If you were to walk through the floors of Liston Hall in the fall of 1995, you’d likely smell body odor and incense, you’d see guys lounging in rooms in their boxer shorts, and you’d probably hear one of three albums playing on CD players: either Weezer’s Blue Album, Live’s Throwing Copper, or Alanis Morrisette’s Jagged Little Pill. There was no air conditioning, so you’d be hot unless you happened to walk past a fan in a windowsill. Showers were communal; furniture, clinical.
I was a freshman at King College in Bristol, Tennessee, a scarecrow-thin, mulletted, peach-fuzzed, terrified mass of cells. An indifferent student in high school, I half-expected not to make it college, and was kind of surprised when my mediocre piano playing was enough to convince the music department at King to overlook my 2.1 overall GPA. Against all odds, I found myself ensconced in a third floor room in Liston, with a desk, a single bed, a dresser, and a roommate: a sixteen-year-old prodigy who rode a skateboard, was allergic to deodorant, liked to go topless, and read Bill Cooper’s Behold a Pale Horse as though it were God’s holy scripture.
I was heir to that breathless, back-to-nature rave-up that was the mid-90’s jam band culture: we wore beads, and played djembes, and listened to Phish and Rusted Root. Though I had never smoked pot before, I tried to look the part, and must have been pretty successful: several people told me later that they assumed I was baked throughout high school. In fact, the oldest son of a fairly conservative family of Presbyterians, the most radical thing I did was come back from a New Orleans trip with a Jamaican hair weave, and read books about Zen Buddhism on the sly. In short, I was sheltered. In short, I was trying too hard. That I was kind of a dork was as obvious a conclusion as it was lost on me.
There were recitals to play as part of my scholarship, hours locked alone with a piano in a cramped practice room. So I played the piano, and avoided my roommate, and at night haunted the campus coffeehouse trying, unsuccessfully, to get laid.
My introduction to English as an academic discipline came in the form of a freshman composition class. Though I’ve been an avid reader all of my life, it never occurred to me to major in English, probably because my high school English teacher hated me. So, when I enrolled in freshman composition with Prof. Katie Vande Brake, I fully expected to hate it.
To my surprise, I did not. Not that I fell in love with the subject or anything. But I was shocked when my instructor told me I was a good writer, when she commented on one of my papers that she was frustrated with me because I “could probably teach the class,” but was not engaged. She treated me, in other words, like a real person, a young writer with potential.
She told me that I should consider switching my major to English. Perhaps it’s worth noting that I was so rudderless at that point in my life that, without agonizing almost at all, I agreed. The music faculty was not pleased with me, but I was sprung from the practice rooms, and now I could read to my heart’s content.
But what did an English major do? What did English majors look like?
All I knew was Dead Poets Society. Something about “O Captain, my captain?” “Barbaric yawp”s?
Camping? Smoking things? I knew something about camping, having completed an Outward Bound course the previous summer. And at 18, I was old enough to buy cigars at the smoke shop at the railway station. It was only a mile or so from campus; my friend Colin and I walked there once or twice a week.
I reasoned that an English major should memorize poetry, because…culture? And also getting laid? So I combed through my Norton Anthology looking for poems to memorize. I was drawn to sonnets because they were short, so I stumbled onto “On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer,” and was immediately absorbed. It had traveling, and star watching, and exploring. And it had highfaluting language. Even then, I’m afraid I was kind of a snob.
So I memorized the poem, along with most of “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” and Keats became my model of a good poet. With my sophisticated grasp of modern poetry gained in freshman comp, I reasoned that contemporary poetry had gone to pot, and the thing to do was to imitate guys like Keats. So I went camping, and smoked cigars, and tried to compose poetry that sounded like Keats. I even published, in the campus literary rag, a sonnet entitled “Ode on Keats.” Out of concern for the reader’s digestion, I will not reproduce it here.
It is clear, in retrospect, that my friends and I were romantics. We were a pack of romantics. We took guitars and an accordion into a graveyard and recorded songs. We did drugs and went camping. We competed to see who could write the best poems and songs. We were drawn to the novel, the spontaneous, the natural, the macabre.
Sometimes I got drunk and made ridiculous boasts; probably the most absurd was the time, in a drunken tear, that I claimed that I was a better poet than Keats.
I expected, like Keats, to die young.
But I did not die young.
I survived college, and two and a half graduate degrees, and a wife and kids and more than one mortgage. I gained weight, and lost hair, and wrote fewer songs. My writing went from breathlessly ambitious to lean and wry. I stopped looking for inspiration in crazy experiences, and started using heuristics and invention strategies. I got more disciplined. I got out of the woods, got out of the world.
The world got into me.
Then, for the final paper of the final graduate course in my doctoral program, I got an opportunity to visit Keats once again. We are older now. I see him for what he is: a good poet, yes, and a man–a largely unhappy one, not at home in the world. But I still read his poems and feel that old thrill, remember what it was like to feel young and inspired, like anything was possible, like some watcher of the skies.