Sunday, December 28, 2008

I Called Richard Yates On The Phone: Musings From A Minor Poet

I Called Richard Yates On The Phone: Musings From A Minor Poet

By Doug Holder

An editor of a new literary magazine invited me to write an essay on the role of the “Post Modern” Poet. Well, I am not sure what “Post Modern” means, but I am a poet, however minor, and hell, for what it’s worth I should know what my own small role is and even the role of the much bigger fish in the poetry sea. But I think I want to expand that question. What is the role of the writer?

Now I am not known for the intellectual heft of my writing, be it community journalism or in my straightforward poetry. But I always have prided myself on tapping into my instincts, bringing my rather provincial personal experience to the universal. So as it happens I was thinking of the late novelist Richard Yates. I was reading Yates long before he became tremendously famous from the movie with Kate Winslet, etc… “Revolutionary Road.” (based on the novel of the same title.) That book for me, was electric, as thrilling as Kerouac’s “On the Road”, but in a very different way. Both Yates and Kerouac made me go out and hungrily acquire and read everything they ever penned. They made me think outside my self-made box, made me realize the power of language and literature, and they spurred me on to read even more. From Yates, I found other chroniclers of the broad lawns and narrow minds of the suburbs in post World War ll America, like John Cheever and John Updike. And later I moved through the whole canon of contemporary American authors like Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, James Baldwin, Henry Roth, to name a few.

Some people say a great poem can make you cut yourself while shaving, or make you miss your subway stop. Well, I say it makes you want to call the author on the phone.

You see, years ago I lived in a rooming house in the Back Bay of Boston, right near where Yates lived. I used to see him shamble down Mass. Ave. He looked like a homeless guy; stooped over, disheveled—a man in serious disrepair. I heard he drank at the “Crossroads’, a bar a few blocks from the hole-in-the-wall I lived in. I went in a few times but I missed him. I probably wouldn’t have had enough gumption to speak to him anyway. So I tried to call him on the phone several times, but I got no answer. But the point is that his writing affected me so much I wanted to call him; I wanted to connect, in a tangible way.

He was a man of my father’s generation. And since I am a Baby Boomer, and lived in the suburbs of New York City (as did the characters in Revolutionary Road), I knew the milieu he wrote about. My old man was a regular “Dashing Dan,” a guy who hopped the Long Island Railroad everyday to the advertising canyons of Madison Ave. So in this novel “Revolutionary Road” I had a window into the mind of a guy trapped in this “Rat Race.” I had lived on a “Revolutionary Road” in Rockville Center, NY with my parents’ requisite barbecues and the tipsy cocktail parties that my brother and I witnessed at the top of the living room stairs.

Here was a writer who was doing an exegesis of this milieu, the one I grew up in and did not question (at least when I was in the thick of it). This regimented existence, from birth, death and infinity, was tightly choreographed, and I thought that it was the only game in town.

And since, during this specific time, when I was living in the Back Bay, I happened to be a denizen of a down-at-the--heels rooming house—a bathroom down the hall affair, with other gone- to- seed residents, and playing at being an artist---well, I thought Yates really spoke to me.

I often read his books, and at times they left me reeling, even crying. Even though I never actually spoke to Yates, Yates spoke loudly to me. So what do I think is the role of the “Post Modern” Poet? I think I told you, pal.

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