Papers with a pen

How I Write, Part 1

About making love Hemingway said, “It’s always the same but always different.” Poets might say the same about how they write.

I carry with me 3X5 cards to write down a line when it comes unannounced. Capturing those fugitive lines matters because they don’t last long.

Once, in a movie theater, a line came, and I wrote it down even though I couldn’t see in the dark. When I got home the card was blank: I had written with the wrong end of the pen. Like Mickey Spillane at a crime scene, I shaded the impression with a pencil, and that lost line eventually made it into a poem.

When the cards pile up I copy them into journal books, which, in my case, go back to 1986 (although I was writing, or learning to write, poems 20 years before that). But the journals are more than a repository. In Part 2 of this essay, I’ll explain how.

If a line feels like it could turn into a poem I start a file of drafts. In a couple of drawers like this one, the history of each poem comes to rest.


Since I start things on the margin
 — cocktail napkins, cancelled checks,
timetables trying to be reliable — 
and since I save it all, I know
there are good words buried and lost
in those fat accordion files, words
that sounded good at the time,
that I promised to get back to,
rhyme trains that never left Grand Central,
monikers that chattered like silverware
at 30,000’, sounds struck
sheer of sense — coin of a realm — 
from a currency of air, pronounced
like blessings on an express world,
soul puffs, plain mistakes,
angels, working definitions of.

A Few Words On “Albatross”

Many creatures populate my new book, The Boxer of Quirinal, but today I’m thinking of the singularly impressive albatross. For your reading pleasure, I have included my poem, “Albatross,” below. I have also included my commentary, which originally appeared in the free-to-download Reader’s Companion.


For its first five years the bird does not return to land.

Home is not land’s end,
a fledgling nest
of food and rest.

Home is the wind
you glide, the sea
you glean unendingly

until a hunger comes
to Wheel and Go
not Home

but what you can’t yet know:
the clambering of kind
on kind.

Commentary on Albatross

The albatross is a bird of legend. It carries the souls of drowned sailors. It brings bad luck to any who kill one. Here’s Coleridge in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”:

Ah! Well a-day! What evil looks
Had I from old and young!
Instead of the cross, the Albatross
About my neck was hung.

Modern science finds the albatross equally remarkable. It has the largest wingspan of any bird — more than 10 feet. It mates for life and once it leaves its natal nest, it spends its life in flight over the Southern ocean waves, never landing for years at a time. It returns to the headlands of its birth only to mate, and no one knows how it finds that place.

A photo of vacant seats in a theater

A Vacant Niche

I’ve been wondering why no one is writing verse drama these days. Writing stage plays in verse is as old as literature itself. For the ancient Greeks and the Elizabethans, verse drama was the only drama. Think of Sophocles, Euripides, Aeschylus. Think of Shakespeare and Marlowe. All of them wrote their plays in metrical verse. It was not until Ibsen and Modernism that staged plays settled into prose. Since then poetry and stage drama have continued to thrive but separately, not as a hybrid art. While opera, another hybrid art, continues to reinvent itself, why is the place for verse drama a vacant niche?

To be fair, it’s not completely vacant. Our major Modernist poets have written verse dramas through the past century (Yeats, Eliot, Robert Lowell, Archibald MacLeish, Wilbur’s translations of the classic French theater), but their principal metier was always lyric poetry. And our major playwrights stick to prose.

Writing poems and writing plays are kindred activities in the literary arts, but they’re not the same thing. A poem tells us what it has to say. We the listeners hear a single voice speaking, that of the poet (or sometimes the poet through a persona). In contrast a play shows us, through characters acting on one another — colliding and bouncing off each other like bumper cars.

The field of action for a lyric poem is interior reality, the action takes place within the poet’s mind. A play where no action happens, on the other hand, is dead on arrival. For the proof of that pudding, imagine a play without deaths and entrances, arguments and love affairs, exits and alarums. Now imagine a poet up there on the stage talking at us for two hours, and ask yourself if that would be a play. A successful playwright generates action from moment to moment, agile as a moviemaker, to stave off the natural impatience of a live audience. (“The question is,” says David Mamet, “can you put the asses in the seats and keep the asses in the seats? That’s not me, that’s Aristotle. I’ve forgotten the Greek for it.”). To succeed, verse drama must serve two masters. It has to work as poetry and it has to work as drama on the stage.

One possible explanation for the vacant niche: The nature of the plays has changed. Shakespeare wrote his plays in blank verse but also in occasional prose, and there is a pattern. The blank verse, as the more elevated speech, is used by the high-born, the aristocrats and royalty. The low-born characters, the commoners, speak in prose. The same could be said of Greek drama: The gods and heroes speak in poetry. In modern drama there are no gods and few heroes. And so the muse, perched on the playwright’s shoulder, whispers: This should be in prose.

John Barr Photo

A Stimulating Conversation with John Barr (originally published by Arte Realizzata)

Over the past 30 years, John Barr’s poems have been published in six books, four fine press editions and many magazines, including The New York Times, Poetry, and others. He was also the Inaugural President of the Poetry Foundation. His newest book, The Boxer of Quirinal, was published by Red Hen Press in June 2023.

I had the pleasure and honor of asking John if there is a perfect time to write, what the word poetry means to him, his role as President of the Poetry Foundation, and so much more.

UZOMAH: What is the most critical part of a poem?

JOHN: A poem must engage with life in some primary way. And it does that by saying something new about something old. So the most critical part of a poem is the discovery it makes for both the poet and the reader. As Frost said, “No surprise for the poet, no surprise for the reader.” His essay “The Figure a Poem Makes” has been on my desk for years — I go back to it all the time.

U: After getting your BA in English, you entered the Vietnam War, and upon returning, you went to business school. What made you go into business?

J: My father was a businessman so that was the model I knew. He and his friends all worked for the railroad (this was the mid-20th century) and their common talk was about how they hated their jobs. It was a revelation for me to hear a neighbor say he loved his work. I was lucky to go from business school into a career that I also loved.

People often think of business and poetry as antipodes, polar opposites. But the business of both is to create order out of chaos; for the businessman it’s external chaos, for the poet it’s internal chaos. But both draw their waters out of the same well.

Read the full conversation on Arte Realizzata.

Download Your Gift: The Reader’s Companion To The Boxer Of Quirinal!

I’m offering a special gift to my email subscribers: A Reader’s Companion to my new poetry collection, The Boxer of Quirinal, which is complete with commentary on select poems from the book, as well as Rockwell Kent-inspired illustrations created with the assistance of AI!

To get your copy, as well as to receive poems and brief thoughts about the state of the art of poetry a couple of times a month, sign up for my email newsletter using this link.

I hope you enjoy the free eBook. Please feel free to reach out to me to let me know what you think.

“Two paths diverged in a yellow wood”

"The Road Not Taken" is one of the most-read poems by one of America's most-read poets.  It's easy to see why.  All of us have stood where Robert Frost stood to consider our major choices in life.  Whom shall I marry?  What will my life's work be?  But for me, at this moment, it brings to mind two great poets who chose different paths, and how that turned out.

Ezra Pound and William Butler Yeats knew each other well.  And both wanted to change the world as they lived in it a century ago.  But how to do that?  Pound, the P.T. Barnum of Modernism in poetry, founded literary magazines and movements.  As an early promoter of Joyce, Eliot and Frost, he set American poetry on the course it was to follow for the next century.

But this supremely confident man, who knew what to do and how to go about it in the poetry world, was completely unhinged when it came to the rest of the world.  He tried to make poetry do everything, to make poetry the lever that would move the world.  But what came out was a compost of Fascist rant, anti-Semitic raving, and crackpot economic theory.  His wartime addresses in support of Mussolini landed him in an Allied prison camp at the end of WWII.  In lieu of a treason trial he was committed to the prison ward of a hospital for the insane.  Twelve years later he was released, and for the rest of his long life barely spoke or wrote again.

Who can know what was in his mind, but to me Pound's act of silence was the equivalent of Oedipus putting out his eyes when he saw what he had done.

Compare this with Yeats, who chose a different way to change the world.  The events of Irish independence from Britain swept up both Yeats the poet and Yeats the patriot.  But unlike Pound, Yeats saw the world of poetry and the world at large as separate and dealt with each on its own terms.

He wrote great poems about the events of his day; he used his stature as a leading poet to get involved; he then worked, not as a poet but as politician and administrator to influence those events.  Yeats, on being asked for a war poem, responded with "On Being Asked for a War Poem."

I think it better in times like these
A poet's mouth be silent, for in truth
We have no gift to set a statesman right;
He has had enough of meddling who can please
A young girl in the indolence of her youth,
Or an old man upon a winter's night.  

Yeats, an elected member of the Irish senate, presumably saw in the poet the citizen at the end of the world.

A Sneak Peek into A Reader’s Companion to The Boxer of Quirinal

I’m delighted to share a gift with my newsletter subscribers: a complimentary Reader’s Companion to my latest poetry collection, The Boxer of QuirinalIn it, I do not explicate the poems; instead, I give a taste of the context in which I was writing — the circumstances that influenced each poem’s coming into being.

I’m including below a sample excerpt from the companion, which includes my poem, “Heron,” and a response to it.


for Warren Douglas

He comes when the light is right,
banking the pond’s perimeter
to land and step into a statue’s stillness.

When the light is right the fish come in to feed,
feeling it safe to nose among the weeds,
to risk the proximity of feet, of legs
that rise like reeds to a distant body above.

Once I saw him come in heavy rain,
knowing it would roil the fisheye view.
I watched his neck — a question mark — release,
his beak harpoon a startled shape,
and saw it go head-first down the hatch.

Perfect hunger. Perfect hunter. Perfect prey.
I wait for the heron to come.

Commentary on Heron

Hunter or prey? As living things, how can we not be both?

This image and others in the eBook were created in Midjourney by Catch the Sun Media.
This image and others in the eBook were created in Midjourney by Catch the Sun Media.

Interested in downloading A Reader’s Companion to The Boxer of Quirinal? Sign up for my newsletter.

White man with white hair standing in front of a writing studio

The Citizen at the End of the World: The Poet’s Role in Society

White man with white hair standing in front of a writing studio
Photo by Brian Emery.

Poetry and personal responsibility has always been a troubling issue for me — and for anyone, I think, who tries to reconcile the lives of poets with their poems. But when Shelley proclaimed poets “the unacknowledged legislators of the world,” he was raising the stakes. (Shelley was presumably using “legislators” in the high sense of statesmanship, and not in the sense used by Mark Twain when he wrote: “It could probably be shown by facts and figures that there is no distinctly native American criminal class except Congress.”) Shelly was going beyond the self-knowledge and the interior reality that are the province of the lyric poem, to claim for poets a role in how all of us should live and conduct ourselves in the world of external reality. Homer, Virgil, Dante, Milton — all the epicists who were concerned with proper human conduct as exemplified by their heroes — would have agreed with Shelley. So, I think, would poets of the Poundian model who would use poetry as their lever to move the world. Yeats, and other poets who see poetry’s role as expressing the world but not running it, would not.

There is no right or wrong to these roles, but there is a corollary. Poets who assume this second, public responsibility as our moral legislators should ensure that they have earned the right to do so. They can earn it by paying at least as much attention to how they live as to what they write. As a Zen tea master, long before the ceremony of making tea, prepares the garden for his guests, sweeps the walk, cleans and composes the room, so poets should give their first attention to the lives they lead. If they do, they will acknowledge the effects of how they live on what they write — a subject that seems to me greatly under-recognized today. And, as a voice of our conscience, they will have established a basis to answer for the effects of what they write on how their readers live.


The Death of Men Who Go Under the Sea

It’s the stuff of bad dreams. It comes to us again with the second Titanic sinking. There is no such punishment in Dante’s Inferno, but it lives in other poems. And it goes to sea with every sailor.

The Wreck of the Thresher
By William Meredith

(Lost at Sea, April 10, 1963)

I stand on the ledge where rock runs into the river
As the night turns brackish with morning, and mourn the drowned.
Here the sea is diluted with river; I watch it slaver
Like a dog curing of rabies. Its ravening over,
Lickspittle ocean nuzzles the dry ground.
(But the dream that woke me was worse than the sea’s gray
Slip-slap; there are no such sounds by day.)

This crushing of people is something we live with.
Daily, by unaccountable whim
Or caught up in some harebrained scheme of death,
Tangled in cars, dropped from the sky, in flame,
Men and women break the pledge of breath:
And now under water, gone all jetsam and small
In the pressure of oceans collected, a squad of brave men in a hull.

(Why can’t our dreams be content with the terrible facts?
The only animal cursed with responsible sleep,
We trace disaster always to our own acts.
I met a monstrous self trapped in the black deep:
All these years, he smiled, I’ve drilled at sea
For this crush of water
. Then he saved only me.)

We invest ships with life. Look at a harbor
At first light: with better grace than men
In their movements the vessels run to their labors
Working the fields that the tide has made green again;
Their beauty is womanly, they are named for ladies and queens,
Although by a wise superstition these are called
After fish, the finned boats, silent and submarine.
The crushing of any ship has always been held
In dread, like a house burned or a great tree felled.

I think of how sailors laugh, as if cold and wet
And dark and lost were their private, funny derision
And I can judge then what dark compression
Astonishes them now, their sunken faces set
Unsmiling, where the currents sluice to and fro
And without humor, somewhere northeast of here and below.

(Sea-brothers, I lower to you the ingenuity of dreams,
Strange lungs and bells to escape in; let me stay aboard last -
We amend our dreams in half-sleep. Then it seems
Easy to talk to the severe dead and explain the past.
Now they are saying, Do not be ashamed to stay alive,
You have dreamt nothing that we do not forgive.
And gentlier, Study something deeper than yourselves,
As, how the heart, when it turns diver, delves and saves.)

Whether we give assent to this or rage
Is a question of temperament and does not matter.
Some will has been done past our understanding,
Past our guilt surely, equal to our fears.
Dullards, we are set again to the cryptic blank page
Where the sea schools us with terrible water.
The noise of a boat breaking up and its men is in our ears.
The bottom here is too far down for our sounding;
The ocean was salt before we crawled to tears.

Source: Poetry Foundation.

Photo of a man, John Barr, pulling his book of poetry, The Boxer of Quirinal, off a bookshelf

What people are saying about The Boxer of Quirinal

Photo of a man, John Barr, pulling his book of poetry, The Boxer of Quirinal, off a bookshelf

Photo Credit: Brian Emery.

I’m writing with something to celebrate: Over 5,000 readers have added The Boxer of Quirinal to their to-read list on Goodreads! The reviews have also begun rolling in. Here is a selection of them:

On Goodreads:

Mallory: “This was an interesting book of poetry … I think my favorite was the series of poems called The South China Sea. The imagery tied with storytelling was great.”

Greg: “I am by no means knowledgeable about poetry, just a guy who likes to read a lot in a wide variety of genres … My absolute favorite, the one I want on my tombstone, is The Library at Innerpeffray (pg. 28).”

On Amazon:

Brian: “The poems in Barr’s The Boxer of Quirinal cover a wide range of subjects … But a clear and urgent theme unites these poems: the theme of survival. What’s more, Barr’s use of language is rich and masterful … This is a book you’ll want to reread again and again.”

Macy: “John Barr has woven a brilliant patchwork of poems that sing, together, of survival. He tells diverse stories - of the Civil War, of a heron, and even of life while his brother is in hospice - with mesmerizing economy, precision, and sharpness. The Boxer of Quirinal is a beautifully balanced and urgent book. Reading it felt soul-enriching. I highly recommend it.”

On The VVA Veteran:

Bill: “The poems in The Boxer of Quirinal deal with life and death in the natural world as well as in conflicts created by humans … John Barr creates … thoughtful poetry that will challenge you at every turn.”

If you have purchased and read The Boxer of Quirinal, would you please take a moment to review the book on your preferred platform? I am also hosting a Goodreads Giveaway if you’d like an opportunity to win a free copy to review!