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“One Last Kick for Dick”

September 24, 2009


N.B.: This poem appeared in The New York Review of Books, Volume 56, Number 15, on October 8, 2009. Seidel, as the poem indicates, was a close friend of Dick Poirier, to whom he dedicated his 1998 volume of poems, Going Fast. Dick, for his part, dedicated his 1999 book Trying It Out In America: Literary and Other Performances to Seidel.

Richard Poirier died on August 15, 2009, at the age of 83. I studied with him at Rutgers University (more or less continuously) from 1985 to 1993. Three anecdotes: Once, on a Sunday morning, I had to phone him on business pertaining to the Library of America. It was 10 o’clock. I apologized for calling at what struck me as an early hour. Dick laughed and replied, laying in a pretty good “sentence sound”: “What sort of a life do you suppose me to lead?” Another time I chanced to be in the offices of the Library of America while Dick was on the phone at a desk opposite the table where I was working. He was speaking to an editor of one of the LOA volumes—a scholar who was complaining, in the usual way, about the number of student papers he had to grade. Dick, obviously irritated, finished up the call, then turned to me and said, “Complaining about grading student papers! What do these people think they’re being paid to do?” On another occasion—this must have been in 1990 or thereabouts, and in the autumn or early winter—something possessed me to buy a felt hat, more or less a fedora, I guess. I donned it, put on a jacket & khakis, & headed in for an afternoon of work at the Library of America. By chance, I encountered Dick on 59th Street just outside the building that housed the LOA offices. He stopped, took one look at me, and said, with what I later understood had been a bit of  mischief in his eye: “That’s a nice outfit.” Before I could get up a witticism, or a reply of any kind, some flicker of embarrassment must have crossed my countenance, because Dick just as quickly added, “I suppose you don’t think of it as an ‘outift,’ do you?” We both got a laugh out of that.

I learned much of what I know, and do, from Dick, to whom I am most grateful. Never once since leaving Rutgers—needless to say—have I met what I, at any rate, take to be his standards. I’ve been known to complain about reading student papers. Raise a glass to the man—son of a Gloucester fisherman, veteran of World War II, interpreter of American literature & close-reader nonpareil: one last kick for Dick.

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