How does it feel to grow old?
I don't know.
I guess it makes you
more aware of when you're wasting your time
or maybe just more aware
and just a little choosier about how you spend it ... --Macdonald Carey
In a cluttered, cozy roost on Benedict Canyon Drive dwells a born griot . In another time or place, the griot --the storyteller, the one with the fine, resonant voice--would spin his yarns under the baobab tree, or in the agora. This being America of the '80s, some of the griot 's tales are told daily, noon to 1, to the millions who watch the wildly popular soap opera called "Days of Our Lives." He does that for profit, and fun.
The griot --Macdonald Carey--tells his other tales for joy, for release, possibly for expiation. For these, his medium is poetry. His village is Beverly Hills. His metier is the word.
As a working actor, Carey, 75, is one of few who can still, legitimately, lay claim to the mellow old epithet of "Star of Stage, Screen and Radio." To that add television. "Days" was built around Carey, around Dr. Tom Horton and his family. But that was 23 years ago, and plot upon plot later, the role of Horton--"still the umbrella character from which everything else spins"--has diminished.
Though the show is still "great fun," Carey does not complain. There are more days now for singing lessons. For dancing. Mostly for poetry.
As a poet, Carey is no mere dabbler. During and after a fine, feisty fight against alcoholism, Carey wrote, took poetry lessons, wrote, and wrote some more.
Good poetry? Good enough for three published volumes.
The first, "A Day in the Life," was printed by Coward McCann. "It was published, I think, mostly because I was Macdonald Carey," he concedes.
'A Vanity Book, to Be Sure'
"The second book, 'That Further Hill,' I published with Jack Grapes, my teacher, my guru. A vanity book, to be sure, but I did it because by then I thought I was a good poet."
The third, as yet untitled, will be published by the press of the University of South Carolina. "I like to think that this time it's because I am a good poet," Carey says.
His guarded optimism--poets are never really sure--is bolstered by last month's Ph.D., a doctorate in fine arts, awarded by the University of South Carolina. "They've asked me back to South Carolina to teach," Carey says from a great height. "To teach poetry, not acting! I won't have the time, not now, but just the idea of it! That, of course, is why I'm floating on air."
Why poetry, though? Why choose such a demanding medium? Not "because it's there," Carey suggests. More because he's there.
Where he is, by and large, is in that house on Benedict Canyon, a splendid potpourri of print. Carey's six grown children have moved out. So has his wife. The place obviously lacks a woman's touch, though it does not lack for heroines. It is a house filled with more books, in more unexpected places, than "Fahrenheit 451" before the bonfire.
Once inside, it is most comfortable. A nice place to live, but you wouldn't want to visit there. The street curve, despite sentinels of signal lights, is dangerous enough to have rated at least two of Carey's poems.
So have been the days of Carey's life. Not dangerous perhaps in the accepted sense--excluding three years in the South Pacific during World War II--they have been perilous, though, in a show-biz sense: Hollywood, it is still said, can rob your soul if you're not wary. Carey for the most part has been wary enough. A poet--a good one--must be.
Charles Bukowski, the brash bard of San Pedro, confirms Carey's resistance in a letter the actor/poet prizes. "It's amazing to me," Bukowski wrote, "that you've retained a good amount of humanity--humanness is a better word--in spite of working in the movie and TV industries.
"I suppose that if a man doesn't want to be destroyed he won't be.
"Keep the ribbon spinning."
... the rancid emptiness
of being rich is
living with others rich as you
equally deprived ...
It is suggested to Carey that actors, at least the more sensitive among them, have been known to harbor guilt feelings over doing so little for so much.
"Everyone goes through that guilt stage," Carey concedes, "but hardly about money. That's the purest bull . . . I couldn't make enough money. If you're any sort of a human being at all you've got places to spend it. There are plenty of people out there who are poor, who could use your help. . . .
"I'll tell you what it is, though. It's the guilt that goes with being a member of the servant class. An actor is at the beck and call of other people. The times that you swallow your pride never stop in this business."
Would Carey, then, rather be remembered as as a poet?