DURHAM, N.H. — Andrew Merton spent his life until now writing for other people or teaching other people to write. He always told their stories and rarely took the time to tell his own.

Now, a newly retired college professor, Merton is writing for himself and having a ball making others laugh with him along the way. Kentucky-based Accents Publishing has just issued Merton’s second volume of poetry, “Lost and Found.” The book reads like a nonfiction confessional, wrenchingly sad on one page and full of wit and wry humor on the next.

It never occurred to him that now, in his 70s, he would begin a new phase of his career, the third twist in a writer’s life that began as a beat writer for a Gloucester, Massachusetts, newspaper and morphed, unexpectedly and somewhat by luck, into a long teaching career at the University of New Hampshire. Or that now, on the verge of an anticipated move to Maine, he would be lining up speaking engagements, readings and publicity for his new book of poetry.

“No,” he said quickly. “Never.”

And then again for emphasis, “I never imagined it.”

That’s because poetry had always felt elusive.


He remembers the day he realized poetry was something he needed to pursue. He called it his epiphany.

It was 1985, and Merton was a decade into a successful career as an English professor at the University of New Hampshire, where his specialty was teaching journalism. He balanced his career in education with that of a journalist, and in fall 1985 he published a scathing critique of the college Greek culture in Ms. Magazine. The story drew national attention, and Merton found himself in the middle of a growing conversation about college fraternities.

TV talk show host Phil Donahue booked Merton as a guest, and he flew from Boston to New York, where a limo met him at the airport and took him to the studio for the morning taping. When the taping ended, he got back in the limo, back on the plane and flew back to Boston so he could be on campus in time for a poetry workshop he had signed up for that he couldn’t bear the thought of missing.

It had been a whirlwind day – a dream day for many journalists: jet rides and limos and the chance to talk about your story on national TV. But Merton preferred the solace of a poetry workshop, where he learned the economy of words, the importance of choosing precisely the right one and the power of putting them together to move people to laughter and tears.

“I had a feeling of peace and well-being come over me,” Merton recalled, describing how he felt as he took his seat alongside other students in the workshop. “I remember feeling, ‘This is me,’ more than the other stuff I had just done.”

Writing poetry is hard work. It took Merton a decade to get his first poem published, and his first book – “Evidence That We Are Descended from Chairs” – didn’t come out until 2012. The book established Merton’s as an emerging voice in New England poetry and garnered praise. The New Hampshire Writers’ Project named it the state’s outstanding book of poetry for 2013-2014.



His editor at Accents, Katerina Stoykova-Klemer, said she was seduced by the sense of self that Merton expresses in his writing. “I like that the poems go deep, and do the work of both discovery of the self and making peace with the past,” she wrote in an email. “When I read his poems I get the urge to start forwarding them to people I know, I get the urge to print out his poems and start handing them to my friends. I like that each of his poems holds a surprise, and often these surprises have to do with the speaker’s vulnerability. Very human poems, move me every time.”

Merton and his wife are in the process of moving to Maine. They purchased 11 acres on Dodge Mountain in Rockland and are planning to build a home there, perhaps this year. The for-sale sign in front of their home in Durham proves the seriousness of their intent.

Maine shows up throughout his work. One of the funniest poems in the book, “What He Said (an art gallery opening in a gentrified seaside town)” does not name Maine, but suggests it.

It begins:

Later, in the car,

he explained to his wife


that he was trying to say something nice

to the nice woman who ran the place.

Nice is a nasty word,

said his wife. He knew this.

Merton began his career in journalism after graduating from UNH in 1967, where he played his way through college in a rock band. He went to work for the Gloucester Daily Times and then the old Boston Herald Traveler. His daily journalism career stopped short when the Traveler folded in 1972, and Merton was out of a job. He applied to two places: The Boston Globe and UNH, which was expanding its journalism studies and looking for someone to teach news writing.

Merton wasn’t in a position to be choosy and vowed to take the first offer. UNH beat the Globe by 24 hours, and Merton moved to New Hampshire. He never expected to stay. It was a two-year position, and without an advanced degree Merton was unlikely to keep the position.


Merton turned the two-year gig into one that lasted 43 years, retiring in spring 2015. Along the way, he added creative nonfiction to his repertoire, and “at the very end” taught students to write and appreciate poetry, as well. “It’s been an evolution along the way,” he said.

And along the way, he taught himself, with the help of others. He cites New Hampshire resident and Pulitzer Prize-winner Charles Simic as a mentor.

Merton uses “Lost and Found” to tell his own story, and laces his words with a dark humor and playfulness that he says are part of his DNA. These poems are more “consciously autobiographical” than his first collection, he said.

He begins at the beginning. “Being Andrew Merton,” the first poem in the collection, recalls a time when his mother told him – confessed, really: ” ‘It just slipped out,’ she said. ‘I’m sorry’ ” – that the family’s first child was stillborn two years before him, and he was named after the memory of his beloved deceased older brother.

His mother had not meant to tell him, ever. But her apology wasn’t necessary, Merton writes:

I would have taken the job


even had I known

I was not their first choice.

The first stop on his publicity tour was Thursday night at RiverRun Bookstore in Portsmouth, where three dozen people filled the shop on a cold night to hear him read. Shifting his weight from foot to foot, he stood behind a music stand that held his notes and read poems that marked important moments of his life: growing up in Greenwich Village, losing his virginity (“we succeeded technically”), visiting Graceland, the death of his parents, becoming a husband and father and, finally, his own death.

“That part is speculative,” he quipped.

He confronts parenthood in the title poem, which is also the oldest, written in 1986 soon after he started imagining himself a poet. He wrote it about his son, Gabe, who was a first-grader at Barrington Elementary School. Gabe had joined other students and teachers to watch what was supposed to be a momentous occasion: New Hampshire astronaut Christa McAuliffe becoming the first woman in space, aboard the Space Shuttle Challenger.

Instead, the space ship blew up on live TV:


In winter

the big wooden box

in your school cafeteria

fills with boots, sweaters, sweatshirts

hockey pucks, scarves,

and, on the day


they brought in a TV

so you and your friends

could watch a teacher

leave earth

one small sky-blue mitten.

Kimberly Cloutier Green, a resident of Kittery Point and former poet laureate of Portsmouth, called Merton steady and reliable, as a friend and poet.


“Andy sees things in a zany sort of way, and his poems tend to expose the absurd in life. He has an essentially comic view, though it’s important to say there are dark threads woven through his work,” she said. “He’s a deeply moral and loving man, and a true humanist – and you can’t say these things without your heart being broken.”

Cloutier Green attended Thursday’s reading and was struck by the visual images Merton created with his words. In the poem “Downpour,” he has a line about a woman, filled with grief, watering her lawn in the rain. “It’s the most forlorn image,” she said. In another, about drinking, he creates an image of the heart, the organ above the liver, “as this crazy upstairs neighbor.”

She laughed when she heard that line.

“The poem’s funny, but the heart is the crazy upstairs neighbor,” she said, “the one we can’t ignore, the one whose presence demands our attention and response. In part, I read Andy’s poems for these extraordinary images. They slay me.”

Merton feels he is just getting started. More than 50 years since he began writing professionally, he’s found something to sustain him, to carry him past the daily deadlines and the crowded lecture rooms. Now, he wants to make it last.

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