Tuesday, March 10, 2009


(The (re)discovery of a pretty convincing portrait of William Shakespeare has reminded me of my long-ago psychic encounter with the Bard. It's a long story. My apologies to those who've heard it before.)

In the fall of 1972 I was a junior at Brown University, majoring in the new discipline of "Semiotics" (which meant, for me, taking poetry-writing seminars). I had come to Brown in 1970 on the strength (I believe) of a college application essay which was actually a long poem, inspired by the New York School poets, especially (Rhode Island native) Ted Berrigan. (I was not new to poetry : had been writing it since junior high.) During my first two years there I was very prolific, really blooming as a "NY School" ephebe. I won the two poetry awards which were to be won on campus.

But by the fall of '72, I was losing confidence & peace of mind; became depressed & withdrawn. I had broken off two love relationships in quick succession, & was feeling ashamed & guilty. Poetic effusions were not coming so easily (I was reading more). Then in early December, my cousin of the same age, Juliet, jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge. This left me badly shaken & sad.

At some point during that time, I began reading Shakespeare's Sonnets for the first time. From the perspective of over 30 years, I can't help but think that my response to them had something to do with my mental & emotional state at the time.

The Sonnets had a very strange, uncanny effect on me, which I have never felt before or since (except in reading a few phrases in the book of Ecclesiastes). I felt that Shakespeare, in person, was addressing me - speaking to me alone, in person.

This experience triggered a few days of lightheaded euphoria & wonder. Yet in the midst of it, I was clearly aware of its irrationality. I was not one for ghosts & spirits. It disturbed me so much that within the next few weeks, I decided to renounce poetry altogether. An occult connection with the ghost of Shakespeare was not going to help me emerge from my depression. I changed my major to History, and worked very hard through the spring semester to do well in that new direction. I thought I might take after my father, and become a lawyer, instead of a poet.

Over the following summer, I worked on a ranch in Wyoming with my younger brother Jim, haybaling mostly. It was hard work, & I felt invigorated & confident heading back to Brown in the fall. In the evenings, on the ranch, I had read the Revised Version of the Bible, straight through - and this had perhaps an even deeper (though not exactly "occult") impact on me than did the Sonnets. Indeed, I was so confident, I thought to myself - "What the heck, I'll take another look at the Sonnets. No harm in that."

This was the beginning of what exploded into an intense, manic mental breakdown. I have never experienced anything like it - or even near to it - at any other time. It was in the late afternoon or evening that I began re-reading the Sonnets. Slowly inexorably, the feeling returned : Shakespeare was talking to me. This time the sensation was stronger than it had been the first time. I moved into an overwhelming state of excitement & self-confidence - a kind of mania. I didn't sleep over the course of the next 3-4 days. Soon, I started writing long, rhymed poems about episodes in American history. I started a series of poems on the 50 states. I saw myself as becoming the American Shakespeare, with the blessing of the Bard himself. I distributed my new poems to friends & faculty (in particular, poet & scholar Edwin Honig). I was on cloud nine.

Then, after a day or so, my manic "fury" began its downward spin. I began to doubt myself, my sanity - but most of all my spiritual state. I had been baptized & brought up Episcopalian, but felt no strong Christian leanings until that summer in Wyoming, & reading through the Bible. Some words from Ecclesiastes seemed aimed like arrows directly at me : "And I saw that youth, the second one, he who is to come after : and he was lord over all the people : and yet this too is vanity, and a striving after wind." Suddenly the notion struck me that this Shakespeare ghost was actually a demonic spirit, from the depths - tempting me onto a path of worldly vainglory, and eventual soul-loss & damnation...

I couldn't sleep. I rushed around campus, desperately retrieving the poems I had just passed around. I went to Prof. Honig's house, & his wife, with a quizzical look, let me in; I shuffled through the papers in his study, without success. She told me he was meeting a friend up in Boston. I went directly to the bus station & headed to Cambridge; there, on a hunch, I went to the Grolier Bookshop. The red-haired manager told me Edwin would be arriving shortly. I sat down to wait; when Edwin arrived there with another Brown prof, I accosted him - demanded he return my poems. When Edwin said it would have to wait, I grew agitated, tried to explain the urgency of the situation - eventually broke down in tears... Honig, that very kind man, took me to a Cambridge health clinic. He & his colleague had there dinner there, in the cafeteria, with me : & eventually I calmed down enough to make my way back to Brown.

Back in my dorm, I was still in a manic state. A new paranoid element entered in. I began to worry that Harry, a friend of mine, a fellow-poet & Brown student, might steal my poems - & turn himself into some kind of worldly Poet-Dictator. My thoughts had no rational brake : what I thought would most certainly come to pass. I fell into despair; it seemed the Devil had already fooled & overcome me. I was not to be this glorious American Literatus : instead I was merely an accessory to the coming crime.

The old Faust-story washed over my imagination. At this point, I knelt beside my bed, and began to pray. I begged God to save me, to relieve this mental and moral torment. I remember this very clearly : there was a bedside clock. It was near midnight. And at the very stroke of midnight, there was a knock at the door.

I jumped up, trembling all over. I thought the Devil was at the door, to fetch me. Shouting out, "this is the bravest thing I've ever done!", I cracked open the door.

It was not the Devil. It was Arnold Weinstein, Brown English professor, who happened also to be the resident dorm advisor. I heaved a great sigh, full of gratitude & relief. He invited me down to his rooms, introduced me to his family, calmed me down... The next day, the college advised me to go home for a week, rest, & get a psychiatric evaluation before coming back. My parents happened to be coming East to visit my mother's old college friend - Alexandra Weinstein (no relation); so I went back home with them.

However, the battle was not over. The paranoid, apocalyptic fixed idea - that my friend Harry would steal my poems, use them for evil purposes of world domination - was planted deep. I rested up at home; I met with a psychiatrist, & put him at ease. (I showed him some of the poems I had recently written, including a long one about the duel between Hamilton & Burr. He told me he wasn't much of a poetry reader, & that he might be a little biased, since he was a direct descendant of Aaron Burr.) Meanwhile, I went and bought a pistol. I had formed a test. If, when I got back to Brown, I discovered that Harry had broken into my room & taken my manuscripts, I would do away with both him & myself.

The night before I was to go back, I was down in my parent's basement (where I was staying) with my younger brother Mike; sitting together on the bed, I told him the entire story, including my plan. By the time I was finished, we were both trembling. (All my life I have been ashamed of the fact that I laid the burden of that knowledge on my little brother.)

As I was going to sleep that night, I seemed to regress into a more childlike state. In the midst of my fevered imagination, I was afraid of what was coming. I didn't want to hurt anyone; I didn't want to die. I started crying quietly. My kind father came down the stairs; he rested his hand on my forehead, told me everything would be all right. I went to sleep. The next morning, just as I was waking up, I heard a voice, not my own - seemingly emerging from my chest. The voice was saying the Lord's Prayer. ("Our Father, who art in heaven...")

When I got back to my dorm room at Brown, no one had broken in. I threw the pistol in the Seekonk River, where I suppose it remains to this day. I tried to start up with school again, and lasted about a month. The strange & charismatic experiences I had undergone were too overpowering for me to continue. My holy-fool/Jesus-freak wandering times were about to begin. I threw my record collection and most of my belongings in a dumpster. I worked a couple weeks as a cook in a local Pancake House to earn a little money. Then I took my guitar & set out on the road.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

54. In the late 70s I was running a food coop in Providence, called Kneecap Natural Foods. We had over 600 members at one point. The coop lasted about 7 years in all (I left after about 5). Around '79 we got some grants to build a solar greenhouse in Fox Point, on some land donated by Brown University. We had CETA kids & Brown student volunteers pitching in. It was a huge project (for us). The greenhouse was designed with the latest solar technology - & we built it in the shape of a "vesica", to some mystical dimensions out of John Michell's books. It took a full year to build, because after the CETA grant finished (which was a 1-summer program) it was all spare-time volunteer labor.

Two weeks after the grand opening (filmed for local TV news - lots of people there), we got a letter from Brown University. The greenhouse would have to be taken down, as they were selling the property to a developer. We put up a fuss - they eventually gave the food coop some money for our trouble. But one of the biggest regrets of my life is that I didn't put up a bigger fuss. We could have rallied the community, taken them to court... The truth was, I had already moved on. I was very busy with young family, 2 low-paying but very hectic jobs (VISTA volunteer, produce supplier for other coops)... I didn't have the strength to fight them.

That was the first "community solar greenhouse" built in Rhode Island. It lasted two weeks. (There's a little picture of the greenhouse, with me standing next to it, in the corner of the collage on the Spuyten Duyvil edition (2000) of Stubborn Grew.)

Monday, February 16, 2009

53. I had a number of goofy adventures during my "Jesus freak" days (early-mid 70s). The hairiest ones I've probably suppressed (in memory). But I remember once I was sitting in a McDonald's, in Providence, and was approached by a young devotee of one of those obscure "meditation" cults that were always scrounging the streets for converts back then. He invited me to a "retreat" (indoctrination) in upstate New York somewhere. I decided to go along for a lark - to infiltrate them (because I was very firm in my own faith at that point). I played along. I was taken in a car with 3-4 other young people on a drive upstate. Winter, very snowy & cold. At one point we were blindfolded so we couldn't see where we were going. I remember a sprawling, newish house, with a lot of land enclosed in a chain-link fence, sort of like an army base. I have a vague memory of sitting on a floor with a crowd of young people, submitting to seemingly endless mumbo-jumbo harangues by some sub-Leader or other. Food & sleep deprivation. When finally they let us toddle off to bed, I waited til just before dawn, & then snuck out. A very cold hitchhike back to Providence, but I was happy to have escaped.
52. I used to hitchhike a lot. Often up north, in the summer, where I worked with my brothers & friends on a cabin my father was building near the Canadian border. Once I was crossing a bridge on foot in the town of Cloquet (famous for its odorous paper mills, and a gas station designed by Frank Lloyd Wright). It was windy on the bridge. I was wearing a backpack with all my poetry/fiction notebooks. Somehow - I don't remember how - I managed to drop the knapsack off the bridge, into the river. So much for my youthful masterworks.

Friday, February 13, 2009

51. I'm a camp counselor at a camp for disadvantaged kids, in Minneapolis. It's about 1967. I'm about 15. I'm extremely shy with the other counselors - it's like an illness, very stressful & depressing. I feel paranoid much of the time. I'm better with the kids. I'm sitting in a rowboat, at the oars, in the middle of the lake, with about 3-4 of them. One of the girls says to me, "You're Jewish, aren't you?" I say no, I'm not. She doesn't believe me - says, "You're name's Jewish. You look Jewish..." It's one of those days. The sun is beating down. I don't tell her that I'm sort of proud to be mistaken for a Jewish person. & I realize later that she's just curious, trying to interact.
45. I heard Jimi Hendrix play in Minneapolis, one very cold December, around 1970. I remember a very steep indoor auditorium, raucous crowd. Hendrix was subdued. I think this must have been one of his last concerts. I was already coming down with something, & felt ill the whole time. Starting the next day I had a very bad case of pneumonia.

46. When I was a little boy, I was infatuated with a girl my age, blonde Heidi Johnson. Heidi lived across the street with her big family, including blonde Holly Johnson, her near-twin sister. They were future cheerleaders, homecoming queens. Her dad was a burly chicken farmer. Her mother, Blanche, one day, accidentally ran over my baby brother Bill's leg with her station wagon. (Bill was playing in their driveway. I don't know where everybody else was.) Amazingly, Bill was unhurt.

Heidi & I both took piano lessons. We could hear each other practicing across the street. I used to play while imagining she was listening.

Once Heidi came to our back door & asked if I wanted to come out & play. I came to the door, & said no. I was too shy, or nervous. My mother looked at me & said, "Oh, Henry." (Somehow this memory stayed with me 50 years.)

47. My uncles George and Edward, my father's older brothers, fought in WW 2. They parachuted into France. Uncle George had a stash of German Army trophies which he kept in a basement closet. My father enlisted as soon as he was old enough, in the Navy (my father always did things differently from his older brothers Ed & George). But before he finished training, sailing around on Lake Superior, the war was over.

48. One of my favorite activities, as a youngster - perhaps my most favorite - was playing "Army". All the boys did in those days (late 1950s). Revolutionary War, Civil War, WW 2... we roamed the neighborhood with our toy rifles, going "pching! pching!" and rolling around in the yards, the bushes. Strategy, tactics. Hide & seek (that poem by Vallejo, about his little brother, playing hide & seek & never coming back...). Make-believe does something to the landscape. When you're in the middle of an intense battle, you see your surroundings more vividly, feel them more palpably. You see what you want to see, anyway... (now all that nonsense is online).

49. The first story I wrote (I must have been around six or seven?) - nonfiction - was about a walk I had taken with my friend Jamie and his older sister Mary, through the woods. Jamie got scared & ran home. I kept going with Mary. We came over a ridge & suddenly came upon a pastoral vista - big valley with cows in the distance. I was proud of myself - & I liked Mary, too. My very first prose brag, I guess.

50. We lived in a new suburb, among the remnants of old farms. There was a layer of older, somewhat dilapidated houses in our area, a little bit raised up on hillocks over the rest of us - there were three of these houses. Each one was owned by a member of the Bye family, who used to farm the area. The Byes themselves were remnants of an earlier time - rough & ready old farm folks. Their children & grandchildren messed around with old cars & machinery most of the time. A whole genre of myth & rumor circulated among the many children in the neighborhood, about the Byes. They were mean, they were scary, they kidnapped kids... etc.etc. All of it complete bunk, I believe. Their houses were set back behind trees. They maintained extensive vegetable gardens. The elder Bye home had a very old, quite large goldfish pond, made of crumbling dark concrete, hidden in the shade, still inhabited by goldfish. If you were brave, you accepted the dare of other kids, to go & look at the Byes' pond.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

44. My mother has made a lot of art over the years, in several forms (painting, etching, woodcuts, pottery...). When I was little she made me a small, pale blue & white wooden bathtub boat, with the name "Sophie" painted in black lettering on the bow. A prized possession. But when Petersburg poet Elena Shvarts visited Providence about 10 years ago, I gave it to her. (Boats are important in Petersburg culture & history.) I liked thinking about it in the window of her apt. It seemed like a symbol of our Russ.-Amer. poetry connection. Then, a few years later, there was a major fire. Her apartment was almost completely burned out. She lost books, manuscripts... her home, temporarily. & little "Sophie" was also consumed in the flames.

Monday, February 2, 2009

42. A reminiscence is an example of "official memory". Things one dredges up that one has recalled already many times before. Random, I suppose, is meant to help get around this - a watered-down, willed version of Proust's "involuntary memory". These notes of mine seem to illustrate a failure of memory, rather than an active sense... I mean, there are great swaths of abandoned times & experiences. Think of everything that happens in a single day.

43. I wrote a small book of anecdotes about our cat, Blackie, when I was about 12. When Blackie was run over by a car, I tore the manuscript into tiny pieces.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

36. On a trip to Europe one summer, when I was about 17, I took a train halfway across the southern end of France, missing several intended stops, because I was interested in a girl sitting nearby, but was too shy to say hello. I finally got off & retraced my route.

37. On the same trip, I got thrown out of a bar-cafe in Rome, because I misunderstood the payment system, & a very short & obstreperous waiter started getting in my face. (Fascinating, huh?)

38. I was on that trip, or part of it, with my longtime friend Tom, who died of AIDS about 20 yrs later. His mother was Scottish. She married her Canadian husband after seeing him get off the plane during WW II (he was in the Canadian air force, she was in the British army). She pointed him out to a friend as he descended from the aircraft, & said to her - "I'm going to marry that man." She was... Scottish. (His father, ironically - when you think of Tom's fate - became a prominent epidemiologist. A very kind, unassuming man. He had a hobby, building this concrete boat in his backyard - this is in Minnesota - that he planned to sail around the world. I don't think it ever left the backyard.)

39. I met Jerry Garcia in about 1975, at the famous music hall in San Francisco, as he was coming off stage. I asked him if he could help me get my guitar back, which had just been stolen by a member of his Hell's Angels entourage. He was friendly, but apologetic : "there's nothing I can do."

40. I read War and Peace while lying in a hammock in our front yard, one quiet summer in the mid-60s. This was before I came of draft age. When I did, I applied for C.O. status, on the shaky grounds that I didn't believe the Vietnam War was just. I also took the college deferment, & was never picked after that ran out. I was lucky, I guess. I don't know what I would do now, if I had to do it over again.

41. Once, early on in my "Jesus freak" days (mid-1970s), I was hitchiking somewhere through upstate New York or New Hampshire. I had less than 20 dollars to my name (I think I was on my way to NYC, where a high school friend was living). I remember it was a bright sunny day. I hadn't eaten much for a while. I remember coming to a ridge on the highway - quiet, nobody around - & looking out at the hills & just suddenly jumping & shouting for joy. It was just sheer gladness in being young & alive, I think - sort of "peaked" there, out of the blue.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

26. When I was four years old, my father heard me saying a little poem :

Play, play, it's time to play!
Play all day, that's what I say!
Your work is done,
come out in the sun!
Play, play, play!

As it happened, he was rushing off to work (as he always was - the poem was probably meant for him), so he wrote it down on a tiny piece of brown paper - a key tag (for a set of keys).

50 years later, my mother sent the key tag to me in the mail.

27. The first rock music I ever listened to was in jr. high school art class. The teacher, who was a sculptor, liked to play Beatles, Byrds, Doors in the background - he thought it made us more creative.

28. I started taking guitar lessons when I was about 13 or 14, from a guy who taught after hours in a small music shop in a little shopping center called Lilac Lane, in St. Louis Park (I think). Harmonica I taught myself, listening to old records - Sonny Boy Williamson, etc. I also had a book on the subject by a local musician named Tony Glover. I heard him play with his band one summer in Loring Park, which is across the highway from the Walker Art Center.

29. I heard Leo Kottke give a concert once on the Washington Bridge, near the U. of M. (These musical anecdotes are from the late 60s.)

30. My senior year in high school I was playing in a band called Spur of the Moment. We had a kind of Elvis lookalike as lead singer (he was the oldest, recently out of the Army). I played harmonica and a miniature piano, which was actually QUITE heavy (it was a small upright) - rigged up with a microphone in back. Tom Davis, of the Franken & Davis comedy duo, was one of our "roadies".
Franken, a classmate of mine with Tom, later ran for US Senate, and maybe he actually won.

31. Franken & I were on the wrestling team together in high school. He was a weight class heavier, but we often practiced together. Neither of us were outstanding wrestlers, but we were on the varsity squad. It was one of the toughest sports or activities I ever put myself through.

32. I used to walk to school, along some disused trolley tracks in Hopkins. I did the paper route in the same area. The neighborhood was a cosmos. We are talking ticky-tacky, working/middle class suburb, 50s & 60s - but with trees, woods, hills, lakes, lakes, old farm remnants.

33. The public library in Hopkins had a spiral staircase up to the children's section.

34. Once on a canoe trip with a group of boys and a teacher/guide, we had lashed two canoes together to make a catamaran, since the lake was endlessly long. We raised up some sleeping bags for sails, & sailed blissfully downwind. Then the teacher, Mr. Fisher, asked me to saw the rope or log binding the canoes together, and as I started to do so, I dropped our saw - our only saw - to the bottom of the lake.

35. On rest breaks on rocks, after canoing, we used to spear flies with pine needles. (The flies were everywhere, & voracious.)
1. I'm left-handed, but rather ambidextrous (bat right, tennis right, etc.).

2. My head is a little too flat on top. But good for carrying plates that way.

3. My family tends toward having been born (nice phrase there, Hank) on national holidays or birthdays : ie. 4th of July, Lincoln's Birthday, JFK's Birthday (me), Constitution Day... special kind of patriotic family planning, I guess.

4. When I was young I had this nervous tic I did with my hand - basically, I fiddled with folds in whatever shirt I was wearing. I'd make little folds in the cloth & play guitar on them, sort of. I liked the texture. Stopped doing this for a long while - many decades - but it started up again a few years ago.

5. When I was 4 yrs old I had Guillaume Barre, or French Polio. Was paralyzed up to my neck for about a month, was on respirator, etc. One of my earliest memories involved suddenly not being able to walk - then, again, the first time I could walk after I recovered. My mother wrote that I was spoiled rotten for about a year after I got home. This experience might have something to do with my deep need for fresh air, my sharp feeling of love for wind, etc.

6. The first thing I wanted to be when I grew up was a milkman. I liked his truck.

7. My paternal grandfather was City Assessor of Minneapolis for many years, in the 1930s-40s. These were the rough old times of Kid Cann & other mobsters. I've noticed the Gould clan tended to get involved in town politics, going back many, many generations (we're talking 1600s). But my g'father may have been the last of the line.

8. My maternal grandfather loved opera. (My mother's middle name, in consequence, is Elvira.) His younger brother wrote Keatsian nature poetry, studied Transcendental Meditation (on the farm in Iowa), created a small private zoo, and died of pneumonia at age 21.

9. I have been homesick for Minnesota for the last 30 years. But I am very fond of Rhode Island - at least some things about it.

10. I am 5'10" on a good day. I was captain of my high school soccer team. I was a mediocre wrestler. My younger brother Jim was State Champ, but he is smaller than I am, fortunately.

11. When I was about eleven, I formed a separate "nation" in our backyard, with fence, flag, constitution, army, etc. The morning after the nation's founding, I discovered somebody had hung a dead bat over the official national Sign. It was a short-lived nation.

12. I went to Harley Hopkins Elementary School, where I had a crush on Martha Damerow, who was a friend of my friend Tom Fleming, who had more of a knack with the girls.

13. It's clear from this list that I am a typical Boomer, who has never grown up.

14. Okay, more recent random, if possible! I am a night-owl, I think, biologically. But I get up most mornings at 5:15, in order to get to work early. (I am a wage slave.)

15. My favorite piece of music is the 3rd movement of Beethoven's Quartet opus 132.

16. I don't wear glasses yet, though I'm starting to feel the strain, reading. I was told recently that I have the hearing of a 5-yr-old, which is pretty good.

17. My middle name is Hale. Nathan Hale is a distant relative. My grandmother Gould (the one who was born on the 4th of July), was a member of the D.A.R. She had a print of a painting of Lafayette dancing at a ball, with George Washington watching, over the dining room table.

18. I was brought up Episcopalian, because G'ma Gould joined that church as a teenager, after her father died young in a flu epidemic, and she was depressed, and a school friend of hers invited her to her church. I had a religious/psychological crisis myself when I was 19, which totally re-oriented my life & thinking.

19. My father loves to play any kind of game (not sports - games), & he is good at almost all of them. He was his high school valedictorian. He & my mother went to kindergarten together. In their 80s, they still live within about 4 blocks of where they both grew up. My mother worked in the New York Public Library for about a year after college - trying to escape, perhaps - but my father went out & brought her back home.

20. My eyes are blue-gray. My mother wrote in her diary long ago that they sort of fade in and out of being bright, whereas my brother Jim has very mild blue eyes, and my brother Bill (the arctic biologist) has arctic blue, very bright eyes; my youngest brother Mike's eyes are more gray-blue. & my sister Cara's eyes are a big deep brown.

21. I also have terrible buck teeth. My mother says it's too bad they didn't get them fixed when I was young. Oh well. C'est la guerre. (I wrote a poem about them - it's in Stone.)

22. I've written only one poem in my sleep. I woke up & wrote it down. It's in the book, Stone - titled "Lousanna".

23. I went down to New Orleans to help after Katrina mainly because I had written so much about New Orleans in some poems, without ever having gone there. I also felt very frustrated at the government response to the situation, & wanted to do something. I had a great 10 days there, met some wonderful people & undersides of houses.

24. I have done (or not-done) many cowardly things in my life. Also some things I will always think of with shame & regret. But we won't go into that.

25. Between 1979-2009, I've been writing some very fine American poetry, maybe the best there is. But I've been getting some competition from BAP, AWP, the New Yorker & Poetry, Rod McKuen, Langpo, Flarf, Franz Wright, some other poets... quite a few, in fact. So I need your help. If you act today, I will give you a 20% refund on any checks over $200. sent to me within the next 24 hours. Join the Henry to the Canon Crusade - Right Now! p.s. last random item : I'm an egomaniac.