Young poet balances idealism, awareness of sales figures

— His one published book is a collection of poetry, but when Timothy Donnelly is asked what he does for a living, he often answers, "Writer."

"A lot of people have peculiar ideas about what a poet is," explains the 34-year-old author, whose elaborately titled "Twenty-seven Props for a Production of Eine Lebenszeit" came out last winter.

"They imagine someone very emotional, perhaps sentimental, nostalgic -- someone whose writing reflects their own personal experience, someone who is subject to bouts of melancholia."

The close-shaven, round-faced Donnelly, who lives in a walk-up in Brooklyn, doesn't deny the truth in the image. During a recent interview on a drizzly afternoon, he impresses as a man of passion and drama, a man with a sense of purpose a novelist or biographer would rarely confess in public.

Poets have traditionally been the most idealistic of beings, the so-called "unacknowledged legislators of the world," as Percy Bysshe Shelley famously declared. Donnelly himself acknowledges being touched by "the excitement for fame ... the wish to be in the spotlight, but on my own terms."

But for the vast majority of poets, and that includes Donnelly, the intangible dream of changing the world with words coexists with the tangible fact of sales. Most collections only sell in the low thousands. Reviews are rare in mainstream publications and few publishers are willing to send a poet on tour.

"I don't even trick myself into thinking I'm speaking for the whole public. I'm content to let the poetry-reading public ... stand for the general public," says Donnelly, who since 1996 has been co-editor of poetry for the Boston Review.

Poetry not a 'popular sport'

The poetry community agrees that sales are small but disagrees on whether that's a problem. Recent U.S. poets laureate such as Billy Collins and Robert Pinsky worked hard to broaden poetry's appeal. But Louise Gluck, the nation's current laureate, told the AP last fall that she preferred her readership to be "small, intense, passionate."

Richard Howard, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet who wrote an introduction for "Twenty-seven Props," believes the art form is too demanding for most people.

"I don't think poetry is a popular sport," Howard says. "Poetry requires a certain amount of solitude and silence, and those are not the activities most people are interested in."

Donnelly is a native of Providence, R.I., who fell for poetry in high school, when the works of Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath and Arthur Rimbaud inspired an "over the top" phase he has found no reason to leave.

He then attended Johns Hopkins University, where he would escape to the basement of the school's library to write and write. Donnelly received an MFA in poetry from Columbia University and is currently working on his Ph.D. at Princeton University.

He is a poet unmoved by light, reassuring verse, and no one encountering his work would mistake him for a modest scribe. In the spirit of Keats and Shelley and other Romantics, his language challenges the very confines of language, daring us to expand our minds by expanding our means of expression.

"I would like to believe that a careful reading of my book ... would improve the way people think. The poems would make their thinking more agile, make the way they pay attention to language more significant," he says.

'Would-be rock star'

Donnelly's poems are playful, dynamic, cryptic. A poem such as "Pansies Under Monkhood: A Folly" transforms language into song; the force of sound and rhythm overtakes the logic of grammar and narrative:

"The sun broke: opportune. Opossum-stopped at twenty-two.

he cloistered shunt and jobless, kept to a kidney-

shaped plot of herbs, the medieval types (take rue)

a dense aroma-veil of beauties haloing the deadly."

Donnelly is far luckier than most poets. He is published, and not by a small university press, but by a major New York house -- Grove Press. He also has enough of a reputation to be named the country's "It" poet last summer by Entertainment Weekly, which found his book a "helluva lot more accessible than its funky title."

But for Donnelly, writing validates the old saying that a poem is written by someone other than the poet. While creating, he is the young man in demand of the spotlight. Upon completion, he takes in the size of the crowd.

"In almost every poet there's a bit of the would-be rock star or would-be preacher," he says.

"I can't pretend I don't have that in me, but I try to take it with a grain of salt. ... I want the rock star to live underneath the thumb of the shy, sort of bookworm part of me."


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