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Well Versed

Cleatus Rattan, Texas poet laureate for 2004
Mark Graham

They came from opposite directions,

Glowing like the stars they

Would become,

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.'"

It is, he admits, as if he's spent much of his life making up for the wasted years of his frittered youth. "I went from being certain I was too stupid to ever get a college degree to feeling I had to learn everything while always making the best grade in class," he remembers. Even during the two years he taught high school English, he took graduate courses. "I knew I had to find something else to do. I felt like a jail trusty, locked up during the day, taking up lunch money, monitoring the halls, until I was allowed to go home in the evening. It was as close to hell as I ever want to get."

It was then that he began writing poetry seriously, hoping that getting published might provide a gateway to a more palatable academic venue.

Perhaps, he thought, teaching at the college level would offer an improved atmosphere. "I started sending out résumés, but no one would have me," he says. "The only positive response I received was from Cisco Junior College. I didn't even know where it was. But I took the job." He's been teaching English there for 34 years.

And along the way, the writing, which he routinely does in the early morning hours, has become a compulsion.

He even commuted to Dallas to take a poetry course taught by Myers, where the two first met.

The SMU professor, meanwhile, started writing what he terms "moon/June" type poems at age 12. "I was serious; the poetry wasn't," he remembers. By the time he'd earned his degree in English literature at the University of Massachusetts, he had even sold his furniture one whimsical summer to finance a trip to San Francisco to pay a visit to Beat poet guru Lawrence Ferlinghetti. And back in Cambridge there was Club 47, a jazz and poetry nightspot that had become his second home. "Most of us wore old dungarees we'd paid five bucks for," he remembers, "but every Saturday night this swanky limo would pull up and this beautiful woman would get out, come in and spend the evening. I came to really hate her. So, one night, I just went up to her and told her off, letting her know exactly how I felt about dilettantes invading our turf. Afterwards, I felt pretty pleased with myself." Until, that is, he arrived to teach at SMU in 1975 and learned that same woman, Bonnie Wheeler, was on the faculty, teaching medieval literature. "Fortunately," Myers says, "she's not only forgiven me but become a good friend."

Now director of creative writing at Southern Methodist and, along with wife Thea Temple, a founder of Dallas' Writers Garret literary center, Myers' bibliography lists seven critically praised volumes of poetry, the most recent being OneOnOne, and five works about his craft.

"What interests me as a writer," Myers says, "are the ordinary but universal things in life, the spiritual comfort that comes from the most simple of activities. My goal has always been to make my poetry accessible to everyone."

It is, he realizes, an ambitious undertaking. "Modern poetry lost its readership back in the '40s when it became so elitist. Instead of poets telling stories, they began writing for other poets," he says. And the audience disappeared.

Long gone are those glory days of the Romantic Age of the art when Alfred Lord Tennyson commanded the following and adulation now reserved for a rock star. "His popularity reached a point where he even had to request that the British railroad not announce his arrival time when he was scheduled to give a reading," Rattan says, "because he was being literally mobbed by crowds of waiting admirers."

Today, however, theirs is a subsidized art. They can only ponder ways they might regain even a modest audience. "I'm not optimistic," Rattan says. "Nor am I," Myers adds.

In fact, when time comes for Myers to pass his honorary torch, it's a safe bet that Rattan's bucolic country life will not be interrupted. The position of Texas poet laureate carries no responsibility, no salary, no schedule. With 2003 now half over, Myers can count only 11 invitations to give readings. And only one of those included mention of paying travel expenses or an honorarium.

 

So, what is it that drives these men to continue seeking perfection of yet another line, another metaphor, another way to describe life's tangled journey? "I don't think any of us can explain it," Rattan admits. "We write and read and think and scratch our butts--and still don't have any good answers."

To such straightforwardness, there is a certain poetic ring.


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