The following selections were spoken at the memorial service for Richard Poirier, held at Kirkpatrick Chapel on the campus of Rutgers University, 27 September 2009.
President, The Library of America
There are many of you here today whose lives and careers were stimulated, inspired, or energized by Richard Poirier, his life, his friendship, and his love of literature. Mind you, he did not think that literature made your life better or even made you understand life better. In fact, he thought just the opposite. The more you read, the less you understand, or at least the more aware you become of the impossibility of ever understanding. He wrote, "Literature is important because it can show not only how much, but how little, any one of us can know about life, or history, or about language itself, which literature purports to control." This last phrase with the surprising appearance of the word "purports" is pure Poirier.
In thinking of Dick, one is reminded of Robert Frost's aphorism that "poetry is what gets lost in translation." This is true of Dick as well. For one cannot adequately translate him, one can only describe him. He was surpassingly brilliant, discerning about people, vigorous, fearless, with strong opinions that he defended with conviction, exquisitely alive to the nuances of language, possessed with a huge capacity for work and great affection for the kind of hard-working, unpretentious people he grew up with in Gloucester, Massachusetts.
In his invitation to me, Barry Qualls wrote, "Richard Poirier was crucial to what Rutgers English has become, and we want to celebrate him." The same could be said of The Library of America. He was a mentor to many of you, and to me as well. In 1978 Dick Poirier came to see me at my office at the Modern Language Association about a job with a new project, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be part of an exciting literary enterprise. Very inspiring, except for a couple of drawbacks: at that point there was no office, no staff, no editorial policies, no infrastructure of any kind, not even a name for the outfit. But he was persuasive, and so I traded in my job at the MLA for two cardboard boxes full of grant proposals and lists of books. We got underway with seed funding from some foundations, filled with all the enthusiasm, determination, and naiveté of a group setting out in a great rush to create something new without a very clear idea of how to go about it.
And so for 30 years, from 1979 to August 2009, Dick was captain of "Team Library of America." For most of that period until he retired from the Rutgers English Department, he drew on his Rutgers students to build a team of exceptionally talented and dedicated editors and researchers, who are very much responsible for the reputation established by the 250 volumes published in The Library of America thus far. Two of our five editors at LoA, James Gibbons and Matthew Parr, are products of the Rutgers English Department. Others from the English Department who worked as research assistants over the years have included Stephanie Volmer, David Evans, Mark Richardson, Joe Thomas, Matthew Lewis, James Albrecht, Nina Sonnenberg, Lisa Honaker, Jonathan Levin, and Kathy Brussard. You could say that The Library of America is a "by-product" of the very strong English Department that Dick Poirier helped to create.
His founding of The Library of America, with Daniel Aaron, Jason Epstein, and G. Thomas Tanselle, was of a piece with his lifelong aim to elevate American literature from its status as a stepchild in many university literature departments, which in the 1950s when he was starting out were still dominated by the study and teaching of British literature. His literary patriotism, however, didn't mean that he thought that our purpose was to define or redefine the American literary canon. Far from it. In fact, he even rejected the idea that there was such a thing as the canon. "The canon is just a list of books," he would say. "Anyone can create a list." Instead, he said, the mission of The Library of America was to "re-invigorate, to reanimate" a sense among Americans of the rich, varied, and illustrious writing this country has produced since its beginnings. In a short film we made for LoA's 25th anniversary in 2007, Dick says, "I don't think Americans as a whole really yet appreciate what an accomplishment American writing is . . . the ways in which it is unique among the literatures of the world."
Of course working with Dick wasn't all raisins and cake. He could be cantankerous, even combative at times, and impatient, but with a delicious sense of humor, often aimed at bringing down a peg or two the pompous, the pedantic, and the self-important. "Get that guy into low shoes," he would bellow, a la S. J. Perelman, when a letter arrived from some particularly officious scholar. Dick's taste and vision shaped the enterprise, and he offered sage advice on matters large and small. He was delighted—and somewhat astonishedmdash;at The Library of America's success and realized perhaps more than almost anyone the improbable odds of creating a literary institution that could win the approbation of both the academy and a wider reading public.
Our list reflects his taste: one of our first volumes was Whitman. Other poets in the series include Robert Frost, a volume that he edited with Mark Richardson; Wallace Stevens; Hart Crane; Elizabeth Bishop; and John Ashbery. There are two volumes of Emerson, two of Gertrude Stein, two of William James, five of Faulkner, and five of Philip Roth. And Henry James: fourteen volumes and counting. Dick used to say, "when we're finished publishing everything else, we'll still be publishing Henry James."
But he was open to, indeed, he insisted upon, a much more expansive representation of American writing, so our list includes Raymond Chandler, Captain John Smith, George S. Kaufman, H. P. Lovecraft, Philip K. Dick, William Bartram, Dawn Powell, Zora Neale Hurston, Lafcadio Hearn, and William Tecumseh Sherman, along with James Thurber, James Madison, James T. Farrell, James Agee, James Baldwin, and James Weldon Johnson, just to mention a few Jameses.
Of all the writers he loved—Frost, Henry James, Gertrude Stein, Eliot, and Emerson—he perhaps loved Emerson longest and best. One of the primary interests and preoccupations of Dick's life came together in the last project he worked on at The Library of America. This will be a selected edition of Emerson's journals, edited by Lawrence Rosenwald of Wellesley and scheduled to be published next spring. This massive undertaking endeavors to compress the sixteen-volume complete Harvard edition into about 1800 pages or two LoA volumes. Dick read through the entire Harvard edition, comparing it with Rosenwald's selections, making countless suggestions of possible additions and expansions over many months to ensure that the selection truly and accurately represented the journals, which he, like many others, considered Emerson's masterpiece.
It is sad that Dick did not live to see the journals published in The Library of America. Because of his role in our creation and development over 30 years and because of his devotion Emerson, we will dedicate these two volumes of the journals to him. The acknowledgment page will read:
We hope this tribute would please him. He is irreplaceable and yet we feel confident that his legacy will endure.
Professor, Department of English
The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey
This week Mark Richardson, a dear friend from graduate school who probably should be speaking to you now, sent me a link to Frederick Seidel's tribute to Dick Poirier, "One Last Kick for Dick." (I'm sure many of you have seen it.) Seidel concludes the poem, the bulk of which centers very frankly on the death of his friend, with lines that capture the tenor of their long relationship:
Fifty-three years ago, at the Ritz in Boston, we tried one tutorial session in the bar.
You got so angry you kicked me under the table. Our martinis turned black as tar.
And all because your tutee told you Shakespeare was overrated. I went too far.
While my relationship with Dick Poirier was not and could never be Frederick Seidel's, the description of that final kick resonates for me, and must resonate, I think, for anyone who was literally one of Dick Poirier's "tutees." If you worked with him, you understood that your attitude toward literature mattered as much as your aptitude for its study.
And you also understood that you had to be tough enough to withstand the occasional kick.
Because taking a course with Dick Poirier was not something that one entered into lightly. He was demanding and more than a little intimidating. While to my knowledge he never actually kicked anyone at Rutgers, he was known to throw student papers in the trash, telephone students who missed classes with warnings, walk out of oral reports, and even to advise some students (both rightly and wrongly) to pursue different careers. Students in his classes became adept at reading his body language. If he rested his chin in his hand, you were in trouble. The more his face sank into his hand, the deeper you knew you were sunk. You had to hope in that case that the consequences didn't extend beyond that day's class.
Yet while working with him required some care, his vision of a professional, of the qualities of mind he appreciated and encouraged, also resonate and are those I have come to value more and more as I have pursued my own academic career.
Dick Poirier demanded that you be alive to the language and ideas in literature, in all of their complexity and nuance, that you didn't limit your understanding or ruin your prose by submitting yourself entirely to someone else's ideology or by parroting someone else's jargon. Students who came in with the confidence that a familiarity with the latest theories and theorists would impress quickly discovered that it did not if they were incapable of analysis beyond a fixed set of categories. And he insisted that you be able to articulate your ideas in speech or prose that any bright, literate person could understand. You had better be serious about literature but not too serious about yourself.
Further, having been in the profession at this point for twenty-some years, I understand something now that I didn't completely understand then: that his judgments were not simply based on his perception of your brains and talent—that he was reading you, gauging your ability to negotiate a career as much as your facility with texts.
While students who worked with him may have learned to be wary of dropping in on him during office hours, they also learned they could count on him for real encouragement and support. He was always the first person to get my dissertation chapters back to me—within days of their submission—and often accompanied by notes of encouragement. I even got a couple of unexpected phone calls—which provided much needed ego boosts during that long, arduous dissertation process. His support during the job search was also everything I could have wished it to be.
His support and encouragement took other forms as well. I remember receiving in the mail two Library of America volumes (Thomas Jefferson and Francis Parkman) after I had "won" a class challenge to correctly identify an error he had found in a new Edel edition of Henry James's journals. He also provided financial support and professional opportunities to me and other graduate students through positions he offered us at Raritan and the Library of America.
I cannot overstate the value of these professional opportunities. Shortly after the semester I identified the error in the James text, I became a textual researcher at the Library of America, a job that helped me support myself as I finished my dissertation and that has had other tangible results in my career: I'm currently curating a manuscript exhibit on Stephen Dunn's poetry at Stockton, a project I would never have undertaken without my Library of America training. I'm sure my friend, Jim Barszcz, who has recently started his own online journal, the College Hill Review, would trace its provenance to his time as an editorial assistant at Raritan.
As may be clear from the shout-outs here, some of my closest friends remain those I made at Rutgers. We often talk about how well our graduate training has served us and how grateful we are for it, for the ways in which it has made us the professionals we are. And while by the time we got to Rutgers Dick Poirier was past the days of being department or graduate chair, we were all well aware—those who studied with him and those who didn't—of the ways in which we were beneficiaries of his vision. A few of us might even now be capable of a little violence on behalf of Shakespeare—or Frost or Emerson or Stein—ourselves. And all of us have a Dick Poirier imitation up our sleeves.
For me personally, Dick Poirier was and is an intellectual hero. (He is also the only person in my life ever to call me Liza, which, frankly, I would have preferred as a first name.) He inspired me through his own reading of Emerson, James, Frost and Stevens, and in doing so taught me to recognize and appreciate in myself my own instinct for literature, an ability to hear and respond to the particularity of a work, a voice, a vision.
I still remember clearly the thrill I experienced when I finally got Wallace Stevens, something that came suddenly one night when I was preparing for class with Dick the next day. It was as though one minute the poems were opaque to me and the next as clear and available as one my favorite novels. I remember turning pages in The Palm at the End of the Mind with a sense of mounting excitement. It was the kind of awakening that was as emotional for me as it was intellectual—satisfying and joyful. It was the sort of moment that I wish for my own students—when their work pays off and the light goes on—a moment I try mightily to prepare them for in my own classes and that I try to remain open to myself in my own work.
That is Dick Poirier's legacy to me. I am proud and grateful to have been one of his students. I will always remember him with the utmost affection and admiration.
Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Professor of English
Dick was not the easiest person in the world to get to know personally. My wife met him once and her phrase for him was "charming, but inscrutable." Which he was, on both counts. I came to Rutgers nearly 25 years ago, intending to study with him, but never having actually met him. Lucky for me, I handle inscrutable well—I was planning to write a dissertation on Wallace Stevens, after all. Dick was brilliant, and a transformational influence on my own life and work, but he also inspired considerable anxiety among the aspiring Americanists among us. I think most of us who enrolled in his seminars and who felt nothing less than privileged to do so eventually found ourselves working through that influence in some kind of analysis or therapy. Despite that, Dick was always exceedingly kind and generous to me, both during my years as a graduate student here at Rutgers and then during the years I spent living in Manhattan, while I was teaching at Columbia and Fordham. In my early Manhattan years especially I spent many evenings as his guest at his favorite haunt, Café Luxembourg on West 70th Street. We talked about colleagues and friends (he loved to know the latest news), about the state of the profession, the progress of my work, performances we'd seen or books and essays we'd read, and by the end of those evenings, I always had a pretty good buzz on—the wine, to be sure, which flowed pretty freely, but also the sheer exuberance of an evening's conversation with Dick.
In A World Elsewhere, Dick suggests that “one struggle in American literature is to assert against conventional styles another kind of style that has been defined, out of Emerson and Whitman, by Louis Sullivan when he referred to style as ‘a consistent and definite expansion of pronounced personality.'” That sounds familiar—both as a riff on which Dick improvised through the course of his career and as a reflection on Dick's own, shall we say, pronounced personality. Dick shared something of Whitman's "I am large; I contain multitudes" expansiveness. He also argued in A World Elsewhere that American literature offers “the most persistent, the most poignantly heroic example of a recurrent literary compulsion, not at all confined to our literature, to believe in the possibilities of a new style. The new American style was meant to release hitherto unexpressed dimensions of the self into space where it would encounter none of the antagonistic social systems which stifle it in the more enclosed and cultivated spaces of England and of English books, the spaces from which Lawrence escaped to the American west.” Of course, Dick did not believe there was any such social or geographic space, but he did believe in a space forged by a struggle with and within language. What he valued most in literature and criticism alike were the traces of resistance that marked the vital struggle with and against conventional patterns of perception and understanding. This was for him a heroic struggle, and it always seemed to me that his personality and character were shaped by his own acute sense of being engaged in that heroic struggle.
Out of that struggle Dick forged a unique place in American literary-intellectual culture. Writing about his mentor and colleague Reuben Brower and the Harvard course they taught together, Hum 6, Dick suggested that he and his colleagues developed a method of reading that found the source of its sophistication at the irreducibly local level of the close reading of texts. One of Dick's observations about that course has stuck with me since I first read the essay:
we were willing, indeed anxious to deny ourselves the embarrassing Big Talk promised by the titles of the other Humanities courses, like ‘Ideas of Good and Evil' or ‘the Individual and Society.' I think one reason why certain students became deeply attached to Hum 6 and have remained so for life is that it offered them a way to avoid such resounding terms. They discovered that not to become grand is often the best way to stay in a particularly vital relation to what you are reading.
I suspect that there was a price to pay for that critical attitude. For one thing, though he was surely one of the leading critics of his generation, he probably had less influence on what eventually emerged as the major developments in the profession of literary studies than other critics of his stature. He simply did not make the kind of critical or rhetorical moves that would have contributed to that kind or degree of influence. Perhaps he did not even aspire to any such influence—the influence of Big Ideas that Change the World, or at least change Departments of English. I remember him commenting in class one day on what he called the myrmidons of other critics, taking the gospel from Yale, Hopkins, or Duke and diligently spreading that gospel out across the country, as those myrmidons took up junior appointments all over the map. Perhaps there was some anxiety in this, but he seemed mostly amused at the image, and said it with that characteristic mischievous gleam in his eye. Dick surely recognized that his particular lineage did not thrive on heirs, not in any traditional sense, since the whole point of being an heir in his Emersonian tradition was to discover the linguistic means of challenging the inheritance, finding the grain to work against it. He once suggested that I change the title of a seminar I offered on "The Emersonian Tradition" to just "Emersonian Tradition," presumably thinking that by releasing the phrase from the definite article, the tradition shed some of the dead weight associated with these ponderous formulations. Similarly, the whole appeal of the Jamesian notion of the "reinstatement of the vague" was associated for Dick with the saving virtue of the margin. Dick never had much patience for the booming critical industry devoted to the social and political dynamics of marginal or maginalized identities, not because he didn't sympathize with the struggle faced by people grappling with these issues in their lives, which he plainly did, but because that particular critical project promoted precisely the kind of Big Ideas about Identity that made it so difficult to reflect on the performative energies that really interested him: the struggle, in language, to achieve meaning.
Not having the easy and obvious advantages of the Big Idea or the implicit virtue associated with the promise of an openly progressive politics that underpin so many graduate seminars and scholarly monographs in English and Literary Studies, Dick's method and genius are too easily relegated by insiders to the sidelines, out of the main current of literary-intellectual culture. Perhaps this is related to Dick's advice at a certain stage in my own career, when I was weighing a few very different options, to settle in somewhere in the hinterlands. I think Dick saw—and perhaps saw especially acutely in the highly ranked English departments that have generated a lot of buzz over the past few decades—how irrelevant the main current of literary-intellectual culture was at risk of becoming. Perhaps, he was suggesting, in his own inimitable way, the path with the most integrity and the most potential to release one's fullest and best creative energies is, indeed, along the road "less traveled by."
But if this is a devastating comment on the literary-critical establishment, it says nothing at all about literature, especially about works of "genius," a category he at once interrogated and embraced. As Dick's work everywhere suggests, the great works of literary genius still call out to us as readers. The imperative to read—to read with all of one's best resources at hand—is just as inviting today as it ever was: just as challenging, just as risky, just as rewarding. Dick's faith in the hinterlands—and surely, like Thoreau, he recognized that anyone sufficiently determined can find these same hinterlands wherever he or she happens to be—reminds me that there is always hope for the future, if not of anything so grandiose as humankind at least for the never-ending work of genius.
When I became managing editor of Raritan, I was taking on a job that had been defined by Suzanne Hyman, who had served as the magazine's dedicated managing editor since its founding in 1981. Dick and Tom Edwards, the Executive Editor, as well as the office staff, helped me while I found my footing.
Dick's first command was that I call and introduce myself to each one of Raritan's board members and regular contributors. Though it was a daunting task, I learned to value such personal contact and to see the ways it defined Dick's editorial style. The ascendancy of email occurred during this period, but it didn't much affect our primary modes of communication, which were the telephone and the fax machine.
Dick's actual presence at the Raritan office was fairly minimal by that time, but he was unfailingly and fully present. He called every day, usually between ten and eleven in the morning, and sometimes later in the afternoon as well. He was always available and always interested in what was happening at the office—who had called or written, what manuscripts had arrived, and so on. Raritan's long-time administrative assistant, Donna Green, remembers Dick once calling the office from the Concorde en route to London. Even from an elevation of 56,000 feet, he wanted to "check in."
The fax machine was perhaps an even more important instrument, as Dick and I built a working relationship. The connection between Dick's fax machine and the Raritan fax machine was indispensable and constant—no matter where in the world he was. Whenever he traveled, he provided the fax numbers for his hotels—in Boston and San Francisco, Paris and London. All sorts of communications traveled through those fax lines. Some—like drafts of letters and edited manuscript pages—provide a day-to-day record of the operations of the magazine, while others—like recipes for slow-cookers or requests for library books—offer a glimpse of what Dick was working on and thinking about that day. The fax machine allowed for a distinct kind of conversation to develop, one that was rooted in written exchanges.
Our notes and scribbles on the pages faxed back and forth between us are one of my favorite records of my work with Dick. I would fax him a list of queries and information, and he would fax back the same pages all marked up, sometimes writing "OK" or "Good" in the margins, sometimes questioning one of my pronouncements or revising one of my letter drafts, sometimes drawing arrows to rearrange my suggested order of contents, or, in one instance, circling a title I'd proposed for a forthcoming essay, writing next to it: "What in God's name does this mean?"
Dick's commitment to the magazine was grounded in his personal relationships, and the fax machine and the telephone offered him opportunities for immediate connection, interrogation, and spontaneity. Once, he called in the afternoon to say that he had been "on pins and needles all day," waiting to hear news about an author's response to our request for manuscript changes. I told him everything was settled and that the author agreed to work on revisions. "Good," he said, "now to the more important question: how do you cook salmon?"
Dick's influence as an editor continues to resonate with writers like David Bromwich, Ken Gross, Jim Longenbach, Adam Phillips, Margery Sabin and many others who continue to write for Raritan—people who found in Dick an editor who helped their voices emerge more fully and who benefited from his editorial exactitude and generosity.
I experienced Dick's generosity in many ways, including in his unwavering support as I worked to finish my dissertation, and his continued guidance about how to pursue my writing interests. And I still feel the impulse to call him for advice.
A few days after Dick died, a freak thunderstorm hit New York, causing more damage to the west side of Central Park than any other place in the city. It toppled enormous trees, some more than a hundred years old, as if a giant had roamed through the park with a trowel in hand, leaving uprooted trees and fallen branches in its wake. I am tempted to take the timing of this stunning event as a sign…but I am sure Dick would laugh at such a sentimental notion.
Department of English
...I have more than "a little use for" the works of Northrop Frye even though its tendencies, especially when developed by others, seem to me reactionary and often trivial. But here again I violate Mr. Grant's ruling that "categorical judgments," whatever these could be as applied to his letter or to Frye's work, have priority over "value judgments." I used to know the answer to this formulation but I can't now remember what it was.— Richard Poirier in The New York Review of Books January 1964
When as a second-semester senior at Amherst I read RP's last sentence here—part of a reply to some critics of his recent review of the collected Scrutiny—I knew who exactly it was I wanted to study literature with next. I had been looking at and listening to graduate programs, but here was a real voice crying in the wilderness of posture and pontification.
Dick had become Chairman of English at Rutgers only that fall in 1963 at the same time the NYRB had begun its publication. The next fall along with my classmate Mark Gibbons I was back in my native New Jersey-- to stay as it turned out. In the next few years we were joined by other classmates—Ken Gibbs, George Dardess, Chris Gay, John Ruppe, and Peter Manuelian. Later and all through RP's reign many others made their circuitous ways—like Dick himself--from the Fairest College on the upper reaches of Wallace Stevens' River of Rivers in Connecticut to the Banks of the Old Raritan. None of them can have been happier with having made that trip than I have been.
Thomas F. Shea
Associate Professor of English
University of Connecticut
"Mr. Hart, here is a dime. Call your mother. Tell her that there is serious doubt about your becoming a lawyer." (John Houseman as Professor Kingsfield in The Paper Chase, 1973)
In the fall of 1975, everyone entering the English Ph.D. program at Rutgers was required to take one mandatory course, "Introduction to Graduate Literary Studies," taught by Professor Richard Poirier. This appeared to be the boot camp, the make-or-break course of one's budding graduate career. Almost all of us were fresh out of college and, since Rutgers did not have a separate English MA program, if one were found less-than-worthy traversing the Ph.D. obstacle course, one would be discreetly asked to take a Master's. I knew I was in big trouble from the very first day. Having spent the early part of my college years at George Washington University as an Engineering major, I got a late start on literature and was clearly light years behind most of the people in the program. The Graduate English secretary, Beth Durkee, kindly informed me that "We've never accepted anyone from George Washington before" and pointed out that many others in the program hailed from distinguished institutions such as Harvard, Stamford, Chicago, and (as I soon learned, Poirier's favorite) Amherst.
During Professor Poirier's class, I remember scrootching in a corner, watching the proceedings with trepidation (when I dared lift my eyes), praying to a god—who had long ago changed his phone number and address—"please, please, please don't let him call on me." The autocrat in the front of the room with the stentorian voice made Professor Kingsfield of The Paper Chase look like a cuddly kitty-cat.
A typical scenario: Professor Poirier would select a T.S. Elliot poem for discussion—something esoteric, allusive, and too arcane to be included in any anthology. He would then ask the class to focus on a particular stanza and ask,
"What does this remind you of?"
Hot Shot A from Stamford with the energetic hand reaching for the ceiling would get called on and begin his response, only to be cut off in mid-sentence with a peremptory
"No! What does this remind you of?"
Hot Shot B from Harvard would be in full swing explaining the Latinate allusions when Professor Poirier would interject,
"No! What does this remind you of?"
Hot Shot C from…. You get the picture. One after another of the brightest and best would receive the thumbs down from the emperor week after week. No wonder the sotto voce epithet repeated throughout the English program was "The Big Dick." I was never going to open my mouth.
Then near the end of the semester, Professor Poirier introduced us to Thomas Pynchon. Having been a math and science guy throughout high school and my first two years as an undergraduate, I thought I knew what I was doing with this author. So, during our final class of the semester, when Kingsfield asked the inevitable, "What does this remind you of?" I screwed my courage to the sticking place and raised my hand, sure I knew this one. In the midst of my spiel linking entropy to James Clerk Maxwell and the Second Law of Thermodynamics, I heard the resounding
"No! What does this remind you of?"
In the nanosecond before conscious thought arrived, I found myself erupting,
"Don't tell me ‘No!' You asked the class what this passage reminds us of. It reminds me of Maxwell's Demon and theories of entropy. If you want to ask what the passage reminds you of, ask that question. Ask ‘What does this remind Richard Poirier of?'"
Oh shit. I'm screwed. That's it. Ph.D. prospects terminated with extreme prejudice. Professor Poirier glared at me over those half-glasses, as only he could, then stared down the class and calmly responded,
"Let me rephrase the question. What should this remind you of?"
From that point on, for some idiosyncratic reason, Dick actually went out of his way to demonstrate that he liked me. He was teaching a seminar on Frost the next semester (just as Robert Frost: The Work of Knowing was coming out) and students were enrolled "with permission of the instructor." I applied, Dick said Yes, and I found myself in over my head again but floundering in a much more pleasurable environment. Instead of the "What does this remind you of?" mantra, the Frost seminar students learned a new one. Every time he asked "What is this poem about?" we learned that the right answer, no matter what the poem, was "It's about fucking." This brand of literary criticism gratifyingly reassured a horny twenty-two year old, especially because Dick would distinctly pronounce the "ing," giving the entire operation a resonating vibration.
One of the last classes Dick taught, before dedicating himself to establishing Raritan, was a course in literary theory. Again, with his special permission, and again over my head, I learned the fundamentals of authors such as Saussure, Levi-Strauss, Jakobson, Bartes, Derrida, J. Hills Miller, et al. While I may forget some of the nuts-and-bolts in this seminar, I do remember Dick affirming a prime directive:
"While you might not like every or any of these writers, you'll never be intimidated by them again."
I also remember that due to the suggestion of George Maddox and Jack Bushnell, two older veterans of Scott Hall, Dick replaced the seminar coffee urn with financial backing to purchase beer and wine, crackers and cheese for each Tuesday afternoon. Gone was Kingsfield. Instead, Derrida himself was deconstructed with the aid of fermented hops and grapes.
One final segment. When it came time to write the dissertation, I wanted one person only as Director—Dick. The fact that he had shot down numerous people recently as he focused on establishing Raritan had me as intimidated with my proposal as I had been in my first course with him. Having read my proposal, Dick let me know that he had no use for the author I had chosen, the barely known Irish novelist Flann O'Brien, but that he liked my writing. He said he'd direct the dissertation with two stipulations:
"I don't want to see any drafts, Just give me a chapter when it's ready for publication. And don't ever submit anything to me again on corrasable bond."
I thought typing paper was typing paper.
The rest is history. Dick guided me well through my dissertation and wrote a bodacious letter of recommendation for me when I was on the job market. Apparently, the letter was read as throwing down the gauntlet at any hiring committee. During every job interview (and I had many), the search committee would inevitably quote a portion of Dick's letter and ask me to respond. When I came up for tenure at the University of Connecticut, Dick also wrote a daring, bold letter which I somehow have a copy of sitting before me as I write this tribute. I still use it as a model when I write letters recommending tenure for the new generation of English professors. To say that Dick made my career would be an egregious understatement. Richard Poirier, Marius Bewley Professor of English, Director of Graduate English, Founder and Editor of Raritan taught me how to read and shaped my career at every stage. Dick's inspiration also informs my happiness and occasional successes on a daily basis; thanks to him, my teaching and writing can never be anything other than performative pleasures.