Sunday, March 8, 2009

Aimless Reading: The B's, Part 60 (Lord Byron)

Selected Poetry
Originally uploaded by Michael_Kelleher
Byron, George Gordon
Selected Poetry

My introduction to poetry came via a class on Romantic Poetry my sophomore year in college. To be honest, I was not much of a reader as a child. I wasn't sickly or solitary, and I preferred sports and outdoor games and socializing to reading and writing. In fact, my left-handedness and minor dyslexia made writing by hand something of a chore, and thus something I did not do regularly until much later in life (and I did not start writing at all until I discovered the personal computer, which allowed me to write legibly and on equal visual terms with others). This isn't to say I didn't read at all, but that most of my childhood reading was sporadic and was almost always forced upon me by my father or by one of my teachers.

Did I mention that I hated school? I hated school.

This feeling was exacerbated by my parents' decision to send me to a Catholic high school after having spent my entire life in the public school system. Not only did this mean a new way of life, but that I would be separated from all of my friends who would remain in the public school system. I had no say in the matter, except that I was given a choice between two schools: Bishop O'Connell in suburban Virgina, which wasn't too far from our home; and Gonzaga College High School, an all boys prep school run by the Jesuits located near Union Station and the U.S. Capitol in Washington D.C.

With all the deliberation a thirteen year old can muster, I decided on the latter. My reasoning: they had a dress code and not a uniform. I hated wearing a tie, and I guess the late onset of puberty for me allowed my hatred of formal dress to trump the fact that there would be no girls at the school. Something about going to school in the city and getting out of suburbs was also exciting, so I imagine that played into the decision as well.

I spent most of my high school years as something of an outcast. Most of my classmates came from the city itself or from the Maryland suburbs. The Virginia suburbs were booming at the time, but the number of students from Virginia at the school was relatively small. Virginia was still thought of as farm country and we were teased accordingly. Most of my classmates had also gone to Catholic schools their entire lives, so the fact that I had gone to public schools made me something of an oddity, if not an outright infidel.

I was already heavily into drugs by the time I got to high school, and I dressed the part of the "freak," that is, I wore my hair long, came to school in corduroy jeans and corduroy jacket, sometimes with a bandana tied around my ankle or in my back pocket. I smoked, I drank, I listened to music from the sixties. My first paper in in my English class was about how I thought Jim Morrison should be considered a poet, which led to many a clever student shouting things at me in the hallway like: "Dude -- JIm Morrison lives! Peace!"

Did I mention that I hated school?

I never turned to books to counter this, I just created a kind of separate life among people that were neither in my world at school nor in the world of my pre-high school self, where all my friends had already gone on to separate lives. My secret life revolved around a shopping mall called "Tyson's Corner." It so happened that my journey home from school took about two hours each day. I took the Orange line to the end, which at that time was Ballston Station, where I then caught a bus to the mall, where I often waited an hour for a connecting bus that dropped me a quarter mile or so from our home. I walked the rest of the way.

My main hobbies at the mall were video games and shoplifting. There was a People's Drug Store that had about ten machines I used to play, usually Pac Man or Defender. When I got hungry, I would wander over to the candy aisle, put a Snickers in my pocket, walk out, open it up about twenty feet away, then walk back in eating the candy bar as if I had bought it somewhere else. Pretty clever, eh?

Eventually, I think in my sophomore year of high school, I got a job at Jerry's Sub Shop downstairs. There I met a whole cast of underground mall characters who became a sort of substitute for family and friends. Beneath the mall there used to be a series of delivery tunnels that connected all of the stock rooms of the stores. I met a guy named D., who was about 21 years old and who worked in the stock room of a shoe store, cutting out latex letters to make sale signs for the display window.

D. was the center of our little underground, which included a whole assortment of outcasts: an ex-con drug dealer, a house painter who was also a pedophile, a couple of runaway teens who rented a room in his apartment, a girlfriend named F., whose father was a British diplomat, and me. When I could convince my father to let me out of the house, I would always find a way to make it over to D's apartment behind the mall (I think he lived in the Dolly Madison apartment complex) for long nights of debauchery and petty crime. I think there is probably a whole memoir about my secret life as a mall rat.

But to return to the theme...towards the end of high school, I read Catcher in the Rye, which was something of an epiphany. The story of an ironic, foul-mouthed outsider at a prep school rang quite true for me. After that, I began to read more, and I began to gravitate towards friends who read in order to find out what they were reading. None of this, of course, helped me in school, where I routinely received D's in English.

It wasn't until I arrived at my first college, Wheeling Jesuit in West Virginia, that I had a professor who told me I could write. This was news to me, and probably to my high school English teachers, though I suspect their judgment of my intellectual abilities was clouded by the fact that I was a constant disruption in class. This professor planted the seed by at the very least telling me I had one talent that came somewhat naturally, and which I might develop if I could sit still and concentrate on it for a moment.

Two colleges later (George Mason, then Fordham, where I finished), I had become interested enough in reading and writing that I felt I could probably get through college as an English major. I figured I could stand reading novels and writing papers just enough to make it through. I became an English major after a semester, and my first course was a required course in Romantic Poetry.

It was taught by a neurotic, elfin man named Dr. Makowski (I think that was his name). The course focused on Byron, Shelley and Keats. (There was another course on Coleridge, Blake and Wordsworth that I took the following semester.) Of the three, Byron was not my favorite (Keats was and is), but I always loved his wit, and his ability to turn a ridiculous rhyme into something biting and funny and true.

Our course book was a large red hardcover anthology of British Romantic writing. I sold it back because it cost so much money, which I always regretted, and which was why after years of not having it around, I bought a bunch of cheap selected volumes, such as this one, which cost $3.00 at the outlet mall.

From English Bards and Sottish Reviewers:

Still must I hear? -- shall hoarse Fitzgerald bawl
His creaking couplets in a tavern hall,
And I not sing, lest, haply, Scotch reviews
Should dub me scribbler, and denounce my muse?
Prepare for rhyme -- I'll publish, right or wrong:
Fools are my theme, let satire be my song.

1 comment:

Stan Apps said...

That pic of you and Byron is sublime. The two of you seem to have been stupified by each other's sublimity.

I'm a bit dyslexic too, and computers really help don't they. Hurray machines!

I lurve Byron for his weird sexy narratives and totally inappropriate asides. The part where Don Juan is in the harem, pretending to be a girl and trying to avoid being banged by the Sultan, is pure genius. It's one of the rare moments where poetry is as good as a Bugs Bunny cartoon.