CHATHAM BOROUGH, NJ – You wouldn’t know Les Daniell is a poet to look at him. Tall, thin, sharply dressed, quick with a smile that often erupts into a contagious laugh, he could be anyone’s grandfather as he walks unhurriedly through downtown Chatham, on his way home to his apartment, or to the public library he loves so much.
But beneath the crisply starched, impeccable shirts beats the heart of a poet, a heart that absorbs the beauty around him, even in situations that many would not find particularly beautiful at all, and turns them into poetry.
At 94, Daniell has seen it all. From his early school days through the second World War, from a decades-long marriage and even brain surgery, he has lived through more than many people could imagine. Yet he walks without assistance, doesn’t wear a hearing aid, lives by himself, and writes.
“I first realized poetry was in me when I was a senior in high school,” he said. “I was talking an introduction to poetry class, and there were two poems that really reached out and grabbed me.”
One, he said, was Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “Hiawatha,” and the other has a title that eludes him now, but it includes the line “…then from her lips he stole a rosy thrill with only a lover’s skill…”
“Those two poems really got to me, and that’s when my interest in poetry started,” he recalled.
But a true poet doesn’t just write poetry, he feels it, he experiences it, he finds it in the world around him, and for Daniell, his life changed the day he first saw his wife, Elsie. They were in school together, across the room from each other. She was 12 years old.
“The teacher would ask questions and she would constantly raise her hand,” he said. “I thought, wow, she’s pretty and she’s smart! I’m in love!”
Fate sent him on his way after that year, to a different school, then to college, then onto a career in New York. But one night, fate sent him back to his old school, to a night class for adults. And there she was, taking the same class.
Determined not to let her get away again, Daniell struck up a conversation with her. He introduced himself as “Dan,” a nickname he’d gotten some years before. She was puzzled.
“I remember your brother, Les,” she told him.
He was mortified, afraid he’d blown it.
“I’m Les,” he assured her, while trying to surreptitiously see if she was wearing any kind of engagement ring. Finding her finger empty, he asked her out and she said yes. They were married for 60 years.
Alzheimer’s took her three years ago, but Daniell – still wearing his wedding band – keeps her in his heart and sometimes in his poems. But, he said, he doesn’t write poetry as a way to look back, at least not very often.
“I watch things as they’re happening,” he explained. “I like to observe something, think about it, then go back and sit down with my pad and let the poem flow.”
The statue in the side yard of the Library of the Chathams, “Attic Treasures” by Seward Johnson, once caught his eye and he spent some time studying the depiction of a young girl with a hula hoop. He later penned it into a poem about her.
“I was so captivated,” he said. “She’s so happy and so childlike. I knew I had to write about her.”
Daniell’s poems following a rhyming pattern, but are written in a unique, straight up-and-down style, with only a few words – sometimes only one word – on each line. It startles the eye at first glance, but the reader quickly adapts to the flow. It’s one of the ways Daniell sets himself apart as a poet.
The other is the way he captures such every day places, people and events. He’s written more than one poem about the Library of the Chathams, where he is a visitor nearly every day. The librarians know him well, and he’s formed a warm friendship with Library Director Diane O’Brien who is so supportive of his poetry that she’s had a large number of them bound into a book that she keeps in the reference section for other patrons to enjoy while they’re at the library.
He also has a mailing list of about 25 people who receive a copy of his latest poems in the mail. A friend types them up and helps him send them out.
Daniell will talk about his personal life – his recent surgery for a blood clot in his brain, his late wife, his son, his service in the Army during World War II – but for someone with such a colorful past, he prefers to live in the moment. He speaks French, a little German and, thanks to his time stationed in the Philippines, a bit of Tagalog. He loves to laugh, is quick with a quip – “When they said they needed to do surgery on my brain, I told them if they were looking for brain cells, they were out of luck!” – and is, above all, a tireless and devoted poet.