By David Allan Evans
“One of my convictions is that at the center of every poetic imagination is a cluster
of key images that go back to the poet’s childhood…poets are always revisiting the
state of their innocence.”
When I was about fourteen my older brother, one of the best pole vaulters in Iowa, taught me to vault, and that quickly became an obsession. I couldn’t get enough of it. My mother used to give up calling me in for dinner. “Just one more,” I’d yell to her, and after that, again and again, “just one more.”
About two decades later, when I published my first book, the first poem in it had come directly out of the vacant lot next to our house, where we had our vaulting pit, with crossbars and vaulting poles made out of bamboo. The poem is called “Pole Vaulter,” and its opening lines are:
The approach to the bar
Unless I have counted
my steps __hit my markers
feel up to it __I refuse
to follow through
I am committed to beginnings
or to nothing
All poets have one or two poems they consider seminal. This is one of mine. In retrospect, the word beginnings in the seventh line may represent the beginning of a new phase of my life. Robert Frost, in his marvelous poem of childhood, says he was a “swinger of birches.” If the New England poet was a swinger of birches in his youth, I, a midland poet, was a pole vaulter in mine.
The landscape of my childhood was Sioux City, Iowa, where I was born in 1940. For a Midwestern city, Sioux City is a unique mix of urban and rural. (The name itself is an oxymoronic juxtaposition of a Plains Indian tribe’s name and a word that evokes Western order and civilization.) Its population has been around 80,000 since I lived there, and yet the city is huge: fifty-two square miles, an area large enough to accommodate the confluence of three rivers, including the Missouri, farms and ranches, packinghouses, and other industry. I feel fortunate to have been raised in both rural and urban settings.
Between the ages of two and eight I lived with my parents, two brothers, and older sister on an acreage. One of my earliest memories is of walking barefoot on cool, hard clods of our freshly plowed potato garden. My father raised chickens and I would sometimes collect eggs from the chicken shed in the morning. On two sides of us were cornfields, on another side, hills, and, a few hundred yards to the east, a deep ravine called Devil’s Hollow. On clear nights, because there were no streetlights nearby, the sky was a bowl of stars you could stand inside.
In 1948 we moved from the acreage to a brick house on a railroad bluff on Wall Street. It is mostly this locale, where I lived from the ages of eight to fifteen, that I have revisited obsessively in my memory and my writings: the brick house (almost forty years later I still remember our telephone number: 88686), and the vacant lot next to it; a ravine at the north end of Wall Street; the railroad tracks, trains, and steam engines, a roundhouse; the Sioux City Soos minor league baseball park across the tracks, and the “pig dump” beyond center field; a steep bluff with creosote steps running down it; a soybean factory on whose roof I was almost electrocuted trying to capture some pigeons; two ponds; the Floyd River, where I learned to swim and where the Ringling Brothers Circus elephants, when the circus came to town every summer, were taken to drink; Woodrow Wilson Junior High and its playground; the Wall Street viaduct; gravel alleys; a deaf and dumb man with an iron-wheeled cart who made a meager living collecting junk; a sewer under Wall Street that my friends and I would walk through with flashlights; a little grocery store owned by a Jewish family named Strongin; a gravel company with its pyramids of gravel; the Jewish Community Center, where I spent a lot of winter nights playing basketball; a steep block of Iowa Street that we used to sled down on Flexible Flyers with waxed runners.
About two miles southeast of our house were the stockyards, Swift’s and Armour’s packinghouses, Half Moon Lake, and above the lake “Polock Hill,” where many Polish packinghouse workers and their families lived. Eight blocks south of us, running parallel to and only a few blocks north of the Missouri, was Sioux City’s business district, often referred to pejoratively as “Lower Fourth,” a strip of beer joints, restaurants, clothing stores, theaters, and whorehouses (otherwise known as the Virginia Hotel, the Swan Hotel, and the Chicago House, among others). Lower Fourth and the packinghouses were the main reasons Sioux City was known—again, in the pejorative—as “Little Chicago.”
This in-town territory—about two miles in circumference, with our Wall Street house in the center—has been the source of at least 70 percent of the images and experiences I’ve used in one way or another in poems and prose in about three decades of writing. Even the titles of my first two books of poems and book of essays attest to the locale’s importance: Train Windows, which refers to my habit of watching trains at night from the railroad bluff; Real and False Alarms, a fire station at the bottom of Iowa Street, between our house and Lower Fourth; and Remembering the Soos, the minor league ballpark, where I spent many nights with friends.
My teen years were crucial to me; they became a bridge between early and late childhood, between the end of one life and the beginning of another I was gradually discovering.
My main response to the explosion of hormones and the need to prove myself among my male peers was to excel at what I enjoyed most and was good at—sports—and hang out with other athletes, who were among the toughest guys around. I was not one to give schoolwork a lot of attention, and my grades were mediocre. I was a slow reader, and so feeble at math that my teacher labeled me as having a “math block”—this, in front of an entire class. I flunked, and the next semester was sent to Woodshop, the “Opportunity Class,” where one day, with other things on my mind than the plane saw I was working with, I nearly cut off a finger.
I do remember my first two coaches at Woodrow, Mr. Speraw and Mr. Barger, and my American History teacher, Mrs. Lefler. She was the one who reminded our class one day that the only “original American” among us was Leroy, who was an Indian from the Winnebago Reservation fifteen miles south. In Sioux City in the fifties, this was not the prevailing opinion on Indians; most considered them thieves and drunks who couldn’t hold a decent job or raise a family. Even if I didn’t realize it at the time, Mrs. Lefler had given me a gift of a new perspective—not only on my good friend Leroy, but on all Native Americans.
Leroy and his family were not the only minorities in the Woodrow area. The “South Bottoms” near the Floyd River had families of Hispanics, blacks, and even some Asians. I feel lucky to have grown up in a city where I could have nonwhite friends as well as white ones. This racial variety has never been common in small towns in the Midwest.
For me, the hands of Woodrow Wilson’s schoolroom clocks could not have moved slower than they did. Whatever the season, I always wanted out—to play baseball or football, swim in the Missouri or Floyd, kill rats in the pig dump, ice-skate, go sledding in the ravine or on the steep streets, mess around down by the roundhouse, or, ignoring my parents’ sternest rule, hop a ride on a moving boxcar.
Even though I was not a good student, I had always been able to focus on and even work hard at things I enjoyed. I still have an elaborate pencil design I did at the age of four or five. From an early age I could sit for hours on a sidewalk or at a table, drawing, or making useless gadgets (I called them inventions) out of tin, wood, and cardboard. When I was in the seventh grade a black, jovial doctor named Dobson said I had rheumatic fever (probably a misdiagnosis) and sent me back to school with a note keeping me off the playground and out of sports for the entire spring semester. As my classmates played outside for recess, I drew designs with pen and ink.
The person who had by far the most influence on me in those teen years was my father. He had also been an athlete, and he had the same trait of fixing on something and working hard at it. In his case, the trait may have originated in part from his fairly strict Methodist upbringing, and also from his having to quit school early and get a job to help support his family after the death of his father in a mental institution at the age of thirty-eight. He began to sell newspapers on downtown street corners, and then a few years later he became a pressman’s apprentice at the Sioux City Journal, where he worked for thirty years, and then, just after I graduated from high school and was starting college, left to become managing editor of his union’s magazine in Tennessee. As a college student I had a part-time job in the same pressroom, and those men who had worked with my father spoke highly of his diligence. “He was a worker” was a phrase I heard many times.
But his important work he did at home, pecking away at his Woodstock typewriter in his little corner in the basement, just beyond the clotheslines. This eighth-grade dropout had a powerful ambition to become a writer, and he couldn’t get enough of writing, or of the writers he would reread so often that late in his life he would refer to them as close friends: Shakespeare, Montaigne, Voltaire, Anatole France, Herbert Spencer, Thomas Huxley, Tolstoy, Dostoyevski, Charles Darwin, Ernest Dowson, Oscar Wilde, H. L. Mencken, Robert Ingersoll, Marcel Proust, Thomas Wolfe, Robert Benchley, Clarence Day, and many others. Apparently, he had always been a reader. My aunt, his half-sister, once told me there was a feature article in the Journal, when my father was around twenty, to the effect that he was determined to read the entire Sioux City public library by the age of thirty. A couple of decades later he would serve on the library board and review books for the Journal.
Although he was not an accessible father, since he was so busy with his involuntary and voluntary jobs, he was usually congenial, as well as quiet, even diffident, quick to smile, sometimes moody. And his puritanical upbringing sometimes surfaced. Once when I was around twelve, I told him a joke with the word turd in it, and he scorned me and sent me to my bedroom.
He did read to us, occasionally, stories by Ernest Thompson Seton, Oscar Wilde, and Jack London. Seton’s “Lobo: The King of the Kurumpa,” about a huge wolf, was my favorite. He read the story many times, and I was the only one of us children who would cry when at the end Lobo was strangled by the lariats of bounty hunters.
My father would read poems or passages from novels or essays to my mother. He had a record of Shakespeare’s soliloquies read by John Barrymore, and sometimes he’d bring it out and play it on our old Victrola. I can still recall the piercing, angry voice of Barrymore’s Hamlet and Richard 111, and my father, horizontal on his brown Naugahyde recliner, thoroughly absorbed by the poetry. He had an incredible memory for words, better than anybody I’ve known. His brother, my uncle Elmer, had the same gift, and he could also draw very well. Often when the two of them were together they would drink beer and quote poetry.
I was an outdoor boy at the time and not a reader yet, but I liked listening to the poetry, and to Barrymore’s Shakespeare, though I’m sure I didn’t understand much of what I was hearing. When you are young, it’s easy to be influenced by adults—especially parents—who place such high value on something: in my father’s case, the words of great writers.
Yet he never pushed books on his children or anybody. This gentle but intense man simply had books around the house, and showed, by example, how important they can be if you have any inclination to need them. To this day, I cringe whenever I see someone trying to force books or beliefs on others.
Gradually, in my early teens, I began to realize that I not only enjoyed poetry, but, like my father and uncle, I had a talent for remembering it. On my way to the YMCA on Saturday mornings, if I was alone, I would sometimes stop at the public library and go downstairs to what was called the reading room, where there was a record player and a collection of records, some of poets or actors reading poetry. I would put a record on and sit on the couch and listen. This habit was a secret I would share with nobody, least of all my jock friends. In the fifties in Sioux City, sports were for men and poetry was for sissies. That was an absolute.
On that reading room couch the first poem I ever heard on my own was Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach.” I didn’t understand all of the words, but the rhythms and phrasing enchanted me: I knew nothing about Dover Beach, not even where it was, and yet I felt the lines’ dignity and power. I must have wondered to myself how a poet could describe the sea, cliffs, and moonlight with such clarity and force. There was something in the slow, deliberate, serious, drawn-out cadences, in the tone of voice—an actor’s named David Allen—that I couldn’t have explained to anybody but which I began to love, especially the line containing the “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,” which seemed to go on and on. The emphasis on the word clash in the poem’s last line—”Where ignorant armies clash by night”—always pleased me. And I could see the images of water in the poem, because I had watched the glittering Missouri from the bluffs at night—the way light “gleams and is gone.” I played the poem over and over. It didn’t take long to have it by heart, and in my fifties I can still recite it.
One day when I got up the nerve to check out a poetry record and was carrying it home, I was confronted by a high-school kid I knew, a tall, aggressive, outspoken lineman on the varsity football team.
“What’s that you got, Evans?” he said.
“Oh, just a record,” I said.
“Lemme see it,” he said, and grabbed it out of my hands.
He looked at it, and when he saw what it was, he said,
“What’s this shit—pomes?”
I said “Yeah” sheepishly, took the record back, and went on my way. I heard him behind me, snickering in disgust.
I must have been fourteen or fifteen, standing by one of my father’s bookcases, the one in the hallway near the front door. I was picking some books out at random, opening them up, reading here and there. I think I was just curious. I picked out a thick dark-blue book called The Oxford Book of American Poetry. Inside the front cover of this book, which I still have, was the price: 35 cents. My father had bought it, along with a lot of other books, at the Salvation Army store down by the viaduct. I started glancing through the pages and came to a poem called “Limited.” At Woodrow we were required in English class to read poems, stories, and plays by writers such as Shakespeare, Dickens, Longfellow, Bryant, and Whittier. I had never heard of this author, Carl Sandburg. The word Omaha at the end of his poem hit me like a hammer. I was astonished to see such a familiar word in a poem. I hadn’t been there, but I knew that Omaha was only about ninety miles south of Sioux City. I was also struck by the sounds of the words: for example, the repetition of the same sound in “laughing,” “ashes,” “ask,” and “answers.” I knew about trains, of course, living on a railroad bluff. I doubt if I got Sandburg’s wry humor at the time, but I must have sensed it: that even if “the man in the smoker” as well as “all the men and women laughing in the diners and sleepers” think they’re going to Omaha or whatever earthly destination, they are all, like the rest of us, even the train itself, “hurtling across the prairie” toward oblivion: “scrap and rust.” Here, for the first time, was a poet who spoke my language! The words were spare, concrete, accessible, down to earth.
Then I read “Ice Handler.” These words were close too. I’d watched the iceman delivering ice to our house, and he was a physical, confident man like the one in the poem.
I also read “Fish Crier.” I’d never seen a fish crier, but on the acreage I’d heard the unmistakable sound of wind “blowing over corn stubble in January” At that moment, standing there in the hallway with those poems in my hands, I’d suddenly discovered a few poems that reminded me of things I already knew but were described so convincingly that I would never forget them.
I started writing in my sophomore year in college, first poems and then stories. I had an excellent college creative writing teacher named Howard Levant. A poet himself, he helped me by making specific comments on my poems and encouraged me to read widely and to experiment with various forms of fiction and poetry.
A brief, one-semester Iowa Writers’ Workshop experience in the early sixties was a temporary setback for me. Most of the writers in my poetry writing class were from larger, eastern cities and were older and more experienced than I. One afternoon in the student union some workshop poets were giving a reading. A young man named White got up and started reading a poem whose first word was corn, and he drew out the word in an exaggerated, loud, derisive way that obviously meant that he didn’t like poetry with local perspectives or settings, especially Midwestern ones. The audience agreed, clapping and laughing. I felt like the only one not in on the fun.
Some of the workshop sessions were useful to me, and there were some good writers around. But I was intimidated by what I sensed was a strong Eastern bias and didn’t think I had much to contribute. Confused, and with my confidence shaken, I dropped out.
I left Iowa City and took a teaching job at a college in Colorado, and slowly, tentatively, trying to forget the Iowa City detour, I began to write poems about experiences and images that were familiar: trains, pigeons, cindered alleys, fistfighting, pole vaulting, running with a football, working in a packinghouse (another night job while going to college), fishing, and so on. In other words, I began to revisit, through memories, the Sioux City landscapes. Some of these memories were so strong and persistent that the only way I could contain them was to give them some shape in words on paper. The poems I wrote seemed to fall into one of two main categories. One was dynamic and dramatic, such as my poem about pole-vaulting; the other was quiet, static, and introspective, such as my poem about standing where Armour’s used to be before it was razed, and which begins,
It is 5 a.m. everything is the same as it was
the moon-hammered faces of the cattle are waiting
the line at the hiring gate is growing minute by minute
you can see the faces of last year or forty years ago
(I’ve often wondered whether these two kinds of poems don’t reflect a lifestyle that prefers to alternate bursts of physical energy with long periods of quiet reflection and concentration, in a room alone, writing.) Gradually, I found that I could improve my poems only by revising and rewriting them, which meant, sometimes, hundreds of versions of a single poem or stanza. After I had accumulated a number of poems I was fairly satisfied with, my confidence came back.
I also did a lot of reading. I went back to Sandburg—probably my greatest influence—and I read more recent poets whose sensibilities or backgrounds I could identify with: James Wright, James Hearst, William Stafford, Karl Shapiro, James Dickey, to name five.
And then I had the good fortune to meet James Dickey at a writers’ workshop in Boulder, where we talked about a batch of my new poems. I had read some of his poems a few years earlier and remembered at the time feeling a strong kinship. Dickey had also been an athlete, and had an intense interest in evoking the physical life in his poems. He liked my work ethic and reminded me that “Shakespeare never did any pole vaulting.” Those were important words to hear at that point in my writing life, from a poet whose work I admired. The words confirmed what I had been discovering in my own way: it’s not so difficult to write like others or to be fashionable. What is difficult—and what really matters—is finding a way to consistently say things that couldn’t be said by anyone else.
“Poets,” says Stanley Kunitz, “are always revisiting the state of their innocence.” Kunitz is referring not just to a state of mind but to actual places. For me, if there is one place in my past I need to stay in touch with, it’s a railroad bluff in Sioux City, Iowa, a two-story brick house, and the vacant lot next to it with a vaulting pit at the west end. I believe it is possible, in some fundamental way, that my life as a poet began with a flat-out sprint down a dirt runway toward a bamboo crossbar nine feet high.