The Scribes: Poet and songbird whisperer Timothy Houghton (PhD ’84)

At 6 a.m., Tim Houghton was up and alert. 

For a month, he had awakened before the sun in search of the increasingly rare cerulean warbler, a brilliantly blue songbird, dying off because of habitat destruction. With his eyes, Houghton scanned the Maryland landscape for the 4-inch creature. His ears stayed attuned for the bird’s call—one of 150 he knows by heart and can name without seeing their source.

“That sort of thing, for me, is really easy,” says Houghton, who made his living as a poet and writing professor, “whereas for me, writing is really, really hard work.”

The credo “first words, best words” may have worked for Allen Ginsberg and John Kerouac—poets who poured their thoughts onto the page in real time and called it good. For Houghton, it’s never been quite so straightforward.

“Whereas some people write poetry, I think, mainly for therapeutic reasons—some sense of suffering, some sense of sadness, some void that that fills—I was always striving for an artistic level that, for me, just meant hard, frustrating work,” Houghton says. “The most enjoyable parts for me in the writing process are when I first write down a terrible, unreadable draft. I revise through it, and then I start having fun again at the very end, when I see the thing begin to come to fruition.”

The latest result of that complicated process is “Where the Lighthouse Begins,” Houghton’s seventh book of poetry, published in March 2020. Stylistically, the work is unfamiliar—the lines he had traditionally scattered across the page are more orderly now. His words are neatly shepherded into single stanzas, leaving noticeable spaces where a line might ordinarily break.

“I’d say about five, six, seven years ago, I felt overwhelmed by this sense of feeling jaded and stale,” Houghton says. “Suddenly, I got sick of using my previous way of putting lines on the page, which I had done for so many years. At the same time, I was getting so sick and tired of American poetry. I think it goes with that cliché of ‘familiarity breeds contempt.’ I started seeing how so much of it seemed generic to me or that kind of factory product that people associate with creative writing programs.”

Houghton arrived at the University of Denver’s highly respected creative writing program as a 24-year-old, recruited by a former professor. He departed with his PhD and a mature sense of himself and his writing.

“That was an important time for me to read a lot more, to discover, in a sense, where I fit into things as a poet,” he says. “I firmed up who my influences were. I certainly grew as a poet. I appreciated the wide range of diversity within the program—teachers with different personalities, with different likes and dislikes.”

Houghton was always attracted to metaphorical poetry with its imaginative gaps. He wanted his readers to return to his work and find something new: “I was always imagining them having to work at my poems, so when they came back to them, they could see different angles and different sorts of interpretations at different times.”

Houghton’s work has received acclaim from as far away as Italy, where a pair of poets translated and presented a broad selection of his poems in 2015. Then, in “one of the incredible thrills of my life,” they invited Houghton to Florence to read his work at the house where Dante was born.

A couple of months later, Houghton retired from Loyola University Maryland.  Without courses to teach, he spends his time in nature, collecting observations that may or may not appear in a future poem.

“I do write a little bit more [than when I was teaching], but I have other interests,” Houghton says. Nonetheless, he’s already refining some poems for another book. “Even though I don’t necessarily spend a lot of time on it, because it’s so intense and hard, it’s the one thing I’ve worked on and practiced. It’s just what I feel like I can do and do somewhat well and take satisfaction in it.”

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