I've been reading William Hazlitt after many years and thinking about "first meetings with poets," Hazlitt's essay by that title, and some first meetings of my own, along with the question of apprenticeship. Luckily enough, the first poet I met wasn't Samuel Taylor Coleridge. And luckily enough, it wasn't 1798. When Coleridge visited the Hazlitt family home in Shropshire, he began to talk and, says Hazlitt in his famous account, "did not cease while he staid; nor has he since, that I know of." For me, John Berryman was a little like that, but Berryman, again luckily enough, wasn't the first poet I met. The first poet I met was Milton Kessler. Nor was our meeting fuelled by any of the energies surging through a year like 1798, if there ever was another year like that. We were still in the "tranquilized fifties," as Robert Lowell was to call the decade, and I was seventeen. The Sixties would soon enough be blazing in, but no one felt more than a mild tremor in Columbus, Ohio, even in 1959 when Lowell published Life Studies.
Still, even for a provincial high school student with literary enthusiasms, the town was not entirely without intimations of things to come. During that year I saw a performance of a strange new play called Waiting for Godot. I attended a lecture at Ohio State called 'Down with T. S. Eliot!' (why would someone want to put down my hero, and, I thought, a poet about as avant-garde as one could be?), and copies of Howl and A Coney Island of the Mind were passed around by those attending. And every Saturday John Vacarro read poetry to jazz with a quartet performing at a bar only blocks away from the coffee shop where I first met Milton Kessler, a coffee shop presided over by a tall short-order cook called Jewell, who knew all of his customers by name. Jewell's one waitress was, everybody thought, his wife. He treated her with great respect and affection. "Honey," he'd say, "make sure Mr. Kessler's got a full cup of coffee there." It was in fact Jewell who told me, with great seriousness, that Milt Kessler was a poet.
I was pretty sad that year because my girlfriend had gone away for what seemed like it would be forever to Ankara, Turkey, a place I had to look up on a map before I had the slightest idea where it was. I would go there myself in the coming summer, but this was still only early fall—three full seasons before I would see her again, and nothing but old-fashioned letters to connect us. How we'd have loved Skype, or even email or fax. A phone call was a complicated business, and had to be arranged through the U.S. military base; it only happened once. I bought thirty fifteen-cent airmail stamps at the OSU post office on the day she left and used them up within a couple of months.
It embarrasses me to write down this lovelorn stuff more than fifty years later, but it's important for two reasons. First of all, Milt Kessler understood, and seemed to sympathize with, my state of mind. More than that, my girlfriend ended up in Kessler's freshman English class when she returned from Turkey a year later and enrolled at OSU. Kessler thought she was "a pretty girl," but he gave her Cs. She had spectacular looks, but wasn't the world's best writer. Neither, of course, was I. Kessler knew all about sex, lust, love, and longing. He was thirty-three, and married with children. He wrote a few poems that my high school English teacher, when I showed them to him, called "almost obscene." And he had been around, having worked for a decade as shipping clerk, salesman, truck loader, and buyer in New York's garment industry before going to college. It's important to be clear: I never thought of Kessler as having anything to do with the academy, even though we drank our coffee directly across from a university campus. The context was what was left of coffee house culture in those days. People sat around playing chess and Go. Longhairs grumbled about having abandoned their PhDs and told jokes about the people running to classes on the other side of High Street.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. Although the arcana of academic rank is something that always eludes students, I thought Kessler must have been a long-term teaching assistant in the OSU English Department. I was soon to be taught by some terrific TAs. Perhaps he was some kind of adjunct or temporary instructor. He did say just once that I mustn't call him Professor. So we didn't talk of such things, and I would never have understood anyway what was what or why it mattered. Jewell had told me that "Milt Kessler is a poet." That was enough for me. One day he also told Kessler that "this young man is a poet, too." "Well then sit down," Kessler said with a broad grin on his face. "We poets need to know each other. There aren't very many in town." No one had ever called me a poet before; I was, after all, a high-school student.
At any rate, Jewell's introduction began what I'm happy to call a proper apprenticeship. At the beginning, I'd simply sit there reading the typescripts of Kessler's poems as he passed them across the table saying things like, "up all night on this one." They were not like the poems of T. S. Eliot. I suppose the generation then emerging would eventually have called them confessional; they were clearly about Milt's life. I was honored—and surprised, of course—that he was willing to share these intimacies with me, although he talked about the poems as if they had been written by someone else and about that other person's experiences. I can remember more than fifty years later lines like "last night we made another son" and titles like 'Dawn Sickness.' I never met Milt's wife, though Jewell's was always nearby asking if we wanted refills. As a joke, sometimes one of us would order our coffee "in a clean cup." After that, Jewell himself would come over from his scrambled eggs and burgers with the order: "Now which one of you prissy poets ordered the clean cup." I learned to love coffee, as well as poetry, at Jewell's place. I'd go back there in a minute if it still existed. "Black coffee," I'd say. "And don't bother washing the cup."
Our conversations were quiet and seemed to me at the time almost conspiratorial. Milt sometimes spoke to me, and read his poems, in what was almost a whisper. I never heard him read publicly, but I'd be very surprised to learn that he read with what is now sometimes disparaged as "the poetry voice," the semi-incantational performance that one got, long before it became institutionalized among MFAs, most spectacularly from Russian poets. This was the period of Dylan Thomas in America and, after Thomas's death, eccentric readers like Creeley and Olson, Berryman and Bly, while, even before Thomas's baritone bellow, there were the consonantal Bunting and the burr of Yeats and Pound. Even Yvor Winters had his bass grumble modeled on the instructions of Paul Valéry. Caedmon was just beginning—leading off with Thomas—to issue their series of LPs, from which many of my generation learned to perform in public. Hazlitt had been bowled over not only by the power of Coleridge's mind, but by his "chaunt"—heard in Coleridge's sermons even before his poems—and later the corresponding Wordsworth version, as the poet walked up and down his gravel path. Such a recitation by both, Hazlitt found, "acts as a spell on the hearer, and disarms the judgment."
Milt Kessler cast no spell. He didn't read his poems as if they were prose, but quietly observed their rhythm in a more or less conversational voice. Now and then he'd interrupt a poem to point something out, or even to say "I don't think that's quite right." His hesitations made his work seem all the more convincing. He wasn't trying to overwhelm his young friend with his own genius. But Milt's voice was not like my voice—he was a Brooklyn Jew, and he kept reminding me of that. "That's the way we say it," he'd sometimes remark. And sometimes he'd ask me to read a line or two in order, he'd say, "to hear the words from outside of my own body." On these rare occasions, he'd listen with great attention, but sometimes also with an ironic smile on his face. "You gave that last phrase a good old Midwestern twang." It never occurred to me once that Kessler might have been lonely. He must have had "adult" friends in Columbus, but maybe not so many. His family life was probably, like everyone else's family life, both a pleasure and a burden; his children were very young. In many ways he was a poet of the family—a poet of his own family—but to be that, he needed to be away from it. I don't know where he lived, and I hardly ever saw him anywhere besides Jewell's. Once at the poetry-and-jazz session with John Vacarro, I saw him stand up and leave. Milt loved—and sang—classical music, and I imagine he found Vacarro a poor performer of Whitman, his usual choice of text when he read with the quartet. Milt liked Whitman too, but the Whitman he heard in his head was doubtless very different from the Beat reclamation of the bard that was making the scene after Ginsberg's 'A Supermarket in California.'
It was Kessler who told me about John Berryman. Berryman was to teach at what was then called a writer's conference at the University of Utah, and he suggested that I might go see Peter Taylor, then teaching at OSU, for more information. I had no idea that Taylor was at that time probably the best short story writer in America. But I went to see him, and ended up at the Utah conference where Berryman became, I suppose, my Coleridge—talking, as Hazlitt says of the latter, more or less constantly from the point when I met him to the point when I saw him last, only months before his suicide. But I have written about Berryman elsewhere. Although I stayed in touch with him until the end of his life, Berryman was too great a poet for someone like me to adopt as a mentor. Nor would he have had any interest in such a relationship. When I told Kessler about Berryman's eccentricities, he would smile and say "take care, take care." I wasn't sure what he meant.
Jewell's coffee shop was an oasis for me for almost six years—two years at the lab school run by OSU, and four years at the university itself. Kessler must have disappeared in about 1963. I have one letter from Queens, where he spent some time before moving on. Having recently acquired his posthumous Free Concert: New and Selected Poems from a used book dealer, I have looked him up on Wikipedia. There's not much there:
Kessler grew up in New York City in a Jewish family. He was a volunteer spear carrier and prop boy at the New York Metropolitan Opera as a teenager, and he had classical training as a singer. He worked selling cloth at the Sample Shop as a young adult, and he married his wife, Sonia, while working a range of modest jobs. His first book, Sailing Too Far, was published by Harper & Row and became widely noted. He signed an anti-war letter to the New York Review of Books. He attended graduate school at Harvard University, but after finding enough success as a poet, he left doctoral studies and landed at Binghamton University, where his students included Camille Paglia.
I do remember Milt's stories about the Met. But what was the Met to a kid from Columbus in 1958 and 1959? What astonished me was not that Kessler had been a spear carrier but that he had actually published his poems—which, as far as I was concerned, made him as much of a poet as Berryman. More than that, I could understand Milt's poems perfectly. Who was Berryman's Anne Bradstreet? I didn't have a clue. Out at Utah, Berryman had read from his Homage, and also from his new project, called Dream Songs, which only then were beginning to appear in magazines. Kessler showed me poems about things like the OSU marching band and football team. "Whose body bandages the field?" Good line, I thought. "The tubas boom their say." Bad line, I thought. That I could make distinctions like this gave me hope. W. H. Auden writes in 'Making, Knowing and Judging,' that he was very lucky that his first master was Thomas Hardy. "He was a good poet ... but not too good. Much as I loved him even I could detect that his diction was often clumsy and that a lot of his poems were plain bad." Such discriminations were no longer possible when Auden moved on from Hardy to Eliot. I suppose Berryman was my Eliot as well as my Coleridge, and Kessler my Hardy. I've always laughed, though nostalgically, at those tubas.
On the other hand, on the other hand. One day over coffee at Jewell's, Kessler passed me a typescript with what had become his familiar "up all night with this one." It didn't seem to me very much:
The IRT, racing the noon,
Made Moira's pigeons, tearing her crumbs,
Quail to a wing ....
Now she walked to the place
Where the El-Painter, orange matted,
Lurching in sleep, gargoyled the base
Of a rusted girder.
He shook on his side, a drunken dreamer.
Paint spooled down like toxic honey,
Brocading the quivering hand of her father.
There's another stanza in the final version, but this is what I have on a yellowing typescript in my files. The poem was finally called 'The El-Painter's Daughter.' I didn't know what an El was, and Kessler explained. "What's it all mean?" I asked, having been taught to search out "meanings." "Nothing much," Milt said; "it's just an encounter." I could have learned something similar from reading William Carlos Williams in those days, but I had never heard of him. My high school English teacher, the one who found some of Milt's poems "almost obscene," had been to Kenyon, and was teaching us to look for "seven types of ambiguity" and things like that. Having been told about "the heresy of paraphrase," we nevertheless paraphrased and paraphrased. Could a poem just mean what it said? Could an El painter's daughter simply encounter her father, who "shook on his side, a drunken dreamer"? Many of us had drunken fathers, but none of them worked on the El. I suppose a few were dreamers, and even sometimes drunk on the job.
Not long after going over those lines at Jewell's, I found another poem about the El. It was from one of the two books I had bought after the 'Down with T. S. Eliot' lecture, Lawrence Ferlinghetti's A Coney Island of the Mind. It's of course well known, 'The pennycandystore beyond the El.' I took it with me to Jewell's and showed it to Milt. "No, no," he said. "Look at that line about 'unreality.' What does it say? Nothing. It's an abstraction. Ezra Pound told us to 'go in fear of abstractions.' Do you get it? Do you dig? The beginning is just fine: 'at the pennycandystore beyond the El / is where I first / fell in love / with' ... Well, with anything besides 'unreality.' The rest of it is ok, though Williams does this kind of thing better. His immediate model is probably French, possibly Pierre Reverdy? Do you know Reverdy? Do you know French?"
I didn't know Reverdy. I didn't know French. "That's OK," said Milt. "You've got plenty of time." So I began to work. I learned French. I read Reverdy. But I also kept reading Kessler, one poem at a time as he handed over typescripts at Jewell's. Eventually I grew up enough to know what I was reading: "She was aware then, her knees opening, closing— / the chafings, the damp inner-folds, bruises— / their room dark with her smoking, locked ... rubbing, / was aware, a hand between her legs, holding, she / beyond his numb loneliness of words, there, / touching herself." His numb loneliness of words? Was this what a poet's life amounted to? In spite of Milt's love poems, and his celebration of a relationship that seems to have lasted through an entire life of marriage, the answer seemed to be Yes. My high school English teacher found Kessler's lines "almost obscene." I would soon be out of high school and on to whatever came next.
The Wikipedia entry on Milton Kessler is wrong. Sailing Too Far was not Kessler's first book, but rather A Road Came Once, published by the Ohio State University Press in 1963. By that time my girlfriend had been Kessler's student for a semester, and so the three of us got together to celebrate at Jewell's. A Road Came Once is the first book of poems that I read all the way through, as a book. I had been taught, of course, to read poems in anthologies; I had little idea that poets wrote books. And there is an interesting connection between Kessler's first book and Berryman's A Homage to Mistress Bradstreet. The first edition of Berryman's book has ten illustrations by Ben Shahn. Kessler's book has one, but it is better and more moving than any in the Bradstreet book. A woman weeps on her husband's shoulder, their arms around each other. Was Shahn thinking about this poem?
We raged again last night.
Your wail pierced my skull
Until my tongue was
Bloodless, white, and locked
Against my teeth like stone.
In a whale's panic, I shook,
Struck, broke your sound.
Then we lay breathless,
Grotesque, like swollen puppets.
Last night we made another son.
Today, cool, affecting ease,
We walk, tall as our skeletons.
Yet, beautiful are these bones;
In the body of our son see them.
And for the loneliness
That we still share in pain,
And for the face
That you have given him,
I, fleshed and hairless,
My own father now,
Give you my boyhood still.
I've been able to recite those lines for more than fifty years.
I wish I had kept up with Milton Kessler and his work. As a poet, he gave me more of his time than any subsequent "teachers," and he never thought of himself as my instructor. I suppose I spent hundreds of hours in Jewell's coffee shop on High Street in Columbus. After my girlfriend had been Milt's student for a term, she too became his friend. When our relationship ended, I was on my way to Stanford to study with Yvor Winters, a poet and critic whose work I only read once I was in California. In my last letter to Kessler, I told him this. In his reply, which was a postcard, he wrote: "Oh, No! Not Yvor Winters. He's even worse than Berryman!" There was no explanation. When I met Winters and mentioned Berryman, he said "Some interesting lines; but very eccentric stuff." When I mentioned Kessler he said: "I've never heard of him."
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About the Author
John Matthias has published some twenty-five books of poetry, translation, criticism, and scholarship. For many years he taught at the University of Notre Dame, where he is still Editor-at-large of Notre Dame Review.
At Large: Memoirs, Essays, Interviews