Some people would like to limit poetry to the province of Ivy League campuses on cold New Hampshire days in November. There, they would say, is where the elitist art form belongs. But at Dartmouth College on Nov. 21, poetry was anything but distant and icy. Here in the land of Robert Frost, poetry was alive and spilling over.
Nothing, it seemed, could keep the crowds from coming to 105 Dartmouth Hall. Three hundred and fifty people crammed into an auditorium meant for 250. They stood along the walls, four and five rows deep. And what they had come for was a celebration.
Nine of contemporary poetry's biggest stars - Donald Hall, Philip Booth, Allen Ginsberg, Daniel Hoffman, Maxine Kumin, Stephen Corey, William Logan, Jay Parini, and Galway Kinnell - had gathered to pay tribute to Richard Eberhart, now in his ninth decade. They had come to honor a man whom they described as generous, brilliant, and joyful. Someone who always provided a meal and a center, a sense of belonging, for established and struggling poets alike. Someone who taught by encouraging, gently pointing out a poem's weaknesses, and always sent his students away eager to rewrite.
Such traits aren't the norm today, but for one afternoon they were the standard. James Freeman, president of Dartmouth, reminded the audience of Eberhart's 28-year career at the college, and of the poet's many prizes, including the Pulitzer in 1965. The guest speakers reminded everyone what this poet - and life itself - is really about.
"Generous" was indeed often repeated, but perhaps more telling was the word "innocent." Jay Parini, poet, critic, and professor at Middlebury College in Middlebury, Vt., said Eberhart was never naive; his innocence was earned. The WWII veteran had an "innocence that is won through a hard look at mortality, at life's fleetingness." And this quality of seeing, yet seeing beyond shaped the verse and allowed the man to be ever giving.
He supported such radical poets as Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder, and was an advocate for women writers long before the age of political correctness.
Eberhart had learned generosity through his own struggles, and because of that the well never ran dry. Galway Kinnell, a Pulitzer winner, praised Eberhart's "powerful, loving, and exuberant wakefulness to the world and its things and creatures." These qualities, with Eberhart's poetic gifts, allowed him to pen poems that Daniel Hoffman referred to as "unforgettable in their phrasing, heart-piecing in their depth of perception...." poems that, "burst out into a spiritual sense of revelation that nothing earlier had prepared us for but which we receive with gratitude."
All speeches can be heard on the Monitor's website: www.csmonitor.com