Spotlight: David Hedges


Six Decades of Chasing the Muse

by X.J. Kennedy

Up and down the stairs he chased her,
Curling her monkish husband’s hair
With his fatuous laughter,
Wheezing his black brandy lust
To the rambling mansion’s egg-and-dart,
Dragging his wagging bug-eyed braggart
Tongue through a randy rut.
—”Up and Down the Stairs He Chased Her”

The woman in those lines by David Hedges doesn’t happen to be his Muse, but he pursues his Muse with similar intensity. A white-bearded octogenarian, Hedges has been dishing out his memorable poems since his twenties.

Within six months of graduating from Oregon State, he dropped out to follow his Muse to Greenwich Village and hang out in that establishment so favored by poets, The White Horse Tavern. A poem from that phase of his life, “Poor Man’s Dining Guide, Recession of 1958,” recalls his success at discovering great meals for little or nothing. Once he wandered by chance into a cocktail party thrown by Mount Holyoke College, and to his surprise, instead of being tossed out, he found himself plied with champagne and delicacies. If he learned anything from that, it must have been that it can be well worthwhile to leap boldly into new experience. At a college reunion, Hedges received an award for changing jobs during his career some sixteen times. Apparently that set a record. He tells of one major career change in the book of poems A Funny Thing Happened on My Way to a Geology Degree. (He decided that he wasn’t a geologist.)

E. B. White’s conviction that writing light verse is just as hard as writing heavy poetry may well apply to David Hedges. He has written both with tremendous skill. “Requiescat for Sister Helena,” while light in touch, is a deep and touching tribute to a nun:

You taught a generation how to bring
The world to words, to make the colors stay
Like calla lilies caught in cloissoné,
The lines exult like warblers on the wing.

And if we expect to find only laughter in “Ballade for the Birthday of Cyrano at the Coffee Time Coffee Shop,” we may be surprised by the poem’s refrain, “Ah! Whose nose plucks your heartstrings? Cyrano’s!” Or consider “Aubade: Dialogue at Dawn,” a poem remarkable for its metaphors: the loved one is as essential as a gearshift to the driver of a car, and is told, “You grace my hood, an ornament with ears.” (That one seems less flattering.) Hedges has worked in a wide array of forms, even doing a Selected Sonnets. One of his most extended pieces of light verse is Petty Frogs on the Potomac in 1997, which he describes as “a political burlesque in rhymed verse.”

Hedges is a longtime fighter for the environment, and has been credited with saving Oregon’s Canemah Bluff by stopping a development. He also rescued the moribund Oregon State Poetry Association and, as its president, quadrupled its membership. The Association launched a highly successful project, the Family Poetry Workshop, which sent published poets to rural libraries to work with children in writing poetry, and initiated a statewide student poetry contest whose winners receive medals.

In short, David Hedges has not only proved himself among the country’s most able and versatile poets, but one of its more useful citizens.

X.J. Kennedy‘s nine collections of verse include In a Prominent Bar in Secaucus: New & Selected Poems 1955 -2007 (Johns Hopkins University Press), a notable book of the American Library Association; and Fits of Concision: Collected Poems of Six or Fewer Lines (Grolier Poetry Press). He is the author of two dozen books for children, and of schoolbooks used by millions, including An Introduction to Fiction. His first comic novel for adults is A Hoarse Half-human Cheer. His honors include the Poets’ Prize; the Robert Frost medal from the Poetry Society of America; an award for children’s poetry from The National Association of Teachers of English; and a prize for light verse from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. He lives in Lexington, Massachusetts.