When I was young, I wanted to be a mountain man or cowboy, and that’s one of the reasons I ended up getting into poetry.
The first poem I consciously sought out was Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “Ulysses.” This was because I loved the Westerns of Louis L’Amour. As a kid, I read his work over and over, and the characters in his books loved literature. Often they would refer to “Ulysses” and Shakespeare and Plutarch’s Lives, and, because I wanted to be like them, a strong independent frontiersman (in suburban Indiana) I went to the library and checked out these works.
The appeal of “Ulysses” is straight-forward, particularly its rousing last line: “to strive, to seek, to find and not to yield.” I didn’t know who Ulysses was, but I understood this desire to travel, this wanderlust, and the sentiment: “How dull it is to pause, to make an end,/To rust unburnished, not to shine in use!/As though to breathe were life.” And it made sense to me that this feeling was universal. The mountain men and cowboys had it, the Victorians understood it, the ancients did, and so did a Hoosier in the 70s.
L’Amour’s characters carried poems with them and within them, and I began doing so as well. I memorized “Ulysses” and find myself returning to it over the years. In fact, I suspect that some day, I will offer a course called “Ulysses in America” and look at works that deal with this figure. The novel Cold Mountain, for example, would be on the syllabus as would the paintings of Romare Bearden. As Frost says, “way leads on to way” and book leads on to book (and link to link).
Reading pulp fiction Westerns influenced me as a reader and a writer, but not, as it turns out as a rider. Although I pretended my bicycle was a mustang (and even named it), when I finally had the chance to be around horses, I discovered that I'm intimidated by them. Man, those things are big.