" "All the President's Men, " "An Anthology of Modern Irish Poetry, " "Barometer Soup, " "Freddy Fishstick, " "Little Peach Planet", " "Nordstrom, " "Tales from Margaritaville, " "The Artist's Way, " "The Vein of Gold, " Paul Muldoon, "Frank Bama, Jimmy Buffett, Julia Cameron, Marquette University, news-editorial journalism, Seamus Heaney, Washington Post, Wes Davis
There was such a thing as “getting too big for your britches.” Choosing a poetic life of sighs and torment, affectation and starvation, in a drafty garret somewhere above all the normal people working for their daily loaf was characteristic of a Diva.
So, you looked for something practical, something relevant to everyone’s quotidian life – say, news-editorial journalism. News and editorials, well-written, can have poetic qualities and they often inspire poetry, but their relevance is quickly grasped. No one questions the need for writing about the economy or crime or human interest or sports. This was especially true in 1977, just a few years post-“All the President’s Men.”
College and news-editorial journalism were natural choices for me given what I had decided at fourteen. Remember? Intellectual pursuits had a shelf-life of forever? I hoped to learn not just about writing, but about myself. Well, Life happened, and marriage and children occupied my years after graduation. In all those years, however, I never dropped that dream of being a writer, a storyteller.
Sometimes I called upon the breathing techniques from childbirth (I still do.) Focus on the breathing not the pain, not the frustration, not the anxiety, not the uncertainty.
Sometimes I called upon Freddy Fishstick’s Lesson Number Six (from Jimmy Buffett’s “Tales from Margaritaville”) about running with the ball. I fumbled so many things so many times and had the crap knocked out of me more than I care to admit – but I kept possession of that dream.
I would dutifully sit down at the computer with my notes and outlines and begin typing, only to wake myself later with my snores!
I realized that was a wake-up call and that I needed to change my concept of what it meant to be a storyteller. That’s when things started to happen.
I took to heart Frank Bama’s observation about the best navigators, don’t you know, and, like Nordstrom, I decided a nonconformist plan was in order. Julia Cameron’s “The Artist’s Way” and “The Vein of Gold” were my navigational charts and I turned the controls over to my heart and my intuition.
Then Seamus Heaney appeared on the horizon.
I do love Ireland and I was thrilled at the time to read of the Irish poet’s Nobel Prize in Literature (1995) even though poetry had never been a part of my life.
I was moved to seek his work.
Wes Davis, in his introductory remarks regarding Heaney’s work (“An Anthology of Modern Irish Poetry”) wrote of “allurements,” “poetic signature,” and “frequency.” I have plucked those words from the context Davis intended, but they aptly describe my experience of that initial encounter with Seamus Heaney’s work.
Heaney’s poetic signature had a frequency that enchanted me, drew me in to poetry, to poets. Most startling, however, was my thought that, “I might want to try composing poetry myself.” For all the allure of Heaney’s poetry, however, I fought that inspiration.
The Muse persisted, dragged me kicking and screaming. Time and time again I railed, “This is nonsense! Why me?!”
What I didn’t know then is what Peter Davison wrote so well in his New York Times review (10.13.2002) of Paul Muldoon’s “Moy Sand and Gravel”: “The history of poetry has intimate connections to nonsense …”
it wasn’t until the “Little Peach Planet” haiku that I credited the Muse with any shred of sense, but all along the way I was comforted by Heaney’s presence. He was a compass star. He was a role model.
And then he was gone.
And the nonsense began again. How do you keep going through that?
I say here and now that the history of poetry is also intimately connected to the serenity and sanctuary of silence. In this sanctuary of silence where my poetry has withdrawn to grieve, the Muse has nursed me and shown me a way to be here, now.
It requires a shuffling of projects, but it makes sense.
Barbara Butler McCoy, c. 2014
All photos Barbara Butler McCoy, c. 1983; Ireland