2 Dead Poets

The first poetry reading I ever attended was by the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz . He died this week at the age of 93. Milosz read his poems in both Polish and English in a small chapel on my undergraduate college campus. At the end of the reading, he gave the audience a deep namaste-type bow, palms pressed together. My sense of his bow was this: he really meant it. I saved a poster from the reading, and it’s archived in a box in my garage.

My other favorite association with Milosz comes from a story my friend Charlie told me. Years ago he taught 4th graders through Writers in the Schools (WITS). He led a lesson that he introduced with a poem by Milosz. In order to embrace the poet deeply in a way that made sense to them, the children renamed the poet Coleslaw Meatloaf. The kids referenced their buddy Coleslaw for the rest of the school year. You have to leave behind great poems to transcend a story that silly. I think he’ll do just fine.

Another poet I’ve read for many years, Donald Justice, also died this week. In his poem, Variations on a Text by Vallejo, he predicts that he will die in Miami in the sun. The actual details and circumstances were slightly different; he was in a nursing home in Iowa City. But the third stanza hits it on the head: Donald Justice is dead.

Justice did visit the Iowa Writers Workshop while I was studying there. He had been many of our teachers’ teacher so they arranged for him to lead workshops for anyone who wanted to attend. That meant everybody; we all participated, even our teachers. He gave “homework assignments” that no one understood. I remember him as smart, aloof, eloquent, a little impossible. Let’s put it this way. He was not the type of man you could please by trying to please him.

Here’s the last section of his poem, “The Man Closing Up”:

There is a word for it,
A simple word,
And the word goes around.

It curves like a staircase,
And it goes up like a staircase,
And it is a staircase.

An iron staircase
On the side of a lighthouse.
All in his head.

And it makes no sound at all
In his head,
Unless he says it.

Then the keeper
Steps on the rung,
The bottom rung,

And the ascent begins.
Rung after rung.

He wants to keep the light going,
If he can.

But the man closing up
Does not say the word.

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