This evening, my Poetry Workshop at the University of Northern Iowa had the pleasure of Skyping with the poet Michael Spence, whose 2014 collection The Bus Driver’s Threnody we are reading for class. In the course of that insightful and invaluable conversation, I brought up Mike’s poem “The Spine,” from his first poetry collection The Spine. When I looked for this poem online to show it to the students, I discovered it’s not available in cyberspace. So, with Mike’s permission, I proudly present that poem to the blogosphere.
I have a personal relationship with this particular poem because it was, for me, life-changing with regard to my writing of verse. I was an MFA student at Indiana University in 1987 when I found The Spine on a new-book rack in the IU library. I distinctly recall how this poem stunned me, with its bravura off-rhymes—icthyosaur/water, reptile/opals—and its off-kilter dimeter. This poem opened up a new vista for me. I had a moment akin to Elizabeth Bishop’s “In the Waiting Room,” the library stacks spinning a bit as I stood, leaning on a shelf, reading “The Spine.”
This was during the “poetry wars” of the ’80s, when the New Formalists were bucking the Free Verse establishment and being called Reaganites. I was personally beleaguered, as an emerging neoformalist myself, in a workshop with classmates who reviled work in rhyme and meter. And it was Mike, on paper, who taught me how to write a poem that was tightly formalist but read like free verse to those who expected free verse. I learned from Mike's poems how to be a tightrope walker—and he’s a master, a damn good one. He can slant rhyme and craft meter like a tenor-sax jazz artist, syncopating silence and staccato sequences.
I hope you’ll check out Michael Spence’s work. The Spine, published by Purdue University Press almost 30 years ago, is still in print. His new collection, The Bus Driver’s Threnody, is a tour-de-force collection of poems about driving a city bus in Seattle. Other books include Crush Depth, a father-son book that includes poems on life in the US Navy, and Adam Chooses, about which Mark Jarman wrote, these “poems, often cunning experiments in traditional form, dramatize the way experience leads to knowledge.”
Michael Spence is the real deal, friends. You’ll enjoy his poetry, I guarantee.
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Ingat, everyone. ヅ
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