By Gregory LeStage
In March of 2013 and five months after my 47th birthday, I had my first collection of poetry, Small Gods of Summer, published. While it's not unusual for a person my age to do so, it is certainly not typical for someone in my profession.
After completing my DPhil in English in 1998, I left academia to pursue a prosaic career in management consulting that now spans 15 years. Over that time, my wife and I have had numerous house moves, three daughters, dual careers and one dog. Given the distance between my career and the practice of poetry – and my persistent time famine – a slim volume seems an unlikely output.
What I’ve just described is at the root of questions I’ve had during both private conversations and public readings since Small Gods of Summer launched. Why – and how – now? I answer that it was not so much a sudden and fevered middle-age production as it was an arrival. I credit my six years at Oxford in the 1990s with its conception. Allow me to explain.
In 1989, I arrived in Oxford as a twenty-two-year-old rower and rugby player with a love of literature, but only a passing interest in poetry. Perhaps I was predisposed to Oxford’s centuries-old and disproportionate influence on the creative and critical advancement of the art in the English language. There were certainly dead poets whose work began to move me, head and heart. And there was the intellectual force of the dons who taught me the subject compellingly. But beyond the impact of study or the thrall of critics and canon-makers was the power of society: I joined the Oxford University Poetry Society (OUPS) soon after I landed at Oriel and started my MPhil in English.
For two years, I observed undergraduates, graduates, and faculty for whom poetry was an avocation, vocation or passion. Some were publishing in magazines, small and large; many aspired to do so and sought to sharpen their poems in writing workshops; most just preferred to listen to readings and discuss. What struck me, though, was the sheer number of people taking part in the society. Poets were legion and in plain sight, in contrast to the image of the loner. I chose to remain one of the crowd in a kind of shy apprenticeship, pecking away at verse in my Oriel garret.
An introduction to the South African poet, David Wright, was pivotal for me. He was visiting Oxford as a guest of the OUPS and was staying in Oriel, where he had been a student in the early 1940s. I volunteered to look after him over two days, a task made somewhat complex by the fact that he had been stone deaf since childhood. He somehow convinced me to let him read some of my poems – his powers of persuasion were disarming, even comforting.
In the din of the King’s Arms, he saw sound on their surface and stomped out their undercurrent rhythm with his feet. He was not mute and shouted at me: “Write! Write! Write!” Emboldened, I sought audiences with Seamus Heaney, the Professor of Poetry at the time, who went over my work precisely but gingerly. His encouragement was a seed, but it soon went dormant. After completing my MPhil, I returned to the United States to work for an international investment firm.
The call of literature proved too strong to withstand. In 1994, after three years away, I returned to Oxford and Oriel to pursue my DPhil in English and to teach. Leading the OUPS was Adam Schwartzman, a bright and charismatic Pembroke undergraduate from South Africa. The Society was thriving under him, and established poets like Paul Muldoon, Andrew Motion and Carol Ann Duffy seldom turned down an invitation to read. The Society magazine, The Reader, received many submissions from members and demonstrated editorial acumen in selecting quality work three times a year. Membership was nearly two hundred.
In 1995, Schwartzman seeded hope and inspiration among his peers when he published his first book, The Good Life. The Dirty Life. A small group of American students – among them Nicole Krauss, Stephen Burt, and Monica Youn – were provoking and influencing each other in a way that would later help them join the ranks of published poets and critics with an Oxford connection. I helped organize events and began to share my own poems in workshops and readings.
During my term as the society’s President (1996-97), I took its stated mission seriously: “To serve the members first, but include the public; don’t become a coterie; prioritise publicity; keep the society alive; pass it on to people who will commit.”
The Reader and our readings were graced by the likes of Al Alvarez, Ian Hamilton, Simon Armitage, John Burnside and Glyn Maxwell. The great Australian poet, Les Murray, spent two days helping members with their poems. Michael Schmidt, the founder of Carcanet Press, delivered a lecture on the state of poetry. We also received counsel and contributions from poets in the English Faculty: Jon Stallworthy, Bernard O’Donoghue, Tom Paulin, Craig Raine, John Fuller, James Fenton. (It’s worth noting that many of the above were Oxford graduates and former OUPS members.) Membership numbers were high; our account was in the black.
We held an anniversary gala at the Oxford Union. In attendance were more than 50 poets between the ages of 18 and 85. To commemorate the event, Seamus Heaney even graced us with a letter that described his personal experience with the contemporary culture and living history of Oxford poetry:
When I think of the place, I think of the poets whom I know in person, very different personalities on and off the page, invigilating presences who turned into welcomers when I arrived in 1989. During the following five years, I benefited from their friendship and attentiveness – both socially and intellectually. For once, pace Yeats, I felt we were not ‘too many’. More a case of ‘a scene well set and excellent company’. ‘Jocund’, even. ‘Human existence come to life’. Then, too, of course, shades of Graves in St. John’s. Hintings of Housman. Lourings of Larkin. And in Magdelen, an amble of Addison. A wafting of Wilde.
Despite the obvious distance between the lofty perch of a Nobel Prize winner and the ground on which legions of hopeful novices scribble away, the essence of the experience is the same.
My peers exerted the strongest influence – individuals, small groups, and the big crowd who would gamely submit poems and show up for readings. Looking back at the age of 47, however, I can see that the combined exposure to the established and interaction with the aspiring helped me, and so many others, to demystify the modern poetry cabala whose code and ranks were difficult to break. We were free to contribute to Oxford’s poetry habitat, where reading, listening and studying, critiquing, writing and performing cycled continuously in public and private.
Surely, this is what helped me overcome the Prufrockian hesitation that creeps in with age, that would have confined the 40-odd poems that make up Small Gods of Summer to my head. It is the seedbed from which I am now at work on my second collection – and one which continues to help Oxfordian poets blossom today.
Gregory LeStage's Small Gods of Summer is published by Antrim House Books. He is the Executive Vice President at Kotter International, a global strategy execution firm based in Cambridge, MA, USA.
Image by V Hammer under Creative Commons license