Poetry means different things to different people. For University of Arkansas professor and poet Michael Heffernan, it is an act of discovery. The journey that he knows as poetry has spanned over five decades and led to the publishing of nine books, with a tenth due out in the spring.
His act of discovery began in May 1958 when he was a sophomore in a Jesuit high school in Michigan. The educators at the school believed in a firm base in the classics and emphasized Latin and Greek teachings and languages. The Latin metrics fascinated him. While studying Virgil’s Latin, he began translating it into English iambic pentameter, something he thought was a brand new idea. Unknown to him at the time, the translations had been done in the 16th century. Mere decades later, William Shakespeare used the verse, what he called “blank verse,” as the base for his famous works. It would become the base of Heffernan’s budding poetry.
While many authors spend lots of time searching for inspiration for the articles, novels or poetry that they write, Heffernan does not. He draws on his knowledge of the English language and the consistent beat found in iambic pentameter to write.
“The English language is the great resource,” Heffernan said.
Always armed with a small notebook and a well working mechanical pencil, Heffernan is ready to write whenever he feels compelled to. Sometimes it happens in the comfort and solace of his backyard, other times it is along the busy streets of Paris, France. The location does not matter, nor necessarily does the subject of the poem, so long as it has an element of adventure and surprise and a sense of going somewhere new.
The resulting work is not always good, but that’s not a problem to Heffernan. He believes that there are worst things than writing a bad piece of work.
“The worst thing in the world is not to have something to write, and the second worst thing is not to have something to look at that you already did write just a while before,” he said.
Having an idea about what to write is crucial. One of his favorite times to get ideas about what to write is sitting in front of the television.
“It is as good as doing anything you do where you brain is half engaged then something else will occur to you in the process” he said. “You find that voice talking to you from the back of your brain or that impulse that wants to get verbal. The next step is to write.”
After nearly five and a half decades of writing poetry, in the past year Heffernan has found himself working more in prose. A novel appears to be in his future, but he approaches it cautiously.
“[Prose] relies on getting sentences to work and paragraphs to take a certain shape. There’s an art to that that you master, and I’m not sure I have, so I go at with the instincts of a poet who basically peeks around the next corner to see what’s there,” Heffernan explains.
Peeking around corners is one of the things he enjoys most about writing.
“It’s a process. It’s fun to see where this takes you,” he said. “If I can get lost in a sentence and not know where I’m going to end it, I’m in heaven. That’s perfection.”