Pass It On – Another Poet Passes – Steve Kowit (1938 – 2015)

American Poet Steve Kowit

American Poet Steve Kowit










This evening, the sturdy Levis
I wore every day for over a year
& which seemed to the end in perfect condition,
suddenly tore.
How or why I don’t know,
but there it was – a big rip at the crotch.
A month ago my friend Nick
walked off a racquetball court,
got into his street clothes,
& halfway home collapsed and died.
Take heed you who read this
and drop to your knees now and again
like the poet Christopher Smart
and kiss the earth and be joyful
& make much of your time
& be kindly to everyone,
even to those who do not deserve it.
For although you may not believe it will happen,
you too one day will be gone.
I, whose Levis ripped at the crotch
for no reason,
assure you that such is the case.
Pass it on.

Steve Kowit (1938 – 2015) from The Dumbbell Nebula, Heyday Books, 2000

The Californian poet, Steve Kowit, died on April 2nd after heart surgery. Likely he is not well known here in Canada but a tribute poem written in Rattle Journal’s in its weekly poem series – Poets Respond – will likely pique interest. To read the poem Click here.

I knew Kowit through his poetry workbook: In the Palm of Your Hand – The Poet’s Portable Workshop. A beloved poetry teacher he gets a big blurb of thanks from American poet Dorianne Laux on the jacket of his book:  I am deeply indebted to Steve Kowit for passing on his love of the word to a young woman in a waitress uniform with tips in her pocket and poems in her heart.

Somehow it seems fitting to share Kowit’s poem now that he has died. He warned us, he warned himself, when he wrote it and now he has, should I say, lived, or perhaps, better, died, the truth of it. What is wonderful though is that Kowit enjoyed at least fifteen years of trying to live up to the gratitude he expresses in his poem. And what a great reminder it is to us.

And what a reminder his poem is to me of another great poem of gratitude that features, as Kowit’s poem does, the famous and celebrated poem of gratitude, Jubilate Agno, by British poet Christopher Smart ( 1722 – 1771).  Within this 1200 line poem is a much-quoted seventy four line section on Smart’s cat Jeoffrey. For the link to a history of Smart’s poem and a part of the section on Jeoffrey click here. It is astonishing to note that Smart’s poem was not discovered until the 1930’s!

Now, here is poetic tribute to Smart and gratitude by the American poet and scholar Edward Hirsch. His most recent book of poems Gabriel, a book-length elegy on the tragic too-early death of his son, was much praised when it appeared last year. In 2014 he also released his encyclopaedic tome, A Poets Glossary.  Hirsch currently is the President of the Simon Guggenheim Foundation. ( For a discussion of another remarkable book-length series of poems on the tragic death of a loved one please see my blog post, also posted on April 6th, 2015, on the book Designated Mourner by Canadian Poet Catherine Owen).

Notice how Hirsch’s poem begs us to pay attention to the normal radiance that shines through our lives if only we pay attention long enough to notice it and then recognize it as extraordinary!

Wild Gratitude

Tonight when I knelt down next to our cat, Zooey,
And put my fingers into her clean cat’s mouth,
And rubbed her swollen belly that will never know kittens,
And watched her wriggle onto her side, pawing the air,
And listened to her solemn little squeals of delight,
I was thinking about the poet, Christopher Smart,
Who wanted to kneel down and pray without ceasing
In every one of the splintered London streets,

And was locked away in the madhouse at St. Luke’s
With his sad religious mania, and his wild gratitude,
And his grave prayers for the other lunatics,
And his great love for his speckled cat, Jeoffry.
All day today—August 13, 1983—I remembered how
Christopher Smart blessed this same day in August, 1759,
For its calm bravery and ordinary good conscience.

This was the day that he blessed the Postmaster General
“And all conveyancers of letters” for their warm humanity,
And the gardeners for their private benevolence
And intricate knowledge of the language of flowers,
And the milkmen for their universal human kindness.
This morning I understood that he loved to hear—
As I have heard—the soft clink of milk bottles
On the rickety stairs in the early morning,

And how terrible it must have seemed
When even this small pleasure was denied him.
But it wasn’t until tonight when I knelt down
And slipped my hand into Zooey’s waggling mouth
That I remembered how he’d called Jeoffry “the servant
Of the Living God duly and daily serving Him,”
And for the first time understood what it meant.
Because it wasn’t until I saw my own cat

Whine and roll over on her fluffy back
That I realized how gratefully he had watched
Jeoffry fetch and carry his wooden cork
Across the grass in the wet garden, patiently
Jumping over a high stick, calmly sharpening
His claws on the woodpile, rubbing his nose
Against the nose of another cat, stretching, or
Slowly stalking his traditional enemy, the mouse,
A rodent, “a creature of great personal valour,”
And then dallying so much that his enemy escaped.

And only then did I understand
It is Jeoffry—and every creature like him—
Who can teach us how to praise—purring
In their own language,
Wreathing themselves in the living fire.

Edward Hirsch from Wild Gratitude, Alfred A. Knopf, 1986, Winner of The 1986 National Book Critics Circle Award in Poetry

One Comment

  1. Liz
    Posted April 6, 2015 at 9:13 pm | Permalink

    Richard, the milkman of universal human kindness, you bring us the “soft clink” of poems, rattling against one another.
    Bless you for it.

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