True friendship is a plant of slow growth, and must undergo and withstand the shocks of adversity before it is entitled to the appellation.
Edited and compiled by Robert Sward
the Nature of Literary Friendship: Paul Oehler
by William Minor
In 1962-63, I was a graduate student in Language Arts (Creative Writing) at what was then San Francisco State College. I was also a fairly recently "ordained" father (I had two kids under five years of age), a husband of sorts, and a full time employee--a Scientific Data Analyst no less--at Lawrence Radiation Laboratory in Berkeley. I rode the bus to and from work every day, studying Russian (a portion of my M.A. thesis consisted of translations from Alexander Blok), and took classes at night. Needless to say, this was a hopping, hectic, nervous, but exciting time.
I had some poems printed in Transfer 15, S.F. State's literary magazine, and two of the editors were fellow students I never met: Ed Devlin and Paul Oehler. I won the twenty-five dollar annual poetry prize in ‘63, for a poem called "The Barmaid," modeled on the intricate syllabic stanza patterns (and adding a rime scheme) of Dylan Thomas’ "Fern Hill." I was twenty-seven years of age, left work, attended classes, returned home, and was decidedly not a part of the campus literary scene. I was also so shy at the time that, accepting the prize and giving my very first poetry reading, I never even looked up--thus missing my own boycott. "Beat" students objected to a closed form or "cooked" poem (as opposed to open and "raw") having won the prize, and protested by raising a banner at the back of the hall--a gesture of dissent that, my then reticent and bashful consciousness buried in the task of reading my poem, I never witnessed.
Eight years later, I was teaching English at Monterey Peninsula College, and--as fate would have it--my office mate was my former editor, Ed Devlin. One day his old S.F. State buddy Paul Oehler drove down to the Peninsula, walked into my home, and recited--"by heart," as they used to say--a twenty-three line poem of mine in iambic pentameter called "Persian Miniatures," a poem he had also once selected for Transfer. Needless to say again, I was thrilled. We formed an instant friendship that would last until Paul's death, sixteen years later.
I haven't many friends I would call "gentlemen," nor would they care, perhaps, to be thought of that way. But Paul Oehler was a gentleman, not of any old corny school but the genuine sort: a man nearly medieval in soul, in intentionality, carting an inherent dignity which--for all the damage he could do to himself, and he did considerable--I seldom saw him put aside for long. For all Paul's contemporaneity--his tattoos; his place of honor (or stool) at the Pine Cove bar in Sacramento; his long, hard fought battles for the Union--he was of some other world: archetypal, historical, transcendent. And I don't intend that as hyperbole. He once wrote of "the eloquence of the unsaid," and it's not necessary to say more of Paul than he was, or than he might approve of. Yet his "otherworldliness" is legendary: saying "Aye, Sir" to close friends or, if his patience had been provoked, "You swine"--both delivered in his courtly style. He wasn't much for twentieth century chitchat, thank God, and the mannerisms this paradox produced will long be remembered by his friends, literary and otherwise.
A paradox: a sensitive cerebral poet who collected stamps and recordings by Callas and lived with his mother in a turquoise Victorian home and ... and all the rest. The friendship of poets is a grand thing. Paul's capacity for solid friendship is also legendary, but poets get not just the customary good things--shared laughter, rare conversation (customarily at three in the morning), song, memorable gatherings--but that fine hinge of respect for each other's work; for what the soul can find and speak of through poetry. I enjoyed that highest form of communication often with Paul. That ’s why, in 1985, out of mutual respect, we decided to pool our poems and do a book together called Natural Counterpoint, a book in which we set our egos aside, temporarily, and remained--aside from authorship designated on the title page of each section--anonymous--in the spirit of those Vagantes, troubadours, scops, and wandering scholars who placed the content of their poems and the poems themselves above self in the Middle Ages--a time that, after all, was not that much unlike our own.
Paul and I were very different. He complained once, on a radio show we did, of my "folksy approach to life." I love jazz and uncritical fun; Paul dug the harpsichord and being serious. Yet, in his stately way, he could get fairly folksy himself, and he had a vast capacity for good solid nonsense, a sense of the all-pervasive absurd, and that I think--the near religious sense of it and the open laughter provoked--is something else we shared.
A true story: one night, in Monterey, we went out to a bar (Paul and I were very good at this; too much so, perhaps, for our own good), a bar called the Halfway House (irony--everywhere!). The place still smacked of Steinbeck days, Cannery Row, and Bob Dylan was purported to have hung out there while courting Joan Baez. The pool table was tough, the clientele the same. You could tell by the number of motorcycles parked outside. Whatever Paul's past--and I've never doubted a legend of it for a second--he looked like just about anything but an ex-biker. He looked like a stand-in for Michael Caine in "Educating Rita," a classic British don. So, with great dignity, and shark and hustler he'd once been, he proceeded to wipe out everybody at the pool table. The tension--as they say--mounted. The honor of the house came down to the bartender, a small, dark, wiry man who, finally, was compelled to reach for his prize silver cue. Yes, an O-honest-to-God silver cue.
I had been fooling around at the piano and the bartender, rankled by his approaching shootout, his High Noon, was pissed. He turned the juke box up full blast. My ear isn't all that good but that night, infused with the spirit of defiance surrounding me, I kept right on playing, in the same key as each cruel tune that blared--"so many teeth, standing in a row," as Paul wrote in a poem about Doc Holliday--from the machine. Paul never lost his cool. He decimated that bartender, silver cue and all, and did so with the disinterested poise of a man lecturing on Jane Austen. It was one of life's supreme moments, and I feel honored to have been a small part of it. We marched through a sea of menacing tattoos--and out into the night.
Another true tale: Paul was having women troubles (when was he not having women troubles?) and decided to drive out to see an old biker buddy: someone with a name like Hard Bourbon Bob, Toothless Charlie, something like that. I went along. We drove in Paul's truck, which approached a state of junk itself, out to a junkyard. There, chugging past mounds of bruised furniture and discarded refrigerators, we arrived at the shack--constructed of junk also--of Paul's friend--on whom he unloaded his love woes. I recall vividly but will not repeat here (this is a “family” website, isn't it?) the other man's advice. It was apt, and after, when they'd finishing reminiscing on good ole days on the road, we left, Paul--as we passed back through the hillocks of trash--seemingly comforted.
Only deliberate incivility seemed to bother him, and dishonesty. He might be amused, on the latter score, by some of the tribute paid to him after his death, by people who did not acknowledge his worth while he was alive. Yet I do not recall anything spiteful in Paul. He was annoyed, and amused, by the bullshit that abounds and prevails in this world, but I don't recall his ever whining or carping about it. Swearing? Well, yes. And toying with it, teasing, in his bright witty manner--but seldom on a level beneath his high standards. He set very high standards for poetry--a pastime for some, a profession for others, a trade not without, like most in the world, its share of poseurs and charlatans. Paul was not one of these. He was the real thing.
It ’s a shame he didn't write more, especially prose. His fine piece, "An American View of Dylan's Laugharne" shows what a delight it would have been to have more of the same, to watch his fine alert mind go to work on any subject. But there ’s not much point in talking about what was not done. I have memories of that rare capacity for friendship attested to by so many others. I loved Paul, as a poet and a freind, and I hope he has found his "tankard of good ale, a forest, and a spot of dignity."
On his last trip to Laugharne, his twelfth pilgrimage to the home of the poet he emulated too much, he hemorrhaged in flight and died in a hospital in England. He was just forty-seven years old. Paul Oehler is buried in Wales, in the same cemetary that houses his beloved Dylan Thomas.
We have his poems, and the way to pay tribute to literary friendship and genuine poets is to print them, and keep printing them, so that they may be read, again and again. I think the most fitting coda is a poem by Paul Oehler:
THE OLD STANDARDS
My great-aunt, two hundred and forty pounds
and short, could play by ear. She ’s dead now.
Her fingers were pudgy and soft
like warm chocolate. They spread across
the keys until we couldn't bear it.
But she was always right, and her hair
was always red, and she ’s dead now.
She was an alchemist before we knew,
my cousin and I, what alchemists were.
She had the patience of a distiller,
the quickness of a turkey in the straw.
Her fingers--I remember her fingers--
could turn brittle. You'd swear they'd break.
Her smile was a sliver moon behind
a high cloud. But she ’s dead now, and her death
was like the breaking of old, old glass.
Copyright (c) 1999, by William Minor
Natural Counterpoint: Poems by Paul Oehler & William Minor; Betty's Soup Shop Press, 847 Junipero Avenue, Pacific Grove, California 93950