Robert Wallace, Poet, 1932–1999
1969 CLEVELAND ARTS PRIZE FOR LITERATURE
Lots of people write poems. Many imagine themselves heirs, and craftsmen and -women, in the Great Tradition of English verse. Bob Wallace was the real McCoy.
The editors of The New Yorker, The New York Times, Harper’s, Atlantic Monthly, The Nation, Poetry, The Saturday Review and dozens of other respected publications evidently agreed. So did the students and aspiring poets who flocked to the classes he taught for over 30 years at Case Western Reserve University. And he put a great deal of what he knew into seven books of poetry, a widely used textbook anthology, Poems on Poetry: The Mirror’s Garland, (E. P. Dutton, 1965), co-edited with James G. Taaffe, and another called simply Writing Poems.
J. Kennedy, in his glowing foreword to the original edition (Little,
Brown, 1982), called it the first “really useful textbook on the
subject.” It enabled its readers to see, he said, “what goes on” in the
constructing (and revision) of poems, and thus to “understand poetry
from the inside. That he has . . . thought hard about it, his every
Robert Wallace was born in 1932 in Springfield, Missouri. The son of Tincy and Roy Wallace, who ran a small factory that turned out cherry and walnut furniture of his own design, Bob Wallace developed an early appreciation for craftsmanship and the well-made object. It had something to do with the painstaking care and, yes, with your love of the materials and of the subject, whether it was a chest of drawers or a scrawny old dog like the one Alberto Giacometti immortalized in a bronze sculpture. “It’s not this starved hound, / but Giacometti’s seeing / him we see,” Wallace would one day write (italics added). “We’ll stand in line all day / to see one man / love anything enough.”
By the age of 10, Roy and Tincy’s son was crafting poems influenced by the witty verse of Ogden Nash and Richard Armour. When he was 16, one was published in The Rotarian magazine. Based on his weekend and summer job as a golf caddy, it was titled “Tee Hee”.
It may have been in part their shared love for witty verse that ignited the lifelong friendship of Bob Wallace and John Updike, which began during their undergraduate years at Harvard. Bob’s work was already appearing in national publications like The Christian Science Monitor and The Lyric. Graduating summa cum laude in 1953, he traveled to England as a Fulbright scholar and Woodrow Wilson fellow, enrolling in St. Catharine’s College, Cambridge, where he would earn an English Bachelor of Arts degree with honors and, following a two-year stint in the army, his M.A. In 1957, a collection of Wallace’s best work to date, This Various World and Other Poems, was published by Scribner’s, and the Poetry Society of America bestowed its William Rose Benet Memorial Award on the 25-year-old poet.
Five other collections of Wallace’s poetry would follow: In 1965, the year he joined the faculty of CWRU, Views from a Ferris Wheel (E. P. Dutton) appeared to favorable reviews, followed in 1968 by Ungainly Things (E. P. Dutton),
which earned him the Cleveland Arts Prize. Throughout the 1970s,
Wallace’s poems continued to appear in many national publications,
winning the attention of Carnegie Mellon University Press and its
highly regarded Poets Series, which collected them in Swimmer in the Rain (1979). In 1984, Carnegie Mellon brought out Girlfriends and Wives (1984), a collection of bittersweet meditations on/hommages to the girls and women in the poet’s life (his fourth and “best” wife,
the former Christine Seidler, whose nickname “Tina” touchingly evokes
his mother’s, stayed with him to the end); and, in 1989, published The Common Summer: New and Selected Poems by Robert Wallace, which he dedicated to Tina.
Another book, impishly titled Critters, was published in 1978 by Bits Press, a basement publishing house founded by Wallace himself (more about which below). A verse bestiary, paired with the enchanting illustrations of young Michael DeCapite, it described a menagerie of improbable animals such as the Foom (“about the size of a dentist’s waiting room”) and the Hode, who is summed up in just four lines:
The Hode is hairy.
A man given to squirt-gun battles in his Cleveland Heights backyard in middle age, who once took up the bagpipes in a surge of identification with his Scots heritage, Wallace was an impetuous soul with a ready laugh and a huge appetite for fun. Friends remember his dancing eyes, his eagerness to jump into the conversation. He was always right there with you as you spoke, this author recalls, you could almost hear the synapses firing and the brain cells lighting up inside his head.
The more curious, then, that (Critters aside) Wallace’s poems seem to inhabit an almost palpable silence, a calm, thoughtful place that puts one in mind of Wordsworth’s famous definition of poetry: “emotion recollected in tranquility." Whether he is teaching an outdoor class of college girls under a tree, or awakened by a neighbor frantically chopping wood at midnight, or contemplating a toad, Wallace is always the laser-eyed, detached but passionate observer, who sees what no one sees. One of his favorite pastimes was viewing the world from the eyes of his beloved dogs, Cedric and Maggie (the dedicatee of Swimmer in the Rain), whose inner monologs he voiced so insightfully as they sniffed out company and sized up the situation in terms relevant to them. Indeed, their luminous perspectives on the world are crisply captured in poems like “Maggie at Noon” or this memorable couplet titled “Dog’s Song”:
It was the simple things that fascinated Wallace. He is, says Updike, “a master of witty enjambment and hard-edged tenderness,” who “gives me back the world I live in, with an enhancing moonglow added.” The spot-on character and freshness of Wallace’s images can be poignant, as in his “snapshot” of “The Girl Writing Her English Paper” as she
Wallace’s poems “lure the reader with the pleasures of their craft,” says Mary Oliver. “Often they have a shimmering quality, as though light was held inside the lines. If his subjects are darker”—as in “I Go On Talking to You”, a man’s meditation on his divorce, or “God’s Wonderful Drowning Machine," on the indifferent ocean—“it is because he examines, existentially, the harsh as well as the gentle actualities of our lives.” Time and again, says X. J. Kennedy, Wallace manages to capture “some experience that would have passed right by us unnoticed and makes it into a singularly wise (and sometimes playful) poem.”
Familiar, even hackneyed subjects are seen anew, as in the little poem called “In the Field Forever," whose very title, which also serves as its first line, frames the poem with another poem:
In “Swimmer in the Rain," it is as though one is seeing raindrops falling on water for the first time.
Wallace, like his father and the sculptor Giacometti, takes great pleasure in showing us things. He loved teaching, he said, because it made him feel like he was “returning the favor” of his former teachers. Before coming to CWRU, he had taught at Bryn Mawr, Sweet Briar and Vassar colleges.
Which brings us to Bits Press. It began with the acquisition in 1974 of an old hand-fed Gordon printing press with moveable type, the kind one sets by hand, and the launching of a 6 3/8-inch-tall by 4 5/8-inch-wide magazine called bits that would appear semi-annually from 1975 to 1980. Demandingly edited (and hand-set and printed, its spine hand-stitched) by Wallace and a few friends that soon included Lee K. Abbott, bits featured poems of 12 lines or less* by poets as well known as Howard Nemerov, whose 1977 Collected Poems had won both the Pulitzer and the National Book Award, and “finds” like Harold Tinkle, whose Old Fart’s Almanac-in-progress provided several immortal couplets (“Who is this Old Fart? Think of him as Faust / Much traveled in the lawnmower’s exhaust.”)
Wallace’s delight in the well-made poem, now coupled with the visceral satisfaction that had eluded him since his boyhood when he had watched craftspersons handling their tools and lathes in his father’s factory, included the poetry of others. And soon, with a newly acquired vintage Chandler & Price (hand-set but motorized) press, Wallace and fellow-poet Nicholas Ranson were publishing a series of chapbooks, each devoted to new work by the likes of John Updike, Peter Meinke, Gerald Costanzo, Gary Adamson (original woodblock prints) and Mary Oliver. Indeed, a favorable review of Oliver’s chapbook, The Night Traveler, by Joyce Carol Oates is credited with eventually leading to Oliver’s winning a Pulitzer.
In 1985 Wallace launched the Blow-In Cooperative Energy Project (BICEP), through which small presses across America could advertise their publications with minimal cost by exchanging “blow-in” cards (the small cards or fliers “blown” into magazines after they are bound). The following year Bits Press debuted a series of hard-bound collections of new light verse and funny poems by both famous and unknown authors called Light Year, which was published, first annually, then biennially, until 1989, and The Gavin Ewart Show, a full-length hardcover book of light verse by a British poet whose wry verse Wallace admired, and for whom he arranged a national tour.
His own lifelong fascination with the art of verse and how poems work took the form, in his last years, of several essays on meter in English poetry that challenged traditional explanations. Wallace’s fresh look at what he believed was a little understood tool of serious (and humorous) poets since Chaucer (who was both) sparked a dialogue that is captured, along with his own contentions, in a collection of essays titled Meter in English: A Critical Engagement, edited by David Baker (University of Arkansas Press, 1996).
Even “free” verse, done well, makes use of structural, often subliminal elements that are as important to the poem’s total effect (and, hence, to our pleasure) as the arrangement of rollers, cogs and chase are to the functioning of a printing press. (Wallace required his writing students to put in some time setting type for and actually printing their own poems.) In “In the Field Forever,” the grammatically unnecessary commas in the last line, like the carefully placed exclamation points, contribute subtly to the poem’s meaning.
Given a wide-enough page, Wallace was fond of saying, “an entire book of prose theoretically could be printed on one line”; what sets poetry on a different playing field from the start is that “the decision about where each printed line will end”—that is to say, which words and sounds are grouped together in the reader’s subconscious, which word begins, and which concludes, the group—“is not left to the printer.” The very word verse, he loved to point out to his students, derives from the Latin word for “turn,” used to describe what a plough does when it reaches the end of a furrow.
Bob Wallace died in April 1999 at the age of 67, while working on a fifth edition of Writing Poems.
*Wallace suggested as bits’s playful rationale Ezra Pound’s curmudgeonly dictum, “If it can’t be said in 12 lines it isn’t worth saying.” This, he told his fellow editors, would save them from being inundated with sonnets.
For more on the poet, visit library.missouristate.edu/archives/speccoll/m001.htm
The noon walk is for chasing squirrels.
of the English building, she looks out,
quivering, and then with utterly Byzantine
across the leaf- and acorn-littered lawn
leaping at the oak from a branch of which
She runs and sniffs, re-runs, looks up.
it’s the same fellow, the same tree,
How she longs to be red in tooth and claw!
—Swimmer in the Rain (Carnegie Mellon University Press, 1979)
All poems and excerpts from the poetry of Robert Wallace are used with permission of the poet’s family and are under copyright protection, © 1989 by Robert Wallace; Harold Tinkle’s “Who is this Old Fart”, © 1976 by bits magazine.
A fierce, hard, pretty body,
The stories were not true;
Still, if the tales weren’t true,
—Girlfriends and Wives (Carnegie Mellon University Press, 1984)
A regular country toad—pebbly,
as the shade of the spruces
to Paris in a hatbox
on the skies of Paris)
dim yellow; bow-armed,
while the clumsy little painter
until he was beautiful.
down stairs toward the world
and, missing him, the painter-dwarf
Laughed at, searching
over and over,
no one would ever see again
—Ungainly Things (E. P. Dutton & Co., 1968)
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