Wednesday was April 1st, known to us all as April Fools Day. It's the same day that commences the start of National Poetry Month, a four-week span selected because of the famous T.S.Eliot line from "The Waste Land" that "...April is the cruelest month..." Thursday, April 2nd was the day Steve Kowit , a great poet, a genuinely principled moralist , a quick-witted spirit of irrepressible good humor and no one's fool by any means, died. The irony of how a day dedicated to practical jokes, a poetry commemorative month selected for a line written by a reactionary, racist, dour by nonetheless brilliant poet, and the passing of one of the most jubilant poets and exuberant personalities collided he way they did is inescapable, I suppose. But rather than inspect and interpret too closely I think it more better, more appropriate, more useful to remember Steve Kowit as a man of many gifts, interests, passions, commitments, from his own work in which he superbly fused the vernacular of street rhythm with the careful and skillfully off-center ear of a jazz improviser, his genius as a teacher where he combined that rarest thing, honest and helpful criticism intended to make a poet a better writer. As a writer, he was loquacious who favored long lines, unexpected examples of what he was talking, odd turns of thought and colorful phrase-making and high octane similes; for all is love of chatter, though, there was cultivation, a genius for getting to the point in the seemingly effortless rhythm of a musician as he ad-libbed fine musical phrases and elegant filigrees over either the most accelerated or most relaxed of tempos. He made what he did sound simple, easy to do, but as any with a love of music and perhaps has even achieved a level of fluidity of on an instrument, the aspect of effortlessness comes with practice, practice, practice. To that end, Steve was always practicing his craft, poetry, always honing his chops. I had always thought of Steve's poems as perhaps the best example of someone achieving the effect of someone musing out loud, thinking out loud, taking a topic sentence, a chance remark about something he had saw, heard, seen, and taking us through the dancing and delicately spun perorations of his thought as he came finally to rest, halt, at that place where there is a pause and Steve takes a deep breath and reveals how his experience of the world was altered by the event, the conversation, the book, the thing he heard or saw and thought remarkable.
Remark he did, and for me, he was the most intimate of poets, a writer for whom there is someone being addressed, spoken to, confided in. Even if it was merely a matter of Steve loving the sound of his own writing being resounded with the city cadences of his speaking voice, there was still the feeling that he was someone talking to you from across the table or leaning in closer to add an insight or a joke or some confidence that were for your ears alone. But for all the seeming effortlessness of making it seem as though he was talking seamlessly and without boundaries, off the cuff and unbound, Steve's writing did not, in large part, drift or wander lost in abstraction or confused association. In his workshops and the countless readings he'd given and in personal conversation, Steve talked about craft, rewriting, honing each poem until it was the most perfect expression it could be. Steve was constantly rewriting poems and would often time introduce his poems as ones that he'd been working on for months, even years. All this sounded incredible to me, a poet who was of the habit to write fast and perhaps do some minor tweaking; at first glance all that revising seemed contrary to spontaneous expression. Later, I realize why there are so many many poems that are so good. That feeling of effortlessness in his poems was the result of hard work. Steve loved poetry too much to put his least worthy efforts into the public conversation.
Steve was a great champion of other poets, he had an unfailing interest in others, he was the man we needed to have around at those times when others spoke in code and euphemism and fuzzy equivocation, Steve spoke his mind and cut to the chase. He spoke his own truth, as the saying goes these days, and after a pause, the conversation would begin again, invigorated by Steve's skill at pulling the covers off those things --racism, exploitation, sexual inequality, militarism--that were obscured by babble and can. He taught his students to read a great variety of poets, to learn a great many techniques honed by tradition, to expand their notion of what poems can speak to, and to find within the styles assimilated and the techniques mastered one's own voice as a writer who may then tackle subject with wit, originality, honesty, and great beauty.
One could,of course, argue with Steve about his passionate arguments against deliberately difficult poems and what he considered the worst habits of late literary modernism--I adore my Eliot, cherish my Ashbery, I am invigorated by the rigor of Silliman, Armantrout, and Perelman-- but Steve made his case with the same sort of lyricism he brought to his poems. It was a matter of course with Steve that he felt that beauty was the expression of experience in ways that did not obscure the event and the memory; neither theory nor sentimentality would interfere with the sweet language he used to present the travails and noise and major and minor frustrations of existence. Steve's best writing, which was prodigious, was about love, justice, lust, philosophical ironies that reduced, for the moment, the insurmountable hackery of what life in the city throws at you. Clarity of expression was Steve Kowit's genius--as wild as his poems became, as beautifully strung out as they could get on a metaphor or a pile-up of "then-what-happened?" that had the makings of an especially hirsute shaggy dog story, Steve was in control of his instrument. He hated obscurantism and overly literary self-referencing and insisted, demanded that poetry is about the writer's engagement with the world he or she lived in, worked in, made love in, laughed and cried in, and not be a receptacle of meditations on its own form. In conversation with him when I attended a workshop he conducted at San Diego State in the early eighties, I recall saying that he wasn't opposed to abstraction in poetry all together, but that he opposed to the sort of writing that lay there, thick and more or less dormant, daring the reader to make sense of tangled syntax, private jokes and artlessly inserted intrusions from areas that offer more murk, not clarity. Poems either created the passion within the reader to think harder and deeper into the experience of their lives, or the poets failed in their Poetry was about the ear, not the footnote, not the end note. Poets needed to be in the world perfecting their craft, not in the study writing obscurities being shared with only other obscure poets. Steve Kowit seemed like a force of nature and even now it's difficult to imagine a world without him.
I can still hear his voice each time we met, I can still see him smiling, leaning in close, asking me if I was still "dry", even twenty-five years since my last drink. I can still hear him telling me to proofread my poems and prose better. I can still remember him telling to put a volume of my own work together and, for the love of God, send stuff out to the publishers. Life is rewarded by the energy one puts into it. "Live" is a verb, after all, and Steve's message to anyone was to for those of us with things they want to do to get out there and live a little, take a stand, start a love affair, write a poem for your parents, get a job you actually like. Good things come if you work for them. My glancing friendship with Steve Kowit was one of the best things in my years as a San Diego poet.