Wagoner, David (1926-2021)

  • By Randy Sue Coburn
  • Posted 3/26/2013
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 10352
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David Wagoner was already embarked on a promising literary career when his mentor, the legendary Theodore Roethke (1908-1963), called in the winter of 1954 to offer him a teaching position at the University of Washington. But only in late summer, when Wagoner descended the Cascades on his westward drive from Indiana, did he taste the wilderness-inspired awe that would evoke what is perhaps his strongest poetic voice -- a voice in such acute, empathic harmony with the natural world that it helped lead him to decades of honors and, eventually, a level of popular recognition that would swell when he was in his 70s and surge on into his 80s. It was never his only voice. Many potent poems spring from landscapes of love and memory. And like the magician Wagoner had once been in adolescence, specializing in sleight of hand, he would produce a poetry collection followed fast by a novel apparently born of a far different sensibility. He performed this feat with such consistency that it seemed impossible he could do it while also teaching and editing one of the country's most prestigious poetry journals. Yet none of Wagoner's 10 published novels would be so widely translated and beloved as his iconic poem, "Lost," which echoes the state of awakening and rebirth that marked his first threshold crossing into the Pacific Northwest. 

Midwestern Beginnings

David Russell Wagoner was born on June 5, 1926, in Massillon, Ohio, a small, hilly town  populated by numerous relatives as well as memorably eccentric neighbors. His father, Walter Siffert Wagoner (1896-1978), worked in a steel mill despite holding a B.A. magna cum laude in classical languages; too shy to teach, he had rejected a job offer from the Virginia Military Institute in favor of shift work by the open hearth. His mother, Ruth Banyard Wagoner (1894-1981), an accomplished musician and a trained singer, had a gentle, self-effacing nature that was in sharp contrast to her husband's short-tempered, opinionated, and often silent demeanor. Wagoner was the third of their children, younger by nine and seven years than his older brother and sister.

In 1933, with the Depression at full bore, Wagoner's father lost his job. The family moved to the distant and dramatically different locale of Whiting, Indiana, part of the industrial strip that lay between Gary and Chicago. Close to where the Wagoners lived was one of the Midwest's largest Hoovervilles. In a poem called "Bums at Breakfast," Wagoner would draw on memories of the down-and-outers whom his mother routinely invited inside for a meal.

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."

                        (Traveling Light, 73)

Compared to Massillon, Whiting was flat and dead, with little but cattails able to grow around the polluted lake that had once been part of a fabled Indian hunting ground. Understandably, the biological world did not loom large in the poetry that Wagoner remembered beginning to write at the age of 10 or 11 -- adventure ballads set in the South Seas, didactic hymns inspired by Longfellow, paeans to World War I flying aces based on the pulp magazine stories that he routinely devoured. He also became a voracious, self-directed reader of books and developed an obsession with magic, busing into downtown Chicago whenever possible to visit his favorite magician's supply stores. Eventually, he grew good enough to perform in public. On one frightening occasion, "I was forced to eat most of a banquet with twenty-four needles in my mouth because I was to be the after-dinner performer (my act included Houdini's Chinese needle-threading trick) and had no backstage for preparations" (Wagoner, Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, 400). An early fascination with the theater was fed by family excursions to see stage shows in Chicago featuring the likes of The Marx Brothers and Jack Benny. Despite the fact that Wagoner's father once took him to a performance by the famous fan-dancer, Sally Rand, his only paternal advice about sex was, "People just get diseases doing things like that" (Wagoner, Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, 402). 

Tall and good-looking, Wagoner was athletic, too. He played center for his high school's football team and was sixth man on a basketball squad whose starters all became first-string college players. Wagoner himself went on to Penn State, part of an accelerated Naval ROTC program. He imagined himself someday filling one of several possible roles: stage magician, chemist, high school basketball coach, spy, or spy novel author. It was not until he took a poetry workshop taught by Theodore Roethke that he knew for certain the path for him: he would be, like Roethke, a college English teacher and a poet.

Another Father Figure

Before encountering Roethke, Wagoner had already taken workshops on short story and play-writing and seen a full production of his one-act play performed by the Penn State drama department. None of it prepared him for Roethke. Years later, he would conjure the dynamic, stimulating atmosphere that Roethke created for his students in First Class, a one-man play produced by Seattle's ACT Theatre. "There are hundreds and hundreds and thousands of poems in print," Wagoner's Roethke announces, "most of them bad, many of them good, some of them wonderful, a few of them marvelous, a precious few of them meant for you to love with all your heart. You have to find them, and the sooner the better. They'll change the poems you try to write into something better. Your best work will be a kind of magic amalgam of them. They'll live in your spinal cord and come to your rescue. They'll change your life. Go find them" (First Class, 4). After rattling off yeasty possible topics for poems, he exhorts: "All day, every day, you're moving among miracles, and you have nothing to write about?" (First Class, 6)

Roethke not only told Wagoner what to read, he gave him a template for encouraging his own future students by showing them what was working, where they'd bailed out on a poem, and where to try harder or apply mechanical effort if imagination failed. "He was a role model," Wagoner recalled, "somebody who was completely devoted to poetry, who was teaching it, who was writing it, who was reading it aloud" (O'Connell, 55).

Even so, Wagoner quit graduate school at the University of Michigan before the first term was over, working for a while before resuming his studies at Indiana University. There he came under the tutelage of acclaimed novelist and short story writer Peter Taylor (1917-1994), who, though less demanding than Roethke, was another important role model. During this time, Wagoner also began publishing in literary journals. Soon after landing a teaching job at DePauw University, he was invited to Yaddo, the Saratoga Springs artists' colony, where he expanded his friendships among fellow writers and, as he put it, "learned a great deal about the funnier, wilder, and (for want of a better word) more bohemian side of the artist's life" (Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, 403). In 1950, he met and spent two days with Dylan Thomas (1914-1953), the wildest of wild genius poets; he also entered into a marriage that would last less than two years. Another learning experience was an abandoned first novel in which the protagonist bore what Wagoner called a libelous resemblance to Roethke.

Moving on to teach at Penn State, Wagoner continued to publish poems and attracted the attention of Viking editor Malcolm Cowley (1898-1989), which led to the prestigious agent who took Wagoner's second novel to market. As the rejections piled up, Wagoner spent a summer reporting for a newspaper in Hammond, Indiana, gathering much literary fodder. After his return to Penn State, he snagged the part of Falstaff in a campus production of The Merry Wives of Windsor and did well enough to be offered a season of summer stock work, discovering in the process that  "whatever was creative in me only made appearances in private" (Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, 405).

Such respites from grading freshman comp themes were not enough; Wagoner took a year off from teaching to write in New York City, buoyed by the impending publication of his first book of poems, dedicated to Roethke. Before long, he was down to his last $10. That's when his novel, The Man in the Middle, finally sold. While Wagoner worked on revisions in a return visit to Yaddo, Roethke called about the UW job for which, thanks to Roethke's advocacy, the English department head would soon be sending Wagoner a written offer. Before hanging up, Roethke warned Wagoner not to misspell any words in his reply.

Northwest Passage

Although Wagoner had yet to explore the lore and animistic mythology of Pacific Northwest coastal Indians that would shape later poems, he was soon a cherished member of Roethke's poetic Seattle tribe, which included other former students making names for themselves -- James Wright (1927-1980), Richard Hugo (1923-1982), Carolyn Kizer (1924-2014).

There was also Stanley Kunitz (1905-2006), a few years away from being awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, which Roethke had won not long after he summoned Wagoner to Seattle. And of course there was Roethke himself, who morphed from mentor into Wagoner's close friend. "Talking with all these people," Wagoner wrote, "sometimes in late-night sessions as we held informal workshops on our poems, seemed to extend my training in the use of the basic tools of the poet's craft (though there's no end to what one can learn), and after those few years, I wrote with much greater confidence and a stronger sense of purpose" (Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, 406).

Like Roethke's other intimates, Wagoner grew familiar with his bipolar cycling -- the alternating periods of depression and manic exuberance, the terrible hospitalizations. But none of that loomed so large for Wagoner as Roethke's devotion to poetry and teaching, which continued to inspire. And no wonder, considering that Wagoner's father, who numbed early on to his own potential, never spoke a word about his son's writing until he had published 17 books. 

Roethke, by contrast, persistently awakened Wagoner to a sense of his own possibilities. As Wagoner wrote in his introduction to First Class, Roethke was "genuinely glad, even joyful, when one of his students wrote a good poem, and he showed no trace of jealousy or rivalry" (Georgia Review). If he taught by bad example, the lesson was to never romanticize a poet's penchants for madness or drink, to strive instead for structure that balanced uninhibited dives into the unconscious. Roethke could write well only during down periods, and much of the work that Wagoner witnessed in development led to Roethke's two National Book Awards. Also, it was obvious to Wagoner how Roethke, since coming to Seattle, reveled in the Northwest's flora and fauna. A foreshadowing of what would happen to him. 

As Wagoner's poetry began to change, he recognized the driving force as "the discovery of my ability to love. For me it spread out of that into the natural world. I suddenly realized I had been a lost stranger everywhere I had been because I had closed myself off. When I was able to open myself, it was like being in Eden. It was like naming day in Eden" (O'Connell, p. 54).

With this unfolding came Wagoner's 1961 second marriage to Patt Parrott, a former dancer and professional ice skater who later studied art and exhibited her paintings. The next year, during the Seattle World's Fair, Wagoner did another journalistic tour, interviewing visiting celebrities for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.  His encounter with Billy Graham showed up more memorably, and probably more humorously, in a 2008 book of poems, Map of the Night, than it did in the P-I:

He had more teeth than you might think. And he looked good. He looked
better than good. He looked like he believed
in looking even better. He looked like he'd been
unanimously reelected. He was wearing
a blue suit that would have no other gods before or after it.

                                                (Map of the Night, 121) 

Roethke died of a coronary occlusion in 1963 at the age of 55. Much like a son who assumes control of the family business, Wagoner took over his classes. But since the business was poetry, which Roethke lived and breathed so fiercely, assuming his place must have provided some balm for Wagoner's loss. Perhaps not coincidentally, that year also saw the publication of Wagoner's  The Nesting Ground, "the first book of poetry to reflect his relocation physically, aesthetically, and emotionally; the Midwest is abandoned for the lush abundance of the Pacific Northwest, and Wagoner's style is less concerned with lamentation or complaint and more with cataloguing all the bounty around him" (Poetry Foundation).

Growing Recognition 

By 1966, Wagoner had received a Guggenheim for fiction, not poetry, and published four novels that were generally received as clever, character-driven books with enjoyable slapstick set pieces. (The Escape Artist, a 1965 novel about the adventures of a teenage magician, would be made into a 1982 film produced by Francis Ford Coppola [b. 1939], which despite a stellar cast and striking visuals, was neither a critical nor commercial success.) But the life of a poetry teacher still provided Wagoner's ballast. Now a tenured professor, he had a lightened class load to allow for his work as editor of Poetry Northwest, a demanding job he took over from founding editor Carolyn Kizer when she left for a position with the newly created National Endowment for the Arts. Kizer had turned the journal into one of national distinction, a status that Wagoner would sustain for over 30 years. 

In Wagoner's 1966 collection, Staying Alive, there appeared the first of the instructional backpacking poems that he would become well known and much admired for, rife with metaphoric life lessons both comic and profound. Literary critic James K. Robinson praised the title poem as "one of the best American poems written since World War II" (Poetry Foundation). In it, Wagoner ends by advising:  

... If it should rain
Or the fog should roll
the horizon in around you,
Hold still for hours 
Or days if you must, or weeks, for seeing is believing
In the wilderness. And if you find a pathway,
Wheel-rut, or fence-wire,
Retrace it left or right: someone knew where he was going  
Once upon a time, and you can follow
Hopefully, somewhere ...

                                                (Staying Alive, 13)

According to Wagoner's biographer, former students describe his classes as "rigorous, disciplined, well-prepared, intense," and their instructor's demeanor as quiet if not shy, creating "a magic space around him that a person just cannot invade" (McFarland, 13). It was never, for example, Wagoner's style to go drinking with students at the Blue Moon Tavern, once used by Roethke as an alternate classroom. "One simply could not accomplish what he does and maintain relationships with students beyond the classroom," fellow poet Tess Gallagher (b. 1943) pointed out, even though many crave just that kind of extracurricular connection (McFarland, 13). More significant to other former students is how Wagoner can make a point by pulling a poem from thin air in its entirety. "Our jaws would just drop," says poet Elizabeth Austen. "He's got a library in his head. I would love to do the Vulcan mind meld with him" (Austen interview). 

Wagoner continued his established pattern of publishing novels and poetry books. In another act of homage to his mentor, he edited material from 277 of Roethke's notebooks and over 8,000 loose pages to publish the 1972 volume, Straw for the Fire. With the blessings of Roethke's widow, Wagoner assembled two batches of poetry and prose. "I felt when I undertook this job," Wagoner wrote in the introduction, "that if I didn't arrange these fragments thematically, using something like Roethke's own methods as I had come to know them ... they might remain unread and unknown for many years ... . I think of this as my primary excuse, my primary justification, for taking what may appear to be liberties with the work of a great poet" (Wagoner,  11). Wagoner determinedly kept the volume in print with a trio of mainstream, academic, and independent publishers. The third edition, published in 2006, was given what Wagoner must have believed its due from Booklist, which cited "a Blakean brilliance of paradox and image in these jottings" (Booklist,  November, 2006).

In 1977, Wagoner garnered a simultaneous nasty slap and enthusiastic critical kiss from novelist John Gardner (1933-1982). The slap was for Whole Hog, the third novel of Wagoner's comedic Western trilogy, and the kiss inspired by the publication of Collected Poems, 1956-1976. "We have from David Wagoner a wonderful book of poems and another bad novel," Gardner wrote in a lengthy New York Times review. But rather than explain "why Wagoner can't write prose fiction," he preferred to dwell on why his poetry merited celebration: "The poems about things directly experienced are magnificent creations, partly because of the precision of Wagoner's eye and language as he recreates the experienced moment -- his discovery of a fallen osprey's nest, his sensations while hiking, studying and learning to defend nature, collecting objects (or as he calls them, relics) and so forth -- and partly because of the way he seeks to realize the moment. His purpose, always, is to become one with the world by empathy" (The New York Times, January 2, 1976).  

In retrospect, there are two ironies in Gardner's review. One is that he didn't have the prescience to single out "Lost" as what would become perhaps Wagoner's most anthologized and otherwise reproduced poem of the natural world. Another is that the only verses singled out for chiding were Wagoner's love poems, inspired by his wife Patt, in which Gardner detected questionable emotion; Wagoner himself would soon enough be in agreement, for his marriage was taking a bad turn.

In rosier days, the Wagoners were described by a Seattle Times columnist as "among the more interesting young couples to know in Seattle," making their home on Capitol Hill with a menagerie of pets that included a yellow-naped Amazon parrot trained to recite nursery rhymes and Yeats (The Seattle Times, April 21, 1968).  Ten years later, everything still looked good on the surface, with Wagoner receiving the kind of public recognition for his poetry accorded to only a handful of his generational peers. He was well-set financially, too, with chunks of Hollywood money supplementing an already good income. But Wagoner's private life was full of stresses that included his wife's psychiatric hospitalizations  and several suicide attempts. He described his own flaws -- "reclusiveness, a desire for a calm surface to domestic life at almost any cost, a reluctance to give time to friendships, an ability to lie to myself, to mention only a few" -- as only aggravating the situation (Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, 410).

Endings and Beginnings

After Wagoner's wife left to live with another man, he judged himself a bad bet as a lover. But Robin Seyfried, a former poetry student who had since become a colleague in the English department as well as on Poetry Northwest, decided otherwise. They married in the summer of 1982, beginning for them both what Wagoner described as "a new existence full of previously unacknowledged feelings" (Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, 410). And because he is a poet, there is a record of those feelings in the love poems that end his 1983 book, First Light.

Seyfried continued to work with her husband as managing editor of Poetry Northwest until 1998. Two years later, she published a collection of her own poems, Balancing Acts, reflecting on her roles as poet, wife, and mother, for she and Wagoner were now parents of two daughters, Alexandra and Adrienne.

By then, a number of significant literary honors had come Wagoner's way, including two National Book Award nominations, two Pushcart Prizes, the American Academy of Arts and Letters award, the Sherwood Anderson Foundation Fiction Award, the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, and the Pacific Northwest Booksellers' Association's William Stafford Memorial Award. In addition to his Guggenheim, he had also received fellowships from the Ford Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts; from 1978 through 2000, he was a Chancellor of the American Academy of Poets. 

Although Wagoner anticipated retiring from the University at the age of 70, he continued teaching for five more years, when his 2002 segue into professor emeritus status occurred under the cloud of Poetry Northwest's ostensible demise. Wagoner was forced to announce in the journal's spring issue that it would be the last.

Long plagued by funding crises, the journal was then the longest running poetry-only magazine in the country, publishing roughly 150 poems a year out of some 15,000 submitted. Contributors included such luminaries as John Berryman (1914-1972), Annie Dillard (b. 1945), Raymond Carver (1938-1988), Mary Oliver (b. 1935), Linda Pastan (b. 1932), and Harold Pinter (1930-2008). Aspersions were cast, some in Wagoner's direction, though he said at the time, "If there's anyone to blame, it's me. My passion has always been for the poetry, not the business, and I didn't start serious fundraising until too late." Department head Shawn Wong disagreed: "There never should have been any expectation that Wagoner would have to become a fund-raiser" (Columbian, May 4, 2002).  After the dust settled, new agreements were reached and Poetry Northwest resumed publication under different financial auspices and a different editor four years later.

Although no one would have blinked if Wagoner decided to spend the rest of his days bird watching, he remained an active teacher of master poetry workshops and classes in association with The University of Washington, Seattle's Richard Hugo House and the MFA program at the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts on Whidbey Island. He also began a multi-year stint as a Woodrow Wilson Visiting Fellow in 2008, visiting campuses around the country to teach week-long sessions. New poetry collections were published and he edited the 2009 edition of Best American Poetry, an enormous undertaking; the 2014 edition would include a new poem of his own. Another substantial honor came Wagoner's way in 2011 -- the American Academy of Arts and Letters' triennially awarded Arthur Rense Poetry Prize.

Meanwhile, Wagoner's work persisted as a staple on Garrison Keillor's Writer's Almanac program for National Public Radio. Poet David Whyte, who had used "Lost" as the epigraph to a collection of his own work, recited the poem on his CD collection of notable poetry and in public appearances. Even more significantly in terms of the popular culture, Oprah Winfrey (b. 1954) read the poem in her widely viewed webcast series of 2008 and published it on her website, too. Concision is a large part of the work's allure: 

Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you.
If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows
Where you are. You must let it find you.

            (Traveling Light, New and Collected Poems, 10)

In an evening with Wagoner presented by Seattle Arts and Lectures in January 2013, he seemed bemused himself at the poem's journey into public consciousness. It had come to his attention that "Lost" had been used as the basis of sermons, put on T-shirts and greeting cards (without his permission), and set to music at least three times. Two different Alaska kayaking organizations required clients to memorize it before embarking on excursions. In Boeing's in-house magazine, the poem was reproduced and attributed to an Indian shaman (the company printed a correction the following month).

"Nobody wants to be known for work they did 40 years ago," Elizabeth Austen says, "especially when you're still as active as David is. What I see in that poem is an example of something that most poets do, which is that there are things of central concern, and we spend a lot of time figuring out different ways to say what we want to say about them. 'Lost' is just one of those poems where it all comes together. Every syllable, every move in that poem feels necessary, not extra or superfluous. That's why it's endured and is so beloved" (Austen interview). 

Like much of Wagoner's work, "Lost" is quintessentially Northwest, though clearly one doesn't have be from the Northwest to take it to heart. 

Wagoner died on December 18, 2021, in Edmonds. He was 95. 


David Wagoner, "David Wagoner," Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, Vol. 3 (Detroit: Gale, 1986), 397-412; David Wagoner, "Lost" and "Bums at Breakfast," Traveling Light: New and Collected Poems (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1999), 10, 73; Mel Gussow, "Peter Taylor, Short-Story Master, Dies at 77," The New York Times, November 4, 1994, p. A-33; HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Roethke, Theodore" (by Patrick McRoberts), and "Poetry Northwest publishes last issue after 43 years in May 2002" (by Priscilla Long), http://www.historylink.org/ (accessed February 26, 2013); David Wagoner, script for First Class, in possession of ACT Theatre, Seattle, 4, 6; Nicholas O'Connell, Wagoner interview, Field's End (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1998), 51-70; "David Wagoner," Poetry Foundation web side accessed February 26, 2013 (http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/david-wagoner); David Wagoner, "What Billy Graham Said to Me at the Fair," A Map of the Night, (University of Illinois Press: Urbana, 2008), 121; David Wagoner, "Staying Alive," Staying Alive (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1966), 12;  David Wagoner, First Class introduction, The Georgia Review, summer 2006, p. 346; Ron McFarland, David Wagoner; Boise State University Western Writers Series (Boise, Idaho: Boise State University, 1989), 13; Randy Sue Coburn telephone interview with Elizabeth Austen (Seattle), March 4, 2013, transcript in possession of Randy Sue Coburn; John Gardner, "Whole Hog" & "Collected Poems," The New York Times Book Review, January 2, 1977, pp. 7, 10;  Dorothy Brant Brazier, "For a Very Tiny Person, This Artist Paints in Big Way," The Seattle Times, April 21, 1968 p. 6-S; The Columbian, May 4, 2002,  p. D-6;  Michael Upchurch, "Local Offerings," The Seattle Times, June 25, 2000, p. M-6;  Donn Fry, "UW Professor David Wagoner Wins Key Poetry Prize, Ibid., May 7, 1991, p. E-1; David Wagoner, introduction to Straw for the Fire: From the Notebooks of Theodore Roethke,1943-63 (Port Townsend: Copper Canyon Press, 2006), 4; Ray Olson, Booklist, Straw for the Fire review, November 2006; Woodrow Wilson Visiting Fellows website accessed March 10, 201 (http://www.cic.edu/Programs-and-Services/Programs/Woodrow-Wilson-Visiting-Fellows/Pages/default.aspx); "David Wagoner: Northwest Master," David Wagoner remarks, Seattle Arts & Lectures, Benaroya Hall, Seattle, January 16, 2013, transcript in possession of Randy Sue Coburn.
Note: This essay was updated on October 12, 2014.

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