A poet in Florida

I learned that Shakespeare really lived

so scholars have decided.

Though quite a few have studied me

they’re not as sure that I did.

Peter Meinke

This is a piece I wrote for FORUM, a publication of Florida Humanities. It appears in the summer 2020 issue.

Memo to scholars: Peter Meinke lives, thank you very much. And there is an impressive body of work to back up the essential heartbeat of his literary existence.

Start with 18 volumes of poems and short stories produced over the span of half a century. Throw in frequent submissions published in the New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, Poetry…and not to forget Creative Loafing, the St. Petersburg leisure magazine for which Meinke writes a column about…well, life, the university and pretty much whatever else pops into his head.

All this followed up by then-Gov. Rick Scott appointing Meinke Florida’s Poet Laurette.

For which appointment, Meink has written, he did not receive the traditional “barrel of sherry the way the English poets did.” But it was quite an honor nonetheless.

Oh, and did we mention that, to top it all off, the Florida Council for The Humanities has selected Meinke as the latest recipient of its Lifetime Literary Award For Writing?

“One of my childish first thoughts was, how happy my mother would have been!,” said Meinke about receiving the news. “She was crazily proud of my being a writer.”

Not bad for a late starter who set out early in life to be a poet but would have settled for a career in baseball.

Poetry won out, as it happens, but his was far from an smooth career trajectory.

In 1950, when he graduated from Mountain Lakes High School, in New Jersey, his school yearbook predicted: “Peter Meinke: Wants to be: Writer. Probably Will be: Censored.”

“That sounded good to me,” he recalls.

Still, 15 years and a decade’s accumulation of rejection slips would grind by before a Meinke poem “In Gentler Times,” would garner first prize in the Olivet Sonnet Competition, which happened to be judged by W. D. Snodgrass.

‘This was inspiring for two reasons,” he recalls. “I loved Snodgrass’s book “April Inventory,” and”I remember feeling that however I’d be judged from then on, I was a writer.”

In 1966, Meinke moved to St. Petersburg to start a creative writing program at Florida Presbyterian College, later to rebrand as Eckerd College. He would remain on faculty for 27 years until his retirement.

And now, 70 years beyond high school, the 87-year-old poet reflects, “there’s something so final about receiving the Florida Humanities Lifetime Literary Award for Writing. I don’t exactly feel finished, but more like having completed a marathon. It’s very satisfying.”

Previous honorees have included such Florida literary luminaries as Carl Hiaasen, Edna Buchanan, Patrick Smith, Randy White, Mike Gannon, Enid Shomer and Jeff Klinkenberg. “The dignity and reputation of the Council and the quality of the writers chosen over the years, give the award a gravitas that surprised me,” he said.

Steven M. Seibert, executive director of the Humanities Council said that when this year’s selection committee’s discussion “turned to Peter, it grasped how influential his work has been. This influence isn’t just felt on St. Petersburg, where he’s been a longtime resident and an invaluable teacher to innumerable writers, but across and beyond our state.

“Bestowing the Lifetime Achievement Award for Writing is another way to once again remind thousands of Floridians about Peter Meinke’s incredible body of work.”

Meaning (call it M3) is the increasingly invisible

odorless, tasteless element in our universe long ago

slipped by someone’s god into our water…..

Peter Meinke, “M3”

Like most Americans in these perilous times, Meinke greeted the spring by hunkering down in his home, waiting out the coronavirus, with his wife, Jeanne, an artist and frequent collaborator.

“As an older person who happens to be a poet, I am very moved by the number of friends and neighbors who have called to check on how Jeanne and I are doing, asking can they help in any way,” he says. “They think, correctly, that poets and artists aren’t very practical, and haven’t stocked up on anything useful.

Ah, but what a house of refuge his is! Although they have traveled the world, the Meinkes always return to their beloved if aging cottage (“the plumbing system just collapsed”) situated on two-thirds of an acre in the heart of St. Petersburg close to downtown.

“It’s very lush, with five or six live oak trees and a couple of fruit trees, totally shaded,” he said. “We both love this house and the kids (two sons and two daughters, all grown now) would never let us sell it. And we wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.”

The house provides “a sense of place that is very real. It has roots like a good poem.”

Speaking of which, although Meinke writes frequently about faith, politics, everyday life and so on he has refrained so far from writing about the virus that has been sweeping the world.

Rather, he has spent much of his time reading “The Mirror and the Light,” the final volume of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy. And he highly recommends it: “The trilogy may carry you all the way through this pandemic.”

He also has been reflecting on the lessons from Daniel Defoe’s “Journal Of The Plague Year.”

“There were some similarities,” he said. “It came over to London from Holland as coronavirus came from China. It was played down by authorities as it swept through one neighborhood after another, and its most awful effects hit the poor, as the rich ran to their country houses, taking their doctors with them.

“Those are some thoughts I’m having,” he continues. “I haven’t written anything about coronavirus really. That will come later, if I’m lucky.”

The apple I see and the apple

I think I see and the apple

I say I see

are at least three

different apples…

Meinke “Apples.”

To be sure these are strange times in which to be a poet. In an era when leaders and celebrities communicate to the world in 280-character tweets, is there still a place for the poet, long-form or short-form?

“Some writers think that Americans no longer can read long books,” he muses. “And because of the tweeting there are poets who sometimes think Americans can’t read long poems.

“I do think that one of the problems with poetry is that even though they are shorter than novels you can’t speed read poems. You’ve got to linger over poems, and people aren’t used to doing that. You have to take a poem bit by bit.”

On the other hand “poetry is the kind of reading that, if you like it. you will always read it more than once. You’ll read it over, and then you read something else into it.

“People always say to poets ‘why didn’t you say what you mean?’ Well, you sort of mean a lot of things. I like the idea that poems have more than one level. It makes more interesting when you read it again.”

And that’s certainly true. Consider Meinke’s poem “Elephant Tusks”…“which we grind down into dice and key, earring and toothpick to capture the spirit of the elephant….” At first blush it reads as a condemnation of our crass consumer-obsessed culture. On further consideration one may read in it an almost spiritual reflection on the sheer weight of everyday living: “the huge stomping of elephant shakes the floor until the roof collapses.”

The trick is to live your days

as if each one may be your last…

…but at the same time, plan long range.

Meinke: Advice To My Son

“They know the poem,” says Meinke of his sons. “They’re good kids doing very well, now in their late fifties. One is the CEO of a chemistry conglomerate and the other works for USAID.

That poem, one of his most popular, “was just common sense. I didn’t start out to write any advice. It took me quite a while, with a lot of rewriting. I often let my poems sit for a while and the next week they always change.”

And that’s the thing about being a working poet that readers may not grasp. “If you want to be a poet you have to like rewriting,” he says. “I don’t think ‘this is finished.’ I think I have to work on it again today.

One definition of poetry, he says, is “The best words in the best order.

“And that’s the perfect advice for a writer…the best words in the best order.”

Looking toward his 88th year, Meinke acknowledges that he has “definitely slowed down…I certainly write less.” Still he has been finishing up another yet volume of poems.

“I believe that poets are citizens. They don’t have to write about everyday events, but over the course of life you ought to see what’s going on. You want people to be able to think big thoughts by reading a little poem.”

Because poetry, like life, ought to be constantly evolving and changing and shifting in previously unimaginable ways.

“Every morning I’ll look at the blank page feeling eager and uncertain,” he says. “Maybe I should start with ‘Hi Mom,’ and begin typing.”

Who’s sick of sonnets?  Iamb  Iamb…

Meinke

Author: floridavelocipede

A sometime journalist who used to string words together for a living before I retired to run a non-profit cycle touring organization that will henceforth go unnamed, as I have subsequently retired from that career as well. I write a bi-monthly column, theater reviews and an occasional magazine piece for my old newspaper. If I still had a business card it would read: Ron Cunningham: Trained Observer Of The Human Condition. Because like The Donald, you know, ego.

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