With Great Respect: Theodore Enslin, 1925-2011

By Harriet Staff


We learned late last night that Theodore Enslin -- "one of our greatest poets working quietly outside the noisy mainstream," as Matthew Henriksen put it -- has left us. Enslin, a prolific poet identified with Cid Corman, Charles Olson, and particularly the Objectivist tradition, was born in Pennsylvania in 1925 and became a resident of Maine in 1960. He was the author of over 60 books of poetry, including Then and Now: Selected Poems 1943-1993 (edited by Mark Nowak in 1999), and the epic, two-volume Ranger (1978 and 1980). Richard Owens of Damn the Caesars wrote, in a 2006 review of One Day And How It Was (Granite Press 2005), of Enslin's output:

I pity the fool burdened with the task of compiling a comprehensive bibliography of Ted Enslin's published work. The spontaneous, decentralized nature of small press publishing undoubtedly confounds such a task further. Here one minute, gone the next. Tracking down several dozen small press publications and magazines might be difficult but it is nonetheless possible; tracking down a body of published works comparable to the number pumped out by Enslin would require a Herculean effort.

Owens also looks at such a small volume in relation to Ranger, writing:

Where Enslin's two volume epic Ranger is long and indeed dense, a philosophically & historically complex work grounded, in part, in the tragic destruction of Mesoamerican culture in the sixteenth century, the short poems included in One Day are seemingly transparent, bound neither spatially nor temporally....Aside from language there is nothing to tie this poem to a particular time or place, no one detail which would lead us to a particular moment or region. Yet there is a conviction, a value revealed. Singing and selling are diametrically opposed, the two advanced as mutually exclusive dualities. This conviction is, to be sure, a foundational theme upon which Enslin's larger, far more complex works are built. To read such a slim volume as a window into the larger works is thus possible and profitable. To read it for its own sake is, of course, a pleasure all its own.

Michael Kelleher has some lovely remarks on meeting Enslin at the 2004 Poetry of the 40's Conference in Orono, Maine:

Ted Enslin was one of the featured poets of the conference, being of the generation that began writing in the 40's and also being a resident of the state of Maine. I recall that on the first night of the conference he participated in a round table discussion about Louis Zukofsky that also featured Robert Creeley, Mark Scroggins, Barrett Watten, Lyn Hejinian and Bob Perelman.

Enslin told of studying music with Nadia Boulanger, who eventually told him to give up music in favor of writing. He complied, eventually seeking out Conrad Aiken as a mentor. Aiken, he said, taught him only how to drink. He then discovered Zukofsky and began sending him his poems, which eventually developed into a kind of correspondence course in poetry. Not a bad way to learn, I suppose.

On the second to last day of the conference, Jonathan Skinner suggested that Matthew Cooperman and I skip out of the conference to go visit Ted at his farm in rural Maine, a suggestion to which we happily agreed. We drove up the coast about an hour and then inland slightly to arrive a ways down a very secluded road at his house, which is about 250 years old, if not older.

Ted came downstairs and welcomed us and we all sat in his living room talking about poetry and so forth. He then took us out for a walk and showed us his property. As we walked toward the woods he pointed to a small house, which he said was his wife's potting shed. Further on into the woods we came upon a clearing, in which were planted, quite a ways apart from one another, 8-10 different varieties of young trees. He explained that this was a kind of literary arbor he had been cultivating, meaning that each variety of tree was chosen because it had made an appearance in some literary work that was important to him -- for example, he had planted a lotus blossom in honor of William Carlos Williams.

Deeper into the woods he brought us to a little A-frame house, which was where he wrote. Inside resembled a loft, with a small kitchen and living room on the first floor and a desk and office in the loft area above. I remember he had a vast collection of classical music CD's and hundreds of books on the shelves, including, as I recall, the entire set of Samuel Pepys' diaries. Jonathan was very impressed by this and asked if Ted had read them all. "Oh, yes, of course," he said.

Up in his loft he showed us where he wrote at a little desk by the window. The loft was crammed with old steamer trunks. We asked what they contained and he told us they were all filled with manuscripts, most of them unpublished. Given how much he has published in his life, which is a lot to say the least, it was astonishing to see physical evidence of at least an equal quantity of writing lying dormant in his home.

Bob Arnold has a partial list of Enslin's published books on his blog, A Longhouse Birdhouse. Ron Silliman leads us to an excerpt of Ranger and an interview with Enslin about musical structures in poetry. A chapbook from Beard of Bees can be downloaded here. Enslin's papers are held at NYU's Fales Library & Special Collections. The collection highlights include letters written by Paul Blackburn, Robert Bly, Carol Berg, Hayden Carruth, Cid Corman, Diane DiPrima, Clayton Eshleman, Ian Hamilton Finlay, Henry Rago and Gary Snyder.

Our hearts go out to Ted Enslin's family, friends, and all who read and were inspired by his work. From his poem "Times of Day," published in Poetry in 1966:

Nicht Schleppen

Walking in

lock step

it is hard to imagine

more than one

or that this walk

into the last haze

of twilight


from one to another--

that the air itself


to admit us.

Originally Published: November 23rd, 2011