How I Got to Be This Hip: The Collected Works of One of America's Preeminent Journalists

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9780671028107: How I Got to Be This Hip: The Collected Works of One of America's Preeminent Journalists
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Spanning some three decades of twentieth-century history, from the 1960s through the 1980s, a collection of essays by one of America's leading journalists shares his social commentary on Woodstock, Charles Manson, the Patty Hearst kidnapping, and other aspects of the changing American scene. Original.

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About the Author:

Barry Farrell was one of the premier writers of his era, a writer's writer, revered by his peers. He started at Time in 1961, then became a staff writer for Life in the late 1960s, where he wrote a column every other week, alternating with Joan Didion. He then moved to Los Angeles in the early 1970s and was West Coast Editor of Harper's. He also taught writing. Barry Farrell died in 1984.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter One: On a Sailboat of Sinking Water

I didn't really resent the way the poets laughed and talked and ran around the room. If that was their way of writing so well, only a fool would call for silence and order. It was just that watching them from my seat at the back of the big sunny room made me feel delicate and dry, a burnt-out case compared to them. The fact that the oldest of the poets was eleven was no consolation at all.

I had encountered these poets a few weeks before when an anthology of their writings arrived in the mail from Chelsea House, a book called Wishes, Lies and Dreams. It began with a long essay by the poet Kenneth Koch on new methods of teaching children to write poetry, but I skipped on to the poems themselves and soon found myself lost in wonder at the secret places they revealed.

A few of the poems were cute enough to let you off with a safe adult chuckle:


Goodbye crawling hello walking.
Goodbye diapers hello panties
Goodbye hairy hello baldy.


And there were others that were exceedingly gentle as they drew you into the universe of imagination:


I was born nowhere
And I live in a tree
I never leave my tree
It is very crowded
I am stacked right up against a bird...


But then came feats of the child's unharnessed vision, the ability to imagine anything, to be anything at all. A first-grader named Andrea Dockery wrote


I used to be a fish
But now I am a nurse...


and I began to perceive that my parental pleasure in these verses was tinged with professional envy. Then, in a poem by Eliza Bailey, a fifth-grader, I came upon the sailboat of sinking water.


I have a dog of dreams...
I have a sailboat of sinking water...


A sailboat of sinking water. An image as calm and mysterious as anything of the deep. What could she have meant by it? What did she see in her mind's free eye? It was beyond my imaginative reach, and as a fellow writer I couldn't help but experience further pangs and stirrings. Something in these poems reminded me very acutely of my own childhood and of sensibilities I'd forgotten I ever possessed. Remembering, I felt sabotaged by my education, crippled for life by all the rules and manners I'd learned. In such a mood, it did my confidence no good to come upon lines such as Eduardo Diaz's "The big bad pants lay faded on the chair." Or Iris Torres' "A breeze is like the sky is coming to you." Or Argentina Wilkerson's incredible "I wish planes had motors that went rum bang zingo and would be streaming green as the sea." Thinking it might serve me as a tonic, I made arrangements to visit the poets at their school, P.S. 61, on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.


Koch's method was in fact no more than an attitude that began with the assumption that children are natural poets. Teaching them meant only encouraging them with enthusiasm, respect, ideas, and a general amnesty on all the obstacles to free expression such as spelling, meter, and rhyme. Koch had spent a year working at P.S. 61 and by experiment had discovered a variety of ways to elicit the best responses. He would tell children to be mean or crazy if they wished and give them plans for poems that left them completely free. The children differed greatly by age, he said, with the first- and second-graders "buoyant and bouncy, the third-graders wildly and crazily imaginative, and fourth-graders warmly sensuous and lyrical, the fifth-graders quietly sensuous and intellectual, and the sixth-graders bitter, secretive, and emotional." We chose a fifth-grade class to visit, and Miss Pitts, the teacher, took a seat to the side and let Koch take over the class. The children cheered and pounded their desks at the sight of him, and he responded excitedly, looking as he waved, like Chico Marx, all hair and friendly smile.

Once he had got them started by suggesting they write about the months of the year, Koch came back to warn me not to count on today's session producing anything inspired. Like all writers, the young poets had their days. There was a birthday party going on in the hallway outside, and the students were also disturbed by an article about Koch in Newsweek which referred to them as "slum children." They had answered with poems to the editor drawing the distinction between a poor district and a slum, and they seemed happily avenged. "I know it looks like they're just raising hell," Koch said, "but that's part of the approach. Children make a lot of noise when they're excited, so it's a good sign if poetry does that to them."

Koch agreed that the catch in his method lay in finding teachers who could tolerate the anarchy of creation and could also face up to the fact that children are better poets than their teachers. To criticize or correct or single out the best were all out of the question if the children were to be free of inhibition. Koch spent the hour spelling out words when asked and offering advice to those few who were stuck. Ten minutes from the end of the hour, he told the poets to stop writing. "Who wants to read?" he asked. A dozen hands shot up.

One after the other, the children came up to the front of the class and read their work, with no trace of embarrassment or self-consciousness.


...I was to be a lion but the skin tore...
March, in France, the gray tower falling...
I think of going ice skating in the sewers...


I could have sat in that room forever without thinking of ice skating in the sewers. Writing, for me, has always been in the service of some demanding standard. I inch along, dreading inelegance and error, finding my words on a tightrope stretched over canyons of falsehood and inhibition. There is no doubt a very good argument that even the most permissive and encouraging education might not be able to protect these poets' access to their imaginations from all the other disciplines and conventions designed to brick them up. Perhaps you have to be ten to think of sailboats of sinking water; at eleven, your science teacher informs you that water doesn't sink and from then on it is inevitable that the boundaries of reason and fact will draw in on you, ensnarling your free inner life forever.

But there was a moment in the classroom, with the lovely chaos all around, when it seemed to me I could almost picture a sailboat of sinking water. It was one mind, one imagination, free and riding on the sky that comes to you with the breeze.


1970

Copyright © 1999 by Marcia Farrell

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