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Poet DeWitt Clinton Takes Inspiration From Centuries Old Chinese Poems In New Book

Becca Schimmel
DeWitt Clinton's new book is a collection of poems that he wrote responding to Chinese poetry.

A new book of poems from DeWitt Clinton takes inspiration from a translation of Chinese poems, placing them in a contemporary landscape of Milwaukee. In his new book called By A Lake Near A Moon, Fishing With The Chinese Masters he explores loss and his time as a soldier in Vietnam. 

Clinton is a poet and a retired English professor from the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. Before his interest in Chinese poetry, he wrote about the Holocaust and other world genocides.

“I think I was finding myself responding to each one of these [Chinese poems]. I started making a little notebook. After about a dozen of these, I thought maybe I could have a little tiny book. I just kept writing,” says Clinton.

His goal wasn't to copy the themes and subject of the poems. Instead, he aims to capture their feelings and apply them to his own experiences.

“In many ways, it’s a long habit of responding to art. If you go to the Milwaukee Art Museum or if you listen to a concert at the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra or if you read some wonderful poem that inspires you to jot a few lines down. It’s a lot like that, it’s that tradition of responding to a work of art,” he says.

He didn’t plan to write about Vietnam and his time as a soldier. But he says reading these poems triggered many memories for him. In one poem, he describes both his desire to distance himself from the war by throwing out his medals and finding serenity by Lake Michigan but that he knows part of him will never leave the battlefields in Southeast Asia.

Clinton’s poems do stand on their own. While they can be enjoyed without knowledge of Chinese poetry, he says reading the poems he was inspired by helps create a deeper understanding.

“I’ve tried to make every poem have the title and name of the [Chinese] poet in my title so that they are always poems about reading, which I hope makes the book a little bit different than other collections of poetry,” he says.

Boswell Book Company is hosting a virtual reading of the book of poetry on Wednesday at 7:30 p.m.

From 2020 to 2021, Jack was WUWM's digital intern and then digital producer.