The Poetry Man
By Susan White
Poet Jack Myers loves words – long and short, complex and simple, lovely and lyrical, shabby and flabby.
Thus, his love of penning his thoughts in poetry – a medium that can capture life’s profound themes in a compact space, says Myers, professor of English who has taught creative writing at SMU for more than 30 years. “Poetry addresses very intimate aspects and happenings within the personal self that you
don’t normally talk about in everyday life.”
In his poetry workshops, Myers tells his students that the nature of poetry is all about the writing process, “shaping whatever we are trying to sculpt from inchoate fog that allows us to feel what it is to be human.” And above all, he emphasizes writing in the vernacular of 21st-century young adults, and NO rhyming! To do otherwise would negate their efforts to become contemporary poets, he says. SMU’s Department of English aims to support these budding poets and other writers through recent establishment of the Laurence and Catherine Perrine endowed chair in creative writing and the Marshall Terry Scholarship in creative writing.
The 2003-04 Texas Poet Laureate, Myers is the author of 17 books of and about
poetry and recipient of The Violet Crown Award, the Texas Institute of Letters
Award and two National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships. He is a National Poetry Series Open Competition winner and has been Distinguished Poet-in-Residence at several universities. Myers has served as vice president for the national organization Associated Writing Programs, and was a trustee of The Writer’s Garret in Dallas.
Myers says he began writing poetry at age 12 – “that great transformative and troubling age – because it seemed the right vessel for carrying strong emotions contained within a small space (me). As I progressed in skill and understanding, and my thinking became more metaphorical and analogical, poetry became a sort of high-intensity beam I could shine on whatever intrigued, puzzled, deeply interested, eluded or moved me. Now, in my advancing years, it again has transformed itself for me into a vehicle for inner growth, spiritual quest, and self-discovery, all of which attests to the old saying: ‘Life is short, art is long.’ Aside from my loved ones, I can think of no better companion through the years.”
Myers generously has shared with SMU Magazine six unpublished poems, which will be included in his next book of poetry, and more of his thoughts on poetry.
Q. What makes poetry such a challenge to read or write?
A. With poetry, you are using your brain in different ways. We’re used to thinking linearly, logically and rationally in most writing, but poetry makes us think metaphorically. There is a kind of a mathematical, image-based thinking that goes on, where we compare or contrast or substitute one thing with another. It’s not all cause and effect or syllogistic reasoning; it’s associative. It’s the kind of thinking that you do when you are a child: You come up with wild metaphors or images that you wouldn’t as an adult. The untrained mind thinks naturally in associative patterns. I think many people find poetry difficult because they’re using a part of their brains they more or less have been trained out of in the education process.
Q. How does that affect the way you teach poetry to young people?
A. I try to get them to drop the more rational aspects of their minds to allow them to free associate – open up those areas of the mind that they use in dreaming. When they have an experience and want to write a poem about it, my aim is to get them to think more deeply about it; not what happens next as in a plot or narrative, but what does it mean.
Q. Why does poetry seem much more personal than a novel?
A. Most poetry addresses very intimate aspects and happenings within the personal self that we don’t normally talk about in everyday life. Most poems stand outside of time; they’re not a sequence of events that take place chronologically. An individual poem does not have to be plot-based. In a poem I might start talking about a feeling that I’ve had, connect it back to something that happened to me in first grade and then zigzag over to being 12 years old when something opposite or similar happened. I can go all over time with nothing really happening in the plot. I’m an adherent to the [Carl] Jungian school of psychology, in which things that you dream or what the imagination comes up with stand for larger aspects within you. If you’re dreaming of someone stealing your car, typically a car represents a sense of self; I tend to look at it as a universal but also a personal thievery that’s going on inside the spirit of the person. Contemporary poets intuit how a poem will be on a page – the unconscious and subconscious are partners in creating poetry.
Q. Do you have any rules for writing poetry?
A. I tell students the first day of class ‘no rhyming!’ A lot of people think that’s what poetry is, but I take away the crutches of this form. I ask them to let the scales fall from their eyes and to write from their hearts and the way they speak. It allows more of who they are to come out. If they write in a sonnet form today, they are using a costume, a mask for an experience that’s contemporary, which doesn’t seem to fit. Not that they can’t write in a fixed form – people do it all the time – but that takes a certain kind of facility. If most people start from the way they speak, their own natural rhythms, patterns and thoughts will emerge. If they have something to say or they feel deeply about, they pretty much have all the raw material they need. Then they learn to focus sharply on language, how one word in a line affects another in the next line.
Not rhyming is uncomfortable for a lot of people. It’s how I started out. I was horrible, but I had no one to talk to in the blue-collar New England town where I grew up. I couldn’t tell people about the poetic thoughts I had – they would have laughed at me or disregarded it or thought I was weird. I wrote to myself in rhyming lines, but my feelings on the page were valuable to me. It’s the same for the students today. Although the forms change, according to the time and culture, poetry serves the same basic function and works in the same way it always has – capturing life’s profound themes in a compact space.
Q. How do you get students comfortable with contemporary poetry?
A. I tell them to read any poet from 1945 on – the good, bad and ugly. That’s how they will form their standards. I have a lending library in my office – stacks of books they can borrow – and then I have them talk to me about what they’ve read. Through the books they borrow, they begin to figure out their tastes and I figure out who they are.
Q. Who are some SMU alumni who have become accomplished poets?
A. Timothy Seibles (’77) was in one of my earliest creative writing classes in the 1970s. He was a Dallas favorite. He now teaches in Old Dominion University’s M.F.A. in Writing Program and is the author of five collections of poetry. Gillian Conoley (’77) is a widely published poet who teaches in the English department at Sonoma State University. Her poetry is not easily understood – she uses language in an affected way – but I experience [the feelings in] her poems. Most SMU alumni who are publishing poetry are teaching at the university level or work in administration. You can’t make a living as a poet alone.
Q. Which poets do you read?
A. Jack Gilbert. He’s able to speak of grand things in very short spaces. He plumbs the depths quickly. He’s a wise and smart man and his poems are brilliant. W.S. Merwin, who talks about everyday events in a magical way. He uses pastel tones, and I love to relax and watch his images. As I get older, there are fewer poets who interest me. It all seems like I’ve seen it before or it is derivative. That’s not how I felt when I was younger – everything was interesting and new and astounding and confounding. I’m not jaded; I just don’t get excited about as many poets as I used to.
Q. What are you aiming for with your poetry?
A. When I was young, I wrote about death a lot, but in a “romantic” sense. Now that I’m 66, I can see death &ndash its actual existence as a boundary. I have a different feeling about death now, and it’s not romantic at all. Whatever I write now, I want it to be as deep and true as I can make it, because I don’t have much time left.