Remembering Ricky: Ottone Riccio 1921-2011
Tuesday, October 4, 2011
My poetry teacher died on September 23. Since then I’ve been thinking about him and wondering what I could say that could give some sense of him to someone who didn’t know him.
My meeting him was a serendipitous thing, a fluke. I was living in New York, about to move to Boston, and, after many years, renewing my interest in writing poetry. In trying to figure out what I was doing I came across a book, “The Intimate Art of Writing Poetry.” Just the thing I needed--a small gem filled with practical information of poetic form, sensible advice on writing and publishing, and soaring inspiration for anyone who, as Ricky did, thought, lived, breathed, and slept poetry.
I bought the book and then discovered he taught a workshop at the Boston Center for Adult Education, just a few blocks away from my new home. Lucky me! He taught me how to write poetry. Or maybe I should say he helped me learn how to write poetry.
His technique of teaching was always respectful, always made with the understanding that “this is your poem, not mine, but if it were mine, this is what I would do.” That said, though, he could be shocking in all the “darlings” he wanted us to murder. Cut to the bone, include no word that was not absolutely necessary--that was his approach. There is an apocryphal story that he once told a student with a three-page poem, “This would make a good haiku.”
When he turned 80 “Ricky’s people”--basically anyone who had ever studied with him--compiled a tribute anthology, “Do Not Give Me Things Unbroken.” This was the poem I wrote for him:
yourself to magic
and the skill
of making fire.
On moonless nights
reweave the stories
thread by thread:
begin to sing
In 2009, with Ellen Beth Siegel, he wrote “Unlocking the Poem,” a guide to writing that included some of his poem-provoking assignments (“Write a 32-line poem in quatrains, 10 syllables per line, using a linked mirror-rhyme scheme as follows: abab bcbc cdcd dede eded dcdc cbcb baba, any subject”)
As Ricky said in his introduction to “Unlocking the Poem,” “Anything less than total commitment, total involvement, is going to make the work of the poet more difficult if not impossible.” Ricky believed poetry was magic. Not some kind of facile conjuring, but something deep and mysterious, a life force. I will always miss him and be grateful to him. He was my teacher.