For several years I have been working on a collection of poems based on the life and writings of John Steinbeck. But another John—John Whiteside, a character prominent in Chapter 11 of Pastures of Heaven—helped inspire the project.

In Pastures, John, a genteel California rancher, has been busy for a good while at his desk. “What in the world are you doing?” his wife Willa asks. Eventually John says, “Listen to this, Willa.” She relaxes, and her husband sheepishly reads to her the poems he's been writing. Willa gently lets John know that they not very good. Then he explains to her that he has been reading Virgil: “It's almost impossible to read a fine thing without wanting to do a fine thing.” John's impulse is to respond to the reading “of a fine thing” by trying to write something fine. To the poet Virgil, to his wife,...

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