View From a Tower

Desolation Peak
Desolation Peak Lookout with Mt. Hozomeen in the background. (Wikimedia)

When I was writing about the romance of being a lighthouse keeper, I also thought about a time when I considered being a lookout in a forest fire tower.

I was in college and had been reading a lot of poetry by Gary Snyder. Gary Snyder was the first poet to get a job as a fire lookout. He was assigned to a station atop Crater Mountain in Washington.    (The tower no longer exists.)  It was 1952 and he was studying Zen Buddhism and writing and it seemed an ideal job for both practices. Isolation, quiet, few distractions and a long view of the horizon.

I went to a job talk my junior year at Rutgers College given by an old guy from the National Park Service.  I have a feeling that a lot of the people there had similar ambitions of being in some beautiful western wilderness. The old guy sensed this and tried his best to dissuade us from joining up. He said, “If you think you’re going become a ranger at the Grand Canyon or Mount Rainier, think again.  You could end up in Philadelphia giving tours of the Betsy Ross house. You could get assigned to New Jersey and be at Sandy Hook or Morristown talking about General Washington.” His wet-blanket speech chilled my ambition and I did not fill out an application.

Gary Snyder became a well-known poet and environmental activist. He was part of the Beat poets and the San Francisco Renaissance and became knowns as the “poet laureate of Deep Ecology.”

Snyder’s tower experience inspired some of his friends to do the same. Poet Philip Whalen took a nearby post the next year. At a San Francisco poetry reading in 1955, Snyder met the young Jack Kerouac. This was the reading where Allen Ginsberg, having had enough wine to bolster his courage, performed a new poem “Howl.” Snyder convinced Kerouac to try a stint as a fire lookout.

Kerouac was at Desolation Peak for the summer of 1956. He decided not to bring any cigarettes in an attempt to go cold turkey and quit smoking. He brought one book – A Buddhist Bible – and planned to meditate on emptiness.

Accord to John Suiter’s  book Poets on the Peaks, by day 10 in the tower Kerouac wrote in his journal that “Time drags.” He took to smoking coffee grounds out of desperation.  He had written that he expected to “come face to face with God” but instead he came “face to face with myself, no liquor, no drugs, no chance of faking it.”

He wasn’t as successful in his practice as Snyder, but he did learn something about himself. Kerouac spent 63 days that summer there and wrote about his experiences in The Dharma Bums, Lonesome Traveler, Desolation Angels, and in a collection of haiku, Desolation Pops.

Gary gone from the shack
     like smoke
– My lonely shoes

Gary Snyder
     is a haiku
far away

Gary would find himself banned from getting a job again in a government fire tower because he was seen as a possible anarchist (though better described as a pacifist) due to McCarthy-era blacklisting.

Snyder was one of the more serious students of Zen amongst the Beat poets and wanted to study in Japan. He had an offer from the First Zen Institute of America of a scholarship for a year of Zen training in Japan in 1955. The U.S. State Department refused to issue him a passport, informing him that “it has been alleged you are a Communist.”

A District of Columbia Court of Appeals reversed the ruling and a patron paid his expenses to Japan. At first, he served as a personal attendant and English tutor to Zen abbot Miura Isshu, at Rinko-in, a temple in Shokoku-ji in Kyoto. His days there were quite full: morning zazen, sutra chanting, work for Miura, and spoken Japanese classes so he could do kōan study. In the summer of 1955, he requested to become Miura’s disciple, thus formally becoming a Buddhist.

I was thinking about all of this the past week when I got an email about the National Parks Arts Foundation offerings for writers and visual artists to serve a residency next year.  No fire towers I could find but there is Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park which sounds pretty exotic. How about a stay at Death Valley?

Could I convince my wife to spend a month virtually alone in the historical lighthouse keeper’s house on an islet in the Dry Tortugas National Park in Loggerhead Key in Florida? I doubt it. Could I go alone to this “uninhabited” islet? It’s tempting. To get to this islet in the Florida Keys requires a seaplane or boat and you would need to pack in all supplies, equipment, and food. No Internet unless you have a satellite phone.

The Lighthouse on Loggerhead Key

Would I be a Gary Snyder in all that isolation, or would I be a Jack Kerouac? Either way, I would certainly write, take photos and do some painting.

Emily and Margaret

Today is the birthday of Emily Dickinson.

She wrote nearly 2,000 poems and published about 10 of them in her lifetime. She did occasionally send poems to friends and she also might include them when she sent someone a gift of baked goods. I have tried to imagine which poems she might have sent with a pound cake, for example.

I read this morning that one person who did know about her many poems was the family’s Irish maid, Margaret Maher. She worked for the Dickinson family for 30 years and was eventually treated as part of the family.  She and Emily were close, though quite different. Emily described her as “good and noisy, the North Wind of the Family.” They spent a lot of time in the kitchen baking loaves of bread and cakes. Emily was known to have written many poems on the spot using whatever paper was nearby, including chocolate wrappers and the backs of shopping lists. Margaret tried her hand at poems too and they wrote poems back and forth to each other.

Most important to literary history is that Emily trusted Margaret with her poems and stored them in Margaret’s trunk that she had brought with her from Ireland.

Emily gave Margaret explicit instructions to burn her poems after she died. But, as with other writers like Franz Kafka, the caretaker of the writing couldn’t bear to destroy the work.

Margaret gave the poems to Emily’s sister, Lavinia. Unfortunately and inexplicably, Lavinia had already burned most of her sister’s letters. Luckily for the world, she thought the poems should be published.

The one photo of Emily was disliked and discarded by her family, but saved by Margaret Maher. She made it available to Roberts Brothers publishers for the first book of her poems which appeared in November 1890. Included with that first edition of edited and censored poems is that lone photo (a daguerreotype) of Emily Dickinson. emily

by Emily Dickinson

I’ll tell you how the sun rose, —
A ribbon at a time.
The steeples swam in amethyst,
The news like squirrels ran.

The hills untied their bonnets,
The bobolinks begun.
Then I said softly to myself,
“That must have been the sun!”

But how he set, I know not.
There seemed a purple stile
Which little yellow boys and girls
Were climbing all the while

Till when they reached the other side,
A dominie in gray
Put gently up the evening bars,
And led the flock away.

Another version of this post and others about Emily
appear on my Poets Online blog.

Birthday Buddies

me in my Yankees uniformToday is my birthday.

Like many of you, at some times in my life, I have looked up who else shares my birthday.

The names you find online are, of course, famous folks.  A part of me must have once believed that by some astrological magic we would share some characteristics.

Today is also the birthday of NY Yankee great Mickey Mantle.  I may have worn #7 as a young baseball player (everyone wanted that jersey but a kind-hearted coach let me have it because of the birthday connection) and I did usually get put into the outfield like Mickey, but I was no Bronx Bomber at the plate.  (More of a Phil “Scooter” Rizzuto.)

I do have a bad knee and back like Mickey, but luckily no drinking or liver problems.

NY Mets first baseman Keith Hernandez not only shares October 20 with me but was born the same year!

I was not a good first baseman, but my older son was a great one. Are there astrological genes? As a lifelong NY Yankees fan, it was impossible for me to be a Mets fan. Though they never posed a threat to the Yanks, they were in the local news and on TV all through my New Jersey childhood.

I did love Keith’s appearances on Seinfeld as himself. “I’m Keith Hernandez!” he declares after a moment of self-doubt.

Viggo as Aragorn

I don’t see myself as all that similar to Viggo Mortensen who is an actor, author, musician, photographer, poet, and painter. Although in my own small ways I do work in all those fields.

I’m certainly not like his Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings film trilogy. But I do like many of his films, most recently two that he got Academy Award nominations for in Captain Fantastic (2016) and Green Book (2018).

Viggo founded the Perceval Press to publish the works of little-known artists and authors. Maybe I should contact my birthday buddy about my poetry manuscript. Unfortunately, they are not accepting submissions right now. Okay, I’m patient. I do like the name of his press. Perceval was the original hero in the Grail quest tales, before being “replaced” in later English and French literature by Galahad.

The late Tom Petty was a great singer, songwriter and guitarist who has the same birthday and was only a few years older than me.

I do play guitar (though I often refer to myself as a “guitar owner” rather than as a “guitarist”) but not at a level anywhere near Tom.

But I do like Tom Petty’s music.

Sir Christopher Wren, portrait c.1690 by John Closterman

As a young teen, I wanted to be an architect in the Frank Lloyd Wright style. I did some reading and came across Sir Christopher Wren who was born on October 20 way back in 1632.

He was an English anatomist, astronomer, geometer, and mathematician-physicist, but is best known as an architect.

He was responsible for rebuilding 52 churches in the City of London after the Great Fire in 1666. His masterpiece is  St. Paul’s Cathedral, on Ludgate Hill, completed in 1710. He caught a chill on a trip to London in February 1723 and died a few days later.

His remains were placed in the south-east corner of the crypt of St Paul’s (beside his daughter, sister and her husband. There is a plain stone plaque marking his resting place. But the inscription is also found on a circle of black marble on the main floor beneath the center of the dome. It reads:


I wouldn’t mind such a tribute after I am gone – though I’ll pass on the Latin, which translates as “Here in its foundations lies the architect of this church and city, Christopher Wren, who lived beyond ninety years, not for his own profit but for the public good. Reader, if you seek his monument – look around you. Died 25 Feb. 1723, age 91.

In high school, I discovered that I shared a birthday with composer Charles Ives. I had never heard of him and was not much of a classical music listener. I found his records in that section of my town library but it turned out that Ives was an American modernist composer of experimental music. I listened to it and started to enjoy it and learned a bit about polytonality, tone clusters, and quarter tones – all of which I have mostly forgotten.

My favorite Ives back then was “Central Park in the Dark.” It is a mostly quiet piece and a bit creepy – like my impression at that time of the real Central Park at night. He first titled it “A Contemplation of Nothing Serious or Central Park in the Dark in ‘The Good Old Summer Time'” (good title change, Charles). This 1906 piece and his “The Unanswered Question” were tone poems to me as a teenager and I wrote some quite pretentious poetry based on his work.

I was pleased when I went off to college and got more serious about writing to discover that there were some poets who were birthday buddies.

Robert Pinsky was Poet Laureate of the U.S. (1997-2000) and is not only also a Jersey kid like me but also attended Rutgers as I did.

He’s a Jersey Shore kid (Long Branch) and I read his poetry before I knew that we shared a birthday. He is 13 years my senior, but I found some connections to my own life and work in his writing.

The first time I met him, I mentioned our shared birthday and he said, “And Mickey Mantle and Rimbaud!”

Rimbaud at 17The French poet Arthur Rimbaud (pronounced ræmˈbo)  was a libertine, restless soul, who had an at-times-violent romantic relationship with fellow poet Paul Verlaine.

As a poet, he was known as a Symbolist. His most famous work is A Season in Hell, which I bought and read, but didn’t really connect with as a young poet.

I read recently that Rimbaud has become the “Jim Morrison of poets” due to fans visiting his grave in a little cemetery in northern France and making it a kind of shrine (as fans have done with rock singer/poet Morrison in Paris).

Sadly, what appealed to me more about Rimbaud in those college days was that he seemed to be alone and unhappy which was a periodic state for me back then which I misunderstood as being literary and Romantic states of being.

I’m sure it would really piss off Arthur to know that near his grave you can buy Rimbaud plates, mugs, Rimbaud’s terrine, honey and confit, Arthur’s vintage craft beer cider, juice, lemonade or cola. Escape to Paris and you can stay at the Best Western Hôtel Littéraire Arthur Rimbaud with a framed poem in your room. Truly a season in Hell.

Rimbaud’s affair with Verlaine ended after Paul left his wife and child for Rimbaud and then shot Arthur (not fatally) when he tried to end their affair. Rimbaud left for Paris then traveled the world, fought as a mercenary on Java (now Indonesia), worked as an explorer and trader in Ethiopia and Yemen, and finally returned to France when he was struck by cancer that took his left leg and his life. He died at the age of 37 with only his sister at his side.

If you do a search for October 20 or your birthday on Wikipedia, you will turn up a long list of people that share your birthday and also events in history. Unless you are a believer in astrology, I don’t think you’ll find answers to your life’s mission by finding out who shares your birthday. I hand picked ones from the long list that I felt some kinship with, but there are many more that I feel no connection to via our shared day of birth. Still, it was a fun journey.

You’re a writer? Must be a little crazy. Maybe a little drunk.

hemingway gin
When I was an undergraduate at Rutgers, I had a little drinking problem. I also fell into several deep depressions.  I blame both, at least partially, on being an English major.

It seemed like every writer I read and admired had a problem with alcohol and went a bit crazy. A few drank themselves to death or ended up fully crazy and suicidal. It seemed like these were things you had to do to be a writer. You had to suffer. It was Romantic with the capital R fully in place.

Thankfully, I got past all that, but I still find articles all the time like “Nine Famous Authors Who Did Stints in Mental Institutions”  and  5 Writers Who Suffered from Mental Illnesses & the Impact It Had on Their Art and Great American Writers and Their Cocktails.

What a club – Ezra Pound, Ernest Hemingway, Virginia Woolf,  Sylvia Plath, David Foster Wallace, Richard Brautigan.

Some early research in 1987 connected creativity with mental illness when researchers noticed a higher occurrence of bipolar disorder in study participants from the Iowa Writers Workshop than in a control group. Did they get crazy by trying to be writers, or did they become writers because they were crazy?

In the mid-1990s, Dr. Arnold Ludwig found that those is the arts are more likely to have mental illnesses than those in non-creative professions.

I read the book A Confederacy of Dunces and loved it before I ever knew anything about the author John Kennedy Toole. He couldn’t get the novel published. He got depressed. He drank more and more. He acted crazy. He killed himself. The novel was published posthumously. I had never read a novel like Dunces but I had read that bio plenty of times.

Ernest Hemingway is my favorite of all these writers and he is a classic example – depression, alcoholism, narcissistic personality, bipolar disorder and finally psychosis and suicide. Before the doctors and clinics, he “self-medicated” with booze. He liked risk-taking activities. He wrote as therapy, and when he couldn’t write anymore (largely because of the alcohol), he got electroshock treatments. For someone whose life was writing, not being able to write meant he had no reason to live.

Plus, for Hemingway, it was in his genes. There is some science to it. In 2009, an article published by the Association for Psychological Science showed a definitive link between creativity and the neuregulin 1 gene, a gene that is also associated with psychosis.

Some writers even have drinks that we associate with them. Hemingway is associated with lots of booze, including the Mojito, a drink invented at La Bodeguita del Medio in Havana, Cuba, where Papa drank them. When I was in Key West, Florida last summer, the bartenders at Sloppy Joe’s and Captain Tony’s said that he didn’t drink Mojitos in Key West.

From Hemingway’s “The Three-Day Blow”:

 “I’m a little drunk now,” Nick said.
“You aren’t drunk,” Bill said… Bill poured the glass half full of whiskey.
“Put in your own water,” he said. “There’s just one more shot.”
“Got any more?” Nick asked.
“There’s plenty more, but Dad only likes me to drink what’s open.”
“Sure,” said Nick.
“He says opening bottles is what makes drunkards,” Bill explained.
“That’s right,” said Nick. He was impressed. He had never thought of that before. He always thought it was solitary drinking that made drunkards.

Hemingway said “Write drunk. Edit sober” but also claimed he didn’t drink until after his morning writing sessions.

William Faulkner drank while he wrote. He claimed, “I usually write at night. I always keep my whiskey within reach.”

Another Southerner, Carson McCullers liked to write and drink and her drink of choice was a mixture of hot tea and sherry that she kept in a thermos. She called it “sonnie boy.” It is said that while at the writer’s colony, Yaddo, she started the day with a beer after breakfast, wrote, moved on to “sonnie boy” and finished the day with cocktails.

In those sometimes Roaring Twenties, F.Scott Fitzgerald was almost as famous for his drinking as his writing. “First you take a drink, then the drink takes a drink, then the drink takes you,” wrote this gin drinker. He didn’t hold his liquor very well, something his sometimes friend, Hemingway mocked him for. A “cheap drunk” he got very drunk very fast. He liked a Gin Rickey: 2 oz. gin, 3/4 oz. lime juice, topped with club soda and a lime wheel.

Detective-fiction master Raymond Chandler liked a Gimlet – basically a Rickey minus the soda. Chandler’s Philip Marlowe character introduced the Gimlet in The Long Goodbye and popularized the cocktail.

Chandler wrote, “A real Gimlet is half gin and half Rose’s Lime Juice and nothing else. It beats martinis hollow.” The modern version is 2:1 gin and Rose’s Lime Juice with a lime wedge.

Keep in mind that alcohol is a depressant.

A number of recent studies have looked at the neurological similarities of mental illness and the creative mind. Bipolar disorder and schizophrenia appear to be focused within the frontal lobe of the brain and they typically manifest with rather peculiar connections that are similar to some types of connections that would be admired in poetry and other creative writing.

Is there a relationship between poetry and psychosis?

A 2002 study of 1,629 writers found that poets – and specifically female poets – were more likely than even non-fiction writers, playwrights and fiction writers to have some type of mental illness. This became known as “The Sylvia Plath Effect.”

Poet Sylvia Plath’s mental illness has been written about quite a bit. She wrote about it herself in her semi-autobiographical novel The Bell Jar. She was clinically depressed for much of her life. She had electroshock therapy, attempted suicide, was admitted to a mental institution for six months, got more electric and insulin shock treatments and still the depression ended her life in suicide.

In the film Annie Hall, Woody Allen’s character, Alvy,  warns Annie that Sylvia Plath was an “interesting poetess whose tragic suicide was misinterpreted as romantic by the college girl mentality.”

Another tragic female poet, Anne Sexton was in and out of mental institutions  for much of her life. Bipolar and suicidal. She started with poetry as therapy at the suggestion of her therapist. Her poetry is full of madness and pain and, like Plath, Sexton took her own life.

It seems like researchers have gotten caught up in those same stories that intrigued me in college and they are looking to connect genius and madness.

Since I spend a lot of time with poets and poetry these days, I was attracted to a new British study that included 294 poets (almost all “published” poets) in an anonymous online survey. The poets scored above average on the “Unusual Experiences”, “Cognitive Disorganization” and “Impulsive Nonconformity” traits. If the poets self-identified their work as “avant-garde,” they scored even higher on “Unusual Experiences.”  2 poets reported schizophrenia, 15 reported bipolar disorder, 152 reported depression and 80 reported anxiety disorder.

Does that sounds about right for poets? Well, actually those percentages are not much higher than the general population.

Since these poets were all self-reporting, it’s possible that they had bought into the madness and writers archetype. Or did their “abnormal” psychology lead them to be writers?