In Memoriam: Landis Everson, 1926–2007
Remembering the recipient of the Poetry Foundation's Emily Dickinson First Book Award.
The Poetry Foundation is sad to report that Landis Everson died on Saturday, an apparent suicide, in Mill Valley, California. Everson received the Poetry Foundation's Emily Dickinson First Book Award, for his 2006 book Everything Preserved. The following piece was published last year.
Before receiving the first poetry award of his career, Landis Everson, a thin, sweet-faced 79-year-old from California, had a momentary episode of rage while dressing in his hotel room. He smacked himself in the face with a hairbrush because he felt his poet friends, most of them dead, would disapprove of him accepting such a mainstream prize, he said. When he went to the stage to receive the award, his left eye was blueing around the edges. “I wasn’t in a fight. I did this to myself,” he said.
The prize, given by the Poetry Foundation for the best debut by an American over 50 (selected from more than 1,100 manuscripts), came after 43 years during which Everson never wrote and barely read. A retired house developer, he worked on crossword puzzles, gardened, and thought about dying. His first book, Everything Preserved, is divided into two parts: poems he wrote in the 1950s and poems from the past four years. “I don’t believe ever in the history of mankind there has been a poet who stopped writing for 43 years,” says Ben Mazer, his current editor. “On the stage, he looked like a sheriff in an old Western who had just come out of some brawl.”
Everson, who lives in San Luis Obispo, California, and recently had a stroke, stopped writing around 1961 when he lost contact with his poet friends Robert Duncan, Jack Spicer, and Robin Blaser. They had all been students at the University of California at Berkeley, contributors to the college’s literary magazines, and members of what, in 1946, they jokingly named the Berkeley Renaissance. “We have existed from the Beginning. We are Eternal. Lords of Creation,” Robert Duncan wrote. “We can NEVER be pretentious. . . . We have been made heirs by the greatest fraternity of poets since London circa 1600.” They decided it was Everson who would lead the West to its next literary era, becoming the new “Poet-King.”
Unlike the Beats, who came to the Bay Area ten years later, the Berkeley poets wrote erudite poetry—classical and biblical allusions were the norm. They were less interested in drugs (except alcohol) and Eastern philosophy and had little interest in talking about subjects other than poetry. A 1947 Harper’s article describes the Berkeley of that time as “the Left Bank” for literary immigrants, a place where young poets, wearing sandals and corduroys, used words and phrases such as “fecund,” “magical,” “the outer reality,” “the great oneness,” and “the vital core.” In 1957, Jack Spicer, who was at the center of the group, began teaching a class called “Poetry as Magic,” in which assignments included writing a poem that would “create a universe” or in which the author would “become a flesh-eating beast.”
Everson was less inclined toward grandiosity. In biographical accounts of the Berkeley literary scene, he is rarely mentioned and, when he is, it’s for his charisma, not his poetry. By the time he took up house construction work, he had charmed most of the people who’d met him, whether or not they’d read his work. He had that look of self-assured American boyishness: deep-set blue eyes, big teeth, and thin blond hair, which he combed tight to the side like a country club tennis player. “His facial features were so attractive and pronounced that I once asked if he was wearing make-up,” recalls Paul Alexander, a painter who hung out with Everson’s friends and saw him in person only once. “Jack Spicer just absolutely put me down for making that comment. He said, ‘Landis isn’t wearing makeup. He just looks that way.’”
Spicer, who was known for his almost wondrous ugliness, was said to be in love with Everson and dedicated a poem to him—“the onlie begetter of these nightmares”—but often criticized him for being too bourgeois, particularly when Everson began publishing poems in dreaded mainstream journals like Poetry and The Kenyon Review. Everson drove a convertible, lived in a fraternity, and had plenty of money. Spicer still had faith, though, that he would fix the problem. “In my own rationalistic way I believe too that Landis is a god,” Spicer wrote to Duncan in a 1951 letter. “A sort of Babylonian Adonis in a cashmere sweater . . . a really personal savior.”
Everson’s poems were tempered and shapely, filled with sudden, eerie images: deer grazing in his bed, costumed ghosts putting on a play, hundreds of peacocks dozing in heaps. He saw poetry as a way of entertaining his friends and wrote to impress them: “These friends of yours are hard to understand / They shatter sense like stained glass likenesses. . . . Sweet combination of the wise and frail, / These friends of yours want something in their walk.” He could change styles quickly, and when he went to Columbia for two years to study Renaissance poetry, he began writing poems in Elizabethan English. For his dissertation, he submitted 38 pages by “Sir William Bargoth,” an imaginary 17th-century poet, and analyzed each poem for its use of allusion and form. (The English department discovered the hoax and accepted it.) “Perhaps, if Bargoth had taken his writing more seriously, and had developed poetically more than he did,” he explains in the conclusion, “he too could have joined the ranks of the important literary figures of his time.”
Everson was familiar with the sense of failed expectations—his professor, the poet Josephine Miles, called him the “white hope of the English department”—but he was never as consumed by poetry as were his friends. They talked about joining together to conquer evil—which was, essentially, bad poetry. They feared the “domination of poetry by unfeeling machines of knownothingness,” says Spicer’s biographer, Kevin Killian, in a recent interview. “They kept engaging in these different magical formations, handicapping younger poets like a horse race. Landis was the one they agreed upon the most. He had talent, but also beauty.”
In 1959 and 1960, after Everson had returned to California, he and a small circle of young poets met on Sundays at noon to share their work. When Everson was late one Sunday, they treated him coldly for the rest of the day. “No excuses were acceptable,” recalls Fran Herndon, the only female and painter at the meetings. She remembers Everson as “light and humorous, friendly and immediate.” The workshops were often held at her house, at a round table in the kitchen, and she cooked for everyone. If someone read a poem that was boring, the others would yell, “Stop! Enough!”
“You took your work seriously,” she says. “You had almost a mandate to do it. Those poets were their own universe.” When the meetings ended in 1960, it was like “a death in the family.”
Everson moved to Santa Fe with his boyfriend, the painter Bob Harvey, and, as he had done many times before, began producing work similar to those of the artists around him. He made soft, abstract oil paintings, many of which showed in galleries. After ten years, he lost interest and began remodeling houses and gardens. In his own backyard, he made a room out of willow trees. “I was annoyed and told him so,” says Robin Blaser, now 81 and living in Vancouver. “Somehow he just decided to drop the muse. And, then, here he pops back! So I guess he just needed some time.”
Forty years had passed when Everson decided to try writing again, at the encouragement of Ben Mazer, a poet and PhD student who became close friends with him while doing research on the San Francisco literary scene before the Beats. Many of Everson’s early poems were about the past or the process of writing (“Sometimes you write poetry about poetry / you can’t help yourself / your fingers stray down there where there is still feeling”). Recent poems, though, have a subtle air of prophecy:
First you have to end itThe Berkeley Renaissance poets wavered between hyperbolic exclamations of their greatness—“we are handed our divinity and asked not to fail it”—and self-righteous disgust with any form of PR. Everson in particular has remained a ghostlike figure who lends himself to being “discovered” continually. Unlike Spicer, who died after drinking too much (Blaser always said the real cause of death was poetry), Everson was an unlikely poet: laid-back, likable, handsome, and not that interested in writing. He viewed art as a conversation and wouldn’t write unless he knew someone would read it. After 40 years, he still often seems to be speaking to his peers. He doesn’t bother to account for the intervening decades: “How can time matter / if a thing once known / such as language or a god / can be reborn / without derision or shame?”
if you want to begin. rain before the clouds and the exit
is where the subway enters.
The judge who sentences us is smiling.
He knows a crime is uncommitted.
After his judgment.
I left. So our tears will flow to no subject or object.