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David Wagoner

David Wagoner is recognized as the leading poet of the Pacific Northwest, often compared to his early mentor Theodore Roethke, and highly praised for his skillful, insightful and serious body of work. He has won numerous prestigious literary awards including the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, two Pushcart Prizes, and the Academy of Arts and Letters Award, and has twice been nominated for the National Book Award. The author of ten acclaimed novels, Wagoner’s fiction has been awarded the Sherwood Anderson Foundation Award. Professor emeritus at the University of Washington, Wagoner enjoys an excellent reputation as both a writer and a teacher of writing. He was selected to serve as chancellor of the Academy of American Poets in 1978, replacing Robert Lowell, and was the editor of Poetry Northwest until 2002.

Born in Ohio and raised in Indiana, Midwesterner Wagoner was initially influenced by family ties, ethnic neighborhoods, industrial production and pollution, and the urban environment. His move to the Pacific Northwest in 1954, at Roethke’s urging, changed both his outlook and his poetry. Writing in the Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, Wagoner recalls: “when I drove down out of the Cascades and saw the region that was to become my home territory for the next thirty years, my extreme uneasiness turned into awe. I had never seen or imagined such greenness, such a promise of healing growth. Everything I saw appeared to be living ancestral forms of the dead earth where I’d tried to grow up.” Wagoner’s poetry often mourns the loss of a natural, fertile wilderness, though David K. Robinson, writing in Contemporary Poetry, described the themes of “survival, anger at those who violate the natural world” and “a Chaucerian delight in human oddity” at work in the poems as well. Critics have also praised Wagoner’s poetry for its crisp descriptive detail and metaphorical bent. However, Paul Breslin in the New York Times Book Review pronounced David Wagoner to be “predominantly a nature poet…as Frost and Roethke were nature poets.”

In addition to his numerous books of poetry, David Wagoner also is a successful novelist, writing both mainstream fiction and regional Western fiction. Offering a steady mix of drama seasoned with occasional comedy, Wagoner’s tales often involve a naive central character’s encounter with and acceptance of human failing and social corruption. In the Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, Wagoner described his first novel, The Man in the Middle (1954), as “a thriller with some Graham Greene overtones about a railroad crossing watchmen in violent political trouble in Chicago,” his second novel, Money, Money, Money (1955), as a story about “a young tree surgeon who can’t touch, look at, or even think about money, though he has a lot of it,” his third novel, Rock (1958) as a tale of “teenage Chicago delinquents,” and his fifth novel, Baby, Come On Inside (1968) as a story “about an aging popular singer who’d lost his voice.” As a popular novelist, however, Wagoner is best known for The Escape Artist (1965), the story of an amateur magician and the unscrupulous adults who attempt to exploit him, which was adapted as a film in 1981. Wagoner has produced four successful novels as a Western “regional” writer. Structurally and thematically, they bear similarities to his other novels. David W. Madden noted in Twentieth-Century Western Writers: “Central to each of these [Western] works is a young protagonist’s movement from innocence to experience as he journeys across the American frontier encountering an often debased and corrupted world. However, unlike those he meets, the hero retains his fundamental optimism and incorruptibility.”

Although Wagoner has written numerous novels, his reputation rests on his numerous, exquisitely crafted poetry collections, and his dedication as a teacher. Harold Bloom said of Wagoner: “His study of American nostalgias is as eloquent as that of James Wright, and like Wright’s poetry carries on some of the deepest currents in American verse.” And Leonard Neufeldt called Wagoner “simply, one of the most accomplished poets currently at work in and with America…His range and mastery of subjects, voices, and modes, his ability to work with ease in any of the modes (narrative, descriptive, dramatic, lyric, anecdotal) and with any number of species (elegy, satirical portraiture, verse editorial, apostrophe, jeremiad, and childlike song, to name a few) and his frequent combinations of a number of these into astonishingly compelling orchestrations provide us with an intelligent and convincing definition of genius.”  (Poetry Foundation)

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I found this poem to be very nostalgic. I had read a book long ago about how homeless folks would mark houses where they would receive a warm welcome and a free meal. That was in the log ago past when life was more laid back and people not so afraid of strangers. Reading about it through the eyes of someone who would have been a part of that culture as a child was enlightening. I wonder how much those things have changed today for those who wander…

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Bums at Breakfast

Daily, the bums sat down to eat in our kitchen.
They seemed to be whatever the day was like:
If it was hot or cold, they were hot or cold;
If it was wet, they came in dripping wet.
One left his snowy shoes on the back porch
But his socks stuck to the clean linoleum,
And one, when my mother led him to the sink,
Wrung out his hat instead of washing his hands.

My father said they’d made a mark on the house,
A hobo’s sign on the sidewalk, pointing the way.
I hunted everywhere, but never found it.
It must have said, “It’s only good in the morning—
When the husband’s out.” My father knew by heart
Lectures on Thrift and Doggedness,
But he was always either working or sleeping.
My mother didn’t know any advice.

They ate their food politely, with old hands,
Not looking around, and spoke in short, plain answers.
Sometimes they said what they’d been doing lately
Or told us what was wrong; but listening hard,
I broke their language into secret codes:
Their east meant west, their job meant walking and walking,
Their money meant danger, home meant running and hiding,
Their father and mother were different kinds of weather.

Dumbly, I watched them leave by the back door,
Their pockets empty as a ten-year-old’s;
Yet they looked twice as rich, being full of breakfast.
I carried mine like a lump all the way to school.
When I was growing hungry, where would they be?
None ever came twice. Never to lunch or dinner.
They were always starting fresh in the fresh morning.
I dreamed of days that stopped at the beginning.

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Picture Source: Hugo House