Letters To (and From) Young Poets

The letters that the great German poet Rainier Maria Rilke wrote to a young student at a military academy from 1903-1908 are still being read today. I suspect that they will continue to be read as long as people want to write poetry – or stories or novels or plays or memoirs.  The letters were published in 1929 as Letters to a Young Poet (Penguin) and the slim volume has been in print ever since, in many languages. It is not a “How to Do It” book, and does not presume to tell the reader how to construct a sentence or a sonnet or how to create a plot; least of all does it give any hints or formulas for the questions that most aspiring writers are burning to ask: “Is my work any good? How can I get published?”  Rilke begs the aspiring young poet to stop asking:

“No one can advise or help you. No one. There is only one thing you should do. Go into yourself. Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depths of your heart; confess to yourself whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write. This most of all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write?”

Most aspiring writers would not have written any more letters to Rilke! But nineteen-year-old Franz Kappus was serious enough to keep writing to this ruthlessly honest advisor, and Rilke was generous enough to keep answering. The ten letters Rilke wrote between 1929 and 1928, along with the briefest of introductions by Mr. Kappus, make up this book. It is more of a spiritual guide than a writing guide, and its quiet wisdom will continue to be appreciated, not only by aspiring writers, but by anyone who seeks fulfillment in work and life.

This is a book that reverberates and evokes responses through the years in many different forms.  It was no doubt an inspiration for the poet Hyam Plutzik to write the former professor he regarded as his own mentor, in Letter from a Young Poet (Watkinson). This poet was twenty-nine when he wrote during seven months in 1941 this seventy-two page outpouring that seemed a personal and artistic accounting of his life before reaching the turning point of thirty. It has now been published with an introduction by poet-editor Daniel Halperin,  former editor of the literary magazine Antaeus, and co-founder of The  Ecco Press. There is an biographical summation of the letter’s context, and the three-page response from Professor Odell Shepard that, ironically, was never mailed, but discovered among Shepard’s papers after his death.  A reader senses that the deeply personal and seeringly honest summing up by Plutzik was the necessary prelude to the three books of poetry that he later published after serving in WWII. Some of the poems appeared in collections that also included the work of renowned poets such as Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell.

In the pages of what Halperin accurately describes as Plutzik’s “fervid” letter to his mentor, many young writers may recognize the tone and feeling of their own emotions. It’s too bad that Plutzik never was sent his mentor’s letter of response to his passionate outcry. Professor Shepard told him “It is the inescapable fate of the young artist, insofar as he has any original gift, to produce a kind of ware for which there is no immediate market, to supply goods for which there is no demand.” Unlike Rilke, who offered no critique at all of his young correspondent’s poems, Plutzik’s Professor found the one poem that was sent him along with the letter to be “highly original”  and “on the whole, successful.” He also passed on a bit of advice that could well serve every aspiring writer:  “. . .let me say what I think you obviously need is hard mental discipline. . .”

That discipline is difficult to maintain at any stage of the journey, and especially at the beginning. As Hyam Plutzik progressed from journalism and radio to teaching, and to publishing his three poetry books, “the young poet” of the letter obviously learned that universal lesson.  I am sure he also must have passed it on to his students at The University of Rochester, where he served as Professor of Rhetoric and Poetry.

Rilke advises his young poet, Franz Kappus, to avoid journalism and criticism if he wants to be a true artist. Kappus served as an officer in the Austrian army for fifteen years, then worked as a newspaper editor and journalist and wrote in every form imaginable – short stories, novels, sketches, screenplays – and even poetry!  Plutzik, too, wrote short stories, a novel, “movie serials,” journalism, and served as a radio music commentator, before settling in as a professor – a profession that Rilke must surely have approved as ideal work for a poet. It is the work that most of our well-known poets have found the most congenial for their art.

I was fortunate to have a poet as one of my own great professors at Columbia, Mark Van Doren. He taught a course in Don Quixote that gave me the most important advice I had as young writer (and still serves as an important reminder to an old writer.) “The lesson of Don Quixote,” Van Doren said, is that “To be a knight, you do the things a knight does.” You don’t even have to live in the era of knighthood, as Don Quixote, Sancho Panzo and their faithful horse Rosinante proved. Pots and pans can serve as helmets and armor. There are always beautiful maidens to whom you may dedicate yourself. If there are no other knights on horseback to joust with, you can joust with windmills. You can “do the things a knight does.” Cervantes’ great novel proved it.

The theorem applies to every profession: to be a writer, you do the things a writer does: you write.

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Going All The Way Back

After many years of exile I was lured back to Indianapolis in 1987 by Ophelia Roop, the colorful events-planner back then for The Central Library. She assured me it was “safe” to return now that seventeen years had soothed angry reactions to my novel Going All The Way – and the once-controversial work was read and discussed in book clubs at The Library. (Kurt Vonnegut had predicted in his review of the novel in Life magazine that “Having written this book, Dan Wakefield will never be able to go back to Indianapolis – he will have to watch the 500-mile race on television.”)

Having a great time on that return and meeting old friends, I came back a year later when a New York publisher issued a new edition of the novel. [I still had no idea back then that I would ever come back to actually live here, as I did in 2011.] I was interviewed by Will Higgins, the young editor then of an alternative publication called The New Times, a kind of pre-cursor to Nuvo. In the course of the interview, Will proposed that we plan a Going All The Way Bus Tour, stopping at some of the sites I wrote about in the book, like The Red Key Tavern, The John Herron Art Institute, and Crown Hill Cemetery (where the young anti-heroes of the book go to muse on their future.) Now a star reporter of The Indianapolis Star, Will recalled “You and I met over breakfast at the old Stouffers Hotel, on the top floor of their dining room. The idea of the tour hit me then and there and I blurted it out and you liked the idea. The rest is history.”

Thanks to Will Higgins, history repeated itself last November, when he revived the idea of the Bus Tour, organized the whole thing, announced it in The Star, and the next day had enough responses to fill the forty-eight seats on the bus (plus a waiting list.) When the first tour was held in 1988, when my lifelong friend Ted Steeg, the former Shortridge and Wabash football star who served as the “model” for the character “Gunner Casselman” in Going All The Way, came down from New York to join me on the tour. The two of us passed the mic back and forth as we joked and reminisced and shared memories of high school days and “Indy in the ‘50s,” when the action of the novel took place.

The irreplaceable “Gunner” died last year, and I wondered if I could bring off a running commentary by myself. I knew it wouldn’t be the same, but I had the support of Will Higgins as co-host, and I enlisted the aid of friends who read appropriate passages from the book as we stopped or slowed. Travis diNicola, founder and director of IndyReadsBooks; Karen Kovacik, IUPUI professor and former Poet Laureate of Indiana, and Judy O’Bannon, widow of the former governor, were eloquent in their readings when we stopped at some of the featured sights.

As we had before, we began and ended the tour at the legendary Red Key Tavern,   where “Sonny” and Gunner” meet up in the novel. This time we added a stop in front of the house I grew up in at 6129 Winthrop, where I sat on the roof of the porch and looked for enemy airplanes as a “Junior Air Raid Warden” on The Home Front in WWII, just like the character “Artie” in my novel Under The Apple Tree. From there we went down Meridian Street and stopped at Shortridge High School. We went inside to the first floor hallway, where Judy O’Bannon and I and another Bus Tour traveler, the Pulitzer Prize photographer Bill Foley, have our plaques on the wall of The Shortridge Hall of Fame (along with Kurt Vonnegut, and my classmates from the Class of 1950, Indianapolis Indians President Max Schumacher and Senator Richard Lugar (he and I wrote sports columns for the Shortridge Daily Echo. )

We stopped outside the former Herron Art Institute, which is now one of the leading high schools in the state, and Karen Kovacik read the passage in Going All The Way when “Sonny” and “Gunner” go there in hopes of expanding their minds by “looking at art” and trying to figure out the appropriate comments and stances and length of time spent at each painting to appear to be aficianados. Instead, they spot an attractive young woman, who they find it far easier to appreciate.

Will directed our bus to The Riviera Club, which was one of the havens of summer for neighborhood kids in Broad Ripple when I was growing up, and we got out to stand by the November-empty pool with a gracious host from The Club. I read a passage of the novel when Gunner recalls a dark memory from high school of him and his friends being turned away because one of the boys with them was Jewish (based on an incident with me and some of my Shortridge friends back in the ‘forties.) Such an incident couldn’t happen now in the Club that identifies itself as “a place for everyone, a truly inclusive and unique club representative of the many diverse neighborhoods and individuals around us. Today the Riviera Club is a welcoming family-friendly environment for people of any background.” Some things do change for the better.

Our intrepid driver took us next to the top of Crown Hill Cemetery, which still affords the best view of the city. It was there that “Sonny” and “Gunner” went to contemplate their future, by the statue of James Whitcomb Riley, “The Hoosier Poet.” Everyone got off the bus to stretch and enjoy the view, when a cache of beer, soda and mineral water was found, with a note attached that said

“Hey, Bus Guys – As you’re contemplating your future, have one on me! – best, Tom Cassleman.”

“Tom Casselman” was the name of the fictional character known as “Gunner” in the novel. Now it can be revealed that the drinks and the note had been cleverly stashed there beforehand by tour organizer Higgins.

For the sake of historical accuracy, I explained when we got back on the bus that Crown Hill was not only visited by high school kids who went to the top to exchange deep thoughts, but also by those who found its darkened, winding pathways good places to “park” at night with a date, and not be interrupted by the intrusive beams of prowling police.

Back at The Red Key we told more stories, renewed acquaintance with old friends and made new ones, played old favorites on the legendary jukebox (surely no other jukebox in town or maybe in the whole country has Benny Berrigan’s classic 1939 recording of “I Can’t Get Started”), and ordered the famous Red Key burgers with Dolly’s home-made potato salad.  I thought of the words of poet William Herschell (often erroneously attributed to James Whitcomb Riley) “Aint God good to Indiana? Aint’ he fellers, ain’t he though?” That epic verse hung on the wall of the old Broad Ripple Branch Public Library, attached to School #80 (now a condo), where I learned to read.

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Basketball Crazy

When I was a sophomore at Shortridge I went to a High School Journalism Conference in French Lick, Indiana, and shared a room with my classmate and fellow sports columnist on The Daily Echo, Dick Lugar. When we turned out the lights at night we spoke of our hopes and dreams, and Lugar asked me “What would you be, if you could be anything at all in high school?” I answered without hesitation: “High point man on the basketball team.”

“Oh Dan,” Lugar said “You’re so frivolous!”

Lugar’s high school dreams were more appropriate for a future United States Senator: President of the class, valedictorian, student body president. Neither of us achieved our high school dreams, but Lugar came a lot closer than I did.  I didn’t even make the basketball team, much less become the player who scored the most points. In defense of my dream, though, I would argue that I wasn’t being “frivolous” – I was just “basketball crazy,” an Indiana affliction.

I pleaded with my parents for a backboard and basket in our backyard when I was ten years old, and my father hired the Broad Ripple Lumberyard people to do the job (the basket was always supplied with a real net so you could hear the satisfying swish of a score.) This not only sated my lust for the game but also insured my popularity with every kid in the neighborhood.

We played in fall and winter, summer and spring, on ice and in snow, in heat and rain, sleet and slush, in the earliest mornings till the shadows of winter drew us home for supper with the passing of the Monon train to Chicago at the very back of our yard, beyond the Victory Garden, at five-fifteen every evening. Playing in all seasons, I became a good shot, but my flat feet denied me the ability to run at even a normal pace. (I bought a stopwatch to time myself and learned that I couldn’t break the seven-minute mile – roughly a minute slower than the average kid my age.)

dangeneMy only basketball glory was reflected in two of the graduates of my backyard basketball court – Gene Neudigate and Dicky Richardson, the legendary “Itchy,’ a slender, slithering master of the court and nonstop shooter from any angle. Itchy and Gene were both backyard regulars, and both went on to star for Broad Ripple. Though I’m a true blue Shortridge Blue Devil, my earlier loyalty to School #80 and my backyard backboard allowed me to root for both those guys even though they were Rockets. Not only were they great players they were also a lot of fun. We sometimes tried to spook whoever was about to take a shot by shouting incantation-like curses the moment the ball was about to leave his fingertips: “Oogum-Sloogum!” “Puget Sound!” (Don’t ask me to explain why these sappy syllables sent us doubling over with happy hysterics that caused noses to run and stomachs to ache. You had to be there, in my backyard, in 1944.)

Gene Neudigate now sports a neatly-trimmed white beard; he’s a retired, respectable businessman, but he still lights up like a kid when he tells me how he averaged fifteen points a game and was seventh in the city in scoring his senior year.

“We beat Tech in the Sectionals when I was a Junior,” he says. “They were the favorites, but then we got beat ourselves the next day.”

Those were the days when the tournament was played in the “any team can win” era that was dramatized in the movie “Hoosiers,” before the schools were divided up according to enrollment numbers into “athletically correct” divisions so more kids could be called “winners,” but the sacred spirit was lost.) Butler Fieldhouse was filled to the rafters for every game from Sectionals to Finals, rocking in a frenzy of unforgettable March madness that will never be matched. Those were the days when fourteen thousand people came to The Fieldhouse to see Crispus Attucks play in a regular season game when Oscar was there; everyone waited for “The Crazy Song” that meant The Tigers had the game sewed up, and you clapped in rhythm no matter what school you were from as they sang: “You can beat everybody – – but you can’t beat us.”

Gene and I were so basketball crazy we not only went across the Monon tracks at night to the Broad Ripple gym to see the high school games and the grade school “curtain raiser” that came before the freshman game that came before the varsity game; we even went to games of “old guys” who played for company teams after work.

“We used to laugh at those ‘old men’ who were probably in their twenties and thirties,” Gene reminds me. “We even made up a cheer for the team of guys who worked for Seven Up. We knew the head man of the company was Tom Joyce, so our cheer was ‘Seven Up’s our choice/ Rah Rah Tom Joyce!’”

Gene said sometimes he even went by himself just to watch the Broad Ripple team practice. (I can hear the often-quoted words of the NBA star Alan Iverson complaining that he was rumored to be traded because of missing a practice: “We talkin’ about practice – not a game, not a game – we talkin’ about practice. We talkin’ about practice, man. We talkin’ about practice. . .” )

Gene Neudigate is talkin’ about walking over the Monon tracks after school to go watch the Broad Ripple high school team practice – not even to see them play in a game, man, but just to watch them practice. His devotion – addiction – is more understandable when you know he was watching the Broad Ripple team that went to the state finals in 1946 (and was beat by Bosse of Evansville 35-33.)

“Do you remember that the guys from that Broad Ripple team used to stop by sometimes after school at Gene Purcell’s Pure Oil station and get peanuts out of the penny machine?” I ask Gene.

“That team was my inspiration,” Gene says, and we both, in unison recite the starting lineup: “Allen and Chafee at guards, Chapman at center, Baker and Steinhart at forward. . .”

The coach was Frank Baird. So just imagine how Gene felt one day when he was shooting around by himself at the outdoor basket by School #80, and a car stopped and the driver sat there a while and watched Gene shoot the ball. After a while, the man in the car asked Gene “Are you going to go to high school at Broad Ripple?” Gene said he was, and the man said “Well, I hope you do, and I hope you play for me.”

The man was Frank Baird.

That was the neighborhood equivalent of Knute Rockne watching a boy named George Gipp kicking a football and asking him if he’d like to play for Notre Dame.

dangene2

“Frank Baird was a real gentleman,” Gene said. “He never once used a cuss word. But he could make you feel small. Once when we were losing a game and playing badly he told us at halftime “I’m going to deflate this ball and you can use it for a sewing kit – you might as well use it for something, since you don’t know how to use it to play the game out there.”

Even the low points of basketball memory are high points now.
“Remember who made the shot that beat Ripple in the Finals?”
“Brock Jerrell!”
How could we ever forget?

I remember playing for The Coagulators, an intramural team at Shortridge that won at least half their games (as I remember.) I remember being in the starting lineup with Jerry Burton, Don “Moto” Morris, Bailey Hughes, and Johnny “Big Red” Peterson, backed up by the all-star bench of  Pete Estabrook and Dick “Ferdie” Falendar. I remember joining Ted Steeg of Shortridge and Jere Jones of Broad Ripple in a pick-up game at an outdoor court in Greenwich Village against three high school guys from Harlem in 1957. I remember being so beat and exhausted after the game that my team-mates and I couldn’t speak until we flopped down on the grass in Washington Square Park and Jere Jones summed up our experience: “The Parable of the Three Fools,” he called it. We were basketball crazy.

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Dan Wakefield is author of Under The Apple Tree: A World War II Home Front Novel.

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Dan Wakefield

Dan Wakefield