Chilmark poet and stonemason John Maloney can understand why some people might wrongly think one job is a metaphor for the other.

"I know, it seems a perfect metaphor - fitting words, fitting stone," he acknowledged. "But that's not really the way it works."

To show why, he explained the trick to building a stone wall - start at the top. By which he meant that you identify the top rocks first. You don't want a big long layer of flat stones in the middle of the wall. You build the wall to get to them and at the end you want those top rocks to "grow out of the wall."

"You know what it's going to be, you know where you're going to get to, just from looking at the stone," he said.

Building towards a pre-determined endpoint might be the rule for constructing a wall, but it's the exact opposite of the way you are supposed to construct a poem, he noted.


"You're supposed to discover what you're going to say by writing the poem," he said.

And while on rare occasions he builds his poems like walls, starting with the end, for the most part the rule is true for him too.

If there is any comparison to be made between his work as a stonemason and as a poet, he said, it is in the way he has learned to handle his raw materials.

He recalled that when he started out building walls 25 odd years ago, he was apt to dither over his stone selection, to the irritation of his boss.

"He would say ‘just pick up a rock and put it on the wall,' which, if you've been doing it 20 years, you would do, because you don't want to pick it up that many times.

"But he was skipping a step, which is knowing which rock to pick up. You need those years to know which rock to pick up.

"Actually, that is a pretty good metaphor for poetry, now that I think about it. And as you get older, you don't change as many."

When he's working with stone, he said, he doesn't even think about poetry - "You're thinking about not catching your fingers" - but there's no denying the influence of his physical work on his artistic work.

The title poem of his 1999 anthology Proposal refers not to a marriage proposal but to a quote for a building job. Others bear titles like Aubade to a Cement Truck and 8Yds., 6-Bag Mix, 3/4" Stone, Full Foundation, and Wooden Ladder.

Mr. Maloney writes about many other things too, of course, a great deal focused on Martha's Vineyard and its people. But it all has a certain understated sensibility to it, a bit wry, like the man itself. It never seems overwrought, never tries too hard to impress.


One of the poems, Lace Stone Walls, a part of a suite of eight he wrote for the tricentennial of the town of Chilmark in 1994, is an appreciation of the tradition of dry stone walling, but could also serve as a description of his work.

"No art," it says, "just the ordinary lifting up of what's deepest . . . ."

His work is direct and accessible, and has been published in places like Ploughshares, Poetry magazine and the New York Times.

And now, two of his poems are featured in a hefty, brand-new anthology, The Book of Irish American Poetry, from the 18th century to the Present, which was launched in Boston on St. Patrick's Day.

Lace Stone Walls is one of the inclusions; the other is Steady Dreamers. After he gave a reading of the latter at the launch of the anthology, he said, somebody asked whom he was talking about.

"I didn't really know [but] it certainly sounds like Irish people," he said. "People who haven't given up, just keep going, continue living in their expanding universe."

So, did he credit his Irish heritage with his way with words?

He shrugged. "If you're a writer in Ireland, you're a failed talker."

What about if you're a writer in America?

"You're just failed," he laughed.

And the truth is, poetry is not remunerative work, although Mr. Maloney joked about having once thought so.

"I won a poetry prize as a kid, 18, so I thought there was money in it. Poetry used to pay a dollar a line. That was pretty good. I had five poems in Poetry magazine in 1980, probably. I think that was $165."

He keeps a yellowed old cartoon on his desk, which neatly summarizes poetry as a commercial enterprise. It shows a man with a gun in one hand and a book of his verse in the other, loitering in an alley, preparing to force it on a passer-by.

To support his poetry habit, Mr. Maloney toiled at various other jobs before falling into stone masonry, more or less by accident. He moved furniture, he won grants to teach as a sort of artist in residence in schools.

He speaks as if he had no choice about being a poet.

"They're just there somehow," he said. "You don't really go about looking for them. They come."

He illustrated the point by reciting part of one of his Chilmark series of poems, Menemsha Bight, in which a series of lines begin with the words "I give you," as if his were the voice of God.


"I have no idea where that voice came from," he said, still perplexed after all these years. "I give you the winding brook . . . I give you . . . It's pretty presumptuous. It doesn't sound like me at all.

"There's another poem, Bodies of Water, which just came out of nowhere. The whole thing wrote itself, appeared fully formed. I just wrote it down. I don't know where this magisterial voice comes from [but] if you're honest, you do let it go where it wants and say what it ends up saying."

Not that he doesn't work hard at his poetry. He carries a loose-leaf notebook in which he jots down lines, his own thoughts or things other people say. (One great malapropism from a former employer which has not yet made it into verse, perhaps because it is perfect in itself, is: "People think it's there, but it's just an obstacle illusion.")

He always hand prints his first draft, then transfers it to his computer "which is where the 25 drafts begin."

But that first draft has to be hand written. "I don't know why, but the computer stops you. I feel like I can go way faster for some reason [on paper]."

And he reads it aloud, "when no one's around."

"You have to put time to it," he said. "Before we had heat, for 25 years, I would get up pretty early in the morning to stoke the fire, and just stay up. That was a really great time for it, from 4:30 or 5 to 7:30. But now I can do it after work too."

Mr. Maloney also used to send his work to the noted poet and critic Stanley Burnshaw for his comments.

"He was completely direct, like killer-direct, like ‘Why did you include this with your serious poems?' But he was usually right."

Mind you, Mr. Burnshaw also reviewed the anthology Proposal when it came out, and found it "a strong, challenging, richly varied book of intense interest."

But did it sell well?

"Of course not," Mr. Maloney said, sounding not at all discouraged. Right now he is trying to get publisher interest in another book, so far without success. But at least, he is getting wider recognition in a major anthology. After more than 40 years of writing.

It all points to one more similarity between John Maloney's two jobs. Both require a great deal of patience. You really have to be a steady dreamer.