David Wagoner

Michigan Writers on the Air: Commentaries on Poetry

David Wagoner
Air Date: February 27, 2010

Aaron, I’d like to introduce you to a poet you may not know much about, because in spite of his impressive life in poetry, David Wagoner is a quiet man, not given to making himself visible. Although, I have to say, he’s won a number of prestigious awards, he was chancellor of the Academy of American Poets in 1978, and was the editor of Poetry Northwest, until its last issue in 2002. And he has been published in Poetry Magazine, the oldest and most prestigious poetry magazine in the country, more times than any other poet! He told me that, almost shamefaced. Someone else had counted up for him.

I met him several years ago when we were both invited to speak at a conference, and for several years after that, we saw each other there regularly. I showed him my first book, Fishing With Blood, where he’d written a blurb for the cover. He’d been the final judge who selected my book to be published by Purdue University Press. He didn’t remember having done that. He said, with typical grace,“What good taste I obviously had.” We got to be friends.

I think Wagoner chose my book because he sensed in my work the struggle toward what he does so gloriously—he lives in the everyday world. He uses it, stays put in it, while turning it this way and that, to see what might be able to be revealed inside it. He is often funny. Sometimes he’s funny while he also breaks your heart. He’s one of the most skilled poets of our time. Let me read you this one poem of his. Listen to the sheer music in this poem which, ironically, is all about making terrible music:

The Junior High School Band Concert

When our semi-conductor
Raised his baton, we sat there
Gaping at Marche Militaire,
Our mouth-opening number.
It seemed faintly familiar
(We’d rehearsed it all that winter),
But we attacked in such a blur,
No army anywhere
On its stomach or all fours
Could have squeezed through our crossfire.

I played cornet, seventh chair,
Out of seven, my embouchure
A glorified Bronx cheer
Through that three-keyed keyhole stopper
And neighborhood window-slammer
Where mildew fought for air
At every exhausted corner,
My fingering still unsure
After scaling it for a year
Except on the spit-valve lever.

Each straight-faced mother and father
Retested his moral fiber
Against our traps and slurs
And the inadvertent whickers
Paradiddled by our snares,
And when the brass bulled forth
A blare fit to horn over
Jericho two bars sooner
Than Joshua’s harsh measures,
They still had the nerve to stare.

By the last lost chord, our director
Looked older and soberer.
No doubt, in his mind’s ear
Some band somewhere
In some music of some Sphere
Was striking a note as pure
As the wishes of Franz Schubert,
But meanwhile here we were:
A lesson in everything minor,
Decomposing our first composer.

That last line is what I mean about the self-effacing quality of the man and the verse. Some poets would’ve taken this wry look at the junior high band and found a way to make some smart existential comment at the end of the poem. But Wagoner just ends with the very funny truth, that the band itself is a lesson in what it is to be in the minor league, so to speak, and to ruin the music. That’s it.

Wagoner is incredibly prolific. He’s also a playwright and novelist. One of his ten novels, The Escape Artist, you may recognize because it was turned into a film by Francis Ford Coppola. Wagoner was born in Ohio and raised in Indiana. You can hear the Midwesterner in his work. He was first influenced by family ties, ethnic neighborhoods, industrial production and pollution, and urban life. Then his move to the Pacific Northwest in 1954,was, I guess, for him a little like my move to northern Michigan. He says, “when I drove down out of the Cascades and saw the region that was to become my home territory for the next thirty years, my extreme uneasiness turned into awe. I had never seen or imagined such greenness, such a promise of healing growth. Everything I saw appeared to be living ancestral forms of the dead earth where I’d tried to grow up.”

I’d say that Wagoner is primarily a nature poet in the way that Robert Frost is a nature poet. Both let nature be itself and yet they load it so heavily with meaning it becomes metaphorical, speaking for the ordinary human condition.

I have another poem for you. I like to compare it with Wordsworth’s ode, “Intimations of Immortality”—“Our birth is a sleep and a forgetting,” Wordsworth says. We come trailing clouds of immortality, we come trailing Heaven, but as we grow up, he says, we forget. We become locked in the prison-house of adulthood. Well, that’s Wordsworth. Here’s Wagoner’s native American view of the same idea.

That Child

That child was dangerous. That just-born
Newly washed and silent baby
Wrapped in deerskin and held warm
Against the side of its mother could understand
The language of birds and animals
Even when asleep. It knew why Bluejay
Was scolding the bushes, what Hawk was explaining
To the wind on the cliffside, what Bittern had found out
While standing alone in marsh grass. It knew
What the screams of Fox and the whistling of Otter
Were telling the forest. That child knew
The language of Fire
As it gnawed at sticks like Beaver
And what Water said all day and all night
At the creek’s mouth. As its small fingers
Closed around Stone, it held what Stone was saying.
It knew what Bear Mother whispered to herself
Under the snow. It could not tell
Anyone what it knew. It would laugh
Or cry out or startle or suddenly stare
At nothing, but had no way
To repeat what it was hearing, what it wanted most
Not to remember. It had no way to know
Why it would fall under a spell
And lie still as if not breathing,
Having grown afraid
Of what it could understand. That child would learn
To sit and crawl and stand and begin
Putting one foot forward and following it
With the other, would learn to put one word
It could barely remember slightly ahead
Of the other and then walk and speak
And finally run and chatter,
And all the Tillamook would know that child
Had forgotten everything and at last could listen
Only to people and was safe now.

There’s a threat in this poem, isn’t there? Who’s safe? The child can now hear only the voices of people. I suspect it’s the people who now feel safe, protected from having to understand the raw language of the natural world.

Here’s another of Wagoner’s poems that I especially like. It’s deeply humane without once falling over into sentimentality. He’s speaking to anatomy students. Maybe I like it because my father’s also willed his body to a medical school. There’s something both wonderful and awful about thinking of the body of someone you love stretched out on a table for study by strangers.

Their Bodies

To the students of anatomy
at Indiana University

That gaunt old man came first, his hair as white
As your scoured tables. Maybe you’ll recollect him
By the scars of steelmill burns on the backs of his hands,
On the nape of his neck, on his arms and sinewy legs,
And her by the enduring innocence
Of her face, as open to all of you in death
As it would have been in life: she would memorize
Your names and ages and pastimes and hometowns
If she could, but she can’t now, so remember her.

They believed in doctors, listened to their advice,
And followed it faithfully. You should treat them
One last time as they would have treated you.
They had been kind to others all their lives
And believed in being useful. Remember somewhere
Their son is trying hard to believe you’ll learn
As much as possible from them, as he did,
And will do your best to learn politely and truly.

They gave away the gift of those useful bodies
Against his wish. (They had their own ways
Of doing everything, always.) If you’re not certain
Which ones are theirs, be gentle to everybody.

A hallmark of Wagoner’s work is that concreteness, the sense that even though the poem may be headily philosophical, your feet have never left the ground.

I want to leave you with this poem of Wagoner’s that’s typical of his wonderfully wry humor. Stay with me, Aaron, even though it’s long. It’s worth it. The poem is about the last day of the notorious bank robber John Dillinger. He had returned to Chicago, the site of some of his most notorious crimes. A prostitute has informed on him to the police. They track him down in a theater.

The poem is called:

The Shooting of John Dillinger Outside the Biograph Theater, July 22, 1934

Chicago ran a fever of a hundred and one that groggy Sunday.
A reporter fried an egg on a sidewalk; the air looked shaky.
And a hundred thousand people were in the lake like shirts in
a laundry.
Why was Johnny lonely?
Not because two dozen solid citizens, heat-struck, had keeled
over backward.
Not because those lawful souls had fallen out of their sockets
and melted.
But because the sun went down like a lump in a furnace or a
bull in the Stockyards.
Where was Johnny headed?
Past seventeen FBI men and four policemen who stood in
doorways and sweated.
Johnny sat down in a cold seat to watch Clark Gable get
Had Johnny been mistreated?
Yes, but Gable told the D.A. he’d rather fry than be shut up
Two women sat by Johnny. One looked sweet, one looked like
J. Edgar Hoover.
Polly Hamilton made him feel hot, but Anna Sage made him
Was Johnny a good lover?
Yes, but he passed out his share of squeezes and pokes like a
jittery masher
While Agent Purvis sneaked up and down the aisle like an
extra usher,
Trying to make sure they wouldn’t slip out till the show was
Was Johnny a fourflusher?
No, not if he knew the game. He got it up or got it back.
But he liked to take snapshots of policemen with his own Kodak,
And once in a while he liked to take them with an automatic.
Why was Johnny frantic?
Because he couldn’t take a walk or sit down in a movie
Without begin afraid he’d run smack into somebody
Who’d point at his rearranged face and holler, “Johnny!”
Was Johnny ugly?
Yes, because Dr. Wilhelm Loeser had given him a new profile
With a baggy jawline and squint eyes and an erased dimple,
With kangaroo-tendon cheekbones and a gigolo’s mustache
that should’ve been illegal.
Did Johnny love a girl?
Yes, a good-looking, hard-headed Indian named Billie Frechette.
He wanted to marry her and lie down and try to get over it,
But she was locked in jail for giving him first-aid and comfort.
Did Johnny feel hurt?
He felt like breaking a bank or jumping over a railing
Into some panicky teller’s cage to shout, “Reach for the ceiling!”
Or like kicking some vice president in the bum checks and
What was he really doing?
Going up the aisle with the crowd and into the lobby
With Polly saying, “Would you do what Clark done?” And
Johnny saying, “Maybe.”
And Anna saying, “If he’d been smart, he’d of acted like
Bing Crosby.”
Did Johnny look flashy?
Yes, his white-on-white shirt and tie were luminous.
His trousers were creased like knives to the tops of his shoes,
And his yellow straw hat came down to his dark glasses.
Was Johnny suspicious?
Yes, and when Agent Purvis signaled with a trembling cigar,
Johnny ducked left and ran out of the theater,
And innocent Polly and squealing Anna were left nowhere.
Was Johnny a fast runner?
No, but he crouched and scurried past a friendly liquor store
Under the coupled arms of double-daters, under awnings,
under stars,
To the curb at the mouth of an alley. He hunched there.
Was Johnny a thinker?
No, but he was thinking more or less of Billie Frechette
Who was lost in prison for longer than he could possibly wait,
And then it was suddenly too hard to think around a bullet.
Did anyone shoot straight?
Yes, but Mrs. Etta Natalsky fell out from under her picture hat.
Theresa Paulus sprawled on the sidewalk, clutching her left foot.
And both of them groaned loud and long under the streetlight.
Did Johnny like that?
No, but he lay down with those strange women, his face
in the alley,
One shoe off, cinders in his mouth, his eyelids heavy.
When they shouted questions at him, he talked back to nobody.
Did Johnny lie easy?
Yes, holding his gun and holding his breath as a last trick,
He waited, but when the Agents came close, his breath
wouldn’t work.
Clark Gable walked his last mile; Johnny ran a half a block.
Did he run out of luck?
Yes, before he was cool, they had him spread out on dished-in
In the Cook County Morgue, surrounded by babbling people
With a crime reporter presiding over the head of the table.
Did Johnny have a soul?
Yes, and it was climbing his slippery wind-pipe like a trapped
It was beating the inside of his ribcage, hollering, “Let me
out of here!”
Maybe it got out, and maybe it just stayed there.
Was Johnny a money-maker?
Yes, and thousands paid 25¢ to see him, mostly women,
And one said, “I wouldn’t have come, except he’s a moral
And another, “I’m disappointed. He feels like a dead man.”
Did Johnny have a brain?
Yes, and it always worked best through the worst of dangers,
Through flat-footed hammerlocks, through guarded doors,
around corners,
But it got taken out in the morgue and sold to some doctors.
Could Johnny take orders?
No, but he stayed in the wicker basket carried by six men
Through the bulging crowd to the hearse and let himself be
locked in,
And he stayed put as it went driving south in a driving rain.
And he didn’t get stolen?
No, not even after his old hard-nosed dad refused to sell
The quick-drawing corpse for $10,000 to somebody in a
He figured he’d let Johnny decide how to get to Hell.
Did anyone wish him well?
Yes, half of Indiana camped in the family pasture,
And the minister said, “With luck, he could have been a
And up the sleeve of his oversized gray suit, Johnny twitched
a finger.
Does anyone remember?
Everyone still alive. And some dead ones. It was a new kind of
With hot and cold drinks and hot and cold tears. They planted
him in a cemetery
With three unknown vice presidents, Benjamin Harrison, and
James Whitcomb Riley,
Who never held up anybody.

You should look this one up and read it again. Its music is coming from the refrain and from the kind of incantatory voice, the voice, actually, of a preacher. That’s what Wagoner’s doing, isn’t it? He’s being that preacher who says “with luck, [Dillinger] could have been a minister.” At base, there’s not much difference in the Dillinger and the rest of us, not much difference in Dillinger and the three unknown vice presidents and the poet James Whitcomb Riley. We’re all just people, trying to get along in life.

If you like these poems, you might want to get a copy of Traveling Light: Collected and New Poems by David Wagoner, published by University of Illinois Press in 1999. David has newer books, but this one will give you a real sense of the scope of his poetry.[/two_third]