Epstein applauds 'flood-tide' of poetry

April 27, 1995|By Diane Scharper | Diane Scharper,Special to The Sun

A poet with a deep sense of drama and of place, Daniel Mark Epstein writes of the woman throwing her baby from a burning house on Cathedral Street, the man without legs rolling himself along Park Avenue, the jockey riding at Laurel: "I was light but held my horse's sides / between my legs like a vise, / broke fast and rode hard for the rails, / had my share of the winners but loved them all. / I was the horse's mind, he was my heart."

A resident of Baltimore, Mr. Epstein is excited about the poetry renaissance that is taking place here. As part of this rebirth, he will read his poetry at 7 p.m. tonight at Halcyon Gallery in Fells Point.

"All the readings, the raps and the slams indicate the present health of the spoken word," he says in an interview. "I remember Baltimore's literary renaissance of the 1970s. Then things got quiet, and the passion for poetry waned. It waned about as far as it could go. But now we are in the flood-tide."

Mr. Epstein's passion for poetry, however, has never waned. Winner of several awards -- including the Robert Frost Prize, the Stephen Vincent Benet Prize and the Prix de Rorne -- Mr. Epstein was born a poet, or so it seems.

Born in 1948, he grew up in a Maryland suburb of Washington. From his mother, whose family came from the Eastern Shore, he inherited a sense of language, literature and poetry. From his Jewish father, who was of Lithuanian descent, he inherited a free spirit and a love of story. From both parents, he took a profound mysticism.

That mysticism is central to Mr. Epstein's poetry. It can be seen in his belief in a God who, as Mr. Epstein puts it, "is ever drawing like towards like and giving them the opportunities to get acquainted. We must learn how to recognize those

opportunities."

Something of a prodigy, Mr. Epstein always loved poetry. His mother read the classics to him, starting him on such poets as William Butler Yeats when he was very young. He began writing poems in the late '50s, when he was 10 or 11. In his early teens, he received two important poetry awards -- one from Scholastic magazine, the other from The Lyric, a respected poetry journal.

Both of those awards, he says, pale in comparison with a letter he received at the age of 13 from Elliott Coleman, then director of the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars. Mr. Coleman -- poet and well-loved mentor to many writers, including John Barth, Russell Baker and A. R. Ammons -- praised the young poet and encouraged him to continue writing.

Mr. Epstein did continue. He wrote six books of poetry, two plays, two critical studies and a biography. All of them have been well-received, with the Sewanee Review predicting that Mr. Epstein would become one of the best poets of the century. His most recent book, the biography "Sister Aimee," was acclaimed by the New York Times.

"I write poetry to express my joy and my longing, to explain myself to myself," Mr. Epstein says. "Writing poems makes me most alive. It taxes all of my abilities and strengths."

It also takes five or six hours of writing a day, Mr. Epstein explains. Then comes the revision: He just finished a poem that ** had 50 drafts. It consisted of 28 lines and took three weeks to write.

Several of Mr. Epstein's poems address members of his family, describing the child afraid of thunder, the aged grandmother, the dying grandfather. Generally, though, Mr. Epstein's poems are not personal. Their subjects are literary and historical figures -- including people from local history.

Some of the poems tell a story whose point is a larger meaning. "The Boy in the Well," the title poem of his forthcoming book, is about a boy who climbed into a well and was unable to get out. Someone had told him that he could see stars during the day if he looked from a pit dug deeply enough. The boy saw stars but lost everything else: "He doesn't know anymore if it's day or night. / By now the children have come home from school, / All but the bravest."

That poem, Mr. Epstein explains, is about soul-making and the risks people take to live full lives. "Life is a process of soul-making," he says. So is poetry.

POETRY READING

Who: Daniel Mark Epstein

Where: Halcyon Gallery, 909 Fell St.

When: 7 p.m. Thursday

Admission: $4

$ Call: (410) 675-6870

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