Boy Genius . . . Age 57 : Larry Kramer Pushes the Cutoff Date for Being Labeled an ‘Emerging Poet’
“Failure,” booms poet Larry Kramer to a group of undergraduates gathered for class on the second floor of Cal State San Bernardino’s library.
“When I was a freshman in college, I was initiated into an honorary society where, as part of the initiation, they’d take you up individually, give you a little gold key and whisper this secret word that you were never supposed to say to anybody. I’m going to violate that trust now because what they said was . . . “
Several students lean forward.
“Success,” says Kramer, who, at 57, still sounds surprised by the word. “I was very disappointed. What should they have said? ‘Wisdom,’ maybe, or ‘failure.’ In fact, I think there’s a lot to be said for failure. Many of the best and most interesting people I know are absolute failures. My uncles all made careers out of failure, and they were terribly happy. They were farmers, and while others were making their farms bigger, my uncles were making theirs smaller so they could get done by noon and still have time to fish.”
Kramer pauses for a moment, then bends his 6-foot-1 1/2-inch frame toward the class.
“I would suggest failure to you,” he says earnestly, then lets out an infectious boombox laugh that reverberates throughout the second floor.
Pens poised expectantly above their notebooks, Kramer’s students aren’t sure whether to giggle or take notes.
They might be well-advised to do both.
As a poet, Kramer knows both success and failure. His most recent successes include receiving the Ann Stanford Poetry Prize for his poem “Brilliant Windows.” Established to honor the late Southern California poet, the annual international prize is administered through USC’s professional writing program. Kramer also just received word that his second book of poetry, also named “Brilliant Windows,” has been accepted for publication next spring by Miami University Press of Oxford, Ohio.
Kramer’s early writing career cast him as something of a wunderkind. After graduating in 1968 from the prestigious University of Iowa’s Writer’s Workshop, Kramer was christened one of the most promising of a highly talented group of writers that included James Tate, Jon Anderson and Ellen Bryant Voigt. Kramer rose to the occasion by having his first published poem appear not in some obscure quarterly but in the prestigious New Yorker--an impressive literary debut for the Midwestern son of a five-and-dime store manager.
There were prizes, including a near-miss being named a Yale Younger Poet Award winner--a much coveted honor for poets under 40--as well as a strong first book of poems, “Strong Winds Below the Canyons” (Quarterly Review of Literature, 1984). Gradually, however, the burden of being “promising” seems to have taken its toll.
“There was a period in my life when I didn’t write poetry at all,” Kramer recalls. “I had just gone through a divorce, and when I looked around me I saw people who seemed to be getting along just fine without writing poetry. So I thought, well, maybe I could be happy this way.
“So for a couple of years I didn’t write at all; I just spent my time being like everyone else. Going to Disneyland. Eating out at restaurants. And it was horrible. I mean, how many interesting places can you go?” he says, grinning.
By 1988, he had remarried, taken a leave from his teaching duties at Cal State San Bernardino and had joined his wife, Patricia Curran, in Baltimore, where she was working.
“I started over,” he says. “My whole life had changed, and suddenly I discovered my writing had changed too.”
The funny thing about the poetry business--and make no mistake, it is a business--is that there’s an indelible line drawn between poets under 40 (in po’ biz speak: “emerging poets”) and everyone else.
“New” poetic voices are young voices. And if you’re a “new” poetic voice who happens to be over 40, but not quite old enough to be cast as a silver-haired media sensation, it’s just that much tougher to find an audience by way of poetry competitions, anthologies and manuscript contests, many of which are geared for under-40 writers.
She is sitting in my
assigned seat, a window--refusing
to get up; I keep standing
straight and adult, extending
toward her my coat and carry-on
like weapons. . . . I don’t care
that there are only clouds--youth,
beauty be damned! I want to see:
I want to see out.
“In our society, if you haven’t made it as a writer by the time you’re 40, you’re history,” Kramer says. “And here I am, an emerging poet in my late 40s and 50s. I think my poems are more adventurous and daring now. But people don’t seem to know what to do about a 57-year old emerging poet.”
Kramer’s students know. After a few moments listening to Kramer’s bemused and booming voice as the poet recites his verse, even the most antsy 18-year-olds appear to fall under his spell.
“Mr. Kramer, was that--was that a prostitute you were writing about?” ventures one young man of a woman described eating a mango as she makes love to her husband--the student clearly confounded by the notion that anyone could be bored in the bedroom.
“No,” answers Kramer softly. “That was a human relationship.”
. . . She eats
a sulfur mango
he gasps like a hoist
cranking up cargo.
She stares not caring
what you see or think,
just as if selling
some native wares.
You think of your loves, . . .
how the human comes down
to this, a face
and ready to laugh.
“Larry doesn’t write in a relaxed, conversational style,” says James Reiss, editor of Miami University Press. “His work is much more intense, quirky and fresh. He seems completely unafraid to venture into his childhood, his Catholic upbringing, his Midwest sensibility transplanted to the West Coast. Nobody else is doing what he’s doing.”
Poet Marvin Bell, who selected Kramer’s anonymous entry as judge for the Stanford prize, says he was both surprised and delighted that the writer of the first-place poem turned out to be Kramer.
“I remember when I picked the poem feeling sure that a woman had written it,” Bell says with a laugh. “I can’t say why. You have these immediate ideas as you read poetry--things that you don’t really say to yourself because it’s irrelevant. But if I needed a pronoun to talk about the writer of this poem, I would have said ‘she,’ ” says Bell, who taught at Iowa when Kramer studied there.
“For me, Larry would be the definition of a poet for anyone who needed one,” he adds. “One reason is that he’s kept writing poetry without regard to fashion or constant notice. And although he seems normal enough, in truth he’s quite unusual.”
Kramer says the poem “Brilliant Windows” came to him as he was sitting on the roof of the Wilshire Boulevard office building where his wife works, trying to write.
“ ‘Brilliant Windows’ is a weird poem,” Kramer admits. “When I would sit up there on the roof, the writing wasn’t going very well, so I’d spend the afternoons going to the museums or walking down Wilshire, where I’d see people sitting outside on the sidewalk having coffee. I remember wondering what it’d be like to be part of that kind of life. I thought about that for about 15 years, and finally, I wrote this poem.
“The question here is: What would you do if you could come back from the dead?” he says. “Would you want to find out what people were doing? All the poem’s character wants to do is stand in front of a bakery shop and smell the aroma of things baking and look at the fashions displayed in the windows.
“It was a difficult poem to write. But it’s like what my old algebra teacher used to say: You have to set up the most complicated problem to solve--that’s what’s exciting. You always have to be on the verge of failure. If not, you’re not doing it right.
“Besides,” he says with a shrug, “there are much worse things than failure.”
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