Poetry: art & nature

I’ve been reading a volume of poetry by a now deceased teacher of mine, Tom Whitbread, may he rest in peace, a very good teacher at the University of Texas at Austin and good friend. When I moved from Texas to Detroit for my first college teaching job, in the 1970s, Tom would drive up during his long summers off, to see me and the family, putzing across the country in his VW Beetle. It must have been the last time he did this that he left us with a volume of his poems and inscribed it, “For Greg, Jen, & Gabriel Zeck — with love & best wishes always! — Tom, Detroit, June ’79.”

Tom Whitbread and Greg Zeck
Tom and Greg in Austin, Texas, 2007

In truth, I haven’t looked at the volume in years. But Tom died in 2016, of complications of prostate cancer (preventable, these days, but that’s another story). And, lately, since I myself am in my seventies, lots of friends have been dropping by the wayside, dropping like flies or flash lightning. Whatever your metaphor, these friends are dead, kaput, irretrievable except now in memory. So I take up cultural relics of the departed — photos, letters, literature — and sift through them and remember.

There’s a short preface to Tom’s book by Richard Wilbur, a famous formalist poet whom Tom knew, in which Wilbur praises the “supple openness” of Tom’s language, “as of an amiable and intelligent man talking.”

Tom was not a formalist like Wilbur, though there is the occasional sonnet or other formal rhyme scheme. His poems do sound like talking, the kind of thoughtful, passionate, inspired talk he employed in the classroom. He would recite the poetry of modernists like Wallace Stevens, pausing to stare at us impressively after certain lines like these (from “The Idea of Order at Key West”):

She was the single artificer of the world
In which she sang. And when she sang, the sea,   
Whatever self it had, became the self
That was her song, for she was the maker.


So art, artifice, artificer. (Compare lux, luxury, and Lucifer.) Poets and fiction writers, among other wordmongers, are artificers. However implanted in or surrounded by nature they may be, they make their own worlds. In Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce’s character Stephen Daedalus bids goodby to Ireland, the “Old father, old artificer,” and begins to become in exile an artist in his own right.

My friend Tom was not Wallace Stevens or James Joyce, herculean figures of early 20th century modernism. But he wrote his own life, in his modest and exuberant way, and created in his work a monument to that life, which even now, after his death, we can look upon and remember, re-member, put together again, the “fragments shored against … ruin,” as T. S. Eliot had it.

Here’s one of Fred’s poems, “Why I Eat at Caruso’s,” that sounds completely like him. Who else? It takes up his role as bourgeois gourmand and bon vivant, and his resistance as artist to this role, and makes a wonderfully comic monument of a moment:

Snarling at the fake pale artists’ horses

In the Pearl ad, and beyond it at the fake

Repetitively hobbled locomotive

Of Original Pabst, and further at the fake

Gaslight and bottle of Move up to Schlitz,

On a shelf-top at Caruso’s, above wine,

Not far from a dim pastoral, with sheep

On this side, a castle on that side of the Rhine,

Its rump nestled against a very large

Bottle of Heineken’s, stands a wild boar,

Stuffed, tufted, hideous, real, frightening, and fine.

Lucille, No. 10, Summer 1976, p. 28

Nature, yes, as represented in pop (kitsch) culture. And nature incorporated and transcended in art.

Author: Greg Zeck

Greg Zeck taught college English in Michigan, Iowa, and Minnesota. He also had a career in freelance business writing and communications. He's retired now in Fayetteville, Arkansas, with his wife Jennifer, where he continues to read, write, bike, hike, and garden.

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