Max Reif


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In college I never understood poetry. Certain distant acquaintances walked around in what appeared to be a kind of haze. People spoke of them, always with a kind of awe, as poets.

I didn't grasp the poetry, but I wanted the awe. I wanted to be one of the people spoken of that way!

Whether most poets begin with such vague, crass aspirations, I don't know. Most things that are worthwhile in my life, though, have begun with some form of longing, some perception of their absence.

My first year at Northwestern University I attended some poetry readings. Invariably I would walk into the appointed room to find an anxious, anemic-looking man (never a woman) in a suit, standing before a few rows of people sitting in desks. He would prodeed to mutter words I found as arcane as medieval spells.

One night in the spring, though, Allen Ginsburg came to campus. Several thousand people jammed into an auditorium to hear him. I soon grasped why. You could actually understand what he was talking about! He chanted about the Vietnam war, the moral and psychic state of America, his own sexuality—-intimate matters that affected everyone there. Ginsburg was an event as much as a poet, but he showed me that it is possible to use words in ways that are intense and close to home.

My first 'real' poem (as opposed to some earlier efforts in which I tried to sound like a poet) came out of me when I was home from college in the summer of 1968. I was driving through an area of St. Louis, Missouri that a few years earlier had been called Gaslight Square-a nationally-known neighborhood of bistros and beatnik coffeehouses that is even mentioned by Kerouac in ON THE ROAD.

In the mid-'60s, as I've heard it, a tourist was murdered in the area, and people just stopped going. As I drove past in '68, Olive Street looked like a neighborhood in a bombed-out city. I was suddenly taken up in feelings of the transience of all earthly things, and a poem, already written by inner muses, poured out of me. All I remember of it is that Gaslight Square became a symbol of a lost Mother, or Great Mother. One line of the poem went: 'since your great hip shook itself to sleep.'

That almost mystical sort of sequence, resulting in a poem, repeated itself several times that summer. I became addicted to the creative process, and remain so,38 years later. I suffer acutely when, as sometimes happens, the process is blocked.

It was not until 1976, though, when I was 28,
after a very deep depression that culminated in a dramatic spiritual awakening, that 'the gift' of poetic utterance began to flow out of me in a steady stream — sometimes, even, in a mighty torrent! During one period in the '80s, poetry poured out so prolifically that I could scarcely drive. At every red light, a line would come into my head. I'd pick up my pen and notebook. By the time I'd jotted down the line, the driver behind me was likely to be honking. Poets will understand this.


The Poetry Tavern page on my website (http: // links to several book-length collections of my verse, some containing work that goes back almost thirty years. I've put many of what I feel are my best poems on the Poemhunter site, as well. My verse has been, in its own modest way, deeply influenced by great Sufi poets like Hafiz and Rumi, as well as by contemporary poets like Ginsberg and Robert Bly.

My primary contemporary influence, though, has been Francis Brabazon, a recent Australian poet whose subject was also love and longing for God. Much of my poetry has been inspired by and devoted to Meher Baba, of whom Brabazon was a disciple, as the embodiment, in my experience, of the spiritual ideal in our time.


3. Preface To My First Book of Poems
(a 'chapbook', I guess they call it now)

Whatever my 'inner literary critic' may say today, YOUNG MAN GONE WEST (now online athttp: // was a true labor of love. In the summer of 1983 I had hitch-hiked to Denver from Cheyenne to visit my old buddy, Ed Luck, after my wife had abruptly left Cheyenne with the car. I felt a mixture of thrill at the prospective exploration of a new city, and confusion about my direction in life.
Those were the days when I was discovering self-help groups. My daily routine consisted of going to meetings, exploring the city, writing, and for a time, being a street minstrel at the big, new outdoor mall downtown.
The minstrel days ended when the weather turned. An angel whispered in my ear a possible new project: 'Put a book of poems together! '
I realized a number of my recent efforts would work together and kept writing until the same angel said, 'This much is the book.'

Then came the 'high tech' part.
High tech meant, in those days, taking busses and trudging repeatedly in blizzards to Kinko's, the new little shop near the university where you could make copies, collate, and even create a 'book cover' out of colored card stock. There was no other way to put my book together except to make the lengthy journey again and again from my apartment on Colfax Street.
I also needed a work space for writing and editing, and set about the hopeless task-given my paltry means-of finding an 'office' to rent. Checking the bulletin board at Rainbow Foods, the 'new age' grocery store around the corner, was a good beginning.
Miraculously, I soon stumbled upon an old 5-story building that was owned by a progressive proprietor who rented space cheaply to the Sierra Club and various other liberal organizations. Incredibly, a tiny room was available for $35 a month! Even I could afford that!
I bought a used desk and somehow lugged it up the freight elevator. Tipping it on its end, I pulled it through the office door.
By now, YOUNG MAN GONE WEST was almost finished. A little more writing and a couple more trips to Kinkos, and I was riding home on the bus cradling fifty copies of my baby in my lap. The first copies had gold covers. They felt like pure gold.
I brought the books back to the office. The late November evening was cold, windy, and delicious. Deep snow lay on the ground. As I entered the building, a man about my age was walking in the hall.
'What have you got there? ' he asked.
'A book of poetry I just finished writing! ' I said proudly, holding up my beautiful cover.
'Wow! ' he said. 'May I read it? '
'Sure! ' I told him. 'Here, you can have a copy.'
'That's so kind of you. Will you autograph it? ' he asked.

Soon I was walking toward my own little space, eager to make a cup of tea and go over YOUNG MAN GONE WEST one more time. I pulled my keychain from my pocket. It was heavy with keys to several churches I opened each week for self-help meetings
Closing the door behind me and putting the books down on the desk, I suddenly felt completely naked, as if my entire psyche was getting x-rayed.
'What could be making me feel this way? ' I wondered. As far as I knew, I was completely alone and had been filled with nothing but expansive feelings.
Then I knew. The young man downstairs had opened his book and was reading. He was reading my soul. That was what poetry was: the book of one's soul, shared.

'But this book only skims the surface of what I have to say! ' I thought, savoring this delicious taste of the writer's secret life.
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4/17/2021 4:47:14 PM #