of freedom. Working, saving, reading were constants; little else mattered as I was cloistered in an order of my own invention that I hoped one day would set me free. There were a few friends, some new, some proven, that I saw occasionally, and I corresponded extensively with one very close friend, otherwise my life was a matter of routine.
On a lark, I dropped by the high school one day during my first break from college in my freshman year. I sauntered into Miss Allen’s room and sat down. Our first encounter was bridged by a year of self-enforced labor and a semester of re-introduction to formal education. Along the way, I had begun to be more open about writing poetry; I had also been captivated reading Plato during my year of exile and switched majors from chemistry to philosophy when I arrived at college. My serendipitous return to Mae Allen’s classroom inaugurated a new friendship, the role of teacher and student was transformed into one of friend and confidant. Our initial meetings were not without tension, especially when discussing the poetry I had written. Those first meetings were strained for several reasons: we were now in a completely different relationship than we had been only a year earlier; but more significantly, our aesthetic was so different that we had to find a way to appreciate our differing perspectives. I do not recall all of the points of disagreement; however, there was some discussion regarding verse, specifically rimed verse as opposed to free verse–the latter was my preference and the former was her’s; perhaps, that explains the inscription in Oscar Wilde’s The Ballad of Reading Gaol. On the fly leaf Miss Allen wrote with scansion and a note that it was iambic pentameter: To Tom who henceforth may loquacious be.
Over the years each return to my hometown was never complete without a brief excursion to Alloway to see Miss Allen. Those visits were usually chronicled by photographs taken on each occasion; the progress of my small family was visible despite the telltale hauntings of ghosts which seemed to hover over and behind the subjects in each slightly out-of-focus image. The advent of the Christmas season was official when the first card arrived and until she died that honor always belonged to Miss Allen. Of course there was other correspondence between us but the plight of a former student of an English teacher is always fraught with the possibility of an error of some sort creeping into the incandescent flow of imagination. I’m sure my communications contained errors, and had we been face to face, I daresay Mae Allen would have gently offered a correction in her own inimitable manner; she was not without opinions but she was never heavy-hand in her expression of them.
I no longer recollect the reason Miss Allen gave me Randell Jarrell’s The Bat Poet, if indeed, there was any such specific motive beyond the subtile encourage that a gift from a friend represents. The only poem of Jarrell’s that I was familiar with at that time was the anthology favorite, The Death of a Ball Turret Gunner. Oddly, years later, Fred Chappell compared one of my poems to Jarrell’s The Mockingbird, an exquisite bit of flattery that I have always relished.
By the time she finally presented me with Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria, Miss Allen confessed that she had intended to give it to me on several previous occasions but had simply forgotten. Her insistence that I was a perfect match for that particular book made me playfully curious and I mused if there was a similarity of genius in me and Coleridge that she saw or if she had glimpsed a lack of control and confidence that might lead to self-doubt and downward spirals of despondency, to substance abuse. I chose to adopt the former as the reason behind her gift. My decision to study philosophy probably had more to do with her action than my being invested with elements of genius since it was clear that Miss Allen had read the book. While I loved both poetry and philosophy I was unable to choose between them; Solomon’s famous methodology was irrelevant in my case; I wanted a synthesis which led to inclusion and richness rather than a parsimonious narrowing of what was possible. And Mae Allen must certainly have known Coleridge’s mind on this very topic for he writes in Biographia Literaria:
No Man was ever a great poet, without being at the same time a profound philosopher.
Literary greatness may have eluded me and philosophical profundity faded to a melange of grays and conflicting opinions; however, it is both comforting and inspiring to know that there are people whom we may encounter who may see our nascent awakening of promise and encourage us to nurture it. In poetry we crystalize ourself in words with such variety and richness that denotation and connotation are twinned partners that focus and deflect, abstract and objectify both the poet and the poem. A poem is often an act of daring and faith; it is always an intimation of its creator and there is no place to seek cover, not even in the densest thicket of words; our subterfuge is undone and we, and the world, are often the better for it.