Transcendental Studies

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 1)

Keith Waldrop first burst onto the literary scene with the publication of his poetry collection A Windmill near Calvary in 1968. The collection was nominated for a National Book Award for Poetry. Over the years, Waldrop has established himself as not only a leading American avant-garde poet but also a brilliant translator, editor, and artist and an important figure in experimental theater. He is the author of many cutting-edge poetry collections, including The Garden of Effort (1975), The Space of Half an Hour (1983), The Opposite of Letting the Mind Wander (1990), and The House Seen from Nowhere (2002). In addition, he and his wife, Rosmarie Waldrop, began Burning Deck Press during the 1960’s. He also has been involved with avant-garde theatrical performances.

This experimental bent has been at the heart of Waldrop’s approach to the creative process. He has been drawn to absurdist writers such as Alfred Jarry and André Breton. He also was deeply influenced by the experimental American writer Gertrude Stein. Waldrop learned from her how to focus on style, and not become mired in the meaning of what he wrote. For Waldrop as for Stein, it would be the general mood or essence created that was of prime importance. Waldrop has translated several French writers, including Breton as well as Paul Eluard, René Char, and Pierre Reverdy. In 2000, the French government bestowed on Waldrop the rank of Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres for his contribution to French literature.

Waldrop has taught at Brown University for more than forty years and is currently the Brooke Russell Astor Professor of Humanities. Never one to consider slowing down, he continues to work with graduate students who are working toward a master of fine arts in poetry. The poet believes in not giving up on alternate or older versions of a poem. He always advises his students to keep the original version of any poem, no matter how many times it gets revised. What a poet sees as a problem on first reading may on repeated readings become more valuable at a later date. Although Waldrop has criticized himself for “keeping too much,” he remains leery of giving up on a poem, a fragment, or a line too quickly.

The poems that Waldrop has stored away may serve him well in the present. Transcendental Studies includes poetry that was written decades ago. The jigsaw puzzle that is a poetry collection can contain material that finally works together now, after many years of misfits. The poet finally is smart enough or aware enough truly to see what belongs together as a whole. Since memory plays an important role in most of what Waldrop writes, it is no wonder that his older musings could find a way to the surface decades later. He loves creating art collages as well as word collages. He surmises that he has produced more than one thousand art pieces. The collages spark investigation, spark new ways of looking at the world.

At Kansas State Teachers College, Waldrop studied psychiatry. He has long been fascinated to how the brain processes images. During the early 1950’s, his studies were terminated when he was drafted into the Army. He was stationed in Germany, where he met Rosmarie Sebald. They eventually married in 1959. She also was a poet and translator, and they have greatly influenced each other. For decades, they have pushed ahead, made their mark whether the poetry establishment took notice or not. In a bold stroke, the judges for the National Book Award for Poetry tapped Waldrop as their 2009 winner. They indicated that Transcendental Studies “is a powerful work that merges the metaphysical and the personal.” After forty years, Waldrop is on the cutting age of a new millennium. He would have it no other way.

Waldrop has continued to do what he has always done. He has stayed the course, remained true to his approach. Memory, art , and death still remain at the center of his creative spirit. As usual, he has filled in what is blank, what is missing. While in translation Waldrop must be respectful of the original poem, he has no such consideration in putting together a new collage. The poet is less concerned with the “meaning” of what he has created than in having his work “read.” Waldrop is more concerned that a reader gets the “sense” of his work, as opposed to the “meaning.” For the poet, “meaning”...

(The entire section is 1799 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 1)

Publishers Weekly 256, no. 11 (March 16, 2009): 43.