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Confessions of a Poet in Love

As an academic in midcareer, I wish I had nothing worse to confess than this: For several years in high school and then college I was a terrible poet. It's true that I wrote bad -- okay, very bad -- poetry, mostly couplets and sonnets, lame enough to be parodic; that I rarely resisted the impulse to contemplate wilting flowers; that my sense of metaphor led me to compare almost everything to a summer's day. As I have seen in my students, these are common failings of the budding literary enthusiast. But no, my worst literary sin, one that I have never faced up to or confessed, is more egregious. Between August 1967 and February 1968, at the age of 18, I undermined the integrity of that most staid of publications, the New York Times Book Review.

Like the scribblings of the Elizabethan poets, my story begins with infatuation. For several years in high school, making my way through such uncongenial subjects as chemistry and trigonometry, I had written sonnets, mostly about my girlfriend and the undying love she had inspired. At some point, like every other writer in America, I started submitting this work to the New Yorker, only to accumulate the small, yellowish rejection slips its editors must have ordered by the millions. I remember picturing in two ways how the New Yorker was handling the fine hammered steel of my verse. At times, I envisioned a line of automatic rejecting machines that kachunked along, ripping open unsolicited submissions, throwing away cover letters and stuffing the manuscripts into doomed self-addressed envelopes. At other times I could hear the yawning of subeditors who, like the scornful women in early Woody Allen films, glanced at my poems only long enough to conclude that there was "something missing" in them. And I guess there was only so much rejection, however politely phrased, I could take. At some point I snapped and decided to get my poems before a large audience any way I could.

My line of attack ran through the "Queries & Answers" feature that appeared regularly on the back page of the Sunday Times book review section. Every week, in brief and polite queries and rambling, informative answers, readers wrote in to share their ignorance and knowledge. Whereas other correspondents inquired about the half-remembered snippets and fragments of famous writers, my idea was to inquire about my own poems, quoting a few lines in the queries and complete stanzas in the answers.

Although this became a time-consuming activity, it began not as a grand plot but as a single question that appeared on the "Q&A" page on August 27, 1967:

"P.P.L. writes: I wonder if anyone can identify the source of these lines, written, I believe, about John Donne by one of his contemporaries. 'Forgetting the passions of earlier days, / You pray for forgiveness in clerical lays. / Love of your youth, a miracle of fire, / Seems in senility, pernicious desire. / Forgetting the glory of the Ocean and the Sun, / Oh John, even before your death, undone!'"

Delighted to see my query in print, I was startled when a friend from my high school English class who recognized my poem wrote to the Times four weeks later to point out that indeed the "lines quoted by P.P.L. (August 27) are the ninth stanza of Robert Herrick's poem 'To Pamela,'" Pamela being not Donne's or Herrick's love interest but my friend's girlfriend at the time.

The publication of my friend's answer burst upon me like a, like a, well, like a shining revelation. At the time, I thought, So what if the New Yorker is guarded by the hounds of Hell? This gateway to the New York literati, this most closely followed feature read by hundreds of thousands of people around the city and the world, stands unprotected, unmonitored, penetrable.

So it began in earnest. The "Q&A" page was divided between queries that ran on top and answers below. In the former, perhaps to spare ignorant writers embarrassment, questioners were identified by initials only; in the latter, perhaps to allow the knowing to shine, full names were given. Although, for the obvious reason, only one person asked a given question, several people were frequently given credit for submitting the same, ostensibly correct answer. How easy it would be, I thought, first to submit queries asking for information about the sources of my own lines and then to submit multiple, mutually confirming answers from different fictitious correspondents.

Reaching into my substantial backlog of unpublished, imitative verse, I selected 15 or 20 cherished efforts and started to fire off questions, often sending in two or three a week.

My plan was simple, even elegant. Inaugurating a presidential series, I would submit queries with names that, once reduced to their initials, would follow the order of U.S. leaders. In this way, if one George Wentworth or John Q. Anderson submitted a query, G.W. or J.Q.A. would seem to be the writer. In the answers, I planned to use some names and nicknames of people I knew and some silly names. Moving from what seemed at the time to be modesty to what seemed even then like chutzpah, I planned to associate my lines with more famous poets as I went along. Though Thomas Jefferson (T.J.) would ask about the work of an obscure 18th-century scribbler, by the time the series came to an end, I imagined, the lines Lyndon Baines Johnson (L.B.J.) asked about would be from Hamlet's most famous soliloquy.

Launching the series on October 15, 1967, I used my own initials:

"P.L. wants to know the source of these lines, which he thinks may be by John Skelton: ' . . . We fall looking up. / But never uprise / To see Thy great eyes / Or drink from Thy cup . . . / The stillness of the bier / Remains through the year.'"

Four weeks later, on November 12, the following ran:

"J.Q.A. hopes some reader can tell him who wrote these lines: 'Impossible to write just what they feel, / Poets best describe remembered zeal. / The poet who paints each moment as he lives / Takes from his life what he to sonnets gives. / As life remembered is more gentle to the mind / So truth in memory is easier to find.'"

Two weeks later, on November 26, I had my first double -- both a query and an answer of mine appeared in print. In the former, T.J. inquired about a set of couplets, while the musically named A.V. Valdy, from Teaneck, New Jersey, observed, "The lines quoted by P.L. (October 15) are . . . the refrain repeated throughout [John Skelton's] 'Gwendelyn Cycle.'" Gwendelyn -- Wendy, if you must know -- was my own girlfriend, the innocent inspiration of so much widely read clubfooted verse. In addition to Valdy, one Michael Mulligan (a name I remembered from a children's book) was credited with having "also identified these lines."

Three weeks later, on December 17, both John Adams (J.A.) and George Washington (G.W.) were in on the action, as the former asked for help in placing a fragment and the latter asked for the source of lines he recalled "from a Greek tragedy: 'Our youthful strength arises out of weakness / and to weakness must return. But, one ascends / in pride, the other falls to base dejection in whimpering descent.'"

According to my then two-and-a-half-year-old nephew, Eric D. Lurie, whose answer ran on January 21, 1968, just under a query from John Tyler (J.T.), the lines J.Q.A. quoted on November 12 were "a fragment of a fragment" taken from an "unfinished sonnet of William Wordsworth."

Looking back, I remember the exhilaration of dashing off these submissions with unusual confidence that many would find their way into print. Nor did I have to wait for Sunday morning to get the news, as the Times arrived well before midnight at newsstands in Manhattan. Many a Saturday, after an evening spent fooling around with my Gwendelyn, I would walk up to 110th Street and Broadway to pick up an Orange Julius and the Sunday paper. Many a Saturday I returned shaking my head and smiling. By the time Martin van Buren (February 4, 1968), James Polk (January 28, 1968), and William Henry Harrison (January 14, 1968) had asked their questions, a total of 10 of my queries and five of my answers had appeared in print.

But at some point, no doubt because it was all too easy, I got cocky. And cockiness, as I should have known even as a beginning student of literature, leads straightaway to a fall. Giddy from having got names like B. H. Rames and (get this) May N. Fartere (both of which ran on January 28, 1968) into print, I sent in answers written by Dr. A. Cula and Frank N. Stein, answers asserting that my own poor lines were written by Shakespeare. And that was that. No subsequent submission of mine, and I sent in a few, made it past the henceforth more attentive editors. My days as the worst American poet regularly read by hordes of sophisticates were over. It was back to the New Yorker and years of rejection.

Paul Lewis

Paul Lewis is chairman of the English department at Boston College, and teaches courses on American literature, creative nonfiction, and humor. This year he and the fair Gwendelyn will celebrate their 33rd anniversary.

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