Princeton Arts Profiles

The Poetic Policy Student

The search for your own “good” poem— that’s a magic trail that originated at Princeton and just keeps going.  

decker1The arts at Princeton, for me, posed a question: What does it feel like to create work—a short story, poem, dance—that someone else validated as artistic? This simple, if slightly knuckleheaded, question drove me to sign up for creative writing with Anthony Burgess, despite being a Woodrow Wilson School major. The answer, at first, was: “Decker, YOU may never know!” Page upon page of 8. x 11 paper turned into inky nightmares—apocalyptic but failed short stories ending as balled-up, trash-can-ready capitulations. But Princeton’s creative arts offerings—and Burgess’s class—were all about taking the leap (in this case, into the white space on the empty page). One day I rolled into class with a poem, not a short story. “Keep doing this,” Burgess said. “Forget the high drama stories and people dying, etc.” Next stop—second semester with the British poet Thom Gunn. “Try on your own voice,” he suggested. “Quit trying to be Gary Snyder.” “Who is Gary Snyder?” I replied, truthfully. Progress! My quest for the seemingly impossible “good poem” was full on. At some point I even became the class poet, although after composing and reading an antiwar poem at graduation I may have single-handedly ended the institution of class poet for good. Next stop—advanced poetry writing class with Richard Howard, who eventually helped me publish a poem in Paris Review and another in New Republic. Through his contacts I later had tea at Oxford one-on-one with W. H. Auden. By then I had forgotten the original question completely, and was lost in a lifelong passion for reading and writing poetry. The search for your own “good” poem—that’s a magic trail that originated at Princeton and just keeps going.


Michael Decker ’71 P03 is a partner at Wingate Partners. His daughter Josephine Decker ’03 is a writer, director, and performer. She was recently named one of Filmmaker Magazine’s “25 New Faces of Independent Film.”