When my mother was very old and in a nursing home, she surprised me one day toward the end of her life by asking me if I still wrote poetry. When I blurted out that I still do, she stared at me with incomprehension. I had to repeat what I said, till she sighed and shook her head, probably thinking to herself this son of mine has always been a little nuts. Now that I’m in my seventies, I’m asked that question now and then by people who don’t know me well. Many of them, I suspect, hope to hear me say that I’ve come my senses and given up that foolish passion of my youth and are visibly surprised to hear me confess that I haven’t yet. They seem to think there is something downright unwholesome and even shocking about it, as if I were dating a high school girl, at my age, and going with her roller-skating that night.
Another question poets old and young are typically asked in interviews is when and why they decided to become poets. The assumption is that there was a moment when they came to realize there can be no other destiny for them but to write poetry, followed by the announcement to their families that had their mothers exclaim: “Oh God, what did we do wrong to deserve this?” while their fathers ripped out their belts and chased them around the room. I was often tempted to tell the interviewer with a straight face that I had chosen poetry to get my hands on all that big prize money that’s lying around, since informing them that there was never any decision like that in my case inevitably disappoints them. They want to hear something heroic and poetic, and I tell them that I was just another high school kid who wrote poems in order to impress girls, but with no other ambition beyond that. Not being a native speaker of English, they also ask me why I didn’t write my poems in Serbian and wonder how I arrived at the decision to ditch my mother tongue. Again, my answer seems frivolous to them, when I explain that for poetry to be used as an instrument of seduction, the first requirement is that it be understood. No American girl was likely to fall for a guy who reads her love poems in Serbian as they sip Coke.
The mystery to me is that I continued writing poetry long after there was any need for that. My early poems were embarrassingly bad, and the ones that came right after, not much better. I have known in my life a number of young poets with immense talent who gave up poetry even after being told they were geniuses. No one ever made that mistake with me, and yet I kept going. I now regret destroying my early poems, because I no longer remember whom they were modeled after. At the time I wrote them, I was reading mostly fiction and had little knowledge of contemporary poetry and modernist poets. The only extensive exposure I had to poetry was in the year I attended school in Paris before coming to the United States. They not only had us read Lamartine, Hugo, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, and Verlaine, but they made us memorize certain poems of theirs and recite them in front of the class. This was such a nightmare for me as a rudimentary speaker of French—and guaranteed fun for my classmates, who cracked up at the way I mispronounced some of the most beautiful and justly famous lines of poetry in French literature—that for years afterwards I couldn’t bring myself to take stock of what I learned in that class. Today, it’s clear to me that my love of poetry comes from those readings and those recitations, which left a deeper impact on me than I realized when I was young.
There’s something else in my past that I only recently realized contributed to my perseverance in writing poems, and that is my love of chess. I was taught the game in wartime Belgrade by a retired professor of astronomy when I was six years old and over the next few years became good enough to beat not just all the kids my age, but many of the grownups in the neighborhood. My first sleepless nights, I recall, were due to the games I lost and replayed in my head. Chess made me obsessive and tenacious. Already then, I could not forget each wrong move, each humiliating defeat. I adored games in which both sides are reduced to a few figures each and in which every single move is of momentous significance. Even today, when my opponent is a computer program (I call it “God”) that outwits me nine out of ten times, I’m not only in awe of its superior intelligence, but find my losses far more interesting to me than my infrequent wins. The kinds of poems I write—mostly short and requiring endless tinkering—often recall for me games of chess. They depend for their success on word and image being placed in proper order and their endings must have the inevitability and surprise of an elegantly executed checkmate.
Of course, it is easy to say all this now. When I was eighteen years old, I had other worries. My parents had split up and I was on my own, working in an office in Chicago and attending university classes at night. Later on, in 1958, when I moved to New York, I led the same kind of life. I wrote poems and published a few of them in literary magazines, but I didn’t expect that any of that activity would amount to much. People I worked with and befriended had no inkling that I was a poet. I also painted a little and found it easier to confess that interest to a stranger. All I knew with any certainty about my poems is that they were not as good as I wanted them to be and that I was determined, for my own peace of mind, to write something I wouldn’t be embarrassed to show my literary friends. In the meantime, there were other more pressing things to attend to, like getting married, paying the rent, hanging out in bars and jazz clubs, and every night before going to bed baiting the mousetraps in my apartment on East 13th Street with peanut butter.