I was sad to learn last week of the death of poet J. D. McClatchy.
He was the first creative writing instructor I ever had, when I took Creative Writing 201, Introductory Poetry, during the fall of my freshman year at Princeton. It was 1982. I was eighteen years old.
I had arrived on campus like a starving shipwreck survivor, reeling from a severe episode of depression that had been building all through high school and turned to full-on despair right after graduation, when I broke up with a boyfriend.
Neither the boyfriend nor our brief relationship had merited such devastation. At this distance it’s obvious to me that that loss was really a proxy for more fundamental problems in my life: an unhappy home presided over by an unstable, sometimes abusive father, its dysfunction both masked and magnified by our involvement with a repressive, cult-like church.
The depression began to lift as soon as I set foot on campus. I could almost see it rising off of me like mist from a field. I could breathe. And the first order of business in this newly oxygenated life was to enroll in a creative writing class.
I imagined myself a poet back then. But no, that’s not quite right. I already wanted to be a fiction writer. Emphasis on wanted. I had actually written very little. This made signing up for a fiction workshop difficult, as even the introductory classes were by application only. I had no viable fiction sample to submit.
But I did have a few poems, which I’d brought with me from home for just this eventuality. Most of them had been composed that summer when I’d occasionally emerged from my depressive fog just long enough to write terribly earnest sonnets and villanelles about heartache and God.
I banged out fresh copies on my new Smith-Corona typewriter and delivered them to the creative writing office at 185 Nassau Street, just northeast of the main campus. The administrator to whom I handed my application said it was “very rare” for a first-semester freshman to earn a place in a creative writing class.
On the first day of classes, after my 9 a.m. Japanese 101 class and a 10 a.m. Intro to Geology lecture, I raced back to 185 Nassau and learned that I’d earned a place in J. D. McClatchy’s Wednesday afternoon section of Introductory Poetry.
I had never heard of J. D. McClatchy before. It was still quite early in his career. His first collection, Scenes from Another Life, had only come out the year before. But at eighteen, I would have been hard-pressed to identify a living poet. (If actually pressed, I might only have been able to name Dr. Seuss and Shel Silverstein, both alive then.)
If memory serves, as it sometimes does, the writing workshops met in the professors’ offices. 185 Nassau was a converted elementary school, and the offices were quite spacious. I remember a room taller than it was wide, with large, west-facing windows, a row of bookshelves along the north wall, and a motley collection of chairs, some padded, some not. I walked in that first Wednesday—it was September 15, 1982—feeling rather tiny and timid, as I often did (and do), and there sat one of the most beautiful men I’d ever seen. Tall, impeccably dressed, with a beautiful head of dark hair and a neat beard, he was like a professorial Adonis.
So this is what a real poet looks like, I thought.
If memory serves, there were only five other students in the class. I can remember three of them.
I was surprised—and a little disappointed—to discover I wasn’t the only freshman. But the other one was very sweet, as were his poems and his critiques, so it was impossible to mind.
His name was John Hiller, and four years later, shortly after graduation, he would suffer a devastating cerebral hemorrhage. He was in a coma for months, then spent years trying to regain some of the faculties he’d lost. In 1993 he would take his own life, in fulfillment, reported the notice in the Princeton Alumni Weekly, of “his long-held wish to get his power back.”
But on that warm September day, at the first meeting of Creative Writing 201, all our lives still spread before us, seemingly limitless, their tragedies unforeseen and unimaginable.
J. D. McClatchy asked us to name a favorite poet.
I don’t remember what John or anyone else said. When it was my turn, I said Edna St. Vincent Millay. I’d been feasting for months on the unrestrained anguish of poems like “Renascence.” I had memorized her Sonnet XXVII (“I know I am but summer to your heart, / And not the full four seasons of the year”).
“Ah, Edna St. Vincent Millay,” McClatchy said, leaning back in his chair. He sat so beautifully. “She’s fallen somewhat out of fashion these days,” he said. “But I think she has much to recommend her.”
I nodded, although I was dismayed. Poets can fall out of fashion? I had no idea. More dismaying still was the realization that the very first claim I made in a college classroom was to name an outmoded poet as my favorite.
I never read Millay again. But this week, reading the New York Times obituary for my former professor, I see that he edited a definitive edition of Millay’s Selected Poems, which came out in 2003. All I heard that day in class was the first part of his response, his observation that Millay had fallen out of fashion. I’d ignored the next part, his judgment that she was still worth reading.
I have that book on my Kindle now. How funny to think that a casual comment I only half attended put me off a poet I’d enjoyed, and now McClatchy’s own work on that poet has brought me back.
I’m also enough of an egoist to wonder if my mention of Millay that day might have played even a tiny part in leading him to edit that volume years later.
He also read us a poem that first day. He had a beautiful reading voice—rich, relaxed, accessible. We students followed along on in our copies of the Harper Anthology of Poetry edited by John Frederick Nims.
I still have the anthology. It’s battered and spine-bent but remains one of my favorite books.
The poem he read that day was “The River-Merchant’s Wife: A Letter,” Ezra Pound’s rendition of an eighth-century poem by Li Po. Pound is a problematic figure, and not only because he was a Fascist. Many also object to his Orientalist appropriation of Chinese poetry.
But on that September day in 1982, to eighteen-year-old me, the poem was a revelation. A poem could be a letter. A letter could be a poem. The poet could adopt the voice of someone else, someone not at all like himself. A young Asian woman from long ago could be the speaker of beautiful verse in English.
Perhaps, I thought, a young, partly Asian woman from right now could say something, too.
Our first assignment entailed going to the library and finding a poem in a language we did not know at all. And then we were to “translate” it without reference to dictionaries or trying to guess what the original actually meant. We were to return next Wednesday with photocopies of the original and our “translation.”
For a girl who grew up believing in Biblical inerrancy and the unassailable rock-solid truth of Calvinistic Protestantism, this mushy semantic exercise felt downright wanton.
I was also intimidated by Firestone Library, a sprawling, multistoried structure that made me feel especially tiny and timid, even after the Orientation Week tour.
But an assignment was an assignment. Also, I would’ve rather died than disappoint this beautiful, compelling poet.
So, the first book I ever checked out of Firestone Library was a volume of poetry in a language I couldn’t even identify.
I don’t have the resulting poem anymore, but I remember it surprised me. Compelled to conjure meaning from an indecipherable block of text, I wrote down things I did not even know I could think. Ideas seemed to land on the page without preconception. It was thrilling.
And I was no longer intimidated by the library. Having wandered through its bowels literally in search of the incomprehensible, I found every subsequent visit comparatively easy.
All of McClatchy’s assignments were marvelous. He had us take a piece of prose and lineate it for poetic effect. He had us read Marianne Moore’s “The Pangolin” then borrow her syllabic-verse style for one of our own efforts. And always, always, he had us revisit, revise, and resubmit our work.
He also sent us to the university’s art museum to find paintings to write about. According to the notes in my 1982 appointment book, I was trying to decide between Toulouse-Lautrec’s The Sacred Grove, Eugène Boudin’s Beach at Trouville, or Odilon Redon’s Apparition.
Today, of course, you can easily find all three paintings online. Back then I had to go to the museum in person and sit there in front of the canvases waiting for them to speak to me. I chose the beach. The poem was forgettable, but what’s stayed with me is that invitation to imagine stories and voices behind an artifact—a painting, say, or a map.
His friends and colleagues called him “Sandy,” but of course we didn’t call him that. To us he was Professor McClatchy, and he presided over our Wednesday afternoon sessions with the grace of an elegant, erudite gentleman.
He was only thirty-seven years old then, but that was twice my age, so seemed—well, not old, I wasn’t that callow—but older enough that he seemed very wise. When I was thirty-seven, I was trying to keep it all together with a husband and two rambunctious boys and a full-time job I disliked, and then 9/11 happened and it seemed like all wisdom had fled—from my life, from the country, from the whole damn planet.
But half a lifetime earlier, Wednesday after Wednesday, I’d joyfully made the trek out to 185 Nassau bearing my Harper Anthology, seven copies of new work, and a revised poem or two.
The only thing that tarnished my enjoyment of Creative Writing 201 was the second person I remember from that class, a sophomore I’ll call Kristen. She was white and very pretty, and had a cool demeanor. Something about her made me feel terribly insecure. I never understood her poetry, and I couldn’t decide if I just wasn’t smart enough to “get” it or if she was full of shit. She was so poised and articulate and beautiful—qualities I was convinced I lacked. I couldn’t help but envy her, and I wished my envy could settle into something easier, like outright dislike.
I had enough presence of mind to understand that something irrational and not very Christian was at work in my reaction to Kristen and that I shouldn’t pay it much heed. Fortunately, that wasn’t too hard, as the strongest presence in that room was always J. D. McClatchy himself.
I wish I could remember more of what he said. All I have left are marginalia in my Harper Anthology, poor attempts to transcribe some of his wisdom as he spoke about the assigned readings. My favorite, at least in part because it’s longer than the poem itself, I scrawled above Pound’s famous “In a Station of the Metro”:
Images need not duplicate reality
—they can renovate it. Poetry
de-familiarizes the world—not
a series of habitual reactions.
Jocelyn was the third student I remember from that class. She was black and friendly and wrote wonderfully vibrant poems. We were involved with the same evangelical Christian group on campus, but she seemed less constrained by her religion than I was. She wore her faith like beautiful clothes. Mine felt like armor, heavy, ill-fitting, pinching all the soft places.
If memory serves, it was Jocelyn who remarked, one day after class, “I think Professor McClatchy might be gay.”
“What?” I said.
Kristen and John both concurred. The four of us—and perhaps the two other students I no longer remember—were walking back toward the main campus together.
The only people I’d ever met whom I knew to be gay were a few men from my family’s church who had been outed and excommunicated. One or two had unaccountably continued attending church afterward, relegated to the back row, smiling wanly as everyone shunned them. Nothing about our professor, who draped his beautiful frame into his office chair with utter sangfroid and spoke with such warm interest about our minor poetical efforts, resembled those sad lives.
“How do you know?” I asked now.
“The way he read that poem?” Kristen said archly.
“Definitely,” John said.
The poem in question was “The Feast of Stephen” by Anthony Hecht. Professor McClatchy had referred to Hecht as “Tony.”
I wasn’t so clueless that I hadn’t seen the homoeroticism of the poem when he’d read it to us. Or at least that’s my judgment on re-reading the poem now. Maybe I was that clueless. But I certainly hadn’t heard the relish with which McClatchy had intoned the “coltish horseplay of the locker room” or the boys who “for the first time frankly eye each other” as evidence of his own sexuality. To my unworldly ear, he had read Pound’s poem about an ancient Chinese girl-wife with equal relish.
I felt terribly naïve and unsophisticated. In their zeal to shield us from everything they deemed “evil,” my parents and the church had left me with a kind of sociocultural illiteracy. I could not read cues, even important ones, that were obvious to other people my age.
But I also didn’t care that J. D. McClatchy was gay. It didn’t diminish one whit my own chaste ardor for the man or my enthusiasm for his class.
My indifference to this revelation might have been an early harbinger of my inevitable parting-of-ways with evangelical Christianity. That would happen quite suddenly two years later, between my sophomore and junior years of college, during the summer of 1984.
The church elders’ shockingly cruel reaction to a crisis in my parents’ marriage finally opened my eyes to the untenability of their dread and unloving version of the Gospel. My parents had to leave the church. They would eventually move eight hundred miles away to try to start a new life. I resigned my own church membership. I dumped the overbearing evangelical Princetonian I’d been dating since the second half of freshman year. I took up with an atheist with a heart of gold; we’ve been together thirty years. I changed my major from English to East Asian Studies. I even cut my hair, sporting a short bob for the first time since elementary school.
When I returned to campus for my junior year, I went for what I knew would be the last time to the Friday night meeting of the Princeton Evangelical Fellowship, the organization around which my entire social life in college had revolved.
I was surprised to see Kristen there. I hadn’t seen her since that poetry class with McClatchy two years earlier. She spoke at the meeting, sharing that she’d studied abroad during part of her junior year and become a Christian. Now she was back and ready to join with other believers on campus.
Weird, I thought. It’s almost like she’s here to take my place.
And indeed, improbably, that’s pretty much what happened. She befriended my soon-to-be-former best friends on campus. She dated, then married, my ex. They even joined the church where I’d grown up, the one I’d just extricated myself from, where they befriended my family’s former friends. For all I know, they’re still there.
As I walked back to my dorm after that last fellowship meeting, it suddenly made perfect sense, the way I’d felt about Kristen when I first met her. Somehow, in J. D. McClatchy’s bright, high-ceilinged office at 185 Nassau, by whatever sensitivities prevailed there through the alchemy of reading and discussing and making poetry, I’d known. I’d sensed something. That our lives would intersect at some point of pain and transformation. That there would be some laying down and taking up of roles between us, even before I’d tired of my parts. No wonder I’d found her threatening.
But now I neither envied nor disliked her. I just wished her well.
I also started writing a short story, the first one I would finish as an adult. It was, somewhat predictably, about a young woman who becomes disillusioned with her church. In the story, the precipitating incident was the elders’ censure of a middle-aged woman in the congregation who was not evincing a sufficiently Christ-like attitude while dying of cancer.
That had actually happened.
I never saw J. D. McClatchy again after that fall semester of freshman year. I would take two more semesters of poetry in college, each time with different poets. I turned to fiction, always my first love, and eventually, after many years of false starts, I started to finish stories and even, a few years ago, a novel.
I often tell people that I used to write poetry when I was young then stopped altogether.
But that’s not quite true. In my filing cabinet, a hanging folder labeled “Poems” contains poems I’ve written since college, and I’m shocked—flabbergasted, really—by its volume. Some of the poems aren’t even that old. Many I have little to no recollection of writing.
There’s one called “On Re-Reading ‘Ozymandias,’” a sonnet that’s exactly what it sounds like, a commentary on Shelley’s famous poem. A note at the bottom says:
In celebration of National Poetry Month and in response to a writing exercise suggested in, of all places, Poetry for Dummies, citing, of all people, my first poetry teacher J. D. McClatchy, who apparently suggests writing out a famous poem triple-spaced then filling in one’s own reaction to it between the lines. This was the result.
It’s dated April 1, 2011—not that long ago. I have no memory of writing this. It’s clearly my work; the hand-written rough drafts are attached.
So many years had passed, yet J. D. McClatchy was still teaching me to stretch, to reach outside of my “habitual reactions.”
I tell a friend, a poet, about all of this, and she asks me to think about why and how it is that poetry occupies this liminal space for me, “a kind of waiting room,” she calls it, my first stop on my way “home” to fiction.
When she says this, when she asks these questions, I suddenly remember another poem J. D. McClatchy assigned to us thirty-six years ago, and another marginal notation I made, a bracket with a big exclamation point next to these lines from Auden’s “In Memory of W. B. Yeats”:
For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.
Feature photograph of J. D. McClatchy © Geoff Spear. Image of 185 Nassau building © David Keddia and sourced via Creative Commons. Additional photographs provided courtesy of author.