I’ve had this love affair with poetry since my earliest days, relishing metaphors that translate life from prose to camera, the sheer musicality of it, the crossword deliberation it compels, the tension of its paradoxes capturing life’s myriad, inherent subtleties; above all, its ability to mine deep, probing shafts of sub-subterranean memory and feeling I had thought beyond retrieve.
It follows then that I’m always on the lookout for good poets to swell the hosts of poets like Larkin, Wilbur, Pinsky, Levine and others that provide me good company in the winters as well as summers of life.
Just the other day I made a new acquaintance in pursuing my just in-the-mailbox New Yorker and immediately I knew I’d found a friend I wanted to keep.
Maybe you know him already, Gary J. Whitehead, though for me he’s a new artist in town and one I predict will swim into renown among aficionados of good poetry.
Whitehead, a Princeton grad and Teacher of the Year recipient, teaches English and Creative Writing at Tenafly high School in New Jersey and has received numerous awards for his verse.
How lucky can high students get to share class-time with the likes of a gifted artist like Whitehead! He’s published three collections of his poetry thus far with a fourth, Strange What Rises, about to be published.
You’ll find his poetry absent of the metaphysical, yet never banal in its quotidian pursuits captured in poems such as “Making Love In the Kitchen” and “Lot’s Wife,” which are uncanny for infusing metaphor into the prosaic small deeds and events of ordinary life, granting new ways of viewing their ritual component in our lives. In this, he reminds me a lot of the late Richard Wilbur.
I especially like his passion, which is nice to come upon in an often circumscribed aesthetic aloofness among poets. I think passion frequently makes for good teaching as well. Perhaps it’s this passion that churns my emotions into butter whenever I read Gerard Manley Hopkins, just maybe my favorite old-time poet who passed so terribly young and unrecognized.
Let me try this early Whitehead poem (2002) on you and see if it fits. I think you’ll see what I‘ve been saying:
First Year Teacher to His Students Go now into summer, into the backs of cars, into the black maws of your own changing, onto the boardwalks of a thousand splinters, onto the beaches of a hundred fond memories in wait, where the sea in all its indefatigability stammers at the invitation. Go to your vacation, to the late morning cool of your basement rooms, the honeysuckle evening of the first kiss, the first dip and pivot, swivel and twist. Go to where the clipper ships sail far upriver, where the salmon swim in the clean, cool pools just to spawn. Wake to what the spider unspools into a silver dawn dripping with light. Sleep in sleeping bags, sleep in sand, sleep at someone else's house in a land you've never been, where the dreamers dream in a language you only half understand. Slip beneath the sheets, slide toward the plate, swing beneath the bandstand where the secret things await. Be glad, or be sad if you want, but be, and be a part of all that marches past like a parade, and wade through it or swim in it or dive in it with your eyes open and your mind open to wind, rain, long days of sun and longer nights of city lights mixing on wet streets like paint. Stay up so late that you forget day-of-the-week, week-of-the-month, month-of-the-year of what might be the best summer, the summer best remembered by the scar, or by the taste you'll never now forget of someone's lips, and the trips you took—there, there, there, where snow still slept atop some alpine peak, or where the moon rose so low you could see its tranquil seas...and all your life it'll be like some familiar body that stayed with you one night, one summer, one year, when you were young, and how everywhere you walked, it followed.
"First Year Teacher to His Students" by Gary J. Whitehead, from Measuring Cubits While the Thunder Claps. © David Robert Brooks, 2008.