This Old Poem #27:
Michael Dennis Browne’s Bird Before Dawn
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 10/2/02

  I’ve had the misfortune of watching Michael Dennis Browne bumble & stumble his way through a (at best) mediocre literary career. MDB is the senior literatista at the local University of Minnesota. He has therefore been responsible for warping more young literary minds than anyone else in the state. Don’t get me wrong- he’s not really a bad person, per se, as much as he is a bad poet & terrible critic. Yes, he’s your typical arrogant professor, guilty of all the myriad sins a prof can be accused of with his students. But it’s his actual contempt for any larger poetic community that is most disturbing. He’s 1 of those guys who never goes to a literary event unless he’s being featured. I 1st encountered the man in late 1993 or ’94, when he did his annual Xmas reading at the U. To be fair, the man is an excellent raconteur & reader of poetry- as long as it’s someone else’s poems.
  Fellow UPGer Bruce Ario once took some classes with MDB & showed him a section of his brilliant novel Cityboy. Apropos of MDB, he slammed the novel, causing the emotionally weak Ario to shelve the book out of shame for over a decade. In 1997 & 1998 I was running the local Stone Arch Festival reading series & tried to get MDB & other U professors to participate- the U is literally a stone’s throw away. He, & the others, refused. That they would have to share the stage with ‘unpublished’ amateurs was galling! This word, amateur, seems to be 1 MDB uses as an epithet. In 2001, when I 1st started Cosmoetica, I emailed MDB & other local profs to submit poems & essays. They were all scornful. MDB was among the worst. Unbelievably, he labeled my poems ‘amateurish’. I state this not as a justification for this essay- for I knew MDB was a bad poet long before that incident- but because it shows the utter lack of consideration, & the total disdain, MDB has for those poets not ‘in the system’. A few years earlier- about ’96 or ’97, MDB was at a local bookstore hawking his Selected Poems, 1965-1995. Now, an educated reader of MDB’s verse might be tempted to utter something along the lines of Don Moss’s famed quip, ‘Selected Poems? Selected from what, Honey? You’ve got, what, 10, 12 poems?”, but there was MDB, glorying in the inanities uttered by the crowd of 20-30 mostly current & former students. I bought the book, & as I was leaving the table MDB grabbed the book from me, & signed it, without my even wanting it done. I generally dislike that gauche practice, but to MDB it’s an ego’s lifeblood; so engrained is he in the rituals of the literati. Witness his online bio: 

Michael Dennis Browne's fifth collection of poetry, Selected Poems 1965-1995, published by Carnegie Mellon Press, won the Minnesota Book Award for poetry in 1998. His previous book, You Won't Remember This, won a Minnesota Book Award in 1993. Browne's poems have been published in many magazines and anthologies, including TriQuarterly, The Iowa Review, The New Yorker, and The American Poetry Review. As a librettist, he has written many texts for music, working principally with composers Stephen Paulus and John Foley S.J. Browne has taught at The University of Iowa, Columbia University, Bennington College, and, since 1971, the University of Minnesota, where he is a professor of English, former director of the creative writing program, and winner of two Distinguished Teacher awards.

Or, even better, his description of a workshop he was gonna teach:

In this workshop, we will be exploring a number of ways of writing more freshly and of going deeper into our poems. We will focus on closer attentiveness to the circumstances in which we write and on making more playful and expressive word choices. We will work to become more conscious of various habits that may be holding us back- among them overuse of abstractions, mechanical line breaks, descriptive clustering, sentence monotony, avoidance of confrontation, and the like. We will write together daily, hear a good number of modern and contemporary poems, engage all questions that are raised, and end our session with an open reading.

  Reading such makes 1 wanna gag, until you read some of MDB’s poems- then the choking turns to guffawing. So, get ready to laugh- here’s the poem in question:

Bird Before Dawn

Bird before dawn,
bird before dawn,
I hear you

liquid in the dark,
long before
the light,

hear you
after hours of images

to the Great Silence,
eyes closed, lips open
but no music from me;

and now though I lie
a human in a room,
I am there

in your throat,
in the wet center
where the notes swell,

without words,
with merely a man’s tongue;
and O my musician,

my April chanter,
I rise, I ride
out of the winter on your song.

  If you are thinking that this is some April Fools-type joke, I am sorry to say it is not. This really is not just a published poem, but a poem that MDB though was good enough to make his Best Of.... book. I won’t even waste your time in describing all that is wrong. Suffice to say it is a string of clichés, poorly enjambed, & utterly lacking in any real music. The only way to salvage this utter piece of crap is to recast it as a haiku- & to fit the 5-7-5 syllabic format of the form I have re-used the word tethered from earlier in the poem. Here ‘tis:

Bird Before Dawn

My April chanter,
I rise, I ride out winter
on your tethered song.

  While not a great poem nor haiku, it is loads better than the terrible poem before it. Also, riding out winter is more interesting than riding out of winter. This is an example of where even a basic form can help tighten a free verse ‘wet dream’. But, let’s return to some of the ills MDB quotes in his workshop intro: ‘more playful and expressive word choices. We will work to become more conscious of various habits that may be holding us back- among them overuse of abstractions, mechanical line breaks, descriptive clustering, sentence monotony, avoidance of confrontation, and the like’. Let’s quickly examine how little of his own advice MDB follows. I do so just to point out the utter disconnect between what is preached & practiced in Academia. Let’s go.
  Playful and expressive word choices: Uh, does he mean ‘the Great Silence’ or the repetition of ‘bird before dawn’ right after that’s being the title? Overuse of abstractions: Well, no problem there with the simplistic verse MDB spews. But is that really a bad thing, especially given the banality the last 30 years of poetry has foisted on its readers? Again, that’s another example of a hard & fast rule that has no basis in anything save the poet’s biases. Mechanical line breaks: What, exactly, does he mean by ‘mechanical’? A break is either good or bad- & his are okay- except that they seem rote & forced (stanzas 2 & 3)- oh, now I’ve got it! But MDB hasn’t. Descriptive clustering: Does he mean like this?: ‘liquid in the dark,/long before/the light,//hear you/after hours of images/tethered//to the Great Silence,/eyes closed, lips open/but no music’. Sentence monotony: Hmmm….needless repetition, clichés…. Avoidance of confrontation: I won’t even guess what psychic trauma(s) lie behind that admonition. Nonetheless, MDB gives bad advice, & then doesn’t even follow it, which would be nice if it were a tacit acknowledgement of his advice’s stupidity. But it isn’t. He just foists bad poem after bad poem into publication. & don’t give me that everyone’s entitled to a bad poem jazz- of course anyone can write poorly, but why publish it at all, much less in your Selected? Is it me or did someone just fart? Later.

Final Score: (1-100):

Michael Dennis Browne’s Bird Before Dawn: 40
TOP’s Bird Before Dawn: 75

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