I don’t remember the finer details of my youth, except what’s preserved in photos. I’m amazed that in so many of those pictorial memories, there’s usually a book nearby.
The family-vacation photo is a classic, with all of us lined up under the “Welcome to California” sign. A paperback is firmly clutched in my left hand, while my right hand is in my mother’s grip. The classic picture is me reading a book on a curb, while a parade passes by.
Life — schoolwork, play, and chores — were all distractions from the really important things like reading, reading and reading. The Three R’s, of course. I loved words and the pictures they painted. Words were my escape, my future and my fortune. Who cared about the world around me, as long as there was a book that could take me elsewhere?
Somewhere along this journey, my love of reading prompted me to write poems, penning hundreds of them as a teen. Most are lost to the winds of time, multiple moves and shifting priorities.
I do have a collection of about 60 that survived, because at the age of seventeen I self-published a book of poems. “Book” is a loose term. I mimeographed 100 of my favorites and bound them into a yellow folder with the bold title, “Echoes of Glory” printed on the cover.
I gave this book to my high-school sweetheart in a solid ploy to show her that indeed, she had a sensitive man. It worked. She showed it to her mother and her girlfriends, and they all cooed in approval and envy. I was in.
But not for long. A month later, my girlfriend starting dating a wide receiver from the football team. He
was more given to Joe Namath than Joseph Wambaugh. He read comic books and disdained anything without pictures. The axiom seemed to be true: the intellectual loses out to the jock. My best friend laughed and asked, “What good is poetry if it can’t get you a woman?”
Over the years, my writings morphed into a more narrative style. My essays and articles always had a poetic sense, a structure that allowed me to get good grades and success. I found that I could capture words, snap them into visual pictures and translate them into sentences. Over time, I quit writing poetry. I had a full-time job as a corporate writer, and I just didn’t have the leisure, the drive, or the insight.
Then a series of losses struck. My wife left. Both my parents passed away within a few months of each other. Even my dog died. Stripped of my deepest relationships, I returned to my writing past.
Thinking back on my friend’s laughter, I now realize that poetry isn’t a tool to impress. It’s a way to reflect the soul. Armed with narrow paper in a quiet place, I am beginning to hear the poetic voice I thought was long gone.
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