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Keith Waldrop, avant-garde poet who won National Book Award, dies at 90


Keith Waldrop, a prominent avant-garde poet, small press publisher and translator who won the National Book Award in 2009 with “Transcendental Studies: A Trilogy,” an inventive collection of poems whose words, like a collage, were drawn from other works, died July 27 at a hospice center near his home in Providence, R.I. He was 90.

The cause was Alzheimer’s disease, said his wife, Rosmarie Waldrop, a poet with whom he ran Burning Deck Press, a publisher of experimental poetry and prose, for more than 50 years.

Mr. Waldrop, a longtime professor at Brown University, had just become director of the college’s graduate writing program when the collage idea emerged as a kind of life raft for his creative output.

“It was not a difficult job, but it was endless,” he said in an interview with the National Book Foundation. “I kept thinking after hours about what I should do tomorrow and what I didn’t do yesterday, and I found after some months that I was not writing any poetry, and I didn’t like that.”

Mr. Waldrop, his eyes bleary from reading department memos and his students’ writing, said he “decided to do some collage work with my poems, and the mechanical part of it, just getting words from somewhere, I thought would be something I could do without thinking.”

He set three books of prose on a table.

“I would take phrases from these three books and make some stanzas, four, five, six lines,” he said. “I wasn’t worried about keeping the words exactly what they were — sometimes I changed words. I wasn’t trying to prove anything about collage. I was trying to write poems.”

“Transcendental Studies” is broken into three chapters of linked poems and an epilogue. In “Shipwreck in Haven,” he wrote:

When the sea subsides into utter

calm, changing clouds caught in its

clarity, then fishermen say the sea

is thinking about itself. A dark back

room, looking down upon a narrow

courtyard — waking out of some

dream of specters, bellowing the most

frightful shrieks, forgetting only

at the sound of somebody’s voice.

“In lesser hands, the parataxis of sentence fragments can be wearying, the stuff of well-deserved parody. (My thoughts. Deep. Broken. Deep. Did I mention deep?),” Robert P. Baird wrote in a Bookforum review. “But Waldrop is too skilled to let the technique drag him down. He threads his stanzas on a line of understated music, keeping them fresh and moving, making them — his word — cantabile.”

Ben Lerner, a poet, novelist and essayist who studied with Mr. Waldrop at Brown, categorized him as “a quiet major poet, a major poet of quiet,” in the Paris Review. “His accomplishment is difficult to describe because his work refuses, in Bartleby-like fashion, the twin traps of impassivity and affectation.”

Bernard Keith Waldrop was born in Emporia, Kan., on Dec. 11, 1932. His father was a railroad worker, and his mother taught piano. She was deeply religious and moved the family to a succession of fundamentalist communities.

He started reading and writing poetry at a fundamentalist high school in South Carolina.

“I remember writing a narrative poem about the universal flood,” he said in a 2009 interview recorded at the University of Pennsylvania’s Kelly Writers House. “I hope no trace of it remains. I think it’s gone.”

While studying at Kansas State Teachers College (now Emporia State University), Mr. Waldrop was drafted into the Army and sent to West Germany, where he met Rosmarie Sebald, a college student who was performing in a holiday musical show for servicemen. They began dating, and she eventually joined him back in the United States.

After his Army discharge, Mr. Waldrop graduated in 1955 from the Kansas teachers college. He then attended the University of Michigan, receiving a master’s degree in 1958, the year he married Sebald, and completing a doctorate in comparative literature in 1964. His dissertation was titled “Aesthetic Uses of Obscenity in Literature.”

Mr. Waldrop co-founded Burning Deck, then a literary magazine, while studying at Michigan. After publishing four issues, the magazine morphed into a small press. Mr. Waldrop’s wife joined as co-editor, and together they published more than 200 books, including several collections of his visual collages. The press closed in 2017.

Mr. Waldrop’s first book of poetry, “A Windmill Near Calvary,” was a finalist for the National Book Award in poetry in 1969. His poems have a kind of cult following, especially among younger poets. In “Lullaby in January,” he wrote:

Just past midnight, I’m securely

awake, the hour of my birth arriving

with a wicked downdraft. These rooms, at not

quite room temperature, support a thought of green

lawn, croquet parties, seasons gradually

turning the house around. We wait

for it to happen. And it seems to me that

anyone who sleeps, sleeps heroically, trusts

unreasonably that something will

come again, out of nothing.

In addition to his poetry, Mr. Waldrop was renowned for his translations of French poets, including Charles Baudelaire, Paul Verlaine, Anne-Marie Albiach, Jean Grosjean, Jacques Roubaud and Claude Royet-Journoud. France’s Culture Ministry honored him for his contribution to the arts.

Mr. Waldrop taught at Brown for more than 40 years, retiring in 2011.

“He was known to be an encouraging figure — something like a Zen master, who would offer on occasion what might seem a cryptic response to a poem that would, in time, become a pathway to a deeper understanding of what the poet was seeking to accomplish,” the university wrote in a remembrance.

His wife is his only immediate survivor.

Lerner wrote that “ghosts are everywhere in Waldrop’s work, but they’re not supernatural occurrences: a ghost for Waldrop is more a felt absence than a felt presence.”

In 1979, Mr. Waldrop published a poem titled “Around the Block.” It begins:

I will go for a walk before

bed, a little stroll to settle

the day’s upsets. One thing always

discretely — tree after

telephone pole, for instance, or

this series of unlit houses. One moment follows

place instantly to the next. Each frame

As for death, at the moment I

think it strangely overrated.

POST AUTHOR: Michael Rosenwald

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