David Wagoner 1926–-
(Full name David Russell Wagoner) American poet and novelist.
Acclaimed as a first-rate American poet of the second half of the twentieth century, Wagoner, also a highly esteemed novelist, teacher and editor, often assumes, in his poetry, the function of a priest-poet charged with guiding and shaping his readers' encounters with the mysteries of nature. Using the landscape and lore of the American Pacific Northwest, the agency of a man living inside that landscape, and a language of sensory experience distilled from common speech, Wagoner writes poetry primarily dedicated to reflecting and transcending the encounter of the self with itself. Through encounters with nature, an individual is able to thus define the human identity, and, by doing so, liberates both poet and reader from it.
Wagoner was born in Ohio, June 5, 1926, and grew up in Indiana where his father, who had graduated from Washington and Jefferson College magna cum laude with a degree in classical languages, worked in a steel mill. In 1947 Wagoner was awarded a bachelor's degree in English from Pennsylvania University, where he studied with Theodore Roethke. He earned a master's degree from Indiana University in 1949, and began his career as an English teacher at DePauw University that fall. A defining event in Wagoner's life came when he accepted a teaching appointment Roethke secured for him at the University of Washington in Seattle in 1954. He left the denatured, flat, industrial cities of the Midwest, and entered the green world of an unspoiled Pacific Northwest. Of particular importance to him, as a person, and as a poet, was his first hike into a rainforest. In getting lost, he found both himself and a recurrent theme of his poetry: survival in nature, not as nature's master, but as nature's consciousness. In addition to teaching at the University of Washington, Wagoner has been a visiting professor at a number of other universities. He has served as editor of the Princeton University Press' Contemporary Poetry Series, as poetry editor for the University of Missouri Press, and as editor of Poetry Northwest. He has been the Guggenheim recipient of numerous awards and fellowships, and served, succeeding Robert Lowell, as a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets.
Wagoner's poetic achievement is characterized by a continuous output of scrupulously crafted, first-rate work, rather than by a number of outstanding masterworks. In much of his poetry, as in the volumes Staying Alive or Sleeping in the Woods, Wagoner employs his encounter with nature as a metaphorical foundation for the process of encountering self, which, his poetry indicates, is the defining and inevitable human challenge. This theme recurs throughout his poems, even when they are not set within the green world, as in his ballad to the gangster John Dillinger, and his elegy “To My Friend Whose Parachute Did Not Open.”
Although he was recognized early by Roethke, and is regarded as a major American poet, included in Richard Howard's canon-making Alone with America, Wagoner has not attained the status of poet celebrity, perhaps because of his solid, steady and serious, although not flamboyant, output. He is regarded as a superb lyricist, a skilled, even classical craftsman, and an incisive observer of nature and character. His books have been steadily and well reviewed, but his work, as Ron McFarland in his 1997 book-length study has noted, has not yet received the amount of intensive scholarly or critical analysis it warrants.