Robert Patrick Dana’s Depression-era childhood in the Boston area was, by any measure, complicated—a trauma, he has said, “from which I never recovered.” Born on June 2, 1929, at Allston, Massachusetts, to Margaret (Devine) Dana, he never met his biological father, Samuel, an Italian milliner who was already married with five children when he entered into a lengthy affair with Dana’s Irish Catholic mother. When Dana was seven, his mother, only forty, died of pneumonia. Dana, abandoned by his father, was separated from his older half sister, Mary Virginia Clancy (who later became a nun), and the siblings were sent to live with relatives and foster parents. The troubled Dana ran away several times. His guardians expected him to work, performing such undesirable tasks as chopping tobacco. Dana often sought solitude by exploring nearby woods, collecting butterflies, and fishing.
Although an indifferent student, he recalled being entranced by the works of Edgar Allan Poe, “the right music for a morbid boy with a miserable past and a dark future.” From 1946 to 1948, Dana served in the U.S. Navy as a radio operator in Guam. To relax, he wrote poetry and stories mimicking Poe’s style and unsuccessfully tried to form a swing orchestra. He returned to Massachusetts, briefly attending Holyoke Community College before selling his raincoat and watch to buy a one-way bus ticket west to Des Moines, Iowa, to attend Drake University, a private school, which he selected largely because a friend had received a postcard advertising it.
Dana thrived at the school. His faculty adviser, the poet Edward Mayo, introduced him to the works of Robert Frost, T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and W. H. Auden, none of whom Dana had read before. He concentrated on his schoolwork to improve his writing skills. Dana also reported on sports events for the Des Moines Register to supplement G.I. Bill funds that paid his tuition. He considered a career as a journalist or musician. After completing his bachelor of arts degree in 1951, Dana taught high school for a year in northwestern Iowa. He married Mary Kowalke on his birthday, June 2, 1951; they had one son, Richard, and two daughters, Lori and Arden.
In 1952, Dana enrolled in the prestigious Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa, where he took poetry workshops with Paul Engle, Pulitzer Prize winners John Berryman and Karl Shapiro (who was Poetry editor at that time), and future Pulitzer Prize winner Robert Lowell. While he was a graduate student, Dana resided in Cedar Rapids, where his wife taught high school, twenty-five miles northwest of campus, often hitchhiking to Iowa City for his poetry workshops. Dana earned a master of arts degree in June, 1954, writing his thesis, “My Glass Brother, and Other Fragments (Poems),” which was the basis for his first book, My Glass Brother, and Other Poems, published in 1957.
For more than forty years, Dana taught English as distinguished...
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