Old dreams do not have to die. Sometimes they are merely dormant, waiting for the right awakening through a mixture of desire and circumstance.
Jesse McKnight was "this" close to getting his doctorate in English literature from Kent State in September 1970, when he simply walked away, knowing that he had no passion for teaching. More taken with John Lennon's working-class hero than scaling the ivory tower of scholarship, McKnight left behind his nearly completed dissertation on James Joyce, the iconic Irish novelist and poet, and returned to Bunnell, Florida, a coastal town located between Daytona and St. Augustine. He went to work with his mother, who had started a title company back in the days when Florida real estate was a quiet little business.
The only outward evidence of his former life were two poems McKnight wrote in 1976, which were published a year later in The Smith, a well-respected literary journal which has since folded. For the next 30 years, McKnight's writing went underground, appearing only in his personal journals. He filled journal after journal with observations, raw and edgy, while Florida real estate boomed and business was great for 25 years; then came the bust. As one cycle waned, though, another waxed, and a dream reawakened.
Some of us find ourselves at midlife with missed opportunities and purpose unfulfilled. Backwatered and sidetracked by life choices, we may find ourselves living a life far from what we had envisioned. What McKnight discovered, however, was that creative dreams can be revived, even after three decades.
A confluence of circumstances created the sea change for McKnight in the mid-2000s, including finding his half brother in England -- the other son whom his father, a pilot in World War II, had told him about briefly. In 2004, McKnight decided to go to Dublin with his wife, Genette, for the 100th anniversary of Bloomsday, a celebration of Joyce and his epic novel, Ulysses. While there, he ran into his old friend Fritz Senn, director of The James Joyce Foundation in Zurich, and they picked up where they had left off 33 years before. When his friend extended an invitation to speak at a foundation conference, McKnight eagerly agreed, and re-entered the world from which he had been absent for 30 years.
Today, Jesse McKnight is living the life of a poet and scholar, having published a dozen or so poems in well-regarded literary magazines and two papers in scholarly journals, including the august James Joyce Quarterly. And he is still president of the title company, which keeps him anchored in a world that is real and tangible: "In terms of work I am an ant, diligent and plodding. In terms of poetry, I am a grasshopper, writing when I feel like it, which is usually early in the morning or at my desk when things are slow," McKnight said.
Listening to McKnight's story we might be tempted to ask about regret, but in the poet's words, we find no evidence of it. Most inspiring about McKnight's journey is his conviction that the 30 years of dormancy was not time wasted. "I did a lot of reading, a lot of thinking and a lot of listening to music," he mused. "As a result, I have a lot of things to write about -- often things that are mundane, and there is poetry in that."
His poem, "Prolapsed," published in The Journal, from Original Plus Press in Cumbria, England, in the summer of 2011, was inspired by earthworms crawling out of the rain-saturated ground toward his garage, where they dried up on the cement floor. No sweet perfume here of Gertrude Stein's "A rose is a rose is a rose": instead, the gritty, smelly reality of nature viewed through a poet's lens:
Rooted in ruttedness and rutted in
Rootedness in a crack in the corner
Of the garage like some obsolescent
Device, the corpus reclines in decline..."*
Today, at age 65, McKnight pursues his avocation as a "free-thinking poet," bridging two worlds: one of a scholar and the other of a businessman. For poets, painters, writers and other creative spirits who have walked away, whether by necessity or design, his example is a powerful reminder that though dreams sleep, they need not be given up for dead. "I have not ossified," McKnight said. "Maybe a little in my bones at my age, but mentally I'm like William Blake who said, 'My soul is just as young as ever.'"
From "Prolapsed," by Jesse McKnight, published in The Journal, issue number 33, summer 2011