As for Jon’s poems, I return to them often. And, like all the poetry that we hold essential, over the years my understanding of Jon’s work has changed, and will continue to change. In my twenties, I loved the poems’ sorrow, the Rilkean intensity exemplified by the deadpan but frightening closing of “In Autumn”
We who have changed, & have
No hope of change
Must now love
The passage of time.
In my thirties, I loved the poems’ sly pyrotechnics, the quiet syntactical swagger of, say, the opening stanza of “The Time Machine”—how did he do that? And how could I pull off something similar? The Jon Anderson who speaks to my fifties is the Zennish Jon of my favorite of his poems, “American Landscape with Clouds and a Zoo,” whose sadness is always inextricably fused with whimsy:
Everything always says, I’m all there is
Forever, chum, just see it my way & I do.
Jon would not have thought of the ending of “Our Romance”--from his last book, Day Moon—as anything like an epitaph. But I think the lines capture his essence:
Whenever I go there now, often closing on sleep,
The river is still blue, the ridge above it dark,
& steep with melancholy. I like to sit a spell
To dangle a foot in the current until it’s clean.
Experience taught me the world is far from well.
But I like to think, upon that opposite dark ridge
The dead still love to gather & watch the trees
Turn, in their seasons, gold to green to black to pink.
“Often Closing on Sleep”
A Tribute by David Wojahn
Last year I passed out to the students in my graduate workshop some poems by Jon Anderson, along with copies of Anderson’s Helpful Hints: Notes on Writing Poetry. Sadly, though they were a pretty well-read bunch, none of them had ever heard of Jon. And yet, by the end of our discussion of the poems, several of them told me they intended to seek out his books. One of the students labeled the poems “quirky and sad” and I remembered how often Jon would praise quirkiness in his students’ writing. He loved poetry that permitted oddball gestures of perception and syntax; he loved eccentricity—but never for its own sake. These are qualities which make bearable the central and painful task of poetry, which Helpful Hints tells us is “to say the toughest thing.” When my class was over, I promised myself that I would write to Jon, to tell him again how much his poems and teaching had meant to me over the years. I’d made such a resolution before, but this is the sort of promise that is easy to put off. And now it’s too late to write him.
Jon Anderson was the wisest and most inspiring teacher I have ever encountered, and his poems continue to amaze and instruct me. Without his example, my poetry and my teaching would have been altogether different things. I am not sure how they would be different, but I know they would have mattered less. As a teacher of poetry I’ve tried to follow Jon’s example: however quizzical Jon’s teaching may have seemed, his standards were exceedingly high.
He taught me two essential things: that students have to learn how difficult and astonishing it is to attempt to say the toughest thing, and that good teachers should never ascribe to any aesthetic party line.