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Journal, Day Five
By now it was 1960. I had quit my reporting job and was collecting $55 a week unemployment insurance, the highest in the country and enough to get me through the week if I was careful. I’d fallen into a comfortable routine: get up in late morning, read for a while, wander down to the Green Valley for a mid-day drink or two, go to see whatever Two Action Hits Daily were playing at the Times Theater, roam around the neighborhood until the bars closed, eat minestrone and shoot pool at Mike’s for an hour, in bed by four to rest up for another busy day.
I had occasionally been trying to chip off the rust and try my hand at writing stories again. It wasn’t going well. When I was nineteen, I had published a story in L. Rust Hills’ magazine Quixote and I thought fame was just days away. That turned out to be the only fiction I ever published.
Then, one afternoon—a little drum roll here, please—I had A Thought. It was a lively thought and it wouldn’t go away. I sat at my Royal portable and typed out a paragraph or so. What the hell is this? It’s not an idea for a story, it’s not a grocery list, it’s not a letter to Aunt Sally. But it’s sort of fun. And short. So I wrote another one. Mercifully, these first efforts disappeared long ago and I can’t remember much about them. Weather-related, I think.
I wrote about 15 of them that week and they almost instantly, without my really thinking about it much, stopped being paragraphs and started arranging themselves in lines. Then I did something incredibly stupid and brash: I took six or seven of the poems (for I had decided that’s what they were) and submitted them to a magazine called The San Francisco Review. They came back in a couple of weeks, but with a note: Try us again. I know the gods should have erased me from the planet for this sort of effrontery, but I have often wondered over the years what would have happened if I hadn’t gotten that note. Would I have just shrugged and moved on to something else? Something that actually paid the rent, say?
Instead, I sent some poems to The Nation and got a nice note from someone named Merwin. That night, at Gino & Carlo’s, I asked Jack Spicer if he’d ever heard of this Merwin. That was supposed to lead to some dialogue. Merwin is such and such, why do you ask? Well, actually, Jack, I’ve been writing some poems. Have you? I’d like to see them. Pause. Say, these are brilliant, etc., etc.
So I asked him, do you know someone named Merwin? Yeah, Spicer snapped, already walking away, he’s some fucking priest.
It was many years later, that it hit me; He thought I said Merton.
I wrote 60 poems that year, almost none of which have survived, thank heavens. Then Antioch Review took one and Epoch took another and I was a Published Poet. Forty-six years later, despite my balding pate and white beard, people I’ve been introduced to at parties still say, “Oh, have you published?” Would they ask a 70-year-old dentist if he’d ever filled a tooth?