On Reginald Shepherd
On Reginald Shepherd
Art always needs to be saved from what it is at any given time, and Reginald Shepherd understood that. His genius was in his ability to participate in the fabric of the art. He’s part of the garment now. What possible way is there, then, to write about Reginald Shepherd that can equal his poems, his essays, his anthologies?
I first became aware of Reginald Shepherd (outside of some few poems here and there) from his 1998 response to Harold Bloom that ran in Boston Review. Remember that splash? It was wonderful. It’s worth looking up (and you can do so, as it’s still archived on the Boston Review website), even though it’s a controversy that’s over a decade old now, in Shepherd’s brief essay are all the elements that he would develop over the next ten years.
Reginald Shepherd was voracious, as anyone who ever talked with him about poetry, or as anyone who ever dined with him can attest. In fact, it was at a restaurant in Maryville Missouri in 2005, that I began to understand Reginald Shepherd. Reginald liked food, and was curious as to what everyone else ordered. He wanted everything. He wanted to think about the ingredients, to talk about them. Like it or not, eating with Reginald Shepherd was a communal experience. That’s how he was about all things. He was never satisfied. He was always wondering what everyone else was up to. He was quick to give credit where he saw credit was due, and was a generous believer in what others were doing, and he expected the same. He could be very persistent if he felt slighted or dismissed or attacked unfairly. But he loved it if someone disagreed with him, but disagreed fairly and without misconstruing what he said.
He was a man of large ideas and large appetites. I don’t know if he relished a fight (I never asked him), but he certainly didn’t shy away from one. As he’d write things like the following, as he was trying to describe that strand of poetry he would later call Lyric Investigations: “Such possibilities are often foreclosed or simply ignored by both the poetic mainstream and the self-appointed experimental opposition.” Such statements tended to stir things up from many sides. And then there was his ongoing feud with Ron Silliman over taxonomy. What are the proper names for things. He was a namer, wasn’t he? Identity Poetry. Quietist. Lyrical Investigations. Post-Avant. He loved taxonomy. Trying to name and describe what it was he liked about poetry, something he saw—or thought he saw—others missing, was his project.
There is great possibility in his assertions, both in how they extend backward into prior poetry and ideas about poetry, and the forward into new poetry. He wrote:
“What I value most in poetry is passion, a passion that manifests itself most immediately in the words that are the poem’s body and its soul.”
And he was outspoken against what he called, “[t]he impulse to explain poetry as a symptom of its author” that he saw manifested in what he and others termed “identity poetics,” a poetics he described as “giving back the already known in an endless and endlessly self-righteous confirmation of things as they are.” He was adamant on this, as he saw it “constraining, limiting the imaginative options of the very people it seeks to liberate or speak for.”
He was a serious man. But he also had a light, playful touch, as you can sometimes see in his essays and on his blog, but which was readily apparent in conversation and emails. He was a wonderful correspondent. Here are a few examples of his voice from emails, the first couple from January 2008:
“But that probably would be impolitic and make me look mean. Which I really can be when I want to be, but it’s best that not too many people know that. :-)” [with a happy-face emoticon! I thougth certainly we were in the end-times when I saw that Reginald Shepherd used emoticons. Emoticons!]
“But I have made a set of belated new year’s resolutions (they’re up on the Harriet blog), which basically amount to “I will not argue with or respond to idiots and assholes.” Let’s see if I can stick to them.”
And then, turning personal, from later that spring, when things were becoming increasingly difficult:
“But right now I am practically flattened with fatigue, not to mention nasty diarrhea (as opposed to pleasant diarrhea, I suppose)”
That was Reginald Shepherd.
One day he sent me an email asking me about blogging, and what my experience had been with it, and then, within seconds, it felt like, he had one of the most interesting and popular poetry blogs on the Internet.
As well, he was a contributing editor for my small literary journal, The Laurel Review, and, in that capacity, he would send me occasional poems that he’d gotten from poets, with a little note about how pleased he was with them. He loved finding new poems.
When he and I were having a short exchange through email about his many hats, he wrote, “I don’t like anything I write to go to waste.” That seems an understatement, looking back at how productive he was in such a short time, but also a fitting way to describe his amazing talent to do things with what he wrote. He was purposeful.
He will be remembered for writing things like this: “Art’s utopian potential lies in the degree to which it exceeds social determinations and definitions, bringing together the strange and the familiar, combining otherness and brotherhood.”
And all this while his precarious health was tapping him on the shoulder, and the ghosts of his past were circling. Work was a way to exclude everything that was pulling at him, a way to focus. As he wrote in Orpheus in the Bronx, “I have been oppressed by many things in my life, but not by literature.” Yes, he had a flair for the dramatic, but it was hard earned.
Reginald Shepherd could be, as they say, a royal a pain in the ass. He’s one of the most difficult people I ever worked with, and I never tired of working with him. He was, in many ways, larger than life.
The composer Morton Feldman, back in the early 1970s, wrote:
“The day Jackson Pollock died I called a certain man I knew—and very great painter—and told him the news. After a long pause he said, in a voice so low it was barely a whisper, ‘That son of a bitch—he did it.’ I understood. With this supreme gesture Pollock had wrapped up an era and walked away with it.”
50 years later, in a different era, a different circumstance. A different summation of things. But I have a bit of the same feeling. Reginald Shepherd had the last 15 years in a suitcase, and he took a large part of it with him.
His anthologies, for one specific example, came as a grammar to the onset of the new century. And now Reginald comes to my mind often, especially when I come across something like a new anthology (American Hybrid, for example—what would he have said about that one?) or an essay on the art (Burt’s New Thing would have gotten him perked up). I thought of him last week when I came across Craig Morgan-Teicher’s piece on reviewing that he posted on Harriet. Often, when I read such things, my first thought is, “What would Reginald have thought of this?”
I didn’t always know what his take on something was going to be—indeed, I was often quite surprised by his take—but I always knew he’d have one, and that it would be interesting. And the same went for his asides, as in this one that came out of the blue once:
“If you didn’t know it, Dusty Springfield is a goddess of popular music. Shelby Lynne, whom I’d heard about but never heard, has a really good Dusty Springfield tribute album that just came out called Just a Little Lovin’. I love that song, because it’s about how sex in the morning starts the day off right.”
Dusty Springfield? Shelby Lynn? I had no idea.
His last few years were his most vibrant, his most vigorous. Our loss is in knowing that, and wondering what might have come next. He’s only been gone a year and a half, but it’s already a different world, even if one that he helped make. By the time of his death, he’d already made a lasting contribution to poetry, and he was poised to be part of a fundamental change—especially on the topics of “Identity Poetry” and his take on “Beauty.” The essays are there for us, though, in his books from the University of Michigan Press. One of which is just coming out this week.
As a conclusion, I’ll let Reginald speak, with a statement of faith in poetry, his refuge and his goal:
“I look to poetry for what only poems can do, or what poems can do best, to treat language as an end rather than a means: to communication, expression, or even truth. This moment of apprehension of language as an in-itself and a for-itself is both a model of the possibility and a palpable instance, however fleeting, of nonalienated existence. Poetry’s resistance to facile communication (which is not to say that poetry does not and cannot communicate) is the promise of happiness it embodies, a promise continually broken by society, but kept alive by art, which thus becomes a standing reproach to society. To imagine language as something that one simply “uses,” either well or badly, is to imagine a world that is merely a collection of objects of use. It is away from this instrumental reason that poetry leads us.”