Monday, March 17, 2008


for Manny

As a poet, I’m a hobbyist, an avid amateur, with pretensions.

What keeps me from the fervid fray of professional competition is my need to spare my ego both over-stimulation and dejection. I’ve been dejected in the past, and I’d rather avoid too much of that.

I write first to please myself, for the fun of saying something delightfully, gratifyingly, by my own lights; yet also with the hope of pleasing others. It’s all about pleasure, especially the pleasure of pulling off something difficult, of fashioning a crafty little box that snaps snugly shut.

I’d rather call my own practice verse than poetry, leaving “Poetry” an honorific term best conferred by others, and thus also avoiding the conundrum of defining poetry. Verse I do, however well, and it’s readily distinct from prose.

I came to writing verse by osmosis since I teach the Old Masters of the English tradition, from Chaucer to Milton in particular. Their ways rubbed off on me. I began to play with iambic pentameters. “I lisped in numbers, for the numbers came.”

But my teaching not only drenched me in the element of verse, it also shaped what I wrote since as a teacher I’m an explainer, an expositor, and what mostly came forth were discursive verses rather than something more lyrical and soulful.

I use verse as a vehicle for discourse and discovery, for pedagogical monologues or reveries meant to teach myself first, then others, with the rational attitude prevailing over the affective.

Sticking with traditional meter and rhyme, rather than encumbering my thought, provokes it and shapes it, taking me in unexpected directions.

Think of a racehorse galloping in a lane on an oval track, describing a complete circuit, crossing a finish line. Compare that with a free-ranging mustang careening across a plain in a herd. The first is a sonnet, the second a riot. Like a jockey, the meter and rhyme keep nudging and prodding my racing mind on a course to a conclusion.


after reading “The Trouble with Poetry”
by Billy Collins

This isn’t just for anyone, you know,
and certainly not for everybody,
so who are you, then, friend,
looking in to this out-of-the-way place—
the kindred spirit I’ve always written for?

If so, would I recognize you on the street?
Would I have known you in another life,
a soul mate separated all these years
mystically linked, my other half?

Well then, you know my mind already,
and here you see an image of your own;
or is it you who’s been dictating everything,
and all my poetry is yours? Okay,
then dedicate it back to me, old pal.