That’s Life: Writing Again after All These Years

David Dayton
8 min readApr 30, 2022


Streaming classic Frank Sinatra songs, I found myself singing along: “I’ve been a puppet, a pauper, a pirate, a poet / A pawn and a king… .” The stuttering plosives are mischievous fun and they pivot on poet, the one metaphor in the list I take literally as applied to my life. The poetry of Protestant hymns and verses from the King James were my mother’s milk. Deciphering scripture from an early age enabled me to make sense of textbook poems that frustrated classmates with labyrinthine syntax and lexical legerdemain.

When it came time to try our hand at writing poetry, I enjoyed writing haiku or sonnets or what have you, but I don’t think I wrote a poem absent a class assignment until high school, in my junior year to be exact. I was inspired by singer song-writers whose albums I would listen to alone in my room. Simon and Garfunkel often lulled me to sleep. I also listened soulfully to Leonard Cohen and, Lord forgive me, Rod McKuen. The student literary magazine at Fort Knox High School published a few of my poems. I also tried my hand at writing short stories around this time. I discovered a talent for cranking out entirely made-up and exuberantly verbose essay-like stories on my spiffy two-tone blue portable electric typewriter.

But poetry became my thing during my freshman year at Northwestern. Avid reading and essay writing for coursework left little time for working on short stories, which I had a hard time keeping short. Also, I liked drafting poems with pen and notepad because I could inkshed wherever I found a bit of privacy and quiet. I can’t recall how it happened, but at some point during that first incredibly long first year of college I met and fell in love with Berryman’s 77 Dream Songs. I memorized entire poems and recited them to amuse my friends. I declaimed lines from “Dream Song 14” so frequently that a dorm buddy who ran into me 50 years later, pushing his granddaughter in a stroller, recited the opening line to signal that though I had not recognized him in passing, we knew each other:

Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so.
After all, the sky flashes, the great sea yearns,
we ourselves flash and yearn
and moreover my mother told me as a boy
(repeatingly) ‘Ever to confess you’re bored
means you have no

Inner Resources.’ I conclude now I have no
inner resources, because I am heavy bored.

I started at Northwestern in its Medill School of Journalism, but the allure of spending most of my scholarship money on courses in literature and writing became too strong to resist. At the close of my freshman year, I switched to the College of Arts and Sciences. Northwestern’s English department had designed a concentration in its major for students who wanted to take writing workshops in lieu of survey courses in the least popular periods of British literature. Apparently, the department was not ready to dub the option “Creative Writing,” so they named it “English Composition.” I didn’t like the “composition” part so I tended not to say more than “English” when asked my major. Everyone seemed to know what an English major was; adding “composition” only evoked curiosity and thus, more discussion than I ever wanted to have, leading to the inevitable question, “So what are you going to do with it?”

My Jewish girl friend from Brooklyn was a comp lit major. Like me, she felt frustrated by curricular requirements and, more generally, by Northwestern’s rah-rah mostly rich-kids culture. During the fall of sophomore year, I chauffeured her on a road trip to visit small liberal arts schools in Ohio. They weren’t for me: The students seemed way too serious about their intellectual credentials and aspirations. But the road trip started me thinking about an alternative to Northwestern. Just before the deadline that December, I mailed my application to transfer to the University of California at Santa Cruz.

The new UC campus in the redwoods had become a Shangri-La for brainy hippies. I knew about it because Life magazine ran a puff piece in May 1970, the same month I graduated from high school. The photos showed students in small classes, totally engaged. The redwood-nestled courtyards of low-rise quads were my kind of idyllic. The article depicted a school custom-made for an anti-academic nerd like me: small discussion-driven classes, lenient and flexible curricular requirements, and best of all, grade-grubbing was not an option. Instead of letter grades, students earned either a Pass with the prof’s written evaluation or nada: not even a record of ever having taken the course if you flunked out.

Although I had a 3.9 grade-point average at Northwestern, I knew my chances of getting into Santa Cruz were slim because UC allotted so few places for transfer students from out of state. Nonetheless, just buying the lottery ticket improved my outlook that bleak January in Evanston. When the acceptance letter arrived even before NU’s spring break, my winter doldrums vanished. I got my best friend excited about taking a road trip to the West Coast in his red Chevy Vega. We sang to ourselves when we couldn’t get anything but static on the radio as we sped westward through the high, windswept barrens of Wyoming. “Across the great divide, just grab your hat and take that ride… .”

That summer, I moved back with my parents and got a federal make-work student job on an Army base near Indianapolis. In August, I flew off to San Francisco. I arrived with the first-year students hauling luggage and all manner of predictable belongings from their parents’ car into the dorms of College V, the present-day Porter College. I had been assigned to what was then dubbed College VII, newly established and not yet constructed. Later named Oakes College, it was initially housed in College V, which specialized in the performing and visual arts along with creative writing. College V’s Provost at the time was the always dapperly dressed James B. Hall, whose published books included poetry, short stories, and novels.

My first writing course at Santa Cruz was a small poetry workshop with Raymond Carver — only half a dozen students at most. It was the fall quarter of 1972, and Ray was was also teaching part-time at UC Berkeley, though neither school knew that he was teaching at both. It was quite a year for him because he had won a Stegner Fellowship in creative writing at Stanford, a two-year stint that began in the spring of 1972. So he was hobnobbing with other creative writing stars and famous professors at Stanford while shuttling between Santa Cruz, Berkeley, and the home he and his wife had purchased with fellowship money in Cupertino. I knew nothing about all of that until I read his first wife’s memoir. I knew nothing about a lot of things, which made it easy for me to remain naively determined and optimistic about my prospects for finding success and happiness as a poet. And one thing I did know helped: Ray Carver gave me his blessing. In a one-on-one review of my work at the end of the quarter, he told me I was the real deal, a poet, that he didn’t give out that pronouncement to very many students, but that I’d earned it.

Although College V was home to many of UCSC’s poets and writers, both faculty and students, the only official undergraduate program in creative writing was a concentration in the Department of Literature. I submitted an application as soon as I met the requirements, which must have included some writing workshops. It’s possible my writing courses from Northwestern didn’t pass muster. I gathered from comments here and there that the creative writing program was run like an elite club. When my College VII advisor apprised me that I’d been turned down, I was disappointed but undeterred. Undergraduates had the option of proposing their own degree program, so I put together a proposal for an independent major in literary criticism and creative writing. Ray Carver agreed to be a faculty sponsor. I don’t recall what other procedural hurdles I had to clear, but I assume they were pro forma.

I don’t recall taking another course from Ray. I may have taken an independent study with him. I recall that I met with him occasionally to discuss what I’d been reading and writing. I took at least two poetry workshops led by College V’s George Hitchcock, who edited the little magazine Kayak. He championed surrealists and “deep image” poets. He praised me in one of the workshops as an exemplar of productivity, and it was true: When I took a turn to read poems to the group, arranged in a cramped circle on chairs, a sofa, and the rug in George’s living room, I passed around a stapled sheaf of about a dozen poems. The captive audience was generally kind, I imagine, because if the critique had been hurtful, I would have remembered. The star poet of the class was Mark Jarman. He had already developed a mature and accomplished poetic voice and style, and he was beginning to have poems accepted by prestigious little magazines.

I wasn’t among the closed and competitive coterie of literati in College V. I was content to hang out on the fringe, invited to a few parties, chatting with members of the inner circle before and after readings by visiting authors. The class at UCSC that I came to value most was a two-quarter sequence on the poetry of Ezra Pound, Charles Olson, and William Carlos Williams. The brilliant visionary Norman O. Brown taught it with the administrivia assistance of a PhD student in UCSC’s History of Consciousness program. That was Jay Cantor, whose toughest duty I think was to draft the narrative evaluations of 50 or more students’ work in the two courses. One of Brown’s fondest aphorisms was “The only response to poetry is more poetry.” In response to our readings of Pound’s Cantos, Olson’s The Maximum Poems, and Williams’ Paterson, we were invited to write creatively and however poetically we wished to articulate our understandings and personalized appreciations of those arcane poet-prophets. Williams was my favorite, and I read Paterson much more fervently than either of the other two books.

I suspected that adulthood would be all down hill from the highs — of many kinds — that I enjoyed during my two years at UC Santa Cruz. But I didn’t really believe it. I graduated in the spring of 1974, earning an A.B. with Honors in that major of my own devising. I am only now beginning to realize what I want to do with the rest of my life, and it’s very selfish, I know: I want to live as many days as I can energized by that eternally optimistic beginner’s mind as I read and write and talk and listen. And I know that to get there I will have to struggle to do what seems in hindsight to have been nearly effortless back when I was a student at Santa Cruz: to stay intent, to put in the time, to limit the attention I pay to the endless stream of news repeating the same old story. That’s life and I can’t deny it.

Some people get their kicks
Stomping on a dream
But I don’t let it, let it get me down
Cause this fine old world, it keeps spinnin’ around

I’ve been a puppet, a pauper, a pirate, a poet
A pawn and a king



David Dayton

See Here, you’ll find draft chapters of a memoir and drafts of poems to be published in a book on Amazon.