Although he’s published 20 books of poetry and taught it for several decades, William “Bill” Doreski continues to doubt whether he’s a poet.
“Every day, I try for about an hour in the morning to be one,” he said. “I may or may not be.”
Doreski, now retired from teaching in the English department at Keene State College (he started in 1982), already had a published book of poetry but hadn’t yet earned his bachelor’s degree when he was hired for his first teaching job at Boston’s Emerson College.
“Writing came first,” he said. “Without it, I never would have gotten into teaching.”
He began writing when he was in grammar school growing up in Connecticut.
“I had visions of myself as someone who would write novels about young boys who befriended wild animals,” he said, alluding to his favorite book at the time, “The Wahoo Bobcat” by naturalist Joseph Lippincott — the story is about a boy and his bobcat friend and their trials in the Florida wilderness.
He credits a high school English teacher for getting him to try his pen at poetry. They were reading the poems of E.E. Cummings in class. Doreski was not a fan.
“I thought E.E. Cummings [poems] seemed flat and simple-minded,” he said. His teacher challenged him to write a poem in Cummings’s style.
“I went home confidently,” Doreski said. “I tried [to write a similar poem] for a week. I went back to class and said I had respect for Mr. Cummings.” While Cummings was never a favorite of his, Doreski never forgot that exercise.
Later, he discovered the poetry of Hart Crane, who remains his favorite poet.
“I knew I could never write like that,” he said. “But I’m there to admire, not imitate. He has this distinctive, wry voice. He became in those early years at least an important example for me.”
At Emerson, Doreski taught creative writing before he took a job at Goddard College in Plainfield, Vt. There he taught primarily literature.
“I thought it difficult if not impossible to teach people to write poetry,” he said.
As a creative writing professor, he would set up prompts to get people to write.
“I told them they should keep writing and read good writing,” he said.
After 44 years teaching, Doreski said the bulk of his writing is poetry now that he’s no longer an active academic. He published three critical studies and had his work appear in print and online journals and continues to write book reviews for such publications as the Harvard Review. He’s also won numerous grants and awards.
Among his most recent books is “Train to Providence,” a collaboration with photographer Rodger Kingston, whose photographs in the book were made over several decades (Doreski wrote the poems over a few months). Another is “A Black River, A Dark Fall” (2019), which explores the moments when the imagination and the world outside ourselves overlap, clash or infuse and inform each other.
“I spent many years clarifying why I write poetry and the place of art in the modern world — it’s affected the way I write,” Doreski said. “It’s not just poetry. Look at the way painting shifted from representation to various forms of abstract expressionism. It’s more about revealing the inner life of the painter than simply representing what’s out there.”
He listed one of his favorite creative periods in history: the 17th century.
“Poets like Milton, Donne, Vaughan and Pope — they wrote during a period in which people were becoming more conscious of the role their imagination played in poetry, in their lives - in everything,” he said.
Doreski sees the role of poetry and art in general as forever vital.
“We need our imaginations stirred and validated — it’s the function for processing the world,” he said. “You can make it something you can use and enjoy and participate in. If you don’t have a good inner life, you are going to be very bored.”