Berkeley, the Sixties and Me, Part 14 … IT WASN’T ALL FUN AND RIOTS


Only four hundred pages to go before breakfast!

Berkeley wasn’t all fun and riots. In fact, it was quite the opposite.

The typical weekday consisted of classes or seminars along with a tsunami of assigned reading. Novels, plays and histories; language primers, German stories and French novels; Homeric, Elizabethan and contemporary poetry; physics, anthropology and philosophy; treatises, apologies and weighty tomes of analysis … not to mention weekly essays, critiques, and a term-long paper about any arcane subject of your choice.

These tasks were given by professors who obviously had no lives of their own to speak of, and who must have harbored a personal animosity for any activity, or non-activity, that resembled leisure.

The result was something that demanded self-discipline and personal sacrifice of the highest order … the sort that drives hapless scholars to place knitting needles under their chins to guard against accidentally drifting off to sleep. I felt this way because my chance for any measurable financial gain after trekking down the long road to matriculation was about as slim as a winning the lotto.


Time to choose your career son … or have it chosen for you!

Of course this was an inevitable dynamic of my career choice … an ambition to become a beat poet. For years I’d tried diligently to find an alternative to this dead-end destination on life’s road. At one point I’d scanned the entirety of the San Francisco Yellow Pages, in which I figured I could find a virtual compendium of all available careers.

But try as I might, I could never find an occupation or profession that sounded anything but fatally boring to me.

“Imagine!” I’d fantasize,“making money by writing a poem! Imagine reciting poems to a stadium packed with fans sitting on the edge of their seats eager to receive your every word as if they were immutable truths,  pronouncements from the mouth of a penniless prophet!”

Actually that wasn’t all fantasy … at least for the Russians. At the time one of their poets, a fellow from Siberia named Yevgeny Yevtushenko was doing just that in the old Soviet Union. Of course the Russians revered their poets back then … they still do* … but that particular art form had long before been hijacked by academics in the USA and effectively silenced.


Yevgeny in full poet mode!

However, I believed in my hopelessly unimaginative and unrealistically confident way, that I could grab it from the clutches of the high priests in the universities and deliver it back to the masses where it belonged. I thought “What the hell! I’ll give it a go!” After all, what did I have to lose? I loved writing poetry and, especially since Uncle Sam was covering my expenses, I couldn’t think of a thing I’d rather do!

Sometimes, when I had the grit to look toward far horizons and re-consider that decision, I’d console myself with a bromide, “You’ve got to make choices in life!” Of course I should have paid heed to the immortal English poet William Wordsworth who once said “I never made enough money from poetry to buy a pair of shoelaces!”

But a young man’s blinders of were firmly mounted on head and I was running so fast towards catastrophe that the rush of wind made it impossible for me to hear warnings, exhortations or wise counsel.

If ever there was an example of the folly of youth, this was surely it … and I was fully aware of it. In fact I delighted in it! I was in love with it! I was bound and determined to see it through to the bitter end … an end I knew would inevitably come.


*I actually had a brief run-in with this Russian reverence for poetry when one of them translated a book of my poems into that beautiful language. This was followed by a radio program that featured the poems in an hour-long program that was broadcast across all eleven time zones of the nation. Alas, there was no remuneration of any sort for the poet … not even enough to buy a new pair of shoelaces!



About Joe Illing

I hope you'll find my posts entertaining, occasionally edifying and worth whatever time you can spend with them ... Joe
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