What impressed me first was his sestina, a very challenging kind of poem he wrote after hanging with a bunch of us fellow state poets laureate at a lingering dinner at a Concord, New Hampshire Holiday Inn restaurant. A dozen of us gathered from Louisiana to Texas for the Poets & Politics conference to first travel around the small state, giving readings with local poets, then present together for conference-goers.
The only problem was, that aside from the conference organizers, there were only a handful of conference-goers. We filled the open space with getting to know each other, and those three evenings spent lingering for hours over dinner were some of the most delightful of my life. We talked poetry of course, but also about our kids, how we got to or stayed in the states where we lived, and what we regretted and embraced in how we juggled writing with the other aspects of our lives. But mostly, we laughed, and somehow caught the wave of making air quotes with our fingers for every noun in a sentence one long night over chicken parmesan and garlic knots.
Dick was quirky, approachable, and full of stories, wit, and a kind of peaceful presence only matched by his passion for all things poetry. The next evening he shared the sestina he had just written, and we raised our glasses to him after he read it to us, all of us blown away that he could turn such a spectacular poem out in such short order. What makes sestinas hard to write is that 1) they’re long — 39 lines, and 2) you have to repeat in a very complex pattern the ending word to a line in each stanza. It’s a little like putting together a 1,000-piece puzzle without a picture of what it should look like while juggling six words (repeated at the end of lines in various formations). It probably takes most people, even very experienced poets, weeks to write a sestina, and blessings of the gods to write a great one. Yet he wrote “If You Visit Our Country,” which he also read on Prairie Home Companion, and is also published in my poet laureate memoir, a book Dick kindly blurbed, Poem on the Range.
I was so impressed by Dick that I invited him to be a keynote speaker at the Transformative Language Art Network’s Power of Words conference in 2013 at Pendle Hill near Philadelphia. We had a tight budget and could only offer him an amount that probably just covered travel for his and his wife, poet and fiction writer L. N. Allen, but he kindly accepted our offer, then showed up to give one of the most powerful talks on poetry and life I’ve ever heard, plus a wonderful workshop. But what I remember most was taking a walk with Dick to look at the oldest beech tree in Pennsylvania, which towered over the very tall and tree-like Allen. We stood in wonder at the base of this grandmother tree, placing our hands on it, and looking up. The size and presence of this being was so awesome that we stopped talking and just smiled at each other, then after a while, walked back, talking about what a gift this moment was.
Not only did he and his wife give so much goodness to the conference, but he wrote Callid, the then-coordinator of the TLA Network, and myself the best notes of our lives, which has the same kind of wild and enthusiastic sentences that threads together in some of his shining poems, thanking us, among other things, “….for the quiet path to the small pond with the fountain and the willow I took Saturday afternoon, for what may be the best brownies of my life, in addition to fabulous breakfasts; for the huge writing expertise of those in my workshop, for the terrific audience response to my poems, for the flashlights we didn’t need when the lights went on, for the ever present care and devotion to the written art, for storytelling and transformations, for the chocolate bar and the parking space and places to meditate everywhere, thank you!”
Dick knew a lot about gratitude, and attending to the moment. A long-time student, and through his own way of being in the world and his poetry, teacher of Zen Buddhism, he showed up fully at conferences and in email exchanges also. I just looked over a bevy of emails in which we joked about New England versus Kansas, and Dick sent along photos of wide-perspective Kansas highways leading to a steady point, surrounded by flatlands, which he said he especially loved, while I joked back, “Our state is so big that we can fit two New Englands in it and still have room for New Jersey.” When I sent him photos of our town’s gorgeous maples turning deep red and orange, he responded, “Don’t you realize there are no maple trees in Kansas? You’re living in a hallucination and need to drink some dark sunflower coffee.” We went on to write about our grown children, and in his case, the miracle of the grandchild he didn’t expect and now adores. His love for Kansas and New England was as real as his support for a younger poet — surely I’m one of many he reached out in various ways.
He knew how to bring just the right touch and tone to the most difficult curves of our time also, just like he did in the poem he wrote in response to the Sandy Hook school shooting, “Solace.” You can hear him reading this tender and powerful poem here.
He’s also one of the featured state poet in the self-paced online class “Truth to Power: Poetry for Our Times with Poets Laureate” I put together for the Transformative Language Arts Network, and we were just emailing about at the end of November when I asked him to share a bunch of poems, writing reflections, writing prompts, and many links to his work. Not only did he give (again) freely, but he wrote me of the class, “That’s a great thing to do and an honor to be asked.”
The real deal is that Dick was a truly great poet — one of the foremost poets of our time — with an immensely generous and loving heart and a brave and clear mind. In one of our stretches of correspondence, he shared what he called “Gerund Phase Sonnets” — each 14 lines long like a sonnet, but loosely rhymed, all describing a process, some parables too. He wrote of these sonnets, “The form is a vessel, perhaps comparable to Emily Dickinson’s use of simple quatrains, freeing the poet to concentrate on theme and subject and/or to be led by the easy rhymes and American speech patterns of lines of varying length into unexpected places.” And here’s one of the sonnets about solving a Koan (more on what that is here).
Solving the Koan
Logically, you can’t do this. Illogically,
you can throw cold water on a alley cat
or bite your eyeballs. Solving a koan
is like kneeling beside a car, trying to change a flat
with a single potato chip. Two might do it. Mind you,
a koan isn’t a riddle,
a puff on an Old Gold, ringing of a liberty bell,
but a cat and a fiddle
and the cow jumping over Kansas. You must
go haywire and be calm at once,
stare at a blank wall and contemplate
ripples spreading across a bowl of Jell-O. Chance
plays a part in it, but mainly
to solve a koan you must simply Be.
I’m grateful for getting to know him, and sad he’s suddenly gone, having died Tuesday after a heart attack on Christmas. What he’s left behind are many poems I’ll return to with fresh eyes, remembering what he showed me and reflecting on what his poems illustrate about how to simply be while overflowing with compassion, humor, intelligence, and vitality.
Here’s more on Dick, including some excerpts from an abandoned interview, four poems in the online journal Superstition, a lovely poem entitled “If You Get There Before I Do,” and Dick’s website, in which he writes in “A Cautionary Tale” that the say to live entails this: “You walk a little. You stop. You hurt./ Then You go on.” Be sure to watch him talk about puns and read the poem “The Horse Knows the Way” (riffing off Frost’s “Stopping in the Woods on a Snowy Evening”), in which he shows his humor and adept way with language. You can see more of his poems here. Finally, enjoy this short tribute video in the Herald Courant.
Photo of state poets laureate, from left: Dave Parsons, Texas; JoAnn Balingit, Delaware; Bruce Dethlefsen, Wisconsin; Lisa Starr, Rhode Island; the late Walter Butts, New Hampshire; Marjory Wentworth, South Carolina; Dick Allen, Connecticut; Julie Kane, Louisiana; and sitting, Carolyn Kreiter-Foronda, Virginia; and yours truly, Kansas.