Academic journal article Chicago Review

The Poet in His Skin: Remembering Paul Carroll

Academic journal article Chicago Review

The Poet in His Skin: Remembering Paul Carroll

Article excerpt

I first spoke with Paul Carroll in 1971 when as director he called to tell me of my acceptance to the Program for Writers at University of Illinois in Chicago. The enthusiasm in his voice surprised me. I had applied on the basis of the ten poems I'd written up to that time and had no confidence in what I was doing. I soon learned as his graduate student that his excitement for poetry and his involvement in the work of young poets was genuine. Editor of a well-known anthology of the time, The Young American Poets (Big Table, 1968), Paul was always drawn to younger poets. Influenced by a romantic line that comes down through Whitman, Neruda, and St. John Perse, Paul was a poet of wonder. His many and various enthusiasms were contagious. He believed that poetry could change your life. Indeed, he frequently claimed that his own life had been saved by poetry. It seemed a poet's exaggeration until I learned of his personal difficulties, which appeared to have begun when his father, a prominent Irish-Catholic founder of banks (he owned eight including Hyde Park Bank) and property developer (he developed the suburban community of Homewood) died when Paul was young. His hero gone, the family's fortunes mined because "Honest John" Carroll had paid back eighty-seven cents on the dollar during the bank crises of the Great Depression, Paul was left to the care of his mother, whom he despised. This mother said to me, at Paul's Ada Street loft on our first meeting, "Yes, Paul is my son, I suppose," nodding with indifference in his direction.

One of Paul's favorite stories was of traveling with his family in a limousine on Sunday afternoons to visit the Miller family of Milwaukee, founders of the well-known brewery. He would often return to it, as he did to recollections of riding a pony on his father's weekend farm, learning poetry at the feet of Morton Dawen Zabel at the University of Chicago, his first reading of the poetry of Horace, and having slept with the beautiful woman, a Morton Salt heir, who had posed as the Morton Salt Girl. Such moments were part of his originary myth. Unfortunately, they were always matched by the dark side of his self-narrative, such as the time he nearly won the Yale Younger Poets Prize, only to be told by judge Dudley Fitts at a party that his (Beat-influenced) poetry had finally been too "profane." The same thing happened when Paul had a book rejected by Henry Holt when its "coarseness" was discovered by Mrs. Holt when she came across the manuscript at home. It seems extraordinary that a man of such learning, who loved poetry of spirituality, beauty, and even decorousness, could suffer such an accusation.

Perhaps because of his editorial support of the Beats and his appearance in Donald Allen's The New American Poetry: 1945-1960, Paul was considered to be more bohemian than he really was. As can be seen from the photo on the cover of his finest collection, Odes (Big Table, 1969), he was a dapper man in the mold of Tom Wolfe, wearing his signature boater, a suit and tie, and sunglasses. He drove, rather carelessly, a Mercedes-Benz, and owned a handsome townhouse full of paintings on Lincoln Park's Mohawk Street. A Chicago poet among painters, his friends included Claes Oldenburg, Aaron Siskind, June Leaf, and Ed Paschke. But from the distant perspective of Dudley Fitts and those who believe they are defending the great tradition, Paul must have been seen as a minor bohemian, an Irish Midwestern Allen Ginsberg. Socially, however, he was more a man of Michigan Avenue and the galleries.

While Paul never had the publishing success he desired as a poet, he was often brilliant as a teacher, editor, man of letters, and literary entrepreneur. The Poem in Its Skin (Big Table Books, 1968), a collection of essays based on single poems by Robert Creeley ("A Wicker Basket"), Allen Ginsberg ("Wichita Vortex Sutra"), James Dickey ("The Heaven of Animals") and others, is a shrewd examination of what he calls "The Generation of 1962. …

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