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Poetry in My Life

When I first went to college I had no idea there were living, working poets in the world. I guess I thought Robert Frost was one of the last of them. In a Contemporary American Poetry class, taught by a magnificent and caring teacher named Fred Madeo, I learned otherwise. In his class I discovered, among many, many living poets, two in particular: James Wright and Phil Levine. These two men wrote with love, respect and dignity about the lives and circumstances of working-class people. They themselves came from working class backgrounds and never abandoned or betrayed their pasts. They also wrote in a clear, beautiful American language that I could understand. This discovery opened up everything for me – one could write about people and places I knew and related to. One could write in a language that was fresh and exciting yet as common as the one I spoke.  One could write, as Philp Roth once said, about “what was at hand.” Reading them encouraged me to want to write my own poems, to find a voice, to describe the world as only I saw it and to try and learn how all of this was accomplished. And so, a life of poetry began in cinderblock room in a community college in the middle of nowhere.

Years later, after some early publishing success and a lot of luck, I landed a university teaching job that led to a thirty-five-year career doing what I loved most – talking and thinking about literature and trying to help students learn to write their own. Poetry didn’t impact my life; it became my life. My brother once told me that he thought I was a better person in my poems than I was in real life. I took this as a compliment. Poetry should help us see and understand the world with new eyes, or at least allow us to know what we already know in fresh ways. It should teach us something about ourselves. It should also make us better, more compassionate people – if only in our hearts.

I had the honor to finally meet Phil Levine at a conference a number of years before he died. I was too shy to tell him how much his poems meant to me, how they changed my life in many ways. I regret that now, of course. I was able though, with great pride, to dedicate my first book to Fred Madeo. He too is no longer with us but I think he knew what he helped cause.

Written by Matthew Graham, Indiana’s current Poet Laureate.

Learn more about him here.