The poet Josephine Jacobsen once said, “Poetry is an immensely private occupation”; she’d never think of showing a poem to anyone before it was finished. I’ve lived my “poetic life,” such as it is, in the Jacobsen camp, keeping my poems to myself until I feel they’re ready to send to an editor. I’d never taken a writing workshop, so when I went to grad school after the Army, I took the literary Ph. D. route to become a college teacher, support my family, and have “lots of time to write” — a proposition Politifact would rate “Pants on Fire.”
MFA degrees were just coming into existence. I occasionally visited the University of Michigan’s Creative Writing program, but was too shy and busy to make friends or find mentors; I did go to the readings there, and studied the poems of its teachers (Donald Hall, X. J. Kennedy, and others were at Michigan in 1960). I was taking classes in Beowulf, Chaucer, the Renaissance, 19th Century Russian Literature, and Art History. That was a good education, and with my M.A. degree, I got a job teaching Freshman English at Hamline University in St. Paul, finishing the Ph. D. at Minnesota.
Still, like almost every writer I know, I did have important encouragement from teachers when I was young. One of them, in a specific and vivid moment, gave me an early push and brightened the path. Poets don’t need a lot of encouragement, but they need some.
In little Mountain Lakes High School, New Jersey, we had an outstanding teacher named Mrs. Maureen Vanderbilt (in the 1940s, with almost all other venues closed to them, brilliant women wound up teaching school for pennies). One morning she surprised us with a quiz on the essays of Charles Lamb, which I hadn’t read (I seldom read assignments, preferring my mother’s Book-of-the Month club novels for nighttime reading). Hoping she’d let me off the hook for my cleverness, I wrote I dislike Lamb/In fact I shun him/As to his essays/I haven’t done ‘em, and turned it in. When the papers came back the next day, she had written in her precise hand, You have my sympathy/For your antipathy/But there’ll be Lamb/On your exam — followed by a small but very distinct “F.” As soon as I got over the shock of the “F,” I began to nod my head: This was more like it. Here was the kind of relationship I — a closeted poet — had been looking for. For the next year, a fountain of poetry poured out, much of which I attached to her papers (though I became more careful with my homework). When my high school yearbook came out, she was its advisor, and despite my being basically still a secret poet, the yearbook read: Peter Meinke. Wants to be: Writer. Probably will be: Censored.
Looking for a mentor is a normal impulse. Even the agoraphobic Emily Dickinson asked advice of strangers like the editor Thomas Wentworth Higginson, which of course she never followed. From the coffee houses of London to the cafés of Paris to the MFA programs of American universities, writers young and old have always searched for guidance and friendship from talented and like-minded contemporaries. There are many ways to get and use (or not use) advice. Our job, as writers and artists, is to find the right way for ourselves.
Peter Meinke will be reading to the Tampa Writers Alliance at Barnes & Noble, 11808 N. Dale Mabry HWY on Wed., March 2 at 7 p.m.