I was deeply saddened yesterday to learn of the passing of my very first undergrad English professer, John O’Leary. He was with his son on a boat when it capsized. His son made it back, but he did not.
John O’Leary was a strange and wonderful man. He had unruly, curly red hair and a just as unruly and curly beard. My first English class on campus was with him, and was titled The Literature of Solitude. I wasn’t a fan of many of the books we read, but I was a huge fan of him, so going to class was always something I looked forward to. On the first day of class, he wandered in looking a bit disheveled. He told us that he had fallen asleep under a tree on the quad before class started. For the entire duration of class, we watched a bug that had gotten caught in his hair twist itself up and uncurl itself, trying to free itself from the strand of hair. O’Leary never noticed it was there.
I enjoyed that class so much that, come May Term (a term in which you take one class every day for one month) my freshman year, I took his Creative Writing 101 class. We spent hours talking about and writing poetry. I always fancied myself a short story writer, but O’Leary seemed impressed with my poetry, and that inspired me to go on to take more poetry classes at the university and, eventually, graduate with a specialization in creative writing along with my English Literature degree.
I’ll never forget the first thing he told us about poetry as we were all sprawled out on couches in the student center’s meeting room (it was a truly unique class, indeed). He said, “The beautiful thing about poetry is that you can compose it anywhere, even alone in the middle of the ocean.” In light of these recent events, those words haunt me, but it is comforting to know that poetry was with him until the very end.
Toward the end of my freshman year, he released a book of broken sonnets titled SALT. He held a poetry reading and book signing on campus. It was the first one of both I’d ever been to.
He signed my book, and of course I’ve kept it all these years. He wrote:
for Ashley S—-
one of my very favorite students, from whom I have much still to learn
For all I know, he wrote that on everyone’s book, but it’s still not something one forgets easily.
He was a great and interesting man, and a wonderful poet. He will be greatly missed. In closing, I’ll leave you with my very favorite poem from SALT, “LVI”:
I actually know damn all
about it, but I’ve heard
that every word in Arabic
has at least three basic
meanings; it means
what it normally means; it means
its complete opposite;
and every single word
has something to do
with a camel.
So here; I mean what I say;
I mean what I do not say;
and every single word
has something to do with you.