Anthony Abbott sits in his cluttered office at Davidson College, reciting Yeats by heart.
“Have you read ‘When You Are Old’?” he asks. “No?”
The lesson begins. He closes his eyes. His head begins to nod like a metronome. He pauses, and his blue eyes open wide and shine. Like the conductor of an orchestra, he floats his hands in midair, keeping tempo. His voice is professorial—assertive and slightly hoarse—punctuated by dramatic pauses.
This is a man who types out poems and tucks them away in his shirt pocket to pull out and memorize in his free time. He studies them line by line, reading aloud at stoplights in his car or while walking his dog. Once he knows a poem by heart, it joins dozens of others, yellowed and creased, in a bulging manila folder.
Poems sustain Abbott. They have given him strength and lifted him to impressive heights. His first book of poetry, The Girl in the Yellow Raincoat, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. As a professor at Davidson for 41 years, he spearheaded the creation of the creative writing program. With seven books of poetry, two novels, and four books of modern literary criticism, he’s a treasured institution among writers throughout the state. Now 79, he’s reflecting on a life transformed by poetry.
One night when Abbott was nine, he was lying in bed when he overheard an explosive fight. There was a commotion, yelling, and the sound of a shotgun firing. His mother shot his stepfather through the shoulder. He was injured, but alive. Abbott doesn’t remember exactly what happened next; all he knows is that a few days later, his mother took him to speak to the police.
By then, he was accustomed to chaos. His mother and father were both alcoholics, “wild young things,” who divorced when he was very young. “I’m told they were just like Scott and Zelda [Fitzgerald],” he says.
After the shooting, his mother divorced again and moved from Connecticut to New York City to become a waitress in a hotel. Abbott’s 18-year-old sister and stepfather moved to the city separately, leaving Abbott without a guardian.
“According to Freud, I should have been a total failure,” Abbott says. But his godmother stepped in. Marion Lowe was an old friend of his parents from California, and she was generous with her wealth. She sent Abbott to the Fay School, a boarding school in Southborough, Massachusetts, where he found solace in strict rules and high expectations.
Still, he was essentially homeless. Vacations and holidays were divided between family members or guardians, who were often busy with their own lives. So while most boys balked at Fay’s flavorless rationed cafeteria food and the harsh paddling they received for misbehavior, Abbott relished the structure and attention he received. School was the closest thing he had to a home.
“He didn’t have an easy time starting off,” says Hal Hamilton, one of Abbott’s two best friends at Fay. But he became a success story, a smart boy from a broken family who excelled with proper instruction. “They gave him a special alcove in the dormitory,” Hamilton says. “He was considered almost a prodigy.”
When he was 11, Abbott took a train to New York City to visit his mother for the weekend. He waited on a bench at the train station for half an hour, he later wrote in the poem, “In Grand Central Station.” Scanning the crowd, he searched for “his mother’s blue coat with the torn hem and the white scarf.” Time passed, and Abbott began to cry. Embarrassed and alone, he put “his tears away in the pocket with his used handkerchief,” and refused to allow himself to be that vulnerable again. When his mother died a few years later, from cancer and complications related to alcoholism, he couldn’t cry.
Press "Play" to hear Abbott reading "In Grand Central Station."
This article appears in the April 2014 issue of Charlotte magazine.