Sward, Robert (S.)
SWARD, Robert (S.)
Nationality: American; Canadian Landed Immigrant. Born: Chicago, Illinois, 23 June 1933. Education: Von Steuben High School, Chicago; San Diego Junior College, California, 1951; University of Illinois, Urbana, 1953–56, B.A. (honors) 1956 (Phi Beta Kappa); Bread Loaf School of English, Middlebury, Vermont, summers 1956–58; University of Iowa, Iowa City, M.A. 1958; University of Bristol (Fulbright Fellow), 1960–61. Military Service: U.S. Navy in Korea, 1951–53. Family: Married 1) Sondra Hirch in 1956, one daughter; 2) Diane Kaldes in 1960 (divorced 1969), two daughters and one son; 3) Judith Essenson in 1969 (divorced 1972) one daughter; 4) Irina Schestakowich in 1975, one son; lives with Gloria K. Alford since 1988. Career: Research fellow, 1956–58, and poet-in-residence, spring 1967, University of Iowa; lecturer in English, Connecticut College, New London, 1958–59; writer-in-residence, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, 1962–64, Aspen Writers' Conference, Colorado, summer 1967, and University of Victoria, British Columbia, 1969–73; from 1979 participant, Writers in the Schools programs, Ontario; from 1984 associate fellow, Strong College, York University, Toronto. Visiting writer, University of California, Santa Cruz, since 1986, Monterey Peninsula College, 1986–88, Cultural Council of Santa Cruz County, since 1986, Cabrillo College, Aptos, California, since 1988, Foothill Writers' Conference, summers 1988–89, and Foothill College, Los Altos, California. Founding editor, Soft Press, 1970–77, and editor, Hancock House Editions, 1976–79, both in Victoria. Since 1979 freelance writer: book reviewer, Toronto Star, and broadcaster, CBC Radio. Awards: Dylan Thomas award, 1958; Yaddo fellowship, summers 1959–69; MacDowell Colony fellowship, summers 1959–72; Fulbright scholarship, 1960–61; D.H. Lawrence fellowship, 1966; Guggenheim fellowship, 1966; Canada Council grant, 1973, 1981, 1982, 1983; Ontario Arts Council grant, 1982, 1983, 1984; Montalvo Literary Arts award, 1989. Address: P.O. Box 7062, Santa Cruz, California 95061–7062, U.S.A.
Advertisements. Chicago, Odyssey, 1958.
Uncle Dog and Other Poems. London, Putnam, 1962.
Thousand-Year-Old Fiancée and Other Poems. Ithaca, New York, Cornell University Press, 1965.
In Mexico and Other Poems. London, Ambit, 1966.
Horgbortom Stringbottom, I Am Yours, You Are History. Chicago, Swallow Press, 1970.
Quorum, with Noah, by Charles Doyle. Victoria, British Columbia, Soft Press, 1970.
Songs from the Jurassic Shales. Victoria, British Columbia, Soft Press, 1970.
Hannah's Cartoon. Victoria, British Columbia, Soft Press, 1970.
Gift. Victoria, British Columbia, Soft Press, 1970.
Raspberry (as Dr. Soft). Victoria, British Columbia, Soft Press, 1971.
Risk. Victoria, British Columbia, Soft Press, 1971.
Four Poems. Wichita, Kansas, J. Meechem, 1973.
Letter to a Straw Hat. Victoria, British Columbia, Soft Press, 1974.
Five Iowa Poems and One Iowa Print. Iowa City, Stone Wall Press, 1975.
Honey Bear on Lasqueti Island, B.C. Victoria, British Columbia, Soft Press, 1978.
Six Poems. Toronto, League of Canadian Poets, 1980.
Twelve Poems. Toronto, Island House, 1982.
Half a Life's History: Poems New and Selected (1957–1983). Toronto, Aya Press, 1983.
Movies: Left to Right. London, South Western Ontario Poetry Publications, 1983.
The Three Roberts: Premier Performance, with Robert Priestand Robert Zend. Toronto, HMS Press, 1984.
The Three Roberts on Love, with Robert Priest and Robert Zend. Toronto, Dreadnaught Press, 1984.
The Three Roberts on Childhood, with Robert Priest and Robert Zend. St. Catharines, Ontario, Moonstone Press, 1985.
Poet Santa Cruz. Santa Cruz, California, Jazz Press, 1985.
Four Incarnations, New & Selected Poems, 1957–1991. Minneapolis, Coffee House Press, 1991.
Family, with Charles Atkinson, Tillie Shaw, and David Swanger. Concord, California, Select Poets Series, 1994.
Uncivilizing, A Collection of Poetry. Toronto, Insomniac Press, 1997.
Recording: Thousand-Year-Old Fiancée and Other Poems, Aural, 1965.
The Jurassic Shales. Toronto, Coach House Press, 1975.
A Much-Married Man. Victoria, British Columbia, Ekstasis Editions, 1996.
The Toronto Islands: An Illustrated History. Toronto, Dreadnaught, 1983.
Editor, with Tim Groves and Mario Martinelli, Vancouver Island Poems. Victoria, British Columbia, Soft Press, 1973.
Editor, Cheers for Muktananda. Victoria, British Columbia, Soft Press, 1976.*
Bibliography: By John Gill, in New: American and Canadian Poetry (Trumansburg, New York), 1973.
Manuscript Collections: Washington University Library, St. Louis; National Library of Canada, Ottawa; University of Victoria; Toronto City Archives, City Hall; University of California at Santa Cruz Library, Special Collection.
Critical Studies: "The Voices Have Range" by John Malcolm Brinnin, in New York Times Book Review, 25 October 1964; introduction by William Meredith to Kissing the Dancer and Other Poems, 1964; A Controversy of Poets edited by Paris Leary and Robert Kelly, New York, Doubleday, 1965; "Robert Sward: A Mysticism of Objects" by Laurence Lieberman, in Carleton Miscellany, spring 1967; "A Poetry Chronicle" by Constance Urdang, in Poetry (Chicago), 17 February 1972; introduction by Earle Birney to Poems New and Selected (1957–1983), 1983; "Off the Wall Approach" by Ann Struthers, in Des Moines Sunday Register, 10 May 1992; "Profile: Poet Robert Sward" by John Laue, in Monterey Bay Writer, summer 1994.
Robert Sward comments:
Born on the Jewish North Side of Chicago, bar mitzvahed, sailor, amnesiac, university professor (Cornell, Iowa, Connecticut College), newspaper editor, food reviewer, father of five children, husband to four wives, I have had a writing career that has been described by critic Virginia Lee as a "long and winding road."
1. Switchblade Poetry: Chicago Style.
I began writing poetry in Chicago at age fifteen when I was named corresponding secretary for a gang of young punks and hoodlums called the Semcoes. A "social athletic club," we met at various locations two Thursdays a month. My job was to write postcards to inform my brother thugs—who carried switchblade knives and stole cars for fun and profit—as to when, where, and why we were meeting.
Rhyming couplets seemed the appropriate form to notify characters like light-fingered Foxman, cross-eyed Harris, and Irving "Koko," of upcoming meetings. An example of my switchblade juvenilia:
The Semcoes meet next Thursday night
at Speedway Koko's. Five bucks dues, Foxman, or fight.
Koko was a young boxer whose father owned Chicago's Speedway Wrecking Company and whose basement was filled with punching bags and pinball machines. Koko and the others joked about my affliction—the writing of poetry—but were so astonished that they criticized me mainly for my inability to spell.
2. Sailor Librarian: San Diego.
At seventeen I graduated from high school, gave up my job as soda jerk, and joined the navy. The Korean War was under way, my mother had died, and Chicago seemed an oppressive place to be.
My thanks to the U.S. Navy. They taught me how to type (sixty words a minute), organize an office, and serve as a librarian. In 1952 I served in Korea aboard a 300-foot-long, flat-bottomed Landing Ship Tank (LST). A yeoman third class, I became overseer of twelve hundred paperback books, a sturdy upright typewriter, and a couple of filing cabinets.
The best thing about duty on an LST is the ship's speed—eight to ten knots. It takes approximately one month for an LST to sail between San Diego and Pusan, Korea. That month I read Melville's Moby Dick, Whitman's Leaves of Grass, Thoreau's Walden, Isak Dinesen's Winter's Tales, the King James Version of the Bible, Shakespeare's Hamlet, King Lear, and a biography of Abraham Lincoln.
While at sea, I began writing poetry as if poems, to paraphrase Thoreau, were secret letters from some distant land. I sent one poem to a girl named Lorelei, with whom I was in love. Lorelei had a job at the Dairy Queen. Shortly before enlisting in the navy, I spent fifteen dollars of my soda jerk money taking her up in a single-engine sightseeing airplane so we could kiss and—at the same time—get a good look at Chicago from the air. Beautiful Lorelei never responded to my poem. Years later, at the University of Iowa's workshop, I learned that much of what I had been writing—love poems inspired by a combination of lust and loneliness—belonged, loosely speaking, to a tradition, the venerable tradition of unrequited love.
3. Mr. Amnesia: Cambridge.
In 1962, after ten years of writing poetry, my book Uncle Dog and Other Poems was published by Putnam in England. That was followed by two books from Cornell University Press, Kissing the Dancer and Thousand-Year-Old Fiancée. Then in 1966 I was invited to do fourteen poetry readings in a two-week stretch at places like Dartmouth, Amherst, and the University of Connecticut.
The day before I was scheduled to embark on the reading series I was hit by a speeding MG in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I lost my memory for a period of about twenty-four hours. Just as I saw the world fresh while cruising to a war zone, so I now caught a glimpse of what a city like Cambridge can look like when one's inner slate, so to speak, is wiped clean. For the record, I went ahead—with bandages—and did all fourteen readings.
4. Santa Claus: Santa Cruz.
In December 1985, recently returned to the United States after some years in Canada, a freelance writer, in search of a story, I sought and found employment as a rent-a-Santa Claus. Imagine walking into the local community center and suddenly, at the sight of four hundred children, feeling transformed from one's skinny, sad-eyed self into an elf, having to chant the prescribed syllables, "Ho, Ho, Ho."
What is poetry? For me it is the restrained music of a switchblade knife. It is an amphibious warship magically transformed into a basketball court and then transformed again into a movie theater showing a film about the life of Joan of Arc. It is the vision of an amnesiac bleeding from a head injury, witnessing the play of sunlight on a redbrick wall.
Poetry comes to a bearded Jewish wanderer pulling on a pair of high rubber boots with white fur, and a set of musical sleigh bells, over blue, fleece-lined sweatpants. It comes to the father of five children bearing gifts for four hundred and, choked up, unable to speak, alternately laughing and sobbing the three traditional syllables—"Ho, Ho, Ho"—hearing at the same time in his heart the more plaintive, tragic "Oi vay, Oi vay, Oi vay."* * *
A striking feature of Robert Sward's poetry is its range. He is a master of unique observation, gifted with emotional recall, capable of goofy humor as well as experiments in disdain, and properly turned off by war and the diplomatic posture of his native America. Sward's "Statement of Poetics"—a poem that appeared in New: American & Canadian Poetry 20—may indicate his attitudes accurately enough, though it may also indicate his disdain for unanswerable poetic questions. He is outrageous as often as not, seeming capable of walking on words halfway between the double exposures of put-on and truth:
people talking, getting that
into one's poetry that
is my poetics. Love
hate lies laughing stealings
get them all get
them all into writing.
No one has to
read them. No one
has to publish them.
I am more and
more for unpublished poetry.
Sward's delight with language is evident in all of his poetry, and the reader senses a healthy dose of play at work in every poem. He revels in the power of the final word, which he uses with delight against the innocent as well as those who have crossed him. He writes in "Mothers-in-Law," both of whom he lost through divorce, that the first of them "required, upon departure, / The services of three gentlemen with shoehorns / To get her back into her large black / Studebaker." The reader experiences vicarious pleasure imagining the lady in question thumbing through Sward's book. It may be the play of an adolescent nature, but how grand to have a poet awaken the childishness within us.
Indeed, if we accept spontaneity as a primary quality of childhood, Sward's childishness is virtually unequaled. The poetry that results is sometimes half-baked, but it is so direct of statement that we unquestionably feel the poet's complete, warty presence. I will take this kind of unguarded, risky stuff any day in preference to the urbane, sophisticated verse of poets half his age who write only within a limited range of highly selected posturings. Sward is willing to let his reader hate him, yet he himself escapes the pit of self-hatred. At times his spontaneity works against him, as in the polemic "In Mexico," where after describing his opposition to American war policies, he concludes, "What a country! / For even / Your stupidity, / The Charm / Of Your / Tastelessness, / Vitality, / Greed / / America, get out / of Vietnam, / The Dominican Republic, / Africa, Europe / Southeast Asia / / Has begun to smell / Has begun to smell / I would say / Like the Pentagon, / Like senility / Like death." I believe that poems written without deference to academic standards should rise above such standards and not be vulnerable to the kind of bitchy complaint that the subject's "stupidity" and "charm" are not capable of their verbs. Further, the abstract image is not even linguistically interesting unless Sward intends a different subject. In any case, spontaneity in this instance results in dull rhetoric.
For each of his few failed risks, however, Sward has many poems that win against the odds, his only form the integrity of his voice. The language is tight and the words comprehensible, and he can move up off the page, out of the words, like a man coming into sunlight. I admire his fullness and will end with excerpts from two distinctly different poems, "San Cristobal" and "Risk":
Pine cones, aspen,
Starlight, the light
World one way, then another
The light rising,
The light drawn up into stars
Voice is light,
The world is light
The stars, their hands
It's a calculated risk, whatever you do.
A man has cancer of the rectum. You
take out his rectum and
maybe he dies of heart failure.
Or he's fine and goes on for 20 years.