'Words, words, words'

March 28, 2006|by MARY KAVANAGH

"The idea for me of being a writer is enjoying writing."- Michael Glaser

An elderly man walked into a library once to see another man sitting atop the bookshelves. When the standing man asked the man on the bookshelf what he was reading, the man responded, "Words, words, words!"

Once a teenage girl in Maryland called up the poet laureate, the official poet of Maryland. She asked him where one could get ideas for a poem. The poet laureate responded, "In a journal, in a journal, in a journal!"

For readers less familiar with the classics, the former was a Hamlet reference. The latter was a summary of an interview of mine recently.


A few weeks ago, I spoke with Michael Glaser, poet laureate for Maryland. Glaser will visit schools in Washington County this week and host a public reading of his works at 7 p.m. Thursday, March 30, at Western Heights Middle School in Hagerstown.

We talked about poetry, its clichs, language boundaries and how to go about writing it.

The hardest part of poetry is getting started. For my poetry, I have found inspiration from the method of opening the dictionary and finding a new word and going from there. Glaser said that he keeps a journal and periodically goes back through, asking himself "What does that say? What do I think about that?"

For instance, he recently came back from a trip to Buenos Aires, Argentina, where he visited a Holocaust museum. It was a powerful experience, and he wrote about it in his journal. "When something calls to me," he said. "I like to write until I find something new."

Most importantly, he engages the world: "I try to pay attention to what is going on around me."

Some poets just pick clichd topics and try to make them their own. Glaser said this can be effective, if a poet uses a non-clichd approach.

"What is important is that people write in their own words, and genuinely and affectionately," he said.

Poetry form also can become as much a clich as the poem topic. The fact that Shakespeare's sonnets were originally written as love poems doesn't mean that all sonnets have to relate to love, or that any love poem has to take the form of a sonnet. When picking a form, Glaser says, "the idea tells me where to go." He insists poets let topics speak to them about all aspects of the poem. Once he has chosen a topic, he goes on to find rhythms and such that suit the theme.

Poetry is an art form, and "any kind of art has to be genuine," Glaser said. If you authentically tackle any art, it "gives us new eyes to see the world." In accomplishing that, you can open your readers' eyes to a new perspective, which is an artist's goal.

Some people say that you need to understand and learn the rules of poetry before you can become an e e cummings. Glaser doesn't completely agree.

"I think you can understand (rules) in different ways," said Glaser, who is a professor at St. Mary's College of Maryland. "We are a part of a tradition. Teachers just want (students) to understand that tradition."

It could be argued that, by setting down poetry rules for students to follow, an English teacher might limit true self-expression. Glaser had a different view: "There are no rules, just expectations."

Of course we landed on the inevitable subject of standardized tests about which he exclaimed, "Tests! Tests cannot measure whether or not you understand that love is complex."

Glaser said that he is fascinated about "what goes on between (the reader), the written words, the pages and the writer who put those words on that page."

The connection between any sort of writer and their reader is delicate, which makes the geniality of a work that much more important.

"I would wish that ... teachers would remind themselves why art exists," he said. "Poetry speaks to me, to all of us."

If you go: Poetry reading Thursday

Michael Glaser, poet laureate of Maryland, will read and discuss his poetry and answer questions. His books, including "Being a Father," will be available for purchase. 7 to 8 p.m. Thursday, March 30. Western Heights Middle School in Hagerstown. Free and open to the public. To register, e-mail Martin Potash at

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