Let It Rock

One day in the late spring of 1983, toward the end of my junior year at the University of Pittsburgh, I stopped by during office hours to see my poetry teacher, Ed Ochester, up on the fifth floor of the Cathedral of Learning. I had just been asked to join a band that some guys I knew were putting together. It’s possible, looking back, that I went to see Ed because I was excited, and wanted to share the news with a paternal figure who was likely to be more excited than my father about my imminent baptism in the church of rock ’n’ roll, but I’m not sure. You didn’t really need a reason to stop by and see Ed Ochester. He would always make time for you and your poems, even when your poems, like mine, were nothing special.

In class, Ed always used to start by reading to us, his voice roughened by a Queens accent and the unfiltered Pall Malls he smoked, his straight hair falling from his big square brow down across his big square glasses. With his Auden haircut and his flannel shirts and blue jeans, Ed looked the way that I thought a poet ought to look, at the time; blue-collar but intellectual, like an old-school folksinger, or a man who was sent by the union to organize lumberjacks.

Ed spoke with a mild stammer that disappeared when he read aloud to us. The poetry he favored tended to have a deceptively conversational tone: somebody just talking, yet saying things that no one would ever say, in language that—unlike conversation—was intended to catch you off-guard and surprise you. Ed read us plainspoken, sometimes ribald poems by people like Edward Field, David Ignatow, Linda Pastan, and Etheridge Knight, and then with an effortless zigzag he might take up some thorny and austere piece of Eliot or Stevens, and make it sound like Rodney Dangerfield in a pensive mood.

When he had finished reading us a poem he would open it up like a watch and show us the inner works, all the decisions the poet had made about line breaks and rhyme schemes (if any), vocabulary and diction, rhythm and tone. He emphasized accuracy and precision in language, the sadness of cliché, the need to find newness in the way one wrote about the world, and, unconsciously I think, the supreme importance of exuberance, the kind of mordant exuberance he discovered to us when he read William Carlos Williams’s famous number about the mooched plums, so sweet and so cold.

It was Ed who introduced me to the work of the most exuberant poet who ever lived, Frank O’Hara, giving us the one that begins

How funny you are today New York
like Ginger Rogers in Swingtime
and St. Bridget’s steeple leaning a little to the left

The voice of O’Hara was the voice of a friend, a best friend. It was intimate and casual. And yet at the same time it…

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