Over on the left are links to most of the poems (some I’m not sure are poems), published and unpublished, that I’d written and kept as of April of 1998—juvenalia, since I was barely past 45! Most are free verse, which I seem to be incapable of writing these days, and what meter I used seems pretty inept to me now. The links are in alphabetical order for no particular reason. These are poems I’m not sending out, but if you see something salvageable, send me a suggestion or make your own changes and send them to me. You'll get credit for the former (if it ever sees print) and permission to publish the latter.
My blog is where I talk about poems, poets, and poetry and occasionally post early drafts of verse I’m working on, but in the nature of a blog, things are scattered all over. Many years ago, before I began writing mostly metrical verse, I wrote the following small essay, which is still a pretty accurate statement of my basic feelings about trying to be a poet:
You Must Love Poems, Not Poetry
I don’t think it matters why a person begins to write poetry, as long as he or she eventually realizes that only a love for particular poems can sustain a career of making them. I started writing poems as an act of contempt. An English teacher I hated offered one point on the six weeks grade for each poem turned in—I wrote 92 and got a 95. And I found that writing poems made me seem sensitive. I got kissed more, and by more girls, so I kept it up.
But with all the advantages, for a horny teenager, of being a “poet,” the poems I wrote then were truly awful—generic lonely teenage blues, screw me now because the world is too much and I’m gonna die tomorrow and you’ll be sorry then! I had no idea what poets did besides be sensitive. I didn’t read poetry, or rather, I didn’t read poems.
I read Khalil Gibran, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, even Allen Ginsberg—and I thought I was reading poetry. I copied the words from songs and put them on the wall. But all I paid attention to was the emotion, and the only emotions I valued were anger, sorrow, loneliness, and, especially, unrequited love. I was in the position of Byron’s Don Juan at 16, who became so absorbed in then mysteries of the woods and the evening sky that he missed his supper. Byron’s comment:
If you think ’twas philosophy that this did,
I can’t help thinking puberty assisted.
Poor Juan never learned to love particular women, and though Byron never finished his poem, in other versions Juan is finally dragged off to hell by an avenging ghost. The fate of most young poets is less melodramatic, but no less final. They never learn to read and love particular poems, and either they or their friends get bored with eternal sensitivity. End of career.
That would have been my story if my next English teacher, Gary Parker, hadn’t let me write a poem instead of an essay in response to T. S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral. I thought I was getting off easy, but I found I didn’t know how to write a poem that wasn’t about me. I had to discover Eliot’s verse play, I had to pay attention to it, in a way I had not tried before. What had he done? Trying to answer that question I read other pieces of his, poems and essays as well as plays, and I learned that Eliot used other people’s poems to make his own. I decided to steal his lines, his rhythms, his tone, to make my poem. And I didn’t stop for years.
I found other poets, particularly James Wright and Sylvia Plath, and later, Robert Herrick and John Donne (an odd pair of odd pairs), whose poems—“Lying on a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota,” “Death & Co.,” “Upon Julia’s Clothes,” “The Anniversarie”—have given my poems what life they may have. Paradise Lost taught me that a poem can make a long, complex, and serious argument. Yeats’ “Easter 1916” and Levertov’s “Tenebrae” showed me how a poem can be politically engaged. From Richard Wilbur’s “First Snow in Alsace” I learned that terza rima can convey the banal horror of war. From Howard Nemerov’s “Watching Football on TV” I learned that trivial matter, under the pressure of verse, can become a deep meditation on habit, perseverance, prejudice, and physical beauty.
If I have found a way to make my own poems, it is only because I fell in love with other people’s poems to the point that I tried to imitate them, to see if I could do that, too. I don’t think there is any other way to keep writing. You have to want to make the damned things, not want to be a poet. You have to read a lot. You have to memorize poems. You have to write passable imitations of your favorite poems, and if you can’t, you have to try until you can. You have to love poems, not poetry.