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But by the fall of '72, I was losing confidence & peace of mind; became depressed & withdrawn.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.