By the second semester of my Freshman year at SUNY Cortland, I was done with the first great romantic infatuation of my life (sort of), had found the friends I’d spend the rest of my college years with, and had a vague idea that there was something I found deeply meaningful about storytelling, philosophy and the study of living well.
I walked into my Introduction to Poetry class, which I had every Tuesday and Thursday, to a mixed-sort of classroom: football players, frat guys, blonde sorority speech and education majors seeking a required liberal-arts credit, the halfway-hipster types who clearly would be making the extent of their vast literary knowledge known to everyone soon enough.
I sat in the back with Cath, a lifetime Long Islander who would become a high school English teacher and a lifelong friend, and we waited for the professor to show up. I was nervous as I always was in the beginning of classes, anxious that the teacher would write me off immediately as a tall kid with no brains at all, which was exactly what I didn’t want to be, and in my over thinking I nearly missed the professor himself, who was sitting at a regular desk just a few rows ahead of me, mumbling to himself under his breath, scribbling away in a notebook.
“Phones away,” he said as he sat up in a thundering, booming voice. He was in his seventies, with an unshaven, long grey beard, bright blue eyes that looked straight at you. He didn’t stand up straight.
“This is English 213, Poetry,” he said. I looked at my schedule—he’d gotten the class number wrong; poetry was labeled ENG 210.
“You will need the book today—anyone who doesn’t will need to look on with someone else. Turn to page 513 please, we’ll be reading a favorite poet of mine today, an Irishman from the turn of the century who many consider the greatest…” and on he went, with no introduction, not even telling us his name, which was Dr. Bernie Earley, not handing out a syllabus and plans or handouts of any sort; just jumping right into the poetry, and I loved it.
“Anyone want to read the poem aloud?” It was Yeats’ The Lake Isle of Innesfree. “No one? How about you there?”
He’d pointed at Cath. She blushed.
“No? How about you then, the young man next to you,” he said, pointing at me. All I could think of was my stammer and how afraid I was of messing up. I think Cath knew this, she was an incredibly sincere and insightful person, but she let me read for her anyways. Besides, I had read the poem silently in my head a moment earlier and fallen in love with it immediately—this poetic euphoria provided the elation necessary to speak with power and with passion.
“The Lake Isle of Innesfree,” I said, my voice matching the thunderous impact of Bernie’s own. “I will arise and go now, and go to Innesfree. And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made…” The poem was short and sweet, and the ending was impactful on its own, regardless of how I read it. “While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements gray, I hear it in the deep heart’s core.”
I was pleased with myself—I had read it excellently, with power and gusto, with charisma and charm, and Bernie seemed to notice.
“Well read,” he said. “What’s your name?”
“Jake,” I answered. “Richter.”
“Great voice—true flare. Now, class, let me draw your attention to how Josh read the poem, paying particular attention to how he read Yeats’ intentional use of commas to add or subtract or destroy rhythm…” Bernie respected me, I’d have him for two more classes within my first two undergrad years, but he never seemed to get anyone’s name right, even those of his most respected students. He loved Pound, Williams and Eliot; and like them, he thought primarily in images, in faces apparating in a dark metro, a poem he taught me how to love. He turned me on to many of my favorite writers today, including the aforementioned modernists but also Yeats, Dylan Thomas and the Romantics. I, in turn, showed him an alternative band’s lyrics I’d been listening to lately, those of a song called Jesus Christ written and performed by Brand New. He was open to anything and took the printed page of lyrics home with him, though he criticized the songwriter’s questionable religious imagery.
Bernie rambled, lectured every class, without set destination or point. He’d stand for about two minutes at the beginning of class without taking attendance and then sit down in his chair, have someone read a poem or two, and then he’d talk for an hour. Many of the students hated the class—Cath and I couldn’t get enough. Bernie told us stories of his personal life, almost too much information, though never many words. We once read Shakespeare’s 18th sonnet:
“My partner left after five years,” Bernie told us. “I was depressed after she went away. Then I drove to a mountain and went skiing for three days and I felt better. What a waste. It didn’t even make for good poetry.” He was that kind of writer. He wasn’t afraid to be ugly.
Bernie wasn’t the only teacher I had who’d share a bit too much, however—one of my other teachers, a Distinguished Professor in the state of New York, discussed and even complained about his sex life in the midst of a class session, without any of the imagist beauty of Bernie’s stories…
Bernie grew up in the heat of the Beat movement. He spoke of seeing Allen Ginsberg perform Howl at Neubig, our school’s main dining hall, something I considered legendary; he even pointed me in the direction of a professor whom I approached the next semester who was able to share a quick story of hanging out with Ginsberg in a New York hotel for a few days; she then politely asked to be excused, left her office for a minute or two while I admired her books and her story, and when she returned she asked me to come back another time to discuss a story I was working on, which I’d feigned needing advice with in order to talk to her.
I had no particular interest in Ginsberg—I was more interested in Jack Kerouac and Hunter S. Thompson among my multi-faceted interest in the Beats—but my attention was seized by the genuine feeling that I was dipping my toes into social circles among people who actually accomplished, believed, felt—true writers, true thinkers, unafraid of saying and doing unconventional things and breaking from the norm—that was who I wanted to be, and I was finally getting there. But then I went back to my friends who were playing wii in their sweatpants, making plans to drink and order calzones, and felt like what I’d had a moment ago was lost, but that was okay, I had those meager moments with me.
Bernie showed us the poetics of Bob Dylan’s music, specifically his early-sixties The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, the true Dylan, the Dylan before anyone cared about image, before revolution became a product. We’d read Subterranean Homesick Blues, talk about drugs or whatever the song was getting at, and Bernie would speak of his years spent on his motorcycle writing poetry on napkins in diners. He really was such a cliché, his life that of a traveling bard roaming the land in search of kicks, beauty, spontaneity, surprise, the unusual and unique, the sublime, the overlooked and ordinary underdog moments in the world and I loved him for it, I still love it about him because he spoke from the soul, and although I knew he was crazy and that he was misunderstanding the poetry we’d read sometimes (Cath took offense to just about everything he said about Sylvia Plath, her favorite, whom Bernie respected but not in a way that lended itself well to a feminist lens) my attention had been captured and it would never really fade.
The final paper I wrote for Bernie’s class was on William Blake, comparing a few of his poems, among them my favorite poem at the time, To See the World In A Grain of Sand, in a context of an emerging belief of my own pantheism, seeing God and the truth and meaning of the world in the breathing life of nature itself. I was a little too lost in my own head after those class sessions… weirdness was a distinct phase I went through, at least from a philosophic maturation process. Rose, ever insightful into the process of the many educations we receive in our lives, notes how “you’ll need people to guide you into conversations that seem foreign and threatening.” This was Bernie for me—I wasn’t afraid to cherish unusual ideas either.
But those were the days! I drank Four-Lokos each weekend, dreamed of the girls across the hall, and read poetry and American Literature in a casual, childish dream of becoming a poet, even getting a short poem accepted by a publication on campus that I would become Vice-President of a year later, and then losing all sense that my campus had any prestige whatsoever… The world was small, the feelings true, honest, black and blue… who knew which, and who was who? Up and down, which was which? In the end, it’s only round and round and round…
My literacy had grown to the equivalence of a Pink Floyd song.