When He Was Lonely, He Thought of Death

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I really wish I were in Tucson today, not just because it's beautiful and warm--it's supposed to be 80 degrees, mostly sunny, with 0% chance of precipitation--but because tonight the University of Arizona Poetry Center has arranged a memorial tribute for my dear friend and mentor Jon Anderson.

Jon died last October, and when I got news of his death, I wanted to write a blog entry, but I was just too busy. So now, while there's an appropriate moment, I want to say something about why this man was dear to me.

I met Jon in the fall of 1982, when I enrolled in his intermediate poetry class as a sophomore. I took the class because a friend told me I had to study with Jon--he was the best poet and the best teacher on the faculty. That is as may be; I feel lucky to have worked with almost all my teachers, who were, by and large, extremely talented and generous people.

But there was indeed something special about Jon. For one thing, he was so goofy and disorganized. I admit I found him alarming at times--he was a mess in many ways, not just disorganized but slovenly. Our class met once a week-- Tuesdays, I think--at 3:30 in the afternoon; Jon would show up and tell us, as if we couldn't see for ourselves, that he had just gotten out bed. (Back in the early 80s, people wore surgical scrubs as pjs a lot--not fancy ones, just the mint green kind. They worked well for that. Jon would show up to class in a pair of ratty 501s and a scrub top.) But one thing he said that first semester truly raised my eyebrows, and I will remember it my entire life.

At that time, Arizona's two senators were Barry Goldwater, a conservative born in Phoenix, and Dennis DeConcini, a liberal born in Tucson, which is how things used to break down: Phoenix was more conservative; Tucson more liberal. (Neither of Arizona's current senators, McCain or Kyl, were born in Arizona. This makes people like me parents--and me, frankly, even though I don't even live in Arizona right now--a bit skeptical of them.) Anyway, DeConcini is who matters in all this.

One Friday night Jon's young son Bodhi (short for Bodhisattva) had a friend stay over. In the middle of the night, the neighbors had some kind of domestic disturbance that required calling the cops. These two little boys--ten or so--thought it was great that the cops were around because it gave them a chance to be bad in front of authority figures who couldn't do a thing to them, and their way of being bad was to stand in the yard and chant, over and over,

Dennis DeConcini
had a 50 foot weenie;
he showed it to the woman next door.
She thought it was a snake,
and hit it with a rake,
and now it's only five foot four.

Jon told us all this! I was an 18-year-old Mormon, sitting in my seat, going, "Who the hell are these people?" But it's been almost 26 years since I heard that rhyme and I've never forgotten it; unless I get Alzheimer's, I'm pretty sure I never will.

I took five or six other classes with him throughout my undergrad and MFA coursework. I went to see him after my mission and he did something extremely generous and important: He read the poems I gave him and said, "Oh god, these really are good. I was worried that I was remembering your work as better than it really was because I like you. But these really are good. So here's the thing: You need to start calling yourself a poet. Don't say, 'I write poetry;' say, 'I'm a poet.' Because you are a poet." It was things like that that made me loyal and devoted to him, and willing to show up at his office hours--which some semesters he would have on Fridays at 6:30 p.m., to discourage anyone from showing up; but ever dutiful when it came to school work, I'd go anyway.

This is not to say he was always enthusiastic about my work; he said he got tired of reading all my poems about my mission, or "White Mormon Girl Visits Land of Inscrutables," as he put it. Once when I wrote another poem on just that topic and submitted it in workshop, he waited until everyone had commented on the poem, then glared at me across the table--he was seated at the head, I was at the foot--and said, "I despise this poem." That pretty much ended discussion.

After I graduated, I knew better than to ask him to keep in touch, so I'd just send him cryptic postcards (back in the day before email) every so often, because even if he would make no gesture to remain in my life, I wanted to feel that he was, somehow, still a part of my life. I quit that after too long, particularly when he told me that the postcards worried him--I felt sort of guilty for making him worry when his own life was so out of control (and it was).

In a forms class I had with him as an undergrad, he gave us the assignment to write our own epitaph, and he even provided a model: his own, which he said he wanted to be

Here lies Jon
All gone

I fairly copied that, writing

Here lies Holly
By Golly

But I don't want to end with that. I want to end with my favorite poem by him, the one that's probably best known and most often anthologized. I realize I'm violating copyright here, but I'll try to mitigate that by telling everyone to go buy one of his books.

The Secret of Poetry

When I was lonely, I thought of death.
When I thought of death I was lonely.

I supposed this error will continue.
I shall enter each gray morning

Delighted by frost, which is death,
& the trees that stand alone in mist.

When I met my wife I was lonely.
Our child in her body is lonely.

I suppose this error will go on & on.
Mornings I kiss my wife's cold lips,

Nights her body, dripping with mist.
This is the error that fascinates.

I suppose you are secretly lonely,
Thinking of death, thinking of love.

I'd like, please, to leave on your sill
Just one cold flower, whose beauty

Would leave you inconsolable all day.
The secret of poetry is cruelty.

Read a follow-up on the Poetry Center's Tribute to Jon here.

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This page contains a single entry by Holly published on February 29, 2008 8:07 AM.

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