Vas Dias, Robert (Leonard Michael)

views updated

VAS DIAS, Robert (Leonard Michael)

Nationality: American. Born: London, England, 19 January 1931. Education: Grinnell College, Iowa, B.A. 1953; Columbia University, New York, 1959–61. Military Service: U.S. Army, 1953–55. Family: Married Susan McClintock in 1961 (divorced 1989); one son. Career: Assistant editor, Prentice Hall publishers, New York, 1955–56; staff editor, Allyn and Bacon publishers, Boston, 1956–57; freelance editor, 1957–65; instructor in English, Long Island University, Brooklyn, New York, 1964–66; instructor, American Language Institute, New York University, 1966–71; tutor and poet-in-residence, Thomas Jefferson College, Grand Valley State College, Allendale, Michigan, 1971–74; lecturer, Antioch International Writing Program, London, 1977–81. Since 1981 lecturer, University of Maryland European Division. Director, Aspen Writers Workshop, Colorado, 1964–67; director of the National Poetry Centre, and general secretary, Poetry Society, London, 1975–78. Associate editor, Sumac, Fremont, Michigan, 1970–72, and Mulch, Amherst, Massachusetts, 1973–74; editor, Atlantic Review, London, 1978–80. Since 1972 publisher, Permanent Press, London and New York; since 1983 co-editor, Ninth Decade (now Tenth Decade), London. Awards: Creative Artists Public Service grant, 1975; C. Day Lewis fellowship, 1980. Address: 5 B, Compton Avenue, Conconbury, London N1 2XD, England.



Ribbed Vision. Privately printed, 1963.

The Counted. New York, Caterpillar, 1967.

The Life of Parts; or, Thanking You for the Book on Building Birdfeeders. Mount Horeb, Wisconsin, Perishable Press, 1972.

Speech Acts and Happenings. Indianapolis, Bobbs Merrill, 1972.

Making Faces. London, Joe DiMaggio Press, 1975.

Ode. Omaha, Abattoir, 1977.

Poems Beginning: "The World." London, Oasis, 1979.

Time Exposures. London, Oasis, 1999.


Editor, Inside Outer Space: New Poems of the Space Age. New York, Doubleday, 1970.


Manuscript Collection: University of Virginia, Charlottesville.

Critical Studies: By Linda Wagner, in Red Cedar Review (East Lansing, Michigan), 1973; by Toby Olson, in Margins 28–30 (Milwaukee), 1976; by Lee Harwood, in Poetry Information 15 (London), 1976.

Robert Vas Dias comments:

(1985) Though born in England, I grew up and lived in the U.S.A for thirty-four years, and a large proportion of my work has been published there. I have now been living in London for the past decade, so one could say I am thoroughly mid-Atlantic, whatever that means. I have never considered myself a member of a school or group, but I do recognize affinities of approach between my work and that of the Black Mountain poets, the American objectivists, and certain poets living or who used to live in New York. My poems reflect the congruences and incongruities of my daily life, and therefore they often express the tension between a conscious and an instinctual apperception. I like the way the literal particular, the expositional, the familiar, can shade into the numinous. The language is as I find it.

*  *  *

Robert Vas Dias writes a poetry of crisp understatement, often in segments arranged unexpectedly. He has long expressed a mock-serious view of the world, a world much like that of William Carlos Williams, David Ignatow, and Paul Blackburn in that his images are those of winter birds, children, junkyards, movies, trees, and boats. The substance of Vas Dias's poetry is the commonplace and the stance often the stoic, but the real métier of the poetry—and, one suspects, of the poet's philosophy—is the play within the language and the structure.

Although W.H. Auden defined a poet as one who loves to play with words, the affinities between Vas Dias's verbal constructs and the writing of Gertrude Stein are more noticeable. In Making Faces Vas Dias creates high jinks of word repetition and association, with shifting meaning jumping to sprung meaning, all caught within a heavily rhythmic context. The title poem, with its play on "face" ("defaced with the face I face"), introduces a collection in which nearly every poem moves from a root noun, which is also used as verb, to unlikely extensions, clichés, compounds, and misreadings, as variant as the single face in the process of "making faces." The comic use of the theme of the contemporary poet's identity, which has dominated American poetry for some time, is refreshing. What is impressive is Vas Dias's ability to achieve thematic coherence through what looks to be only wordplay. Among the strongest poems are "Poem Starting with Words Written on a Postcard" (using "state" and forms of "to be," with the opening line "I miss you because I am in another state"), "The Gift of Snakes" (here the wordplay leads to darker associations in theme), and the funny, sexual "Poem of Places and Tongues."

In the earlier collection Speech Acts and Happenings Vas Dias wrote a more conventional poetry, satisfying his need for invention through creating various speakers. While there are some poems in his later work about other personae, tapping his ability to re-create the idioms of characters he has conceived, most of the later poems express the Vas Dias sense of language and theme. Thus, in some ways his later work is less virtuoso and closer to the poet himself. We see his deep sense of loss over Paul Blackburn's death, his feeling of displacement—at least temporarily—as he returns to his childhood home of England, and his melancholy, tempered with tranquility, in winter. Although we come to know his friends and his fears, the process of knowing the persona in the poems is not arduous or tiresome but rather lively, interesting, and convincing.

Other poems and collections evince this same kind of preoccupation with the sense of play in language and the poet's responsibility to name. "Time Exposure" gives the reader glimpses of the poet's persona as he moves back into moments of his past, always near the threatening, alluring water. Earth and flight are juxtaposed as other constants in his search for self. The chapbook Ode is a prose poem montage expressing loss, suiting the definition of "ode" to the content of the poem. Heavily emotional, inventive in its mixed forms, the poem sequence juxtaposes guidebook explanations of the losses of cultural landmarks with the poet's often oblique poem commentaries. "Blackfriars Convent had been washed away by 1754" appears just before "left window in the row /of windows left /in the wall standing /lights behind me quick /as the vandal sun runs /behind the winter /wall of trees." Effective as a sound and image poem, the verse also repeats words and designs used in other poems within the sequence. Again, the reader must be impressed with the spare control.

Poems Beginning: "The World" is just that, a group of poems that have to do with the ponderous themes the phrase suggests. Vas Dias's shifting rhythms and generally taut voice, coupled with his sense of play, make the collection effective. When he writes, "we're afloat but hardly," the reader shares the grimace, not a lament. Whether Vas Dias is writing his way through the world or making faces, his poems are striking examples of the poet creating his own world through his own sense of language, and that is what poets and poems have been about since the beginning. It did, after all, start with the word.

—Linda W. Wagner-Martin