Reginald Shepherd, the acclaimed poet and essayist, died of cancer on Sept. 10. The Poetry Foundation has posted a moving tribute with comments from dozens of writers who were mentored or influenced by him.
I had fallen into a deep darkness this year due to a blurring of the boundaries between fiction, art, therapy, prayer, and real life. I was on a quest for that elusive thing called “reality”, which only God delivers, but I tried to conjure it on command between the pages of my notebook, only to find my characters wringing their hands about their own insubstantiality (a problem that was really mine, not theirs). Remembering the “high” of inspiration, when unprecedented closeness to God had coincided with a new gift for writing fiction, I thought writing was the cause rather than the effect of that vanished glory. I wanted justice to be done, but despaired that it was possible anywhere outside my imagination–then wept because my literary voodoo dolls didn’t cause real pain.
Shepherd’s last book of essays, Orpheus in the Bronx, shone a light that led me out of the tunnel. He championed the self-sufficiency of art against those who would make it the servant of a political agenda. If you want to change the world, go out and do something in the world, he said. Art is the place uncolonized by programs and definitions, where the ineffable intersects with the concrete, but is never wholly contained by it. Out of these imperfections of language comes a fruitful longing, a perpetual openness to new creation. As Shepherd wrote in his essay “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Coat: Nuances of a Theme by Stevens”:
The chasm between language and being, the inability of any naming to be the true name of the thing, is one that can be broached in many ways: at one extreme is scripture or dogma, which proclaims its names to be the literal equivalent of the thing; at the other is pure linguistic play (what Julia Kristeva calls unlimited semiosis), which neither claims nor seeks any such correspondence, for the rules of a game are unabashedly arbitrary. Between the two lies poetry, which combines the will to such an identity, the determination to speak the true names of things, with the awareness of the impossibility of such an endeavor, that the departure of the thing leaves us with only the name. That will is the guarantee of poetry’s seriousness; that awareness is the seal of its probity. (p.176)
I was in the same room as Reginald Shepherd at AWP this January and I was too self-conscious to say hello to him, and now he is dead. Folks, go out there and tell your favorite writers that they’ve made a difference in your life.