Sunday, May 03, 2009

Philip B. Burnham Jr.: A Poet with a classical education who writes about ice cream.

Philip B. Burnham Jr.: A Poet with a classical education who writes about ice cream.

Philip Burnham may have graduated Harvard, and acquired a PhD in Medieval History, but he still revels in the ordinary as well as the extraordinary in his work. Burnham, an educator at area secondary schools and Colleges for many years, writes as well about Baseball, Boston’s Redline and the search for ice cream as he does about a rarefied piece of art, or the mysteries of the universe. Burnham has published two poetry collections with Somerville’s Ibbetson Street Press: “Sailing From Boston,” “Housekeeping,” as well as a collection from the Cervena Barva Press: “Careful Scattering,” among others. His poetry has appeared in numerous publications, and has been read on “Writer’s Almanac” on National Public radio. I spoke with Burnham on my Somerville Community Access TV show “Poet to Poet: Writer to Writer.”

Doug Holder: You say your poetry is structured in a way to create an ordered explanation of the world. Why is this necessary?

Philip Burnham: I think when I look at the world I try to make sense of it. When I write a poem it’s an attempt to take a little corner of my experience and reflect on it in some way. Hopefully I will understand it better and perhaps provide a window for someone else to understand it better.

DH: Is life unknowable?

PB: Some of it is unknowable. Ultimately the next few hours, tomorrow is unknowable. Love is indefinable, not unknowable.

DH: You started writing again after a long hiatus after the death of your wife. I remember you attended a workshop I was giving in Newton, Mass.

PB: For me it was a wonderful thing to come into your class. I think one of the things that may happen with you when your partner dies is there is a tremendous sense of isolation. One of the ways of working the isolation out is to write. But another way was to share that writing with other people. I wanted to find out if it was just my ranting and raving about my grief, of if it was something that struck a chord with other people.

DH: You were a poet in your younger days, right?

PB: In the 60’s and 70’s I wrote poetry that was accepted by a number of magazines. I think in my fantasy world I thought I would be a poet. But during this time I had a family to support and a life to lead, and I thought poetry wasn’t going to do it. I was more conservative then about taking a risk, and making a lifetime out of it. I knew people who did make a lifetime out of it, and they were teachers. I wasn’t in that breed.

DH: Do you regret the road you didn’t take?

PB: Well, the road not taken… (sigh)… you either make the leap of faith or not. I think I thought I was going to make a better researcher and scholar than a poet. That was really not true. I became a teacher. I taught high school and college. I taught history not poetry. In class I had the kids read things with cultural manifestations of different time periods. Every year we memorized the first 18 lines of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, for instance. The kids loved it. They thought they were lead into a secret room.

DH: You have a classical education. Do you think that is needed to become a poet?

PB: I don’t think you have to have that exposure to be a poet. That exposure made me who I am. I had an “old” education for a new time. I have a greater appreciation for earlier poetry, than an appreciation for new poetry. I feel more comfortable with old forms. It is not what most people are into these days.

DH: Do you do a lot of revision? When do you give up on a poem?

PB: I don’t think I have ever written a poem that I didn’t revise. I have written poems that have come out quickly, in say 4 or 5 drafts. I always suspect that there are some things I can say better, so I try to go back. As I read it through I try to see if it sounds as natural as I want it to sound. And if it doesn’t I try to see what new words I can use that will make it more natural. Eight to twelve drafts is not surprising. It’s been said that poetry is never finished, it is just abandoned.

DH: You wrote a series of poems that are set on a Boston’s Redline subway that travels from the outskirts of Cambridge, all the way out to the suburbs of Braintree, Mass. You have scenes from different stages of your life, and all involve the pursuit of ice cream. What is the germ of the idea for this conceit?

PB: When you are in the subway, especially when you are a child, you look around and there are all these strange people. They are not people you see in your house or necessarily in your neighborhood. They are people in the city. Taking this form of transportation is magic for a kid. This might be your first exotic experience with public transportation—traveling in this enigmatic tube. I remember when I was a child in Cambridge, Mass. during WWII, no one had a car. There were very few cars on the street. People couldn’t afford them; we were just past the Great Depression, besides there was gas rationing. So we always took the subway. Later I remember visiting my future wife at Wheaton College via the subway. So the subway has been a way of measuring moments in my life.

You can’t look directly at people in the subway. But you can see their reflections in the window. You can also see yourself. So I saw myself growing up and changing on the subway.

DH: How about the ice cream?

PB: The ice cream got in there when as a child I took the Redline to Harvard Sq. and then took the yellow trolleys on Mass. Ave. Our stop in Cambridge was right outside the ice cream parlor Brigham’s. So the poem wasn’t only about the Redline, but how ice cream makes an entrance into my life at different times.

Assignment #1: Write a poem about Baseball and God
By Philip E. Burnham, Jr (Read on NPR’s Writer’s Almanac)
And on the ninth day, God
In His infinite playfulness
Grass green grass, sky blue sky,
Separated the infield from the outfield,
Formed a skin of clay,
Assigned bases of safety
On cardinal points of the compass
Circling the mountain of deliverance,
Fashioned a wandering moon
From a horse, a string and a gum tree,
Tempered weapons of ash,
Made gloves from the golden skin of sacrificial bulls,
Set stars alight in the Milky Way,
Divided the descendants of Cain and Abel into contenders,
Declared time out, time in, stepped back,
And thundered over all of creation:
"Play ball!"

"Assignment #1: Write a poem about Baseball and God" by Philip E. Burnham, Jr. from Housekeeping: Poems Out of the Ordinary. © Ibbetson Street Press, 2005. Reprinted with permission


  1. Thank you for this post. Dr. Burnham was my favorite teacher when he taught at Newton South High School in the 1970s. Because of him I have had a lifelong devotion to Medieval history and especially to Medieval music. How I wish I had taken Latin with him as well . . .

  2. cindybsmith5:39 PM

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