Keith Waldrop (1932-2023)

photo by Charles Bernstein (2009)

[This obituary comes from Peter Gale Nelson. Listen to Keith Waldrop on PennSound, including my Close Listening conversation with him., & read some poems at his EPC page.]

Keith Waldrop, recipient of the National Book Award in Poetry in 2009 for his trilogy, Transcendental Studies, died on Thursday, 27 July 2023. Keith had retired from Brown University as Brooke Russell Astor Professor of Literary Arts and Comparative Literature in 2011, where he had taught for just over 40 years.

While foremost a poet, Waldrop was also a distinguished translator, earning the rank of Chevalier of Arts and Letters from the French government. His translations ranged the gamut of French poetry – with highly-regarded translations of canonical writers Charles Baudelaire and Paul Verlaine, but also delivering to an English-speaking audience luminous renderings of his French contemporaries Anne-Marie Albiach, Jean Grosjean, Jacques Roubaud and Claude Royet-Journoud. He also published two books of prose, Hegel’s Family (a collection of short pieces) and Light While There is Light, a memoir in novel form, depicting an altogether eccentric American childhood, an Odyssey in its own right, told in deadpan manner with precise timing — a memory piece haunted by ghosts and filled with readerly pleasures.

Bernard Keith Waldrop was born on 11 December 1932 in Emporia, Kansas. His father, Arthur Waldrop, worked for the Santa Fe Railroad; his mother, Opal Mohler, taught piano and reared Keith, along with his three half-siblings. Deeply religious, Opal was always in search of the “right congregation” – moving the family (without Arthur, whom she leaves early in Keith’s life) to various fundamentalist communities, where Keith was steeped in the music and literature of each denomination.

While Keith’s early education was complicated by the quality of instruction, he was a serious and wide-ranging reader; he went on to start his education at Kansas State Teacher’s College; before he could graduate, he was drafted into the Army and was stationed in West Germany, where he met his wife, Rosmarie Waldrop. Upon leaving the Army, he completed his undergraduate studies and then went on to the University of Michigan from which he earned a PhD in Comparative Literature in 1964.

While at Michigan, with co-editors James Camp and D.C. Hope, Keith founded Burning Deck, a literary journal wherein the hope was to create a space that might bridge the gap between the various poetic camps. After four issues, the journal transformed into a book press, and Camp and Hope moved on while Rosmarie Waldrop joined as co-editor. In its early days, the press primarily published chapbooks (saddle-stitched books of no more than 40 pages). These books were handset and printed on a letterpress. The means of production were based on economics — but the results showed an attention to detail in design as well as in editorial focus. The press ran from 1961 to 2017 and published over 200 titles, with the majority of books from 1990 forward being book-length, perfect-bound offset editions, but often including letter press flourishes on the covers or title pages.

Many of the books also took advantage of Keith’s artistic flair for collage. Numbering in the hundreds (and potentially thousands) a small sample of the collages were collected in Several Gravities; and many were exhibited and sold through various galleries, including Providence venues: the Po Gallery, Peaceable Kingdom and Paper Nautilus.

While earning his PhD, Keith continued to nurture his poetry. Soon after graduating, University of Michigan published his first collection, A Windmill Near Calvary. This 1968 collection earned for Keith his first nomination for the National Book Award. The second time was the charm when in 2009, Transcendental Studies earned the award. Over the course of decades, Keith honed an eye for the ironic, a seeming detachment that was infused with an emotional and intellectual undercurrent that could astonish the reader in its capacity to bridge disparate thought with, if not logic, then perhaps something deeper, richer. Keith’s self-effacement was deliberate – his sense of the line between the real and the unreal always ready for reassessment:

Your body poses
no problem.  

Still on the surface. 

This is 
an occasion of lucidity. 
You reflect. You
light, you outline. 

It takes a
moment to
see you. 
The sunniest embrace
radiates vagueness. 

Elementary spectre.
Play, our
clear, dark. 

(from The Garden of Effort

Keith not only published dozens of books of poetry, he collaborated with his wife, the poet Rosmarie Waldrop, on a series of poems, eventually collected as Well, Well, Reality. These poems were, according to Jacques Rouboud, the work of a third Waldrop – one who could only exist when Keith and Rosmarie composed together, where each often took liberties, using literary devices that might be thought of as “belonging to the other.” 

Keith had from early childhood, been fascinated with the theater. During his time at Michigan, he founded the John Barton Walgamot Society (named for a writer whose work was remarkable for being composed almost wholly of the names of famous people), which hosted, among other performances, a production of Ubu Roi, in which Keith performed the role of Ma Ubu — he was also co-translator of the text used in production. 

When he joined the faculty at Brown University, he co-founded with fellow poets Edwin Honig and James Schevill Wastepaper Theater, through which the three would present a night of short works (including presentations of their own works). Through this venue, Keith developed a highly-original performance strategy. He would improvise a framework for the short play — give short instructions to his fellow actors, and then would “write the play” by performing it. Keith would take the lead speaking role, and like Mozart with his piano concertos, extemporize the piece in real time. 

During Keith’s long teaching career, he was mentor to generations of writers. He was known to be an encouraging figure — something like a Zen master, who would offer on occasion what might seem a cryptic response to a poem that would, in time, become a pathway to a deeper understanding of what the poet was seeking to accomplish.  

Keith is survived by his wife, Rosmarie Waldrop – a life partnership that continued for 64 years. He is also survived by his nephews Charles Black; Ron Payne and his wife Paula; his niece Phyllis Payne; his grandnieces Tisha Sarver, Tonia Mikeworthand her husband Joshua; his grandnephew Joshua Payne and his wife Lynda.

In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to HopeHealth Hospice and Palliative Care, 1085 N. Main St., Providence, RI 02904.