Friday, October 23, 2009

Tribute to a Lost Writer & Friend - Patrick Schnoor

In the late 1960's, as an undergraduate at Berkeley, I ended up in Robert Grenier's poetry workshop class. That would have been in my junior year. In the second trimester (Berkeley was on the "quarter system" in those days (four terms in a year), a new face joined the class, a guy my own age named Patrick Schnoor. Patrick had grown up in Los Banos, California, down in the hot Central Valley. This was dry, flat, agricultural and farming country, very hot most of the year, and fairly isolated from any urban centers. Patrick's people had lived there for a few generations--there are still streets with the name Schnoor in Merced, for instance.  

I wish I had a photo of Patrick. He was big, like I was, though a bit stouter, a "flamin'" redhead, with big orange freckles, round Dutch-German face, a jovial manner, and a daring, devil-may-care attitude towards life. A philosophy major, if I remember correctly. For Patrick, Berkeley was like Disneyland. He was contemptuous of snobs and fools, but was without pretension, and was a glutton for experience. When I first knew him, he'd begun to experiment with drugs of all kinds, which were readily available in those days. 

As soon as Grenier saw Patrick's work, he knew he was dealing with a superior talent. Patrick had begun to write poetry in high school, and had already produced a body of work that would merit publication by the age of 16. He was a classicist, in those days, and wrote only rhymed sonnets. The subject matter was close to his life--the bleak, quotidian landscape, an existential sense of life--and vividly portrayed. Like me, too, Patrick played the piano. Both of us had grown up in semi-rural circumstances, so we were natural companions. But there were places Patrick would go where I couldn't follow. We both lived in the undergraduate dormitories south of campus, but had little to do with these places, except to eat and sleep there.  

In short order, Patrick was experimenting with marijuana, methedrine, LSD, mescaline, peyote, and (for all I know) the hard stuff, though Patrick liked to be high, not low. Having grown up in a household with two two-pack-a-day Camel smokers, I had no interest in addictive substances. This drug preoccupation of Patrick's--so typical of kids in our generation--would eventually lead to his downfall.

In the meantime, Patrick and I were beginning to be heavily influenced by Grenier's brand of writing. Grenier's great hero was Robert Creeley, but he was hip to the full range of avant garde styles of poetry, and made us aware of all of them. Schnoor was a very apt pupil, and picked up all these lessons rapidly. In no time, he was doing minimal poems, as well as complex prose texts a la maniere d'Ashbery. 

The next year, it became evident that one or both of us, at Grenier's instigation, was going to apply for acceptance to the Workshop at Iowa. There were others, too, talented enough to apply--among them, Barrett Watten, whom I'd met at Bob's house on Arch Street one evening at an informal crit session. (Barry liked W.S. Merwin at that moment, I was taken with Gary Snyder.) In fairly short order, Schnoor received his acceptance notice from Iowa, with a promise of a teaching job in the English Department, if he wanted it. My letter was a stall, informing me that I might be accepted if they "had enough slots" to fill. 

By this time, I had met and married my college sweetheart, Merry Rubin (from Texas), and moved into an apartment right off of Telegraph Avenue. We had a view of Cody's Book Store, across the street, at the intersection of Telegraph and Haste Streets. That Spring, as I was looking out the window towards the intersection, I saw Patrick walk down Haste towards Telegraph, stop quickly in front of the corner establishment, where he was momentarily met by a shady character in a hat. They made furtive exchanges from the contents of their pockets, and just as quickly departed in opposite directions. There was no mystery about what was happening: Patrick was selling drugs on the street. I never told Patrick about having seen this, but I didn't have to.  

In due course, I was accepted at Iowa, and moved there in the Fall of 1969, narrowly avoiding being drafted (a story for another blog--this was at the height of the Vietnam War). Patrick, I knew, had been "held up" for some reason, but I briefly lost track of him. It would be three years before I saw Patrick again, after I'd quit graduate school in Iowa City and moved back to Berkeley. We ran into each other there--Patrick was living in a hotel at the very intersection where I'd seen him three years before--and he brought us up to date on what had happened to him in the interim.

Patrick had indeed gotten heavily into the drug trade, and had made a pile of loot. Inside of 8 months, he'd cleared three quarters of a million dollars, had a big car, a new apartment, and was living high. Then, suddenly, predictably, it all came crashing down, as he was picked up and charged in a sting operation set up by the Feds. There was a good chance he'd end up in prison for a decade or more, so the stakes were high. He'd hired the best "drug" lawyer in the country, who, in exchange for most of the money he'd stashed away from the illicit drug deals, brokered a plea-bargain which enabled Patrick to go free. Interestingly, the adjudication of his case was conducted in Illinois. On his way there, by plane, he had a stopover (in Des Moines?) where he chanced to meet one of my fellow Workshop students at the time, named Wendy Salinger. "She knew you, too," he exclaimed, when he told me about it, "but I couldn't tell her why I was there, only that I'd been going to go to Iowa, like you, but had been prevented from attending due to some personal problems!"

At loose ends, Patrick had written a short novel, which he'd entered in the Joseph Henry Jackson award competition. Patrick was "convinced" he was going to win it, and gave me a copy to read. As good a poet as Patrick was, I could see that this Great American Novel needed work. To no great surprise, he didn't win, and eventually found a job in the computer industry. 

In the meantime, I had started a small magazine, called simply, L Magazine, in which I published poetry, and, with the help of some publisher's grants, a few books. I offered to publish Patrick's high school sonnets, which he agreed to. I think Patrick may have imagined that it would be done rather like a Peter Pauper Press book, hardcover, letterpress, but my budget would never have allowed that. The modest little pamphlet I did have printed probably embarrassed him, but he always graciously thanked me for doing it. 

Nevertheless, in the mid-1970's, I mostly lost track of Patrick. Every six months or so I'd see him, and once he visited the house where we were living on Milvia Street in Berkeley. He was accompanied by a beautiful dark, sexy Mediterranean woman, dressed in elaborate shawls, who seemed very solicitous of Patrick, who seemed quite nervous, even unstable, visibly shaking. I suspected that he must have been on psycho-active meds. He was sheepish; he had worked for some kind of environmental testing firm, but he gave no details. As always, he had great plans, but there were just a few little complications at the moment. He'd stopped writing, apparently, but gave no explanation.                                       

As his literary inferior, from our earlier days as undergraduates, I mourned the loss of a considerable talent, even as I envied his potential. But nothing had come of it: The best contemporary of my undergraduate days had fallen into a sand-trap and seemed unable to find his way out. I didn't know what to suggest, and Patrick seemed uninterested in cultivating our friendship further.  

I lost track of him about 1979, as our lives diverged, in my case to a 9 to 5 job and the duties of fatherhood and paying a mortgage. Over the years I wondered what might have become of him. Had he resumed writing, or found his way into some kind of stable life? 

In the late 1990's, I thought I'd located him on the internet, with an e.mail address at a Silicon Valley computer corporation, but the message I sent bounced back. Then, about three years ago, browsing his name on Google, I discovered, via the Tulare County Obituary Index that he'd died on December 6th, 1997. Someone had posted a brief missive online, indicating that Patrick had been a part of some kind of extended treatment program for substance abuse. I was so saddened by this, I was beyond words. Previously, I'd lost another very good friend from my early college years, named Michael Lamm, a student underground radical, whose car had been found on the Golden Gate Bridge with a suicide note.        

The Sixties were hard on some people. They may have been the years of positive change and flower power and love, but there were casualties as well. Patrick was a very smart, very sweet man with a big weakness, which eventually did him in. I miss him still.  

In the coming weeks, I hope to post some of Patrick's poetry on this website--both the sonnets and some minimal works which I published in L Magazine.      


Kirby Olson said...

Ginsberg's ideas of drugs drugs drugs killed the best minds of his generation.

Why again were drugs such a good idea back then?

It seemed to me that drug use and Marxism were both utopian opiates that were to your generation what Moloch was to another.

The poems remind me a little bit of Edwin Denby's sonnets. I don't know how widespread that sonnet notion was -- take a classical form and fill it with American daily reality to get a jarring effect.

It was an interesting idea. Denby did it better, but he had a lot more time to work on it.

Kirby Olson said...

P.S. I hate looking people up and finding an obituary.

I have had that happen to me several times, too, never with good friends, but with people I was trying to contact for various reasons. One of them used to work at the university I was at in Finland. He got fired, and the only lead I could find was a funeral notice. I had wanted to send him my novel, Temping (set in Finland at the university we both worked at). I was about a year late.

Curtis Faville said...


I see here once again your tendency to associate a literary work with some politically charged aspect of its author's life.

Patrick wrote his sonnets long before he ever got into drugs. Drugs don't taint the writing. Drugs got in the way of his career.

If Ginsberg had never addressed his own homosexuality in his work, there'd be no reason even to mention it.

Connections between the work and the life are usually considered a badge of honesty. Would we feel better about people if they studiously avoided personal references in their work? Would we like it better if Whitman had simply lied about his sexual proclivities in his poetry? The work and the life are, in the end, inseparable, but they may not be a matter of public (or critical) concern.

Patrick never addressed his drug obsessions in his poetry, but he might have, if he had not abandoned his writing career. It's probably a cautionary tale about the temptations of luxury and excitement. The seamier side of indulgence. But Patrick's appetite for experience is clearly related to his drug experiments. That has a long history in literature, going back to Rimbaud, etc.

Kirby Olson said...

Marianne Moore didn't need drugs. she saw NYC as accessibility to experience. But she wrote many of her best poems in Carlisle. I think it's sad to read about this waste of talent. There must be a moral of some kind to this story, or what are we to make of it? I, personally, see it as a mistaken aspect of a promising generation that killed itself with Ginsberg's ideas. He tried to rally his generation around the previous generation as a kind of Moloch. But to my generation, he was Moloch the Molester.

J said...

This was nearly an interesting thread--sort of Ubi-Suntish, even--until the Olsenator arrived with some two-bit sunday school moralizing.

(I would not have allowed KO's comments)