Well Versed

Same state, different worlds for two Texas poet laureates

 They came from opposite directions,

Glowing like the stars they

Would become,

Cleatus Rattan, Texas poet laureate for 2004
Mark Graham
Cleatus Rattan, Texas poet laureate for 2004
2003 Texas Poet Laureate Jack Myers
Carlton Stowers
2003 Texas Poet Laureate Jack Myers

Arriving in the same place

To shed their remarkable light.

Old friends Cleatus Rattan and Jack Myers have, at first glance, little in common aside from a passionate devotion to their faded art and the fact one of the state's highest literary honors has been bestowed on each. Current Texas Poet Laureate Myers, 61, came from the postcard venue of the Boston, Massachusetts, area, a product of the now-gone beatnik coffee houses, to teach at SMU; 67-year-old Rattan, whom the Texas Commission on Arts recently selected as poet laureate for 2004, flunked out of SMU. Only after a four-year stint in the Marines did he make an academic comeback and ultimately find a teaching position at tiny Cisco Junior College.

Thus, the distance between the two could be measured in light-years. There was Rattan, tending polled Herefords on his 150-acre ranch just a few miles outside a community of 3,000 when he wasn't instructing a classroom filled with rural kids raised in the hardscrabble small towns of West Texas. He made no apologies for dipping Copenhagen and drinking beer with buddies at Mary's Café in the nearby whistlestop community of Strawn, and thought nothing of the fact no one in town made a fuss when he won awards like the Texas Review Poetry Prize, the Mesquite Prize, the New Texas Poetry Prize or published a new book of poems.

Myers, meanwhile, attended Highland Park cocktail parties and book signings, has twice been honored by the National Endowment for the Arts, lectured to classes of tweedy young men and cosmopolitan women and steadily gained high ranking in the Dallas literary scene.

One talks in the language of a deep thinker: "Every morning," Myers recently recalled, "this solitary bird would sit on my roof, singing his heart out. Yet no other bird ever came. And for a long time I wondered if he was lonely or simply singing to lift the spirits of the world." The other deals more in plain speak: "Aside from my wife, my kids and a couple of good horses, nothing has stirred my passion like poetry," Rattan says.

It is that passion both men embrace and share, begrudgingly accepting the fact their creative efforts reach only a small and dwindling audience. Understand we're not talking about the tepid and often thoughtless messages heard at the currently popular open-mike poetry gatherings in Deep Ellum. ("I like seeing the involvement of so many young people," Myers says, "but much of what they're doing is hip-hop, rhyming, stream-of-consciousness stuff that I'm afraid is only a fad.") Or the chic cowboy poetry currently in vogue. ("It's nice and certainly entertaining," Rattan says, "but it isn't poetry. What they're writing is short stories in verse.")

What Myers and Rattan write is not quickly crafted over a latte at Starbucks or during a DART ride to the office. In their works, thoughtful reason replaces rhyme. ("In my classes," Myers says, "I forbid my students to use rhyme and instead concentrate on the shape and balance of their words.") Theirs is a solitary and often tedious endeavor wherein the search for the perfect word and perfect image is the goal. Rattan has chosen to write about the bygone days of hard-life Texas, while Myers' poetry is set in the here and now and often autobiographical. Both men mix humor, insight and matters of the heart with their verse.

And, despite their acclaim, it is rare when either is completely satisfied.

For two years, Rattan has been rewriting and fine-tuning a collection of poems he hopes will eventually follow his much-applauded book The Border. "Every time I think I'm finished," he says, "I find something that needs work, a line that can be improved. With a poem, you never really know when you're through. You just eventually reach a point where it's time to stop and move on to something else."

This from a man who once rebelled mightily against any form of academia. Born in Dallas and raised in suburban Irving, he left no mark as a high school student. "As a kid, I was one of those who bought into the idea that to be popular you had to make it perfectly clear that you had absolutely no interest in learning," he says. By his own admission he was a roaring success, and went on to again prove the fact as an SMU student in the mid-'50s. "I flunked out after my third semester and joined the Marines," he recalls.

It was while in the service that he developed the habit of reading, beginning with biographies of sports figures, advancing to books on history and finally to poetry. "I reached a point," he says, "where I carried a poetry anthology in my backpack, and anytime there was an opportunity I'd read from it. I even reached a point where I felt like I was beginning to understand some of it."

After his return to civilian life, a changed Rattan enrolled at then-North Texas State University and launched into an academic pursuit that would not end until he'd earned three master's degrees and a doctorate. "I can't really call myself a scholar," he says, "but I'm certainly 'frequently educated.'"

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