Lizard was the first poem I ever wrote. I was seventeen, suffering teenaged angst & concerned about my mortality which, for some reason, seemed particularly fragile at the time. I don't know why but I decided to write about it, perhaps write it out of me or clarify my feelings. It ended up being a poem; & in the course of writing it my attitude towards death turned around. I was quite happy by the time I'd finished. I cannot remember if there was much revision. I have a feeling that there was little if any. & even then I wrote at a typewriter. Something about the separation between writer & instrument – you have to hold a pen; there is a distance between your fingers & a keyboard. It's like the start of a relationship. Those tentative touches to test the waters.
I knew no writers, though my mother wrote verse for the women's magazines of the time, knew poetry only through college & that part of my first year at University when I attended lectures. I think we did Eliot & Yeats at Uni, but everybody else I studied had been dead for at least a century. I was unenthusiastic about it. I was a musician, a classically-trained contrabassist. The cello would have been my preferred instrument – it still is the one whose sound I love the most if I put aside the personal sound of Miles Davis - but I was a lover of jazz, & the bass was an instrument for jazz.
But here I was writing. & sufficiently impressed by what I'd done to write some more. Three poems altogether, in the space of a couple of weeks. I showed them to my mother who suggested I send them off to the N.Z. Listener, a colonial imitation of the English Listener, the back with the radio programs, the front with articles & reviews & one or two poems in each issue. It was one of the few serious outlets for poetry at that time available in N.Z. I didn't know what literary journals were, or little magazines. Unsurprising, because I think there was only one of each in the country then.
They were accepted. Lizard was the second poem published, just after my eighteenth birthday.
I still played & wrote jazz. But when I returned to university the next year I had the cachet of being a Published Poet. Yes, definitely capital letters. I didn't consider myself a writer but others did. I was asked to edit the University Literary Society's annual publication. I became involved with other writers. I discovered Poetry, got influenced by people who wrote it, felt I had to write, wrote crap for the next three years. There was nobody I knew who wrote like I did when I started out so I started to write like other people who I really had nothing in common with.
Somewhere during this time I gave up playing music. If I'd played flute or piano I might have continued, but playing bass in those days was a dangerous undertaking. Wellington isn't known as windy Wellington for nothing, & there weren't many yank-tanks around, & none owned by anyone I knew. The taxis were still relatively small, English-made but not English taxicabs. Most of them I couldn't fit my bass into. I had to carry it, my shoulder fitting into its waist, whenever I had to play anywhere. Ultimately the visions of me getting caught in an uplift & blown down a hillside or off the bridge between home & the university became too much.
What saved me from becoming a pallid poet in the English tradition was Don Allen's 1960 anthology The New American Poetry which probably made it to N.Z. the year after its publication. I found in it poets whom I felt at home with, who wrote in a similar manner to how I had done when I first started writing, whose influences I didn't mind. Who I quite shamelessly stole from. Gary Snyder's Riprap – Lay down these words / Before your mind like rocks; MY's The Quarrel – Put down those words / rocks picked hastily from the beach of mind. Charles Olson's The Lordly & Isolate Satyrs; MY's Oriental Bay – The motorcyclists of Cocteau / were Death's / angels. Frank O’Hara's In Memory of my Feelings – My quietness has a man in it; MY's The Tigers – Within the tiger / reels a turmoil of desires. Poems to Denise Levertov, to LeRoi Jones. They went through my blender, came out sometimes smooth, sometimes chunky. But within a couple of years I was writing as myself, still referring to those who'd influenced me but from a different stand- & viewpoint. Openly acknowledging my influences is something I have always done. From Mirror/Images: "There is / an A-Z of those whose images I have pursued / perused & used."
& it all started with Lizard. It makes use of stereotypes but I knew no better then. It has the last vestiges of my belief in Christianity although I think that had gone out the window a year or so before, but not that long ago to make me hesitate to use facets of it. Lizard is, in all senses, a pure poem. Colloquial, uninhibited by influences, its form shaped by the poem rather than the reverse. Because I always lumped my earliest poems in a basket labelled "crap, not to be opened" it took me forty years & the prompting of others to recognise it for what it was, a poem that still works, & something to be proud of.
"When one is seventeen, one isn't serious" wrote Rimbaud. But he was fifteen when he wrote it, & I think he probably changed his mind in those intervening couple of years.