Holden, Jonathan 1941–
Holden, Jonathan 1941–
PERSONAL: Born July 18, 1941, in Morristown, NJ; son of Alan Nordby (a physicist and chemist) and Jaynet (Conselyea) Holden; married Gretchen Weltz-heimer, November 16, 1963 (divorced May 20, 1991); married Anita Rae Cortez, April 27, 1997; children (first marriage): Alanna, Zachary. Education: Oberlin College, B.A., 1963; San Francisco State College (now University), M.A., 1970; University of Colorado, Ph.D., 1974.
CAREER: Cambridge Book Co., Bronxville, NJ, editorial assistant, 1963–65; high school mathematics teacher in West Orange, NJ, 1965–68; Stephens College, Columbia, MO, poet-in-residence, 1974–78; Kansas State University, Manhattan, 1978–, poet-in-residence, then University Distinguished Professor of English. Department of English, University of Louisville, Thursten P. Morton Professor, 1991. Member of Pulitzer Prize poetry selection committee, 2000.
AWARDS, HONORS: Devins Award for poetry, 1972, for Design for a House; National Endowment for the Humanities grant, 1974; Borestone Mountain poetry award, 1975; Aspen Foundation for the Arts Prize, 1978; Kansas Quarterly first award, 1979; Associated Writing Programs award series in poetry, 1982, for Leverage; MASUA Honor Lecturer at Kansas State University, 1984–85; National Endowment for the Arts creative writing fellowship, 1984–85; Juniper Prize, 1985, for The Names of the Rapids; Distinguished Faculty Award, Kansas State University, 1986; Vassar Miller Prize, for The Sublime, 1995.
Design for a House, University of Missouri Press (Columbia, MO), 1972.
Falling from Stardom, Carnegie-Mellon University Press (Pittsburgh, PA), 1984.
Leverage, University Press of Virginia (Charlottesville, VA), 1984.
The Names of the Rapids, University of Massachusetts Press (Amherst, MA), 1985.
Against Paradise, University of Utah Press (Salt Lake City, UT), 1989.
American Gothic, University of Georgia Press (Athens, GA), 1992.
The Sublime, University of North Texas Press (Denton, TX), 1996.
Knowing: New and Selected Poems, University of Arkansas Press (Fayetteville, AR), 2000.
The Mark to Turn: A Reading of William Stafford's Poetry, University Press of Kansas (Lawrence, KS), 1976.
The Rhetoric of the Contemporary Lyric, Indiana University Press (Bloomington, IN), 1980.
Landscapes of the Self: The Development of Richard Hugo's Poetry, Associated Faculty Press (Milwood, NY), 1985.
Style and Authenticity in Postmodern Poetry, University of Missouri Press (Columbia, MO), 1986.
The Fate of American Poetry, University of Georgia Press (Athens, GA), 1991.
The Old Formalism: Character in Contemporary American Poetry, University of Arkansas Press (Fayetteville, AR), 1999.
The Remorseless Daydreams of Mrs. Blanchard (play), produced in Columbia, MO, 1977.
Brilliant Kids (novel), University of Utah Press (Salt Lake City, UT), 1992.
Contributor of poems and essays to American Poetry Review, Georgia Review, TriQuarterly, Tar River Poetry, Poetry, Kenyon Review, and other journals. Editorial assistant, English Language Notes, 1970.
WORK IN PROGRESS: Momma's Boy: The Journey toward Identity of an Identical Twin, a second memoir.
SIDELIGHTS: On July 1, 2005, Jonathan Holden was appointed Kansas's first poet laureate. As an award-winning poet from the time he was a graduate student, Holden has twice received a National Endowment for the Arts creative writing fellowship and has served as a committee member for the selection of the Pulitzer Prize in poetry. "Every serious student of poetry as literature has wanted to make poetry; to get a job such as mine is difficult," Holden explained to Chris Ellis in an interview on Holden's home page. "You have to win prizes and be in the right place at the right time…. I was lucky." Critics have found that Holden has had more than luck; according to U.S. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser, as quoted on Holden's Web site, "Holden is one of our most intelligent poets…. It is our good fortune that Holden wears his learning lightly and with such unaffected grace and charm." In a review of his collection Knowing: New and Selected Poems, Ralph Tejeda Wilson praised, "Holden's poetry is accessible, subtly crafted, and ultimately complex."
"Both as a poet and as a critic Holden struggles with important questions: the relationship of a poet's past to his poetic vision and vice versa; the potential moral outrage of trivializing real work by treating it as an aesthetic artifact; and the depressed value of poetry in a consumer society," wrote Thomas F. Dillingham in the Dictionary of Literary Biography. Reflections on his New Jersey childhood and adolescence, the game of baseball, and "the pleasures and disillusionment of illicit love," to quote Dillingham, are among Holden's recurring themes. Dillingham noted, "His poems do not 'imitate' life, for imitations may serve as mere substitutes for reality; rather, with his understanding of the function of rhetorical conventions in human discourse, Holden shows (or attempts to rescue) the power of poetry to analyze and enumerate unexpected relationships between daily experience and rare moments of insight."
Holden's poetry has been collected in several volumes, and many of his poems have appeared in literary journals. In a San Francisco Review of Books review of the verses in Holden's fifth collection of poetry, Against Paradise, Jonathan Bradford Brennan observed that the "poems are substantial and skillfully rendered, capturing particularly well the voices that inform them, drawing vividly, yet with apparent ease, detailed and believable human portraits…. His astute writing installs his subjects, especially baseball, in a revered and mythological niche." Yet, as Brennan, went on to note, "just as quickly as Holden builds, he tears down, scraping away at the underpinning of his institutions to expose the tyrannical assumptions on which they stand."
In a Poetry review of American Gothic Calvin Bedient declared that the poet "writes in a middle style so straight and sober that few words ever get personal." The result, Bedient claimed, is a collection that is "less even and sure of touch than his previous ones." The critic commended Holden's earlier works as "honest, hardworking, solid stuff, made in the heartland of the U.S.A. … Now, [with less] depth of penetration … he has added, here and there, dramaturgical tones and even lyrical tinctures…. Unfortunately, these elements are so frequently false-hearted as to make the product less reliable."
In The Sublime Holden continues to use a spare style. The poems collected describe betrayal, separation, death, drudgery, and terror with language of every-day life, using very few metaphors. According to William Ferguson, reviewing the title for the New York Times Book Review, the poems are "written in an almost conversational mode that serves as a foil for various ephiphanies." Noting that while Holden's poetry deals with large social issues but focuses on personal moments, a critic for Publishers Weekly noted, "At its best, Holden's plainspoken poetry celebrates such small moments of personal victory."
The 2000 collection, Knowing: New and Selected Poems, is divided into eight sections and features the best works from Holden's previous seven poetry collections, as well as a grouping of previously unpublished verse. The resulting collection is "at once appealing in its casually graceful surface, and complex in the manner that rewards reading and re-reading," according to Ralph Tejeda Wilson in a review for Prairie Schooner. "Holden's poetry is relentless in its examination of the ethical significance of experience," Wilson added, concluding that the poems included "are an achievement of free-verse poetry…. Knowing represents the achievement of a major American poet."
The "straight and sober" quality of the poetry included in American Gothic is also evident in Holden's debut novel, Brilliant Kids. His "writing style serves the story well: direct, clear, and showing the burden of emptiness that [the protagonist] bears," maintained American Book Review contributor Thomas Filbin. With Brilliant Kids, Holden "successfully [conveys] the spirit of an age [the 1950s] where passing time and killing it were much the same thing, and where conformity was expected and the inner life suspected." Speculating about whether the "unimaginative, flat speech" of the novel's characters is "offered as selfsatire" or "artful [renderings]," Filbin concluded, "If Brilliant Kids fails to ultimately reveal is characters, perhaps it never intended to, but rather sought to make them entertaining monuments to an age of repression and conformity."
Holden revisits the 1950s in Guns and Boyhood in America: A Memoir of Growing up in the Fifties, which Susan Dearstyne described in Library Journal as a "disappointing" work with a "tone reminiscent of J. D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye." However, a Publishers Weekly review declared the book's "loosely linked essays" to be a "keen study of the nature of American boyhood during [the cold war] era, glossed by illuminating poetry." The memoir delves into Holden's experiences growing up, leaving his boyhood and learning what it meant to be a man in the 1950s: not accepting weakness, embracing a code of honor based on violence, and hiding feelings. Jen Kohout, writing for Lambda Book Report, noted how Holden's insights into the era reflect on issues of gender equality and the struggle modern readers still have in dealing with homophobia and "fear of the feminine." Discussing Holden's poetic background, Kohout commented, "It's not surprising then that the nine autobiographical essays compiled in Guns and Boyhood are more suggestive of poetry than prose. Holden's essays are filled with powerful, crystalline images that leave the reader to connect the dots."
Aside from his memoir, Holden has published several other works of nonfiction, among them Style and Authenticity in Postmodern Poetry, The Fate of American Poetry, and The Old Formalism: Character in Contemporary American Poetry. Warren Wessner contended in the New York Times Book Review that some of the arguments are "unconvincing" in the eleven essays that make up Style and Authenticity in Postmodern Poetry, in which Holden claims that "abstract statement permits a far wider range of subject matter than a poem dependent on actual events." On the other hand, Times Literary Supplement reviewer Mark Ford called Holden's book a "solid" piece of scholarly work and praised its "perceptive" look at "the interdependences of all poetry."
In the American Book Review, Fred Moramarco described The Fate of American Poetry as "a thoughtful, well-written, but narrowly limited response" to an essay by Joseph Epstein that suggested "contemporary poetry plays only a marginal role in American culture … and that today's poets lack the vision, ambition, and worldliness of the great modernists." Although Moramarco faulted Holden for failing to discuss the writers he mentions in depth, he complimented him for being "an enthusiast … who is willing to stand up and be counted for the energetic vitality of contemporary poetry, and to suggest possibilities for its future course." In Moramarco's view, however, "the possibilities Holden suggests don't begin to explore the many fates of the many poetries that move beyond the academic constrictions and sometimes pedantic considerations he proposes."
Holden discussed his views on poetry with Jan Biles in the Topeka Capital-Journal: "All the best poetry I know is intellectual. It's not so much about emotion as it is about beauty…. The theme of most contemporary poetry—and mine doesn't differ—is desire of various kinds. Writers write in order to have contact with the world, to find the best verbal formula for something." Holden also told Biles that he is grateful to be able to write poetry for a living. "I was taught to make your living doing something that you love doing. It is hard to do. To get a job as a poet-in-residence at a university is hard to get. Many are called, and few are chosen. Well, I managed to get chosen. The luck of it is incredible."
Holden once told CA: "My conviction, based on half a lifetime of studying and writing, of teaching and being taught poetry, is that like painting, folk music, tale telling, joke telling, or cinema, like every other art developed to the level of self-conscious sophistication, the 'poem' is a blatantly artificial convention; and that like the conventions which define each of the arts—TV soap opera, for example, or country-and-western music—poetry evolves to serve specialized uses that cannot be as efficiently served by other means, uses which are not merely academic and exegetical."
AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL ESSAY: Jonathan Holden contributed the following autobiographical essay to CA:
Probably the two greatest influences on my life have been my father, Alan Nordby Holden, and the fact of having been born an identical twin. Stephen and I were born on July 18, 1941, in what was then rural New Jersey. Our mother, Jaynet Conselyea, and our father were intellectually inclined. Alan had graduated summa cum laude from Harvard in 1925. He had majored in chemistry. He had always been regarded as "different" and, like J. Robert Oppenheimer, he had been teased in high school for his intellectuality. A genius, he would have gone to graduate school, except that his parents were not well off, and so, after graduation, he worked in New York City as an accountant to support his mother, who was dying of tuberculosis. He was a very thorough man, half German, and when he had dispatched that obligation he managed by dint of his brilliance to get work at the Bell Telephone Laboratory in Murray Hill, New Jersey, as a physical chemist—a crystallographer—but for the rest of his life he felt that he was playing catch-up ball. In World War II, he developed a crystal used in sonar antisubmarine detection.
In 1939, Jaynet and Alan bought an old farmhouse on seven acres of land on Pleasantville Road, five miles from the nearest town. There they lived until their deaths, five weeks apart, in the fall of 1985. It was in that quiet, creaky farmhouse where Stephen and I grew up. It was lonely. We were their only children, and there were few other children around. Pleasantville was a narrow, gravel road. Occasionally a cow would wander across it. Though we were only thirty miles west of the Holland Tunnel, Pleasantville Road seemed like the uttermost end of the earth.
What do I remember about my childhood? Atmosphere, mainly, not detail. Pleasantville Road is on the northern edge of what is now the Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, and the landscape was primeval—slow fetid rivers, cat-tails, mosquitoes, briars. There were dangers everywhere: strange dogs, bees, hornets' nests, rumors of "quicksand." Jaynet read bedtime stories to us—all of the "Oz" books, all of Hugh Lofting's "Dr. Dolittle" books, and all the books by Arthur Ransome, author of Swallows and Amazons. There was no television back then, but there were comics, and by the time I was ten I had graduated from Donald Duck and Scrooge to E.C. comics—Two-Fisted, Weird Science Fantasy. The stories were better than Disney stories. They had irony. But what I liked best about them was the art. William M. Gaines hired serious artists, and I quickly learned to distinguish the style of each artist: Joe Orlando, Wally Wood, and (the best) Al Williamson. Weird Science Fantasy devoted an entire issue to Ray Bradbury's Martian Chronicles, illustrated by Williamson. I pored over it many times like a poem, and, in truth, it was a kind of poem. Two-Fisted, when it had exhausted Korean War material, began to retell famous battles such as the Battle of Lexington and Concord and various Civil War battles. It was realist art, and Gaines insisted that all the weaponry and uniforms be rendered with historical accuracy. The mortars discharged with a PONG! Rifles discharged with a KA-POW! I became a connoisseur of comic-book gunshot noises.
Around the age of nine, I became interested in baseball, and in the summers, when there wasn't enough to do, I would lie on my bed, the electric fan going (there was no air-conditioning), listening through the static to Mel Allen broadcasting New York Yankees games. I read Claire Bee's sports stories starring a boy named Chip Hilton. I began to construct an imaginary baseball team, its star pitcher a gaunt, seedy veteran like Sal Maglie except that he was, like me, left-handed. Gray had a slow curve that (as I put to myself verbally) "curled" away from the batter. With no other kids to play with, I began playing imaginary innings alone, hitting a threadbare tennis ball into the air and judging the result: a low liner for a single, a higher liner that ricocheted off the pear tree for a double, a homer if it carried over Thompsons' hedge. I would announce the games to the woods: "There's a long drive! Woodling going back, back…"
In the sixth grade, I received my first C in class. Stephen and I were bored to the point of desperation. My parents had heard about a progressive school in Short Hills, New Jersey, called Far Brook, a school like the Putney School, but for locals. Its director was a graduate of Bennington College, Winifred Moore. Mrs. Moore was a sort of contemporary version of Margaret Fuller, and Far Brook School was not unlike the famous transcendentalist commune Brook Farm described in Hawthorne's Blithedale Romance.
When our parents announced to us the school change, we bawled, but the school radically changed our lives for the better. A major part of the curriculum involved art and music. Each spring, classes stopped and the seventh, eighth, and ninth graders produced and performed a Shakespeare play. In the ninth grade there were just six students, three girls and three boys—Stephen, I, and a boy named Bob Gabriner. Far Brook was like a three-year honeymoon before we had to return to public high school. We were given tennis lessons, and I was allowed to be a baseball pitcher. At home, my boyhood companion, Pat Burke, had been taken out of public school and sent to a parochial school, Delbarton. Pat and I had lost touch with the local kids, and so, in summer, we spent time together teaching each other tennis. In his senior year, Pat was second singles on the Delbarton team. In my senior year, I was first singles and captain on the Morristown High team.
At Morristown High, the education I received was unusually good. In 1957, when the Russians embarrassed the United States by being the first country to put a man in orbit, there was a frantic rush to upgrade curricula in science and mathematics. The curricula of Morristown High had tracks, and in the college prep track the teaching was intense. We could take Latin. Stephen was in the National Honor Society. He did some acting. Stephen attracted and hung out with the intellectual kids, the geeks. He had a slightly effeminate manner, and he couldn't throw a baseball correctly. He threw like a girl. I affected a macho manner, though I was so scrawny I looked like somebody from a concentration camp. Some of the tougher guys in the high school would tease Stephen. I was terrified of them, of being mistaken for Stephen. Though I was timid and hypersensitive, I pretended to be "one of the guys." At the end of high school, Stephen was accepted into Yale; I was accepted into Oberlin.
Oberlin was a shock. For the first time in my life, I found myself in a student body that was at least as smart as I was. Those who weren't smarter were more worldly and had greater intellectual sophistication. My freshman roommate, Paul Levy, had graduated from the Bronx High School of Science. He majored in music and physics. From 1960 on, I had the feeling, like Alan, of playing catch-up ball. All through high school, whenever I'd been asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would guess "an engineer"; but at Oberlin I saw that the only thing I knew how to do was read. I became an English major.
The two most fashionable sets of ideas at Oberlin in the early sixties were Wittgenstein and Sartrean existentialism. I bought a tattered army surplus jacket and began to play the part of an existentialist, smoking unfiltered Camels and imagining myself like Camus. After my sophomore year, I dropped off the tennis team. I had been "first alternate." My homemade game couldn't stand up to the trained, tutored games of kids like Phil Page, from St. Louis, or our first singles player Jon Erickson, who had been a Michigan junior champion at Kalamazoo. Besides, tennis was too bourgeois an activity for my new persona, and my cigarette addiction (two packs a day) left me out of shape.
In my junior year, I became interested in the game of bridge. It was a popular game at Oberlin, and it was a good way to meet girls. My best friend at Oberlin was a brilliant, eccentric student named Ted Ulrich. Ted and I decided to memorize a new bidding system called the Kaplan/Sheinwold system, whose wrinkle was that the stronger your hand the lower your bid: that way you would have more opportunity to exchange information to find a good "fit." Much of my junior year at Oberlin I spent playing bridge. That summer, the summer of 1962, I went to Chautauqua, New York, where my uncle David was a music critic for the Chautauqua Daily. Through the local employment agency, I got a job as a yardboy for a minister from Chicago who summered there, Dr. Carl S. Winters. Ted arrived, and we began playing in local bridge tournaments. Our bidding system was so new that it confused many of our opponents, and we came in second in a tournament in Jamestown, New York. We each earned half a master point. The world of serious bridge was eye-opening to me. After that summer, I didn't play much bridge, but the bridge-world that I glimpsed is described in my first novel, Brilliant Kids, where the town of Powawathia is another name for Chautauqua. The character Clifford Bell is a conflation of Carl Winters and Norman Vincent Peale. I had intended to call the Winters character Peale, but because in the book Peale's daughter, Linda, undergoes an illegal abortion, the University of Utah Press, fearing a lawsuit, insisted that I change Peale's name, so Norman Vincent Peale became Norbert Victor Bell. The character Barbara is based upon Georgia Clark, my first serious girlfriend at Oberlin.
I hated Oberlin and swore to all my friends that I would never set foot in a blankety-blank college again, but it educated me in spite of myself. In 1969, when I was taking a class called the "Origins of Continental Fiction" at San Francisco State College, the professor, Donald Doub, was remarking how, in the second book of Don Quixote, Quixote keeps running into characters who have heard about the exploits of a knight named Don Quixote. I raised my hand and said, "So the entire second half of the story takes place at an entirely different ontic level than the first." Doub was flabbergasted. The class was puzzled. One of the girls said, "Antic?" "Ontic," I explained.
In my senior year at Oberlin, I began carrying a pint of gin around, like a baby bottle to pull on. Oberlin had hired a poet/scholar, David Young, and a professor of German, Stuart Friebert. One of the most powerful aesthetic experiences I can remember is hearing Friebert read Paul Celan's "Todesfuge" in German. There was a burst of literary activity at Oberlin. X. J. Kennedy, Lewis Turco, Miller Williams, and Judson Jerome visited in a group. Williams left the strongest impression on me. He read a poem in which Christ was a cowboy. In the last line, which was dialogue, a girl declared: "He could have me." The audience was deliciously shocked. This was a long way from stuffy poetry in the tradition of T. S. Eliot.
That year, I met and began to court Gretchen Weltzheimer, the girl I would later marry. Gretchen lived with her mother, Margaret, and her younger sister, Kristin, in a house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Gretchen had the most beautiful auburn-red hair I have ever seen. Margaret was intellectual, with a master's degree in literature. She was an alcoholic, and since the age of thirteen Gretchen had managed the household, bought the groceries, kept a brave front to the world. Whereas I was paralyzed with timidity and shyness, unable to break the ice with strangers, Gretchen had chutzpah and charm, and the gift of gab. Being with her was easy, because as she gabbled happily along her presence was a sort of panoply running ahead of me. This was especially true when I brought her to my parents' house. She could front for me to my parents. Jaynet, seeing that I was in love with Gretchen and sensing how desperately in need of parental love Gretchen was, admitted her into the charmed circle of my family. When I graduated from Oberlin, I would need a practical, extroverted partner like Gretchen to run interference for me.
When Gretchen graduated at midyear, in January 1963, she moved to New York, got a job as an investigator for the New York City Department of Child Welfare, and found an apartment on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. That June, after graduation, I moved in with her. I saw an ad for "writer" in the New York Times. I went to the employment agency to inquire. The job was to turn out formula fiction for a series of schlock romances. I was unqualified, but as the lady began politely to dismiss me, she remarked, "Oh, I see you're from Oberlin. Do you know my niece Susan Howell?" Susan was the fiancée of Ted Ulrich. The lady said, "Sit down again. Maybe I can find you something." She placed me in my first job, working as an editorial assistant at a textbook company called Cambridge Book Company in Bronxville New York. I worked there for two years. Cambridge produced review books. Its main competition was a company called AMSCO, which had cornered the review market on texts designed to help high school students prepare for the New York State regents exams.
One of the trends in public education was New Mathematics, started by the School Mathematics Study Group at Yale. SMSG was part of the continuing fallout from Sputnik, part of the attempt by the American education establishment to upgrade teaching in science and mathematics. The Doubleday Science Series, in which my father and Phylis Singer published the book Crystals and Crystal Growing, was another part of this effort. New Mathematics added a few high mathematical frills and jargon such as set theory and logic to ordinary high school algebra. The solution to an equation became the "solution set." The best of the SMSG texts was an Introduction to Matrix Algebra, which included some number theory. It made fascinating reading, but it was mainly to please mathematicians with gestures toward mathematical elegance which only the most brilliant high school students could appreciate. As I began editing the text Cambridge was pushing, I realized that I liked mathematics more than I had realized in high school, and as I began to talk about mathematics with Alan, we both realized that we had something in common and that he could be of substantive help to me. Our relationship changed. With me grown-up and in my first adult job, Alan could see that I was not going to be dependent upon him economically. We approached each other as adults, and Alan was able to introduce mc to a world in which he was an authority and to a mind that was truly unusual; for he was, as his colleagues would freely admit, a polymath—one with style.
On November 16, 1963, Gretchen and I married, and we began a marriage that would last twenty-seven years. At the time, our immediate needs were exigent: married men were exempt from the draft. Gretchen needed a family; I needed a caretaker. The marriage, like that in Henry James's The Golden Bowl, was deeply flawed from the beginning. Gretchen was too much a mother; I was too much a child.
We moved from the Lower East Side to a clean apartment near Ninety-fourth Street on Lexington Avenue. It was close to the Ninety-second Street YMCA, where I heard Muriel Rukeyser and John Montague read. But white-collar life in New York seemed a dead end. The Peace Corps was new. ln January 1965, Gretchen and I boarded a TWA 707 and flew to Albuquerque, New Mexico, where we would train for a project in urban community development in Chile. I had never been further west than Oberlin, Ohio, and the dry air and the sense of possibility in the Southwest was like a revelation. We received daily political indoctrination, an attempt to liberalize the trainees. While we were there, the U.S. Marines invaded Santo Domingo, and there were heated arguments among trainees about imperialism.
Each of us was interviewed by a psychologist, and, a week later, there was a "feedback" session. My psychologist browsed through his notes and concluded of me: "Solid citizen type. Mature." I was appalled. I had fooled them. When, in the initial interview, he had dropped his voice and said gravely, "Tell me, Jon, do you love your father?" I'd said, "Well gosh, yes, I … I really do!" And when taking the Minnesota multiphasic, I reached the question, "Have you ever had a black tarry bowel-movement?" I'd checked "no," reasoning that no straight, well-adjusted American man would say "yes." "Have you ever had feelings of unreality?" "No." By far the most liberal person in our batch was Gretchen, and by the time our training was over, she had succeeded in antagonizing many of the trainees. But Gretchen had been by far the most successful in her fieldwork, and at the end of the training, she was swarmed by grateful locals. In a process called peer nominations, however, a bunch of the trainees conspired to get back at Gretchen for her shrill political opinions.
On the final evening, all of us gathered in a lecture room. You'd approach the podium, be handed an envelope, take it out to the foyer and open it. It would either say "Congratulations, go on to next phase" or "Please see Dr. Napoli immediately." That night, Gretchen and I waited forlornly outside Napoli's office. Somebody came out. We rose to go in. "Just you," Napoli said—to Gretchen. I waited outside for an hour. Finally the door opened, and Napoli said gravely, "Jon, you'd better come in." Inside I found Gretchen dissolved in tears. Both the other psychologists were there, vulturelike. I had the feeling that she'd been beaten up. Napoli said that she was "a flaming vehicle." I told them sincerely that she had been the most effective in her field placement and would probably have been more effective than any of the trainees. "I'm glad you feel that way, Jon," Napoli said. "You know, we have couples here on the verge of divorce." I told him that we were treated like statistics in terms of risk. Napoli replied, "What other kind of risk is there?"
Another trainee who had been deselected drove us to El Paso. I had Alan and Jaynet wire us money. We bought a Volkswagen Bug and decided to drive west, then up the California coast to Seattle, where my parents would be for the summer at a conference on the teaching of college physics. That summer the Gulf of Tonkin incident happened, the Kennedy amnesty was rescinded, and it became immediately obvious that if I didn't get some kind of deferment I would be drafted. We drove back to New Jersey, and I called up every private school in a twenty-mile radius of New Vernon. One school, Carteret School for Boys, in West Orange, New Jersey, offered me a job: to teach Spanish and remedial math for $3,500 per year.
There is a set of private schools that are reformatories cloaked by a respectable ivied veneer. Carteret was one of these. I had never taught before. I was petrified, not only of teaching but of the students, who were tough, the very kinds of kids I'd tried to avoid in high school. For the first week, before heading the forty-five minutes east toward Newark, I would sit in the car in my parents' driveway trying not to throw up. As a teacher, I was a fraud. The school was fraudulent. Both the students and the teachers knew it. The motto of the school was "Success equals I.Q. + I Can + I Will." The students referred to me as "Pin-head." Many of the younger teachers were, like me, evading the draft. Two months after I started, I received my notice to appear for a physical. The headmaster, George Douglas Hofe, wrote the draft board a letter. I was reclassified 2A. While I was teaching, Gretchen commuted to Rutgers University to get a master of social work degree.
For the next three years, until I turned twenty-seven, Vietnam dominated the very weather of my life. Gretchen wanted to have a baby. I refused to, until I had gotten a terminal degree. From a friend I'd met in New York, Francis Silenzi, I was invited to read some poems with other young poets over WBAI. The two other poets I read with were, like me, virtually unknown: Grace Shulnian and Charles Simic. I began sending poems to journals. My first acceptance was the poem "El Paso" by the Antioch Review.
After two years, I found a better job, teaching four classes of Algebra II, the advanced placement course in calculus at Rutgers Preparatory School, and coaching the tennis team. We moved into a small farmhouse near Bernardsville, New Jersey, a forty-minute drive to New Brunswick and a five-minute drive to my parents'. My parents' Bell Labs friends took an interest in us. Alan had been put out to pasture at the Bell Labs and was tinkering with educational projects and giving lectures at schools around the country. The students at Rutgers Prep, well-groomed children of doctors and lawyers, were preparing for places like Brown and Cornell, and I had the uncomfortable sense of them walking over my back into an upper-middle-class life, leaving me stuck as a teacher.
In the summer of 1967, I resigned from Rutgers Prep. Gretchen had her M.S.W. I had been accepted by San Francisco State College in its M.A. creative writing program. Gretchen and I spent the early summer in Europe on a student tour. We had ordered a Volkswagen Squareback to be picked up in Wolfshurg, West Germany. We'd drive it around Europe, then have it shipped to the United States. It was forlorn and driz-zling in northern Germany. We drove the new car south until, near Munich, the sun came out. We continued south, down the Dalmatian coast, winding up in Dubrovnik.
Back in America, we drove to San Francisco and found an apartment on Corona Heights. Gretchen was hired by Marin County Legal Services as a social worker. I attended San Francisco State. The Vietnam War was going on more intensely than ever, but the only sign of it was the occasional grey aircraft carrier that would roost for awhile across the bay. There was a peace march, but instead of the marches I'd joined in Washington, DC, and in New York City—grey, somber affairs in which thousands of grim citizens walked silently past FBI photographers, past the members of the American Nazi party holding up cans of gasoline and matches inviting us to use them—it was like Mardi Gras. Marchers passed joints around, jugs of wine. The entire city was happily stoned. Nothing was serious in San Francisco. It seemed awash in acid, devoted to pleasure and dissipation. The city was too pretty, littered like white bric-a-brac beside a bay too blue to be real.
Meanwhile, the college was under siege from student demonstrations: the campus buildings were guarded by the San Francisco Tactical Squad. President Summerskill had been replaced by S. I. Hayakawa. Many of our classes were held in the homes of the professors. I studied poetry with William Dickey at his house on Chenery Street. The star creative writing student in poetry then was Gene Berson, and we hung out together. Berson was one of the best storytellers I've ever heard. Most of his stories were about high school experiences. Berson's storytelling gave me permission to be personal. Toward the end of my stay in San Francisco, I wrote the first poem based directly on my personal experience: "How to Have Fourth of July." The poem simply described the great Fourth of July parties which my parents threw for their friends and colleagues. It utilized an instructional format which I'd picked up from reading some of Gary Snyder's "Things to the Do" poems in Poetry. Snyder was the inventor of that form. My master's thesis, though, was a novel based on my Carteret experience. My advisor was Herb Wilner. I called up Donald Allen at Grove Press, and he invited me to his offices. He was an elegant, shrewd man, and we had a civil conversation. I sent him a copy of the novel The First Lesson of Richard Grubb. When I wrote them a year later, from Colorado, they had lost it.
Most of our social life centered around Gretchen's friends in Legal Aid, especially her boss, Jim Kovacs. To me, Kovacs' pursuit of pleasure seems in retrospect to epitomize the entire San Francisco Bay culture around the time of the famous flower summer of 1967 when the term "hippie" was invented. Kovacs was a pothead. He would argue cases before the judge stoned. We began having laughing-gas parties. Everybody would be issued a balloon. You'd inflate it off the tank and breathe in and out. On weekends we would have great rambling "office" parties in Mendocino County along the banks of the Navarro River.
As I neared the end of my master's, I decided to go for a Ph.D., and the criteria which Gretchen and I followed for programs was the physical beauty of the place. I would have gone to Eugene, Oregon, but the University of Oregon would not support a student for the first year. I ended up going to the University of Colorado. Because of my publishing experience, I had qualified for a fellowship as an editorial assistant for the journal English Language Notes.
My four years at the University of Colorado were the most important years of my life. Gretchen and I had made an exploratory trip to Boulder two weeks earlier. We had driven around the foothills asking people if they knew of any houses to rent, and by sheer luck we were steered to Dick and Kathy Ralston. Dick was a computer engineer at IBM. They had a cabin on Magnolia Road, a winding dirt road which levelled off at around eight thousand feet. The country was rolling pastures and groves of ponderosa pine. It was all owned by a family named Skates, but it was about to be sold and subdivided. In 1970, Boulder was a quaint, almost rustic town that was about to be ruined by wealthy out-of-towners and turned into a version of San Francisco, a city of fern bars, elegant restaurants, and brokerages. But Boulder was also the Midwest: CU's football team under coach Eddie Crowder was ranked third in the nation. It was a town about to boom. The university English department, however, was highly traditional. There were only two creative writing classes, both taught by an instructor named R. D. Lakin. The man who turned out to be the best poet on the staff, Reg Saner, was a Shakespeare scholar, a closet poet.
The National Endowment for the Arts had started its Poets-in-the-Schools program, and Colorado was one of the states participating. Gene Berson, who had been invited to direct California's Poets-in-the-Schools program, recommended me to Judith Wray, the new director of Colorado's program, and early in the fall of 1971 all the poets in Colorado were invited to Denver to meet the arts council and to read poems. It was a curious occasion, because, unlike the scene at San Francisco State, the poets were amateurish. The great boom in university creative writing—what Louis Simpson was later to dub "Po-Biz"—had not yet started.
Between 1970 and 1974, I supported Gretchen. Poets-in-the-Schools money (one hundred dollars per day), plus the ELN fellowship, plus the extra money from teaching freshman composition went far enough. Gretchen had taken a pottery course in San Francisco. We ordered a kick wheel, and she took more courses in Boulder. She bought a female palomino named Misty and took up horseback riding in the mountains. Gretchen believed that we should buy some of the land around us. My parents made an interest-free loan to us to buy three lots—nine acres for about eleven hundred dollars per acre. We had a well drilled and electric power installed. We decided to build a geodesic dome on the land. A group of idealistic young men had formed a construction company called the Alternative Housing Construction Company. They sold a dome kit and would help you put it together if you wanted. In July 1971, we had a circular concrete slab poured, and we erected the dome—three-eighths of a sphere—and had it sprayed with polyurethane. I bought a Skil saw and began constructing the interior. It was the first time I had ever done any building. It filled me with a kind of confidence I had never known before, forever changing me. At night, I would write poems about it.
There were no poets in the CU English department, but people told me that Professor Saner wrote poems, so I visited with him and asked to see some. As I went through them, I could see that he had exceptional talent, and I told him so, pointing to particular phrasings and also to his prosody. He could see that I knew what I was talking about. We became literary confidants—two poets using each other as resources, admiring each other. Reg had always wanted to be a poet and had studied contemporary poetry and poetry-gossip intensively. One of his closest friends was Wayne Dodd, editor of the Ohio Review.
One day, in the halls of Hellems where I worked at ELN and where the English department resided, I noticed a poster for something called the Devins Award: five hundred dollars plus publication by the University of Missouri Press. On a whim, I threw together what poems I had, beginning the book with a poem about the dome, "Design for a House," ending it with a poem called "After Building" and placing in the middle a poem called "Cross Bracing." I called the book Design for a House. Several months later, the phone rang and a suspicious woman named Mary Ellen Cruff asked me about the circumstances of the book. She then told me that I had won the Devins Award. There had been some 360 entries. The three judges had been Bruce Cutler, Donald Finkel, and Carolyn Kizer. Could I be present to accept the award in person?
I asked the department chairman, Harold Kelling, if the department would pay my airfare to Kansas City, and he immediately agreed. When I told Reg of the award, he blanched, and I realized that he was jealous, that he was wondering why Holden instead of Saner, though Reg hadn't applied for the Devins. My award started him competing for awards (and he was extremely successful: he won the first Walt Whitman Award, in 1975, for his collection Climbing into the Roots, and not long afterwards So This Is the Map was selected by Derek Walcott for the National Poetry series).
On a mild April morning, I flew to Kansas City, attended the awards banquet to accept the award, and met Howard Nemerov, the featured reader of the evening. Tan, brawny, in his early fifties, he reminded me of a powerful executive. He had not yet won any of the major prizes he was later to win. His attitude toward my enthusiasm was one of patriarchal indulgence. I was familiar with his work but had never been taken with it. It was too hedged with irony. I wanted poems which transcended the academic, poems like the "spots of time" in Wordsworth's Prelude, which gave you the taste of raw experience. I would return again to Kansas City that fall for my own reading.
The University of Colorado was almost insultingly easy. There was a particularly severe young professor of Anglo-Saxon from Brown University named John Kirk, and I began toying with making medieval literature my major field, but one day, driving from Boulder into Denver for a Poets-in-the-Schools gig, I saw with a sort of visionary clarity what I should do. I should abandon the medieval nonsense of trying to please some scholarly father figure. I should major in twentieth-century American. I would do a thesis on William Stafford. Because it would be the first book on Stafford, it would probably be published. Best of all, Gretchen and I could drive out that summer to Lake Oswego, Oregon, and I would interview him in person.
Meanwhile, Gretchen and I, unable to spawn a child, decided to adopt. We had friends who had adopted a Korean child through the Holt Agency in Oregon, so we submitted an application and went through the screening process. We were sent a photograph of a child whom we named Elizabeth. The time for her arrival came, and there was no word. Several weeks after the arrival date, we received a letter saying that Elizabeth had died in the orphanage. With the letter came a picture of a second child. We decided to name her Alanna.
That July we drove out to Oregon, and I interviewed Bill Stafford. Ever since I'd encountered his poem "Traveling through the Dark" in the Penguin Anthology of Contemporary Poets in 1960, Stafford had been my role model. In the early sixties, that poem seemed to many of us almost revolutionary. Its sincerity, its autobiographical directness, seemed audacious. And its stern, almost didactic tone ran squarely against the dominant style of that time. That style—a style which has come to be known as "late modernist"—was dictated by academics and relied heavily on irony as a replacement for raw emotion. But "Traveling through the Dark" was different. The voice speaking the poem sounded like somebody you'd trust—a man bound to a rigid code of moral responsibility. The ethos of this man was so unflinching, so obviously authentic, that it compelled admiration.
The first time I met him was in July 1972, at his home. He was fifty-eight. It was thrilling to meet him, but it was daunting, too, because he was so much like my own father. Wiry, elfin, with the face of a fox, Stafford was curious about everything around him, absolutely alert. From being in the presence of Bell Labs geniuses for my entire childhood, I'd learned to recognize them, like a bird-watcher. (I'd had to. It was a kind of survival technique to avoid making a fool of oneself in the presence of some of the most high-powered intellectuals in the world. Some of them had worked on the Manhattan Project.)
In his hook Alone with America, Richard Howard refers to the "arrogant otherness" of the persona in Bill's first poetry collection, West of Your City, but it was not the "otherness" of some kind of regional pride. It was the "otherness" of every major mind I've had the privilege to observe, though Bill camouflaged under a folksy demeanor his true nature.
In the fall, I started studying for the Ph.D. comprehensives—in eighteenth-century British, in the English Romantics, in Victorian, and in twentieth-century American. My major professor was one of the most popular teachers in the department, a younger man named James Folsom. Folsom had studied at Yale and felt superior to most of the older men around him. He was an alcoholic but highly charming. He lived in the old mining town of Gold Hill, and he kept horses. He would often compare working with his stable of graduate students to the breaking of horses. He was the only professor who would support my Stafford thesis, partly because Stafford was a "western" writer, and Folsom's special field was Western American literature.
In April, Gretchen and I received a call that our baby daughter, Alanna, was to arrive in San Francisco. Gretchen went to fetch her. I was doing another Poets-in-the-Schools gig. I met Gretchen and the baby at Stapleton International the next day. As Gretchen handed me the baby, I remembered what a friend of mine had once said—that the places where you weren't touched enough as a child are the places where you need extra attention as an adult. Later, in a poem titled "Making Things Grow," I would write about that theme, the need for physical love. I passed my comprehensives and, in the fall, began writing the thesis. I had noticed, from reading Stafford, that certain words such as dark, deep, far, near, cold recurred with an almost symbolic meaning. In a slender thesis, The Mark to Turn: A Reading of William Stafford's Poetry, I "deciphered" Stafford's symbolic vocabulary. It followed the classic "new critical" approach to texts that I had been taught at Oberlin and which, except for Freudian analysis, was the only approach I knew.
Gretchen was pregnant. We had heard of other couples who, unable to get pregnant, had adopted a baby only to become pregnant immediately. One older lady we knew, after adopting a baby, had begun to menstruate again. On March 4, 1974, my son, Zachary, was born in Boulder, Colorado. We named him Zack after Za-chary Fisk, a childhood chum who had been best man at our wedding. Baby Zack's hair was an apricot-colored haze. The dome was cold, heated mainly with a wood fire, and after we brought Zack to the dome, he came down with a cold which turned into a hacking cough. We called Zack's pediatrician at Boulder Memorial who insisted that we were being alarmists. We borrowed a humidifier, made a tent of blankets, fortified Zack there, and kept the fire going, but there was no improvement. Finally we prevailed upon the doctor to test him for pneumonia. Zack tested positive. He was hospitalized in an oxygen tent. Gretchen sat with him round the clock.
That spring I graduated, and in August we loaded up our Squareback, I rented a Ryder truck, and we headed east to Columbia, Missouri, where I had been offered a job at Stephens College. Descending from the pristine mountain air into the heat and haze of the plains was depressing, even vaguely humiliating. We had to stop regularly so that Gretchen could nurse Zachary. The heat and the humidity increased steadily the further east we went. At around 3:00 p.m. the radio began to mention tornado warnings. We were near the town of Paxico, about twenty miles west of Topeka. The west had become preternaturally dark, like the famous painting Line Squall by John Steuart Curry. The lightning strikes were so constant and frequent that it was as if a marching band were coming toward us briskly with fife and drum. I pulled the truck off the highway, on a rise so that Gretchen and the kids would find me, for we had been separated. When the storm struck, the force of the line squall nearly blew the truck over. Coming through the melee of rain was Gretchen, screaming that there were tornadoes everywhere. She and the kids were sheltered in the underpass. But the storm was short-lived. We followed it the rest of the way to Columbia, arriving after midnight at a dilapidated house which we had rented sight unseen. The kitchen was filthy; the refrigerator had spoiled food in it. The house had been rented by some actors. Later that morning, I would be attending Stephens' fall faculty conference.
Thus began the worst four years of my life. In 1962, Stephens and Sweet Briar had been the best two-year women's "finishing schools" in the country. Then Stephens had decided to become a four-year college, and had lost its uniqueness. Its enrollment had peaked at about two thousand, but now enrollment was declining, and the college was entering a period of retrenchment. The first thing the acting president did was show us the latest enrollment figures and begin what during my four years there would be a litany: "retention is the key to enrollment" and (to us) "advising is the key to retention."
Stephens had hired as its star poet Heather McHugh. Heather had graduated magna cum laude from Radcliffe and gotten an M.A. in creative writing from the University of Denver. She was accompanied by her partner, Gregory Biss, a composer. Heather was brilliant, brash, ambitious. She had many connections with famous writers, and she invited Richard Howard to read at Stephens. Howard came pro bono: all he demanded was expenses. His reading was memorable to me. He read from Two-Part Inventions the poem "Wildflowers," an argument between Walt Whitman and Oscar Wilde.
The University of Missouri had just hired Larry Levis. There was a vital poetry scene there, and Larry's readings were jammed. He was and still is one of the best readers that I have ever heard. He would read softly, with the sultry demeanor of a hood—a sort of tropical James Dean—but his poems gave me a kind of vertigo. It was what Robert Bly called "leaping poetry," though Larry was and is the only poet in America able to write it. Other poets there from Iowa were Leslie Ullman (who would, in 1977, win the Yale Younger Poets Prize), and Larry's girlfriend, Marcia Southwick. Larry might be a genius; the others I found mannered, like spoiled upper-middle-class children who regarded creativity as a birthright.
From the moment I arrived at Stephens, I resolved somehow to get out. It was possible to do, but the competition was enormous. I submitted my thesis to the University Press of Kansas, and, in 1976, they published it. I began working on various critical essays about poetry. One was called "Affected Naturalness and the Poetry of Sensibility." It was aimed at exposing the manners of Iowa workshop poetry.
Stephens was intent on maintaining an image of wealth. When I arrived and when I left it was still possible for a student to board her horse in Stephens's stables and to major in equestrian science. My second year there, Stephens hired a new president, an elegant scion of the upper classes: Arland Crist-Janer. I had been hired at a salary of eleven thousand dollars. When I left, four years later, I was making twelve thousand dollars. Stephens's enrollment had steadily decreased. It had cut several departments, including the music department.
After a year and a half, Heather left for a better job at SUNY Binghamton, and their aging fiction writer, Andrew Jolly, retired. We hired a young fiction writer named Fred Pfeil. Fred had graduated summa cum laude from Amherst College and gotten his master's degree at Stanford where he had been a Stegner fellow. A doctrinaire Marxist, Fred was a brilliant teacher and, for me, a necessary friend and ally, almost the only person on the staff or administration who was not either lesbian or bisexual. I felt terribly out of place there. The workload and the advising load were crushing, and publication was not, as in most universities, rewarded. But Stephens offered a bachelor of fine arts in creative writing, and the better students I had are still among the most brilliant and serious students that I have ever taught. By far the best, though, was Leslie Miller, a young woman from Zanesville, Ohio whose father was a judge. Leslie was high spirited, full of chutzpah, and she was a virtual fountain of creativity: to this day I have never seen anybody write so much so well so steadily. After Stephens, she attended the Iowa Writer's Workshop and then got a Ph.D. in creative writing at the University of Houston. She has since published two collections with Carnegie-Mellon University Press. Meanwhile, we had a succession of fine writers on campus: Diane Johnson, Tillie Olsen, Denise Levertov, Jonathan Penner, William Stafford, Stanley Plumly.
Plumly had taught at Iowa. He was bringing news from the front line. He had just published, in the American Poetry Review, a two-part essay titled "Chapter and Verse," in which he talked about poetry as "rhetoric." There were two kinds of rhetoric in poetry, a rhetoric of image and a rhetoric of voice. Both parts of his essay talked about the issue of "credentials." In a milieu in which free verse was the norm, the issue of credentials, Plumly pointed out, was particularly crucial. How could one distinguish quality? Most of the essay consisted of examples of contemporary poetry and explications of these poems. From Plumly, more than anybody else, I acquired the notion of poetry as an art of "rhetoric."
Stephens also had a nationally known little magazine called Open Places, edited by Eleanor Bender. Immediately upon my arrival, Eleanor asked for some poems from me and she published them. One of them was published in the Borestone Mountain Best Poems of 1975. The poem was called "Making Things Grow," and it described my feeling when Gretchen had placed Alanna in my arms, at six months old.
One of the results of my feeling left out of the poetry scene, left to play catch-up ball, was that I studied the manners of more successful poets with suspicion, as if they had discovered a kind of trick by which they could induce awe and even hero worship in an audience. Perhaps, as Plumly argued, successful presentation of poetry was a rhetorical art. At Oberlin, I had read Aristotle's Rhetoric, and as I continued to write essays, they focused around poetry as "rhetoric," as an art of persuasion. Plumly's essay was a significant confirmation of all that I had suspected.
A friend of mine at Stephens, Tom Dillingham, brought back for me from the 1976 MLA convention in New York a copy of a paper by a young critic named Paul Breslin, "Nihilistic Decorum in Contemporary American Poetry." The paper described the diction of much of what was soon to be called "deep image" poetry as "codified" and "generic." It was the latest "period style." Fashion, then, was a kind of rhetoric.
In the fall of 1976, I applied for a creative-writing position at Kansas State University, to replace Helen Williams, who had died of cancer. In August 1977 we moved from Columbia, Missouri, to Manhattan, Kansas. We had found an older home on Fairview Avenue, a short walk to campus. The street was filled with children, and across the alley from our backyard was the playground of Eugene Field School, the very school where Zachary and Alanna would be going—an authentic, old-fashioned "neighborhood" school.
The English department of Kansas State was, at that time, highly traditional and dominated by older professors. In Lovejoy's College Handbook, the university had been called "Silo Tech," and the last words in the entry were "No place for a poet." Which meant it would be the ideal place for a poet, a place where poetry was a precious resource like water in the desert, a place where the office of "poet" might be more than decorative, and where "research and publication" were not only honored but financially rewarded. For the first time that I could remember, everything seemed to fall into place and make sense. I could live as my father had at the Bell Labs. What he had shown me, more by example than by precept, was the desirability (to refer to Robert Frost in "Two Tramps in Mud Time") to unite avocation and vocation, of finding one's identity through work and of working for an institution that would leave you some leeway to play, to experiment. "Keep your needs modest," he had said, "and make enough to satisfy them." Time was money, and there was a trade-off: physicians and attorneys sold away their leisure. Teachers were paid less but could enjoy whole summers to do what they wished.
In 1979, the book I had been assembling, The Rhetoric of the Contemporary Lyric, was accepted by the Indiana University Press, and a poem of mine, "God," which I had submitted to Kansas Quarterly, won first prize in its annual best poetry awards. The judge was Maxine Kumin. In 1980, The Rhetoric of the Contemporary Lyric was published, and I was told that it was being read avidly at the Iowa Writer's Workshop. I was promoted to associate professor, with tenure. I began a series of visiting writer's grants with funds from the National Endowment for the Arts, hosting Gerald Costanzo, Susan Fromberg Schaeffer, George Garrett, Winston Weathers, Marvin Bell, and Richard Hugo. I had always temperamentally been inclined to Hugo's poetry, and the reading which he gave was one of the best readings I would ever hear. Heavy, troll-like, nearly bald, he stumped back and forth before the first row of seats in the audience, yakking in a loud, guffawing, yet oddly confidential way about his childhood. Then suddenly his speech had crossed a threshold, become more organized, and he was reciting from memory, as though still talking, "What Thou Lovest Well, Remains American."
It was a trick, but it opened my eyes to the subtle difference between poetry and speech. It suggested that a poem had to exceed in passion and eloquence the best conversation in order to have a raison d'être. The thermostat in the shabby lecture room had broken, and the temperature was at least eighty degrees. Sweat rolled off Hugo's head, but the audience was transfixed. The next year, when, visiting him in Missoula, I mentioned to his wife Ripley how odd it was that various poets like Reg Saner and David Wagoner were accomplished magicians. Ripley said that Dick was too, only his magic was storytelling. After the reading, Gretchen and I held the reception at our house. Dick had brought with him a type of superdrug for his ulcer. He chugged it down, then, chain-smoking and guzzling Cutty Sark, he settled in a corner of the living room and held court.
In the 1979–1980 academic year, I procured another NEA visiting writer's grant and this time brought Jerry Bumpus, H. E. Francis, Stephen Dunn, Jorie Graham, and Dave Smith. I had always felt a special simpatico with Stephen Dunn's poetry and had written about it in The Rhetoric, in the chapter "Stephen Dunn and the Realist Lyric." It was Dunn who once confided to me that in order to be a writer it was necessary to live in "a landscape of desire" and that New Jersey, where he resided and where I had grown up, was just such a landscape. As Dunn's reputation had grown and he was offered various jobs—jobs I would have given my eyeteeth for, such as at the University of Colorado—he had spurned them. He seemed to have intrinsic common sense and emotional honesty. He knew that he was a poet who had charisma, star power, but he distrusted that charisma as much as he liked it. He was on guard against vanity. He told me that the best feeling in the world he had ever experienced was when he had hit the winning jump shot at the buzzer of a college basketball game and been mobbed by the fans.
When Jorie Graham visited campus, her beauty stunned people, and she gave one of the best readings I have ever heard. One of my students was so bewildered by the power of it that at the end of the reading she ducked out to the ladies' room and cried. She couldn't figure out what had happened to her. I felt the same way, and I tried to describe my reaction in a poem called "The Third Party." Although the "she" in the poem was actually one of my students who was a genius but schizophrenic, the poem's praise of "mind" was inspired by Jorie. How much rhetorical power Jorie's physical beauty added to a reading was impossible to say. If contemporary American poetry has a diva, it is Jorie.
In the 1980–1981 academic year, we had hired a brilliant young fiction writer, Steve Heller, whose presence on the staff decisively changed my life for the better; Steve was a real writer and an excellent reader of poetry. For the first time since coming to Kansas State, I was not alone. Steve quickly became my closest friend and my best critic.
In late June 1981, I hitchhiked from Boulder to Missoula and stayed with Dick and Ripley Hugo to interview him for the book I had planned to do: Landscapes of the Self: The Development of Richard Hugo's Poetry. They were neighbors of Jim and Lois Welch, and Dick threw a tiny party for me, with some of the local literati. Around 9:00 p.m. I glanced over at Jim. He was awake but utterly still and remote, stoned in a way I had never seen before.
The year 1982 was a year when many of the eggs which I had laid began to hatch. That academic year we brought to campus Syd Lea, Stanley Plumly, and Robert Dana. With Lea, this visit began a great and important friendship. Syd had read The Rhetoric of the Contemporary Lyric and devoted a long review/essay to it in the New England Review, praising my approach. It was the implicit morality of my approach which he liked, the notion of rhetorical accountability, my focus on the ethos of the persona of a poem, which in poems in the first-person singular I presumed to be a version of the author. Of course, my critical approach to poems reflected my own bias in favor of poetry like my own. I myself wrote highly personal poetry, and I had taken to heart Dick's words when he growled "if you don't risk corn, you're not in the ballpark."
Meanwhile, the various writing programs in the state of Kansas had formed an association modeled on the Associated Writing Programs. Each year, Kansas Associated Writing Programs held a creative writing festival, and that year I procured funds to have the festival at Kansas State. I invited for keynote speakers the great fiction writer Gordon Weaver (Steve Heller's mentor) and Mark Strand. Jorie had told me that Mark Strand could be cruel, how once in the workshop he had slowly torn a student's poem into two halves and made an elegantly malicious remark about it. Driving Mark to campus from Manhattan Airport, I explained to him that the students here weren't all that sophisticated, that I hoped he would try not to hurt them but instead make them feel good. He nodded. "All right."
In the spring of 1982, I learned that my manuscript of poems Leverage had been cowinner, with Alice Fulton, of the AWP award series in poetry. Between the Devins Award (1972) and 1982, I had been submitting to university presses a manuscript of poems which had eventually become too long to be one book, so I had split it into two separate manuscripts, Leverage and a second manuscript, Falling from Stardom, which dealt with the darker aspects of my personal life. The Stardom of the title was a metaphor for male narcissism. Costanzo had expressed interest in publishing it with Carnegie-Mellon. When I was informed of the AWP award, I was relieved that the manuscript hadn't been taken earlier: my apparent bad luck had been good luck in disguise; I was being saved for something better.
In March 1983, I read from Leverage at the AWP Convention in St. Louis. I put greater care into preparing for that reading than ever before. I knew that I would he reading in front of perhaps hundreds of other poets and that every one of them would be bitterly wondering why he or she wasn't up there reading instead of Holden. Could such an audience be convinced? I decided to start with a sort of icebreaker, a poem that would induce laughter, my poem "Liberace." Alice Fulton went first, reading from Dance Script with Electric Ballerina. Although Alice is a genius, she seemed nervous and tentative. The audience gave her polite attention. After polite applause, it was my turn. I prefaced "Liberace" by proposing that only in America—a country that hated the feminine in men as much as we do—could a character like "Liberace" be invented. At the end of the poem, they burst into applause. They applauded after every single poem. After the reading, I was mobbed—as if I'd hit the winning shot at the buzzer.
That summer, I was invited to be on the staff of the Wesleyan Writers Conference. Run by Anne Greene, it was, of the various conferences I've visited, the best, and some of the students have since then earned substantial reputations. Each year, there were two teaching fellows. My first summer there, the poet-fellow was Brooks Haxton, and the fiction-fellow was Susan Dodd. The next summer the poet-fellow was Andrew Hudgins, and the fiction-fellow was Sharon Stark.
In May 1983, I signed a contract with Associated Faculty Press for the Hugo book and delivered them the manuscript. I had queried a number of better publishers, but none of them had regarded Hugo's poetry as important enough to warrant attention. Linda Wagner Martin was a manuscript finder for Associated Faculty Press; I knew her work, and I knew that if she was associated with the press it must be good. We went through galleys and page proofs by December 1983. Then I waited. In 1986, I called Linda asking about the book. She said that several years ago she had severed connection with the press. In September, I called Richard Koffler, the new president of Associated. He asked if my department could support the publication of the book with a subvention. I wanted to laugh. On September 17, 1986, I wrote Koffler:
If you do not send me, within fourteen days of the date above, a written, signed statement promising that my book,… will be published … on or before January 1, 1987, and giving a specific publication date, I will assume that you have agreed to let all rights to the book revert to me, and I will submit the book to another publisher….
Frankly, I almost hope not to hear from you, so that I can move ahead and give this book the quality of publication which it deserves.
In 1986, Associated finally published the book. It was a rushed and ugly book, on newsprint and containing dozens of typos. I received five author's copies. Hugo, of course, was dead. He had died on October 22, 1982, of acute leukemia. I sent one copy to Reg Saner, one to Ripley Hugo, one to Steve Heller. Nothing had come out well. I learned from Patricia Goedicke that Ripley Hugo now hated me, believing that in the biographical introduction to Landscapes I had plagiarized from a book which Matthew Hanson was putting together of Dick's personal essays, West Marginal Way. Talking with my colleague Don Hedrick, who had done extensive work on John Berryman's poetry, I discovered that perhaps Ripley's behavior was typical of the widows of famous poets, but this was little consolation.
In the 1983–1984 academic year the poets I invited on our NEA grant were T. R. Hummer, Linda Gregerson, and Brendan Galvin. As judge of the John Williams Andrews Narrative Poetry Contest at Poet Lore, I had chosen Brendan's poem "The Last Man in the Quabbin" as the winner. Of the three, the poet I most liked was Brendan—a fierce, crotchety guy who is as good a nature writer as Thoreau. He gave an excellent reading, and we hit it off. We saw ourselves as fellow rebels, allies against the James Merrills, the Richard Howards, the whole fey New York poetry scene. Brendan, who is probably the best poet in Connecticut, had majored not in English but in biology. He had a life beyond academia and, like Dick Hugo, like Dave Smith in The Fisherman's Whore, an appreciation for local color.
In 1984, Carnegie-Mellon University Press published Falling from Stardom. Whereas Leverage contained mainly celebratory poems, many of them about building the dome and about my children, Falling contained a good number of darker poems, touching some of the darker aspects of my marriage (now entering its twentieth year) and on some of the less pleasant things I was finding out about myself.
As my parents aged, I found myself making increasingly frequent trips back to New Jersey to assist them. Jaynet was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a form of cancer which mimics osteoporosis: the patient's bones begin to crack. Her illness raised the terrifying possibility of her death preceding Alan's, but Alan's health was failing too. He was suffering from severe emphysema. On warm afternoons, he would sit in a lawn chair bowed over a handkerchief for twenty-minute intervals as if in prayer while his nose and sinuses drained. Although Alan was stoical by nature, in June of 1985, as we sat at the kitchen table while he struggled with his inhalers, he burst out ruefully, "Don't get old, Son." The exclamation had in it a note of self-pity I'd never heard in him before.
By July, Jaynet and Alan were so weakened and dispirited that they required a live-in home-aid. I had tried to convince them to move to Manhattan, Kansas. There was and is an excellent facility here, Meadowlark Hills, and they could afford it; but they were insistent on staying to the bitter end in the house on Pleasantville Road. It was a kind of gamble. Jaynet's oncologist, Gary Gerstein, seemed to understand them better than I did. At one point he remarked to me, "Your parents really have a thing going," and he let them know that he knew and respected the special nature of their bond. They were still passionately in love. Between radiation treatments, he put Jaynet on the first of several courses of the steroid prednisone. It would alter her mood dramatically, and for ten days she would be cheerful, optimistic. His plan—though he didn't state it aloud—was to keep her alive until Alan died.
In late August, Jaynet called us in Kansas. She said, "I have some very, very, very bad news." I immediately flew back to join Stephen and Jaynet and to participate in the bureaucratic procedures of a death. Thirty-two days later, Stephen called me to say that Jaynet had been discovered fully clothed on the "playroom couch," dead. Though it was sad, it was also a relief. The worst-case scenario of her preceding Alan hadn't happened. In their last days, being alive had come to be nothing but a physical ordeal. And, indeed, Jaynet's death may have been of her own devising. We'll never know. There was no autopsy.
Meanwhile, my own professional life had been proceeding as usual: even before my parents' illness, work had been a sort of refuge for me—a refuge from a marriage which, under its surface bustle and apparent cheer, was fraudulent. Years later, after my divorce, I realized how Gretchen and I must have appeared to our friends and to the outside world—as if we had been walking around with a gaping, open wound from which everybody would politely avert their eyes. I wondered (and still wonder) if this isn't the case with most middle-class marriages.
But, though my marriage was a farce, my professional life was, if anything, more successful than ever. My life was proceeding almost exactly as I had thought it should, from studying my father's life: adulthood meant simply that one became very good at something that one liked to do. One went to work every day and did it, and came home to a nice supper. The house was a short walk to campus. I was (since 1984) a full professor and generally liked in my department. I had deliberately effected a sort of life plan: to be taken care of by a benign institution—just as Alan had been by the Bell Labs—an institution which would allow me time to be a writer. As I would joke to various friends, being at Kansas State was, for me, like being in a writer's colony. It was an ideal life: two classes per semester—Tuesdays and Thursdays—plus automatic prestige, plus all kinds of logistical and clerical support. It was almost like a scam, except that instead of coasting lazily into senility like other tenured drones, I would hold up my side of the bargain. I would produce.
In 1985, I won the Juniper Prize from the University of Massachusetts Press, and I published a book of essays, Style and Authenticity in Postmodern Poetry. Its title alluded deliberately to Form and Value in Modern Poetry by Harvey Gross; but the word "postmodern" was dangerously ambiguous. By "postmodern" I had intended not "postmodern ist" (like Ashbery) but only something chronological: "after modernist." I also received a twenty-thousand-dollar grant from the NEA in the category "Creative Nonfiction Prose."
In 1986, partly out of curiosity but more out of a desire to give some of my time and energy back to a profession which had given me so much, I ran for a place on the board of directors of the AWP. I was elected and got my first, close-up look at literary politics. It was nothing I hadn't imagined, but still it shocked me. In 1986, AWP was in chaos, financially in the red and in need of leadership. Our first item of business was to find an executive director to replace Eric Staley, who had resigned. Of the candidates we interviewed, we chose Liam Rector. Rector would almost singlehandedly save AWP. The board of directors of AWP was, we had been warned, a "working" board, not an honorary board to rubber-stamp corporate decisions between rounds of golf. Some of the new board-elect took one look, saw this was going to be no fun, and resigned. Some on the board emerged as leaders: Ellen Voight, Reg Gibbons, and Ed Ochester were particularly effective. The work was nonstop, fifteen-hour days with meals wheeled into the boardroom, and the talk was almost exclusively about money. Those of us who remained grew close.
In my second board year, at an ocean "retreat," we received, from a husband-and-wife team called the North Group, training in fund-raising. By the third year, thanks to large infusions of money from the NEA, engineered by Liam, AWP was temporarily out of danger; but I will never be able to accept awards or monies again without realizing how much selfless labor goes on behind the scenes to make the ceremonies of culture "work." Giving a reading or a lecture at another university, I feel sorry for my hosts. I know too well how much it costs to make other people feel important.
In May 1988, I was made a university distinguished professor of English and poet-in-residence of Kansas State University. That same week, Stephen was invited to be a full-time staff member of the New York Times, reporting on popular music and drama. Was it fated? Important initiations always happened to us in pairs, simultaneously.
My poetry was gradually changing. I had always insisted that "change" in a writer's work could not be forced or anticipated. Development must be allowed to evolve naturally: organically. The times when, in my anxiety to publish, I had tried to force a poem always resulted in failure. To force a poem was like masturbation, a "mechanical operation of the spirit." You couldn't force a poem, but you had to be alert so that when a poem came to you, you could seize it. When a poem didn't come to you, it was best to turn to some other genre or write letters. Many of my better poems started out in letters, in essays.
I was dismayed to realize that, though I was nominally a poet, the reading I liked best wasn't poetry. It was novels and essays. What was it about a good novel or a nonfiction book like Lewis Thomas's The Lives of a Cell that made it more fun to read than poetry? It was subject matter. Novels and essays were a genre superior to poetry because, conventionally, they allowed a greater range of subject matter than the lyric poem; they allowed the writer—even encouraged the writer—to be discursive, to digress. In verse, the one form which most strongly encouraged attention to subject matter outside the author's personal feelings was the dramatic monologue. I formulated a hypothesis: any coming revolution in American poetry was going to be in the domain of subject matter, not form, and the coming dominant verse form was going to be the dramatic monologue. All the possibilities for formal experiment had been exhausted. People were weary of reading about the poet's humid, horny, sweltering, little self. I put these ideas together in a book, The Fate of American Poetry.
As I was preparing the manuscript, I received a letter from poet/critic Dana Gioia, a surprising event because I had just finished mentioning him in The Fate as "perhaps the acutest practical critic in America." Shortly after hearing from him, his essay "Can Poetry Matter" appeared in the Atlantic Monthly. He had scooped me. "Can Poetry Matter" created a hubbub among all the poets that I knew. Most of them were furious. I didn't care especially for Gioia's poetry—like most so-called "new-formalist" poetry it was overly decorous, and its subject matter was tamer than I liked. In The Fate, I had characterized "new formalist" poems as "elegant bottles without genies in them."
I remembered a story which Stephen Dunn had told me about running a poetry workshop with senior Woodrow Wilson fellows. Not only were they all closet poets, but their poems were quite well written. Yet the poems lacked some kind of je ne sais quoi. These scholars knew too well what they were doing. Dunn had concluded that "good writing" might be the enemy of poetry. I remembered Walker Percy's famous essay "Metaphor as Mistake" and Coleridge's lament in "Dejection and Ode" about the impossibility of discovering through "abstruse research" the "natural man": perhaps the best lyric poetry was somehow neurotic, the result of some kind of slippage. But Dana was and is one of the most powerful and best educated minds that I have ever known: relentless, thorough, honest. The criticism in the book Can Poetry Matter that Dana spun out of the essay is the best practical criticism that I know of.
For the spring of 1991, I was offered, out of the blue, a visiting professorship called the Thrusten Morton Professorship at the University of Louisville: forty thousand dollars for one semester. I accepted it. I didn't ask Gretchen's permission. The money was too good to refuse, and we needed a break from each other. This would be like going off to college for the first time. I felt like an adolescent. Here I was, fifty years old, and I had never before set up a life for myself: Gretchen had done it for me. As the spring semester approached, I realized that what I was embarking on was really a trial separation. Shortly before I left, I received another letter from out of the blue. The envelope had only my name on it, but the handwriting made me dizzy. It was from an old lover, Anita Cortez Bond. I had heard that she was divorced. The letter began with the salutation "Dearest." Anita wanted to tie up a few loose ends, to say that she was okay now. I wrote back that we should talk, thinking that at some level I had always known that we would end up together, that it was inevitable, like the joining of Fermina and Florentino at the conclusion of Garcia Marquez's Love in the Time of Cholera: from day one, our compatibility and admiration for each other had been absolute.
The first weekend I arrived in Louisville, I called home. Nobody was there. I called other friends of ours and learned that Gretchen was in the Kansas City Marriott with one of her male coworkers. It was the straw that broke the camel's back. Gretchen had humiliated me too many times with extramarital affairs. I had her served with divorce papers. Anita visited me the same day the Gulf War began and that Gretchen received the word of the divorce.
The divorce took place mainly by fax. Meanwhile, at the University of Louisville I was welcomed with relief. The poet who had preceded me had treated everybody so badly that I was given a wonderful advantage: there was nothing I could do wrong.
Back in Manhattan, I moved into an apartment, then into Anita's house, then, in August 1992, bought the house we now live in. In 1992, my sixth poetry collection, American Gothic, was published, and in 1995, my seventh collection, The Sublime, won the Vassar Miller Prize. The judge was Yusef Komunyakaa.
As I take stock of my life and of my work, right now, in June 1995, my general feeling is of comparative serenity. Although I am ambitious, I am less driven than I used to be, in less of a hurry. Thanks to psychotherapy and to Anita, much of my old anger—a furious impatience with the world—seems to have dissipated. Or maybe this equanimity, this welcome serenity, is a function of being middle-aged. I remember Alan's admonition (punctuated with a little throat clearing) "Many are called and few are chosen," and I feel incredibly lucky. The astronomical luck to have won five of the competitions in which I entered poetry manuscripts! If it weren't for the Devins Award, which I entered as a graduate student, on a whim, I might not have found the initial toehold from which to build a writing life. I could have been any one of the exhausted high school teachers I remember from my days doing Poets-in-the-Schools or when teaching at Carteret School, chain-smoking in the teacher's lounge, picking themselves up at the buzzer and starting stoically back into the hall toward a Room 204 or a Room 205 to try to infuse light and energy into thirty or forty glazed faces.
I was lucky to enter the job market at precisely the moment when the creative writing industry was in a state of maximum expansion, when every university had to have its poet. Now in the field of English literature and creative writing, after great expansion and the resulting inflation, we see the inevitable shakeout, along with a "de-centering" of the canon. As poetry and literature come under increasing siege from television and from the culture at large, I find myself feeling increasingly like an old fuddy-duddy. Reading itself is under siege. I distrust the flash and dazzle of poetry readings, believing more strongly than ever that poetry is an art constructed from the printed page.
William Dickey recently died of AIDS. Jim Folsom had several strokes. I remember him walking sideways in the halls of Hellems, his flushed face fixed in a perpetual glare. Then I learned he had died. Reg is the state poet of Colorado and has recently published a magnificent collection of essays, The Four-cornered Falcon, with Johns Hopkins University Press. Ned Gatewood has married a pert, redheaded coworker in facilities. Zachary is about to enter his senior year at Oberlin. Alanna, twenty-three, is currently living and working in Boulder. On July 18, 1995, I will be fifty-four, not "old" by any stretch of the imagination; yet every year I appreciate more than ever what Aristotle meant when, in his Rhetoric, he wrote that to appeal to the aged, one should appeal to their sense of caution, for they have seen how in the affairs of men "events seldom turn out well."
For me, so far they have.
Jonathan Holden contributed the following update to CA in 2005:
Since June 1995 I have continued successfully in my career as a poet/critic. The professor of Russian history here at Kansas State University, John Daly, organized a trip to Russia in December of 1995, and this trip changed my life significantly. Anita and I studied some Russian and some Russian history. One of the themes which emerged from our study was the theme of "infrastructure," the ways in which the texture of daily experience in that society suffers when the infrastructure of a society breaks down. For one ten-day trip, starting at St. Petersburg and continuing on to Moscow, we saw, with horror, the effects of breakdown. In a long poem titled "Infrastructure" (published in Knowing: New and Selected Poems), I described these effects.
Several good things happened to me in the spring of 1997: the new editor of the University of Michigan's "Poets-on-Poetry" series, David Lehman, did something surprising: he published my autobiography, Guns and Boyhood in America: A Memoir of Growing up in the Fifties. State Street Press published in their famous chapbook series Ur-Math a twenty-five-page chapbook of all of my poems about mathematics. It was dedicated to my father: "Alan Nordby Holden (1904–1985) who pointed out to me that Euclid's proof of the irrationality of the square root of 2 exhibited 'a kind of low cunning.'"
On April 27, 1997, Anita Rae Cortez and I were married.
In the summer of 1999, I published, with my new publisher the University of Arkansas Press, The Old Formalism: Character in Contemporary American Poetry. As the title might suggest, this book advocates traditional poetry and is dismissive of the movement known as the New Formalism, arguing that such a movement has never been "new," that the word "new" is a publicity stunt. But The Old Formalism was, if not radical, then daring in certain other ways. In the 1950s the famous "New Criticism," promoted by the textbook Understanding Poetry, by Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren, forbade critics to speculate about the personal life of an author; ever since 1959, with the publication of Life Studies, by Robert Lowell, and the rise of so-called "confessional" poetry, poetry was allowed to be "personal." The reason for this change was that much more about T. S. Eliot's personal life was coming to light, especially his disastrous first marriage, and a brutally frank book about all of this was published, T. S. Eliot: An Imperfect Life (W. W. Norton, 1999), by Lyndall Gordon. The book described, in humiliating, virtually pornographic detail, Bertand Russell's seduction of Eliot's first wife, Vivienne.
That same year, Longman came out with a ninth edition of the famous An Introduction to Poetry. This time the editors were X. J. Kennedy and Dana Gioia (who is currently director of the National Endowment for the Arts). For this edition, Dana selected one of my better poems, "The Names of the Rapids."
In the spring of 2000, with the University of Arkansas Press, I published Knowing: New and Selected Poems. I was also, with poet Judith Ortiz Cofer, a judge for Prairie Schooner's Prize Book series 2003 competition. As well, in later years, I was invited to serve as a judge for NetPoetry.org.
The following spring, my personal essay about the Peace Corps won the Hugh Luke Award from Prairie Schooner for the best essay in their issues that year, and I was given a gift in the fall. Edward Seaton, the editor of the local newspaper, the Manhattan Mercury, was the head of the committee that year to choose the judges for the Pulitzer prizes, and he invited me to be one of the judges for poetry. The two other judges were Mary Karr and the late Anthony Hecht. The work was difficult—going through some five hundred manuscripts—but educational. It gave me a realistic look at the way in which literary prizes are chosen and a glimpse of the world of American poetry at that historical moment. We chose Stephen Dunn's book Different Hours (W. W. Norton, 2000).
On October 13, 2004, I was designated by the Kansas Arts Commission as poet laureate of the state of Kansas—their first ever.
There is, in this millennium, a fashionable diversion called "whitewater rafting," and in the eighties, I had tried it. I went on several trips. It's exciting, like going on a roller coaster ride, but expensive. Mostly, we went on the Colorado River or the Arkansas River, from Salida, Colorado, east through Royal Gorge.
There is an elaborate protocol for such trips, and they require skilled guides, "river rats," and life vests. A kind of mythology has grown up around certain routes. The most famous of these rapids, on the lower Dolorous River in Colorado, is "Snaggle Tooth." "The Names of the Rapids" was the title poem of my fifth poetry collection, which won the 1985 Juniper Prize, selected from 495 manuscripts. The poem is significant in the context of my oeuvre in that it develops a metaphor which I have come to realize is perhaps my major metaphor: open-eyedness.
The poem is about the mind versus the body, about knowing more than one is comfortable with about human existence. I had used this same metaphor of open-eyedness in another poem, "Sex without Love" in Against Paradise. The key word in that poem is the word "gratuitous," which is probably the closet synonym to "evil" that I know of.
Open-eyedness: it must go back to my father, Alan, an award-winning scientist (a crystallographer). But also back to Wordsworth and to the Wordsworthian sublime, when, in The Prelude, he wrote: "Fair seedtime had my soul, and I grew up / Fostered alike by beauty and fear." Like Wordsworth, I am an autobiographical poet, a poet of memory, and Wordsworth's famous Preface to Lyrical Ballads describes quite accurately my modus operandi.
Much of my poetry collection The Sublime is about my discovery, in 1990, that I have multiple sclerosis, and the question of what to do with such knowledge.
The collection which I am sending to contests now, Glamor, is a deeply Kansas book, the title poem dealing with Kansas's most famous writer, William Inge. Probably the most Kansas-centered poem in Knowing is "Kansas Fair," a political poem with an inflammatory epigraph. The actual occasion of this poem is attending the Winfield Bluegrass Festival, in the fall, but framed by this title, it becomes political. Over and over, while working on this poem, I thought of William Stafford, who was a conscientious objector during World War II, and of poet Carolyn Forche, for whom everything was political. I remembered reading Stafford's last published piece, a review of the anthology Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness, edited by Forche. His approach to the anthology was prickly: "I feel a bump when the explanatory text says, 'The Germans decided.' All Germans? … The labels in the book … put a torque on me, snagged my attention, kept me wary of living on the emotional high of atrocity hunger."
Today I again realize that I have led an unusually lucky life. My second wife, Anita, is not only brilliant—she graduated summa cum laude from Kansas State University—but she has unusually fine character. Indeed, she has taught me, by her example, the nature of character. It would not be an exaggeration to say that she has saved my life.
After being diagnosed with MS, I had thought, seriously, of committing suicide. But, thank heavens, I didn't. Meanwhile, my children are doing well. My son, Zack, is working toward a Ph.D. in ecology at the University of Idaho. And my daughter, Alanna, has made an excellent living in the place she loves most, Colorado.
I have so far carried out Robert Frost's and my father Alan's ideal, as cited in Frost's famous poem "Two Tramps in Mud Time": to unite avocation and vocation. "Keep your needs modest," my father had said, "and make enough to satisfy them."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 105: American Poets since World War II, Second Series, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1991.
American Book Review, October-November, 1992, Fred Moramarco, review of The Fate of American Poetry; October-November, 1993, Thomas Filbin, review of Brilliant Kids.
American Literature, September, 2000, review of The Old Formalism: Character in Contemporary American Poetry, p. 680.
Booklist, February 15, 1990.
Capital-Journal (Topeka, KS), January 30, 2005, Jan Biles, "Shop Talk with a Poet."
Choice, July, 1986; December, 1986; July, 1987; May, 1992; June, 2000, L. Berk, review of The Old Formalism, p. 1815.
Contemporary Literature, winter, 2001, Roger Gilbert, "Contemporary Poetry in Three-Point Perspective," pp. 842-865.
Georgia Review, fall, 2001, Greg Johnson, "Natural Selection," pp. 631-645.
Hudson Review, spring, 1993, David Mason, review of American Gothic, pp. 223-231.
Lambda Book Report, February, 1998, Jen Kohout, "The Invisible Twin," p. 18.
Library Journal, December, 1985; January, 1992; May 1, 1992; June 1, 1997, Susan Dearstyne, review of Guns and Boyhood in America: A Memoir of Growing up in the Fifties, p. 108.
Missouri Review, Volume 8, 1985.
New York Times Book Review, March 22, 1987, Warren Wessner, review of Style and Authenticity in Postmodern Poetry; October 20, 1996, William Ferguson, review of The Sublime, p. 22
Poetry, September, 1991; June, 1993, Calvin Bedient, review of American Gothic, pp. 170-173.
Prairie Schooner, spring, 2002, Ralph Tejeda Wilson, review of Knowing: New and Selected Poems, pp. 179-184.
Publishers Weekly, March 2, 1992; May 11, 1992, review of American Gothic, p. 66; August 26, 1996, review of The Sublime, p. 94; April 28, 1997, review of Guns and Boyhood in America, p. 59.
Reference & Research Book News, November, 2000, review of The Old Formalism, p. 177.
San Francisco Review of Books, spring, 1990, Jonathan Bradford Brennan, review of Against Paradise, p. 52.
Tar River Poetry, fall, 1986.
Times Literary Supplement, June 5, 1981; May 22, 1987, Mark Ford, review of Style and Authenticity in Postmodern Poetry.
Virginia Quarterly Review, winter, 1987.
Washington Post Book World, February 16, 1992.
Jonathan Holden Home Page, http://www.jonathanholden.com (August 30, 2005).