Coming home was a shock, partly because I was faced with supporting myself for the first time in my life. Until then, I'd been a soldier, a student on the GI Bill, then living in Europe on my savings, and here I was in my late twenties without any way of earning a living. I was obsessed with poetry but couldn't see how to survive as a poet. I made that survival more painful and difficult, since according to my bohemian principles getting a steady job would have meant selling out. I didn't feel comfortable with teaching, with the idea of poetry as part of a university career. Lots of poets, the majority, find shelter in that world but it is an alien atmosphere for me. Of course, I didn't have a degree, so I couldn't have taught back then anyway.
I found myself in an America that, compared to the pleasures of France and Greece, seemed unutterably grim. There was only a shabby little bohemian band that still hung out at the San Remo in the Village. The fifties was a period of national hysteria against everything human, those years of the witch hunt of leftists and homosexuals, the Rosenberg executions, loyalty oaths, bomb shelters and cold war hysteria, even the imprisonment and death of looney, nonconformist Wilhelm Reich for claiming his orgone boxes could cure cancer. A number of Americans escaped to more hospitable countries abroad, if they were lucky enough to skip out before their passports were lifted. A few, even more courageous, refused to cooperate and either went to jail or became outcasts like my friend, the writer Millen Brand, and were unemployable for years. But many major artists turned state's evidence, swept up in the panic that the United States was being taken over by subversives, or perhaps just protecting their jobs, and joined the enemy, turning against their old friends.
Following a tip from the perhaps-crazy poet, Robert Lowell, that Yaddo was a nest of communist subversives, the F.B.I. swept down in a raid on the artists colony in Saratoga Springs, and terrorized everyone. More than the execution of the Rosenbergs, that assault symbolized the decade for me, when artists were taught such a bitter lesson for their social concerns. So it was not surprising when painters retreated to the neutrality of abstract expressionism, poets concentrated on formal subjects like carousels and angels, and psychiatrists tried to make their queer patients straight by talk therapies, shock treatments, or even lobotomies.
It was against this background that I discovered the Eighth-Century Chinese poet Tu Fu and breathed in his free spirit. He wrote not only about politics, but was not afraid of being sentimental, both discouraged in American poetry. He felt it was within his competence, indeed his duty as a poet, to advise rulers on how to deal with his country's problems, a country in turmoil, although they listened as little to poets in the Eighth Century as they do today.
Inspired by my conviction that I should be part of the "working class," a "poet of the people," I haunted the hiring hall of District 65, a left-wing union. But when I did get jobs in factories and warehouses, I didn't stay long in any of them, and it became harder and harder to force myself out of bed. Actually, I liked these jobs and the people I worked with, but working long hours in a machine shop, I just didn't see how to go on with my poetry, and there was no way I could return to Paris.
In despair, I turned to psychotherapy, very much the rage in a decade of conformity, when life was so unsatisfactory for women and gays, indeed for everyone who wanted freedom from the stifling conventions that ruled the country. I found a form of Freudian therapy called Group Analysis that took over my life for several years, and influenced my thinking for years after that.
Though in the long run this turned out to be a destructive experience, early on I went through a critical episode, a remarkable, though brief, period of what I can only describe as a state of "expansion," and which perhaps could be clinically described as a manic phase of my manic-depressive nature. What I felt was almost olympian in its openness and calm and I would like to have remained in that state forever. My poem "A Journey" was a later attempt to describe what happened to me. The title of my first book Stand Up, Friend, With Me was a line from the first poem (not included in the book) that I wrote after I "stood up."
Perhaps it was a result of the dynamics of the technique we used that somehow cracked me open. And what happened was very much like the plot of Dostoievsky's novel, A Raw Youth, in which the depressed, illegitimate son is recognized by his natural father and experiences a tremendous exhilaration. My father also triggered it.
I was leaving the house for my therapy group one afternoon (I was living at home at the time), when out of the blue my father offered me money (money equals love?). It through me into a state of emotional turmoil, and as I walked to the Long Island Railroad station, I could barely hold back the tears. I felt I was coming apart and barely made it to the analyst's. But in the waiting room, when I realized I was an hour early and he was still in his office with the previous group, I couldn't hold back any longer and crouched in the corner of the room and started screaming, until he came out and held me.
An hour later when my own group met, I could barely wait for everyone to sit down when I stood up. I was shaking as I forced myself to my feet, while the whole group started shouting at me to stop doing that to myself, but even crying and shaking all over, I had to stand up. Perhaps I was crazy, but at the end of that session, I walked out of there healed. A fist had opened in my stomach and it was wonderful to be able to breathe so easily. I walked around like a king. I was no longer estranged from other men, where I had always felt separate, different, and I even joined a group watching a ballgame on a television set. I was sane for the first time in my life. I was perfectly normal. I belonged.
I started writing with ease, feeling complete mastery, and composed a poem called "It is Dawn and the Cock is Crowing," which I mimeographed, mailed to friends all over, and at the next group meeting stood up and read it, high-handedly passing out a copy to everyone in the room, which enraged them further. Various critics have interpreted my title, Stand Up, Friend, With Me, which is the last line of the poem, in different ways, as referring to my mentor Robert Friend, or the "friend" as a synonym for my penis. Actually, the "friend" of the title referred to the downtrodden like me, all the underdogs in the world, inviting them to join me in my new pride in myself, my new-found courage to stand up against all oppressors.
I was very sure of myself by now. I was Shakespeare. Poem after poem flowed out of me during the following weeks while the experience lasted. The only one of these I have kept, including it in my first book, was "Prologue." I still have a tattered, original mimeographed copy of "It is Dawn and the Cock is Crowing," but have never published it. It has many interesting qualities, but its amalgamation of Marxism and Freudian psychology seems naive and embarrassing, where once, briefly, I thought I was speaking ultimate truth like a prophet.
Focused in myself, I wasn’t looking at men any more—it felt like I had been giving myself away when I’d done that before my transformation. Theoretically, I ought to be straight, for hadn’t I resolved the oedipal struggle? And I tried to date women friends who had always lamented that I was gay and unavailable. But now that I was interested, they were no longer free with me as before, and I didn’t have a chance to find out whether my sexuality had actually changed. But I was soon looking at men again, and unfortunately, this wonderful state of being faded away, never to return. I sank into a fearsome depression that the therapy, with its continual attack on my homosexuality only made worse.
From there on, it was all downhill. The therapist even urged me to drop poetry, since it could never be the basis for a satisfying life. His own prescription for psychological health was to get a job to be able to afford an apartment and have a girl friend. There was no question of encouraging me to get a boyfriend, even though I pursued transitory homosexual experiences ever more desperately—this was the period of my haunting a movie house on the Bowery called Variety Photoplays, which became the title of my second book.
But I persisted in struggling with my writing and had poems published in numerous magazines, even if my book manuscript kept getting rejected by publishers. One of my difficulties in writing at this time was caused by a phenomenon that often occurred when I sat down to write—the words began to sing. And then no matter what I wrote was incredibly beautiful—just anything sounded like great poetry. At that time, still under the sway of the New Critics, what came easily like this was not my idea of poetry, even if I couldn't bear to sit there and work on poems through innumerable drafts, as I once had. What a fool I was not to trust what was coming out! So I remained dissatisfied. It also didn't help that leftist friends found my work decadent and negative.
My poetry has always reflected what I was going through, my psychological grapplings. It was a healing force, as opposed to the misguided psychotherapy that was merely breaking me down. This kind of poetry is often criticized as "just" therapy, which undermines its "purity," whatever that means. But I always saw poetry as a solution to my life problems, something that could rescue me from nothingness, from despair, therefore a therapy, if you want to call it that. I still believe that healing is one of poetry's important functions.
So many of my poems chart psychological insights, snatched from the muddle of the depression that I suffered from for years. They embody a fragment of hope, dearly won, even if transitory. They represent a rediscovery of my feelings, the opposite of depression, which I experience as not-feeling, a limbo of the feelings.
1955: Quitting Therapy
In 1955, I finally wised up to the destructiveness of my therapy group and quit. By luck this coincided with a two-month fellowship to Yaddo. I was very confused and doing little writing there, when I came across a group of poems by Frank O'Hara in Poetry Magazine. Frank's sexy, surrealist poems seemed fresh and funny to me, though when I read them to a group that gathered for drinks at the cocktail hour, they reacted with outrage at their irresponsibility, their flaunting of homosexuality.
When I returned to New York, I looked O'Hara up, and began staying over with him in his ratty apartment on East 58th Street which he shared with the writer, Joe LeSueur. Frank was far more balanced and sophisticated than I, and had made a world of his own in New York, where I could never feel I had a center. Frank's friends seemed to revolve around him, so, that summer we were together, I met a large number of them, the rising stars of the next generation. Most instructive to me was his casual, relaxed attitude toward his poems, writing them at lunch at the museum where he worked, as William Carlos Williams did in his office, in-between patients. Frank's kindness to me, at a time of great uncertainty, boosted my ego tremendously, and with his confidence in himself, served as a good example of a gay man living successfully and apparently guiltlessly. I wasn't in love with him, but I was grateful for his support when I needed it.
The affair ended a few months later, but I had gotten some new ideas about poetry and my own life that over the next years would help me re-orient myself. Frank O'Hara showed me the way. Or gave me the courage to follow my instincts, accept what was happening already—every so often you have to shift gears and start writing differently. It can be a difficult period, and there are sometimes years of uncertainty until you find the new voice/subject matter/direction and move forward again.
One of the sins of my poetic generation was that every poem was supposed to be written and rewritten in the attempt to make it a masterpiece. You couldn't just write your poems, and let them be the poems of their moment, of that impulse. So thanks to Frank O'Hara, I was able to get through my block, caused by my insistence that my poetry should be something that I could no longer make it, be something other than I could do, and get writing again. I stopped making demands that my poetry be anything other than what came out. I was free of the New Critics.
I put aside my prejudice against white-collar jobs and began working as a temporary typist, which seemed the easiest way to earn a living at the time. My "View of Jersey" poems were written in an office where I had a view of the Hudson River and the New Jersey shore. I wrote a poem a day over the months I worked there, usually starting with the spectacular view out the window, without demanding that the poems be masterpieces. But each poem was a small victory, a thawing. So it was particularly satisfying that Donald Allen included two of them in his landmark anthology, The New American Poetry: 1945-1960.
The country, too, had been in deep freeze for years. But soon the Supreme Court allowed books that used to be banned as pornography, like Lady Chatterley's Lover and Tropic of Cancer, to be published. It was like a cracking of the ice in spring.
I had never thought of doing anything but writing poetry, but it was not a full-time occupation, and after the affair with Frank O'Hara ended, with no group meetings to fill up my life, I hardly knew what to do with myself. Ella Braca, an actress who was going with my painter friend, Herman Rose, was playing the lead in "The Heiress" in a small company in the Village, and when I met the director, she suggested I take a part in her next production, "The Imaginary Invalid" by Molière. This experience before an audience was a revelation, and I decided to become an actor.
I started studying the Stanislavsky Method with a shrewd dumpling of a Russian woman, Vera Soloviova, who had been a member of the Moscow Art Theater. Suddenly, my life was filled with classes, rehearsals, auditions. Method acting is a kind of therapy in itself, in some ways even an improvement on talk therapy, since it makes you use your body, with the added advantage that you play characters different from yourself, the one you're by now sick of. It was also liberating to study speech and start speaking differently from little Eddie Field with his Brooklyn accent. I remember the nerve it took, the first time I had to open my mouth with my new vowels in front of my family. It announced that I had the right to be separate from them, be my own person. I never "made it" as an actor, but at least I had the experience of playing major roles in summer theaters.
Mme. Soloviova advised her students, “If you want to be an actor, learn to type.” Becoming a temp typist was the best solution for earning a living while being free to “make the rounds,” and it suited my nature not to be stuck in one office.
1959: Neil Derrick
n 1959, I was working in the typing pool of an advertising agency, and the supervisor assigned the typewriter next to me to a new temp, a terrific-looking young man from California named Neil Derrick. It was a case of immediate attraction between WASP and Jew. We started a non-stop conversation that led the supervisor to switch him to another typewriter rows away from me. But we were soon going out together and in a few weeks I moved into his cold-water flat on West 47th Street in Hell's Kitchen. Neil was several years younger than me, and, though he had always kept a journal, he now he started writing fiction.
"The Garden," the last poem in Stand Up, Friend, With Me is a celebration of my finding a companion in life and how it changed everything. Before this, I had only thought of myself as a public person, never private—I saw my public success as redeeming my private misery. But when I finally connected with somebody, it meant that I didn't have to live a life of hell anymore, symbolically playing the scapegoat and the voice of mankind, which I was not really suited for anyway.
Settling down with Neil, I drifted away from my theater career and concentrated on my writing again. After our ad agency jobs ended, Neil landed a permanent half-time job at the front desk of the Museum of Modern Art, which allowed him to do his writing while I settled into a long-term temporary job at a writing school in Rockefeller Center. It was there in the back room that I met, hunched over a pile of students' assignments, a novelist I had long admired, Millen Brand, the author of The Outward Room and the screenplay of "The Snakepit." A saintly idealist, he was blacklisted, banned, and working for pennies correcting manuscripts, with eyes behind his thick glasses, permanently red-rimmed from long hours on the job.
A few months after I moved in with Neil, my old friend from the NYU cafeteria, Alfred Chester, returned to New York after a decade in Paris. If he was a callow youth when I last saw him, the years abroad had matured him and given him enormous confidence in himself. He had published widely, won a Guggenheim fellowship, and in spite of his strange appearance, had a long, if stormy, live-in relationship with a handsome Israeli pianist, as well as other romantic affairs. In Paris he had convinced numerous literary Americans, French, and British of his brilliance, and had returned on the strength of receiving $3,000 from The New Yorker for a story. At the publication party, when "A War On Salamis" appeared, I met his friends Susan Sontag, Maria Irene Fornes, and Harriet Sohmers who clustered around him adoringly. He was already a powerful influence on these three striking and talented women. Alfred and I became fast friends for the next several years, as he became one of the hottest figures on the New York literary scene.
1962: Lamont Award
In 1962, I was busy at my clerical job, when I got a call from the Academy of American Poets that I had won the Lamont Award for Stand Up, Friend, With Me. This, after it had gotten twenty-four rejections from publishers. By the time the book came out the following year, much had changed in the poetry world and it was generally praised for those very qualities that had made it so difficult to find a publisher, its colloquialism, emotionality, daring subject matter.
Neil and I celebrated by going to Europe. For me it was the first time back since my shattering return to New York in 1950. In the spring, when a Guggenheim fellowship came through, we set off from Paris on a tour of Europe. In Berlin, where my sister Barbara lived with her Dutch husband, Ack Van Rooyen, who played trumpet in the radio station orchestra, we bought a second-hand Volkswagen and drove through East Germany, across Switzerland, northern Italy, and the French Mediterranean coast to Spain. We were heading for Gibraltar to meet Alfred Chester, who was escaping from his New York success to live in Morocco. After taking the ferry across the Straits to Tangier, the three of us, with Alfred's dogs, arrived by taxi at Paul Bowles' villa in the seaside town of Asilah. Bowles had invited Alfred to stay with him until he could find a house of his own, but, though he was prepared for the dogs, he hadn't expected two friends as well! Nevertheless, he put us up for the night, so we were there for the historic meeting of Alfred and Dris, a Moroccan Alfred was to live with for several years.
At sundown, Paul led us down to the beach where the fishing boats had come in with the day's catch, now spread out on the beach for sale to the townsfolk. Suddenly a tall, ruggedly-handsome young fisherman came toward us across the sand with a large fish dangling from his fist, and Paul introduced him to Alfred. This was Dris. After Neil and I returned to Paris and at the end of the summer to New York, we got fascinating letters from Alfred describing his life with Dris that I have since collected and edited, under the title Voyage to Destruction. For two years later, Alfred Chester cracked up and never recovered.
Minor Celebrity: 1963 Back in New York in the fall of '63, I found myself a minor celebrity. My book was receiving marvelous reviews and the edition of 1,000 quickly sold out, with the Gotham Book Mart offering copies at five times the cover price. Grove Press brought out a paperback edition that went through several more printings. Perhaps it is just as well that I hadn't succeeded in getting a publisher earlier, since the book ended up the stronger for it, as I added and subtracted material. With all the attention I was getting, it wasn’t easy for Neil. The phone rang constantly, and whenever he answered, it was invariably for me. When we entered a room, he was ignored as people rushed up to me. But he accepted this with good grace. He got plenty of attention of his own at his job at the front desk of the Museum of Modern Art.
But years of rejection had taken their toll, and even now with my new success, I told myself, "I will not be consoled." However, I did enjoy all the attention and the recognition made life easier. One result was that making a living was much easier now, and I never had to work in offices again. I was asked to translate a book of Inuit poems for a fifth-grade teaching program about the Eskimos that was being developed in Boston. The editors of the program said they chose me because I was the only poet they found whose poetry could be understood by 10-year-olds. The project was suddenly terminated when it was revealed that the CIA was the real source of the funds behind it. But my translations were later published as two children's books, Eskimo Songs and Stories (1973) and Magic Words (1998).
I next was hired to write the narration for a documentary film “To Be Alive,” which was shown at the Johnson's Wax Pavilion of the New York World's Fair in 1965 and won many prizes including an Academy Award. But my main source of income for the next decade was giving poetry readings at colleges.
Although up to that time it was supposedly beneath poets to ask for anything, though there was plenty of maneuvering behind the scenes for the perks, I’d sent out resumes as an actor and now I wrote to English Department chairmen, who I knew had budgets for visiting writers, and managed to set up small reading tours for myself two or three times a year. I'm a good reader, but it was a revelation when audiences laughed at my poems. I hadn't thought of them as funny. But it was the unexpected that made people laugh, and my use of a kind of language that was more informal than usual. They also laughed in recognition of the truths about human nature in the poems. With the forbidding nature of Modern Poetry, they never expected to be entertained at a poetry reading. For that reason, it was always more fun to have an audience of ordinary people than the campus literary set, who would sit back listening critically.
During an interview, I was asked why my poetry was especially popular in Long Beach. The interviewer said she thought that this was somewhat strange since I'm very much a New York poet, and the west coast doesn't usually think much of New York, where poetry is determinedly literary. Long Beach poetry, especially, represents "the movement towards the spoken idiom," as Gerald Locklin wrote. This connection with Southern California began when Charles Stetler and Gerald Locklin, English professors at California State College, Long Beach, wrote an article about me for The Minnesota Review. I have a scattering of fans around the country, but along with Charles Bukowski, Gerry says I'm considered one of the "fathers" of Long Beach poetry, and the originator of what Charles Webb named "Stand Up Poetry." After my second book, Variety Photoplays featuring "old movie" poems was published in 1967, a number of the poets in Long Beach, Stetler and Locklin among them, started writing their own movie poems. In 1978, Sheep Meadow Press brought out Stars In My Eyes a collection of my movie poems illustrated with appropriate stills from the movies.
Betty Deran and Alma Routsong
In the mid-60s, through the poet May Swenson, Neil and I got to know a remarkable couple, Betty Deran, an economist, and Alma Routsong, a novelist, who were students of astrology, the ouija board, and Gurdjieff. On the ouija board we spoke with Jack Kennedy, who confirmed that his "killer roams free," with Katherine Mansfield, whose intriguing advice to gay men was to develop their feminine side, and my "guide," Jack London, who was irritated with me. Betty and Alma cast our horoscopes, and mine forecast correctly "trouble with publishers," and "not spiritual, but arriving at spirituality by his own hard work." Under these women's influence Neil and I read books on Buddhism, Gurdjieff, and other spiritual subjects. This was another break from my atheist father. I felt sure that, although I would always be an atheist, there was something else that atheism didn't quite cover.
Buddhism is without gods, and I found it a good antidote to Freudian therapy, since you are led to see what happens to you, even the worst of things, as helpful to your development, obstacles to be overcome. The idea that I chose my parents seemed to liberate me from the Freudian rut of blaming my parents, though that had formerly been an improvement over blaming myself! Betty had been a Christian Science nurse and gave me a pamphlet that contained the healing principle in a nutshell, but without the Christ part, for which it was withdrawn from distribution. The conviction that the body is self-healing and “there is no error in the universe” liberated me eventually from hypochondria, though I had liberated myself from doctors in my fifties, after a doctor said to me, when I’d come to him with some complaint, “What do you expect, you’re over fifty.” I hardly saw a doctor for decades after that, and used my common sense and folk remedies with my ailments, until in my eighties, I gave in and returned to a doctor’s care.
Yoga became a discipline, which I've practiced ever since. I also took lessons in Alexander technique, with its reeducation of the body, which I incorporated into yoga. And I started another cycle of therapies, these more body-oriented, as opposed to the talk therapy I'd gone through, from Bio-Energetic to Primal, where insights were gained from falling apart in fits of screaming or helpless sobbing.