Donald Finkel was born in 1929 in New York City and died at his home in St. Louis in 2008. As a young man he studied sculpture, a form he would return to later in life, and one whose practice of assemblage informed his unique style of poetry. Finkel studied at the University of Chicago and earned a BA and MA from Columbia University. He held positions at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Bard College, and Washington University in St. Louis, where he taught for over forty years, helping to inaugurate the creative writing program. Finkel was the author of over a dozen books of poetry, including Simeon (1964), A Joyful Noise (1966), and The Garbage Wars (1970). Mainly published by the legendary Atheneum Press, Finkel’s early work was notable for its collage effects, which brought together fragments of disparate texts into a whole. “Finkel’s collages," wrote Dennis Lynch in Contemporary Poets, "are daring attempts to bring unity to the world’s chaos through art.” Using source material ranging from Albert Camus to Lenny Bruce, Finkel’s long-form poems were often books themselves. The New York Times obituary described Finkel’s verse: “There was little high-flown abstraction in his poetry, and little lofty diction. Writing in colloquial free verse and butting normally disparate subjects against each other, he deliberately blurred the boundaries between the animate and inanimate, the mythic and the mundane, the sacred and the profane.”
 
Finkel’s work frequently takes place and exploration as its theme. In books such as Answer Back (1968), Adequate Earth (1972), Endurance (1978), The Wake of the Electron (1992) and Beyond Despair (1994), Finkel investigates natural phenomena ranging from the Mammoth Cave in Kentucky to Antarctica. Finkel’s books on exploration, voyages, and remote landscapes highlight his long-form collage technique. For example, Dennis Lynch described Answer Back as “an astonishing book arranged around the metaphor of cave exploration… Speleology, though, is only one of Finkel’s concerns here: his other topics include Vietnam, the relation of the sexes, the nature of religion, the function of poetry, the origins of the universe, and much more. His voice modulates from biblical tones to satiric ones, and his verse ranges from lyrics to doggerel… the whole effect is rather staggering.” Finkel’s interest in Antarctica sprang from a scientific expedition to the continent he accompanied in 1970.  Adequate Earth, Finkel’s vision of the remote continent’s alien landscape reveals its beauty and mystery. Like many of Finkel’s long poems, the book is frequently described as a kind of epic, and joins his other works on the subject, Endurance: An Antarctic Idyll [and] Going Under. Finkel has also written about the Des Peres River near St. Louis, describing his fascination with “things that other people turn their heads away from,” in an interview with Catherine Rankovic. Finkel continued: “I like rubble, and I’ve always liked rubble. I like things that are broken and smashed and damaged. I like things that other people tend to reject, and I always want to kind of resurrect them as having an interest of their own.” He also spoke to the intersections between his writing process and interest in geography and place: “I’ll see a place and I just want to know it better. And the process of knowing it better is the process of exploring it, and the process of exploring it is the process of writing poetry.”
 
Finkel also translated seven Chinese poets in A Splintered Mirror: Chinese Poetry from the Democracy Movement (1991). A volume of his new and selected poetry was published as Not So the Chairs in 2003. His many honors and awards included fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Ingram Merrill Foundation. His books were nominated for the National Book Award and twice for the National Book Critics’ Circle Award. Finkel was married to the poet and novelist Constance Urdang before her death in 1996.

Bibliography

POETRY

  • The Clothing’s New Emperor, edited by John Hall Wheelock, Scribner (New York City), 1959.
  • Simeon, Atheneum (New York City), 1964.
  • A Joyful Noise, Atheneum, 1966.
  • Answer Back, Atheneum, 1968.
  • The Garbage Wars, Atheneum, 1970.
  • Adequate Earth, Atheneum, 1972.
  • A Mote in Heaven’s Eye, Atheneum, 1975.
  • Endurance: An Antarctic Idyll [and] Going Under, Atheneum, 1978.
  • What Manner of Beast, Atheneum, 1981.
  • The Detachable Man, Atheneum, 1984.
  • (With others) Reading Ourselves to Sleep, Pterodactyl Press, 1985.
  • Selected Shorter Poems, Atheneum, 1987.
  • The Wake of the Electron, Atheneum, 1987.
  • Beyond Despair, Garlic Press (St. Louis), 1994.
  • A Question of Seeing: Poems, University of Arkansas Press, 1998.
  • Not So the Chairs: New and Selected Poems, Mid-List Press (Minneapolis, MN), 2003.

OTHER

  • The Jar (play), produced in Boston, 1961.
  • (Translator) A Splintered Mirror: Chinese Poetry from the Democracy Movement, North Point Press (San Francisco), 1991.
Contributor to Poetry, New Yorker, and other publications. A collection of Finkel’s manuscripts is housed at Washington University Library, St. Louis.

 

Further Readings

BOOKS
  • Contemporary Poets,6th edition, St. James Press (Detroit), 1996.
  • Howard, Richard, Alone with America: The Art of Poetry in the United States since 1950, Atheneum, 1969, enlarged edition, 1980.
PERIODICALS
  • Best Sellers,March, 1982.
  • Booklist,April 1, 1973, p. 738; September 15, 1975, p. 111.
  • Georgia Review,winter, 1976, p. 1021; fall, 1979, p. 699.
  • Hudson Review,autumn, 1970, p. 565; spring, 1976, p. 115.
  • Library Journal,February 15, 1991, pp. 197-198.
  • Nation,May 19, 1979, p. 578; December 12, 1981, p. 647.
  • New Leader,March 8, 1982, p. 14.
  • New Republic,February 3, 1973, p. 30.
  • New York Times,March 1, 1966.
  • New York Times Book Review,December 20, 1964; September 4, 1966, p. 4; November 22, 1970, p. 30; September 7, 1975, p. 6.
  • Parnassus,fall/ winter, 1973; spring/summer, 1979.
  • Poetry,July, 1965, p. 309; November, 1966, p. 114; February, 1969, p. 344; November, 1971, p. 99; September, 1973, p. 351; February, 1976, p. 292; December, 1982, p. 170.
  • Prairie Schooner,summer, 1972, p. 176.
  • Publishers Weekly,January 18, 1991, p. 53.
  • St. Petersburg Times,April 3, 1988.
  • Saturday Review,January 2, 1965, p. 30; May 21, 1966, p. 31; August 24, 1968, p. 40.
  • Times Literary Supplement,January 18, 1980, p. 65; July 2, 1982, p. 720.
  • Village Voice,December 15, 1975, p. 73.
  • Virginia Quarterly Review,winter, 1967, p. XVII; autumn, 1968, p. CL; autumn, 1982, p. 133.
  • Washington Post Book World,July 28, 1968, p. 4.
  • Western Humanities Review,winter, 1969, p. 93; autumn, 1976, p. 364.
  • Yale Review, March, 1976, p. 425.