Friday, October 3, 2008

On the loss of Reginald Shepherd

The recent death of poet Reginald Shepherd to cancer at the age of 45 affected me personally, although I never met him. We had corresponded a fair bit by e-mail and I recently donated the funds to bring him to speak and read at the University of Oregon—that cannot happen now, but arrangements are underway to use those funds and additional donations to establish a student poetry prize in his memory at Oregon.

Those of us who are working on the Reginald Shepherd Prize are starting to ask the questions that inevitably arise: what does it mean to honor a poet, and how can that unique gift, poetic voice, be properly set forth for purposes of establishing criteria for a student prize?

It is easy enough to honor an historian with a prize celebrating new work in that field, or a particle physicist by establishing the Quark Jockey of the Year or some similar clearly related award. But how should we set the criteria for a prize honoring the life and work of a poet? Unless that poet writes about one thing or only in a single form, the life, the work and the “voice” are all quite varied. We’re moving words around to come up with something like “poetry that honors the classical and modern traditions with precision and beauty.” It’s still a work in progress.

Reginald’s work—though we never met he always signed with his first name—was certainly borne aloft on the great wings of candor, so we can’t have any winners who waffle, fudge or hide the toys. Nor can we have mere diction-divers who, upon surfacing, scatter words here and there to see what happens—one of Reginald’s mentors, the great science-fiction writer Samuel R. Delany, would eat us alive if we honored something sloppy. Yet if we offered the prize to a student poet whose work displayed, say, "infrared fire burning through visible passion," who is to say what the winner’s work looks like?

I once described Reginald’s work in a review as having “intense volcanic roiling,” but I’m not sure that helps guide a student writer. There are similarities between describing poetry and describing wine: “the poems displayed a rich essence of marinated cedar overlaid with fresh Wensleydale, with thistles of filbert and turpentine sparkling through a haze of windblown borax.”

Should we honor his breadth of emotion, which in turn reflected the life of a black gay man growing up in the Bronx and eventually passing through Bennington, Brown, the University of Iowa and Cornell? Sure, but emotion is a genus, not a species. We all see and feel diferently. Poetic emotion can appear in the urbane scrollwork of J. D. McClatchy, the high church pointillism of Carl Phillips, the mythic immersions of Cameron La Follette, the whisper-forest of W. S. Merwin.

It is sometimes easier to describe what a poet didn’t do and didn’t like rather than to classify his work into a poetic taxonomy. There were no pallid stones in his work, he never attempted to leap chasms on melting wings of assumption, he had no time for the poetry of pathological personalism, he recognized that after a certain point economy of expression becomes chastity of imagination, he had no allergy to facts and he wasn’t about to geld any lilies merely because critics preferred parsnips—let the lilies show their stuff.

Reginald was a remarkable correspondent. He is the only person with whom I intentionally saved an entire e-correspondence (will there be collections of letters published, ever again?). Perhaps that was a premonition that it would end too soon. One example of how many subjects could gracefully occupy a small space in his writing is:

“If I ever find out what “emo” means, I will let you know. I did a reading at Columbia University week before last and asked some of the students there, but didn't get a clear answer. I think it's music by “sensitive” but definitely straight boys who play guitar and may or may not wear eyeliner. Fall Out Boy seems to have something to do with it.

I too came across Aqualung by accident, having seen "Pressure Suit" (from his second U.S. album) on TV and then backtracked to his first U.S. album (which is a compilation of two UK albums, which I might try to track down). I adore "Strange and Beautiful" and also "Falling Out of Love," as well as "Good Times Gonna Come" and "Another Little Hole."

That's a good point about my colonization being the problem to begin with. Damned imperialist cancer! And now I'm partially decolonized. Does that mean I'm a dominion or a commonwealth or something, like Puerto Rico?”

Ultimately, his published work demonstrated with sometimes painful clarity the great canyon between those who play the instrument and those who play the music. Reginald Shepherd played the music as well as anyone, and that’s what we’d like our prize winners to do as well.

Reginald has now gone on what Theodore Roethke called “the long and terrible way,” and we who remain can honor him best by never forgetting what he really stood for: no halfway house for the intellect, no auto-referential academic priapism. The best, always, or why bother? In Orpheus in the Bronx he noted that there is a mainstream of American poetry, “broad, sluggish and muddy” that offered “convenient epiphanies in prosaic anecdotes not interesting or shapely enough to be short stories.”

His own work, issued to date in five collections, is never sluggish or muddy, and we will expressly forbid glutinous turbidity when the prize is first awarded in 2009. Instead we will require purity, light, joy and truth of the kind that he displayed in one of his masterpieces, You, Therefore, included in his 2007 collection Fata Morgana (Pittsburgh) and dedicated to his partner, Robert Philen, which begins:

You are like me, you will die, too, but not today:
you, incommensurate, therefore the hours shine…

and ends:

… home is nowhere, therefore you,
a kind of dwell and welcome, song after all,
and free of any eden we can name.

Let us recall Elliott Coues’s definition of genius as “that union of passion and patience which bears fruit unknown to passion alone; to patience alone impossible.” Reginald’s passionate genius outraced his patience as his illness progressed, and we are fortunate in that at least one posthumous collection will appear.

In the final essay in Orpheus in the Bronx, he answered the question “Why I Write” by saying “I write because I want to live forever.” The blooms of his genius are exsanguinated, but we can honor their living colors forever with as many Reginald Shepherd Prizes and other joys as those of us who knew him can imagine. Reginald once sent me an e-mail addressed to “Sunshine” and concluded with “Goodnight, sweet prince,” but even that one ended with his unique good-bye, so with his words I must say my good-bye: “peace and poetry” forever, my unmet friend.

NOTE: a slightly different version of this essay appeared October 16, 2008 in Inside Higher Education.

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