David Russell Wagoner
“A Letter to an Old Poet”
Do you still believe, old man, you are a poet?
If so, what you must do is so obvious,
you shouldn’t need reminding. You should keep trying
to do whatever you haven’t done, or start
doing again what you didn’t manage to do
right in the first place. You should stay alive
as often as possible and keep yourself open
to anything out of place and everything
with nowhere else to go, to carry what’s left
of your voice out and beyond, into, over,
and under, past, within, outside, between,
among, across, along, and up and around
and to be beside yourself when the spirit moves you
and to thank Miss Clippinger for your prepositions.
David Wagoner, a poem from After the Point of No Return, 2013.
It is with sadness that the English Department reports the passing of Emeritus Professor David Wagoner. Professor Wagoner was a faculty member in the department from 1954 until he retired in 2002, earning international acclaim as a poet and novelist. In his prolific career, he published twenty-four collections of verse, many award winning, including the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, two Pushcart Prizes, and the Academy of Arts and Letters Award. He was nominated twice for the National Book Award (for Collected Poems 1956-1976 and In Broken Country). The author of ten acclaimed novels, Professor Wagoner’s fiction has been awarded the Sherwood Anderson Foundation Award. In addition to being awarded the Pacific Northwest Booksellers' Association's William Stafford Memorial Award and Guggenheim fellowship, Professor Wagoner also received fellowships from the Ford Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. From 1978 through 2000, he was a Chancellor of the American Academy of Poets, replacing Robert Lowell, and was the editor of Poetry Northwest from 1966 until 2002.
Among literary critics, praise for David Wagoner’s poetry is universal. Eminent critic Harold Bloom saw Wagoner’s work as distinctly American in its insight into Americaness: “His study of American nostalgias is as eloquent as that of James Wright, and like Wright’s poetry carries on some of the deepest currents in American verse.” David Lehman, Series Editor for the Best American Poetry annual, further extrapolates Bloom’s sentiments. “For more than a half century, he has written about ordinary lives and real landscapes with grace and emotional complexity. A master of the plain style, for whom clarity and directness are cardinal virtues, he is a poet of wisdom and wonder. In their unostentatious way, his poems remind us of what it means to be human. Although we set our sights on the heavens, what we see from the wrong end of the telescope may prove more vital.”
Poetry Foundation recounts Wagoner’s early life and migration to the Pacific Northwest thusly: “Born in Ohio and raised in Indiana, Midwesterner Wagoner was initially influenced by family ties, ethnic neighborhoods, industrial production and pollution, and the urban environment. His move to the Pacific Northwest in 1954, at Roethke’s urging, changed both his outlook and his poetry. Writing in the Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, Wagoner recalls: “when I drove down out of the Cascades and saw the region that was to become my home territory for the next thirty years, my extreme uneasiness turned into awe. I had never seen or imagined such greenness, such a promise of healing growth. Everything I saw appeared to be living ancestral forms of the dead earth where I’d tried to grow up.”
Wagoner was born June 5, 1926, in Massillon, Ohio, moving early in grade school to Whiting, Indiana. As an undergraduate at Pennsylvania State, he came under the tutelage of poet Theodore Roethke, with whom Wagoner established a lifelong collegial relationship. In 1949 Wagoner took his MFA at the newly established graduate writing program at Indiana University graduate writing program, after which he taught at DePauw and Penn State. After publishing his first book of poems, Dry Sun, Dry Wind (1953), to enthusiastic critical praise, Professor Wagoner was hired by the University of Washington English Department in 1954, rejoining his mentor Theodore Roethke who had arrived in 1947. He spent the rest of his career with us, achieving emeritus rank in 2002.
David Wagoner was an avid hiker and conservationist, and it might be easy to pigeon-hole his career as that of a nature and landscape poet, particularly considering the popular transit of his best known poem “Lost,” a poem set in the forest and regularly broadcast by the likes of Garrison Keillor and Oprah Winfrey. It’s a fantastic poem, accessible, profound and inspiring. We’ve reprinted “Lost” at the bottom of this in memoriam – it's an ideal sentiment for taking leave. But, as Neil Genzlinger takes time to make clear in a New York Times obituary, “nature was only one subject among many. Mr. Wagoner’s novels, many of them adventure yarns about young people, sometimes drew comparisons to Mark Twain for their colorful dialogue and humor, and his poems too could have a sly streak. One, included in the 2008 collection A Map of the Night, was called ‘Trying to Write a Poem While the Couple in the Apartment Overhead Make Love.’ … Some of his most moving poems were personal stories — his first trip to the movies; being fascinated with a dead snake as a child. Among the best known of those, ‘Their Bodies,’ was inspired by his parents’ decision to donate their bodies to science.” In the words of distinguished poet Rita Dove, “he has never imitated himself. He has always moved in deeper directions; he has always been exploring something new.”
After retirement, Professor Wagoner remained an active teacher of poetry workshops and classes in association with the Richard Hugo House and the MFA program at the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts on Whidbey Island. In 2008, he began work as a Woodrow Wilson Visiting Fellow, visiting campuses around the country to teach week-long poetry workshops.
On December 18, 2021 at the age of 95, Professor Wagoner died in Edmonds, Washington. He is survived by his wife, Robin Seyfried, and their two daughters Alexandra and Adrienne. The UW English Department mourns his loss and celebrates his legacies.
Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you.
If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows
Where you are. You must let it find you.