Writing in the 'rhythm of the heart'

For Maryland poet laureate Michael Glaser, verse is about precision, being aware

November 05, 2006|By Mary Carole McCauley | Mary Carole McCauley,[Sun Reporter]

When Maryland poet laureate Michael Glaser seeks inspiration for his verse, he looks no further than the two-part thumping of his own heart.

That's true of Glaser's chosen subject; in his most recent book of verse, 2004's Being a Father, he chronicles the ambivalent emotions that arise while raising his three sons and two daughters, now all grown. The poems tackle experiences as diverse as comforting a preschooler after a nightmare, to a daughter's confident first visit home from college.

But Glaser also listens to his own heart in the way he writes, in his careful selection of the words that scramble across his pages like ants in pursuit of crumbs.

His verse is penned in the loose iambic pentameter that characterizes written and spoken English -- every second syllable is stressed, as if it were loaded down with miniature weights. "Boom-BOOM, boom-BOOM, boom-BOOM," Glaser explains, tapping it out. "The iam reflects the rhythm of the heart."

Glaser will be among 50 local and national authors who will read from their work next Sunday at the 13th annual Book Bash, a benefit that raises money to improve adult and family literacy.

The author of two full-length books of verse and a shorter chapbook, Glaser, 63, also has edited two poetry anthologies.

Glaser came of age during the heyday of free verse, and his poems paint vivid word pictures of simple experiences -- of cleaning out the pot after a beachside crab feast, of eating a blueberry, of browsing in a used bookstore.

Often, a poem will end with a rhyming couplet that serves as a kind of emotional exclamation point. Only later do readers notice that rhymes are sprinkled throughout, but so subtly that they don't draw attention to themselves.

"Poetry is about using language very accurately," Glaser says. "I admire the discipline of using language tightly, but I focus more on trying to be very precise than in making the poem rhyme."

Poetry 'missionary'

The post of Poet Laureate, to which Glaser was appointed in August 2004, provides him with a platform to campaign for his favorite art form.

"I've really enjoyed the experience of being a missionary for poetry," he says.

"I love being able to share poems that I treasure with other people. An awful lot of people have had such bad experiences with poetry in school. They think it's about learning the definition of iambic tetrameter, or having to memorize the differences between Shakespearean and Petrarchan sonnets.

"They haven't had experience before with poetry that is accessible. Having all these poems lying around is like having these great and intimate friends living in your house."

Not only is Glaser a father and a husband, he's also a college professor -- he has taught literature at St. Mary's College on the Eastern Shore for the past 36 years -- and he writes poetry in the nooks and crannies between his other commitments. He carries a notebook with him and jots down impressions when inspiration strikes.

"If I'm centered enough in myself, anything potentially is a poem," he says.

"The term that I like to use is that I have to show up for myself, so that I register my own responses to a child's nightmare, or to my wife telling me that she loves me, instead of letting it slip away because I'm thinking about something else, like getting to work.

"Being centered, living in the moment, has gotten easier as I've gotten older, and am less and less concerned with how others perceive me."

When a notebook is filled, Glaser puts it away. During vacations, he goes through his notebooks again, transferring the most valuable musings to his computer.

"Then I can go back and edit and polish them into poems when I have time," he says.

"I teach creative writing, and when the kids are writing, I write, too. Ten or fifteen years ago, I realized that's a choice I have: I can make time to write, or I can not make time to write. I choose to write, and I choose to give it preference over a lot of other things."

Eliot poem was spark

Glaser was born in 1943 in Winnetka, Ill., an upper-middle-class suburb of Chicago. His father was a chemist who excelled at rhyming and verbal wordplay, and his mother was a homemaker with a natural bent for philosophy. One of the formative experiences of Glaser's youth was reading the philosopher and theologian Martin Buber with his mother at age 14.

"That woke me up to the importance of paying attention, to being awake in my own life," he says.

It was at Denison University in Granville, Ohio, in the 1960s that Glaser first discovered the power of the spoken word, when he first read The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. T.S. Eliot's seminal poem is written from the point-of-view of a middle-aged man confronting his own mediocrity.

"I knew that guy, that shy and retiring guy," Glaser says. "I was him. That's how I got hooked on poetry."

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