Switchblade Poetry: Chicago StyleI began writing poetry in Chicago at age 15, when I was named corresponding secretary for a gang of young punks and hoodlums called the Semcoes. A Social Athletic Club, we met at various locations two Thursdays a month. My job was to write postcards to inform my brother thugs--who carried switchblade knives and stole cars for fun and profit--as to when, where and why we were meeting. Rhyming couplets seemed the appropriate form to notify characters like lightfingered Foxman, cross-eyed Harris, and Irving "Koko," of upcoming meetings. An example of my switchblade juvenilia: The Semcoes meet next Thursday night at Speedway Koko's. Five bucks dues, Foxman, or fight. Koko was a young boxer whose father owned Chicago's Speedway Wrecking Company and whose basement was filled with punching bags and pinball machines. Koko and the others joked about my affliction--the writing of poetry--but were so astonished that they criticized me mainly for my inability to spell.
Sailor Librarian: San DiegoAt 17, I graduated from high school, gave up my job as soda jerk and joined the Navy. The Korean War was underway; my mother had died, and Chicago seemed an oppressive place to be. My thanks to the U.S. Navy. They taught me how to type (60 words a minute), organize an office, and serve as a librarian. In 1952 I served in Korea aboard a 300-foot long, flat-bottomed Landing Ship Tank (LST). A Yeoman 3rd Class, I became overseer of 1200 paperback books, a sturdy upright typewriter, and a couple of filing cabinets.(Photo-right: Robert, U.S. Navy, Korean War, 1952, Great Lakes Naval Training Center.) The best thing about duty on an LST is the ship's speed: 8-10 knots. It takes approximately one month for an LST to sail between San Diego and Pusan, Korea. In that month I read Melville's Moby Dick, Whitman's Leaves of Grass, Thoreau's Walden, Isak Dinesen's Winter's Tales, the King James Version of the Bible, Shakespeare's Hamlet, King Lear, and a biography of Abraham Lincoln. While at sea, I began writing poetry as if poems, to paraphrase Thoreau, were secret letters from some distant land. I sent one poem to a girl named Lorelei with whom I was in love. Lorelei had a job at the Dairy Queen. Shortly before enlisting in the Navy, I spent $15 of my soda jerk money taking her up in a single engine, sight-seeing airplane so we could kiss and--at the same time--get a good look at Chicago from the air. Beautiful Loreli never responded to my poem. Years later, at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop, I learned that much of what I had been writing (love poems inspired by a combination of lust and loneliness) belonged, loosely speaking, to a tradition--the venerable tradition of unrequited love.
Mr. Amnesia: CambridgeIn 1962, after ten years of writing poetry, my book, Uncle Dog & Other Poems, was published by Putnam in England. That was followed by two books from Cornell University Press, Kissing the Dancer and Thousand-Year-Old Fiancee. Then in 1966, I was invited to do 14 poetry readings in a two-week stretch at places like Dartmouth, Amherst, and the University of Connecticut. The day before I was scheduled to embark on the reading series, I was hit by a speeding MG in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I lost my memory for a period of about 24 hours. Just as I saw the world fresh while cruising to a war zone, so I now caught a glimpse of what a city like Cambridge can look like when one's inner slate, so to speak, is wiped clean.
Santa Claus: Santa CruzIn December, 1985, recently returned to the U.S. after some years in Canada, a free lance writer in search of a story, I sought and found employment as a Rent-a-Santa Claus. Imagine walking into the local Community Center and suddenly, at the sight of 400 children, feeling transformed from one's skinny, sad-eyed self, into an elf--having to chant the prescribed syllables, "Ho, Ho, Ho." What is poetry? For me, it's the restrained music of a switchblade knife. It's an amphibious warship magically transformed into a basketball court, and then transformed again into a movie theater showing a film about the life of Joan of Arc. It is the vision of an amnesiac, bleeding from a head injury, witnessing the play of sunlight on a redbrick wall. Poetry comes to a bearded Jewish wanderer, pulling on a pair of high rubber boots with white fur, and a set of musical sleigh bells, over blue, fleece-lined sweat pants. It comes to the father of five children bearing gifts for 400 and, choked up, unable to speak, alternately laughing and sobbing the three traditional syllables--Ho, Ho, Ho--hearing at the same time, in his heart, the more plaintive, tragic--Oi vay, Oi vay, Oi vay.
- For more, see CONTEMPORARY AUTHORS AUTOBIOGRAPHY SERIES, Volumes 13 and 206, Gale Research.
- Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
- The Robert Sward Papers at Washington University Library, St. Louis, MO (Special Collections)
- University of Toronto, Toronto, Canada
- National Library of Canada, Ottawa, Ontario, Archives
- Robert Sward fonds at University of Victoria, Special Collections Victoria, British Columbia, Canada
- Hawaii Book Library
- CAPA-Contemporary American Authors
- International Who’s Who in Poetry, 2004
- Damer.com: Robert Sward at Bookshop Santa Cruz, CA -06-09-26-robert-sward.mp3 (40 MB)
- Rosicrucian in the Basement, from Dana Gioia