When one is a poet, the urge to write often arises in the form of the following question: Should this be a poem, or should it be prose? Sometimes, a line of poetry presents itself, and then the path is clear, which is not to say easy: one must find succeeding lines of poetry that respond to the meter and mode of the original. At other times, an idea or sensation arises, and the writer feels it more as a question, the one posed above. It could be tackled, or approached, in a number of different ways.
Gary Lenhart, who died on March 31, 2021, was a poet who also wrote and published literary criticism, some of it collected in the books The Stamp of Class: Reflections on Poetry and Social Class (University of Michigan Press, 2006) and Another Look: Selected Prose (Subpress, 2010). His books of poems include The World in a Minute (2010), Father and Son Night (1999), and Light Heart (1991) all published by Hanging Loose Press, and One at a Time (1983) published by United Artists Books. Both Hanging Loose and United Artists are poets’ presses, part of a tradition still very vibrant today in which poets dedicate a significant portion of their energy to publishing, in journal and book form, the work of their contemporaries.
In his poems, Lenhart wrote often and compellingly about family: the working class family in which he grew up in Ohio and upstate New York, the family of writers and artists he adopted after moving to New York City, and his own family: his wife, painter Louise Hamlin, and their daughter, Katie.
I can’t say that Gary and I were buddies, although I am good friends with one of Gary’s partners in crime, poet and critic Greg Masters. Back in the 1970s and eighties, Gary, Greg, and Michael Scholnick edited an influential poetry journal, Mag City (1977–85), in which I had the pleasure of having some work published. As I recall, it was Michael who contacted me, Michael who left us much too early. Gary later edited the journal Transfer from 1986–91. Thus, for fourteen years, he participated in that lineage of publishing as an essential poet’s act.
In addition, Gary was for ten years Associate Director of Teachers and Writers in New York, an organization of professional writers that trains teachers of poetry, providing workshops for all ages and publishing resources such as The Teachers & Writers Guide to William Carlos Williams (1998), which Gary edited. Many poets worked there over the years, and Gary was a big part of the mix. One colleague remembered, “It was as if he were wrapped in a kind of private sanity that moved out into the room, soothing us all, and making us feel kinder and more centered.”
One day in the late 1980s, Louise was reading the newspaper and said, “Dartmouth College is looking for someone to teach painting and printmaking—should I apply?” “Sure,” said Gary, and the family decamped to Norwich, Vermont, just across the Connecticut River from Dartmouth’s expansive campus. Both ended up teaching there for over twenty years, retiring only recently.
Gary had a career as a teacher of poetry, at Long Island University, the Poetry Project in New York, and Columbia University, among other institutions, before landing at Dartmouth, where he taught courses on creative writing and poetry. His obituary, written by Dartmouth’s Dean of Faculty, states, “Gary’s students described him as ‘passionate’ and ‘engaged,’ pointing out his skill at ‘diversifying the material to make it interesting for everyone’ and giving ‘an inspiring look into poets and their work.’” The obituary adds, “Gary’s poetry courses would overflow with seniors returning to his classroom as they prepared for the next steps in their journeys.”
Gary’s poems have long intrigued me, beginning when I first encountered them, way back when. They were tough objects, chiseled, colloquial, and also literary. You got the feeling he worked on them a long time to get them just right. They were often in simple forms, couplets or quatrains. You could feel a conscious approach guiding the proceedings (From “Red Sky at Night”: “There’s a flush of joy / That alters the sky / So other people read your good news / In the air and even pause to comment / On your amazing turn.”).
Near the end of 2018, I invited Gary to read at the series I was curating at Dia Art Foundation in New York City. The choice of pairings of poets for these readings was something I spent a lot of time thinking about. For this one, I paired Gary with another poet who writes compellingly of family life, just as she has written brilliantly of young adult life in the city, Deborah Garrison. Here is part of what I wrote to introduce Gary on the night of December 4 of that year:
Gary Lenhart’s poems seem like pieces of a life, and the fact that he often includes prose memoirs in his books of poetry indicates that the recovery of a life is of the utmost importance, to him and by extension to his readers, and that he will go the extra formal step required to find the mode appropriate. But the reader of Lenhart’s poems must be a careful one. Not everything is as it seems. I had to read one poem over to realize it wasn’t in Lenhart’s voice speaking to a former work buddy, but rather the other way around: the poem is in his friend’s voice, addressing and critiquing Lenhart himself.
Then I went to a tight close-up—the two figures about to kiss at the end of the film:
There are many love poems in his opus, most of them directed to Lenhart’s wife, painter Louise Hamlin. There are also poems of lust, youthful errancy, and badinage. Lenhart’s poems of love sustained over years are among the most affecting I know.
I ended by quoting from Lenhart’s poem “Love, Like Art,” illustrating this gift:
Exits more easily than one remains, for two
Encounter sorrows too. I slump, but don’t
Hit bottom, buoyed by you, bonnie pal.
While preparing my introduction to Gary’s reading, I was inspired by his work to write a poem of my own, which I dedicated to him. Reading Gary’s poems, memories of my mother’s parents, who had emigrated from Italy, had come back to me. I’d been very close to them and once took them to hear La Traviata at the Metropolitan Opera, as I knew they loved opera and had often gone to the Met in their youth to hear it. My poem begins:
My grandfather takes my grandmother by the hand
And they walk down the aisle
Not of a church, they don’t have much use for those
No, it’s the Metropolitan Opera,
Not the gaudy one we have today on Lincoln Plaza
But one we’ll never know.
I sent it to Gary as a New Year’s greeting on December 31, 2018, with the following greeting, “Happy 2019 to you and Louise, to your extended family and friends! Let’s hope it proves better than this one now ending.” Then there was a gap in our correspondence, as sometimes happens. 2019 was a strange year, with a particular character that did make it seem to fly by or exist outside of time, unlike those to follow, which have each seemed composed of ten years or more.
In May of 2020, after a virtual reading by Charles North and myself hosted by 192 Books and Paula Cooper Gallery (the first “Zoom reading” I was part of), Gary and I corresponded a bit (with Charles in attendance). I was reading from Broadway for Paul, my first collection with Alfred A. Knopf, and Charles was reading from Everything and Other Poems, published by The Song Cave. Broadway for Paul took much inspiration from nonagenarian painter Paul Resika, whom I had met in my teens and had recently reconnected with. April, 2020, was such a strange moment to launch a book into the world. I even suggested it might be inopportune, but as it turned out in those days of lockdown and disillusion, many hankered for poetry to give an outlook in a different register than those found in daily news reports, a kind of ballast against (or merely to accompany) impermanence and dissolution.
On May 19, Gary wrote:
Louise and I had a grand dinner party watching your Paula Cooper/192 reading. I can’t recall a recent reading that I’ve enjoyed more … Thank you for including us, for mentioning Ron Padgett, Paul Resika, and Wordsworth … We haven't heard Paul mentioned in a while. And only yesterday I commented to Louise that Pound advised poets to “read as much of Wordsworth as does not seem too unutterably dull.” I remember Paul Violi citing Wordsworth and Coleridge as initial inspiration.
I had mentioned Wordsworth as a poet whose work I was reading during what we then called the quarantine. My reply on the 24th included these words:
Thank you for the notes on Pound and Paul V. My son, Isaac, and I share an interest in British World War I poets. He told me today that Pound supported the poetry of Isaac Rosenberg. “Wasn’t Pound an anti-semite?” Isaac asked. “He was,” I replied. “But he couldn’t bring himself not to praise a good poem. It’s complicated.” I’ve been reading more Wordsworth. What are you reading?
Gary wrote back on the 25th, referring to a sequence of Charles’s poems that wittily use baseball positions as a conceit:
I've been reading Wordsworth lately too. After I sent that email, I recalled that one of Charles’s line-ups consisted of Wordsworth poems. Off the top of my head, I remember only that “Tintern Abbey” was in center field and batted clean-up. The Dartmouth library and our local bookstore have been closed, so I've been reading off our shelves. That’s a lot of poetry, but also Mary Oppen’s autobiography, Meaning a Life, which turned me back to George Oppen’s books, The Materials, especially. Both mention Pound's kindness to them as young artists and publishers … I also read (for the first time) George Eliot's late novel Daniel Deronda, whose English gentleman protagonist finds out in mid-life that his mother was Jewish; W.S. Merwin's translation of the Purgatorio; and Sarah Bakewell’s At the Existentialist Café. With great pleasure I read Wesleyan's edition of Lorenzo Thomas's Collected Poems, and finally got around to Cedar Sigo’s collection of poems, letters, and other Joanne Kyger ephemera, There You Are. Kenneth Koch’s poems have also been lively quarantine companions. So it goes when you’re retired, the libraries are closed, and you must shelter at home!
I’ve often mused on how we arrange friendships these days long-distance via electronic media, and how today’s patterns are a hyped-up parallel to long-ago times when people couldn’t easily travel and relationships were often fostered long-distance by letters. The quarantine era certainly amplified the need to communicate electronically. Many also had more time on their hands; all to the good of the history of correspondence. It is certainly true in the case of Gary’s and my correspondence. As we shared reading and thoughts on poetry, we began to know each other, for the first time really. Before the pandemic, and haltingly now, we have had the pleasure of running into fellow writers in the communities in which we live, and less frequently, on travels. Those who don’t live near each other have the opportunity to meet in letters.
Picking up the correspondence a little more than two weeks later, on June 12, Gary brought the conversation back around to Broadway for Paul:
Email notice that Broadway for Paul arrived at our local bookstore went into my junk mail folder, so I didn’t receive the book until the beginning of this week. Sorry to be so long in writing to express my admiration. It’s a terrific book. As I told Louise, it’s such a joy to write with genuine enthusiasm about a book, instead of having to talk around one’s reservations.
I’ve always enjoyed reading your poems, but this book seems above and beyond. You’ve developed a voice that not only pays attention to the place you “actually inhabit,” but evokes that place with the vivacity and sophistication of Frank O’Hara and the clarity of the best Romantic landscape tradition, whether that be Wordsworth, Coleridge, or Constable. Perhaps it’s because I’ve been reading and thinking about her a lot lately, but there’s also something that reminds me of Joanne Kyger in your ability to be casually open to your environs, non-judgmental of its inhabitants, and candid about your own thoughts and emotions.
I don’t want to diminish my appreciation for the shorter lyrics, but there’s something in your gait that lends itself to the longer explorations. I guess that Olson or Levertov would talk about proprioception or organic form, but to me it’s simply finding the comfortable measure. For Creeley it was intensive, for Bernadette Mayer expansive. I especially admire the title poem, “Lincoln Plaza,” “Ivanka Skirting,” “I Miss Bern Nix,” “August 2018,” “Café with Brian Ferry,” and the remarkable long final poem, “A City Marriage.” You write so concisely that the line never seems garrulous or lackadaisical, but propulsive and engaging, like in James Schuyler’s long-lined poems or the most heightened paragraphs of Claudia Rankine.
I also liked many of the briefer lyrics, especially “Five Notes,” “Looking at the Sea,” “Conversation by the Sea,” “Late August,” and “A Longing for Bugs.” But it seems silly to mention only those poems I like most. There’s a person in all these poems who is interesting to listen to, whatever he wishes to say. At the risk of repetition, it’s because all the poems are considered in composition and respectful of the reader’s intelligence.
Sorry if this letter of enthusiasm sounds academic. I labored too long in those vineyards. When I asked Lorenzo Thomas why his students thought Olson academic, he replied, “Because he was.” Later I found that my students thought so too.
Your note about meeting Paul Resika at Skowhegan so many years ago was moving, your memories of Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky’s visit to your college apartment hilarious and familiar…
As when I read Kenneth Koch or Ron Padgett, reading your poems makes me want to write poems.
Thanks again for this inspiring book,
It was energizing to receive Gary’s detailed responses to my book, as the strange airlessness of quarantine prevented the kind of feedback one might receive at public readings for example. After some further correspondence, in early 2021 Gary said he would like to review Broadway for Paul. In one email, he outlined some of the more likely publications he might try to approach, in part because of their fluid deadlines, adding, almost as an afterthought, “I was recently diagnosed with a head and neck cancer, and though determined to work and play through the treatment, the doctors advise that there may be weeks when treatments demand most of my energy.”
I was shocked to learn this and simultaneously moved by Gary’s suggestion of a review, given the circumstances. I responded that I would totally understand whatever time or process it would take, and also that I would understand if Gary felt the review was too much to take on. “Thanks for your understanding,” he wrote back, “but it's a good time to take on a task that will inspire and distract. Louise was pleased to hear that I would write the review because she knows I'm energized by poems that I genuinely admire.”
On January 23, 2021, I received an email from Gary, in which he wrote, “I’m enjoying Broadway for Paul as much as I did last summer, so am eager to begin writing about it.” The messages we exchanged, sometimes brief, sometimes more detailed, were adding up to an engagement with literary topics and language itself that was invigorating during those deadened times. All correspondence allows one insight into one’s correspondent; corresponding by email with a writer brings a special set of pleasures and interests, a level of subtlety that can be surprising, and inspiring.
In mid-February, I was in touch with Louise, as she had invited me to write about her paintings and drawings for an upcoming exhibition at the Hood Museum at Dartmouth; I had accepted and made plans to drive up and see the work in person. Louise wrote this, on February 15:
I’m happily astonished that you are thinking of driving all the way up here to see the work. Maybe going back and forth to Maine so often makes the trip less daunting than it might seem to others … Gary checked in with his medical team this morning about the possible risks and logistics of your visit. They said it should be OK if we all wear masks, wash our hands, keep social distances, and spend a minimal amount of time in the house itself … Gary would love to see you … He is getting radiation every weekday, with chemo added on Tuesdays. He's pretty wiped out for the day after that. We live in a small cape (see attached photo and imagine snow over everything) … My studio is on the left, sharing the side entry with the rest of the house.
On March 13, Louise followed up:
Gary will be done with his chemo and radiation treatments by then [April 17–18]. We're hoping that side effects will reverse course, and allow meandering discussions about art and poetry and whatever else slides in. Did I mention before that one of his recent reads was How to Live? He said it was an excellent book about Montaigne, but I think it was [the] title that influenced [the] purchase.
I booked a room at the Norwich Inn for April 15–19.
On April 1, Louise wrote again, a group email this time:
With heavy hearts but wonderful memories, we write to tell you that Gary died last night. For those of you who may not have known, for the last couple months Gary was undergoing treatment for a very large head and neck cancer. He went quickly from unexpected internal bleeding, slipped into unconsciousness en route to the hospital, and felt no pain. His last moments of awareness were with the two people who loved him the most.
The three of us were blessed to have yesterday afternoon together, and he went to bed with hope of recovery, books to read, tennis to play, and more poems to write.
We know you will share our sorrow, but we hope you will also share our appreciation of the fine, wonderful man he was.
We also know you will be thinking of him, and we look forward to remembering him with you one day; but while we come to terms with this new reality, we may not answer the phone, email, or text as regularly as before.
From Louise and Katie, and with a word from Gary’s poem, “La Bella China”:
At home at last, anxious to dispense with the mess
And get on with the jazz; like a devout frail priest
Unfrocked to marry the world and square, drunk
On that sturdy body sheathed in clean laundry (Yes,
It’s plantanos fritos late on Sunday in La Bella China
With professors and uptown junkies) I cast
To your far shore as if beside you every day,
Wailing in my pondered way, a private citizen
Given to display an order rooted truly
In friends, ardent and generous, study, beauty.
Later, Louise found on Gary’s computer the beginning of the review he had been writing for Broadway for Paul, along with a page of handwritten notes. I am moved and humbled by what he wrote—that part of his final efforts, his final days, was put toward coming to terms with this poetry. It is a process I am familiar with, whenever I attempt to interpret something someone else has created, especially when trying to put that attempt into a literary form.
As an admirer of what Gary has written about the poetry of others, I feel especially lucky that some of his final words and thoughts were about my own. These words, and others that we shared mainly in written, not spoken, form, are what are left, what I personally have to remember Gary by, and that is a lot. It is a lesson to me, as when I reached out to Paul Resika after forty years’ passage, that it is never too late, until it is. For poets, in particular, the words that are written and shared about their field of endeavor, which centers on an attention and sensitivity to words and language, feel essential.
Here is the beginning of the review Gary didn’t have the chance to finish:
As Vincent Katz strolls along Broadway, many readers will be reminded of the pedestrian rambles of Baudelaire and Fargue in another imperial capital. He’s in no hurry to arrive at his destination and enjoys his leisure to observe the diversity of the capital’s display, to admire the fashions of his fellow citizens and to use the evidence of all his refined senses to casually intuit drama in lives he’s confident are bubbling with ambitions and aspirations.
Katz is familiar with imperial capitals. An accomplished classicist, his translations of the Roman poet Propertius are the most poetic contemporary versions we have. They don’t compete with Pound’s grand homage to Propertius, but supplement those translations and for those of us unable to appreciate the Latin expand our sense of what the Roman poet was up to.
For readers of our generation, the inspiration for Katz’s poems about New York City will be nearer to hand. Katz has clearly read avidly the poems of Frank O’Hara, the flaneur of mid-20th century Manhattan, and been inspired by their tone and chatter. He quotes directly and alludes to O’Hara several times in this upbeat collection. But more than reference, there’s a spiritual inheritance that O’Hara admirers will recognize in these pages.
The other presiding spirit of Katz’s ramblings may not be as well known to contemporary readers, despite Katz’s persistent efforts to promote that work both through writing about it and organizing exhibitions and showings. For sixty years in the 20th century, Rudy Burckhardt (1914–99) roamed New York City with a camera making sui generis movies of New York’s burgeoning, diverse and exploding populace, taking interest in the lives popularly dismissed as distractions, the teeming multitudes that navigated the imperial capital with individual gumption and humming buzz. Katz has published several books about Burckhardt, and organized exhibitions of his work in this country and Spain. But it’s in this book that Katz’s long-time enthusiasm for Burckhardt has finally fused with his own growing poetic achievement to inspire poems that have the casual colloquial magic of Burckhardt’s films.
Broadway for Paul is Katz’s 14th book of poems. He began publishing poems as a gifted and competent teen, took a degree in Classics at the University of Chicago, and has continued to publish prolifically for forty years. His poems have always been notable for the clarity of expression, discriminating observation, amiable tone, and resistance to a mawkish subjectivity. He seemed, even in his early poems, to be a mature adult, inviting your attention to his words as a way into a conversation, never a confession or tawdry appeal for sympathy.
Katz is the son of painter Alex Katz and Ada Katz, founder of a Poet’s Theatre on which she collaborated with the inspired poet and director Bob Holman and others. NYC residents, the family has summered for many years in Lincolnville, Maine, near the Skowhegan School of Art. Katz’s Maine diary in this volume was composed in Lincolnville, and it was at the school more than forty years ago that he first met Paul Resika, the painter of the book’s title. Most of the poems in the second third of this book were inspired by Resika’s paintings, and many of the Broadway strolls in the book followed Katz’s visits to Resika’s studio on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
Some will object that this sort of comfortable stroll through urban crowds remains the privilege of upper middle-class white male poets. Is it utopian to hope that the day is soon upon us when any poet will move comfortably and anonymously along city streets, reveling in the diversity of the company? In that sense, Katz’s Broadway poems are journalistic and optimistic.
His writing ended there. He worked on it up until his final day but was not able to finish. That, to me, is no matter. It’s what he thought, what he did write, and what he hoped to write, that matter. It is intriguing to think about what people were doing during their last hours, what thoughts went through their minds, last thoughts, what desires they had, urges to reach out to someone. Death always comes too soon. There is always the desire for more—more conversation, more walks together, the opportunity to get to know a person better. I don’t believe in an afterlife, but I do have, I guess, a kind of magical thinking about death that goes like this: the person isn’t actually dead, they are just unreachable, gone beyond some veil where we can no longer contact them, though they may be looking through it at us. There’s a sense in which everything is fragments. Even the things that do happen—the good times, the suffering, the landmarks—are always stepping stones to other situations. The feeling of commonality, the communication between or among people does exist, and it lasts, even after someone is gone.
Gary’s description of himself, in the poem sent to friends by Louise and Katie on his passing, is a perfect summary of what any one of us might aspire to being, wherever it is we may happen to live, and under whatever circumstances: “a private citizen / Given to display an order rooted truly / In friends, ardent and generous, study, beauty.” Gary is gone, but the feeling of commonality he strove for in his poetry, teaching, and life, continues; it expands to others, beyond his own lifetime, and beyond ours.