To paraphrase Waylon and Willie: “Momma don’t let your babies grow up to be poets.” Not if you want them to take care of you in your old age.
This is my long awaited, feverishly anticipated annual poetry column. I will use the space to touch on my long career in writing verse and how it has affected me psychologically and financially. I believe I wrote my first poem at the age of nine. It was called “The Man Who Went To War.” It started something like this:” I’m the man who went to war/ I wasn’t rich and I wasn’t poor/ I was just an ordinary guy/ Who wanted to live /But didn’t want to see others die…..
I grew up during World War11 and was much affected by it. One of my father’s best friends was killed on the beaches of Normandy. And most of my grandmother’s family was wiped out by the Nazis in Russia. Even at that early age it felt good to release my emotions into words and rhythm.
One of my greatest early triumphs was in Junior High when our class was asked to write a poem about Horatius at the Gate. Horatius was a soldier who bravely saved Rome by sacrificing his life at the gates of the City.
I was so inspired that I wrote two poems and gave one to my best friend, Harold, who lived on 4th St. in Chester, Pa. where we met after school and on weekends to play ball on a huge, cindered, car barn next to an ice house, alongside the Chester Creek.
Harold didn’t like to write poetry. (He turned out to be an engineer.) I gave him what I considered the inferior poem and kept the “best one” for myself. Wouldn’t you know, Harold got and A and I got a B and a lot of kidding from my buddies.
At Temple University, I started a humor column called Verse and Worse, Dedicated to the Uneducated. It was mostly in rhyme and talked about Temple events. One poem about our championship soccer team ended “Who says commuters, can’t be good booters.”(The majority of Temple’s students at the time commuted to school on the subway and lived at home.)
While serving in the Army in Germany in 1956-57, I had many poems published in Pup Tent Poets, a feature of Stars and Stripes, the official newspaper of the U.S Army.
One was called:
With padded paws the quiet cat
Comes tip-a-tap and sleeky silk
Across the glazed linoleum
To have her morning milk-
Around the bowl she hunches and
With demon tongue attacks the white
And licks, and licks, and licks and licks
And licks it out of sight…
Up to this point I had never been paid for writing poetry. That was to change in 1960-’61 which turned out to be my biggest year in poetry biz. I had four poems published on the Op Ed page of the New York Times one which was selected by Readers Digest. The New York Times paid $15 each for the four poems and the Readers Digest $100 for the reprint of Weeds
No matter how often
I level this weed-
It returns after rain
As if there is need
To remind men who sever
Life’s delicate string
That destruction is never
A permanent thing…
So lets add it up. Four poems in the New York Times for a total of $60 and one reprinted in the Readers Digest for $100 for a grand total of $160.
In the years following I had many poems published in literary magazines throughout the United States. They all paid with copies of the magazine. Most literary magazines are under- funded and that’s about all they can afford.
I didn’t cash in again until 1996 when Seven Arts, the literary magazine of WHYY-TV and radio of Philadelphia, accepted one of my poems,
A Dog Named I bark:
I barked back at a dog named I Bark
who barked at me with not very much ferociousness. That’s why I barked back.
He didn’t even show his teeth.
I did. I showed mine and even snarled
curling my lip I bark before he could
bark back and my bark.
Altogether there were three barks,
my bark and two barks by Ibark…
For this gem I received $100. That’s the last time I was paid for a submitted poem. I’ve had many more published over the years and last month four appeared in Parting Gifts out of North Carolina. It,like so many literary periodicals, pays in copies.
So let’s add it all up. Over the past 60 years, I’ve sold $260 worth of poems for an average of about $6 a year. Not too impressive.
Oh, yes, I have published eight books of poetry on my own and broke even with most of them. But the truth is that most poets write because it gives them fulfillment and helps them to cope with the rigors of daily living. Many are teachers. Some are doctors, business people, they come from all walks of life. And yes, some even work in public relations.
I do my writing at night because I’m busy during the day and many nights and weekends, too. But somehow, it gets done because it must.
What Do You Think?
How we began, I’d like to know-
Some say explosions deep in space-
Which doesn’t explain who lit the fuse
Or carved the human face…