Updated: Sep 26
Last night I got to join some of Ken’s closest friends, some of whom have been devoting themselves to his health and comfort over many months of illness, in a hospital intensive care room. I walked in to find Robert reading a passage from Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (the 1855 edition, which surely would have mattered to Ken), on Joe’s cell phone, and I soon caught on that we were passing the phone around, each reading a passage, nine of us in a semi-circle around Ken. Whitman never sounded so strong, meaningful or relevant to me before although I’m a long-time fan. Hearing this poetry in different voices brought it thoroughly alive as we watched Ken raggedly breath, his pulse and heart rate slowly dropping on the monitor.
Ken and I met when I was assigned to his basement office in the bowels of Wescoe (before it was renovated) on the KU campus in 1986. A new teaching assistant in English, I was thrilled to know I would be sharing an office with a “famous poet” as well as another office mate. I was also told Ken could be difficult. But that difficulty wasn’t such an issue as long as I didn’t contest him using 80% of the bookshelves and file cabinets for hundreds of book he had out from the library on long-term loan based on the premise that who could possibly appreciate these books more than him?
Our third office mate changed regularly, beginning with a quiet, religious, sports-minded, weightlifter from Texas, who, upon meeting us, said, “You can tell a lot about a man by how he fills out his shirt.” Other office mates rotating through until our last, and best one, Andrew, who had a crazy enough sense of humor to match ours, and also supported me when I complained about Ken.
There was a lot to complain about: Ken was arrogant, self-absorbed, and haughty. He regularly favored men over women, sometimes humiliated women poets in public, and got belligerent when he drank too much (which he did often). As one of my friends, and a fellow women poet, and I recently agreed, he could be a fucking jerk, but he was our fucking jerk. In ten years of rooming with him, he never read my poetry, and he was even less enthusiastic about my growing family. As he held court with his students, talking enthusiastically about Duncan or Whitman, he rolled his eyes at me when he saw me nursing an infant with one arm while grading papers with another. When I told Ken was pregnant with my third child, he raised his eyebrows, sighed dramatically, and with his deep velvet voice, yelled out, “Not again, Caryn!”
We actually had a blast together co-habitating in an 8′ by 8′ space, packed with three desks, three file cabinets, and a whole lot of shelves. We shared every ounce of English department gossip, tended to love and hate the same people, and were easily outraged on each other’s account. If someone did me wrong, Ken properly trashed them with his acute verbal speed and expansive vocabulary. We puzzled over the quandary of teaching, celebrated the students we liked best, and wondered what happened to the ones who went astray. We praised Rilke, who we both loved, and Ken made it a point to give me Rilke poetry on my birthday, because Rilke and I share the same birthday. In fact, Ken knew every famous poet’s birthday, and commemorated it.
We talked Kansas up one side and down another, Ken frequently telling stories about Fort Scott, where he grew up. In readings we participated in over many years, Ken read from his poems, so strong, it seemed they always existed in some form. He also knew literature in such great and vibrant nuance and depth that he could (and did!) talk at length about most dead or living writers I mentioned, which was particularly helpful for me when I was studying for my comps. Over the years in that office, and the many more years since then, we updated each other on children — my kids, and his very beloved brother’s children — and caught up on people we knew, travels, and what he had been reading lately. Whatever Ken was, he was never boring.
Reading Whitman to Ken last night, I realized — as we all realize in those last moments with dear ones — that in the end, only love matters. Here this dear, complicated, paradoxical man, poet (read this homage to visitors from the farthest star), Kansan, teacher, and friend was dying, surrounded by poetry. Although we switched from Whitman to Rilke before we got to this passage from Leaves of Grass, I believe these lines speak perfectly to the Ken I knew. May he sound his barbaric yawp over the roofs of the next world, our affection for him trailing behind.
I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable, I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.