English Matters, Fall 2004

Tess Gallagher (BA 1967, MA 1971) received a Distinguished Alumnus Award from the UW College of Arts and Sciences at the College’s Celebration of Distinction on May 20, 2004. Following are her remarks and reading:

Asking the Unasked Question

Tess Gallagher

First, I’d like to thank Dean Hodge and those of the alumnae committee and the English Department who submitted my name and particulars for this important honor. I know Professor Dick Dunn, Chair of the English Department played no small part in putting me forward, so thank you, Dick, and thanks also to Molly Purrington, Erin MacCoy, Marilyn Kliman and Karen Demorest—for organizing my guests for this evening.

I want briefly to tell you who’s with me, because it’s important to have them here. It’s not always easy for a family to understand how it has generated a poet, and to put up with the rather revelational exposure that often goes along with this.

My younger sister, Stephanie Barber, is with me from Bellingham. I’m lucky to have her because she loves and reads poetry; it seems my love of poetry has become a little contagious since her son and daughter both write poetry. She’s been there for me through some crucial times in the tenuous existence of being a poet and I thank her greatly for providing me with that sense of being appreciated within my family. This wasn’t always so, since my mother and father were loggers and really didn’t understand what I was trying to accomplish for many years.

Molly Radke was my schoolmate in Port Angeles and she and I decided to make a stand in the big city of Seattle. We’re still close friends and I consider this a lovely dividend of my initial time here. She is, however, under a gag order and won’t tell you anything about my behavior as a young student here!

Susan Lytle, the painter, is also with me. Besides being artists in our own right, we emotionally supported each other while being mated with very famous men, she to Alfredo Arreguin, the wonderful Seattle Mexican American pattern painter, also an alumnus of the UW, and me to a story writer fondly called at his death, “America’s Chekhov,” Raymond Carver.

When I think back to my time starting out as a young poet in this city, I realize how little I knew about how to accomplish this. I was lucky to have Robert Heilman as my composition professor. From him I sharpened up my skills at logic, rhetoric and grammar. In my last term as a Freshman I managed to be accepted into the last class the Pulitzer Prize winning poet Theodore Roethke ever taught. Joan Swift was also in that class with me and I’m so glad she could join us. This class so galvanized me that I took as my mandate to try as a teacher never to be boring, for every moment in that classroom was dynamic. Thus you have the portrait of me by my Syracuse student, Alice Sebold in her book Lucky as her lyric poetry professor who appeared at 8 a.m. bursting through the door singing an Irish Aire a cappella in order to get the students into the mood to study Yeats. Her remark later was that she decided I was either brilliant or crazy. The audacity to do that singing began here at the University of Washington.

. . . a life is for . . . giving the gift of one’s spiritual and creative vitality for the good of the community, even when you may have things to say to that community that they may not want to hear.

Susan Lytle will recall her husband, Alfredo, telling a story about those young times of ours—his wanting to be an artist and my wanting to be a poet. How one night in a somewhat inebriated state with a friend, he traded one of his paintings for a pair of boots and, on second thought, asked an additional stupendous fee of ten dollars from the friend. In the morning he discovered the boots did not fit, but at least he had the kingly sum of $10. As a poet I could not exchange even a poem for a pair of boots or $10. In fact I still often get “copies” of the magazine as payment when I publish. But being a poet and a young artist demanded an initial revaluing of what a life is for: not for amassing wealth, but for giving the gift of one’s spiritual and creative vitality for the good of the community, even when you may have things to say to that community that they may not want to hear. For poetry and art and science are based on asking the unasked and even the unaskable questions—what nobody dared to think, to consider, to try, to propose.

This morning Dean Hodge brought together all those receiving this important honor and he explained that teaching in Arts and Sciences is now ‘question based,’ getting the students to frame the important questions and then follow out their inquiries. I read his excellent address of 2002 in which he redefined the liberal arts education as ‘learning the skills of freedom.’ I hope I have somehow imparted the spirit of freedom in my 45 years of writing poetry. Indeed, the biggest compliment I ever got from one of my best young writers was: ‘thanks for giving me my freedom.’ Mind you he’d practiced many strictures, as I did, under Roethke, for one has to learn to wear the tradition in order to shed, renew and honor it.

I have taken note of Dean Hodge’s wish to teach thinking outside the box. First, of course, one must define the parameters of ‘the box’ and then unthink it. I sometimes wonder if the cliche ‘thinking outside the box’ isn’t the recipe for poetry, for I don’t believe I’m much capable of very sustained episodes of other kinds of thinking.

The most important thing I did this past year was to attend the Winter Retreat at Deer Park Monastery where the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, also a wonderful poet, was in residence. His example of being willing to continue to come to America after the painful war in Vietnam which brought so much destruction to his country, has been such a beautiful example to me, so healing and pointing toward a better way of living on the planet. Holly Hughes and I took daily mindful walks with Thich Nhat Hanh and meditated with him. This sojourn gave me hope toward a more peaceful world, despite the current war in which we find ourselves involved. Our impetus was not so much ‘against war’ as ‘for peace.’ I think Thich Nhat Hanh’s sentence: ‘Peace is every step’ can be an important touchstone for us all.

I would like to conclude with a poem that tries to actually put the reader into the proposition of considering a life that might lie next to the life we are living. It is entitled: “My Unopened Life.”

My Unopened Life

lay to the right of my plate like a spoon squiring a knife, waiting patiently for soup or the short destiny of dessert at the eternal picnic—unsheltered picnic at the mouth of the sea that dares everything forgotten to huddle at the periphery of a checked cloth spread under the shadowy, gnarled penumbra of the madrona. Hadn’t I done well enough with the life I’d seized, sure as a cat with its mouthful of bird, bird with its belly full of worm, worm like an acrobat of darkness keeping its moist nose to the earth, soaring perpetually into darkness without so much as the obvious question: why all this darkness? And even in the belly of the bird: why only darkness? The bowl of the spoon collects entire rooms just lying there next to the knife. It makes brief forays into the mouth delivering cargoes of ceilings and convex portraits of teeth posing as stalactites of a serially extinguished cave from whence we do nothing but stare out at the sea, collecting little cave-ins of perception sketched on the moment to make more tender the house of the suicide in which everything was so exactly where it had been left by someone missing. Nothing, not even the spoon he abandoned near the tea cup, could be moved without seemingly altering the delicious universe of his intention. So are we each lit briefly by engulfments of space like the worm in the beak of the bird, yielding to sudden corridors of light-into-light, never asking: why, tell me why all this light?

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