Friday, January 11, 2013

James Magner

"Larry, I can't find my car keys.  Would you just drop the papers off at my house?"

I didn't usually mind driving out to Magner's house, as it was in a pleasant neighborhood that overlooked the lake, any more than I minded being called "Larry". [Larry having been Magner's last research assistant.  I recall hoping that my successor at least would be called by my name, but she was probably called Larry, too.]  It was just I was never sure what would meet me at his door. 

Sometimes it would be unlocked and I would find him out in the back yard, wandering with the neighbor's dog, locked in a deep conversation with the animal.  Sometimes the door would be locked, because, in the twenty minutes it took for me to get there, he would have forgotten that I was coming; I would find him either at the corner bar and grille or the Chinese restaurant next to it.  Sometimes he would be just standing at the door, looking like Walt Whitman's impossibly younger brother.  Other times, he would be in the dining room poring over a pile of notes that contained correspondence with other professors or other poets; stray verses for poems in mid-composition, or the grocery list that was mostly made up of things for his neighbor's dog.

When he was writing he would wear a weathered John Carroll University sweatshirt in that shade of gray familiar to those of us old enough to recall the days before synthetic fabrics became the preference in athletic apparel.  On those occasions, I knew to drop off the "papers" [really, it was just the mail from his faculty mailbox; the usual detritus of announcements about grading deadlines, upcoming sports events, a term paper that was two months late, and other items familiar to educators] and leave, as he would be so deep in a shell constructed of rhyme and meter that normal conversation would have been impossible, and may have destroyed his creative trance.

The days I used to prize, though, were those when I would find his front door unlocked and Erroll Garner playing from the stereo.  That meant that whatever he had been working on was completed to his satisfaction and he was feeling expansive enough to talk to me for hours of his days in the demi-monde, what it was like to hang out with the Beat poets like Ferlinghetti and Ginsberg, his Korean War memories, and, since he had once been a boxer, the best moves to use when you know you're over-matched [as I always was when boxing].  I really enjoyed it when he would begin sentences with statements like, "You know, Kerouac used to do this thing with his face...."

In the classroom he was a natural teacher.  There is no better professor of poetry than a poet, of course, as he knows not only how difficult it is to compose in even rough verse what has been captured by the heart's imagination, but the importance of perspective.  It was also interesting to think in terms of the practical concerns of a poet, such as what it takes to get something published and how much one anticipates how the verses are received by others.  Thus, Magner presented poems not just as some editor's choice for a textbook, but as portions of the souls of artists.  He was always particular about recognizing the familiar in the poet's narrative voice. 

I once saw him teaching a class filled with shy, and a little overwhelmed, freshmen, trying to get them to venture away from the safe observations that had gotten them through high school lit classes and into this new world of Magner-ness.  "So, who's Hardy's narrative voice?  Can you describe him?"  When met with the inevitable silence, he would ask in a voice lifted from a Hanna-Barbara cartoon, "Is it Joey Bananas?"  It would take awhile, but he'd get them loosened up enough to become thinking readers of lyrical verse.

Once, when discussing Yeats's "Down by the Salley Gardens", he stopped in mid-discussion and said, "It sounds like a song by Eddie Foy."  He then began to compose, extempore, the music to which Foy would have set the poem.  It was through Magner, and his nimble classroom technique, that I finally gained an appreciation for Gerard Manly Hopkins, a poet for whom I had no previous use.  For that alone I am obliged to him. 

One evening, after his third Manhattan, he found an old cigar box resting on some books on the bottom shelf of his library and handed me correspondence from Thomas Merton.  I hadn't known, but wasn't surprised, that the two had written back and forth for years and that Magner had once studied for the Roman Catholic priesthood and even been a monk.  In addition to Hopkins, he gave me something else that I had never had before: an appreciation for the poetic that may be found in ordained service to God.

James Magner was a long-time professor at John Carroll University, a Jesuit institution in greater Cleveland, where I studied literature at the graduate level and served as his researcher and general dogsbody.  He published at least five books of well-received poetry and a wonderfully lyrical fictionalized autobiography. He was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in Poetry in 1965, 1968, 1973, 1976, and 1978.  I regret that small poetry is so transient these days that finding copies of his work is difficult, however from a review of one of his longer works, "Till No Light Leaps", the critic observed that his poetic voice was "an amalgam of Melville and St. Augustine, bridging both Eastern and Western philosophy, presenting an original view on the Christian notion of fate."  Yeah, that's why I'm not a poetry critic.

One of his publishers noted, "As every individual soul who was fortunate enough to know Magner will affirm, he had that unconditional love for and immediate acceptance of everyone just exactly as they were – as they stumbled, as they stood, as they soared. He was one of those rare birds in this life who was both brilliant and insightful, yet compassionate and humble – an uncommon and wondrous concoction of love and intellect that enabled him to quite easily identify and affirm the unique essence of each and every person – without regard to race, religion, profession, status, or education."

James Magner died in the summer of 2000.  A couple of months later I received a slim volume of previously unpublished poetry in the mail, sent on by his executor.  In the frontis he had written, "To Larry Rob, with appreciation."  In the back was found a letter from the poet Richard Eberhart, one of his other friends, that said, "Poems in a way are spells against death. They are milestones, to see where you were then from where you are now. To perpetuate your feelings, to establish them. If you have in any way touched the central heart of mankind's feelings, you'll survive."

Well, Magner survives in the hearts of all of his students, especially those who went on to teach, to serve as novitiates in monasteries, and to ordained priesthood.  Thanks to him, I have always seen priesthood not as a professional function, but as a form of poetry itself.  While that may explain my rather unimpressive career arc, I hope it also explains why, in the most simple and "normal" of circumstance, I can feel God's pleasure.