Thursday, December 1, 2011

Patrick O'Neill, Teacher and Poet

Patrick O’Neill is an esteemed teacher of college literature and composition, along with being the author of seven published books of poetry, the latest of which is titled “Snake Spit.” Upon seeing that title I had to meet the guy.

Photo courtesy of Patrick O'Neill

At a reading in Ironwood, the audience was full of Pat’s students, past and present. Throughout the evening, their laughter, knowing nods and obvious affection for Pat demonstrated not only that he’s a teacher in the finest sense of the word, but also a provocative, persistently engaging, always entertaining lecturer of the first order. And an authentic local legend to boot.

Patrick O’Neill continues to teach in ways large and small. He sets an example for the rest of us by donating the proceeds from his readings and from the sale of his books to funding for the Arts, including the Ironwood Carnegie Library’s creative programming for children, the creative needs of children being Pat’s raison d’ĂȘtre.

Considering the nature of the man, his accomplishments and particular skills, no prose reduction of mine can provide adequate representation, so this week I’ll turn things over to him. I only urge you to support Pat in his efforts to help the children of the region, which are its future. A good start would be to purchase one of Pat’s books of poetry or to attend his next reading, which will be held Wednesday December 7th, at the historic Ironwood Theater and is a fundraiser for the Ironwood Theatre and Carnegie Library Creative Writing Programming for Area Students: Sharing Poems and Stories.

With that, I proudly introduce Patrick O’Neill:

For Awhile
by Patrick O’Neill

Jack London and Robert Service sent me to the Range from Lower Michigan. Their dramatic/humorous stories of life in the Yukon that I read in junior high school gave me an appetite to tangle with bitter cold and heavy snow. The appetite lingered long enough to send me to the UP. Having been here so many decades killed my taste for snow and cold years ago. Now it’s the wilderness that holds me. The wildernesses’ compelling challenges drive my right brain, sending it exploring, discovering, creating. An appetite for the emotional impact of the mysterious and the unexplored draws me to the woods daily. The narrator of my poem “The Woods Is a Woman” and I share the same feelings, reflections, and inclinations:

                  The woods is a woman, a lover.
                  I enter her—not to escape or elude—
                  but to learn her pristine passion,
                  absorb her inspiration—and share
                  what I can of it with other inhabitants
                  of our crumbling world—where the frigid
                  calculator Institutionalism has captured,
                  castrated—robotized Reason—sent him
                  to war against his own sons and daughters.

Much of what draws me to the woods daily also draws me to my present and former students. They, too, are products of the wilderness. I don’t understand them anymore than I understand the birds, deer, rivers, trees, swamps. I bond with all of them. I walk into the same woods, classrooms day after day—and no two are ever the same; they shouldn’t be. It helps me keep strong my struggle against consistency; it chases me off traveled roads, trails, paths. Like the narrator of my Poem “Loops,”

I memorize
the annular trail
by tree buds, ripe berries,
stump mushrooms, snow.
But each trek my memory—
like a defiant kid—
hightails it into the woods,
vanishes. Lost, I—
without direction, haste—
discover alien buds,
berries, mushrooms, snow—
that blow presumptions
that wandered the bygones
with me to all Billy hell.

Former students often reassure me that my spontaneity—shortages of structure and direction both in and out of the classroom—along with my emotional outbreaks as the wildernesses clash with tamed uniformity has had some impact on them. It’s sent them to wildernesses where they explore, discover, invent, build vehicles, deliver—share only what they alone can share with the world. All of this does more than to reassure me that I don’t understand anything at all and to inspire me to keep trekking. The wildernesses of the woods and classrooms waft more than an independence; it’s a beautiful distance—a supreme poetry—that both humbles and inspires me. I embrace it.

by Patrick O’Neill

I submit my
images, thoughts
to the River.
It doesn’t applaud or jeer.
It just keeps rippling
and roaring its own poetry—
diminishing my words.

Its blatant disregard passes
a caustic, demeaning
judgment: documented disdain
that discourages, silences you—

or rankles you to keep
yapping—for awhile.

Growing and Gathering
by Patrick O’Neill

A frequent question people shoot at me is, Have you noticed dramatic changes in high school graduates in your classes?  I’ve always disappointed them, answered the question with a head shake and, “No”—until the last couple decades. More and more students walk into my freshman comp classes not knowing they can invent, not knowing what invention is, or believing it’s unnecessary—a waste of time and energy.

Economic declines reinforcing governmental pressures that demand nearly exclusive objective curriculums have crippled our educational institutions. Excessive objective testing and the cutting of classes that promote creativity make it unduly difficult for educators to devote the necessary time and energy to give our kids the incentive to be creative.  Our elementary teachers—who hold the most important jobs in our culture—battle the brunt of the assault. 

I believe that during impressionable elementary-school years our kids are most able to discover, embrace, and hold on to the revelation that they not only can be but have a responsibility to be creative. It’s the only way they’ll ever share what’s vital to the health of any culture: the exclusive essence of its individual members. Creatively deprived cultures wither like root-bound plants and die. The Romans who sat comfortably rooted in their pots of plenty, letting other cultures invent for them, showed us that.  Their long, withering demise was their most useful contribution to the world.

My lifetime goal is to donate all the time, energy, and money I can grow and gather to give as many of our kids as I can what our elementary and secondary schools never seem to have the finances or time to provide: the inspiration, encouragement, direction, and self confidence to grow creatively. And along with this, I hope that my audiences—cultivators and producers of this endeavor—will find some inspiration, encouragement, direction, and self confidence in what I share in my books and at my readings.

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