After studying with Donald Hall (US Poet Laureate 2006-7) at the University of Michigan, KEN LAUTER has published poems in a number of journals and 15 books. His work has been compared to Robert Lowell's, and distinguished poet William Meredith (US Poet Laureate 1978-80) has said that Ken's poetry displays "a splendid and various gift."
His awards include a Hopwood Award for poetry, an American Academy of Poets Prize, and a Shubert Playwriting Fellowship, and he has also written several plays, including The Dancing Apsaras, or Captain Willard's Blues, a prequel/sequel to Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now. He has taught literature and creative writing at four universities and worked as a mayor's aide, a university administrator, and a grass-roots environmental activist.
Ken and his wife Dr. Judith Lauter – a neuroscientist, poet, and author of How is Your Brain Like a Zebra? - A new human neurotypology; Light from the Left: Poems on paintings by Rembrandt; and eight books of haiku live in Nacogdoches TX.
ars longa, vita brevis
- Quintus Horatius Flaccus
[A poet’s work] is autobiographical in spite of every subterfuge. It cannot be otherwise.
- Wallace Stevens
My life raft on the torrent of time has been words. They have helped me past dangerous rapids— genetics, sex, love, rock and roll, cars, real estate, politics, racism, sexism, capitalism, poverty, war, global warming, etc. As a middle-class American, I don’t have a story as richly mysterious as Nabokov’s in his Speak, Memory; but as a child I received something I suspect he lacked— unconditional love— and my mission as a poet and a man is to be worthy of that blessing.
The unconditional love came, of course, from my parents. (Can it come from anywhere else?) My father (who died at home when I was 19 and off at college) had maxims that rang for decades in my head as auditory hallucinations: Put yourself in the other guy’s shoes, Don’t go along with the crowd, Never be afraid to speak up, Think of your mother first, and Study hard, hard, hard. These admonitions became the bedrock of my moral life. Dad was a skeptic, a diligent reader, and a lover of dirty (but never obscene) jokes. My mother was a quieter, more patient, and perhaps more profound influence— a model of caring devotion. She too was a reader, a great listener, and a very good cook. She died in a hospital when I was 42 and teaching at a university a thousand miles away.
Born during WW II, on a freezing January night, I grew up in a cramped, 2BR-1b house (big front porch, coal furnace in the basement) located in a suburb of Kansas City MO. Our backyard was home to several trees (apple, pear, peach, cherry, walnut, elm) and bordered a creek and woods that was my Arcadia. I roamed there with other boys and my fox terrier, Sox, built campfires, played hide-and-seek, cowboys-and-Indians, and hunted for wasp nests to lob stones at— a KC Huck Finn. 
The woods were magical, a corridor between our house and my grade school on a hill a quarter mile away. Next to the school was a large pasture spreading southward over rolling hills before meeting a bend in the Missouri River, with downtown KC visible upstream like a line of granite teeth. I walked to school through fragrant fall, snowy winter, and sweet spring. In the second grade, I fell madly in love with Ann, but to my everlasting shame, I dropped her in the third grade when I found out she was dirt poor. I liked my teachers, got high grades, made friends, and thought life good.
My parents were over forty when they married early in 1942 (a second try for them both). My dad, Kenneth Arthur, the oldest of three brothers in a family of German immigrants, was a recent arrival in KC from his hometown of St. Louis. When they met, my mother Kathryn Lilla was living on an 80-acre farm she and her first husband acquired not long before he had himself committed for schizophrenia and asked Mom to divorce him, which she did. Two years later, she sold the farm and married my father. The middle-aged newlyweds then moved to the suburbs.
With The Feminine Mystique two decades away, Mother was proud to be “just a housewife” (or so she said). She cooked, cleaned, sewed, cut magazine coupons, went to a beauty parlor now and then, and shopped for a new hat for church (Baptist) at Helzberg's department store downtown twice a year (Easter, Christmas) with me in tow, fidgeting and intimidated by the ornate décor and the perfumed salesladies who winked at me.
After a small-town Missouri childhood as one of eight kids, two of whom died in childhood, Mom had gone to secretarial school and then clerked in a Western Union Office, but Father insisted that no wife of his would have to work. So she made meat-and-potato suppers, shared highballs and cigarettes with him when he got home from ‘the salt mines,’ and loved us.
Our family evening routine: first dinner, then homework, Father often helping me. Then TV— Sid Caesar, The Hit Parade (a pop music show sponsored by Lucky Strike), Gunsmoke, Ozzie and Harriet, and Johnny Carson. Finally, Dad kicked back in his recliner, reading detective stories (Mickey Spillane, Richard Prather) and historical novels (Thomas Costain, A.B. Guthrie) while I assembled hyper-realistic plastic model warplanes, dreaming of flying the real thing.
By the time I was ten, an air of exhaustion and regret had crept into our house at 4321 North Spruce. That street number felt special, like a countdown to something— nuclear war maybe? Or poetry? My handsome, ten-years-older half-brother Clark died in a car wreck in 1949, leaving Mother with an enduring sadness. Working for insurance companies, Dad rode up and down on elevator roofs. (I had nightmares about that and eventually wrote a poem about it). He also audited client accounts with green-eye-shade rigor. After two decades as a small-office manager, he made less than $10,000 a year—which didn’t bode well for my college fund— and he became deeply depressed when he lost his last chance for promotion to regional manager.
* * *
In high school I gave up baseball and football as a sophomore because I couldn’t practice for two hours a day and still do enough homework to maintain high grades. Also, I was a mediocre athlete— and you get no girls for that. I loved Elvis, Joan Baez, Little Richard, Lavern Baker, Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, Etta James, Buddy Holly, Ella Fitzgerald, Roy Orbison, Brenda Lee, Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline, and especially The Kingston Trio (until Dave Guard left). Why I didn’t dig Bob Dylan for years to come is still a mystery to me.
I also loved geometry, algebra, physics, history, drafting, and English lit (taught by Gus Leimkuhler) where I was wowed by the Keats sonnet “When I Have Fears,” For Whom The Bell Tolls, and Macbeth). And I really loved Janice, Catherine, Glenda, Linda, Marsha, Della, Judy, and Marilyn Monroe! Pretty girls were miracles that once in a while I was lucky enough to be around.
I liked being a North Kansas City Hornet, got good grades, made few friends, enjoyed ‘sock hops’ in the gym, and though my social life was thin, I still thought life was good. In my junior year I won a prize in history class for a poem beginning: “O mighty ball of sun on high / Sailing though the clear blue sky.” (Not exactly Keats.)
* * *
With advice from our family doctor (a chiropractor and former navy CPO) my father urged me to apply for the U.S. Naval Academy— no tuition, ‘great engineering school’— but once I got there (after a year at Mizzou) it seemed pretty childish. After all, by then I had read All Quiet on The Western Front and seen The Bridges at Toki-Ri. So in 1964, at the start of my third year and near the top of my class, I resigned because of doubts about Vietnam, fear of dying young, and the dawning realization that I liked poetry much, much better than ships—or than an M-16, which I would have been toting in Nam if I had taken the Marine Corps option for my commission, which right up until I resigned I intended to do.
Back home at the Mizzou KC campus, I had several summer jobs: driving a cab, which paid only slave wages, in spite of a $100 tip once; unloading boxcars on the midnight shift at a terminal on the big bend of the Missouri River; and working at the info desk in the public library, where I met my one and only (I’m sorry to say) close Black friend, Al. He was a bright, handsome, and articulate, and when I first knew him was planning on majoring in psychology in grad school at McGill. Unfortunately, he instead opted for TWA, in spite of my pleas against it. He became a pilot with the airline— but his life ultimately turned tragic: booze, drugs, two failed marriages, and finally death alone in his Chicago Lake Shore Drive apartment, his body undiscovered for three days.
Al once confessed that he had been physically abused as a boy by his stepfather (a Baptist minister) which must have contributed to his mental duress as an adult; but I believe that much of his anguish was fueled by the racism he encountered throughout his life and in particular at TWA. In any case, I regret that he didn’t live to see the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement. Would that have saved him? Maybe not— but it would surely have given him hope.
At UMKC Dan Jaffe became a friend and mentor. Later recognized as a world-class “jazz poet,” Dan was inspiring in the classroom— his rich baritone voice rendering of Auden’s elegy for Yeats changed my life by cementing the thought in me that poems could be both verbally gorgeous and deeply penetrating historically. As the co-founder of the BkMk Press, Dan published my first two poetry collections, The Other Side (1973) and Before the Light (1987). When I finished my BA and won a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship for the grad school of my choice, Dan told me: “Go to Michigan, study with Donald Hall, and win a Hopwood Award in poetry.” So I did all three.
It was a thrill to be around ‘a real poet’ like Hall several times a week. A fine teacher with a bushy red beard and an infectious love of the craft, he brought many contemporary poets to my attention (via an anthology he had edited)— people like Robert Bly, Robert Creeley, James Dickey, Anthony Hecht, X. J. Kennedy, Denise Levertov, Robert Lowell, W.S. Merwin, Adrienne Rich, W.D. Snodgrass, William Stafford, Richard Wilbur, Reed Whittemore, and James Wright. These were fresh, vigorous voices, with powerful idioms and insights. Discovering them was a revelation at a time when I had only the haziest notion of poetry as a life-long commitment. Don and I maintained a friendship for several decades, mostly by letter, before his death at 89 in 2018. I last saw him in a poetry reading at Baylor University when he was about 85. My sense of what poetry is and means is forever indebted to him.
In Ann Arbor the summer after finishing an MA, I made spending money by mixing and hauling plaster for a mason, doing union-hall day labor, and falling in love with ‘townie’ Judith Snider, a beautiful senior with a killer tan whom I met in Hall’s poetry seminar. I immediately noticed three things about her: she wore wonderfully taut white blouses, she rode a Honda 50 to campus from her nearby home, and her poems were better than mine. This wasn’t a turn off— if anything just the opposite. (She had already won two undergrad Hopwood Awards.) Love at first sight? Maybe not, but from the start she had something I’d never known in any other woman. Still true.
In 1966, Judy and I were married in the beautiful Spanish colonial courthouse in Tucson, where I got my first teaching job, at the University of Arizona (thanks in part to a recommendation from Hall). The Sonoran desert was an exotic paradise for us mid-westerners— the ambient light, the sunsets, the rugged Santa Catalina mountains hovering over the city’s northwest side, the Saguaro dotting the foothills, the creosote aroma after rain, and of course the Grand Canyon, only a half a day away. We got high on this ambience.
I hoped I had moved beyond the reach of the military-industrial complex that nearly shoved me into the madness in Indo-China. Fat chance— protest marches were starting up almost from the minute we unpacked our bags, and the major Air Force base just outside town was training pilots for Vietnam, the flights blasting over the campus for several hours every day. Worst yet, the entire metro region was encircled with ICBM silos— if war had broken out with the Soviet Union, Tucson would have been a prime target for their ICBMs.
I taught poetry writing and freshman comp by day and wrote poems by night. After a semester of stay-at-home boredom and a couple of secretarial jobs, Judy went back to school and got the first MA in creative writing ever awarded at UA— but soon discovered another love (the human brain) after we read Arthur Koestler’s The Ghost in the Machine. Meanwhile, I completed two collections of poetry that went unpublished for nearly five decades, Metronome and New Light. 
The faculty guys in the creative writing program (and they were all guys) seemed egotistical and shallow. This impression was reinforced when program director Shelton announced that creative writing majors would not be required to read any writers published before 1950! How could such an idea be peddled in a university? Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-intellectualism in American Life (1963) sheds some light on the issue, but I was astonished at the time that anyone would dare mouth such bullshit.  In any case, Shelton eventually made quite a name for himself in ‘Poetry Inc.’ (Donald Hall’s astute term), and he deserves credit for his efforts at bringing poetry into prisons. Some of his prose works are also strong, but I found his poetry anemic back then and still do.
Persuading Shelton and the other UA poets to join me in an anti-Vietnam War poetry reading wasn’t exactly like pulling teeth, but to make it happen I had to do all the grunt work. It was worth it on principle, I thought, and the event was well attended, with ten readers delivering 26 denunciations of ‘that crazy Asian war.’ Auden’s contention that “poetry makes nothing happen” didn’t deter me from creating this protest but haunts my recollection of it. Did our reading or the hundreds of similar ones around the country make a difference in the halls of power in Washington or London, in Saigon or Hanoi? Did the 11,000 poets protesting the Iraq war 35 years later that Sam Hamill rallied to offer protest poems make a difference in Washington, Kabul, or Baghdad? I’m inclined to say no, but the question is complex.  I will say that I’m deeply grateful and proud that so many poets spoke out.
A few months after our protest, Shelton and poet Steve Orlen mounted their own reading without inviting me to participate.  It was a campy recital of Victorian elegies, with the participants wearing period funeral costumes. When I called the event pretentious in the Wildcat, the student paper, all hell broke loose, and I became a persona non grata— a badge of honor, I thought. From this episode I gained an abiding skepticism about MFA/creative writing programs.  Judy was similarly repulsed by Shelton, whose sessions reviewing her work once ended with the complaint that it “didn’t sound like a woman’s poetry.” Later, a Renaissance scholar in the department advised her not to study for a PhD because of her gender.
The great exception to our aversion to English Department faculty was a Yale graduate, Chaucer scholar, and fourth-generation Tucsonan, Chris Carroll. His great grandfather had been a member of the Territorial Legislature and had participated in founding the university in the city. Judy took two classes from Chris, and later typed his PhD dissertation on the ‘Pearl Poet’ in a marathon effort. A great teacher, student-mentor, wit, and involved citizen, Chris fell afoul of the ‘publish or perish’ syndrome then just beginning to infect universities, and was on the verge of being fired until I rallied students and the town and won him a reprieve. He remained a good friend until his death a few years ago. His second wife, Susan Aiken, also became dear to us. She is currently Professor Emerita, University Distinguished Professor, and internationally-recognized scholar in gender studies,
* * *
In 1971, in great sadness we had to leave Tucson, the desert light, and the mountains— vowing to return as quickly as possible. We first headed to Colorado, to enroll at the University of Denver, Jude for a Masters in Library Science, while I went into the English PhD program. We spent as much time driving around the Rockies as we did on campus, but I enjoyed work there with two fine professors. Robert Richardson had an exceptional mind and gentle heart. He later wrote highly acclaimed critical biographies of Emerson, Thoreau, and William James. Bob wore his great learning humbly. Novelist John Williams was also on the faculty, and I audited his seminar on prosody, amused by his natty fashion sense (immaculate blue blazers, bow ties, perfectly-trimmed goatee) and was impressed by his intellect. I didn’t read his novels, Stoner and Augustus, for years, but when I did they knocked me out.
A year later, we landed in St. Louis, which for me had reverberations of my father’s ghost. (Born there in 1900, he was married and divorced before moving to KC in 1940.) In grad school at Washington University (“the Harvard of the Midwest”), Judy dove into neuroscience for her PhD, after first completing yet another MA (in linguistics this time). I swam with poets from Blake to Yeats and novelists from Austen to James. This immersion was guided and inspired by Dr. Richard Stang, a 19th century scholar who had studied under the great Lionel Trilling at Columbia University and was the best close reader I’ve ever encountered. Stang’s seminars were like séances in which literary giants spoke through him. His Theory of the Novel in England 1850-1870 was a pioneering study that opened new vistas on the craft of the great Victorian novelists. I was thrilled when Stang called my doctoral dissertation proposal the best one he ever saw. A gentle soul if sometimes wasp-tongued as a teacher, Dick, who died in 2011, became a close friend in later years, and on return visits to St. Louis I often stayed in his home— where both his first wife, Dr. Sondra Stang (a Ford Maddox Ford scholar) before her death in 1990, and later his second, Susan Hacker Stang, a widely exhibited photographer and long-term chair of the Photography Program at Webster University, provided friendship, hospitality, and astute conversation. 
The English Department at “Jew U” as some Jewish students gleefully labeled the school because of its high proportion of students and faculty with Semitic genes— was home to a bevy of poets who had or soon would achieve national stature: Donald Finkel, Constance Urdang, Carter Revard, John N. Morris, Mona Van Dyne, and Howard Nemerov.
Never in one of Nemerov’s classes, I often spotted him shuffling around campus in jeans and a denim jacket, with a coterie of pretty young women trailing along after him. (Was I jealous? Nah.) When Howard won both a Pulitzer and National Book Award in poetry within a month or so, at his first reading after these honors, he broke up the audience with the opening quip, “Over-rated at last.” I agreed. In fact, Nemerov’s poetry, for all its technical finesse and intellectual firepower, often struck me as stiff and pontificating. This view was no doubt enhanced by the fact that the man snubbed me— twice. First, he returned the copy of my chapbook The Other Side, given to him the day before, saying he had no room in his office for more “poesy.” (Really?) He also left a joint poetry reading that Judy and I gave without even a token word of appreciation. (Is there a Pulitzer for rudeness?) Is my view of Nemerov influenced by personal pique? Sure— but when I recently revisited his Collected Poems, many of them still seemed pompous. 
The writer I liked best at Wash U was Morris, an 18th century scholar and poet who was fond of straw hats and (like John Williams) bow ties. When chatting with him in his Dunker Hall office that was invariably clouded with cigarette smoke and piled high with books on every available surface, I usually caught a strong whiff of Jack Daniels. Behind Professor Morris’s friendly grin and self-mocking charm, there was always a trace of sadness. His Green Business (1970) was published a year before we met, and a couple of times we traded drafts of our current work. A little Kafkaesque, his poetry is wry and laconic—but charged with an intelligent melancholy and self-doubt that makes it all the more humanly appealing. His signature poem for me is the title piece for The Life Beside This One (1975) that begins innocently enough: “In the life beside this one / It is natural for you / To resemble America. 
Helen Vendler has said that John’s work contains “terrifying candor,” which seems about right. Morris was not a major poet, but he was an excellent minor one in the sense that Eliot spoke of: existentially himself, he knew what he could do and did it across four books in 17 years, before his death of cancer in 1977 at age 66. I believe John was ‘authentic’ as a human being and artist, in the sense that Lionel Trilling meant by that term in his study Sincerity and Authenticity (1973). That opinion that was strengthened upon reading his vivid but unfinished autobiography, Then: Essays in Reconstruction (2002)
* * *
Two Wash U grad students became our friends and remained close long after we left St. Louis— Jay Divine and Jerrell Ross. Originally from Kentucky, Jay was a brash, exuberant bookworm who like me was majoring in 19th century Brit lit and also wrote poetry. We deeply bonded when he helped me string barbed wire on an old farm to give a horse of ours pasture (see below). Though his first wife’s incompatibility with Judy and myself caused a split-up from the couple, we eventually renewed the relationship with him, and I marveled at the energy (and dollars) he threw into rehabbing a huge, three-story Victorian house in Lafayette Square, once a rural retreat for St. Louis gentry (but now deep inside the urban congestion).
Jay dropped out of grad school before finishing his doctorate and eventually created a small PR firm that garnered some major corporate clients. The business floundered sometime after 2017, leaving my friend with the daunting task of selling his beloved but very unique house to survive. We have our fingers crossed that some hedge-fund manager with a taste for history will come to the rescue soon.
Jerrell Ross, from the small Arkansas town of Mountain Home, was probably the smartest student in our crop of doctoral candidates. After grad school, he had a highly successful if horribly stressful career at AT&T, regularly rubbing shoulders with two of its CEOs and following the company in its moves from St. Louis to San Antonio to Dallas, where he now lives happily with his partner Brian, whom he married not long ago. If Jerrell had completed his doctorate and had a university career, he might have become a great scholar.
* * *
In 1979, because of the dismal market for PhDs in English Lit and the knowledge that I didn’t have the mental horsepower or energy to be both a poet and scholar, I also left academe and found work in a political campaign, subsequently becoming an second-tier aide to Vince Schoemehl, the youngest and probably the most charismatic mayor of St. Louis in nearly a century. In the mayor’s office, I worked on a number of commercial/industrial projects, two of which got national press— the rehab of the long-dilapidated St. Louis Union station into a festival shopping mall and hotel; and a first-ever downtown mall (to compete with the suburbs).  For five years, I enjoyed/endured the circus of big-city politics and secretly wrote poems and prose about it, in the context of the history of St. Louis as a river town and a hub of racist history. 
City business once took me to New York to research potential corporate expansions in St. Louis. The aim was to pick the brains of Wall Street financial analysts who tracked Fortune 500 companies and match them with incentives that St. Louis had to offer. This strategy was devised by economist Brad Susman, possibly the most brilliant man I’ve ever known— he had me from the moment when, in the middle of a discussion of tax incentives and the city labor force, he quoted William Faulkner. He had seen action in the Korean War and still limped slightly from some shrapnel in his leg.
Brad identified eight analysts for us to query, and it became clear about five minutes into each interview that he knew as much or more about the target companies than the Wall Street hot shots. Still, we went home with a list of potential corporate recruits that very well might have bolstered the faltering St. Louis economy if the city had acted vigorously to recruit them— but alas, my immediate superior in the Mayor’s office didn’t have the brains to pour piss out of a boot, so all of Brad’s great work was for nothing. Welcome to government 101.
One perk of the trip was complementary tickets for Cats, then the biggest hit on Broadway.  It struck me as solid entertainment, with some haunting music and acrobatic dancing, but hardly justifying its rave reviews. Our accommodations for four days were in the World Trade Center hotel. On our last night in New York, Brad and I rode the elevators to the top-floor restaurant and from the balcony there gazed out at the spangled lights on the New Jersey side of the Hudson. It was a strangely moving sight and made me think of Jay Gatsby’s image of the country rolling away from him in the night. The balcony also felt very high— 94 stories, some 1,300 feet above the street. What a long way to fall, I thought, if you should slip.
* * *
In 1981 Judy and I took our first trip outside the country, to Ottawa, Canada. My main memory of the city is of walking along the frozen Rideau Canal, with the gingerbread Gothic towers and spires of the government buildings looming in the distance, as dozens of ice-skaters whipped up and down the canal at manic speeds. No wonder the Canadians are so good at hockey, I thought. But we were foolish enough to take a cruise on the Ottawa River, which had a dark blue rushing current and icy whitecaps but had me wondering if I would get frostbite from the polar wind that slashed at the boat like a Nordic demon.
* * *
In 1983, we went to Paris for a few days, thanks to a stipend from a Wash-U neuroscience lab for Judy to present her paper on a PET-scan study. There we made the usual round of tourist must-sees, the most memorable for me being an afternoon at the Rodin museum, and a chorus of topless girls serenading the passengers on a dinner cruise down the Seine. The morning coffee and croissants in our quaint pension near the Eiffel Tower were incredible. And yet I’m sorry to say that French culture has never registered very strongly for me, with the exception of Voltaire’s sparkling skeptical mind and Fernand Braudel’s profound historical excavations. I do admire Camus but think of him as more Algerian at his core than French, in spite of his long residence in Paris and at times raucous association with Sartre.
* * *
The most important thing in our St. Louis years was that we went vegetarian— after inheriting a beautiful mare named Shannon and falling in love with her. It was a kind of epiphany and has had a huge impact on my mind and writing, down to the present (see below). In order to give Shannon pasture, we leased a ratty, recluse-spider-infested old farmhouse on eight fallow acres in the suburb of Manchester. Three years later, we moved with her 40 miles west to a new house not far from the Missouri River and near the small town of Washington. There, during cold fall days of slashing rain, I wrote nonstop on The Ghosts: Notes from a Field Study, though it wasn’t published for another three decades.
My tour of duty in city politics was a wild ride— stressful, amazing, depressing, sometimes plain crazy, but invaluably different from anything I knew before or after. The whole experience felt like a tribute to my father’s life-long loyalty to St. Louis. Entering the huge triple front doors of City Hall, I always felt a shiver that my dad was watching me— and I was proud to be serving his city.
We lingered in muggy St. Lou for 15 long years, always longing to regain the land of the desert sun— and by the sheer luck of job offers in Tucson for us both, we did make it back in the summer of 1985. Being there again felt like a dream too good to be true (as in fact it was) but for a while, the euphoria was overwhelming. Here is a poem from a moment in the year of our paradise regained.
Under a blazing desert sun
you stood there, proud
of what we had done
and too happy for words.
We were back in Tucson! --
maybe proving you could
go home again. Warm
photons rained down on us--
and we welcomed them.
Judy had won a big grant (from the U.S. Air Force) that she could take to a university of her choice, and I found a position at The Native American Resource and Training Center (NARTC), a venture designed to help reconcile traditional healing practices among indigenous Americans with Western medicine. I worked on public relations and grant reviews, and wasoccasionally in the presence of individuals of the Diné (Navaho), Hopi, Ndee (Apache), Nʉmʉnʉʉ (Comanche), and Tohono O’odham. It was a rare privilege to work with these people.
Two years later, however, I became the Assistant Dean of UA’s School of Social and Behavioral Sciences. It was a good career move and also a necessity for my sense of integrity, because I had discovered that the director of NARTC was a fraud and a nut job, serving his own interests more than those of indigenous people. (I reported this to the university president, and the nut job was soon booted.)
My work as a dean was mostly routine paper pushing, boring stuff except for the review of grants that often described very interesting and innovative research. I also created and edited a college newsletter, The SBS Scene, which gave me the opportunity to interact with faculty members, including the chairman of the Political Science Department, Tom Volgy. A productive scholar who was soon to become mayor of Tucson, Tom was a bright, congenial man whose family had escaped from Hungary during the Soviet invasion in 1956, when Tom was only a few years old. I did some scut work in Tom’s first mayoral campaign, was happy to see him win, and was delighted at what a fine public servant he became.
* * *
Our ‘paradise regained’ fable was destined to end, of course, and the beginning of the end came early in 1986 when I became embroiled in a protracted, bitter, grass-roots environmental battle that finally got us excommunicated from Arizona in 1991 by the real-estate kings who ran the joint.  We were nearly 50 by then— and beginning to suspect that maybe our youth was over.
Before that moment, though, there were some colorful events. As a leading opponent to a massive rezoning of the Rocking K Ranch, I had my ‘fifteen minutes of fame,’ often appearing on TV and in community forums, and writing long op-eds in the Arizona Daily Star and Tucson Citizen. For my trouble I got death threats from late-night anonymous callers, a railroad spike in our car tire, and for a whole day, in a disgusting attempt to intimidate me (but which only added to my resolve) a grilling by the developer’s lawyers about my possible connections to his former partner, Joe Rae, a genuine Mafioso who was suing his former pal for millions. 
By this time, I was effectively working two full-time jobs— university bureaucrat and grass-roots activist— the latter demanding hours and energy nearly 24/7. The toll on my health and our marriage was considerable, and even though the battle had moments of success, my gut feeling was that there was no way victory could be ours in the end. The stress of this intuition was the worst part of the six-year ordeal.
* * *
Our one great escape during the Rocking K fight was a wonderful foreign trip in 1987, also funded in part by a conference in Czechoslovakia where Judy was presenting. On our way to Prague, we spent three days in Holland, at the village of Breukelen as the guests of Judy’s friend and distinguished colleague, Reinier Plomp, whose scientific book she had edited a few years earlier into more idiomatic English than he commanded. He and his wife Rita, a physician, lived in a gorgeously-restored 17th century merchant’s chateau on the banks of the River Vecht near Amsterdam.
Reinier drove us around the country for a whole day, and on the next took us for a leisurely visit to the Kröller-Müller art museum and sculpture garden, with its large Van Gogh collection and works by Monet, Seurat, Picasso, and Mondrian. Van Gogh’s Café Terrace at Night (1888) with its blazing, impasto-yellow canopy burned itself into my mind in a way no print could. The only downside to our Dutch stay was missing a once-in-a-lifetime exhibition of Vermeer.  We had not been able to take in the exhibit on its three-city U.S. tour, so it seemed that fate had compensated by scheduling its final stop in Holland while we were there. But sonofabitch, I got the closing date wrong— and so had a day of non-stop cursing myself as a fool.
In Prague, we toured a castle (where Kafka once had an office) and later took a heart-numbing walk through the monstrously over-crowded Old Jewish Cemetery. In the hotel hallways, I was approached twice by lovely working girls with offers of untold delight. (Though tempted, I was too scared to even ask the price.) The hotel’s breakfast/lunch bar was also alluring (and free), a cornucopia that kept us full most all day. That sense of abundance was a wonderful thing. Then we flew back to Tucson and the Rocking K grind.
* * *
As an activist, I was constantly scrambling for money for TV and radio ads, signs, mailings, etc. Across the whole campaign I raised around $100,000 ($800,000 in today’s dollars) from various sources, half of which came from Tucson’s most prominent celebrity, Paul McCartney. (This was strictly hush-hush then.) The money went to the Rincon Valley Coalition which I founded strictly for the purpose of fighting the developers who wanted to urbanize the rural region to the tune of 25,000 houses, four resort hotels, two golf courses, a ‘town center’ of shops, bistros, restaurants, gas stations, grocery stores, etc.— all this to be dumped on an environmentally sensitive region 25 miles from downtown Tucson and adjacent to a national forest area and the Saguaro National Monument. In short, this was classic urban sprawl— predicated as always on nothing more than the great specter of American history: greed. 
We said hell no to that, and fought the bastards to a standstill for six exhausting years. We were on the verge of total victory in a ballot initiative that the polls said we would win by two or three to one. Enter the lawyers— who convinced a friendly judge to toss thousands of signatures on technicalities. Boom! Turn out the lights, the party’s over. And so our second round of Arizona days ended, not with a bang but a whimper.  This time we left, not in sadness, but in a state of exhaustion and relief. 
We relocated to Oklahoma City because of a career opportunity there for Judy. Over the next decade she taught at the OU Health Sciences Center, as well as founding a neuroscience research lab, while I wrote, wrote, wrote. With no paying job for the first time since 1966, I was freed for this because Jude’s salary could support us. I was a kept man— and loved it.
These were our best travel years, in large part because of Professor Lauter’s stipends for talks at science conferences. (Richard Tillinghast has said “Travel itself [is] a form of poetry,” and even our limited excursions confirmed it. It can be exhilarating or miserable, and we experienced both.) Our first trip of the 90s was to Canada again, this time to Montreal. I had been there before in the summer of 1963, as a port of call on a Naval Academy voyage aboard the heavy cruiser USS Newport News. We had steered slowly up the beautiful St. Lawrence Seaway but had only a 24-hour shore leave, which left little time for sight-seeing. But Judy and I were there for three days, so we went up to the Mount Royal overlook and took in the historic Old Montreal (which put St. Louis’s Laclede’s Landing to shame). Other than that, my main recollection of the city is of lunch at the largest and perhaps the best vegetarian restaurant I’d ever seen, located in Centre-Ville. Was this place Le Taj, or maybe Étoile Des Indes (Star of India)? Three decades later, I’m not sure— but our meal there made us feel like we’d died and gone to heaven.
* * *
Later that year we traveled to Northern Italy, staying in the mountain village of Terme di Comano. For me the country echoed with names like Ovid, Dante, Virgil, and da Vinci, as well as the film directors of genius like Fellini, Antonioni, Sorrentino, and the incomparable Lena Wertmüller.  I proffer the names of these artists in reverence. They embody the earthy human warmth that Italia is famous for, an index of the national character. On a more personal level the country simply entranced us. The pasta in Milan, both from up-scale restaurants and mom-and-pop storefronts, was astounding, and the scenery around Lago di Como (Lake Como) and the small villages by the Alps and near the Swiss border was beautiful, if a bit too Rick Steves tourist slick, which meant too expensive for us. 
* * *
In 1996 we spent a week in Nijmegen— said to be the oldest city in the Netherlands, dating back to a Roman military camp in 1st century BC, This was one of the most enjoyable times of our lives. On several lazy summer afternoons on the Waalkade, a café terrace along the River Waal, a tributary of the Rhine, we sipped Dutch brews, nibbled on brood en kaas, and watched barges slide by on route to Rotterdam and the North Sea. On one sunny day with Judy off at her conference, I roamed Kronenburgerpark, the ponds adorned with black swans and the grounds home to noisy, strutting peacocks. I wrote a few poems there, but don’t remember them— probably because they were no good.
In 1998, on our third and final trip to Holland, we stayed a few days in Groningen, a crowded little town with little of the historic charm of Nijmegen, but its art museum (surrounded by a moat) housed some interesting things, including three wall-sized photographs of what most people would think of as porn. The tour guide warned visitors about this and advised that if we felt queasy to stare at the floor and scoot on by the exhibit. After a moment of nervous giggles, most of the small group of visitors did just that. I looked, of course. One photo was of a scrawny man, grinning at the camera while masturbating, his huge penis squeezed tightly in his fist. A second showed the same man on his back beneath the legs of woman who was urinating into his mouth. The third shot was equally ‘obscene’ but for some reason is now a blank in my mind. Was this ‘art’? I don’t know, but it suggests that the Dutch are more at ease with the human body and all forms of sexual behavior than the typical American. (Is there a comparable exhibit in anywhere in Baptist/Puritan USA?  ) If these pictures were by not by Serrano, they should have been.
In the starkest contrast possible to the Groningen exhibit, one day I took the train to Den Haag to see Vermeer’s most iconic work— Girl with a Pearl Earring and A View of Delft. They were on permanent display at the Mauritshuis museum, placed on opposite walls so that the girl seemed to be staring across the room directly at Vermeer’s native city. The effect was hypnotic—and I feasted on these exquisite works for nearly two hours— and just as with Van Gogh’s art, the originals made prints seem like frauds.
We also spent several days with friends in Rotterdam in a compact apartment in the Kralingen neighborhood only two blocks from the largest harbor in Europe. We were soon in a tourist boat, sliding among huge cargo ships and cranes loading and unloading thousands of freight containers. As we waved at passengers on the decks of immense cruise liners. I couldn’t quite shake the paranoia that at any moment we might be crushed between two of the ocean-bound behemoths.
Much calmer tours followed when our friends drove us to several nearby small towns and villages like Göerderede, Zierikzee, and Göes. Other days took us to the Kam Museum (where I was captivated by Paulus Moreelse’s Vertumnus et Pomona.  The Bevrijdingsmuseum (Liberation Museum) in Groesbeek was also impressive in its celebration of the Allies’ defeat of the occupying Nazis with the help of the Dutch Resistance fighters in WW II. The museum displays also mourn the victims of the holocaust— a chilling window on unimaginable suffering.
Despite its all-too-frequent rain, we loved the Netherlands. The vibe was warm, candid, human. If I had to sum up the Dutch gestalt in one word, it would be benign. Granted, no modern industrial state is benign top to bottom, but the Dutch people we met sure seemed that way. Possibly in part because their English is widespread and virtually perfect, the Netherlands is the one foreign country where I feel I could happily live.
* * *
After saying farewell to our friends in Rotterdam, we flew to England for a month, where we had a stimulating but much harder time— in large part because of the broken arm I was lugging around in a sling, due to my bright idea of playing one last basketball game two days before we boarded the plane for the trip. This made hauling our luggage around (three times more than as needed) a real chore.
We commuted into London by train every day from Guilford University (where we rented a grubby student-dorm suite), a 60 mile round-trip to see plays— and were appalled that our fellow passengers looked so utterly exhausted and depressed, their faces blank, eyes filled with ennui. In the entire time we rode that line, I don’t recall a single smile or nod of the head in greeting from them. Zombie train.
We had been told that the Guilford ‘High Street’ (main street) was the most authentic and beautiful in the country, and we happily strolled it, taking in its cobblestone paving and Victorian charm— that is, until this scene on the sidewalk erupted across the street:
A man and woman in their mid forties (on drugs?) are screaming at each other: Fuck you, then!
Well, fuck you too! He punches her in the mouth. The smack of it is horrid. She spits blood,
falls to her knees, moaning. He heaves her over his shoulder like a sack of corn and stalks off
down the most beautiful High Street in England.
No one seemed to think this was remarkable. O this sceptred isle! Was it Thatcher’s legacy, or just the downtrodden state of postwar Britain that Ted Hughes has written of? (An ambience that must have contributed to Sylvia Plath’s suicide.) Not long after we saw the incident in Guilford, the controversial British historian, biographer, and novelist A.N. Wilson wrote: “Today, we think of England as a place where nothing quite works properly…” (The Victorians, 2002) That may sound snarky, but as a characterization of the country we visited in the mid-nineties, it seems spot on to me.
During our entire four-week stay, the English weather was brutal— cold rain and boiling heat, often in the same day, with several record-breaking near freezes at night. Our travel budget was meager, and so we endured crappy hotels, b&bs, and English ‘food.’ All that was more or less expected. More shocking were the performances by the Royal Shakespeare Company, which we had assumed would be terrific but were staggeringly bad. We saw the Bard performed a dozen or so times, in London at the Barbican Center (Macbeth) and an evening, open-air stage in Regents Park (A Midsummer’s Night Dream), and in Stratford-upon-Avon (All’s Well that Ends Well). They were consistently awful— or ‘a bit fusty,’ as one reviewer put it. 
But one night in a small theater in Clapham Junction just outside London, from a sweltering, standing-room-only balcony, we looked down at As You Like It on a nearly bare stage as actors sweated and performed with great verve. Probably local amateurs, they commanded more of the Bard’s fire and finesse than the RSC crowd.
Our disappointment in most of the Shakespeare productions we saw was more than compensated for by someone we’d never heard of: actor, director, playwright Steven Berkoff. In his revisionist production of Coriolanus (in Nazi uniforms) at the Mermaid Theatre on the bank of the Thames, as the plebeians were about to riot over the bread shortage in Rome, he emerged from the blue shadows between the pillars of a colonnade at stage rear, snarling in a nasal, patrician accent: Why, what’s the maaaatter! The whole performance was unforgettable— hysterically funny, yet deeply tragic, and staged with a choreography of explosive physical energy. We had seen nothing like what Berkoff did on any stage anywhere, and for us, it remains the standard for dramatic power.  (After our return to in America, I devoured Berkoff’s two-volumes of plays (performed to great acclaim around the world) and his astounding autobiography Free Association.)
* * *
We also hit many historical literary sites, including the houses of Shakespeare, Dickens, Ruskin, Carlyle, the Brontës, Keats, and Samuel Johnson’s apartment. In a Dickens house, we enjoyed a one-man show with ‘Charles’ delivering a long monologue about his life and novels. Then the actor and the writer of the play took us pub-crawling until midnight. That made us to miss the last train back to Guilford, so we spent the night in the writer’s house. His street had several vacant lots where houses had been destroyed by German bombs during the Blitz— absences that made the war seem very near.
We had to go to the Lake District, of course, the legendary haunt of Wordsworth and Coleridge, where we took the obligatory tours of Dove Cottage and Rydal Mount. The incredibly cramped cottage was where Wordsworth wrote much of the poetry of his great period (1799-1805) while living in poverty with his growing family. It was an emotional thing to see just how severe that poverty was by stepping into one claustrophobic room, the walls smeared with soot from sheep-fat candles and covered with strips of newspaper for insulation.
William supposedly wrote most of his poems while on long hikes (up to 50 miles!) in the mountainous terrain around Lake Windemere, often with Coleridge, De Quincy, and/or his beloved sister Dorothy. The legend is that while on the move he composed and recited his latest stuff aloud, memorizing up to 150 lines at a time. These now cliché images retain a justifiable imprint in the history of ‘nature poetry’— and I felt the full force of it while we were there.
Rydal Mount was another matter— a lavish house with five acres of manicured grounds that Wordsworth occupied he was canonized as Poet Laureate and received a state stipend for life. During that time he wrote reams of extremely dull verse, the perils of success which he evidently never recognized.
Our last stop in the Lake District was an afternoon at Brantwood House, once the beautiful estate of John Ruskin. This was poignant because of my awareness that this immensely prolific intellectual giant— who wrote brilliantly of geology, architecture, myth, ornithology, literature, education, botany, political economy, and most of all art, and was an accomplished painter himself who advanced the career of Turner— had been bedeviled by incredible sexual ignorance. His weird defense of ‘just wars’ and their connection to national ‘greatness’ is also disturbing. But sitting on the terrace of his mansion, overlooking placid Coniston Water (a large lake), you could forget all that and remember Ruskin as perhaps the closet thing to a Renaissance man in all of 19th century England, someone who set a new, extremely high standard for devotion to art and its social value.
At the Brontës’ lonely parsonage in the Yorkshire Dales, near Leeds, after a hundred very loud Japanese tourists got back on their bus, we were moved to tears when we paused at the kitchen where the three sisters once gathered to bake bread and study German. A short walk on the rolling heath where Kathy and Heathcliff had roamed in life and death was memorable, if a little creepy.
Also creepy was the moment several days later in London when, in the soundproof attic study of Thomas Carlyle’s house on Cheney Row, a woman came up the stairway and saw me sitting alone at the desk where he wrote The French Revolution (and rewrote it after John Stuart Mill accidently burned the only manuscript). The woman took one look at me and my Carlyle-like silver beard, froze, turned pale, and whispered: I thought… you… were… Carlyle’s ghost!
* * *
Although it has enriched our lives, our foreign travel is over now.  I almost want to say ‘Thank god,’ because we had some pretty dismal times abroad, especially in England— the awful pub grub, our rental car a horror (though Judy drove left-lane like a champ). The house we leased in Madeley Village, complete with cats, had things that tended to break down, like the furnace and hot water heater.
But the worst thing in England was the social angst. During our visit, the IRA bombed Manchester; the Irish mafia murdered reporter Veronica Guerin in broad daylight in public; Scotland and Wales were grumbling about ‘devolution.’ Both Tory and Labor spoke about the European Union like it was a conspiracy to rob England of everything English (especially its ‘magnificent’ currency). The national pension system seemed to be collapsing; the soccer Euro-Cup finals in London brought out violent thugs; and the personal lives of the royal family were probed in the press with a sneering fury that made the French disposal of their monarchy two hundred years before seem almost merciful by comparison.
* * *
And yet I wish we had lingered longer, not only in England, but also in Holland, France, Italy, and the Czech Republic. They all made a strong imprint on us in some shadowy way that I’m tempted to call spiritual. In his great travel book When the Going was Good, written in the 1930s, Evelyn Waugh laments: “There is no room for tourists in a world of [refugees].” Politics, he says, ended the era of true travel freedom— it had been “dried,” “frozen,” and “powdered to dust.” Waugh was an 18th-century man at heart, and what he would have made of modern tourism (or politics) is hard to imagine. Today’s political tensions would seem to preclude much real ‘escape’ anywhere. Wherever Americans go now, geo-politics and the plight of refugees are on the itinerary.
Do all foreign trips contain a germ of escapism, the hunger for ‘exotic’ sights and things? Is sight-seeing a form of self-evasion or self-delusion? Or am I over-thinking a natural human impulse— the urge to break from routine, to find “fresh woods and pastures new”? What I’m certain of is that a country is more than its geography, climate, language, customs, and history. It’s also a state of mind that must be lived in, however briefly, to begin to grasp. Yes, Cruikshank, the political satirist and illustrator of Dickens and Sterne, said that London, (now home to 7+ million) was a “great and monstrous thing.” Like every other mega-city on the planet, it was and is; but walking the streets from Waterloo Station to the Old Vic, Westminster Abbey, The Tower, and Parliament was not something to be missed— and I’m grateful we didn’t. Travel is a form of poetry.
In the same year that two Boeing 727s plowed into the World Trade Center, we moved yet again— and probably for the last time— to Judy’s home state of Texas. There, beneath the pines of “Deep East,” she taught at Stephen F. Austin State University, founding and directing another neuroscience lab. In addition to her professional publications, she wrote a popular science book, How Is Your Brain like a Zebra? - a New Human Neurotypology, and started work on her magnum opus, The Neural Rainbow: the Center, the Perimeter and the Brain: A New View of Human Nature (in progress), a radical new theory of human evolution and social organization. After retiring in 2012, she went on a real poetry jag, producing eight books of haiku containing her original photographs, as well as a collection of poems titled Light from the Left: poems on the paintings of Rembrandt (2013) and Poet in the Park: Wallace Stevens and Elizabeth Park (2017), poems interrogating the significance of the Hartford park in Stevens’ imagination.
As I had for decades, I found my bliss on a basketball court several times a week. Though I had lost much of my ‘vertical,’ or rebounding skill, by now, I still had a shooter’s touch, which fed my ego in a way that winning a Pulitzer could never do. (I might have started at a junior college, which would have altered the arc of my life and seriously affected my poetry, if not derailing it altogether). Of course, in these years I remained eager to improve at what Chaucer called the craft so longe to learne (by which he meant both poetry and love). No longer so sure that life was good, I still knew that my life raft through time, though a little battered now, was built of those ephemeral yet steel-strong things: words. I published two books in this period, The Ghosts (2009) and Songs from Walnut Canyon (2010).
This periodof my life, from my late sixties to my late seventies, could be captioned with Dickens’ opening in A Tale of Two Cities: the best of times, the worst of times.
THE WORST - Health problems. Some were simply “predictable age-related descent” (in James Fenton’s felicitous phrase)— things that disrupt your life but don’t usually kill you: kidney stones, hernias, cataracts, bronchitis, sleep apnea, arthritis, acid reflux, and hearing loss. (Oy veh! The Book of Job makes more sense now.) Others things might have been fatal: two strokes; a viral flu immobilizing me three days; and last but not least, bypass surgery. After the strokes in 2011/12, I feared total paralysis, with suicide as the only option to avoid life as a vegetable. So I got a .38, a doctor promised to euthanize me, if necessary, and I purchased a cremation policy.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the crematorium. I wasn’t paralyzed. I could still walk (well, hobble) and play HORSE with my basketball buddies. Most importantly, I could share life with Judy much as before: reading, writing, watching movies, limited travel. The bypass operation eight years later was more traumatic, and for weeks post-op, I was a wreck. I cried. I felt suicidal again, more so than after the strokes. But again, I got better. It was a year before I could try HORSE again, which I did, at a greatly reduced level. Here’s the clincher: will it ultimately be goodbye basketball, hello wheelchair? That question haunts my every waking hour. On walks around the neighborhood, Jude flies ahead like a Valkyrie, while I slog along behind, my legs and hips threatening to buckle and dump me on the pavement. Occasionally I have a bout of near hysteria: What if a drunk in a SUV guns down the street? Will I be pancaked? To fight back against such moments and ward off the wheelchair, I hit a Total Gym and stationary bike, do squats, leaning pushups, planks, bridges, etc. Will this regimen prevent the worst-case scenarios? Ask me in a year or two.
So I’ve migrated into T. S. Eliot country: “I grow old ... I grow old ... / I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.” I actually did have to have my pant legs shortened recently! My muse was not amused by any of this, but she grappled with it in the poems of Mortality & Other Hassles: Poems at the Margins of Life (in progress).  If there’s one thing I can be proud of in dealing with these problems, it’s that I’ve never asked the fatuous question: Why ME?
THE BEST - Publication. Over these years, I published more poetry than in any other period of my life. (Should my muse thank the strokes and bypass?). Here’s the roll call: Searching for Mr. Stevens (2011); Grand Canyon Days (2011); The Structure of the Body (2012); First Kingdoms: Poems from a Vanishing Landscape (2012); Postcards from Paradise: a Tucson Spring (2013); Vermeer in Words (2013); New Mexico Notebook: Late Summer in the Mountains (2014); my longest book, 50 Years: Poems for my Wife (2017); The Ratlue Diaries: Two Poets & the Rocking K War in Tucson, Arizona (2017), a prose memoir sprinkled with poems; Interrogations: Poems Posing Questions, and Cosmic Questions: Poems in Our Galactic Moment (both in 2021). What pleases me most about these collections is their variety, since a prime goal of mine has been to avoid repeating myself. Frost wanted every new poem of his to be different from all his previous ones. Pound put it in three words: “Make it fresh.”
* * *
And now, as a cold, wet spring in East Texas has given way to scorching, climate-change summer, Jude’s Green Is Certain, the first of a projected multi-volume poetry and prose autobiography, has just been published. Vol. 1 covers her life from childhood though high school, and Vol. 2 deals with her at times tumultuous undergrad years at the University of Michigan. The project has been both exhilarating and grueling for her, unearthing dark memories and cherished ones, and has given her a sense of peace and renewal.
I have new books percolating, too. I’m close to a final draft of Mortality: Poems at the Margins of Life and On the Wall & on the Page, sparked by an art exhibit. The on-going In the Company of Animals: Poems on the Path to a Peaceable Kingdom is the most difficult thing I’ve ever attempted— didactic poetry on a hugely controversial subject: animal rights and the moral/environmental imperative of a veg/vegan diet. (See “My Greatest Challenge” in the essay section). Have I bitten off more than I can chew? If so, I will regret the failure, but not the goal.
Along with the special joy of writing poems has been the delight of finding a new friend so late in life— Jerry Williams, PhD, sociologist, phenomenologist, poet, and world-class tandem cyclist (with his wife Michelle). We met in a reading group, and were soon exchanging poems, recommending poets that we loved (Stafford for Jerry; Stevens for me; Dickinson for Jude) and discussing other writers. Our dialogue continues now almost every week for an hour or two over coffee (or for Jude, iced green tea). These conversations are based on our mutual love of the craft and the enlightenment, intrigue, occasional bafflement, and sheer fun that poetry, and only poetry, can deliver. It was also gratifying for us to help shepherd Jerry through the publication of his first book, Tailings: Poems of an Oregon Gold Miner’s Son (2019). (Did I mention Jerry’s boyhood history of gold mining?) The book was a stunning debut for a fifty-eight-year-old poet— one with a distinctive voice and vision of the world.
* * *
In Joyce’s Ulysses Stephen Dedalus famously says: “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” Climate change, the Covid pandemic, and the Trump years were and are a nightmare— and no words of mine will have any discernible effect on such trajectories. And yet I will keep on writing, if only out of my sense of the poet’s most sacred duty, which Auden summarized in this way in his elegy for Yeats:
Follow, poet, follow right
To the bottom of the night,
With your unconstraining voice
Still persuade us to rejoice.
That’s the mandate I’ve tried to follow for half a century. In today’s world, though, I confess I sometimes wonder if rejoice is still the right word. (What is? I don’t know, but want to find out.) So here we are. If the good goddess is willin’ and the creek don’t rise, Judy and I will be scribbling for a while yet. Octogenarian heaven!
KL - August 2021
1. Poems dealing with this phase of my life are rendered in First Kingdoms: Poems from a Vanishing Landscape (2013) and Poet in Cowtown: My Kansas City Years (in progress).
2. Selections from both manuscripts appeared in Out of the Gate: Selected Early Poems (2017).
3. The 2021 banner of Shelton’s website reads (in 30-point font): “As a poet I am not primarily concerned with intellect. I’m not that smart. I just want to make them laugh and cry.” I believe every word of that.
4. The poet Peter Levitt captures my own sense of doubt on this matter: “Foolish, foolish souls, blessed with the notion— the certainty— that a human being aremed with nothing more than a syllable may help repair the world. And yet, if only for a moment here and there, we have not been proven wrong.” – “Statement of Conscience," Poets Against the War (2003), Sam Hammil, Sally Anderson, et al, editors.
5. I never knew Orlen well but much later came to respect his poetry.
6. A view reinforced by Lewis Menand’s “Should Creative Writing Be Taught?” - The New Yorker 6/8/09
7. Susan graciously invited me to provide an introductory poem called “Vision” to her innovative book reAPPEARANCES (2016).
8. Nemerov has certainly written some powerful poems. I admire his “I Only Am Escaped to Tell Thee,” a unique take on Melville’s Ishmael who is seen returning to his home and wife with gory, sinister memories set off in his head when he thinks of the whalebone used to make her corset. His “The Blue Swallows” is worth repeated readings, and his poems on Vermeer and Breughel strong, but are surrounded by a lot of pap. Will I read him with less animus one day? I can’t honestly say.
9. I see this poem as kind of sequel to Matthew Arnold’s “The Buried Life,” which propelled Arnold out of Victorian consciousness into a modernity just starting to be unearthed by Freud, Pound, Eliot, Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and others. Arnold’s famous “Dover Beach” is a better poem technically— but not as prescient.
10. After a few decades of fairly splashy success, both projects went bankrupt. Why? Capitalism is complicated.
11. This work I hope to one day publish as Poet in City Hall: My St. Louis Years.
12. The Andrew Lloyd Webber musical was derived from T. S. Eliot’s Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats and ran for thousands of performances in New York and London. I suspect Eliot would have despised it, but maybe not.
13. These escapades are briefly told in The Ratlue Diaries: Two Poets & the Rocking K Wars (2017). A longer version, Poet in Sonora: My Tucson Years, is in progress.
14. Rae spent his last years in a federal prison on conviction of racketeering charges.
15. Poems on the great Delft painter and his historical era appeared in my Vermeer in Words (2013).
16. The real estate speculator behind Rocking K was appropriately named Don Diamond, a one-time Wall Street trader, who at the time of Rocking K reportedly had a net worth of $600 million— a figure that ballooned to many times that before his death in 2019 when he was lionized as a great civic patron.
17. In addition to the in-progress Poet in Sonora, two other poetry collections of mine render our Arizona experiences: Grand Canyon Days (2011) and Postcards from Paradise: a Tucson Spring (2013).
18. Even the great epic poets have had a hard time producing credible a ‘paradise regained.’ Milton and Dante both tried, but the results in my opinion are obscure at best and frauds at worst. There are no doubt scholars who might convince me otherwise, if I had a longer life ahead of me.
19. Wertmüller’s masterpiece, Seven Beauties, is in my view one of the greatest films ever made, especially in its opening voice-over to a montage of brutal videos of WW II violence, while it repeatedly sounds the refrain Oh, yeah! With its furious sarcasm, this sequence has the heft of an epic poem and totally demolishes machismo in less than five minutes. I know of nothing else like it in film.
20. Today Lake Como is under serious threat, because of shrinkage in the glacier that feeds it.
21. The Museum of Sex in New York (MoSex), The Erotic Heritage Museum in Las Vegas, The World Erotic Art Museum in Miami Beach might come to mind, but they are more academic and educational than the photos in Groningen. The effect in Holland was just a shrug: Grow up. It’s part of human life.
22. This allegory of seasonal regeneration in Ovid’s Metamorphosis is painted in more lush eroticism by Rubens.
23, There were exceptions: the Comedy of Errors (dir. T. Supple) was spirited and sleek, with evocative Near Eastern music, and in non-Shakespearean works, the RSC fared much better— the Pope-Gay-Arbuthnot farce Three Hours after Marriage (dir. R. Cottrell) and Webster’s The White Devil (dir. G. Edwards) were excellent.
24. My tribute, “Caius Marcius Berkoff: An Essay and a One-Act Play,” is in the Berkoff section of iainfisher.com, under the tab “dissertations.” My view of Shakespeare was later greatly altered— see “The Bard Dethroned?” in the essay section of this website.
25. Our domestic travel continues, and for the last 20 years, we’ve spent a summer month in the mountains of northern New Mexico and a winter month on the Gulf shore at North Padre Island TX. These environments have been deeply nourishing, as reflected in a number of poems by each of us.
26. Are health woes a legitimate subject for poetry? Yeats thought so: “Bodily decrepitude is wisdom.” Dana Gioa agrees: “Poetry excludes nothing.” And Lucia Perillo produced brilliant poems after being afflicted with muscular sclerosis. She spent her last years in pain, in a wheelchair, and died at 58; but her brilliant book, I’ve Heard the Vultures Singing: Field Notes on Poetry, Illness, and Nature (Trinity University Press, 2007) showed me that my situation, though no picnic, is mild compared to hers. That helps me face the future with more equanimity.
Copyright Ken Lauter - 2021