Unknown poet gets his due

SUN JOURNAL

Professor: Cleatus Rattan wrote for decades in small-town obscurity - until Texas named him its poet laureate.

February 09, 2004|By Jeff Guinn | Jeff Guinn,FORT WORTH STAR-TELEGRAM

CISCO, Texas - The letter arrived last year on the day before Easter, and not a moment too soon. Cleatus Rattan, 67, had pretty much concluded he was a failure. More than three decades of reluctantly teaching language arts at Cisco Junior College, two dozen years of running a small cattle ranch that he had to shut down, a quarter-century of writing poems more often rejected than accepted by obscure journals - these things compared unfavorably, he felt, with the accomplishments of his nearest and dearest.

"Particularly within my own family, I didn't feel I measured up," he says.

Wife Connie, an English and music teacher, had festooned the Rattans' den with athletic medals and trophies won by sons Randall, Jayson and Raiford, who all were star college football players (North Texas, Texas Tech and Texas Christian universities, respectively) before achieving further success as doctors in Dallas and Fort Worth. Their father, meanwhile, felt stuck in a town he dearly wanted to leave, either a potentially big fish in a small pond with no room to grow or - worse - a never-was whose ambition far outstripped his talent and who deserved career obscurity. Cleatus Rattan had fought against continuing bouts of depression almost all of his adult life. Now, in his early old age, he was more convinced than ever he had a lot to be depressed about.

Then came the letter matter-of-factly informing him he had been designated the Texas poet laureate for 2004.

After the shock wore off, Cleatus Rattan screamed for joy.

That enthusiasm hasn't worn off in the months since. "I revel in being poet laureate," Rattan says. A slim man with a thin beard and mustache whose ramrod-straight posture reflects his long-ago stint as a sergeant in the Marines, Rattan leans back in his chair in his office at Cisco Junior College. It's not much to look at, just a boxy little room in the back of a long, low shed whose prime space is devoted to welding classes. But then, the entire Cisco Junior College campus isn't much to look at, just a collection of drab buildings atop a hill outside town. Rattan says most of the 700 students here are athletes sent to improve their grades before transferring somewhere else.

"I never expected money or fame from being a poet, of course," Rattan adds. "But now, when I send out poems, I can and do always add at the bottom I'm the Texas poet laureate - though I sent out about 60 to 80 poems not long ago and, as usual, the majority were sent back."

The main reward for being poet laureate comes from "recognition," Rattan says. Nothing more than that.

"There's no salary involved," he notes. "I got a nice ceremony at the Capitol in Austin. And the president of the college here had a party for me."

John Muller, president of Cisco Junior College, says his good friend Rattan "has always been one of our pre-eminent faculty members. We consider this an honor for him, for this school and for this community, and it was a pleasure to help him celebrate it."

Would you be the Mayor of Cisco, Tx, a town full of Rottweilers and Pit Bulls with nothing to guard? You know the word moribund? Cisco is mostabund. A bad joke, Cisco ...

Few others in Cisco seem interested in helping Cleatus Rattan celebrate. In an ever-dwindling town of maybe 3,000, in a place where the prevalent downtown motif is "boarded up," everybody should know a man who has lived there since 1973 and is now poet laureate of the state. But in the grocery store, on the sidewalk by Cooder's Barbecue and outside the Songs & Psalms Bible Bookstore, nobody acknowledges having heard of Cleatus Rattan, though the woman at the desk of the Best Western Motel says she has heard of a writer from nearby Cross Plains.

"We've stayed because I can't get a better job, that simple," Rattan says, adding that he sent out "hundreds" of resumes.

Jim Lee, professor emeritus at the University of North Texas and past editor of an annual UNT publication that has printed some of Rattan's poetry, says Rattan's unhappiness with his job is typical in academia.

"In our line of work, any junior college is considered Siberia," Lee says. "Most people teaching in them would probably eat wood to get out. But if you stay on a junior college faculty too long, unfairly or not, you establish yourself as a sort of junior-college type. Typically, you never get out of there."

Rattan now expects that "I'll be here till I drop."

Cleatus Rattan never intended to become a poet because, from childhood, he loathed poetry.

"I remember in maybe seventh grade having to read Longfellow, `Evangeline,' all that crap," he recalls. "I came away thinking poets were effeminate."

Rattan didn't enjoy sitting in classrooms, but one of his high school English teachers lent the teen-ager some literary magazines. Reading out of desire rather than for a school assignment for the first time, he was especially struck by Shirley Jackson's short story The Lottery and, amazingly, by a poem, Theodore Roethke's "Elegy for Jane."

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