First, some context.
I was born in a Missouri college town to two professors who both taught at said college. Twenty-six years later, they still do.
My father has attended Webster University graduations since 1989, when he first took a position in what’s now called the Sargent Conservatory of Theatre Arts. 2023 was no different; the commencement speaker for Webster’s Conservatory was an alumna from the dance department who spoke highly of her educational experience as an undergraduate. But she diverged, at one point, to mention a professor outside the Conservatory whose classes she still regarded with great respect and love: David Clewell.
Clewell, Webster’s longstanding professor of poetry, died unexpectedly in his sleep on February 15, 2020.
Difficulties arise while writing an obituary for someone who so greatly changed the trajectory of your life. Before Clewell died, I thought my future somehow involved cutting down trees in rural Utah. It wasn’t until after his death that I understood—I would not be the person conducting the controlled burns, but rather observing them from a safe, poetic distance.
But Clewell was very supportive of my proposed venture. He believed poems could be found anywhere, and encouraged poets to chase them down. He reminisced and wrote often about growing up on the Jersey Shore, where he worked a variety of odd jobs until his late twenties—taking tickets for the traveling circus, guessing weights on the boardwalk, and wrestling in the professional minor leagues, to name a few. “I’m betting you could use a few unlikely moves yourself,” he writes,1 “in the world we actually live in. Wouldn’t you love to know every / once in a while, even before your day begins, precisely / how it’s going to turn out? With no one like a referee in sight, / you could take down the disagreeable clerk at the DMV / with The Flying Clothesline or The Inverted Atomic Drop.”
Clewell ventured inland to the University of Wisconsin for a B.A. before completing his M.F.A. in Poetry in 1985 under Donald Finkel at Washington University. He landed at nearby Webster University that same year, where he stayed for the remainder of his professional career.
Though anthologized by poets like Billy Collins and Naomi Shihab Nye, Clewell’s poetry continues to fly under the radar. This may be intentional, as Clewell himself had somewhat reclusive tendencies, spending much time hunkered down in his infamously cluttered Pearson House office. He considered his job title of Poet far less important than the job itself.
Clewell dedicated his life to the Art of Understanding. For his poetry students, Clewell embodied both profound respect for poetic tradition and curiosity regarding the craft’s future in an increasingly reactionary, politicized, and cybercentric society. His son, Ben, reminds me that this affect wasn’t just reserved for the classroom: “Piles and piles of books on our shelves, and more were always coming in to be read from our latest used bookstore or flea market haul. He always said that the first step in writing was liking reading, and boy, he liked it. Hours and hours each night, taking everything in; whether it was a way-too-in-depth dissection on the latest cryptid, catching up on one of his many literary journals, or diving into a story or collection of poems. He loved experiencing thoughts on paper, and experiencing the world through so many different eyes and minds. And when it came time for him to write, himself—he sure didn’t approach it as a light undertaking.”
Clewell’s immersion in the world of literature allowed him to find common ground with his students, and leave them with a lasting appreciation for his classes. St. Louis poet Katie Erbs recalls fondly: “At the end of every semester, he would give out books in manilla envelopes to the people in class. And he had this talent for always giving the right thing.” I spoke with students dating back to when Clewell’s tenure first began in the late 1980s, realizing this act of thoughtfulness must have been going on for nearly thirty-four years.
Then during Erbs’ thesis semester, another gift: “I was taking Clewell’s class on political poetry, where we created an entire anthology over the course of the semester. Mine was on gender relations and how the different genders write about one another. Clewell and I bonded over Kenneth Koch that semester, after he suggested including Sleeping with Women in my anthology. After class one day, we were in his office discussing Koch when he pulled from his Clewellian mountain of books a hand-stitched, illustrated copy of Sleeping with Women. It was in plastic, obviously rare, and signed. I thought ‘oh, God, I’m not special enough to put my grimy paws on this,’ but Clewell insisted it was okay. So I read it, right then and there. He didn’t hurry me or anything. It was a really special day.”
After Clewell’s death, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch ran an article2 wherein Murray Farish is quoted as follows: “David was a street fighter for poetry. Not in his poems necessarily, but for poetry and what poetry could do for people.” Farish, a student-turned-colleague-turned-friend of Clewell’s, was my own professor at Webster University. The one who first suggested taking a David Clewell poetry class. Sorry for never coming back, Murray … but I know you understand.
Clewell, at first glance, appears to be a write-off—seemingly born old, quirky, slightly unhinged, potentially out of touch. A white fella who spent the better part of his writing career wrapped in the politically-charged barbed wire of Republican Hellscape, Missouri. But his poetry depicts the great tenderness that’s easily found here in middle America:
- After putting in a full eight hours and coming up short
- in towns where I’d found success on previous flea-market Saturdays—
- not a single blue manifestation of Charlie the Tuna
- in his elusive plastic glory, no telltale Reddy Kilowatt zigzag
- embodiment of energy in action, no electricity in the air, no cool
- so-bad-they’re-good ceramic beatnik Daddios, no yellowing
- Krazy Kat or Pogo in their threadbare Sunday funnies best,
- no worn-out-of-this-world copy of Those Sexy Saucer People, discarded
- for not exactly living up to its complicated front-cover promise, no
- promising anything that needed my saving for the rest of the day or for good—
- I walked oddly unencumbered through the twilight parking lot with my son
- who, in his ancient four-year old’s wisdom that comes from living a life
- much closer to the ground, seized on an empty box of Good & Plenty
- and made his trademark declaration: I collect these, you know.
The editor will pause here to acknowledge these fourteen lines are all one sentence.
Later in the same poem:3
- His pursuit is effortless, a masterpiece of circumstance
- and sheer improvisation, like Coltrane at the Village Vanguard
- picking up a tune of no particular note and blowing it
- inside out—the fiercest declaration on record of My Favorite Things.
- My son knows how that one goes by heart. Every day
- he’s that alive, working on another small piece of his world:
- counting it off, already dressed and hurrying through breakfast,
- looking to come in so true and so sure that this time it will stay played,
- his way, forever. He’s got the chops already for the solo of a lifetime.
- Even now he’s stretching out, making it up and laying it down
- as he goes along, riff by breathless riff.
This sentiment of productive passion—absolutely true, even now, about Ben Clewell—is also true of the subject’s father. Even today, if you ask associates to describe David Clewell, you’ll hear a lot of Clewellian staples: Harold and the Purple Crayon, Huckleberry Hound, Zapruder, aliens, JFK, bigfoot, Georgio Tsoukalos, Jack Ruby, Charlie the Tuna, kolache, Walt Whitman, UFOs, comic scans, deviled eggs, Cousin Hugo’s (not to be confused with Richard Hugo, which associates would also mention), Elvis, Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, Pearson House kitchen coffee in a metal thermos, Mountain Dew, Atlantis, spaceman pens, lunchboxes, Pez dispensers. Clewell considered himself entrenched in the world. He wanted to get his hands on just about everything.
Clewell’s obsession with the world was fueled by undeniable devotion and dedication, rather than sinister instincts like greed or privilege. “I’ve spent too many nights on this ridiculous train,” Clewell admits4, “full of the wrong kind of serious people and, seriously, I was thinking // of you. In my bag are a few more pieces of earlier days that need saving: tracts from the old-time flying saucer disciples, a Charlie the Tuna / transistor radio, an authentic swatch of the black-cloth night sky / that starred in Plan 9 from Outer Space. You may shake your head and smile, / even ask me do I have any idea how the first eight plans came to nothing, / but you’re the only one who can see how I mean business, and as usual / you’ll find a place for my far-fetched holdings in the expansive chambers / of your heart.”
Where readers might expect a typical poem to flatline, he finds a way to shock the topic awake for three, sometimes four more pages, leaving everyone involved with a generously elevated pulse. Where we expect pause, we find steady acceleration—lines overflowing with words, nearly spilling out of the margins. In The Low End of Higher Things, Clewell writes with such ferocity, he comes close to writing himself off of the already-elongated pages printed by University of Wisconsin Press, declaring, “I know how it is: people in the thin air of their lives, spiritless / and floating through excruciating days while the gold hoop of everything / more than they ever could hope for passes over, under, all around them, / and what holds them up, what keeps them going is anybody’s guess. / When they wake up disenchanted, visibly shaken, someone brings a glass of water / and just as they get it about to their lips, it vanishes / into the long history of things that never quite really happened.”
Clewell was named Missouri’s first Poet Laureate in 2010, though he never viewed this position as one of much political consequence. Struck by the sincerity of Georganne Nixon—wife of then-Governor Jay Nixon—Clewell dedicated his two-year tenure to getting Missourians hip to conspiracy theories and cultural artifacts that desperately needed preserving. Clewell’s poems speak to the nature of Missouri itself; much like hardshell crabs, these are intricate things of severe tenderness, hidden within difficult exteriors with which few are willing to negotiate.
With long legs and an array of trenchcoats, Clewell’s art doesn’t quite stand under the umbrella of any traditional poetic genre. “And if there’s trouble you didn’t see coming, don’t worry,” Clewell writes in Jack Ruby Talks Business with the New Girl: November 21, 1963. “That’s what I’ll be out there looking for. I may be incognito, / just another hat in the crowd. But if you want to know the truth, / all you have to do is ask. You say Jack and I swear / I’ll come through. Say the word, and some guy’s good as dead.”
Of course, just like Katie Erbs and every student lucky enough to have spent time in his orbit, I have my own stories about Clewell’s generosity. There are far too many to recount here. I could tell you all about the two-foot-tall alien living on the top shelf of my bookcase, or The Mad Farmer Poems wood etchings. But instead, I’ll tell you about the first time I fell in love.
I mean real, true love. The kind you want to recreate for the rest of your life.
His name was Philip Levine. He wrote poems so beautiful I cried and cried over them.
One sunny Monday, Clewell emerged from his office with a paper bag and bear-scrawl handwritten note attached. “Return Friday.” Inside was a cassette tape. The year: 2017. I did not own a cassette player.
So I borrowed my dad’s truck, drove to the greenest park I could find, parked under a thick tent of trees, and popped in the tape. Philip Levine’s live jazz renditions of What Work Is crackled through the 2002 Tundra speakers. “You love your brother,” Levine cried. “Now suddenly you can hardly stand / the love flooding you for your brother, / who’s not besides you or behind or / ahead because he’s home trying to / sleep off a miserable night shift / at Cadillac so he can get up / before noon to study his German. / Works eight hours a night so he can sing / Wagner, the opera you hate most, / the worst music ever invented.”
For those of you wondering—yes, I did (eventually) return the tape. Not Friday. But eventually.
I’ve been around. I know how people dismiss the Midwest. It’s easy to do. It’s easy to see the graffiti-dusted buildings in downtown St. Louis, each window emptier than the last, and make a kneejerk judgment about our momentum. It’s easy to see the rolling fields of wheat, dappled stallions roaming haphazardly fenced yards, dilapidated barns crumbling under tornado-ridden skies, and keep driving.
But not for David Clewell. He saw what Missouri had hidden up its sleeve: a near-embarrassing amount of tenderness, love for the rest of the world pouring from every manmade orifice around our major cities, springing from every untended blade of grass. His zeal was at home here. He could make fellow zealots of the most disillusioned among us.
Clewell understood the importance of love. In a world determined to undervalue, disprove, and dispel the power of love, he doubled down, asking his students to become more enamored, more delighted, and more fascinated with everything around them. He taught us how to be scrappy, wholehearted, unafraid, outspoken, indignant, and unsatisfied streetfighters. He demanded unabashed vulnerability and compassion in order to grow as individuals.
David Clewell demanded our highest capacities for love. He still does.
David Clewell, Almost Nothing To Be Scared Of, (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2016), 13. ↩︎
David Clewell, The Low End of Higher Things, (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2003), 42-45. ↩︎
Clewell, The Low End, 51. ↩︎