David Wagoner: Prolific Poet and Novelist of the Pacific Northwest

From a New York Times obit by Neil Genzlinger headlined “David Wagoner, Prolific Poet of the Northwest, Is Dead at 96”:

David Wagoner, a leading figure in poetry circles, especially in the Pacific Northwest, who turned a keen eye on nature, his childhood and numerous other subjects in more than 20 volumes published across half a century, died on Dec. 18 in Edmonds, Wash.

Mr. Wagoner, who taught for decades at the University of Washington, also wrote novels, one of which, “The Escape Artist” (1965), about a teenage magician, was turned into a 1982 movie starring Griffin O’Neal. But he was best known for poetry. In 1991 he won the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, one of the most prestigious in the field.

In 1991 the poet Rita Dove, one of the judges in the Lilly competition, told The Seattle Post-Intelligencer why she thought Mr. Wagoner deserved that prize.

“He has never imitated himself,” she said. “He has always moved in deeper directions; he has always been exploring something new.”

Mr. Wagoner was a conservationist and an enthusiastic hiker, finding awe in the landscapes of the Northwest but also sometimes lamenting humanity’s cavalier treatment of nature. “Lost,” a 1972 poem that recommended taking a quiet pause in a forest, drew on both sentiments and ended this way:

No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows
Where you are. You must let it find you.

But nature was only one subject among many. Mr. Wagoner’s novels, many of them adventure yarns about young people, sometimes drew comparisons to Mark Twain for their colorful dialogue and humor, and his poems too could have a sly streak. One, included in the 2008 collection “A Map of the Night,” was called “Trying to Write a Poem While the Couple in the Apartment Overhead Make Love” and began with these lines:

She’s like a singer straying slowly off key
while trying too hard to remember the words to a song
without words, and her accompanist
is metronomically dead set
to sustain her pitch and tempo, and meanwhile,
under their feathers and springs, under their carpet,
under my own ceiling, I try to go on
making something or other out of nothing

Some of his most moving poems were personal stories — his first trip to the movies; being fascinated with a dead snake as a child. Among the best known of those, “Their Bodies,” was inspired by his parents’ decision to donate their bodies to science. It began with an epigraph: “To the students of anatomy at Indiana University.” A professor there, Mr. Wagoner once said, would read it to students at the start of the semester. The poem ended this way:

They had been kind to others all their lives
And believed in being useful. Remember somewhere
Their son is trying hard to believe you’ll learn
As much as possible from them, as he did,
And will do your best to learn politely and truly.
They gave away the gift of those useful bodies
Against his wish. (They had their own ways
Of doing everything, always.) If you’re not certain
Which ones are theirs, be gentle to everybody.

David Russell Wagoner …was born on June 5, 1926, in Massillon, Ohio. When he was 7 the family moved to Whiting, Ind., an industrial area near Chicago, and his father worked for decades in the steel mills there.

He began writing poems in grade school.

“I have no idea why,” he said years later. “Certainly not because I was reading a lot of poetry or knew anyone who wrote it.”

While earning an undergraduate degree at Pennsylvania State University, he studied under the poet Theodore Roethke, who became a mentor. Mr. Wagoner earned a master’s degree at the newly established graduate writing program at Indiana University in 1949, then taught at DePauw University in Indiana and Penn State and worked as a reporter at The Hammond Times in Indiana.

Soon he had published “Dry Sun, Dry Wind” (1953), a book of poems and monologues. John Ciardi, reviewing it in The New York Times, wrote, “Mr. Wagoner knows how to see both the thing precisely and the thing in relation.”

Mr. Roethke had moved to the University of Washington in 1947, and on his recommendation the university hired Mr. Wagoner in 1954; he spent the rest of his career in the English department there….

The Northwest, he said, was a startling change from Indiana. “On my first solo excursion into rough country,” he said in 1972, “I only needed five minutes to get lost in the woods.” He had plunged into the dense forest “as though I expected to be met by God,” he said.

“But the god turned out to be Pan,” he continued, “and when I’d finished my panicky circles in his honor a few hours later, I clung to my rediscovered steering wheel and was no longer a Middle Westerner.”

Mr. Wagoner edited the journal Poetry Northwest from 1966 to 2002, publishing countless poets there….Many other aspiring poets went through his classes at the university, and he was a champion of the art form.

“Those who do without poetry should imagine their lives without music — they are missing that much by missing poetry,” he told The Post-Intelligencer in 1991. “We don’t think the same way after Wallace Stevens, T.S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams or Theodore Roethke, just as we don’t see the same sights out our window after Picasso. Poets change the nature of reality for everyone.”…

Mr. Wagoner’s 2013 collection, “After the Point of No Return,” includes a poem inspired by a line in “Letters to a Young Poet,” a selection of letters by the poet Rainer Maria Rilke published in 1929. The poem is called “A Letter to an Old Poet”:

Do you still believe, old man, you are a poet?
If so, what you must do is so obvious,
you shouldn’t need reminding. You should keep trying
to do whatever you haven’t done, or start
doing again what you didn’t manage to do
right in the first place. You should stay alive
as often as possible and keep yourself open
to anything out of place and everything
with nowhere else to go, to carry what’s left
of your voice out and beyond, into, over,
and under, past, within, outside, between,
among, across, along, and up and around
and to be beside yourself when the spirit moves you
and to thank Miss Clippinger for your prepositions.

Neil Genzlinger is a writer for the Obituaries desk. Previously he was a television, film and theater critic.

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