\When I was in college I had a professor named Robert Hass. This is noteworthy for two reasons: 1) I had been a high school dropout who somehow managed to get in to U.C. Berkeley, and 2) At the time I was there, Robert Hass had become the newly appointed Poet Laureate of the United States. I realize that poetry isn’t that much of a big deal to most people, and pretty much nobody knows what the hell a Poet Laureate actually is (I sure as hell didn’t until I became one of his students), but for me, attending Robert Hass’s English 131: Modern American Poetry was the entrance point to the most profound period of my college years.
Aside from tons of reading, one of my first assignments in Professor Hass’s class was to actually write a poem. Yikes! I had read loads of poetry before taking his class, but I had never really written any. At least nothing that I would ever dare to show anyone. Now I was to not only write a poem, but share it with one of the most renowned poets of his generation. This both terrified and exhilarated me to varying degrees. One of the reasons I had initially become interested in poetry was because I found it intimidating, and I wanted to be able to understand it — to somehow conquer it, or at least conquer my fear it. Now I was actually supposed to write something that I barely had a grasp on. I had no idea what I was going to write or even how to approach it, but somehow when I sat down at my computer, almost as if by magic, the words just poured out of me. I wrote and I wrote and the words flowed as if I were possessed. It was if I was channeling the spirit of some unseen poet, because the words and ideas coming out of me were fully formed and thoroughly self assured. It was more like I was taking dictation that writing an original poem. It was an absolute rush.
The day the assignment was due I handed my poem in with the rest of the class, excited, yet nervous to see what professor Hass would have to say about it. The class met twice a week and after that first week was over students started getting their poems back at the end of class. I waited with eager anticipation for my poem to be returned to me. A week went by. And then another. Still, no poem. Sure, there were a lot of students in the class, but what the hell? Why hadn’t my poem been given back to me? I was beginning to grow anxious and frustrated with waiting. After the third week or so without getting my poem back I nervously approached Professor Hass at the end of class and inquired as to when I could expect to receive mine.
“I’m sorry, what is your name again?” he asked.
“Thomas,” I said. “Thomas Morrison.”
“Oh! Yes,” he replied with a pensive smile on his face. “Say, do you have some time before your next class to talk about your poem?”
What?!? I was terrified. Why on earth would he want to talk to me about my poem? Could it really be that bad?
“Um…sure,” I cautiously replied.
“Great, let me buy you a cup of coffee.”
And with that he took me to a cafe on Telegraph avenue, sat me down with a cup of coffee, and started to dissect my poem. He went over it line by line and talked about the language, my choice of certain words, the subject matter, my use of repetition, asked why I had made certain choices, and made suggestions here and there on how I might improve it. And then he dropped a bomb…
“Have you read Howl?,” he asked.
“Um…” I was embarrassed to tell him that not only had I not read it, but I had never actually heard of it.
“Oh, my! You absolutely must read it! Allen Ginsberg was a huge fan of Walt Whitman (earlier had I told him how much I loved Song of Myself); Whitman’s poetry had a great impact on his writing. He even evokes him in a wonderful poem called A Supermarket in California. You should read that one as well.”
I scribbled these titles in my notebook and sheepishly told him that I had never actually read anything by Allen Ginsberg. My experience with poetry mainly consisted of the works of Wallace Stevens, T.S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams and the other “Moderns” before taking his class.
“Ginsberg’s poetry is naked, vulgar, beautiful and honest. There’s a sort of rough-and-tumble elegance about his work that I see in your poem as well. Your poem isn’t perfect, to be sure,” he continued, “but it is raw, and turgid (he actually used the word turgid!) and has an earnestness and blunt honesty that I’ve rarely seen in a first year poetry student.”
I was floored. Not only did he like my work, but he actually compared it to one of his favorite poets.
“Hopefully you’ll continue writing,” he went on, “it would be a real shame if this was the only poem you ever wrote. You know, we have a wonderful writing program here. You should consider submitting to one of the poetry writing workshops next semester. In fact, I’ve got someone in mind that I think would be perfect for you.” I was absolutely floored.
Soon thereafter, Professor Hass introduced me to his colleague, Thom Gunn (who at that time was the “big man on campus” as far as poetry was concerned), and saw to it that I was admitted into Gunn’s exclusive poetry writing workshop the following semester. Professor Hass had his own poetry writing workshop, but it was only open to graduate students, so I gladly took my place in Thom Gunn’s class along with 14 other hand-picked students. And amazingly, not only did professor Hass make sure that I continued to develop my craft with Thom Gunn, but he invited me to come to his own office any time to share whatever I was working on. I was beside myself with gratitude.
In Thom Gunn’s poetry writing workshop I was introduced to the fine art of humility. While the poem that I had written for Robert Hass had effortlessly flowed out of me, I found that I was struggling to re-capture that original inspiration that struck me the first time. The first poem that I turned in to the class was a juvenile exercise in forced earnestness laid bare for the world to see. Not only was it not good, it was actually laughably bad. Robert Hass had been confident in my abilities, but I discovered I had much to learn. Most of the other students in the class had been writing poetry for years, so over the next few months I was able to learn volumes from them as we workshopped our poems. Some of the things I wrote were met with approval, some with polite disdain, but every word I wrote was being carefully considered by fifteen other people, and that was everything.
The following semester Professor Hass had another poetry writing workshop, and this time it was open to underclassmen. I had learned a great deal in Professor Gunn’s class, but there was no guarantee that I would be admitted into professor Hass’s class. During the interim he had been appointed Poet Laureate of the United States, so now he was the “big man on campus” and everyone wanted to be in his class. Even his Emily Dickinson seminar, which usually had a number of seats to spare, was jam-packed that semester, so competition to be in his writing class was fierce. I had written a poem for a submission that I felt was pretty good, but I was fairly anxious nonetheless. Fortunately for me, Professor Hass had taken a genuine liking to me and later told me that I need not have worried; “Of course you were going to be in my class,” he gleamed, “I was saving a spot for you all along.”
Holy Shit! God Damn! The motherfucking Poet Laureate of the United States was saving a seat just for me!!! I had never experienced such elation, such a feeling of overwhelming joy, acceptance and belonging as I did in that moment. That semester, and for the following years that I was at U.C. Berkeley, Robert Hass continued to see to it that I developed my craft. He invited me to participate in his writing class for two consecutive semesters and encouraged to come by his office whenever I wanted to talk about anything that I was working on or just to shoot the shit. Somehow he had seen something in me that I hadn’t even known was there, and he helped me shape and polish it, and inspired me not only to write poetry, but to embrace a more more “poetic” life.
During the time I was in his poetry writing workshop I was also enrolled in his Emily Dickinson seminar — another small class with only fifteen students. For this class, as in all of his poetry classes, every so often he would have his students memorize a poem to be recited in front of the class. It was his position that poetry was a living, breathing thing, and was meant to be read, or in this case recited, aloud. The other students all did their due diligence and memorized and recited poems in front of the class each week, but they all recited them like they were reading the day’s stock market report, or some lifeless insurance brochure. Some students recited their poems with weak, trembling voices, others with cold, matter of fact terseness. Nobody, however, seemed to get the idea that this was poetry! It was meant to be melodic, lyrical, moving, exciting, powerful — not dry, weak, timid, cold and boring. So I decided that when it came time to recite my first poem in front of the class it was going to be done with feeling and emotion. The only trouble was, I was horrible at memorizing. The only thing that I’d ever been able to remember with any degree of success were song lyrics.
Wait! That’s it! Song lyrics! It suddenly occurred to me that poems, especially poems that rhyme, are essentially just songs without the music! So I decided to merely add music to mine and sing it like a song in order to remember it. With a bit of tinkering I was able to come up with a wonderful little melody that sounded like something out of a Gilbert and Sullivan musical, and proceeded to memorize Emily Dickinson’s poem #348 (I Would Not Paint a Picture) by singing it over the course of the next few days before I was due to recite it in class. When the day finally came, I was determined to deliver a powerful and heartfelt recitation, not some dry, stammering imitation of a poem as most of the other students had done. The problem was, however, that try as I might, I just couldn’t remember it without singing it. So, when it was finally my turn to stand before Professor Hass and my fourteen fellow classmates, I took a deep breath, focused on a tree outside one of the classroom windows (to drown out all distractions), and erupted in song with a big, bellowing voice more suited for the stage than a small classroom. I sang Emily Dickinson’s poem with feeling, emotion, and confidence, and as I finished, I looked over to Professor Hass to see him grinning from ear to ear, beaming with delight as the room erupted in applause.
* * *
Smash cut to the year 2012. My wife and I are standing in a long line at a Barns & Noble in Pasadena, waiting for Robert Hass to sign his new book, What Light Can Do: Essays on Art, Imagination, and the Natural Wold. He had given a reading that evening, and I was eager to see him once again him and introduce him to my wife. Since I had last seen him, I had attended graduate school in Boston, moved to Los Angeles and gotten married, while he had continued to teach at Berkely, write poetry, and win the Pulitzer Prize. Years had gone by since I had last been in touch with him (life has a funny way of doing that), but I was certain that he’d instantly remember me and remember all the time we had spent together at U.C. Berkeley discussing poetry, having a laugh in a bar, or talking about the future on his office balcony while we smoked cigarettes.
After graduating Berkley I kicked around aimlessly for a while, then on a whim, moved to Germany with a girlfriend for a bit of adventure. After a couple of years of working in bars and traveling through Europe we decided to move back to the States and apply to graduate school. One Saturday night while my girlfriend was at work I drank a bottle of wine and became nostalgic for my time a Berkeley, so I decided to reach out to my old mentor, Robert Hass, and ask him if he would write me a letter of recommendation for grad schools. The trouble was, this was way back when the internet was still in its infancy, so I couldn’t just do a quick web search and find his contact information. Somehow (to this day I honestly have no idea how I did this) I was able to obtain his personal home phone number, so with a bottle of cheap Italian wine in my gut I picked up the phone and drunk dialed my old professor.
“Yes? Who’s this?”
“Thomas… Thomas Morrison. I was a student of.."
“Thomas! How are you! It’s great to hear your voice!”
Holy shit! He remembers me!
“Um, I’m great! I hope I’m not disturbing you…”
And with that I went on to explain that I was calling from Germany, where I had been living for the past couple of years, but I was coming back to apply to grad schools and hoped he would be willing to write me a letter of recommendation.
“Of course! Just come by any time during my posted office hours when you’re back! It’ll be great to see you!”
A couple of months later I was back in California and living in Oakland, just minutes a way from Berkeley, so one day I decided to go and pay my old professor a visit. As I walked through the gates onto Sproul Plaza a wave of nostalgia passed over me. I had spent some of the best, most meaningful moments of my life on this campus and it felt wonderful to be back. However, as I made my way to the English Department building where Professor Hass’s office was located I began to get nervous. He had meant so much to me during the time that I was there I was honestly afraid I might start crying when I saw him. Nerves be damned, I climbed the stairs to the third floor where his office was located, reached out a tentative hand, and knocked on his door. When it opened, Professor Hass looked at me with a quizzical expression for the briefest of moments, then a huge smile spread across his face and he boomed,
“Thomas! Oh my! How wonderful it is to see you!”
Then he reached his arms out and pulled me in for a warm, heartfelt hug. I didn’t cry as I had feared, but my hands were trembling a bit with emotion and my voice cracked when I first began to speak.
That afternoon we talked for hours. We talked about the times we had spent together, writing, poetry, my time in Germany, my future studies, etc. He recalled with fondness the time I had painted cue cards with illustrations that I held up at the beginning of of each stanza as I read Emily Dickinson’s poem #869, Because the Bee may Blameless Hum, and told me he still had my paintings. He intimated that he was hopeful that I would apply to the University of Iowa’s Writer’s Program as well as regular graduate schools, and I told him that I would consider it, but I was leaning more towards a regular English Lit program. Eventually the day wore on, he promised to write me a glowing letter of recommendation that would be on file at the University, then he hugged me one last time and we said goodbye. That was the last time I had seen him until the night of his reading in Pasadena.
So, back to us in line. I had, of course told my wife everything about Robert Hass before this evening, so she knew how eager I was to see him once again. “What if he doesn’t remember me?” I joked.
“Yeah, right!” quipped my wife and we both had a laugh.
I grew nervous as we approached the signing table. It had been years since Robert Hass had and I spoken, and there were hundreds of people here, all wanting to talk to him. I was worried that I’d have too much to say and not enough time with all the other people impatiently waiting for their turn to have their books signed. As the line moved I entertained thoughts of my old professor warmly embracing me and inviting me and my wife out to dinner after the signing. Or perhaps out for drinks! This and a thousand other thoughts went trough my mind as we slowly approached the signing table.
When it was finally my turn I nervously held out my book and grinned from ear to ear, waiting for that moment of recognition when my old professor would realize who I am.
I continued to stare and smile.
Staring at me without a hint of recognition, he glanced back and forth at me and my wife for what seemed like years and kindly said,
“Hi there. Thank you so much for coming. Who would you like this made out to? Or would you just prefer a signature?”
“Thomas!,” I blurted! I’m Thomas Morrison! I was your student at U.C. Berkeley! This is my wife, Sloane!”
I was nearly hysterical,
“Oh,” he replied, “how nice to see you.” (I could tell that he had no idea who I was. ) Would you like me to make it out to both of you then? I’m sorry, what were your names again?
Thomas! I’m Thomas! I’m fucking Thomas!!! I’m the one who sang a fucking Emily Dickinson poem in your class! I’m the one you took out for coffee and compared to motherfucking Ginsberg after reading my very first poem! I’m Thomas! I’m the one you you went out drinking with at the Bison Brewing Company after class from time to time! I’m the one who saved an empty pack of your cigarettes after we had drinks at that bar on Shattuck because I was so fucking enamored with you! Thomas! Thomas! I’m Thomas! I’m the one who drunk dialed you from Germany! I’m the one you hugged in your office, like I wish you would be doing right now! I’m Thomas! I’m Thomas! I’m Thomas!!!
This and a thousand other things raced through my reeling mind as I placed the book on the table and simply replied,
“I’m Thomas. And this is my wife, Sloane. With and ‘E’.”