I went to Misfit Ghetto last night and saw this sign. It comes from Robert Lowell who said “The light at the end of the tunnel is just the light of an oncoming train.” Robert Lowell has been a favorite since I first discovered him in 7th grade. I was shy, a mumbler, constantly admonished to speak louder and my mother made me join the speech team. She believed in meeting challenges head on. I chose Extemporaneous Poetry as my specialty since I loved poetry and my mom made me memorize a poem a week. I figured I could get two for one out of the way.
For my first competition I drew “For the Union Dead” by Robert Lowell. The imagery bowled me over and I fell in love with his way of writing, though the poem was not without its problems for my 7th grade self. It used the n-word once, in quotes to indicate that was not a word Lowell would have used. It was a word I had never used and was certainly not acceptable. I had thirty minutes to prepare an introduction and decide how to address this dilemma. I punted and inserted the word soldiers instead. You know, as an adult, I think the person who picked the poems that day probably had not read them.
But also, from hindsight, I don’t mind, because that poem was thrilling to me. If you have seen the film Glory, you know the story memorialized in the statue he describes. But it was not the story, it was the images from phrases like his nose crawling like a snail on the aquarium glass and the yellow dinosaur steamshovels grunting as they work. Most of the poetry I had read (or my mom had chosen for me) had been prettier. She was a big Longfellow, Shelley and Shakespeare fan. Lowell was my introduction to a more robust kind of poetry. He felt rebellious and fierce and I gobbled him up. And yes, he was also bleak and grim and depressive – perfect for adolescence.