The Magazine

The Poet and His Muse

David Skinner, poet.

Feb 2, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 19 • By DAVID SKINNER
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A good friend was planning a surprise party for her husband, also a good friend, and she asked me to contribute a poem to the celebration. Now, I was busy at work and behind schedule on two freelance assignments, which unlike this commission promised financial reward. But my ego is fragile and susceptible to compliment. And, oh, of all compliments, to be addressed as a poet, even by someone whose sole exposure to my work had come a few years back toward the end of a wine-filled dinner on the patio when I read to her and some other friends a single poem for laughs--but still, a poet!

I have been writing poetry since grammar school. In those days I would painstakingly type the poems out, fold them into an envelope, and give them to my mother for Christmas. My primary audience now is my wife Cynthia, who says she really likes my poems, though it's clear that what she likes even more is the simple fact that her husband writes them for her. My verse is of modest quality, unable to compete with the beauty of the gesture.

But Cynthia did not like the idea of my writing a poem for our friend's birthday, specifically the plan for me to read the poem aloud at the party. After I read to her a draft of the sonnet I was composing, she looked like she wanted to leave the room. "It's good," she said nervously, as if caught in a lie.

The poem did need work. And, granted, it's maybe eccentric or worse, egomaniacal, to go writing sonnets and foisting them on strangers at parties, insisting on being heard and applauded like some child carrying around his violin, asking everyone, "Wanna hear me play?" An unfair characterization of myself and this particular situation, perhaps, but to someone like my wife, who is decidedly not a ham, the idea of singing outside the shower is fraught with potential embarrassment. Even when she is not the one performing, she suffers vicarious stage fright.

A few years ago, I asked some musician friends to bring instruments to play at our annual Christmas party. When I told her about it, the idea seemed to Cynthia so awful that she thought I was joking, until the joke became so realistically detailed as I made phone calls to confirm arrangements that she awoke to the facts of the matter and strenuously objected. Only then it was too late to call off the show, so music was performed and, please note, enjoyed. Fortunately, Cynthia survived, but we no longer include live music in our Christmas party program.

I decided not to press the matter of the birthday poem with her. Instead I approached a colleague, who as the former manager of a literary bookstore had participated in many a poetry reading. He had answers to all my questions. Need I practice my delivery? Yes, absolutely. Should I memorize the poem? Yes, though he suggested I also have a copy with me, to guard against losing my place and also to put the audience at ease. It is odd, we agreed, to read a sonnet at a birthday party, but it would be over-the-top to recite one from memory.

At the party, as everyone waited for Michelle to arrive with her husband, Pete, the birthday boy, I told another friend, a perfectly dressed lawyer who always wears a smirk, about the plan for me to deliver a poem. I thought he would make some scathing remark, but his reaction was kind and welcoming. I asked him to do me a favor. "The last word of the poem is 'brother,' " I said. "When you hear it, start clapping so everyone knows I am done."

A little later, Michelle called the party to attention and made a very sweet toast to Pete, who still seemed battered by the gentle shock of finding 30 friends, many of them from out of town, waylaying him in a restaurant. Then, with little explanation, Michelle introduced me. I said I had chosen to write a sonnet because sonnets are short. And just 14 lines later, it was over. The applause began on cue. Pete had enjoyed the poem, and he came over to thank me.

I looked around the room and was glad to see that the party's friendly, easygoing vibe had not been damaged by the intrusion of poetry. Guests moved on to refill their wine glasses, but among the partygoers' faces I did not see Cynthia's. I eventually found her--my wife, my most important audience--quietly seated against a wall in the back, smiling with relief. Sounding truthful this time, she said, "It was good."

DAVID SKINNER