The whole thing mystified me at age fifteen. Knocking on eighty’s door, I’m a lot less mystified. I’m less troubled too, though I must allow that the event still leaves me strangely uneasy.

I’d been walking back from the school ball field. We couldn’t get enough boys together for an actual game, so we just played catch, shagged flies, and so on. Mostly, we told our exaggerated stories to one another, even though no one believed anyone else’s. That’s why for years I never shared this anecdote with a soul apart from one friend in my class. Too many would have thought I was fibbing. I’m not.

When I got within a quarter-mile or so of home, I heard a radio playing music that was far more than just loud. Don’t think badly of me. Who wouldn’t have wanted to see what that strange din was all about?

The racket came from the Ds’ house, a very familiar one to me. I crossed the front lawn when I didn’t see Mr. D’s car in the drive. He was a bit daunting with his Navy tattoos –anchors and mermaids– on both big arms and his drinking like… well, like a sailor. He could get pretty grumpy after he’d had a few. I’d never dare to drop in there unless the Ds’ daughter Dolly was home, and even then I got pretty nervous until I could be sure he had his mood more or less under control.

You could have called Dolly my girlfriend, I suppose, so I knew she was away at a camp in Maine. She’d been going there summers for years. I sometimes wondered why she hadn’t gotten tired of the place. In any case, Dolly was an only child; if she was gone, then Mrs. D must be alone.

Her daughter called Mrs. D. a bottle-blonde.  She sneered a little when she said that, but I always figured she felt bitter, knowing she’d never be so beautiful. Oh, Dolly was nice-looking, all right. Just not in her mother’s league.

Now understand, I’ve never been some creepy voyeur, not even as an adolescent, when hormones were raging enough to make me half-crazy at times. Maybe I can’t claim I was completely guiltless that afternoon, but it wouldn’t be quite right to blame me, either.

The Ds’ house was close to mine, and as I say, I knew it well. My parents disapproved of television, and we didn’t have one at home. In fact, the Ds’ TV may actually have been my main reason for hanging out with Dolly. You don’t have to tell me it sounds terrible. Looking back, I can beat myself up about that without any help. That, and plenty of other things.

I remember dark winter afternoons after school, when we two would go down to the basement and tune in “Queen for a Day,” which we liked to poke fun at. There’d be some poor old lady weeping with joy over the washing machine or the oven or the medical help she was going to get just for being the most miserable person in the studio, as determined by the audience’s response to her pathetic story. The sadder her situation, the louder the applause. Was that really a win? We didn’t think about such a matter.

Dolly and I also engaged, when we dared, in some teenage groping. Nothing too heavy-duty, though.

One day as we watched our program, just holding hands, she and I felt as though we were being watched. It turned out to be only Bobo, a short-legged neighborhood mongrel, mixed Dalmatian and basset. He was out there in the fog, looking through the window as if he were also enjoying what he saw. From then on, we noticed that he seemed to show up whenever we had the set tuned in.

“He must look at TV Guide,” Dolly joked after we’d caught him three or four times.

But I’ve strayed from my account, which back then I never dreamed I’d consider sad too.

The ear-splitting music was something corny, all trembly strings. When I looked through the cellar window and into what I thought of as the TV room, I saw Dolly’s mom holding her mop handle like a microphone. She was obviously singing, although I couldn’t hear her at all over the blaring radio. Her eyes were half-closed, and all she had on was her underwear, frilly and black, the kind I’d seen once or twice in my older cousin Drayton’s Playboys.

I really wanted to run, but before I could, Mrs. D opened her eyes and locked them on mine. I froze. I had nowhere to go. I was just there. To my astonishment, she smiled a bit woozily and waved me around to her back door. I don’t know why I felt I had to obey, even though all I wanted to do was escape.

After she opened up, Mrs. D reeled back to that basement room. I dutifully followed, trying not to watch her body jiggle. Suddenly, she pivoted and hugged me, all in one motion. I froze again, almost fainting with shyness, and turned my head away from her, no matter that, like every boy I knew, I’d always said that I’d give my right arm for a moment pretty much like this one. She was pretty as a model or a movie actress.

I just couldn’t lay eyes on her. Don’t ask me why.

She didn’t embrace me for long at all. Letting out a big sigh, or a huff rather, she grabbed a robe from a chair, put it on, and led me– or pushed me– back to where I’d come in.

She seemed angry, but what had I done?

Next day, swearing him to secrecy, I told my classmate Patrick about what had happened, though I didn’t really go into detail. Once he saw I wasn’t lying, Pat said I had to repent, which was not a word I was used to hearing. Pat’s dad worked for the Knights of Columbus, though I’m not sure what his job was. I couldn’t see how I’d go about repenting, or even quite why, and my friend didn’t pursue the matter.

Truth is, I believe Pat was plain jealous. He kept pressing me for more than I wanted to give. I told him that she wore those lacey underthings and that she hugged me, but only for an instant. Everything else I left vague. Of course, there wasn’t much else, come to think of it.

Patrick never learned how in that briefest of moments, I could feel her heart and mine beating together. I remember the sensation quite well, maybe better than anything else from that afternoon.

Once Mrs. D. had ushered me out, I looked through that little window again. She was obviously crying. She’d turned off her radio and stood the mop in its sudsy bucket. Still wearing that rather ragged robe, she stood in the middle of the room herself, not even moving, except for her hands, which she kept clenching and unclenching.

Strange: I suddenly felt like I could care more about Dolly now than I ever had before. I couldn’t imagine how I’d face her, though, when she got back from her camp, let alone how I’d face her mom. I’d have to write Dolly a letter if I could find an address up there. I’d just say we were through, and leave it at that, because there didn’t seem any way to tell her why. I only knew I couldn’t go down to that basement again. The whole business made me pretty unhappy.

I knew this meant no more TV, either. That was a long way from what troubled me most, though– not that I could precisely identify what the real trouble was.

Mrs. D seemed awfully young when she died, at least much younger than my own mom,  who, when I asked her about it, simply told me, with a puzzling look on her face, They say she liked her wine.

He beholds a ragged windrow of snow,
dull remnant, and wonders if drink or dope
might not kiss him and make him better.
The writer knows they wouldn’t, couldn’t,
or hopes he knows it, hopes he’ll recall
the gloom and sometimes utter madness
he left in his wake, for him and all.
The windrow is dun, tarnished by duff.
He sits benumbed at midday, no matter
that in this place, far north, at last
the hillsides’ modest display has come,
primed to explode once April is over

into all the hues that neither he
nor anyone else will ever depict.
That palette will always defy mere words.
He hears two men– Bill Frisell, Jim Hall–
whose guitars play “I’ll Remember April.”
Yes, he concludes, to speak is encroachment,
while the music sounds eloquent, masterful.
But even if power of speech sufficed,
Who would care, he wonders, and why?
The writer knows he must marshal patience,
mindful that something always comes.
Or better perhaps, nothing does. Yesterday,

those same musicians half-broke his heart,
but uncannily  –though of course familiar,
he thinks, to any lover of art–
at the same that they reassured.
What’s wrong today? he asks this noon,
as if the question were something new
and an answer something he’d find on his own.
He has used old useless tricks, compiled
a list of people, for one example,
he ought to be thankful for. It was easy
to make it lengthy. Yet here he perches,
jaw set, prepared for life to crumble,

to go to pieces, as in fact it hasn’t
for decades now. (Beyond the music,
he hears glass breaking; voices blare.)
He feels such an urge to make things mean,
including his mood. He’s had that longing,
drunk or sober, all his life.
Outside, ungainly flakes start falling
that seem to resemble mica or talc–
unsnowy stuff at least. They stipple
the field. The guitarists’ tune has stopped.
Volition will put each white dot out,
the way one might a row of candles,

erase the gray-brown drift of snow
he considered only instants ago,
abolish the few inchoate leaves,
and make that raven with a twig in its bill
dissolve in sky, as it does. Or rather,
his God, or call It what you will,
can darken every light until
what he conceives as his spirit breaks,
as it did so often years ago,
and then, thank God, it broke forever–
or so in his addledness he fancied.
It was there that his life could start all over.

Stay broken, he mutters. Life can start over.

All of a sudden, a crowd,
most of us pretty much strangers,
which seems to me– well, strange:
our village and others here
in this stretch of valley are tiny.
But John, who’s been the chief
of the volunteer fire department
for years, shows up exactly
as the ambulance crew appears.

I do know John. We live
on the same back road. He’s quiet
and decent. He sees what we’ve seen,
blood on the gravel to her,
tangled up in the weeds.
Roof-down, that’s her old crate
in the brook. There’s a gallon of milk
in a bottle, standing straight up
on the tar. The glass didn’t break.
A miracle. I’ve heard

someone say about our town,
it’s a place where all of us fight
and all of us love our neighbor.
Everything in her sack
was strewed or squashed or smashed,
except the jug of milk,
which she bought at a neighborhood dairy,
and that’s why it came in glass,
not a grocery store container, 

the waxy kind. One man
thinks the woman came to his church
a time or two, then stopped.
The EMTs do something
to her skull with a sort of sleeve
made out of metal and cloth
before they load her up.
Does anyone know where she lives,
or lived? John shoots me a look,

not good. She might have done better
if she were made of glass.
I know that’s stupid. I’m thinking
a bunch of ridiculous jabber,
but I’m also thinking about
my family, how bad things happen
not just to bad people. Of course,
that lady is a stranger–
so good or bad? Who knows?

I want to be asleep
or learning to play piano
or oiling the .32-.20
my uncle left to me,
though it’s not deer season. Besides,
I don’t hunt them in my old age.
I wish I’d been doing something
that wouldn’t have let me arrive
in the first place at what’s here before me.

Whatever it was, it would suit me.

Last night, our pond reclaimed a foot from its ice.
New water winks blue-green, and blackbirds shriek
From wire and weed. It’s good to be out. Two boys
Hike by me at social distance. Each breeze-tossed leaf

Looks as crisp and twitchy as a chipmunk’s ear.
The mud road grasps at boot-soles as I walk
The other way. On a tree I detect the scar
Of an errant winter driver. I catch the talk

Of school kids out of school– their classmates, popular
Or not (all girls are otherwise), the names
Of games that they can’t play. The runt defers
To his companion, who, unprompted, screams

Abuse at all restrictions. As they pass from hearing,
I note an earthworm turning proper pink.
Though soon the ambient landscape will be wearing
Proper raiment–nodding grass and dank,

Deep moss, spare overlay of meadow flowers–
I’ve lived enough to expect odd snow-squalls, slapped
To anger by nasty winds. I predict more hours
In which we’re sealed in rooms foursquare and flat,

Where we’ll dream of the past, or pray for the future
When a softer time will come– and go– and mist
Will rise from pond and outlet brook to wend
Its way to a busy playground. Sun once kissed

My own playful body. Sweet bijoux of sweat
Rose into uninfected morning’s odor.
Who knew that what my parents labeled older
Meant this strange state? Not then but then not yet.

I can’t explain, but it’s true.
At ten years old, I beheld the lemon and slate
of the slender fish, flashing below the surface.
My father told me to settle back:
my gawking over the gunwale rocked our canoe,
E.M. White Guide’s Model with feathered hull-planks,
the one he called a work of art.

It is. I have it now.
I’d taken a minnow –or I should say that he had–
from the bait pail, which I called a cage.
I’d run the hook –or rather he had– through a dorsal
and then cast feebly. Five yards, maybe six.
The bobber shivered. Yank! yelled my father.
I set the hook and the world took on a meaning

it had never had.
I know. What a claim. I know.
But that’s how it felt:
a thrill, but also something like trauma.
That’s how it felt.
No, I can’t explain.
The only way to reel the new world back

to something I could grasp (and did I want that?)
would be to boat my catch.
Easy after all.
I’d learn in time a pickerel’s not a prize,
not to so-called serious anglers.
True, the fish made a desperate rush
toward a spread of pads, just then folding their lilies,

but then came back, almost docile,
to the long-handled net that awaited.
My father used forceps to pull the hook,
for fear of the menacing teeth.
An evening star stole out.
Mist began to sheathe the shore.
It slipped a gown on the dockside pine.

I could just discern the eyes of the fish,
like tiny shards of china.
I dreamed I’d glimpsed the course of my future years,
rife with exploits and color.
Why would a child fetch up such a ludicrous vision?
I’m not the one to answer.
And yet, however tame my life may have been,

compared to some, at least,
I believe that vatic moment held some truth.
Oh, I’d catch bigger, better fish.
I’d know bigger, better things at large.
But the pickerel gleams to this day
in the hands of that gentle parent, dead too young.
Full dark looming, he eased it back to the lake.

Autumn’s at hand, and I recollect how you combed every wisp
of weed from your garden in a pair of separate Septembers, each one
for a different child’s
wedding here. Though the mess came back too soon–

pigweed, purslane, vetch– I’ll never forget how you knelt
in the scrabbled dirt; how you smiled; how the muddy, sweaty droplets
coursed your face.
The white-tailed hornets had hung their nasty basket

again on our woodshed’s eaves. Uphill in their thicket, red squirrels
would assemble to raid the feeder the minute you filled it with seed
for pine siskin and junco.
I was thinking of winter, you see, even though what I heard

from the porch was only the somnolent hum around that hive.
You’d rap the kitchen window, the squirrels would take to their trees,
then scoot right back.
The afternoons would have shortened. Things repeat.

Whatever could have happened that such blessing fell on me?
Whether I’m with you or not in the flesh, I adore you daily.
And luck keeps on coming.
You’re still the lovely woman you were at 30.

Yes, things have repeated through our many years, though we’ve known
occasions when nuisance alone seemed to rule, when I pondered how
our raptest attentions
must come to nothing. But I look at you just now,

and then I appraise myself, that less-than-hero who won
the shining girl. That only happens in movies.
A marvel a day,
a single marvel– that’s surely enough to hold me.

Tink shouted, “Did you hear my bad news?” I turned
from bucking up firewood and killed the engine.
How different he looked, our tough old bantam
neighbor– a rascal, but stolid as stone.

Here stood a suddenly tinier version.
No one in town would believe he’d cry.
Things had to be bad. He told me why:
“Mike’s gone. Some business called… aneurism.”

I caught my breath. Mike? His grandson?
Fallen at forty. Tink and Polly
had practically raised him up from a schoolboy.
(There were troubles with the in-between generation).

Tink’s gone, but I see him back twenty years,
red oak sawdust pooled at his feet.
I still can’t believe he actually weeps.
Two-stroke exhaust smoke loiters on air,

no matter I’ve choked the saw dead quiet.
Mosquitoes strafe us. I somehow recall
Mike passing in front of our house last fall,
trailed by the 6-point buck he’s shot.

Two flecks of blood have dried on one cheek,
and in spite of November’s chill, he sweats
from dragging that whitetail out of our woods.
For years he’s been bigger than Grandpa Tink.

So is the deer. (Mike will give our family
good venison backstrap later that autumn.)
Who’d predict I’ll go over to Tink and hug him?
Not even I. It’s surprising he lets me.

How long does he soak my shoulder like this?
Long enough, it seems, for me to sense
something like splendor in this awkward clench
by which I’ll always feel shocked and blessed.

… strength in what remains …
–Intimations of Immortality

By the pond, a maple
reddens already,
in middle August.
it still should be summer.
Fall’s upon us,

most of the grandchildren
back at their schools,
moved up a year.
And the nation…
that great gloom blends
with less epical fears–

four falls gone,
my heart had a clot;
I’m all right, but Steve,
best friend,
is buried¬– cancer.
A good deal to grieve.

Much endures, it’s true,
yet how hard, no matter,
not to sense a shadow,
as the old do.
Here at the edge
of our late-shorn meadow,

small baubles shine:
five blackberries strung,
more dark than just blue,
on stiff canes
gone leafless. The berries
should have vanished by now.

Brush bends in a breeze
that contains a slight chill.
Though tiny and poor,
it’s sweet,
the fruit, even more so
than when I found more.

On becoming my state’s poet laureate, I made it my mission to visit as many of its community libraries as I could. I paid many, many such visits, and savored each and all. Certain colleagues at the “prestige” colleges where I taught for over forty years seem always to have surmised that intelligence faded the moment one stepped away from an ivied campus. I always knew that attitude represented the worst sort of provincialism. I am the more assured in that knowledge for the library trips I’ve made, the more persuaded that there are a lot of smart people out there, however extensive or otherwise their formal education. Perhaps certain of the scholars would do well to spend time among them.

I’ve especially enjoyed that my audience members tend to ask not the allegedly sophisticated questions, which I’ve heard more than enough of in four decades of professorship; their questions are more basic, and thus more important, in that they represent concerns that everyone feels on contemplating a poem for the first time: who’s talking? why? where? And so on. For my taste, too much current poetry can’t answer those questions on the page, and even as a lifelong lover of poetry, I turn away from such work’s obscurantism.

The most frequent questions I hear, however, involve form and meter. There are those who wonder if something can be called poetry if it does not have a regular meter, regular stanzaic shape, and often as not, a rhyme scheme.

Now I am a formalist myself, something not all that common in our day (though I think and even hope this is unobvious when I read, because I pause in my recitation when the grammar does, not when a line does). I even use a goodly amount of rhyme and half-rhyme. And yet I employ these tools merely because they enable me, not because they represent capital-P Poetry.

Indeed, I steadfastly refuse to grind any ax in the free verse/formal verse debate, partly since it seems to it make advocates on either side suddenly go brain-dead. Of course poetry can exist in an unrhymed and unmetered format: consider, to pick an ancient and glaring example, the biblical Psalms. Of course poetry can be formally constrained without being “academic”: never mind my own small example; consider Robert Frost, a die-hard formalist…who managed to capture the sound of actual speech far more effectively than an Ezra Pound ever did.

The passionate free-versers may believe that their mode is anti-establishment, a claim that could be made for it if this were 1920; since then, and surely now, free verse reigns supreme in virtually every academic MFA program and among the most celebrated poets of our time. In short, it is the establishment practice.

The other sect of blind debaters, however, alleges that free verse shows sloppy thinking, shoddy technique – as if that applied, say, to Robert Lowell or, more contemporarily, to Louise Gluck. In short, these aspersions are no more or less bright or accurate than those of the free-verse crusaders, who impute coldness, sexual frigidity, political reaction, and – again – “academicism” to formalist delivery — as if any of these charges were relevant to the giants of the twelve-bar Delta blues, a mode that is surely America’s greatest formal contribution to world culture, and whose format, in the words of my friend, the excellent Vermont poet Baron Wormser, constitutes the American sonnet.

As I hear the free vs. formal debate rehearsed, I am too depressingly reminded of political dialogue in our day. I am never shocked by the slogans on either side of the liberal/conservative divide. It’s as though there were no real need for any of us to look at a given issue from more angles than just one: we liberals already know what the conservatives are going to promote; but we fail to see how perfectly predictable our own orthodoxies are.

When I was appointed poet laureate, I claimed in my address that a little humility never hurt anyone. The humble but crucial questions I encounter at the state’s libraries assure me that there remain at least a few open minds in the nation.

(an excerpt from my selected newspaper columns as poet laureate, to be published in autumn 2020 as Seen from All Angles: Lyric Everyday Life)

I have tried—with what I consider good reason—not to talk much about my own poetry in these columns I make an exception this month only because I also try to consider the themes and issues raised by my library visits in Vermont in a serious way. I must give spontaneous answers in my spoken responses; the column format may allow me to be both more elaborate and more precise.

Audience members often ask how poems come into being, and often inquire about “inspiration.” I’m a little leery of the term, only because I don’t want to give the impression that some Higher Authority is using me as his or her mouthpiece. In almost all respects, I’m just another bozo on the bus. But if you’ll indulge me, I’ll replicate a recent poem of mine and then say a word about it, and to that extent about poetry as I understand it, without for a moment claiming that my understanding is or should be a universal one.