U.P. poet writes of film, family and life

by Tyler Tichelaar

The Child Who Loved Movies

By L.E. Ward

SKU-000073765Upper Michigan poet and Iron River native, L.E. Ward, is a two-time Pulitzer nominee (in 1992 for criticism and in 1999 for poetry). When one reads his poems, it’s easy to see why his work has received such attention.

Born in Iron River in 1944, Ward has written several volumes of poetry, including The Collected Poems and The Land Within. As a movie critic and writer, he has published 1,000 long and short articles on American film history in numerous film periodicals, as well as been published in newspapers, magazines, poetry anthologies and encyclopedias. His poetry consists of a variety of themes, including memoirs of his childhood, gay Eros, the ancient world, the movies, the arts and literature, the lives of writers and other artists, world paintings and painters and human rights.
In The Child Who Loved Movies, a touch of each of those themes is present, but the predominant theme is that of his childhood in the 1940s and 1950s, engrossed in a cinematic world and recalling the comfort of those years with his parents. Both middle-aged readers and movie buffs will be enthralled with Ward’s memories as well as his fascination with films that have lived in his head for more than half a century, influencing his thoughts and verse.
The opening poem of The Child Who Loved Movies is titled “Christmas 1944-54,” and while it recalls the joys of the typical Christmases of his childhood, such as “The two books of carols, which briefly emerged/annually from the piano bench, on seasonal parole.” And “The Little Golden Book and the Whitman Paperback” as well as the usual Christmas decorations, what Ward wants us most to do is:

Remember that all that ever matters
Is the human—what is experienced,
perceived, and felt.
Remember in all the world of ice and cold,
The house where parents were,
where it was warm.

Ward has a tremendous sense of the value of his family. While many modern poets rage for line after line about their dysfunctional upbringings, Ward continually recalls the warmth of his childhood. While he writes endlessly about films and the pseudo-heaven created by Hollywood in his youth, as an adult he notes, “Little did I know that that innocent childhood/With my parents was the true heaven,” and now he realizes “the presence of parents and home—/a heaven long vanished.”
In a poem “To Louisa May Alcott,” he feels the warmth that Alcott created in her novels, and the loss that happy world eventually brought because everything passes away; “everything’s on loan.” He is especially grateful for his mother as he states in passages, such as “I wish I could say how great she was” and “She is always there in all my feelings.” Comparing life to a train ride, he writes of his grandparents, “I never chose the journey/Yet I miss the old special passengers.”
Ward wears his heart on his sleeve, but he never crosses the line into being overly sentimental. It is refreshing that there are poets who still write about warmth of heart and home and appreciation for the past. And while Ward is aware others might not understand why he stayed at home—he lived with his parents almost all his life, except a few years when he taught, returning in 1970 when his father died, to live with his mother until her death in 1999, one cannot help but appreciate that a son would be so devoted to the two people so devoted to him.
Second only to his parents was the influence of movies upon Ward’s life. He continually mentions going to films with his parents at the Delft Theatre in Iron River—he provides a photograph of the theatre in the back of the book along with pictures of himself and his family. It’s easy to understand how films had such an impact on him when he grew up in the golden age of Hollywood. At times, he allows himself to envision meeting the great movie stars. He writes poems of conversations he has with Marilyn Monroe after her death. He dreams of being friends with Roddy McDowall; as an adult, he wrote a movie tribute to McDowall, for which the actor thanked him.
To Ward, movies are a glorious invention.

I clocked years by them
Age nine, my favorite year
They came and went.
(Like the days; themselves).
The August evening, company left.
Scandal At Scourie was playing Monday;
Followed by Ride Vaquero, on Tuesday.

Movies were something Ward felt he owned, something he was as invested in as were the stars, directors and producers themselves: “Hollywood existed not only in estates and front offices,/but in the comfort it brought to/lonely little people, making their lives less ordinary.”
Ward is aware that film does not always depict life realistically, but rather than let himself be disillusioned, as is the case with the title of Manuel Puig’s novel, Betrayed by Rita Hayworth, Ward unashamedly declares, “Hooray for the courage/and idealism, films have given through the years.” He is not in denial that films provide an enhanced version of life, as when he writes of, “Doris Day in April in Paris—/in an April, more April than April—/more Paris than Paris.” And of the Disney films of his childhood, he says:
Alice, Cinderella, Peter Pan, Pinocchio, Snow White,
Who, with a heart and mind, would not identify with them?—
Young, beautiful, innocent, idealistic.
They do not betray us. Time and life betray us.

Childhood leaves, and parents die,
And we pull the drapes and lock the door.
But they live, anyway, somehow inside us
Where each song they sang to us
Still sings in us and will sing in us,

L.E. Ward’s poems speak of a better world. He perhaps glosses over the pain in life, the romance that never came, his being misunderstood by others, but he predominantly chooses to focus on what was good in life. Although he never mentions the film Man of La Mancha, no doubt he would agree with Peter O’Toole’s character, Don Quixote, when he says, “Maddest of all is to see life as it is and not as it should be.”
In one of the last poems of The Child Who Loved Movies, Ward states, “And in my poems those I loved, live/may their memory survive forever-more—” and of his mother, clearly the greatest influence on his life:

Mother was my chauffeur, companion,
Confidante, and best friend.
We faced fate, the weather,
the fickleness of nature, politics, relatives, people, ignorance and prejudice,
together for decades.
She left life at age 90—
a year and a half after
She broke her hip—
certain she’d be forgotten.
As if she could ever be, by me,
or ever has been.

Ward reminds us of what is good in individuals, in the human spirit, and how it is reflected in film, art and literature. He makes us think and see the world in a better light; he asks us to hold onto what is memorable, and he leaves us nostalgic, but happy. What more can a poet hope to accomplish?

—Tyler Tichelaar

Editor’s Note: Tichelaar is the author of The Marquette Trilogy. All books reviewed in this column are available in local and online bookstores.

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