Poetry Corner: Don’t Call it a Comeback

With all the family get-togethers and class reunions over the past year or so, I keep running into people who say, “Josh, how’s the poetry going?” To which, for most of the past 12 years or so, I have answered: slowly or not at all.

I started writing poetry in high school, enough so that several of my early works survive in friends’ basements and are gleefully hauled up now and then to rub my face in the adolescentness of it all. I wrote a group of poems for my undergraduate thesis at Amherst College with two globe-bestriding dudes for advisors: Mary Jo Salter and David Sofield. It was a wonderful year of feeling ideas for poems come pretty freely, with nothing to stop me from scribbling down the first lines that came to me and wrangling quite a few actual poems into shape. In grad school, I kept it going somewhat but immersing myself in Adrienne Rich’s work both made my own feel that much more limited, and also challenged me in terms of the typical themes and tone of my own writing.

Then life intervened in ways both tragic and awesome, and I have had very limited writing for the past 10 years or so, with the exception of a few Amy- and girls-inspired poems that probably fit into the “Occasional Pieces” section of my future collected works. Last summer, I was gearing up to attend a poetry workshop at Amherst and got it into my head to get in touch with Dan Chiasson (Amherst ’93), who is an actual Young Poet to watch out for. He did a little interview with me, and in the process of reading his work as well as that of James Merrill and David Ferry for the workshop, I was inspired to write again in a new way: in fact, taking on The Topic for the first time in ten years. That particular piece isn’t ready to share yet, but just having a self-prescribed agenda of poems I’m working on feels great.

An ever-patient Josh holds up Miss M., our superhero, butterfly, blithe spirit

Like so many other aspects of mid-life existence, getting back into poetry means setting up some semblance of routine, discipline, regularity. Like Philip Roth, who writes standing up basically all day every day, I, too, have established a routine, in which I berate myself at least monthly for not writing more. The latest writing episode was actually on a plane to China, freed from email and FB’s siren calls. But today I happily hit upon a combined inspiration that should provide for a concrete path to a next poem. First off, young Miss M. finally eked out her report on butterflies, which is really a perfect theme for her (see photo). And it occurred to me that some of my best work was inspired by my friend Diane’s research on moths. My hope is to get back into that theme, which for whatever reason was so productive for me, and define some short-term requirement for myself (10 lines by next year, dammit!) that will be prescriptive enough to lead to some kind of output. Just to see how it feels to start and finish a poem, not on The Topic, in this new phase of my poetry life.

A Great Auk egg: while not a moth, this is nonetheless the egg of the beast whose name graces the American Ornithology Union's journal, in which Diane will soon have her article "Stable isotopes identify dietary changes associated with beak deformities in a small northern passerineā€

And now through the magic of blogging, let me bring you “Moth Chronicle,” the poem I wrote as Diane was finishing up her PhD. Looking back I would identify these aspects, which in a corporate HR training setting we’d characterize in a “plus-delta” analysis (“plus”=a good thing; “delta”=something lousy that needs to change–God forbid you would say “Plus” and “Minus”):

On the plus side, I like the enthusiastic if ill-informed use of the Latinate etymology, eerily prefiguring my harping on such themes with patient and actual Classics-major Dan Chiasson; the made-up moth names, like “Lesser-Bellied Jack-o-Lantern,” which actually fooled some people; and the sustained effort to get at something universal in the lives and struggles of these animals. I also think I did a good job with my habitual blank verse. Areas for improvement: a habit of mine is to drift into rhyme or near-rhyme in the blank verse, which is almost as bad in a way as forcing the rhyme–it’s like, dude, either put up the net or don’t; the interweaving of Diane’s story/research with the various evocations of moths doesn’t work perfectly across the three sections of the poem; and there is a somewhat cheesy “e-moth” reference that is a bit too close for comfort to an extremely cheesy Prince song.

So like an Indiana Jones raiding Prince’s legendary vault of unheard songs, I hope to keep doling out old (or even new) sample of my work by way of urging on new material. Comments welcome.

2 thoughts on “Poetry Corner: Don’t Call it a Comeback

  1. Yes. Yes. Write. That is indeed what this new freedom of middle age is for; you can get back the parts of you that you have always loved, and Delta the crap that never worked in the first place.

    When my youngest kid got to the age of being less impossible, a new space opened up in my life for an old hobby in a new form. (Not to liken your actual poetry with my flailing musical experiments — it’s more about how you choose to use the time leftover after the necessaries get done.) Another few insights from my new adult life with music: go places and do things that have to do with poetry. Don’t just sit and home and write — sit at home and write PLUS read a ton. Take workshops, interview more poets. Last summer, I went to a music camp (With my family, mind you) and loved it. Maybe there is some poetry camp destined to blast the top of your head off, Emily D style. Whatever you do, please please please write. Your life depends on it. love, your opinionated classmate

    • Thanks Launa! You can’t swing a cat in a crowd of Amherst ’91 women without hitting an encouraging and accomplished muse. The reference to camp and Emily D somehow makes me think of girls’ lacrosse.

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