To Become Music or Break
from “A Tribute to the Poetry of Lynda Hull”
AWP Conference Panel, January 31, 2008
In the early 1980s I had the great and lasting privilege of having Lynda Hull as a student in several undergraduate creative writing workshops. At least she was technically my student; in many ways, I was actually her student, for she taught me far more than I ever taught her, and one of the things that she taught me was nothing less than what it means to be a poet. What I’m going to read to you now are a few stitched-together passages from an essay I wrote several years ago about Lynda and her early poems. It’s called “To Become Music or Break,” and I hope it will give you a sort of portrait of the poet as a young woman. In the course of this, I’ll be reading two of her early poems and I have copies up here if anyone would like to take them away with you.
I first met Lynda Hull in the spring of 1981, during my second semester as an assistant professor at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. I had been hired to teach fiction writing, but our poet, Bruce Weigl, had just accepted a job at another university, so I’d been assigned to take over his poetry workshop in the fall.
I should insert here that this was the very first poetry workshop I ever taught, and if I had any idea that one of my students would be someone already on her way to be one of the finest writers of her generation, I think I would have started to think about the advantages of becoming a shoe salesman.
Shortly after she learned I’d be teaching the class, Lynda came to see me in my office. She was then, as always, a petite, almost frail-looking woman, but her blondish-brown hair was curled, not straight as she wore it in the years after she left Little Rock. I can’t remember what she was wearing that day, though most likely it was a black, long-skirted dress, vintage 1970 or earlier, obviously purchased at Goodwill or an estate sale—such, at least, was her uniform in those, and later, days. What I do remember, and vividly, is her nervousness. I’m not an intimidating person now by any means, and I was even less so then. I was only thirty years old (just four years older than Lynda), I had published a mere handful of poems and stories, and I was wearing, no doubt, the Hawaiian shirt and jeans that were my uniform in those days, not the three-piece suit of an Authority Figure. Yet she was so nervous she could scarcely speak.
She was holding in her hand five or six sheets of onion-skin paper, all covered with questions about poetry in purple ink and spidery calligraphy, and both the pages and her voice trembled as she sat impossibly erect, as if at attention, and read them. (Later, she would read her poems aloud in class in the same ready-to-collapse manner, something few would believe who witnessed the flamboyant readings she gave toward the end of her life.) She almost never looked up from her questions as she read, and when she did, she didn’t dare look at me. I remember being amazed that she forced herself, despite her nervousness, to read every single one of her questions before she left. I don’t remember her questions, but I do remember that they were not only intelligent but intense. She asked them as if the answers were almost literally a matter of life and death. Looking back now, I think of the woman she compares to a harp in her poem “Autumn, Mist,” which she wrote the following year; like that woman, Lynda seemed so tense that she would have to “become music / or break.” I was impressed. This, I thought, was someone to whom poetry truly mattered, and I was delighted that she’d be in my class that fall.
I have many memories of that fall workshop with Lynda, but one of the most telling, I think, involves her response to a poem by Hart Crane, the poet who was to become her greatest influence not only that semester but for the rest of her life. I had passed out copies of Crane’s “The Harbor Dawn,” and when I asked the class how they liked the poem, she held her copy over her heart and said she loved it—and she said loved as if she were almost too choked up to get the word out. Rereading “The Harbor Dawn” now, I’m struck by how much of that poem found its way into her poetry. Her early poem “Tide of Voices” takes its title from Crane’s first line, and its subject matter—“the harbor by Jersey City” discussed at nightfall, not dawn—suggests her poem may have been conceived as an inverted version of his—“The Harbor Dusk,” so to speak. Also, Crane’s poem contains several words that became magic words for Lynda, as necessary to her poetry as oxygen is to life: tide, voices, fog, steam, window, sill, and adrift.
One of the things that most convinced me that Lynda was a true poet was the way she claimed words: they became hers, and they seemed to mean more for her than they could for anyone else. Her early poetry was nothing if not word-drunk. She had a love of beauty that was so intense she was willing to take any verbal risk to achieve it. This love of beauty was so extreme that it even led her, one rainy night that fall, to put herself in literal, physical danger: she was so entranced by the Monet-like patterns the streetlights created on her car’s rain-streaked windshield that she drove through the storm without turning on her wipers and as a result ran into a parked car and suffered cuts and bruises on her head. The early drafts of Lynda’s poems were similar “accidents,” her craving for beauty causing crash after crash. (Some people here have been teaching creative writing for years.) Her work was raw, all over the place, but everything was already there—everything, perhaps, except the ability to cut, to focus. And she learned that very quickly. As evidence that the elements of Lynda’s mature style were already present at this early stage of her career, I offer what I believe was either the first or second poem Lynda submitted for class discussion. I don’t have the longer, wilder, original version, but I do have a revision of it, one in which she writes with the controlled extravagance characteristic of her later work.
Previously unpublished, this poem also appears in this issue of Blackbird under Poetry.
Here we see not only Lynda’s obsessive subject matter (the squalid life spent in “the wrong rooms,” betrayal, abandonment) and her trademark sound-work (the assonance of “licked illicit on her skin,” the alliteration of “cornered,” “chiaroscuro,” and “choreography”) but also many of the words she found so essential that they recur in all three of her books: nocturne, departure, travel, chiaroscuro, dangerous, indigo, trains. More importantly, we see that she was, already, a poet. My wife Judy recalls what I said to her when I came home from school and showed her this poem: “I have a student who is already a better poet than I’ll ever be.” The work that Lynda turned in subsequently only confirmed this belief, as well as my gratitude that I had the chance to work with her, to learn from her as I attempted, vainly, to teach her.
In the fall of 1982, we hired David Wojahn to teach poetry writing, and in David, Lynda found not only the ideal teacher but also her future husband. Under his guidance, she began to write the first poems she found worthy of publishing. But I’d like to close my part of this panel by talking about a poem she eventually chose not to publish, though I think it is one of her finest early efforts. It’s called “In Another Country” and it deals with her then-husband, an illegal Chinese alien gambler that she used to joke she married “for the security.” Reading the poem now brings back to me the day I first read it. I was working in my office when David called to me from his, which was directly across the hall. “Come here a minute,” he said. When I stepped into his office, I saw that Lynda was sitting in the corner, looking down at the floor, her face crimson. “Read this,” David said, and handed me the poem, which Lynda had evidently just shown him for the first time. I stood there and read it, and when I finished, I told her what David must have told her just moments before: that it was beautiful. She didn’t hang her head, shuffle her feet, and say “Shucks, Dave,” as she had other times I’d praised her. At that moment, our confirmation of her talent meant too much to her for her to joke about it. Instead, she was barely able to whisper “Thank you.” And when she looked up, I saw that there were tears in her eyes.
I like to think that moment in David’s office was one of the rare times Lynda overcame what she called her “clamoring insecurities” and realized that her gift was not only real but great. And that she had in fact “become music” and was what she had risked breaking to be: a poet.
And I’ll end by reading the poem:
Previously unpublished, this poem also appears in this issue of Blackbird under Poetry.