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Wrapped in the arms of poetry

By Rita Christopher

Publication: The Day

Published April 28. 2013 4:00AM

Somewhere in the fantasy world of coulda, shoulda, woulda, Tim Napier might have played shortstop for the Philadelphia Phillies. He grew up in Flourtown, a Philadelphia suburb. Though he realized in college that his baseball skills would take him no further, on a recent afternoon in Chester he still had baseball in his blood, carrying a biography of the Yankee Clipper, Joe DiMaggio.

In the real world, Napier made a career as an educator and educational administrator, and on Monday, April 29, at the Chester Meeting House he will have a chance to show another talent: poetry.

Napier is one of the four poets who will read at the third annual Poetry Celebration, sponsored by the Chester Library. The reading honors National Poetry Month. The other participants include Hannah Watkins, George Bradley and Christine Palm. Whelen Engineering has underwritten a "Chester Poets Chapbook," which will be sold at the event, with proceeds going towards the library's expansion fund.

Poetry, Napier says, gives people a chance to see the world in a different light, to know things they would not know in any other way. He himself fell in love with poetry as a 6-year-old when his mother read him Alfred Noyes's classic work, "The Highwayman." The poem tells the story of an unnamed robber, betrayed by a rival for the love of Bess, an innkeeper's daughter; she sacrifices herself to try to save the highwayman, who also dies.

"Every little boy would fall in love with that poem," he says. "I knew then that poetry had its arms around me."

At Williams College in Massachusetts, Napier says writing poetry scared him. He said he knew he needed to love words to construct poems, but admits at that point in his life what he really loved was hanging out with friends.

"I thought I wasn't good enough for poetry," he recalls.

Upon graduation, he took a job as a newspaper reporter, but left journalism to go to Connecticut College for a master's degree in English. There he was fortunate enough to study with Pulitzer Prize-winning poet William Meredith.

"That was a wonderful association," Tim recalls.

Meredith, nonetheless, was not uncritical of his work. He once told Napier that he would give him an "A" as a grade on the novel he was working on but with one condition: that Napier promise to rewrite it completely. Napier spent a year in Vermont with the avowed intention of doing just that, but it didn't happen. He did write, but newspaper articles instead of fiction.

Napier's association with Meredith also showed him the importance that effective counseling and mentoring can have on students' lives, and he spent the rest of his professional life as a guidance counselor and educational administrator, working at both colleges (Williams and Connecticut) and prep schools (Ethel Walker, Choate and Hopkins).

At one point in his career he declined to give an interviewee a position in the admissions office at Ethel Walker. She didn't hold it against him-Barbara-Jan Williams has been Napier's wife for 35 years and has held various positions at Wesleyan university for 30 years, most recently as vice president of external relations.

In addition to the interview with his future wife, one of the other notable things about Napier's tenure at Ethel Walker was that he began to write poetry again, and he has never stopped. In much of his writing, he says he pays attention to the world around the Connecticut River, but he doesn't limit the subjects he treats.

"There's no such thing as a poetic subject. You can write poems about any subject," he says.

He adds that there is no way to appreciate a poem without hearing it read aloud, experiencing the sounds without concentrating on the meaning.

"You have to hear the music that is there," he explains.

He rewrites constantly, even reworking poems he wrote years ago when he looks at them again.

"There's no way to write a good poem without revising," he says.

His conversation is sprinkled with references to noted poets. When discussing the challenges of composing free verse, he quotes Robert Frost, who famously said writing free verse was like playing tennis without a net. And he cites Marianne Moore's description of what poetry is: "imaginary gardens with real toads."

Napier retired as a high school guidance counselor at Hopkins in New Haven in 2008 with no regrets.

"I love retirement. It lets me do what I want," he says.

Beyond the pleasures and trials of creating poems, Napier sees his poetry as a way of communicating with later generations of his own family.

"I would like my children and grandchildren to know who I was," he says, "and I hope there is enough truth in the poems that they might be useful to them."

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IF YOU GO

What: Celebration of Chester Poets

When: Monday, April 29, at 7 p.m.

Where: Chester Meeting House, 4 Liberty St., Chester

Info: Call (860) 526-0018

Cost: Free and open to the public

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