Beans with garlic, porcupines with splinters

A little while back, Laid-Off Dad, that bucolic slacker, shared some good advice from E. B. White for fathers. It got me to thinking about my favorite advice from poets, and some of my favorite poets, and then it got me to thinking about my Dad, who might well be responsible for this blog, even though he died over 20 years ago.

When I was younger, I didn’t even know that poets existed. I didn’t really understand that there were writers. All I knew is that there were words in books, and that I wanted more than anything to understand the stories that they told. I would read anything. Often, I got lost in books. When I started to look up one subject in our World Book encyclopedia set, I would follow every “See” and “See also” reference until I would have half the set off the shelf, open in front of me, and I would be skipping between volumes, piecing together the solutions to the great mysteries of life.

I was young, so I didn’t realize that someone, or several someones, had written all of those words, in addition to all the stories that I would devour at any time I could. But that all changed one afternoon in the local library when I found the complete written works of Bob Dylan.

Suddenly, I knew that people wrote all of those words, and that those people were real, three-dimensional, living, breathing, yearning, aching, loving, failing, laughing people. And I knew that I wanted to be like them. I went home that night and I spun out two perfect–or so I thought at the time–poems that spread over several pages. They got a somewhat tepid reaction . . . from others, that is.

Me, I was hooked. All through high school and college I spent hours writing. Mostly poetry, some plays, and even some short film scripts for some art school students. None of it was that good, but it filled my needs.

All that time, I continued reading most anything that I could find, with the possible exception of most of the books assigned in my classes, as my instructors will surely attest to. Something about reading being assigned caused it to lose its lustre, as did many things did after my Dad died in my junior year of high school. I found solace in my writing, and one day I discovered why, while reading Bukowski.

His poem “Beans with Garlic” is the clearest explanation I can find of why I write. That last line–“get this down”–is the best advice I’ve ever gotten about writing. Now that I’m a bit older, and I’ve realized the value of an editor, I might amend that to “get this down, then have someone look over it.”

This is why I quickly chose “Beans with Garlic” when I received an assignment to read a certain number of lines of great poetry in a poetry writing course, but I was still a few lines short. Digging through my books, I found a tiny volume entitled “Beastly Poetry.” It was a collection of Ogden Nash poems about animals that I had gotten as a birthday present from my Dad at some point.

A late birthday present, apparently, since the envelope that it came in was inscribed with his sprawling, southpaw cursive, “H.B. (late).” Inside the cover, he inscribed my name, then signed his. Next to his signature, Mom added hers. Usually, it was vice versa, with Dad adding his signature. This was clearly a gift from Dad, as Mom confirmed later. Turns out Dad loved Ogden Nash, which makes sense. Dad loved good writing, loved reading, and loved a good laugh.

As I flipped through the thin volume to pick a poem to close out my assignment, I began to wonder when I had gotten this gift. There’s no date anywhere on it, not even in the copyright notice. I must have been fairly young, because I have no recollection of receiving it. This made me wonder, was this the seed from which my desire to write poetry later sprung? Had my Dad planted the seed that led me to live in a world of words? Or, depending on your perspective, doomed me to a life of confusion?

There’s certainly no way to tell now if it was he who pushed me off the cliff, or if I jumped all by myself, or if perhaps he saw me plummeting, and gave me this small parachute.

Whatever it was that inspired him to get it for me, I’m grateful that he did. If he had never given it, I might have never known what made him laugh, but now every time I open it, I feel like I have a new opportunity to know him again. Sometimes it’s hard for me to read it, because I’m confronted anew by my loss, like tonight when I read the Porcupine:

Any hound a porcupine nudges
Can’t be blamed for harboring grudges.
I know one hound that laughed all winter
At a porcupine that sat on a splinter.

I wanted to call him and laugh about Barky’s latest exploits. Fortunately, none of them involve porcupines, but the little hound does do some funny things. Of course, I couldn’t.

But I can still clearly recall the sound of Dad’s laughter ringing out, as I imagine it did when he read these poems. And that’s a gift that I’ll never lose or forget.

  • What a loss – I’m so sorry.
    Also, what a wonderful gift to have from your father. I treasure the books my father gives me and love the value that they (words) have to me because of the value he places on them.

    (Phew – edit that mess of a sentence for me, would you?)