Enter a Phenomenon in these unpoetic times


Nickie McWhirter

Detroit Free Press

Among twenty snowy mountains,

The only moving thing

Was the eye of the blackbird.

If sex were all,

Then every trembling hand

Could make us squeak,

Like dolls,

The wished-for words.

  What we have here are a couple of lines of poetry.  They are from two separate works of Wallace Stevens who, along with Dylan Thomas, is a co-favorite poet of mine.


It’s hard to pick favorites.   The work of each poet is unique and, if the poet is any good, the work is breathtaking in its brevity, precision and force.   Poetry is layered, compacted language which captures brilliant images for us to enjoy again and again, like dragonflies trapped in amber.  Poetry is laser beam language, too.   Zap!   It illuminates and burns a thought or a sensory experience into the mind, if not forever, at least for a long, long time.

  I have never understood why most people I know groan at the mere suggestion that they read a poem, or listen to one read.   Men and boys seem to think poems are sissy fare.  Girls and women tend to consider them obscure mouthings of effete (probably tubercular Englishmen.)

   Wrong, wrong, wrong!   But we all victims of our educational system which has little kids struggling through Longfellow (a punk poet) and Wordsworth (not much better) at a time when their own life experiences in no way parallel those of the poets.   “My heart leaps up when I behold a rainbow in the sky…”   SWEET MILK DUDS!   How many kids’ hearts have leapt at the sight of a rainbow?   A basketball going straight down the shoot, maybe, but no rainbow.  

Kids should be reading Ernest Lawrence Thayer.   He wrote “Casey at the Bat.”   Or maybe Robert W. Service.   They’d love “The Cremation of Sam McGee” or “The Shooting of Dan McGrew.”   Rainbows are for later.   It is just as easy to teach rhyme, rhythm, metaphor, simile and all the other building blocks beloved of English teachers using material which children can enjoy and to which they can relate.  

It began when he fell in love.

Which brings me to Peter McWilliams. He is a phenomenon in these unpoetic times.  Peter is 29 years old and has been writing poems since he was 17.

It began when he was a senior in Allen Park High School.   He fell in love.   Everyone does at about that age.   It was a staggering experience for him, and it didn’t end happily.   It rarely does at that age.

McWilliams, like most persons in the throes of romantic ecstasy turned to agony,  felt explosive, unhappy and confused.   He might have chosen a dozen other alternatives to vent his emotional distress but McWilliams began writing poems.   These were brief, taut expressions of the thoughts and emotions which consumed him moment by moment.

Later, as part of a social studies project, he turned his work in to a teacher.   The teacher told him the poems were pretty good.   McWilliams spent $50 and had 500 copies of this collection mimeographed.   He sold them on Plum Street in Detroit when Plum Street had a clutch of head shops and tiny stores purveying the dreams and work of some of the flower children.  This was in 1967.

In the 12 years since then, Peter McWilliams has published seven volumes of poetry and collaborated on some other highly successful works.   He has had two books on national best-seller lists, sold an amazing (and profitable) 1.5 million books, and established his own publishing company.   You see why I call him a phenomenon.

Uncluttered with the lace

  If we so dislike poetry, who is buying these books, and why?   I read them.   Peter McWilliams is still writing about love.   His poems are brief, terse and uncluttered with the lace of previous centuries.  He speaks the language and imagery of the present.

Everything that reminds me of you

gives me pleasure.

Everything reminds me of you.

  That’s typical McWilliams.   It’s pressure cooker language.  From it could be spun an hour’s discussion of the effect on love on human perception.  Here are some more McWilliams lines:

Our love affair has crash landed.

I am trapped in the rubble of gossamer wings…

This poem goes on to say that while the Wright brothers might have appreciated the flight of this love, in retrospect, it was “pitifully low and painfully brief” for an age accustomed to moon landings and space shuttles.   The poem concludes, “…endings make the circumstances of the beginnings regrettable.”

  Not bad stuff.  Good stuff to use as a base in junior high or high school for reaching upward and outward in the muscular world of poetry.   While it is not my function to tout books, it occurs to me that kids are still falling into and out of love, and Byron didn’t know it all.   Understanding McWilliams could help in understanding Yeats and finally, Stevens.   I want everybody to get to know Stevens.