It seems fitting, on this anniversary of the date of my late father Edward’s birth, to pay tribute to the remarkable person he was. In my life I’ve met two geniuses, of whom he was one. Born August 8, 1922, in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, he was a soul incarnate from another age—he should have been born 300 years earlier, attended Oxford or Cambridge, and moved in a circle of like-minded friends. Edward should have enjoyed the patronage of a lord who would have provided him with an income while he composed poetry.
Instead he was born into poverty, the second son in a family of six boys and two girls. He and his siblings were always hungry. “At meals,” my father told me, “we each ate with our arms curled around our plates, so no one could snatch food off them.”
Grandpa Martin at one time had sold insurance, but after the children arrived he had to turn his hand to whatever job was available during the Great Depression. For a while he drove a horse-drawn wagon around Arkansas, selling Watkins products. When that job ended, he moved his family to Austin, Texas.
Grandma Martin also worked at paid jobs between babies. At one time she made telephone calls selling classified ads for the Dallas Morning News. To take her brood’s minds off food, she took them to the library. Many years later my uncle Edwin was to confess at age 35, “To this day, when I go into a public library, my stomach rumbles.” Church was another venue to distract the children from hunger. Eugene became especially fond of the Roman Catholic mass: “Best show in town for a nickel.”
The older boys—my uncle Eugene, my father Edward, and Wilbur, always known as “Okie” because he was born in Oklahoma, welcomed school but found attendance difficult because of their poverty. Eugene and Edward owned one shirt between them and took turns wearing it to school. In the Texas school system students were required to furnish their own school supplies, which led to more problems. When my father was in the eighth grade, a teacher grew exasperated with one of his fellow students. “If you turn in one more theme written by Eddie Martin, I’m going to fail you!” Edward wrote themes for others in exchange for theme paper on which to write his own compositions.
Desperate to possess a book of his very own, Edward would scrounge through garbage cans to see if anyone had thrown books away. If he found a book in readable condition he would take it home. For one such book, a compendium of 19th-century American poetry, he fashioned a cover from a discarded manila folder and wrote Ragfair on the spine. It stands on my bookshelf to this day, a reminder—if I ever needed one—of my father’s low opinion of American literature.
Forced to drop out of school after the eighth grade, the three older boys turned their hands to various jobs to help support the family. While still in their teens, Eugene, Edward, and Okie, all highly literate, worked on a newspaper, the Austin Tribune. Okie, then aged 15, was in charge of the sports section, which was fine with the other two, who loathed sports. Nineteen-year-old Eugene covered the news, and my father, then 18, took care of the features. He wrote a serialized novel, "Unlucky Cinderella." One of the thrills of his life came when he delivered the paper to customers after the press run. “Hurry up, boy!” an old lady called from her front porch. “I can’t wait to read the latest installment of 'Unlucky Cinderella'!”
Younger brother Jerry followed his brothers into the newspaper business. Wanting a serial of his own, he killed off all Edward’s characters and wrote a completely new one. A former Texas governor was bankrolling the Austin Tribune but after a year, it ceased publication.
Edward met my mother, Anne, when they were both employed at the Department of Public Health in Austin, Texas. They married in 1942 when she was 21 and he was 19. As there was a war on by that time, my father joined the Army.
During World War II Edward saw action in the Hurtgen Forest in Germany. (One of his poems, “In a Rhineland Churchyard, Christmas Day, 1944,” dates from this period.) After the war he served as editor of Stars & Stripes in Tokyo. We returned to the States in 1950, but following an unsuccessful attempt to make a living as the owner of a brickyard, Edward rejoined the Army and was posted to Singapore.
Ah…Singapore. It was there that my lifelong love affair with English literature began, all because of my father. He encouraged me to read books that would have been considered “too advanced” for me had we lived in the States. I first read Jane Eyre at age eight. Of course I didn’t completely understand it then, but luckily that novel is one that can be reread many times. I well remember staying home from school because of a minor illness one day and my father bringing me a gift—Wuthering Heights. I was nine then.
It was also the time when Edward began to build his library. He’d bring home four to six books at a time from the Malaya Publishing House, English, French, German, and Russian classics from the Everyman’s Library edition. During our three years in Singapore he acquired the complete collection. On the inside cover of each book, he’d write “E. A. Martin, Singapore, 1952.” When I grew up I copied this habit of his with my own books.
On hot tropical nights when I couldn’t sleep for one reason or another, I’d get up, wriggle out from under my mosquito net, and join my father, who always stayed up late reading in the “lounge.” I’d climb into his lap while he would soothe away my nightmares by reading to me from Palgrave’s Golden Treasury of English Poems, among them
“Lord Ullin’s Daughter” and “The Twa Corbies.” When he read from Shakespeare’s plays, however, it invariably sent me to sleep.
A raconteur par excellence, Edward told my sister Mary and me marvelous bedtime stories. The stories starred three children named Rags, Trampy, and Sores, who lived in a cardboard box at the city dump. Rags, the eldest, was clothed entirely in rags. Her younger sister Trampy had no clothes but was covered in mud from the neck down. Sores, their younger brother, was usually covered in sores. The plots of many of the stories involved trying to get food for Sores, who—if he did not eat some food soon—would turn into one big sore and die. Miss Meltuna, a rich girl who lived in a castle on the hill and whose bodyguard consisted of two gangsters, was generally the villain of the stories; however, her villainy was invariably thwarted at the last minute by Princess Marcia, who would save the day with her magic wand. My sister and I enjoyed all the characters in the stories, particularly the Green Wolf, who drove the school bus; the School Snake, who slithered by each morning to pick up slug-a-beds who’d missed the school bus; and the principal of the school, who was a gorilla.
After Edward left the Army, he joined the Associated Press in the Little Rock, Arkansas bureau, which meant yet another move for our family. He would come home from work and boast, “I wrote 5,000 words of accurate, libel-free copy today!” He would also regale us with stories about “New York,” a faceless entity up north, who would telephone the Little Rock AP bureau when an important story broke.
When the Little Rock integration crisis story started breaking in 1957, Edward answered the telephone to find New York on the other end of the line.
“Who’s on the desk?”
“Martin,” my father replied.
“Thank God,” New York said with feeling.
Okie by this time was AP bureau chief in Oklahoma City. Jack, Jerry, and Edwin (always known in the family as “Mugs”) also worked for the Associated Press at various points in their careers. One high-ranking AP manager was heard to say, “Every time I walk into a damn bureau, there’s a Martin on it!”
Toward the end of our time in Little Rock, Edward brought about the premature demise of a segregationist group called The Minutemen. The newly formed Arkansas chapter of this dubious organization issued a mission statement and as an afterthought, mentioned the list of books they wanted to ban, among them The Diary of Anne Frank. (They took issue with Anne’s journal entry that stated, “In spite of everything I believe that people are really good at heart.”)
My father, knowing I’d read The Diary of Anne Frank many times, telephoned me at home. After checking with me on certain points to refresh his memory of the book, he set to work rewriting the news item.
The original news item mentioned the list of banned books in the final paragraph. Edward took that one fact and elevated it to main storyline, describing how Anne Frank and her family hid from the Nazis for two years in an attic in Amsterdam, and how she was arrested in 1944 and eventually sent to a death camp.
Public reaction was swift and highly critical. A short time later the Arkansas chapter of the Minutemen folded.
As deeply as he loved novels, Edward’s real passion was poetry. He claimed to be a member of the “12-Hour Poetry Club,” meaning that he could recite poetry for 12 hours without repeating himself. We believed this because we had frequent proof of it.
On a Saturday morning my father might emerge from the bathroom, jaw covered with white foam, shaving mug in one hand and razor in the other, and declaim,
“Of Man’s first disobedience and the FRUIT.” We’d look at each other and say, “It’s going to be Paradise Lost. All day.” And indeed, all day my father would wander around the house reciting, even during meals.
Or he’d be sitting at the breakfast table, reading the newspaper and drinking coffee, when he’d suddenly jump up. “Now, gods, stand up for bastards!”
And the rest of us would look at each other and say, “Uh, huh. King Lear. Again.”
Edward regarded Shakespeare, Milton, Keats, and Shelley as belonging in the first rank of English poets. “Who’s in the second rank?” I’d occasionally ask. “Byron, Tennyson, Rossetti,” he’d begin. “Macaulay, Spenser, Swinburne…” He loved Macaulay’s Lays of Ancient Rome, particularly “Horatius at the Bridge.”
He taught me a great deal about poetry: rhyme, meter, and scansion; Alexandrines; iambic pentameter, sestinas and double sestinas. He loved to quote from Swinburne’s “Prelude to Atalanta in Calydon”:
“When the hound of spring is on winter’s traces
The mother of months in meadow and plain
Fills the shadows and windy places
With lisp of leaves and ripple of rain…
“In the 19th century, young men coming out of the gaming clubs of London would drunkenly shout Swinburne’s poetry to each other in the streets,” he told me.
He also frequently quoted from the penultimate stanza of Swinburne’s “Garden of Proserpine”:
“From too much love of living
From hope and fear set free
We thank, with brief thanksgiving
Whatever gods may be.
That no life lives forever,
That dead men rise up never;
And even the weariest river
Winds somewhere safe to sea.”
One day, when I came home from my high school classes and found him in the living room, I told him we were required to study a poem, “Cargoes,” by John Masefield. It began:
“Quinquereme of Nineveh from distant Ophir
Rowing home to haven in sunny Palestine
With a cargo of ivory, apes, and peacocks
Sandalwood, cedarwood, and sweet white wine.”
“Absolute drivel,” my father said. “Look—I’ll show you a real poem about Nineveh.”
He then opened a book of Rossetti’s poems and read “The Burden of Nineveh” to me, a poem I still love to this day.
During the Little Rock years Edward learned he could get extra money by going to school on the G.I. bill. Accordingly he enrolled in art classes, choosing as his subjects the poems he loved.
His paintings and drawings hang on the walls of my house. One oil painting depicts a sad-faced knight in full armor standing by a lake, with bare hills sloping away in the distance.
“Ah, what can ail thee, knight-at-arms
Alone and palely loitering?
The sedge is wither’d from the lake
And no birds sing.”
“La Belle Dame Sans Merci” remains one of my favorite poems to this day.
Another painting, this one a pastel color wash, depicts various jars and bottles that seem to have almost human facial expressions. This is from the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, from the section called The Book of Pots. At night, after the potter closes up his workshop and goes home, the clay pots come alive and talk among themselves:
“Listen again. One Evening at the Close
Of Ramazan, ere the better Moon arose,
In that old Potter’s Shop I stood alone
With the clay Population round in Rows.
And, strange to tell, among that Earthen Lot
Some could articulate, while others not.
And suddenly one more impatient cried—
“Who is the Potter, pray, and who the pot?”
Another example of Edward’s art is his pointillist drawing depicting two enormous stone legs standing on a plinth, while the foreground shows part of a stone face with nose, mouth, and beard, inspired by this sonnet of Shelley’s:
“I met a traveler from an antique land
Who said: ‘Two vast and trunkless legs stand
In the desert. Near them, on the sand
Half-sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.'”
Only a few of my father’s poems survive; his life’s work, the novel entitled Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang, was lost after his death, owing to my family’s many moves. I try not to think about that. The book was about a young woman who joined the U.S. Army during the Korean War. He expressly forbade me and my sister to read the manuscript, but I once spent an entire day skimming through it while he was at work. It was a book ahead of its time; his honest attempt to reproduce the actual speech characteristics of Army personnel in those days found no favor with literary agents in New York. Nowadays, of course, anything goes, but in the mid- to late 1950s such language was considered shocking.
Although his failure to achieve literary stardom blighted his later life, he found some solace in mentoring the young reporters who worked with him at the St. Louis Globe-Democrat.
My father gave me gifts beyond price: a love of poetry, an appreciation of good writing, and reverence for the magnificent, eloquent English language. I treasure his aphorisms: “Education is the ability to distinguish the first-rate,” and—with regard to writing— “The more realistic you are, the less real you are.”
On a scorching August morning in St. Louis, Edward walked to his office, sat down at his desk in the City Room, and suffered a fatal heart attack. It was August 4, 1980, four days before what would have been his 58th birthday.
His remains were flown to Milan, Tennessee, where he was buried in the family plot. Although Edward was a lifelong “unregenerate atheist,” as he described himself, we held a memorial service for him. And as the funeral cortege passed through the center of town, the police officers on traffic duty removed their caps and bowed their heads, which would have pleased my father, an ex-military man, greatly.
At the service my father’s youngest brother, my Uncle Jack, read the poems I had selected, among them Tennyson’s “Crossing the Bar” and the aforementioned stanza from “The Garden of Proserpine.”
There was much discussion as to my father’s burial. One of the uncles had a brilliant idea: “Let’s bury him with what our father always wanted! Remember how Daddy used to plead, ‘Lemme borry a pack of Lucky Strikes and a dollar, just to git me through Sunday’?"
So a packet of Lucky Strikes and a dollar were tucked into the pocket of Edward’s jacket, and his hands were folded over a book of Milton’s poems.
The memorial service ended with a reading from “Lycidas,” one of my father’s favorite poems:
“At last he rose and twitched his mantle blue
Tomorrow to fresh woods and pastures new.”