Saturday, September 13, 2008

Reginald Shepherd (1963-2008)

Reginald Shepherd is dead. I miss him. It’s hard to know what else to say.

Reginald was my professor at Cornell, my friend at large, an early supporter of my writing, a trusted reader, a correspondent. There were two writers who helped me out a great deal early on, and without whom I would, doubtless, be somewhere different right now—Deborah Tall and Reginald Shepherd—and they are both dead now at far too young of an age. The other professors at Cornell were nice people (or, rather, some of them were) but they didn’t care about poetry, they weren’t reading it or writing it or thinking about it, and to the degree that they were disengaged from writing Reginald was engaged with it, inflamed by it, knowledgeable and curious and full of opinion. He wrote things on my poems. He told me about writers I’d never heard of and, importantly, he didn’t think of criticism or theory as irrelevant to writing, but as a useful spur, an illumination, and a pursuit in its own right. Poetry, as he makes clear in his essays, saved his life and it kept on saving it.

He lighted things up everywhere with his intelligence, his sensitivity, his tremendous love for poetry. And of course his poems, poems where, I think now, touch is the first sense, love the motive, and all language address, all the dressing-up and dressing-down a form of directness and transparency. The comment stream here testifies, I think, better than I can, to his impact. The growing recognition of his poetry and critical writing is, no doubt, just the beginning. But I’m cheered that he got to be around for some of that recognition.

Reginald had a childhood and an early life that would destroy most of us, and he’s written about this movingly in his Orpheus in the Bronx. That adversity never really went away. But for all that, the joys stood out all the more clearly. Chief among these joys was his partner, Robert Philen. I remember how much meeting Robert changed Reginald—instantly, deeply. His devotion to Reginald over the last couple of years, in sickness and health, should serve as an example to all of us of that part of love that is hard, and for all that, its truth.

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