I knew before I started blogging for BAP this week that I wanted to end my gig with some words for the man who got me back on the path to poetry, Philip Dacey. Phil passed away earlier this month, on July 7. It was a sad day for poetry. We lost one of the great ones.
I am, with Stacey's permission, reprinting a piece I wrote that day for the Stoneboat blog. It doesn't tell you everything Philip ever did, where he taught, who he knew, or even the names of all his books.It is just my personal response to him, his poetry, and his generosity. He taught me a lot, even from a distance. And, he still will, I think, even though he has moved on. That's what poets do, here or not here. Teach us with their words.
The sad news came today that a poet and good friend to Stoneboat, Philip Dacey, has died after a long illness. I only met Philip in person on one occasion, and that was at the Great Lakes Writers Festival at Lakeland College back in 2007. At the time, I had not tried to write a poem for many years. I was on major hiatus as far as poetry was concerned. But meeting Philip and hearing his work, I was impressed by his poems and by his welcoming nature. He was not snobbish about poetry. He did not make it seem like an enterprise for only some special sect of people. He helped me see that poetry is there for anyone who wants to partake of it. He was a true mentor in that regard.
Later on, when we became email correspondents, he wrote to me often about "the vineyard." This was the place that he designated as the ground where all poetry comes from, and he believed that anyone who was willing to do the work of caring for the roots, fertilizing the soil, and tending to the vines would be able to enjoy the wine, eventually. He never said it was easy, but he also did not say it was impossible. The work was there to be done, if one so wished to engage in the endeavor. He always made poetry look like a vocation worth having.
Philip was clearly generous with his time and talent. He did not make distinctions, I think, between "high end" and "low end." For example, when we were in the process of devising our first issue of Stoneboat, I wrote to him and asked if he would be so kind as to send us some poems. He immediately sent six. He did not say, "Oh, you are below me, little upstart literary journal." He simply sent some work. It was quite a boost to my editorial ego to be given the opportunity to select three poems from a repeat Pushcart Prize-winning poet and include them in our debut effort.
Many years later, when Stoneboat celebrated its fifth anniversary, he submitted some poems to us without being asked. We were so happy to include them. His presence in our anniversary issue reminded us of how we had grown. Philip seemed to take pleasure in reminding poets (and editors) about what they were doing right. This kind of encouragement was part of his generosity of spirit.
I learned a lot from Philip over the years, even though our only contact was via email. It was Philip who told me that a poem could be just as fictional as any story. In other words, that a poem could tell a story that was not necessarily true. That was a new one for me! He also taught me that the "negative spaces" of a poem—what is not said in words—are as important, maybe more important, than the text. He got me to think about how creating a poem is like carving a sculpture, releasing the poem from its block of marble. He also admonished me to always take criticism as a kind of "structural stress test." To look at the suggestion, weigh its merit, and make a decision based on what felt right to me, the poet.
Philip taught me not to worry about rejections from editors. He said, "I get them still, all the time. No editor is obliged to take my work." He taught me to roll with the punches and keep trying. I remember one of his favorite encouraging phrases was "Go, go, go!" I use it now myself when I feel excited about what a fellow poet is up to. Philip taught me to be excited about the success of others, not envious. He taught me to trust my own voice, and to feel confident in what makes me unique as a writer. Keep doing the work. Visit the vineyard.
As for his poems, I was always so enamored of the way he could make use of forms (sonnets, triolets, pantoums, and more) and make them very readable, using common language, but taking its use to new heights. Together with David Jauss, he created the book Strong Measures (HarperCollins, 1986). This is a book that explains many, many poetic forms by providing real-life manifestations of these forms from poets across the spectrum. It remains a great repository of helpful examples to both the budding and the seasoned poet.
My favorite Dacey collections are all the ones I have read: The Boy Under the Bed, The Deathbed Playboy, Vertebrae Rosaries, Night Shift at the Crucifix Factory, Mosquito Operas, and Gimme Five. I must admit, I have not read his collections of poems about Walt Whitman or Gerard Manley Hopkins, but I'm quite sure I would love those, too. There are fourteen books in all, and I know now that I need to fill in the ones I have missed.
In one of his last emails to me at the end of April, he told me he was weakening, and that walking was getting hard. He wrote, "[I'm] working on three posthumous collections—last poems, selected poems, and selected essays." I was very sad knowing that he was preparing to go. But this is what happens, right? Philip knew he was dying, and he knew he wanted to leave us gifts to continue to inspire us.
And so, we have things to look forward to. There is much to learn from the life and poetry of Philip Dacey. He may be gone from this physical plane, but his poems will nourish the vineyard that all of us will be invited to visit for a long, long time to come.
Let me end with one of his:
Reading a Book of Poems by a Friend Newly Dead
I think these words are still warm.
Bend close—there is a breath
coming from them. See
how the lines rise and fall, pulse,
how he is slow to leave these poems,
in which he has lived for many years.
In time he will turn them completely
over to us for safekeeping, but not yet.
I face this book as I often faced him.
He could be hiding behind it, wearing it
like a mask before he slips from the words
into the spaces between the lines
and then into the margins. Now this book
has a new life as a handshake, a long one,
so long it becomes instead a handclasp,
though the flesh is papery, dry.
And lines keep revealing themselves
to be a goodbye wave, each a rehearsal
more for our sake than his. It is not
his fault that we missed the gesture.
I am afraid to put this book down,
afraid to close it. I did not know
a book could be raw, skinned, as it were.
Afraid to touch it. Afraid not to.
In Stoneboat, 5.1, fall 2014