For a semester in college I tried out being a poet. I had not written many poems before, and have hardly written one since, but I sent in an application to the English department and found myself, one January afternoon, in J. D. (Sandy) McClatchy’s Intermediate Poetry workshop. The room was thick with that mix of apprehension, confidence, and eagerness for approval that greets the start of a semester. Sandy stood at the head of the big table and looked down at us, his new acolytes. The look was piercing, wry and owlish. We were the prey. He was sharply dressed; his glasses hung, chicly, from a leather cord outfitted with a silver loop that he wore around his neck. Already I had a feeling of perhaps failing to measure up. “Let me impress one thing upon you all,” he said. “I don’t want to see a single poem about your families and their dysfunctions. I hate your mother, and I really hate your grandmother.” This was a belated warning; we had been asked to bring an original poem to read at this first gathering. Next to me, a student started in on his, an ode to his grandmother in her porch rocker. Sandy cut him off after a line. “There’s the hated woman herself!” he crowed. The chagrined student fled the room and never returned.
But I did. Sandy, who died on Tuesday, from cancer, at the age of seventy-two, was a poet, a librettist, the editor of the Yale Review, and a literary arbiter extraordinaire. As a teacher he could be gruff and imposing, but he was thrilling, too, passionate, funny, and challenging, committed to initiating his students into the rigors that poetry demanded. As he explained on that first day, he had divided the semester into two parts. In the first, we were to write poems of a given form—sonnet, quatrain, villanelle—each week. In the second, we were free to choose any form, or none; it was the theme that was assigned. I longed for the order to be switched. Form seemed fusty to me, an antiquated convention and an inconvenience. But within two weeks I was hooked on restriction. Form became a beautiful puzzle, a commandment to obey and subvert. Sandy wanted us to understand that not all expression benefits from being free. Like the sadomasochist, the poet comes to enjoy the excitement of constraint.
In his interview with The Paris Review, Sandy described what he loved about form and its imperatives. “It’s like adoring the open sea, the clash of elemental forces, the overpowering scale of water and sky, the sleek majesty of sloops, the billow of sail and pull of line—and wanting to study and pay homage to it all by building a model of a favorite boat—and then deciding to do it inside a bottle,” he said. Sandy contributed poems to The New Yorker since 1982; the last one that he published, this past January, is called “My Plot.” “It seems as good a time as any to buy / A cemetery plot. The price is bound / To spike, the local real estate being / What it is / For both the living and the dead,” it begins. The poem is a sestain: its stanzas have six lines, fitted into an A-B-C-C-B-A rhyming scheme, though an extra half-line has been thrown into the middle of each, matching with nothing. In this poem about dying, are those extra lines like cancer cells, multiplying in their coffin-like stanzas? That seems too literal and limited an interpretation. Plus, the cemetery here is figured as a social space, full of neighbors and friends, such as the one who, the speaker discovers, has bought the plot next to his. He runs into her at a party that is like “life itself—fizzy and full / Of contrivances to keep itself afloat”—a description that could just as well describe the poem that houses it.
By the time we were granted the luxury of free space for our poems, I no longer wanted it, or not in the way I had before. Working under formal pressure had given me a taste for restraint, though that was perhaps a strange thing to develop from sustained contact with Sandy McClatchy. Each class was part workshop, part lecture, and part gossip session. Sandy was a towering, booming presence, commanding, elegant, initially fearsome, later endearing, witty, sharp, amused. He broke his favorite poems down for us, exposing their layers and devices, revealing to us his own admiration for their art. Then he dished the literary dirt. With fantastic abandon, he told us stories about Anne Sexton, James Merrill, Sylvia Plath, Elizabeth Bishop—the real characters of his life, to be revered as artists and treated with irreverence as people. This snippiness, balanced by affection, could be, by turns, crude and dazzling. He seemed to know everything and everyone, and to be more than willing to initiate us into this glamorous literary world filled with people we had previously known only as famous names on a page. He was voracious in his taste and definite in his judgment. In 2011, Slate asked various writers and critics, Sandy among them, to comment on which authors they felt were overrated. After some faux-modest throat-clearing (“I would, of course, put myself first on the list, if I thought I had been rated at all”), he brought out the knives:
But, speaking as a blip, and an aging one, I have been re-reading many
of the classics on which I was raised, and most of them, thrilling at
the time, now disappoint. Dante is a crashing bore. Shakespeare seems
wordy; Faulkner too. Yet Balzac, Stendhal, and Proust hold up. Swift,
Byron, Joyce—where is the gleam? Brought up on Hart Crane, I now
prefer A.E. Housman, who is more profound and moving. But if I had to
pick the most overrated of the last century, I would choose first
Virginia Woolf: noxious smoke and dusty mirrors. Not far behind, and
for completely different reasons, William Carlos Williams: So little
depends on stuff lying around. The absolute worst, the gassiest, most
morally and aesthetically bankrupt, the most earnestly and emptily
studied and worshipped . . . that’s an easy
one. Ezra Pound.
Even now I am torn between shaking my fist and applauding. He couldn’t be more wrong about Woolf! Or more right about Pound. Who wouldn’t crave his approval?
A summer after I graduated from college, I had the luck to be introduced, through a friend, to Dorothea Tanning, the painter and poet who, at that point, was ninety-eight and still living in her apartment on lower Fifth Avenue. It was my own foray into the mythic world of twentieth-century art and letters, one that lasted for half an hour over tea and cookies, with paintings by Joan Miró and Max Ernst on the wall. Dorothea said that she had recently had a poem accepted at a magazine, only to be told by a friend to show it to Sandy, who immediately poached it for the Yale Review. She was horrified to have unwittingly gone behind the first magazine’s back. I asked her if she would consider telling Sandy that he couldn’t use it. “Are you kidding?” she asked me, in her slightly flat Midwestern accent. “That would be like saying no to God.”
It’s a benefit to have a teacher who is as direct in criticism as he is in praise. It makes the latter, when it finally comes, worth more. Our class was a mixed bag, as workshops are. Talent glimmered and went back into hiding. Some people really seemed to have a craft that they could keep honing, while others would toss poetry aside like a rusty shovel as soon as school let out for the summer. But Sandy paid judicious attention to us all. He prodded and questioned and mocked and joked and encouraged. I will never forget when, after weeks of poems returned to me marked up in red and green ink, one came back with the comment “lovely.” The word looked, to my eye, as astonished to be there as I was to see it. From that point on, I took myself more seriously. I knew that I wasn’t destined to be a poet, but I was starting to feel like a writer. I’m grateful for that.