Before writing, I like to reread something I admire: Claudia Emerson, Robert Hass, and Natasha Trethwey are all in the bookbag right now. Another current turn-to is an old favorite, Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Armadillo,” somehow rereading “the frail illegal fire balloons appear…” works like an incantation for me. My writing usually begins with a rapid freewrite a fueled by a Gryphon cafe latte and the great hum of background noise. I’ll write until I have something, one line which strikes the note, at which point the writing slows down, grows more deliberate and shaped. Some pieces will turn into Field Notes, some into poems, others are merely readying me for the next thing, and quite a few–if they weren’t in the computer–might make fine paper airplanes. The morning writing is akin to schooling a horse; it’s unlikely you’ll go on to great things without the daily, weekly, monthly slog of schooling behind you. Borrowing a technique from Andrew Wyeth, who sometimes tossed quickly composed pencil studies into a drawer, I like to print out a new poem, make quick revisions in ink, then put it away. I’ll leave it be until time grants the distance that allows me to see what needs revising.
Currently, I am working on a sequence of poems that deal with the life and loss of my beloved brother Paul. Form tends to rein in grief so for the moment, I am reading handbooks and experimenting with form. At same time, I am casting about for other narratives and sustaining voices, to set the brother poems within a wider historical or artistic context. One such figure or voice is Henry Beston who was devastated by his experience in the First World War and turned to writing fairy stories for a sort of reprieve and healing in its aftermath. Beston spent a year living on Nauset Beach in Wellfleet on Cape Cod, a remote outpost in those days; the yield of that year on the beach was an extraordinary book, The Outermost House. See my review of Daniel Payne’s wonderful biography: Orion on the Dunes.
I have also turned to fine art for models, Augustus Saint Gaudins’ Admiral Farragut is in Madison Park, NY, around the corner from where my brother worked, and the sculptor’s haunting and beautiful, “Angel of Purity,” is close at hand in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. One Saint Gaudens’ sculpture you are probably familiar with, even if you have never walked the Boston Common, is Robert Gould Shaw and the Fifty-fourth Regiment Memorial because of Robert Lowell’s “For the Union Dead.”
Long ago, Eliot asked us to consider how an individual work fits in with existing traditions. I think it’s still a valid question: where do you fit, within what traditions are you working? I admire the work of many Irish poets–Fallon, Grennan, Heaney, to name the key constellations–their lived in knowledge of the land, the way the family figures in the world of the poems, the richness of the interior life, the way personal and communal history collide in subtle or great ways. My Irish grandmother, Delia Fahey Cronin, sat down at about age sixty and, in lovely freehand, wrote out the story of her mother’s life in the west of Ireland before the turn of the century. I suppose it is no accident that I look to the tradition of Irish poets asking where I fit in.
Writing about the natural world, its particular landscapes and inhabitants, as well as the great wheel of the seasons through well known places comes naturally to me. My brother, sisters, and I grew up riding horses and doing the work ourselves, the mucking, feeding, blanketing & unblanketing, hammering out of icy buckets come winter, the steaming of bran mashes under swathes of burlap in the fall. Our grandfather was our mentor in all of this. The horses gave us a vast network of landscapes and an unprecedented freedom. Dover and Sherborn had so many hidden meadows and ponds. The maps of those places are part of my permanent geography, they lie beneath the surface of the poems.