Poet's Notebook: Just say yes

A good guiding principle for poets — and for the rest of us, too.

The day Edward Field came to dinner

I polished the hell out of the kitchen table

and wore my best casual clothes but no tie...

Now kids I said Dammit this guy’s a poet

and sensitive and a bachelor and I don’t want

you to scream or jump on his stomach...

When asked by youngsters who seem genuinely interested in “growing up” to be a poet, I mostly give them the same boring answers: Hang in there, just keep writing; also read a lot, especially poetry.

Good advice, but I’m not sure it’s always true. I’ve met decent poets (admittedly rare) who haven’t read much. And I’ve known a few who don’t write steadily, but more or less when the mood strikes them.

I’ve thought of telling them they shouldn’t “grow up” at all, as poetry’s occasionally labeled an adolescent activity, written by maladjusted individuals whose mixture of wonder and rebellion is basically childlike. I still tend to look at Florida’s clouds, and go “Woof!” I usually don’t tell them that.

But lately I’ve been telling students about meeting Edward Field, the first “real” poet I got to know well. Around 1973, Florida Presbyterian College found some money to bring in a visiting writer. President Billy Wireman, who, through his friendship with Jack Eckerd, had just saved “financially struggling FPC” (as the St. Pete Times referred to us), called me into his office. The college had changed its name to Eckerd, and Billy’s ambition was to make our small religion-based school into a nationally competitive liberal arts college.

“Find me a reputable and not too expensive poet,” Billy said. This would be good advertising for our new undergraduate degree in Creative Writing. Timing is everything; I’d just bought Field’s Stand Up, Friend, With Me, winner of the prestigious Lamont Poetry Award, and Field had also written the narration for Walt Disney’s documentary film To Be Alive, which won an Academy Award. How reputable can you get! Billy told me to call him right away, before the money was grabbed by another department.

The next morning I found Field’s number and dialed it, but I was nervous. The previous evening I’d read his book, and loved it. But the poems showed clearly that I’d be offering a teaching job in St. Petersburg — where in those days “people came to die” — at a school still often called Florida Presbyterian, to a poet who was a gay Jewish bohemian who lived in Greenwich Village: probably not the best fit. I was hoping no one would answer — he was going to laugh at me!

But after the fourth ring, a mellow voice said, “Good morning.”

“Hello, Mr. Field,” I stuttered, and plunged on. “My name’s Peter Meinke and I’m calling to offer you a semester’s teaching appointment at Eckerd College, better known as Florida Presbyterian, in St. Petersburg...” I stopped, not quite sure I should bother finishing the sentence.

After a short pause, Edward Field, who had never heard of me or the school, said, “Oh Peter, you’re not going to believe this, but just this very morning I took a vow to say yes to everything!”

Well, Edward came to our college, and was wonderful; he’s now “Greenwich Village’s oldest Bohemian,” as The New Yorker recently called him, and still traveling around the world with his partner, Neil Derrick.

Poetry pries open the shut windows of the world, so it can enter into our homes. Saying yes to the world doesn’t always mean agreeing with it, but welcoming it with affection and generosity. I recognize it’s not possible to say yes on every occasion, but for a poet it’s a pretty good first principle.

Waiting for him to arrive I sat on my hands for half an hour

warming them up for the handshake

Finally the doorbell rang

I opened the door and there he was!

Hello I said I hope you like onion soup

—Both quotes from “The Day Edward Field Came to Dinner” in Trying to Surprise God by Peter Meinke

(U. of Pittsburgh Press, 1981)

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