Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXIII, No. 20
Wednesday, May 20, 2009
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Local Poet, Founder of People for Princeton Ridge Daniel Harris Enjoys “A Second Writing Life”

Dilshanie Perera

After a long career as an English professor spent analyzing Victorian and modern poetry, with a special emphasis on William Butler Yeats, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Alfred Tennyson, Grace Aguilar, and Isaac Rosenberg, local resident and environmental activist Daniel Harris decided to give writing poetry a try.

“In a way, this is a second writing life for me,” Mr. Harris explained, noting that he spent almost 35 years working on books about 19th and 20th century poetry, and “then I wanted to see what I could do myself, with all of those poems, and voices, and rhythms in my head.”

Now, with a collection of work entitled Loose Parlance (Ragged Sky, 2008), and even newer poems in his portfolio, Mr. Harris will read from his oeuvre as part of the U.S. 1 Poetry Series on Wednesday, May 27 at 7:30 p.m. at the Princeton Public Library.

“My poetry is about sex, death, politics, and silence … and nothing else matters,” Mr. Harris said, elaborating that those themes “are all present all the time.”

“Beginning to write a poem, or trying to start one, or the way in which a poem presents itself as an opening is by its very nature an act against silence, so it takes some kind of responsibility for being in the world at all,” Mr. Harris noted, adding that “breaking silence is always a question of breaking taboos in the long run.”

Unconcerned with “clean visions, or whitewashed versions of things,” Mr. Harris’s verses explore all kinds of topics, ranging from torture, to the Iraq war, to race relations. While colleagues occasionally caution him from straying into political territory, he observed that he prefers “writing a poem about torture that may fail, but to still have made the attempt,” rather than not writing it at all.

Simultaneously, Mr. Harris strives to have his poems create a “place where I don’t appear as a bleeding heart, sentimental creature,” but rather “make the speaker of my poems someone who is credible beyond the level of personal distress or anguish.”

Characterizing the process of writing poetry as a somewhat risky endeavor, Mr. Harris explained that “because it is so private, it requires you to make social and ethical choices every time you sit down to write, because it means that you are not out on the streets as an activist … you are deciding to be self-centered in hopes that some product of yours at some point in time will connect to other people, and have meaning for them.” It is a “constant tension.”

Nonetheless, after studying, explicating, and teaching the poetry of others, Mr. Harris said that “I would have felt like a coward if I hadn’t tried my own hand after all those years.”

His process involves spending about four hours each morning in a quiet space, writing and reflecting. If he doesn’t get anywhere productive by 10:30 in the morning, Mr. Harris turns to reading modern poetry, “old favorites,” Greek tragedy, or the Hebrew Bible.

As for political involvement, Mr. Harris observed that “one of the things in so-called retirement that I’ve found I can do is work in some elements of activism along with the poetry, to keep me alive morally as a person — as it happens, the defense of Princeton Ridge against elaborate, unscrupulous, and inappropriate development.”

Mr. Harris is a founder and one of the trustees of People for Princeton Ridge, an organization devoted to limiting development along the Ridge, and promoting the conservation of the wetlands and green space in that area.

“The conservation of trees, and their substructure of roots and branching,” Mr. Harris remarked, “is not unlike the conservation of the word structure of poems and language.

“It is deeply literary in ways that I never would have guessed,” he said.

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