January 13, 2014

In my experience, most novelists have tried and failed at one profession or another before they turned to fiction writing. I failed at several. High school teacher. Court officer. Wall Street messenger. Historian. Alas, the list is long and sorrowful.

When I first took up writing, I aspired to be a poet not a novelist, but I failed at that too. Maybe that’s why I have such admiration for poets. I know how hard it is to succeed at producing a single worthwhile poem, never mind to do it year after year.

Except for an occasional foray undertaken as a private exercise and not an attempt to redeem my former failure, I no longer write poetry. But I continue to read the work of poets I admire, the famous (Yeats, Auden, Heaney, et al.) and the not so famous (Angela Alaimo O’Donnell is a favorite).

Recently, I’ve found myself making repeat visits to Daniel Thomas Moran’s most-recent book of poems, A Shed for Wood (Salmon Poetry, 2013) Moran has made his living as a dentist, a trade marked by ruthless practicality and a prosaic focus on the material and mechanical–drill bits, needles, pliers, braces, bridges and the growing armory of hi-tech devices to prevent, remove and replace the ravages of routine and inevitable decay.

In essence, dentistry has always seemed to be the polar opposite of poetry. Certainly, there have been medical doctors who’ve excelled at poetry. The American poet William Carlos Williams comes immediately to mind. But dentists?  In my prejudiced view, dentists have always been to doctors what plumbers are to architects, mechanics rather than artists, their expertise necessary and useful but lacking the holistic vision and wider understanding that we expect (if rarely encounter) among physicians.

Moran has forced me re-examine that prejudice. His poetry is grounded in everyday realities as common and unromantic as canines and molars. But like the master dentist he is (Moran has been a private practitioner as well as a professor of dentistry at Boston University), he constantly probes, exposes, drills deep, undeterred by surfaces.

For me, Moran’s verse combines elements of my favorite triumvirate of American poets–Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman and Robert Frost. It is earthy, unpretentious, accessible, agnostic, sometimes comic, often serious, frequently both, rooted in the ordinary–mayflies, horseshoe crabs, sparrows, tumbled stones and treetops–yet capable of delivering a jolt of understanding as sharp and sudden as when a dental drill strikes an unanesthetized nerve.

I’ve been keeping A Shed for Wood beside my bed. I read a few poems each night. I mull their insights and their meanings. Moran and I differ in our worldviews: he, a stalwart unbeliever; I, an incurable adherent of the creed. But the wisdom in his poems transcends such boundaries. On my way to sleep, I embrace the poet’s invitation to go “Where we can be with our aloneness / at rest with its bottomless still / and inhale the life which inhabits us.”

Moran is a favorite of several prominent writers, including the late Samuel Menashe, a poet of the first rank and the first to be honored with the Poetry Foundation’s “Neglected Masters Award.” Yet despite this, and despite the fact he’s been accorded a number of honors–including a stint as the poet laureate of New York’s Suffolk County–Moran’s work, in my view, has never come close to receiving the attention it deserves.

Moran now lives with his wife Karen in the New Hampshire woods. I’m not sure if he still practices dentistry, but as A Shed for Wood makes clear, he continues to practice poetry at the highest level, turning out poems that serve as a source of wonder, enjoyment, enlightenment, and laughter.

You lovers of words, do yourself a favor: Neglect him no longer.

A Shed for Wood is available on Amazon.

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