Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Donald Finkel, celebrated St. Louis poet

Donald Finkel, celebrated St. Louis poet
By Michael D. Sorkin

Donald Finkel, a celebrated poet at Washington University whose topics included his relationship with his cats and dogs, River Des Peres and his trip to the South Pole, died Saturday (Nov. 15, 2008) from complications of Alzheimer's disease at Schuetz Manor assisted-living home in Creve Coeur.

He was 79 and a longtime resident of University City before moving to Lafayette Square.

Mr. Finkel was poet-in-residence at Washington U., where he taught from 1960 until 1991. He wrote 14 books of poetry, with long narrative and frequently humorous free verse. Admirers described it as a new form, a fusion of text and poetry.

His writing won prestigious awards. But his friends remember him best for his generous help to students, his enduring love for his late wife and writing partner, Constance Urdang, and his zeal for exploring everything around him.

"He was a bearded, skeleton-belt-buckled force of nature," said David Clewell, a poet and professor at Webster University. He came to St. Louis to study under Mr. Finkel and stayed to become his longtime friend.

"He dug into life as long as he could, with a zest that really was unparalleled," Clewell said.

The Finkel family lived for years on Columbia Place in University City, a block from River Des Peres. While most residents paid little attention to what is normally little more than a drainage ditch, Mr. Finkel was fascinated.

He wanted to know where the river came from, where it went and its history. He and his dog walked its entire length. He wrote a poem, a slim volume that he called "Beyond Despair," a play on the river's name.

In 1968, Mr. Finkel signed on with a scientific expedition to Antarctica sponsored by the National Science Foundation. It was a government program to send artists to Antarctica, and Mr. Finkel knew the man in charge.

"He loved the idea that he would be the first poet to go there," said Howard Schwartz, a former student and now professor of English at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

A group of Russians was there at the same time, and Mr. Finkel became friends with them. They traded shots of vodka, and Mr. Finkel traded parkas with one of them. Mr. Finkel wore it back to the United States, not knowing that his new coat said "AWOL" — absent without leave — in Russian.

"My dad had that parka for years," recalled a daughter, Amy Finkel of St. Louis.

Mr. Finkel wrote a book-length poem about his experience, "Adequate Earth." It was later set to music and performed at Powell Symphony Hall.

Mr. Finkel was born in New York, a few blocks from Yankee Stadium, in 1929, the year of the Wall Street crash.

He completed high school at a boarding school in Connecticut, from which he once ran away with a classmate, Elliott Adnopoz, later famous as the folk singer Ramblin' Jack Elliott.

He taught at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop, where he met his future wife. They married in 1956, embarking on a yearlong Mexican honeymoon and finally moving to St. Louis.

In 1977, Washington University started a graduate writing program with Ms. Urdang as the coordinator, novelist Stanley Elkin teaching fiction and Mr. Finkel running the poetry workshop.

His work examined the relationships between humans and animals ("What Manner of Beast") and between contemporary life and mythology ("Simeon"), the urge to explore ("Adequate Earth") and, especially, the anxieties and joys of ordinary life.

He was fascinated with the Chinese poets who wrote about democracy during the Cultural Revolution and got in trouble with the Communist government. Mr. Finkel and poet Carolyn Kizer translated a collection of the poetry, "A Splintered Mirror."

Mr. Finkel was nominated for the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award.

His wife died of lung cancer in 1996. The two had been a team, editing and reading each other's work. "She held him together," said their son, Tom Finkel, editor of the Riverfront Times and a resident of Webster Groves.

When he grew unable to write, Mr. Finkel returned to an earlier passion: sculpting. He constructed hundreds of works from plastic bottles, odds and ends, anything he could find around his apartment.

"His creative impulse never died," Schwartz said.

Washington University plans a memorial service at a time and date to be set. For information, call the English department at 314-935-5190.

In addition to Tom and Amy Finkel, among the survivors are another daughter, Liza Finkel of Portland, Ore.; a half brother, David Finkel of New York; and two grandchildren.

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