My World and Words - Michael Burch

Michael R. Burch

Why do I write?

The first influence on my career as a poet was undoubtedly my mother, Christine Ena Burch. I vividly remember her reciting “The Highwayman” by Alfred Noyes to her delighted (if spooked) children. She had memorized the poem — one of most musical and haunting in the English language — and was able to deliver it flawlessly. It was my favorite bedtime story, by far, and still is.

My second important experience with poetry came via an unusual source — a comic book. I was around eleven years old and an avid collector. In one comic — I forget which — an immortal villain called a mortal superhero a “frail envelope of flesh.” I have never forgotten the suggestive power I felt in that phrase. Years later I would use it in one of my poems, which I dedicated to the mothers and children of Gaza. It was later set to music by the composer Alexander Comitas.

My third experience was discovering a thick anthology of America’s best-loved poems. I remember especially liking story poems such as “My Grandfather’s Clock” and lyrics like Sir Walter Scott’s poem that begins “Breathes there the man with soul so dead.” At this point I believe I was still in my pre-teens.

I was also influenced by singer-songwriters like Bob Dylan, Neil Diamond and Paul Simon. The first pop song I remember hearing was Diamond’s “I’m a Believer” on a German playground. I remember hearing Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” on a London rooftop while visiting relatives. That song came to me as a revelation. I also remember being swept up and swept away by Simon’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” But I didn’t have any musical ability, so the frustrated songwriter in me turned to poetry.

I wrote my first serious poem around age fourteen. While it was far from a masterpiece, I think the meter and rhyme were pretty good for a first attempt. I believe I had an aptitude for poetry from day one, but it would be some time before I was even remotely satisfied with anything I wrote. (I was a little perfectionist; I would tear up a school paper and start over if it contained a single blemish.) I remember destroying all my early poems in a fit of frustration — a decision I still regret. I was able to recreate some of the poems from memory and a few of them have since been published by literary journals. So I was probably better than I realized at the time. But two of my best early poems were gone forever and I still regret their loss.

Perhaps my biggest influence came in the form of a high school textbook. I remember flipping through its pages and skipping over the prose to read the poems. There was something magical about poems by William Blake, Robert Burns, e. e. cummings, Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, A. E. Housman, Langston Hughes and William Butler Yeats. Not only was I hooked, but I wanted to create similar magic myself!

One of my major influences was a teacher, Anne Meyers. This was around age fifteen or sixteen. She gave our class an assignment: create a collection of poems with different themes. The themes I selected were Animal Poems, The Poems of England, Rock Lyrics, Biblical Poems, and lastly, my own poetry. Yes, I had the audacity to include my poems side-by-side with those of Blake, Burns, even Shakespeare!

I was very audacious! But Ms. Meyers wrote “This poem is beautiful” beside one of my earliest compositions, “Playmates.” That encouragement was like rocket fuel to my ego, and I proceeded to inundate an unsuspecting world with great deluges of poems. So caveat emptor — buyer beware of encouraging fledgling poets!

Before I graduated from high school, I was a published poet. My first two “wow” poems were written around age sixteen to eighteen, while I worked making money for college at a local McDonald’s. I remember thinking both times, “Did I really write that?” These were the first two poems that made me feel like a “real” poet ...


Here the hills are old, and rolling
carefully in their old age;
on the horizon youthful mountains
bathe themselves in windblown fountains . . .

By dying leaves and falling raindrops,
I have traced time's starts and stops,
and I have known the years to pass
almost unnoticed, whispering through treetops . . .

For here the valleys fill with sunlight
to the brim, then empty again,
and it seems that only I notice
how the years flood out, and in . . .


Have you tasted the bitterness of tears of despair?
Have you watched the sun sink through such pale, balmless air
that your soul sought its shell like a crab on a beach,
then scuttled inside to be safe, out of reach?

Might I lift you tonight from earth’s wreckage and damage
on these waves gently rising to pay the moon homage?
Or better, perhaps, let me say that I, too,
have dreamed of infinity ... windswept and blue.

In any case, by the time I set off for college, I considered myself to be a “real” poet. Now, if only the larger world would agree!

Why do I write poetry? Initially, I wanted to write songs but lacked the musical ability. Some of my friends were in a band and I felt left out. Around that time I discovered poems with magical properties and I wanted to produce similar magic. Also, I was painfully shy, socially awkward and wanted desperately to impress girls without knowing how to approach them. Writing poetry filled a number of needs for me. It made me feel that my life had some value. It was a therapeutic way to deal with despair and feelings of loneliness and alienation. And, yes, girls invariably liked what I wrote and seemed to perceive me differently than before. So, to some degree, “mission accomplished.”

Author's Bio: Michael R. Burch’s poems, translations, essays, articles and letters have appeared in TIME, USA Today, BBC Radio 3, Amnesty International’s Words That Burn, Writer’s Digest–The Year’s Best Writing and hundreds of literary journals. His poems have been translated into eleven languages and set to music by the composers Mark Buller, Alexander Comitas and Seth Wright. He also edits and serves as the international poetry editor for Better Than Starbucks.

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