Keith Waldrop: Award-Winning Poet

From a New York Times obit by Neil Genzlinger headlined “Keith Waldrop, Professor and Award-Winning Poet, Dies at 90″:

Keith Waldrop, whose first poetry collection was a finalist for a National Book Award in 1969 and who won the award 40 years later with his “Transcendental Studies: A Trilogy,” has died.

Professor Waldrop was far more than a poet. He was a well-regarded translator of French poetry and prose, was an artist whose collages were exhibited in solo and group shows, and ran a small press with his wife, the poet Rosmarie Waldrop.

As a poet, he had dozens of published volumes to his credit. His poetry, as the Brown posting put it, “was infused with an emotional and intellectual undercurrent that could astonish the reader in its capacity to bridge disparate thought with, if not logic, then perhaps something deeper, richer.”

The judges who awarded him the 2009 prize had high praise for his use of language.

“If transcendental immanence were possible,” their citation said, “it would be because Keith Waldrop had invented it; he’s the only one who could; and, in ‘Transcendental Studies,’ he has.”

The three linked series of poems in that volume, they said, “achieve a fusion arcing from the Romantic to the postmodern that demonstrates language’s capacity to go to extremes — and to haul daily lived experience right along with it.”

In a 2009 interview with the radio program “Close Listening,” Professor Waldrop talked about how some of his poems, including those in his prizewinning volume, were assembled similarly to the collages he made as an artist, although they were two distinct creative processes.

“I’ve never felt that they quite go together, the verbal collages that I do and the visual collages,” he said. “But I enjoy doing both of them, so I do them.”

Bernard Keith Waldrop was born in Emporia, Kan. His father, Arthur, was a railroad worker, and his mother, Opal (Mohler) Waldrop, taught piano.

His parents’ marriage did not last, and he was raised largely by his mother. In a prose work, “Light While There Is Light” (1993), which he described as a memoir written as a novel, he recalled one formative moment with his father. He took Keith, then in middle school, to Topeka, Kan., to see a play often described as “G.I. Hamlet.” It was a version of Shakespeare originally intended to be performed by soldiers in World War II, and it was being given a few productions just after the war in the Midwest.

“People who should know (older people) have since told me that it was nothing exceptional,” Professor Waldrop wrote, “mediocre acting of a badly cut text — and I remember the Edwardian costumes — but for me it was a view into another realm, a realm infinitely appealing and, most surprisingly, available to me. I was, I think, different from that day on.”

It sparked a lifelong interest in theater. As a graduate student at the University of Michigan and later as a faculty member at Brown, Professor Waldrop was involved in creating theater groups that gave small performances.

Just as impactful was that his mother, who was passionately religious, spent years searching for the “right” fundamentalist congregation, moving Keith and his siblings around the Midwest and the South.

“Until I went to high school, I think basically I read almost nothing but comic books and the Bible,” he said in the “Close Listening” interview. At a fundamentalist high school in South Carolina, he first started reading and trying to write poetry.

“I remember writing a narrative poem about the universal flood,” he said. “I hope no trace of it remains.”

He enrolled at Kansas State Teachers College, but his studies were interrupted when he was drafted into the Army near the end of the Korean War. He served in West Germany, where he met his future wife; in 1955 he returned to the teachers college and earned his bachelor’s degree. He then earned a master’s degree at the University of Michigan in 1958 and a Ph.D. in comparative literature there in 1964.

With two others, he founded Burning Deck, a literary journal, in the early 1960s, but within a few issues his partners had dropped out and his wife had joined him as co-editor. Soon the journal morphed into a press. The Waldrops used an old letterpress printer purchased for $175 and took it with them when they moved from Michigan to Connecticut in 1964. Professor Waldrop joined the Brown faculty in 1968. He retired in 2011.

Ben Lerner, a poet and novelist, wrote in The New Yorker in 2013 about taking a class from Professor Waldrop at Brown. It was, he wrote, “a class composed, on the one hand, of young writers eager to listen to one of the best-read humans on the planet talk about literature, and, on the other, of sleeping athletes who knew Waldrop pretty much gave everybody an A.”

Professor Waldrop, whose wife survives him, published his first poetry volume, “A Windmill Near Calvary,” in 1968; it was a finalist for the National Book Award in 1969. When he finally won the award four decades later, he and his wife were low-key about it. They traveled to New York for the ceremony, but his wife went to the opera instead of the presentation.

“I almost went to the opera myself,” Professor Waldrop said.

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

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