It was only a week ago that one of Britain's very best poets, Lee Harwood, departed from this world.... Today I received the news that my "favorite" American poet, Dave Etter, died just the other day. I wrote a brief review of his last book, a chapbook, actually, "Blue Rain" on Amazon, noting that although Dave was now in his mid-eighties, there was no loss of power. He was neither "experimental" nor "avant" and had said: "I'm a regionalist. How arrogant it would be to think of myself as national or international....You tell me how it goes in New Hampshire or Tennessee and I will tell you how it goes in Illinois. After all, William Carlos Williams, that superb regionalist, spoke the truth when he said 'The local is the universal'."
Etter was perhaps the last great "populist" poet - a tradition now either overlooked, derided or denigrated in academia. His work was rooted in the landscape of the American midwest, where he lived most of his life, and he did what to me was quite improbable: making the disappearing small-town semi-rural life there appealing and Romantic. His work was deeply empathic, compassionate, and exhibited an exceptional humanity and a feeling for others, and love of life. The ironies were always organic and light, and when he delved into the political, his words had weight and tone. He agreed with Archibald MacLeish that "placeless poetry, existing in the non-geography of ideas, is a modern invention and not a very fortunate one."
In his large early masterwork, Alliance, Illinois, he stands "Spoon River" on its head, giving voice to the living. Here is "Marcus Millsap" speaking in "School Day Afternoon":
I climb the steps of the yellow school bus,
move to a seat in back, and we're off,
bouncing along the bumpy blacktop.
What am I going to do when I get home?
I'm going to make myself a sugar sandwich
and go outdoors and look at the birds
and the gigantic blue silo
they put up across the road at Motts'.
This weekend we're going to the farm show.
I like roosters and pigs, but farming's no fun.
When I get old enough to do something big,
I'd like to grow orange trees in a greenhouse.
Or maybe I'll drive a school bus
and yell at the kids when I feel mad:
"Shut up back there, you hear me?"
At last, my house, and I grab my science book
and hurry down the steps and into the sun.
There's Mr. Mott, staring at his tractor.
He's wearing his DeKalb cap
with the crazy winged ear of corn on it.
He wouldn't wave over here to me
If I was handing out hundred dollar bills.
I'll put brown sugar on my bread this time,
then go lie around by the water pump,
where the grass is very green and soft,
soft as the body of a red-winged blackbird.
Imagine, a blue silo to stare at,
and Mother not coming home till dark!
In a late-life letter to me on Keats and other matters: "Damn, the man died way too soon....It would be nice if we could meet. I hope so. Keep on going Bill."
Alas, I was (and am) in London and never did get to Lanark, Illinois to sit on the "Front Porch Swing":
with cold beer
and a banjo
will walk up
under the drooping
arms and necks,
and we will sing and swing
the ten o'clock
news of the world,
and who cares
if the rusty
(Dave Etter was the author of 32 books of poetry. For further information about him see poet Carrie Etter's post (also on 5 August), @ carrieetter.blogspot.co.uk.)