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David Wagoner

In 1926, David Wagoner was born in Massillon, Ohio. He is the author of numerous poetry collections, including Good Morning and Good Night (University of Illinois Press, 2005); The House of Song (University of Illinois Press, 2002); Traveling Light: Collected and New Poems (University of Illinois Press, 1999); Walt Whitman Bathing (University of Illinois Press, 1996); Through the Forest: New and Selected Poems (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1987); First Light (Little, Brown and Co., 1983); Landfall (Little, Brown and Co., 1981); and In Broken Country (Little, Brown and Co., 1979).

His Collected Poems, 1956-1976 (Indiana University Press, 1976) was nominated for the National Book Award in 1977. His collection Who Shall Be the Sun?(Indiana University Press, 1978) is a collection of poems based on the folklore, legends, and myths of indigenous peoples of the Northwest Coast and Plateau regions. Other collections of poetry include Sleeping in the Woods (Indiana University Press, 1974); Riverbed(Indiana University Press, 1972); New and Selected Poems (Indiana University Press, 1969); Staying Alive(Indiana University Press, 1966); The Nesting Ground(Indiana University Press, 1963); A Place to Stand(Indiana University Press, 1958); and Dry Sun, Dry Wind(Indiana University Press, 1953).

Wagoner is also the author of ten novels, including The Escape Artist (1965), which was adapted into a movie by Francis Ford Coppola. He is also the editor of Straw for the Fire: From the Notebooks of Theodore Roethke, 1943-63 (1972).

About Wagoner’s poetry, critic Harold Bloom said, “His study of American nostalgia is as eloquent as that of James Wright, and like Wright’s poetry carries on some of the deepest currents in American verse.”

He has received an American Academy of Arts and Letters award, the Sherwood Anderson Award, the Fels Prize, the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, the Eunice Tjetjens Memorial and English-Speaking Union prizes from Poetry magazine, and fellowships from the Ford Foundation, the Guggenheim Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts.

A former Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, he was the editor of Poetry Northwest from 1966 until its last issue in 2002. He lives in Bothell, Washington. (Poets.org)

I’ve featured David Wagoner on here before. I loved his poem “Bums at Breakfast.” It felt so homey and real. As does this one. I could  picture the whole thing in my mind. I love poets who can draw me into their world…


My Father Laughing In The Chicago Theater

His heavy body would double itself forward
At the waist, swell, and come heaving around
To slam at his seatback, making the screws groan
And squawk down half the row as it went tilting
Under my mother and me, under whoever
Was out of luck on the other side of him.
Like a boxer slipping punches, he’d lift his elbows
To flail and jerk, and his wide-open mouth
Would boom out four deep haaa’s to the end of his breath.

He was laughing at Burns and Allen or Jack Benny
In person or at his limitless engagement
With Groucho, Chico, and Harpo. While my mother
Sat there between us, gazing at the stage
And chuckling placidly, I watched with amazement
The spectacle of a helpless father, unmanned,
Disarmed by laughter. The tears would dribble
From under his bifocals, as real as sweat.
He would gape and gag, go limp, and spring back to life.

I would laugh too, but partly at him, afraid
Of becoming him. He could scowl anywhere,
Be solemn or blank in church or going to work,
Turn grim with a cold chisel, or he could smile
At babies or football games, but he only laughed
There in that theater. And up the aisle
And through the lobby to the parking lot
And all the way home, I’d see the glow on his cheeks
Fade to the usual hectic steel mill sunburn.

By bedtime he was as somber as himself:
Two hundred and twenty horizontal pounds
Of defensive lineman, of open-hearth melter
Who could take the temperature of molten steel
At a glance, who never swore or told a joke.
Once Jimmy Durante stopped, glared down at him.
And slapped his sides, getting an extra laugh
From my father’s laugh, then stiff-legged-strutted away,
Tipping his old hat in gratitude.


Picture Source: Department of English – University of Washington