Rosemary Nissen-Wade asked who my favorite poets are, and why. That reminded me of a poet I wanted to pay my respects to on this blog. When I was a creative writing student back in the late eighties, a series of unlikely events landed me in the poetry class of Peter Wild. I had not expected to be there. I had signed up for a Literature in Film class and I had already fulfilled my poetry writing requirement, but somehow all paths led to his class. It was where I was supposed to be.
Peter Wild was the most demanding poetry teacher I ever had, by which I mean he was the only demanding poetry teacher I ever had. My other poetry teachers had been good, even inspirational, but far from challenging. Peter gave us three or four assignments a week. One, of course, was a poem, but the others were to read essays and other commentary by poets and to write our opinions. This wasn’t the most difficult task in the world, but the other students in the class griped and whined. They weren’t used to actually having to work in a poetry class. For my part I was in my element. I wanted the work. I wanted to study other poets.
Unlike the other poetry instructors, who often gave us very little by way of guidelines, Peter gave us very specific constraints for each week’s poems. There were word counts, word choices, subject matter choices, even tasks that we had to perform before we were allowed to write that week’s poems. Some students hated this. They complained about being stifled. I loved the challenge though. I didn’t always come up with a winner, but one week I wrote a poem that he absolutely loved. He called it a nearly perfect poem, and that was the proudest moment I have ever had as a poet.
Peter Wild was prolific. He published over two thousand poems in addition to the many books he wrote, mostly about conservation and the American Southwest. He frequently edited volumes of work by other poets and essayists. Peter Wild was a great teacher and he was a great poet. He once told my class that the reason poetry had declined in recent years is that we have become a “passionless society” content to go about our days watching television and worrying about mundane problems without ever really feeling strongly about why we are here on earth and what we are meant to do. That thought has stuck with me ever since.
On February 23rd, 2009, Peter Wild lost a two-year battle with cancer. He was 68 years old and still teaching classes up until the end. Teaching poetry was something he truly loved to do and it makes sense that he would not give it up, no matter how close death was. Peter, after all, did have passion.
I am a fan of Peter Wild the teacher, but I am also a fan of Peter Wild the poet. Two of his books, Peligros and The Cloning are among my favorites and live in the bookshelf closest to my desk. They mix naturalism with some surrealism and a bit of pop culture. That is a mix I can easily identify with. There is one poem in Peligros that I have found myself reading over and over. It was written in 1971, but it seems to fit his final days or at least my image of them.
FOR THE DEAN
Stretched on a branch I am dying.
below on the lawn that goes away like the sea
the lion grips the clocks and my testicles
like a comic book.
all through the midnight I listen to my blood
dripping on the leaves.
toward morning it stops.
Some people say this is
expected and good;
at any rate by noon I am romping
transparent and full of slings,
arms flailing, skin pulled over my head.
burns through my veins
as it nests in yours
with great stillnessâ€¦
Today’s Poetry Prompt
Pick two or three words from one poem and use them to start another poem. Use the above poem if you like.
For Peter Wild
Still water still burns
You have to go off trail
Even though you know it will cost you
Scratches and needles in your legs
An occasional bout of disorientation
But fewer piles of beer cans
And rusted garbage shrines
Are reward enough
At midnight you can look up to see Orion
Watching over you
And feel alone
Grateful to be standing in the desert
Breathing cool clean air
A little blood on your socks
Is proof enough that you are not imaginary
The limp as you walk home
Is the reminder you hoped for
That you still need to write