Monday, November 22, 2010

Hold the Audience: A Brief Memoir of John Berryman by Laurence Lieberman

John Berryman

In the middle of the winter of 1969, shortly following the announcement of the awarding of the National Book Award in poetry to John Berryman's volume His Toy, His Dream, His Rest, the University of Illinois invited Mr. Berryman to visit the campus for a few days and present a couple of readings from his work. The letter of invitation was sent some months before the suggested date for the readings, but we received no reply from Mr. Berryman. Finally, a couple of weeks before the date scheduled for his arrival, we phoned the poet, and he warmly agreed to be our guest. Apparently, he had misplaced our letter and then had forgotten about the matter, thinking he had already replied in the affirmative.

I had for many years been an ardent devotee of the poet's work, and since I was to act as his host at the university, I looked forward to our first meeting with great enthusiasm. I strongly advised Mr. Berryman to plan to arrive a day or two before his first reading, because bad weather in mid- winter between Minnesota and Illinois often interrupts jet traffic. But he arranged to reach Urbana just a few hours before the reading. There was some snowfall on the day of his arrival, not heavy enough to ground the planes but sufficient hazard to delay his shorter flight--the notoriously unreliable Ozark shuttle plane-- between Chicago and Urbana. I drove to the airport to meet the late Ozark plane, and when Mr. Berryman failed to appear among the deboarding passengers, I panicked, since his first scheduled performance was just hours away. I phoned his home in Minneapolis, and his young daughter assured me that he had flown by jet to Chicago. Then began the marathon wait.

Mr. Berryman's first performance was scheduled for 8:00 P.M. and by 7:30 P.M., most of the audience of several hundred had already assembled in the lecture hall. I hurriedly composed a speech of apology, but just before I reached the speaker's podium to send the audience home, I was called to the phone. Mr. Berryman was calling from a public phone booth at some point along the highway between Chicago and Urbana--he wasn't sure of the distance--and his first words to me were, "Lieberman, hold the audience!" He sounded in very high gay spirits, saying he had found a cabdriver at O'Hare Airport in Chicago, a lovely, talkative man, who had agreed to taxi him 140 miles to Urbana for a reasonable price. He expected to be about one hour late, and I should kindly ask the audience to wait. Nearly everyone in the crowded auditorium was happy to wait. I delighted to imagine the dialogue between Mr. Berryman and his cabdriver, which I assured the audience jokingly must resemble the wonderful repartee between Henry, the autobiographical persona of Berryman's famous Dream Songs, and his friend and counterpart who refers to Henry in the poems as Mr. Bones. A student carrying a guitar mounted the stage and began to play folk songs; then a number of other students followed the first, and all spontaneously began to sing--so the time passed quickly and happily for all.

Shortly after 9:00 P.M., some of the audience became fidgety, and a slow stream of those who had lost patience and were tired of waiting began to trickle out of the lecture hall. At 9:15, the phone rang again. Mr. Berryman, his voice now at fever pitch, repeated "Hold the audience!" In the background, I could make out a jukebox and jangled voices: Clearly, Mr. Berryman was phoning me from a bar, and no doubt he would be treating his chauffeur to "a couple for the road." At 10:00, when the phone rang for the third time, half of the audience had left. Mr. Berryman was calling at last from the registration desk of the Illinois Union, his place of lodging for the night. He had arrived safely, paid his cabdriver, and wished to rest for a short while in his room to get ready for his performance. I elatedly reported the news to the audience, and we all moved from the auditorium to a very spacious private home. We settled in for a late meeting with our poet, in which we anticipated the intimacy of a small, informal--if crowded--gathering would compensate for the long delay.

At 11:00 P.M., I met Mr. Berryman at his room, as agreed earlier, and he rose to greet me, while covertly replacing a whiskey flask in his satchel. He was shaking from head to foot, and I distinctly remember him saying as we shook hands, "There's nothing wrong with me that a completely new nervous system wouldn't fix." (I'm reminded of those words by a line in one of the poems in Love and Fame, "When all hurt nerves whine shut away the whiskey." When we arrived at the large home at which the remains of the audience were gathered, Mr. Berryman was quickly accosted by a somewhat deranged young ex-GI poet. I was amazed at Mr. Berryman's extreme kindness toward this ill-mannered fellow; he exercised infinite patience toward a man who was obviously very unbalanced mentally and perhaps dangerous. Mr. Berryman's astonishing compassion for troubled young people was unmistakably demonstrated by this incident. I can hear his words of sympathy for this young man echoed in the many poems in Love and Fame dealing with agonized patients of the psychiatric ward in which Mr. Berryman apparently was a patient for a short while.

Another revealing exchange preceding the performance was Mr. Berryman's meeting with John Shahn, the son of the famous artist Ben Shahn, a dear friend of the poet's who produced the superb drawings for the first edition of Mr. Berryman's book Homage to Mistress Bradstreet. Ben Shahn had recently died, and his son, John, was the first to give Mr. Berryman the terrible news. Mr. Berryman's instant outpouring of grief for his friend gave me a firsthand glimpse into the poet's great talent for friendship, a major theme of so many of his best poems-laments over the deaths of his friends. In the course of his reading, he interrupted the actual flow of his poems often to comment on friends living or dead, and I particularly remember that he frequently sang the praises of Robert Lowell. He tried to convince the audience that Lowell deserved the Nobel Prize in literature, and evidently he felt there was a good chance that Lowell would win the award later that year.

The performance itself was surely one of the most electric and memorable poetry readings I have ever attended. Mr. Berryman felt a great affection for his audience, so many of whom were seated in ardent adulation at his feet in the large front-room parlor, and he easily established a communion with a couple of the prettier girls in the front rows. He often seemed to address the lines of his poems, as well as the wonderful flow of anecdotes and reminiscences between poems, directly to those individual faces. And this quality of personal involvement and exchange gave more life to the experience for us all.

In the next few days, during which I was honored to act as Mr. Berryman's host, he often exhibited the same instant surging of warmth and affection for attractive females, including my younger daughter Deborah, who was seven years old at the time and probably reminded him of his own daughter of about the same age. Contrary to the legend of Mr. Berryman as an impetuous seducer of women, his expressions of affection for females of all ages took the form of a spiritual, loving kindness. As I think back to his genuine fondness for every lovely young lady he met while in my company, the memory gives a special ring to my ear as I read the following lines from perhaps the loveliest and most moving of the Eleven Addresses to the Lord.

Sole watchman of the flying stars, guard me
against my flicker of impulse lust: teach me
to see them as sisters & daughters. Sustain
my grand endeavours: husbandship & crafting.
Forsake me not when my wild hours come ...
This memoir first appeared in Eigo Seinen [The Rising Generation] (May 1972)
from Beyond the Muse of Memory: Essays on Contemporary American Poets, Laurence Lieberman, University of Missouri Press, 1995 -reprinted with author's permission.
return to Writer's Friendships

Thursday, September 16, 2010

British Poet Josephine Dickinson

Haven't met her yet, but am researching and exchanging e-mails with British poet Josephine Dickinson who will be reading at Bookshop Santa Cruz, 7:30 PM, Tues., Oct. 12, 2010. I'll be doing the Intro and, long distance, getting to know her...

Scarberry Hill

ISBN 09527444-3-0

Josephine Dickinson [in her own words]

I grew up in South London but am rooted now in this place Alston, beloved of Auden, who ever kept its map on his wall. I aspire to the qualities of the shepherdpoet, indeed it is my e-mail address. My sense of vocation as a poet emerged after I became profoundly deaf overnight at the age of six and I started reading and imitating poetry. I lost a physical sense but started seeing and hearing the miraculous. I read Classics at Oxford, then became a music teacher and composer after study with Michael Finnissy and Richard Barrett. Life events brought me to Alston. One day Michael Mackmin wrote and asked me if I had enough poems to make a book. I sent him 100 poems. He chose 60. And this is 'Scarberry Hill'. Not all my poems are about sheep. Current interests include mythology and fairy tales, space travel and cosmology. I was stunned by last year's transit of the Sun by Venus and very much look forward to 2012.

Writers Friendship, Lucy, Richard, Dan, Alan…

Trip on Sunday to Oakland for brunch with Lucy Day and Richard Levine and their friends, Dan Langton, a poet who teaches at San Francisco State, and his wife Eve, plus poet Alan Goldfarb and his wife Arlene.

There are times when things just really click and one can only give thanks… thanks to one’s friends for extending an invitation and taking the time to prepare and put together an event, eight people in all, five of them writers.

The event: Middle Eastern food, drink and a memorable sharing of poems, e.g., Richard and Lucy each reading a villanelle.* The poems (Lucy’s “Color of the Universe” and Richard’s “A Blessing in Beige”) so complement one another I found myself imagining each villanelle being asked in turn, “Do you, “Color of the Universe,” take “A Blessing…” to be your lawfully wedded wife/husband, and each responding… “I do.” Turns out these were indeed Richard and Lucy’s wedding poems.

[*Note: poems by Dan Langton and Alan Goldfarb to follow.]

By way of intro I should say: Lucy Day (aka Lucille Lang Day) is the author of eight poetry collections and chapbooks. Richard Levine is a journalist who is now writing fiction. Their wedding villanelles first appeared in Blue Unicorn and are included in Lucy's latest poetry collection, The Curvature of Blue (Cervena Barva, 2009).


The universe is really beige. Get used to it.

John Noble Wilford

The New York Times

For Richard

I can't believe the universe is tan,

Not red or green or lavender or blue.

I feel carnelian when you take my hand—

Not beige like lima beans from a can,

But a splendid, electrifying hue.

I can't believe the universe is tan.

Rose and gold are what I understand

When I think of waking up each day with you.

I feel carnelian when I take your hand,

And like the universe my love expands,

Surrounding us with turquoise and chartreuse.

Can you believe the universe is tan,

A color desolate as lunar sand

And homely as a peanut or cashew?

I feel carnelian when we're hand in hand,

Listening to Perahia play Chopin.

The stars all turn cerulean on cue.

I don't care if the universe is tan:

I feel carnelian as you take my hand.

—Lucille Lang Day


The universe is really beige. Get used to it.

John Noble Wilford

The New York Times

For Lucy

Some stars burn brighter as they age

Like maple leaves and apple trees flaming up from green.

Alas, the color of the universe is beige,

Not peach or pearl or the palest shade of sage,

Not turquoise, as they once thought—so serene.

Some stars burn brighter as they age.

The love that we have is harder to gauge

But it too burns brighter the later it seems.

Does it matter so much if the universe is beige?

As a poet breathes sound onto a silent page

Your love bathes my days in aquamarine.

Some stars burn brighter as they age.

Let them light up our lives as we leave this stage

And fill our hearts with their triumphant sheen.

Who cares if the color of the universe is beige?

A bird in flight outshines its silver cage.

If the sky’s too bright the stars shine unseen.

May our stars burn brighter as we age.

Hurray, the color of the universe is beige!

— Richard Michael Levine

[see also:]

Monday, September 6, 2010

Writers Friendship, David Alpaugh cheers the soul

My friend David Alpaugh, author of “Counterpoint,” “Heavy Lifting,” and widely read and discussed essays on "The Professionalization of Poetry" and "New Math of Poetry," responds to my new poem, “Legacy: Muse Neglect,” which opens

We’re comin’ up to my birthday./I’m seventy-seven—twenty-three more and I’ll be a hundred!/So what’s it all about, sixty-odd years of writing, scribbling?/ ...Etc.

Hello, Robert:

My apology for taking so long getting back to you on "Legacy: Muse Neglect." Been tidal-waved by late days of summer, gearing up for fall obligations (Coolbrith, Valona, etc.).

"Legacy" is a brave poem. You certainly touch a responsive chord in this poet, as I, too, am starting to wonder if I've lost the muse, have been treading water post-Counterpoint. Didn't old man Wordsworth and young man Byron have similar doubts? ("Whither is fled the visionary gleam? / Where is it now, the glory and the dream?").

I love the concrete "eye to eye" confrontation with your "first mutt," that "first published poem." The metaphorical sense here is as sure as it is quiet. The paradoxical reversal of the dog becoming master and wagging the man is richly comic, and most poignant in that manly dogly reproach, "Bad poet, bad poet!" Unpretentiousness that comes from truly having the goods rather than just the flash has always been one of your most appealing qualities.

Cheer up, Bob. "Legacy" is proof that you're poems have not lost their canine magic. Dogliness was and is the metaphor for what you continue to aim for in your work. Falling a bit short much of the time is inevitable. (When Samuel Beckett was asked if he had a favorite work he shook his head and muttered: "Something wrong with all of them.")

The more I look at the history of poetry the more I believe that our mission is (in Frost's words) "to lodge a few poems where they will be hard to get rid of." You've done that with "Uncle Dog," "God is in the Cracks," "Heavenly Sex" and a dozen others, and now "Legacy" will be in the running (or, as you would say, trotting!).

The only question is the crucial one for our Po-Busy time: will the gatekeepers get out of the way and allow poetry to live not by status and accreditation but by love? Here, I'm afraid that "the worst are full of passionate intensity." Let's hope we can overshoot their papier-mâché palace and land a few good poems on the other side!

With deep respect for your generous, generative humor,


Monday, May 31, 2010

A Celebration of Ruth Daigon, by Robert Sward

Remarks from Sun., May 30, 2010, Memorial Poetry Reading, Book Passage, Corte Madera, CA on a program with David Alpaugh, Jack & Adelle Foley, C.B. Follett, Lynne Knight, Jacqueline Kudler, and Susan Terris.

Ruth has been something of a muse, an inspired spirit for many of us, and in addition, for me, literally a “goddess of memory.” She wrote a description of our first meeting (some 40 or so years ago) and our ongoing friendship in a little essay she titled “The Poet in Bandages.”

I’d been run over by a car in Cambridge, MA, shortly before meeting Ruth and Artie at a reading I was giving at the U of Connecticut, where Artie was teaching. I’d spent the night in Massachusetts General Hospital. I’d suffered a mild concussion, some loss of memory and my ability to recall all that happened that night (in the late 1960s) was somewhat impaired. My right ear had had to be sewn back onto my head. So I was wearing a blood-stained bandage over my head and loose and damaged ear to keep it in place. Sometimes one reads to an audience of 4 or 5 people. But for this one, so I believed, Ruth and Artie had conjured up a crowd of a couple hundred people.

Goddess of memory? All I know is that when I think of Ruth (and Artie) this image arises… of two inseparable, wonderfully warm, loving, heartful and generous people, but also, for me, “bridge people,” two individuals who helped mark my movement as a writer from late 1960s East Coast (Connecticut…) to late 1980s West Coast USA (San Francisco, Berkeley, San Rafael, Oakland, Santa Cruz...).

Ruth saved some letters we exchanged and when I read at the Berkeley "Y" in the 1980s on a program with another East Coast friend and ally, Jack Foley (who I’d met and known at Cornell), Ruth turned up with a copy of a letter I’d written about her poetry.

That night in the company of Ruth and Artie Daigon, Jack and Adelle Foley, I felt in a sense I’d come home.

Especially when, after our reading at the Berkeley “Y”, Ruth and Artie told me more about the UConn reading, of which I remembered little.

In Ruth’s account, I grabbed Artie’s arm and exclaimed, “You were there? Tell me all about it.’

In her “Poet in Bandages” essay, Ruth wrote, “It was like Robert had lost and was reclaiming a part of his life…” which is true. She understood exactly what was happening. I was, indeed, with Ruth and Artie’s help, reclaiming a lost part of my life. So later, recognizing Ruth –in addition to everything else—as “Goddess of Memory,” it seemed only appropriate to show her a poem of mine titled MR. AMNESIA, which opens,

“Even an amnesiac remembers some things better than others /

…I don’t know about you, but I hardly unpack /

and get ready for this lifetime and it’s time /

to move on to the next…”

which Ruth published in her magazine, POETS: ON. And we’ve been in touch ever since. And it was Ruth and Artie Daigon who introduced Gloria and me to David Alpaugh and Mary Jane… good friends, good friends!

Speaking of movement, adventure and memory, I’d like to share Ruth Daigon’s poem FREEWAY which, as Artie agrees, is something of a prayer (Ruth herself used to read it as if it were a prayer), and prayers are nothing if not lyrical, emotional, inspired, musical…


Be my friend

Slow down the traffic

Re-route the semis and their blind spots

Call a halt to the crawlers the weavers

The shooters the spreaders

Grant me a free space in the slow lane where

Traffic flows serenely

Like the life I left behind

Entering another an immigrant

Crossing borders with nothing to declare

I come from a wandering race

And life with its ten plagues

Is too familiar

Almost a friend

But the freeway invents new disasters

Sure as a needle in a vein

A waltz between two pits

And another pogrom waiting in the wings


Deliver me from interlocking lanes

Tangled traffic

Hypnotic miles

Calm in control

Holding hard to the studded lifeline

With my motor humming

Like a second heart.



Ruth Daigon made the transition from concert soprano to full time poet, editor, performance artist. She began the publication Poets On: a theme-oriented poetry journal, and was its editor for its twenty year life. She has frequently appeared in Internet publications, hard copy magazines and anthologies. Her most recent book Between One Future And The Next, Papier Mache Press, was published in 1995. Ruth's latest book " The Moon Inside" (Gravity/Newton's Baby) made its appearance in 1999. [Ruth Daigon in her own voice reads Payday at the Triangle, CD available, I believe, from our friend Jack Foley. It's an amazing poem, one that will likely secure her reputation as one of this country's truly gifted poets. You want the real thing? THIS is the real thing.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Reading an Old Friend's Poems by Barry Sparks

The wonderings and sweetness of this voice
bring to my thought
the scent of fine paper, fine linen,
shirt with a white collar
for the first time worn,
long evening with a new book,
dwelling over the pages.
But in its sayings
of loss, this voice
tastes blood on its teeth, tart taste of blood
that can neither be spit out nor swallowed.
In reverence for loveliness
my friend's word-music comes upon me
like air before rain: remember? ?
that freshness, cool, ultimately delicate;
though air so offered
may lift at times into a wind
carrying sand, or into a deluge to follow.
"Where will we go," asks the poem's voice,
"when they send us away from here?" ?
the body gone
from all its familiar desirings
and gone this mind
that was a savoring,
while its voice alone continues,
a comfort to desire.

Barry Spacks earns his keep as a persistently visiting professor at UC Santa Barbara after years of teaching at M.I.T. He's published many poems in various journals, paper and pixel, plus stories, two novels, and seven poetry collections, the most extensive of which is SPACKS STREET: NEW & SELECTED POEMS, from Johns Hopkins. A CD of 42 poems, A PRIVATE READING, appeared in October 2000.


Learning Friendship by Dona Stein Luongo

In college, shyness perhaps caused by difficult family circumstances: I should be at work to help out instead of pursuing an education while my father was in jail, kept me at a distance from professors who might have become literary friends, both book and writing friends. Also they seemed remote teachers or stars to be admired, not chums.
Professors (all male) with whom we shared enthusiasm for the works of Austen or Milton or Joyce we talked to after classes, but in those more formal years of the late fifties and early sixties, decorum was observed and meant distance at least for female students, me and those I knew. Our college literary friends (often writers and artists on the literary magazine editorial board and contributors) sometimes became lovers and/or partners, and here another complex story could and has been told, of the female often putting her interests and talents to the service of her literary partner's as she listens to, edits, and types his graduate school papers and/or literary efforts while working to support them or while taking care of a baby (sometimes working as well). In the meantime, her literary friends have gone in different directions to graduate school (which she turned down scholarships for because she was in love) or Europe, or Mexico.

Her literary friends are now his, but not really hers, even though she may write a novel on the kitchen table or send poems to literary magazines that are accepted. Sometimes, in the midst of his term papers and the baby's diapers, she feels alone, abandoned, but she doesn't know how or why.

That was me; I saw male literary friendships all around me. They were cemented by student teaching, by working with a thesis advisor, by stopping at this mentor's home (male) for drinks after a seminar, or at a bar. Soon these friendships involved advice about where to publish, who knew whom at what journal or press, and these friendships also soon involved first year graduate students, for by now the males were in their third, or fourth year.

These friendships carried over to tennis, to the men's Sunday morning basketball games, the Friday or Saturday night poker games, and sometimes fishing and camping trips. I watched the toddler on the sidelines, made sandwiches and ferried them and chips and beer to the poker table, and later packed for the fishing and camping excursions. For most of these years, my literary friend was my partner. We talked about books he read or we both read. Sometimes I felt like one of his students.
Soon, his male literary friends spread to universities across the country, extending from coast to coast, in some cases, even to Europe. Of course this was a proverbial men's club. I like to think it has changed, but the reason I describe it from my memory, is that today I see it working as strong as ever, especially where I teach. The Creative Writing Department Assistant invites one of his former undergraduate teachers (a male) to be a featured speaker and reader at the University. All invited readers for the Creative Writing Department so far this academic year have been male.
To back-track, upon being challenged by my partner to at least learn what you're doing after a few nice publications, I was accepted in my first Creative Writing class, at Harvard. At the end of this class, Peter Klappert was leaving Harvard, and as a result of his criticism and encouragement, female writing friends from that class talked about other workshop leaders, especially Kathleen Spivack, teaching through the Radcliffe Seminars.

A strong, vital, tough teacher, and advocate of poetry, she became a friend for many of us. From this class writing friendships came my way and I cherish some of them still--life friends and true friends in that we visited each other's homes, went to local readings together, read poems in public together (and became involved in politics together), introduced our favorite authors to each other, talked about our families, and talked about our struggles to write and publish; is it a surprise that we were all women, then in our thirties with children and ambitious partners, some of us limited by our economic circumstances, but all fed by our attention, interests, and efforts with poetry?

In these friendships, some of my shyness was eroded. That residue of shyness or reserve or formality (perhaps now family illness kept me distant, reticent) made me stand on the fringe, hang back, kept me from claiming as literary friends people I might have gotten to know better after meeting them, sometimes even being in their homes or speaking to them (sometimes in monosyllables) or in some instances even corresponding with them about poetry in two instances with the encouragement and intercession of a partner: J. V. Cunningham, Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, Theodore Roethke, John Logan, Anne Sexton and many other writers whose names you might recognize.

Today, I have no career in Creative Writing nor do I teach such a course, but I have literary friends without the struggle of conflicting tensions, no jealous partner questioning my choice to spend time talking about writing. Now--I think-- no youthful bashfulness (despite family illness and economic problems) gets in the way of my appreciating our writing strengths and successes. I even like to count a former spouse as a literary friend. So not all my literary friends are female, some are famous, and not all are close by. Yet I cherish our written and in-person visits when we indulge in literary gossip and information about grants and residencies, read each other's latest work, attend each other's readings, and cheer on each other's latest writing and reading enthusiasms.

We know our lives are the richer for our literary friendship.

D.L. Stein, a former Stegner Fellow in Writing at Stanford, has been writing in Greece and in Schwandorf, Germany while on an International Poetry Exchange Fellowship in Germany. Stein is currently at work on two prose manuscripts, "Gone Wild" and "Aphrodite in the Afternoon," and a poetry manuscript, "Desperado." Recent publications include Athens News, Quarry West, and Rattle.

My friend, Libby Scheier by Robert Priest

In 1977 at the age of 26 I developed an enlarged pore in my right cheek. I had a vain hope that it could just be my little secret - totally unnoticeable. Libby had recently arrived from New York and, presenting herself as a fan of my poetry, had asked me to have a coffee.

I sat there with her, face to face, perhaps a little too cocky, perhaps a little too close and she took her index finger put it right up to the enlarged pore and said ‘What’s that?” That was me crumbling, me blushing. Such pokery from Libby was something I soon learned to accept and admire about her.

A graduate of Sarah Lawrence College, and Student University of New York (M.A., 1971) she had solid academic grounding in political theory which was far beyond the naïve idealism I had come to via Abby Hoffman and Jerry Rubin. She had been an activist at Berkeley in the sixties and had more recently been up to some Trotsky deeds in Israel which had resulted in her being expelled. She was always recommending that I read the Marxist essays which had changed her life. I recommended Neruda.

Soon I became Libby’s little piece on the side. Her husband was having numerous affairs and I was her sweet revenge. Yes, it was that era when one could be just friends and have mutual, uncommitted wild sex. This, I think, is much underestimated as a good binding force for allies. And of course, after some time, love does begin to grow.

Eventually Libby introduced me to her own poetry. She had published two chapbooks in New York but had had to use a pseudonym because her Trotsky sect frowned upon the writing of “bourgeois” poetry. I wasn’t at first wild about these poems. They were totally apolitical. Plus, I’m sure I wanted, to shelter the dynamic which had me as the doted upon poet and her as the generous ‘older’ woman.

One day she showed me a book that was not a collection of Marxist essays. It was Andre Breton’s surrealist manifestoes. Probably one of the most important books of my life. My own writing to that time certainly had qualities of surrealism drawn no doubt from the culture of the day. But this book blew it wide open for me. Suddenly I was freed. Gushing reams of imagery. Laughing my head off as I wrote some of the best poetry I have ever written.

I don’t know whether it was Libby’s eventual confession to her giant husband or the fact that I became briefly monogamous that ended the sexual part of our friendship. It hardly mattered. There’d been no big falling in love thing and there was no falling out either. The important part was the friendship continued.

Soon, perhaps with some influence from me, (or was it Neruda) Libby started to write some very good poetry ? poetry that melded her surrealistic streak with her erudition and her politics. Poetry that couldn’t be denied. Extreme, challenging, tender poems full of wit and wild beauty.

When Libby’s first book, The Larger Life (Black Moss Press, Canada) was published to ecstatic reviews how did I react? Like any true friend I tolerated her success. As she tolerated mine. Yes, I could be a little jealous, but so could she. I joyfully expanded the meaning of ‘friend’ to include ‘fan’.

And Libby was not an easy one to remain friends with. That Pokey quality was not appreciated by everyone. She had a big mouth and ‘chutzpah plus’. In polite reserved Canada she didn’t hide and back down or couch her opinions in grant-getting veneer. She took risky ideological stands and stuck with them ? often to her own detriment.
When her son, Jacob became seriously ill just as grants began to dry up,Libby, now a single mother, reacted with an incredible burst of energy. She started The Toronto School of Writing where she went on to employ not only me but numerous other writers. She became a technical writer for a science magazine. She secured a teaching position at York University. She became a literary columnist for the Toronto Star (where I got a very good review)and somehow, thankfully she continued to write and publish impassioned poetry. Sky, (The Mercury Press) is one of my all-time favourite books of poems. What a great example she was for me and so many others.

Libby spent her last year on earth battling a breast cancer which was diagnosed far too late. Her treatment began with a double mastectomy. Afterward she refused chemotherapy. Instead she sought donations from friends to fund an approach using alternative medicine. She expressly asked that no-one contact her personally as she needed all her energy for the battle that was to come. I respected her wishes as much as I could. I did call twice, but was only able to leave messages of support. I was told though by her main caretaker that in her last days the mention of my name was one of the few things that could bring a smile to her face. I am very grateful for that.
My friend Libby Scheier passed away in Oct. 2000. I have found this hard to fathom. I still have dreams where it’s all a big mistake and she is happily still alive. But alas, it is not so. She has gone - perhaps to point out holes in the faces of the gods; maybe to aggravate angels or plead the case of the poor and oppressed whom she cared so deeply about. I have not been able to write about her till now.

The friend dies but not the friendship. That ship sails on. I am still friends with Libby. I am a friend of her poetry, her stories, and her memory. I am also a friend of her son, Jakob Scheier, who credits his survival entirely to his mother’s research, care and hard work. He now travels the world and has begun to publish very good poems of his own. Books of Libby Scheir’s you should read:

The Larger Life. (Black Moss Press, 1983). Second Nature. (Coach House Press, 1986). SKY - A Poem in Four Pieces. (Mercury Press, 1990). Saints and Runners - Stories and a Novella. (Mercury Press, 1993). Kaddish for my Father. (ECW Press, 1999).

Robert Priest has published fourteen books of poetry and prose including The Man Who Broke Out Of the Letter X (l984) and The Mad Hand (1988), recipient of the Milton Acorn Memorial People's Poetry Award. In l992, Mercury Press released Scream Blue Living. Robert is also the author of three plays including Minibugs & Microchips which was the winner of A 1998 Chalmer’s Award. His children’s works include Daysongs Nightsongs, a book/tape package for children. Finally, in true bardic tradition Robert is also a successful singer/song-writer.

Perhaps by Linda Rogers

I have been thinking a lot about death lately, because so many of the generation of writers before mine have been getting up from the table and people are no longer calling me and my friends "young writers." What does it mean, living and dying, all of which is witnessing and writing for us? I have noticed that many of my country's finest fiction writers are women, an alarming number of them picked off by cancer before they have written their definitive book of old age. We have lost Adele Wiseman, Margaret Laurence, and Marion Engel before they got a chance to be grandmothers. Laurence's son has just had a daughter, whom he and his wife named Adele. How Wiseman and Laurence, literary friends from childhood, would have loved that.

I wonder if our young country is not yet ready for its King (or Queen) Lear? I have been present at the deathbeds of many friends, including Robin Skelton, Wiccan editor of the Malahat Review, Charles Lillard, Amer-Canadian poet and historian, and Al Purdy, Canadian Poet of the Land, and I have noticed a pattern. The curiosity that marked their lives as writers also characterized their adventures with dying. Wiseman got out of bed and crossed the room before she died. I would like to think she was going to choose a favourite book.

Purdy, hooked up to oxygen, refused morphine because he wanted to keep his mind clear to read the poems of tribute that were filling his mailbox every day. These people did not fear death like others I have known. Dying with pen and paper on the bedside table, I do believe they were hoping to write about it. Just as they had spent their lives recording every personal and cosmic event that touched them, they were very interested in their dying.

I sometimes find myself with a near jealousy. Just as I wanted a bra or a baby to mark my earler passages in life, I am now wondering what it is like to wake up every morning, knowing that it is one of my last. What special pleasure would I have taken in yesterday, Mother's Day, when the sun lit up the flowers in my garden and the children and pregnant daughter in law, had it been my last, like my friend Carol Shields, who is in the final stages of cancer? How would the celebratory lunch have tasted? Is there an elixir of death that makes every smell, taste and sound unbelievably exquisite. I am writing a novel about a woman with a mortal illness and to that end have been interrogating everyone I know about their experience as a dying person. The writers like to share it as others do not. Just as we have spent our lives together rejoicing over titles and metaphor, "You saw it. It's yours!" now they are sharing that sacred voyage beyond the phenomenal world and family as we know it to the place where they bcome part of memory and the stories and poems they have written.
Carol says she is in her final chapter. The curiosity that has made her one of the finest fiction writers of the twentieth century sustains her now. She watches the people around her. How are they reacting? How will they react? How is she reacting? Every bad and good thing that happens in our lives, whether it is illness, an accident, a love affair, a windfall of some kind, has been treated the same way. We file our joy and our pain in the memory bank that pays interest when we withdraw them from memory and rearrange them in poems and stories that are always true in their details, even when the sum is fiction. If a piano fell on me while I was walking down the street, I'd be carried away on a stretcher, saying, ""Boy am I lucky. This will make a great poem!"

This is what my friends make of death, great poetry. Carol was determined to finish her last novel, Unless, in which she examines the nature of goodness. It comes from the twilight zone, where all of us become transparent as we cross the bridge between our mortal and immortal lives. Carol's transparency is a medium through which we see ourselves more clearly. With her characteristic humour, she pushes the boundaries of femininst thought, examining the principles of unconditional and indifferent love as defined by Simone Weil and getting in her final digs at a world where women novelists are still fluff. Unless is her final gift and she focused the energy that many use to grieve for themselves before dying into showing us that redemption and a state of grace are still possible in a world of conditional values. In footnotes to the book, she has given each of her friends the notion that they are valued and valuable, an act of generosity that transcends concern with herself.

Why is it that writers, so many of them cut short, possibly exhausted by their passionate engagement with the world and a sedentary lifestyle that has them attached to machines that translate for them, treat dying as if it were labour, an opportunity as opposed to a tragedy? I think it is because we value the work we do. In telling and retelling the human story, we have a relationship with the world that others might miss in their quest for fame, fortune or just an ordinary living. A writer who writes gets to be fulfilled whether or not he or she reaps the rewards of the very successful. We get to leave something behind. We get to say our piece, unlike others who didn't for one reason or other get to bring their lights out from under the proverbial bushels where they are hidden.

You hear about people who hang on and wait to die at a particular time. They want to see the grandchild born, or the daughter's wedding, or the last migration of geese. Shields has waited for the reviews for Unless, even though she feared it would annoy readers who saw a more congenial and complaisant deus ex machina behind her earler books. Maybe she secretly wanted to see the effect. When you fill a balloon with water, it's more fun to watch it splash that run away. Now the reviews that are coming in sound like obituaries and I want to tell their authors, those critics who as often as not don't get it, that they are not getting it. This woman is not dead yet,and, furthermore, she never will be. You cannot kill a tree that flowers like the Pilgrims' staffs in the opera Tannhauser, by an act of God.

This year, my husband and I were invited to read poetry and play music in Cardiff. Because it didn't fit our schedule, we had our Welsh experience in paying a visit to the website of our friend, designer Patricia Lester, who happens to live in Wales. Patrica's sister also suffered from cancer. All this long winter, we have been watching someone we love struggle with a fatal illness. Patricia's sister was angry. In the words of Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, she raged. The day she died, Patricia sent me a letter saying two apple trees had fallen in her orchard. One, bare branched and angry, crushed her roses. The other flowered the ways plants sometimes do at the end of their plant lives. It occurred to her that this was the difference between the two women. She has sent me one of her beautiful silk scarves to give to Carol Shields, who has the gift of a scarf as the moral and philosophical central metaphor of Unless. That scarf comes to my mailbox like the poems that came to my friend Al Purdy, as the gift of love between friends. The transparent form of our friend may slip through our fingers, but the knot that ties our friendship will endure, because her wisdom and love reside in every word she has written. Nothing, not even death, can take that away. Aren't we the lucky ones?

Linda Rogers, teacher, broadcaster and past president of The League of Canadian poets and The Federation of British Columbia Writers, writes poetry, fiction, non-fiction and children's books. Canada's People's Poet for the year 2000, she has been awarded the Leacock, Livesay, Confederation, Acorn, Alcuin and Millenium Awards in Canada, The Voices Israel prize, The Cardiff, Kenney and Bridport prizes in Great Britain, the Acorn-Ruckeyser Award in the U.S., and the Prix anglais in France. With her husband, mandolinist Rick van Krugel, she writes and performs songs for children. Upcoming titles include The Bursting Test, poems, Tango Gallo, a novel, and Honorable Menschen, conversations with men in the arts.

Lola Haskins on Writers Friendships

When I meet someone on a plane, and they ask what I do for a living, I say, well, I teach Computer Science for a day job, but my profession is poetry. What usually happens next is that their eyes glaze over and I can tell they’re mentally checking their watches to see how much longer the flight is going to take. Then, unless they think to ask me something about computers, usually to do with whether they should scrap their pcs for the latest hot-lick models, they tend to develop a sudden, burning, interest in Sky Mall. If I’d been some other kind of writer, a novelist or a screenwriter for instance, I’ve always thought it would have been better, but maybe not, because to most people watching cars go airborne over the top of Gough Street, heading down towards the bay screenwriters seem as irrelevant as tinsel on last year’s Christmas tree.

Be that as it may, I think it’s fair to say that we poets find ourselves at the bottom of the interest scale with most of the non-reading public. One of the consequences of that is that we have fewer chances to connect with audiences than do people who work in other literary genres. So, being in the minority and being relatively poor, even in the literary world, we help each other out whenever we can, right? Well, in my experience, not necessarily.

For example, when I meet some poets, I get the feeling that they’re sizing me up to see if I’m any threat. If the verdict is that I’m not, then they relax. If they decide otherwise, they clam up and start looking over my shoulder for someone more useful to talk to. Sometimes, it goes much farther than this, perhaps even to the point of paranoia. For instance, a few years ago, when two poets came to my town to teach in the writing program, I thought, great, more poets, and bought their books. But not only have they not been polite to me--without ever exchanging more than ten words total with me in all the years since they’ve come, they put me down to their students on a regular basis. So why are they doing this? I’ve decided it’s because they’re protecting English, which they see as their territory. It seems such a pity, but I know it’s not an isolated case. I’ve heard other stories like that, where certain writers seem to have peed on their four corners, to make sure interlopers are aware that only they, the purveyors of urine, and their students are welcome within their borders. And if someone tries to cross that line, he or she finds out what that odd odor means and, to mix a metaphor, in spades.

Luckily, this isn’t universally the case, maybe not even generally so. Over the years, I’ve met some hugely generous people, to name only a few: Andrea Hollander Budy, Nick Samaras, Jo MacDougall, Frank Gaspar, Maurya Simon and, more recently, Ruth Schwartz, all terrific poets and all genuinely happy when any of us gets lucky. We buy each others’ books and tell people about each others’ work. To be fair, we’ve often become friends in the first place because we did like each others’ work. If you think about it, how much more deeply can you know someone than by living with his/her poetry. And sometimes -- in the ancient tradition-- we talk in poetry. For instance, a few years ago, Andrea and I had a poetry conversation, with the goal being neither of our greater glory but both of our greater growth. During that exchange, Andrea wrote some lovely poems which wended their way into her most recent collection, and I profited too, spinning off her intelligence in directions of my own. Nick Samaras and I are now doing a similar thing- we send each other a poem a month, which we then critique back and forth until it falls to rest. Nick’s a fine critic, and I’ve learned a lot from him. And those are only a couple of examples. I have many wonderful friends and teachers among other poets. In fact, like many of us, I feel friendship, even kinship, to writers I’ve never met, just from their work.

But the most important of my own friendships are the warm, live ones. It’s a great feeling not to need to explain why I do what I do, because they already know since they’re the same, and in that mutual knowing I feel the sort of acceptance which I can’t always, in the last analysis, get from those closest to me. In fact, sometimes I think of my friendships with other writers as a kind of home base on the field of my life.

I’d like to leave you with an analogy. My husband makes beautiful stained glass. And because he wants to give something back, he donates windows to poor churches. We go to Mexico often, making that part of our trips, and when Gerald’s finished a project, we prospect for another. A few years ago, he built some windows for a church on a bumpy street in a barrio in Patzcuaro. Ger spent an especially long time on those- there were eight, and he designed them beautifully, with an Indian woman in the foreground and colors which seemed just right for the bright plastic streamers which adorned the inside of that church. When the windows were ready, we took them to the sacristans in Patzcuaro, a couple named Adolfo and Josefina, to explain how install them and help them do it.

It wasn’t an easy job because the windows weren’t set up to receive glass, so there was a fair amount of improvisational engineering- a sort of engineering skat- to be done before we could start the actual installation. The three of us, Adolfo, Ger, and I had been working for several days, and neither Adolfo not Josefina had said a word about the windows. Now, I knew how hard Ger had worked on them– months and months in the barn. So, though I felt guilty about it, I was also beginning to feel let down and a little annoyed. More and more, I wanted someone besides me to admire those windows. Or at least thank Ger for his trouble. But then one day Josefina and I were sitting at the table in her tiny house with its glass-less windows and its dog on the roof, where they lived with their eight children, and she said: You know, we don’t have much, but everything we have, each person gets a little bit.” And then I understood why they hadn’t thanked us. Because, of course we’d shared what we had. And that felt right to me, and I think it’s how we poets should be to each other too, how my dear friends are already and how I’d like to be too: we don’t have much, but everything we do have, each of us gets a little bit.

Lola Haskins' most recent collection is The Rim Benders (Anhinga). Desire Lines, New and Selected Poems, is forthcoming from BOA in 2004. She teaches Computer Science at the University of Florida and is a 2003 NEA fellow in poetry.


"Some of My Best Friends Are Writers."

ROBERT SWARD: Robyn, how did you start, how old were you when you first began writing?

ROBYN SARAH: I started at such an early age, I almost can't remember a time when writing wasn't part of my identity. I was six, in first grade, just beginning to read, when my mother put an unexpected gift into my hands, a "Huge 10-cent Scribbler"--bright orange covers, ruled newsprint inside. "Here," she said, "it's a book for writing in. You can write a story in it." A novel idea!(no pun intended.) I sat right down and wrote one, and I haven't looked back. Oddly enough, given the subject of this interview, the title of that first story was "Nancy Finds a Friend."

ROBT: Did you ever have a "writing friend" or were you one of those solitary figures...

ROBYN: Both. I've always tended to be solitary, even reclusive. But I've almost always had "writing friends" with whom I occasionally shared my work. (Different friends at different times--some of the relationships short lived, some ongoing for decades.) This one-to-one exchange replaced the "workshop" experience for me--writing workshops hadn't really caught on in Canada at the time I began my adult writing life, and later I felt no need for them. (I mean, I've led workshops, but have never participated in one.) I had my model from the beginning: in second grade, my best friend was one who shared my favorite school subject, "Composition" --and, like me, she also wrote stories at home. We used to read our stories out loud to each other on the telephone. She thought mine were wonderful, and I thought hers were wonderful. We inspired each other and imitated each other, but it was entirely good-spirited, collaborative, celebratory--not competitive. In high school, I had a writing friend who was a fellow student at the Conservatoire de Musique... she was three years older than I, already in university. It turned out she too wrote poetry and stories, and it was natural for us to show our writing to each other. This, again, was purely in the spirit of sharing an interest: neither of us had thought as far as trying to get published.
ROBT: How have "writing relationships" contributed to your development as a writer? Were they always positive... or did you, at times, feel you needed to be on guard in a certain way? Essentially, what led you to develop a friendship with "writing friend A" as opposed to "writing friend B"? What qualities did you look for in (potential) "writing friends"?

ROBYN: Initially,I was just glad if I found someone who shared my secret passion, someone else who scribbled. In the early years of university, it got harder--ego is on the rampage in those years, and most of the scribblers around me (poets, mainly) were male and much more sure of themselves than I. They gave readings, they took themselves seriously as poets, some had already published poems here and there... and they seemed to move in packs... and I as a woman who wrote poetry didn't feel taken seriously. It was hard for me to get up my courage to show them anything of my own. So there was this uneasy period when I hardly shared my work at all--which changed slowly once I began publishing in magazines. Since then it's been maybe two or three trusted writing friends, consulted one-on-one, when I've felt the need to show someone unpublished work or to talk about writing ....What do I look for in a writing friend? Well, for starters it has to be someone whose own writing I genuinely respect (though not necessarily a professional writer or one who is currently publishing.) It has to e someone who has responded to my own writing in a way that suggests some recognition of what I'm up to. And it has to be someone whose focus is on writing itself, in a very pure way--not on "writing biz."

ROBT: Robyn, how do you balance the need for solitude with the need for contact with other writers? Indeed, some writers find it very difficult to sustain friendship with other writers. There's jealousy, rivalry and one's need to be alone for long hours in order to produce and that sometimes means neglecting one's most valued friends. It's hard. The pie is small. The rewards are few. The competition brutal. So there's a degree of paranoia... (you and I being the exceptions, of course).

ROBYN: Well, you know, some of my best friends are writers. But, quite seriously, a lot aren't. Of my "soul-friends", the deepest friendships of my life, I think if I took a tally, more have NOT been writers. And the writers tend to be friends I don't see or communicate with very regularly--rather in intense, extended "bouts" with long lacunae. (I do have lots of writer-friends/colleagues with whom I grouse, as we all do, about the ups and downs of literary life, the vagaries of literary politics--and whose advice I occasionally solicit--and with whom I have ongoing exchanges about books and literature. But they aren't usually the same ones who see my manuscript drafts and/or show me theirs--and they aren't necessarily close friends in other ways.) Still, I'd have to say I feel a communality with other writers that's important to me, and special--a shared calling. A lot of my contact with other writers is by correspondence--often (but not always) initiated by me. Sometimes it's ONLY by correspondence. It's my way of having that important exchange, but preserving my solitude at the same time. But when it's time for a break from my desk, time to meet someone for lunch--often I prefer to see friends from other walks of life. It's good to get away from the claustrophobia of writing, thinking about writing, talking about writing -- and good to hear about other lives. As for that competition, paranoia... generally I don't cultivate friendships with writers who are career-driven--and I avoid or flee the kind of event where writers gossip about their agents, book deals, advances, foreign sales. That kind of talk brings on needless anxiety and self-doubt, and distracts me from what really matters, which is the work itself.

Robyn Sarah was born in New York City to Canadian parents, and grew up in Montreal. A graduate of the Conservatoire de Musique du Québec and of McGill University, she began publishing poems in Canadian periodicals in the early 1970s. In 1976, with Fred Louder, she co-founded Villeneuve Publications and co-edited its poetry chapbook series which included first titles by August Kleinzahler, A. F. Moritz, and others. The author of several poetry collections, most recently A Day's Grace (2003), she has also published two collections of short stories, and her poems, stories, and essays have appeared in the U.S. in such publications as The Threepenny Review, Poetry (Chicago), The Hudson Review and New England Review. Her poems have been anthologized in the Anthology of Magazine Verse & Yearbook of American Poetry, in Bedford's Poetry: An Introduction and The Bedford Introduction to Literature, and in The Norton Anthology of Poetry.

Stephen Spender Once More by Robert Dana

Until 1976 when he became my distinguished colleague in the writing program at the University of Florida, Stephen Spender was just a biographical essay and a handful of brilliant lyrics I first encountered in Louis Untermeyer’s anthology of Modern American and Modern British Poetry.

Oh, I’d met him at close range back in the 1950’s when he came to give a reading at the University of Iowa and to talk to a bunch of fledgling poets at the Writers’ Workshop. After Spender’s reading that evening in the senate chambers of Old Capitol, Paul Engle had arranged a rump session so that the students could talk with Spender one on one over beer in the basement of a local bar, perhaps Irene Kenney’s. It’s with no small amount of embarrassment that I recall the subject of our conversation, in which I had the presumptuousness and dim wit to chide him for certain Britishisms in his Lorca translations.

Of course, Stephen’s world was so large and his history so long and rich that, when we really did meet in Florida and share several months of our lives, he retained no memory at all of our having met twenty years earlier, and, thank god, no memory of my youthful stupidities.

Stephen was part of the bait dangled before me by the late Richard Green, then chairman of the English department at the University of Florida. He also offered me a much lighter teaching load and the chance to teach graduate students, and more money than I was presently making at Cornell College in Iowa. I had just returned from a sabbatical in England where I’d gone to recover from some serious surgery and to try to finish the book which later became In A Fugitive Season, so I didn’t think my dean would give his permission for another leave of absence.

Encouraged, however, by my new wife, Peg, and by Dick Green, I explored the possibility with my colleagues and the dean, and was granted permission to accept Florida’s offer. It would be a full year visiting writer appointment, and I would be Stephen Spender’s colleague when he arrived for the third quarter. It turned out to be a seminal year, needless to say.

Our friendship began in a very personal way. Shortly before Stephen’s arrival in the spring, I casually asked someone, at my wife’s prompting, perhaps Dick Green, where Stephen would be living. He was, at the time, nearly seventy. I was shocked to find that neither the department nor the university had made arrangements for their distinguished guest. In addition to getting on in years, he would be arriving in Florida from wintry England. Peg and I reasoned that someone needed to make a move on his behalf.

So we contacted the supervisor of our building to find out what furnished apartments might be available. There were several. We got the department’s approval, and then canvassed department members via their mailboxes, to round up dishes, pots and pans, silverware, blankets and linens, so that when Stephen arrived he’d have decent digs awaiting him.

When he did arrive, he needed phone service, of course. And it was here that Peg stepped in, and the episode provided one of our favorite stories. Stephen had trouble understanding the operator at Bell Southern, and she had trouble understanding his English accent, so he asked Peg to do his talking for him. At one point, she said, “Stephen, they want an idea of how much of a bill you might average a month.” “Oh tell them a hundred dollars,” he said, grinning, and then sotto voce, “It’s probably more like five hundred.”

The bill was probably “more like five hundred” given the family calls—to his wife, Natasha and his daughter Lizzie in London and to his son Matthew in Italy; and the business calls—to his old friend Christopher Isherwood in L.A, and to International PEN on Taiwan (No, he wouldn’t be coming), and to his editor Jason Epstein at Random House in New York.

Perhaps it was at that moment that it began to be clear that Stephen dealt with people straight on, by and large. He didn’t see himself as either a “great man” or a “great writer.” In fact, he saw himself as sometimes a comic “figger” as he would have said.

So began a friendship I could never have imagined having, and one that would last nearly twenty years until Spender’s death in 1995. A friendship from which I learned at least as much about human decency and perspective as I did about literature and what it means to live a life of letters.

One of the first things I learned from Stephen was what real achievement and fame were. His record spoke for itself. I was forty-six, had published two books, and was still getting rejection slips from various magazines. I was certainly not getting phone calls from PEN International. So there was no question of competition between us, as there always is to a certain degree, between contemporaries. Stephen wasn’t my mentor, nor was I his student. It was a case of two poets from different generations and different cultures sharing what was there to be shared.

He shared his wisdom, his stories—of himself and Auden at Oxford (“I printed his first little book on my card press in my room.”), of his experiences in Spain during the civil war and in Britain as an air-raid warden during the blitz, and his attitudes toward poetry. For my part, I drove him to the university when needed, explained him to his undergraduate class, which didn’t know what to make of him and treated him, at first, like a fragile family heirloom; and plied him with questions about his life and work. In May of 1976, in my role as a contributing editor of The American Poetry Review Review, I actually conducted a formal interview with him. It took place, as I recall, in the living room of our Gainesville apartment. Here are a few clips from that afternoon:

“…If one thinks of one’s own contemporaries who had talent or even genius. I think that, really, three qualities are necessary. First of all, to have a little genius; then to have quite a lot of talent, and then, thirdly, to want to do it...You have to want, in some crazy way, to write poetry. I think quite a lot of people want to be a poet, but that’s rather different from actually wanting to write poetry poetry.” .”
“Eliot in ‘The Four Quartets’, for instance, is always really a thinking poet. And also a poet with a mystical vision. And when the thinking is intense and the mystical vision is intense, he discovers a language which is very strange, and which is what we think of as the best of Eliot. But when the thinking is sententious—about, you know, growing old, and all that kind of thing,--the form can become sententious. He hasn’t got the talent which can invent an interest in the language which is beyond what is actually being said…

“…I think that American poets believe that, as Walt Whitman said, “To have great poets, there must be great audiences, too...And I think the American poet does feel that deeply, and he feels it’s something of a tragedy if he doesn’t get a great audience…I think that’s a tragic point of view, that you need vast audiences.”
Once, during one of our evening conversations, I asked him how he’d felt when Auden died.

“I felt the way I did when my brother died—“ he said, “that now I could go out and drive the car. At the end of this life, dealing with Auden was like dealing with a corporation—Auden, Auden, Auden, & Auden. It wasn’t very pleasant.”

And so I learned that fame, if it comes to one, is something best carried lightly. I learned that when Spender spoke of walking the shore of Lake Geneva with Merleau- Ponty, or of spending an afternoon with his friend Henry Moore, or told some anecdote about Louis Mac Neice, he wasn’t trying to impress you. He was merely recounting an interesting or pleasant moment in his life or a personal opinion.

Stephen had no need of boasting or name-dropping because he was sure of who he was, even if he tended to underplay his achievements. His autobiography World Within A World makes it clear that early on he had ceased to lie to himself or anyone else about who he was, or why he did what he did. (“Oh, it wasn’t politics that caused us to go to Berlin. We went there to chase boys,” he said to me once, with a laugh.) He had learned young to rely on his intelligence and his sense of humor. His dignity, generally, was as sure and casual as his rumpled clothes.

After Florida, we met almost once a year between 1976 and 1978, and sporadically thereafter, both in England and the U.S. When I left the University, they offered me a position. But upon returning to Iowa, I learned that the poet I’d replaced, and whom I’d thought of as a friend, was circulating a document damning both me and another member of the writing faculty. I was stunned and couldn’t believe it. When Stephen heard what happened he was furious and came to my defense. Even after the poet had been let go, Stephen telephoned him and demanded that he apologize to me and withdraw his remarks. The man refused, of course, but it was a surprising measure of our friendship.

I was instrumental during these years in bringing Spender to Detroit where I was the visiting poet at Wayne State. He gave a reading and a lecture on Modern Poetry and Modern Art. It so happened that the original paper wall-sized cartoons of Diego Rivera’s mural in the Detroit Institute of Art had just been discovered in some dusty old archive of the museum. We were invited to view them from a mezzanine where they were rolled out below us.

He also came to Cornell College where I taught and spent a month there. He taught a seminar on Modern Poetry to a group of handpicked students, and gave three lectures and a farewell reading to packed houses. Writers and literary people came from all over Iowa came to hear him.

Mount Vernon, Iowa, is of course, a very small stage for such a large player, so one weekend, Peg and I arranged a visit to the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. Since Stephen had known Tyrone Guthrie, the theater people set us up with fine seats and a backstage tour.

One of the plays was Waiting For Godot. It was a compelling and polished performance, so when it was over Peg and I inquired what Stephen thought of it. “It was quite good, you know. I saw the play in London and didn’t like it at all and walked out after the first act,” he said with a twinkle in his eye.
I saw Stephen several times after that, once at his house one evening in St. John’s wood where we had a wonderful supper of “scraps” that Natasha had prepared, and another time with Peg at Westminster Abbey when he delivered the eulogy for Henry Moore, after which he took us to The Groucho Club, a spot whose patrons' books were displayed behind the bar.
My world’s a smaller place without Stephen. But the sense of perspective I gained from being in his presence from time to time, my sense of what’s really important, my sense of decency and compassion and craft is a legacy that’s still with me.

“I think continually of those who were truly great/Who, from the womb, remembered the soul’s history,” Stephen wrote in an early poem. Oh, yes. And so should we all.

Robert Dana was born in Boston in 1929. In the mid-1950's he studied at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop under Robert Lowell and John Berryman. He received National Endowment Fellowships for Poetry in 1985 and 1993, and The Delmore Schwartz Memorial Prize in 1989. He was recently appointed Poet Laureate of Iowa. His books include The Morning Of The Red Admirals (Anhinga Press, 2004), Summer (Anhinga Press, 2000) and A Community of Writers: Paul Engle And The Iowa Writers' Workshop (University of Iowa Press, 1999).