Saturday, November 26, 2016
To Live Outside The Law-With The Outlaw Poet Slade Martin In Mind
To Live Outside The Law-With The Outlaw Poet Slade Martin In Mind
By Bart Webber
No way in Slade Martin’s sweet young life in 1965 did he ever expect, ever want to turn into an outlaw poet, a poet out of Villon, Verlaine, and of late the “beat” gangster street poet Gregory Corso hanging around Allan Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and Billy Burroughs, all sainted poets in their own right although getting passed as beat got beat but the commercial code, got itself onto televisions out in the heartlands-the kiss of death for any off-beat movement. No way did he think, did he want to be a gunsel poet, a guy living outside the law writing his poetry on the run, waiting in some cloven corner for the civil war in his head to wrap around the idea that he was doomed by the times and by the actuarial tables for outlaw anything including poets.
Figure it out for yourselves, Slade a product of Weston, out in the endlessly leafy suburbs of Boston did not project as some project kid with a dictionary in one hand and a gun in all the others. Not a big scholar beyond his from childhood love of language (had to go to summer school twice for math to give you an idea of his focus) but in the college track if for no other reason that he was excellent athlete, an excellent football player, a quarterback who would be heavily recruited by the smaller elite colleges like Williams, Lafayette or Amherst on the way to stockbroker heaven or a place in some daughter’s father’s company. Sweet.
But Slade Martin had a problem, really two problems, one was that he really was mad for words, for English words (and later in high school Spanish palabras after reading Frederico Garcia Lorca to ragged pages), for poetry and no amount of kidding by his fellow football players and assorted jocks around the leafy suburban school, no amount of teasing from the bevy of young women who followed him around Monday morning after he had thrown for three touchdowns say and could have given a goddam about poetry but rather dreamed of silky sheets (we are in the suburbs remember where even the kids had silk this and silk that including bedding) could turn him from his love of language. The other problem was that in order to really be a poet, to be a poet not in the mold of say T.S. Eliot who was all the square rage just then just because he was dubbed a modernist poet who spoke, mostly, of modern themes of alienations and anguishes he knew he had to break out of the mold intended for him, intended to keep him to that stockbroker road that seemed to float around his destiny.
But a kid like Slade who grew up on the streets of Weston unlike a kid who grew up on the streets of Lowell, Paterson, or Brooklyn did not instinctively have the wherewithal to figure out that he was going to have to live outside the law, to live out his life like some latter day Villon who became a hero once he discovered him by accident in an anthology of world poetry at the town library. (Villon who had no country that he would recognize, was a classic drifter and grifter almost any modern would recognize and had some pretty unsavory company inflamed Slade’s imagination although his poetry with few exceptions left him cold.) So Slade had to learn his outlaw trade by stealth, by figuring out that he had to go his own course. Funny before 1965 he expected to ply his trade, his love of language wrapped up for him via some academic training and then using whatever influences his father had in the publishing business to get his foot in the door.
Then Slade heard a song, a folk song, a genre he was not that familiar with but would later find a niche in, by a guy named Dylan (who was born with a different last name he had heard but had taken the last name Dylan in honor of the drunken poet Dylan Thomas who was raging against the dying of the light somewhere) where he made a big point out of having a reputation as an outlaw, saying that to be honest and Slade took this to mean honest in his poetry he must live outside the law. And so Slade, haltingly and inexpertly, turned himself into the outlaw poet that kids still read today when they read poetry in the elite schools although more usually they would sneak into the back alleys of the local library and read him there with a math book or something as cover and try to figure out what the fuck to do to speak their harried words to an indifferent world.
Naturally Slade had to blow off Weston, get the leaves out of his ears, to blow off college too, to forget that application to Amherst who wanted that arm of his not for writing but beating Williams in their annual gridiron battles. So at sixteen almost seventeen Slade grabbed half a hundred dollars loose change sitting around his mother’s pocketbook and one night headed for Cambridge with an idea of some kind of adventure to be able to put some truthful words together instead of the prickly pear words that had to be coaxed out of him by a very sympathetic teacher (who nevertheless wanted him to go to Amherst, his alma mater). He took the Peter Pan bus into Boston and then the Redline subway to Harvard Square where when he emerged he found himself running up the steps to be face to face with the entrance to the fabled Hayes-Bickford. The Hayes the place where any midnight you could see the literate refugees from the night (and other more besotted refugees as well) holding forth for their fellows. Cups of steaming coffee armed and ready.
That mother larceny night was the night he met Freddy Fallon who would guide him through the world of petty gangster-dom and a lifelong outlaw habit that he could never, would never and did not want to break even when he became famous (or infamous depending on your viewpoint) in the underground circles where his poetry was lapped up by hungry acolytes and devotees. Funny thinking back on it Slade would laugh at how easily he, a raw egg kid from the evergreen suburbs fell so hard and quickly for Freddy’s urban highway bullshit line of patter. Maybe after all he just looking for that excuse to break out and see what that break did to his words. He did not have long to wait since Freddy conned (and Slade would later agree that that word was appropriate) him into his first midnight creep that very night on the basis that if he needed a place to stay he could stay with Freddy as long as he went on the caper with him. In the event the job was a piece of cake-a robbery (unarmed this time since a gun was not necessary) of a famous Harvard professor’s house over on Francis Street which was like grabbing low hanging fruit (Slade would use that very term when he wrote a poem, The Midnight Creep, dedicated to Freddy, about the escapade a few days which New Directions would publish in an anthology of young poets the next year). They grabbed a few thousand dollars’ worth of silver and other trinkets and just as Freddy called it the professor never even called the cops and so they were able to get way with that caper. The classic Slade poem The Last Go-Round would also much later be the product of that night’s work as would a number of other poems created after a lawless spree.
(Some of Slade’s best poems were written in prison on those occasions when he and Freddy were not as lucky as with that embarrassed professor on that first night. He would be nominated and short-listed for Solace Sunset his first long lyric poem dedicated to Villon, or better the ghost of Villon who was the subject matter of the piece about the dignity of living outside the walls of respectable society if you had the cajones to do so which he believed was still in some high school English classroom anthologies.)
They, they meaning a few professors who came to his cell to have an interview with him about his concept of the outlaw poet, had asked Slade the last time he was incarcerated before he passed away a few years back why he left the grandeur of the leafy suburbs to pursue a career on the lower depths of society, to give up what would have been a promising straight life career as a poet. He looked at the collective gathering with a sneer and sideward glances and after along harangue about the death ship suburbs and the bullshit academic poetry which nobody gave a fuck about, a longer harangue about how only authentic words should touch paper and pen and a few words about his underground following being more worthwhile to communicate with than sitting in cold cellars reading awful mishmash poems to fellow poets and their girlfriend and boyfriends.
He finished up with some words of wisdom which the late Freddy Fallon (killed several years before in a shoot-out with a couple of bank guards who thought the bank’s dough was their own money and who also paid with their lives for that belief) had imparted to him that very first night when he had gone on that Harvard caper. To live outside the law you must be honest. Of course like almost everything that Freddy said or did he stole it from Bob Dylan one night when Bob was around Cambridge and around the Hayes putting some finishing touches on a song he was writing. But the idea was right, and Slade said when they big book was written against his name they would know that his words were not all bullshit but honest, honest as the pure driven wind.