Clayton Eshleman — Poet; Editor; Translator (1935 – 2021)

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Somehow I missed the news that Clayton Eshleman died this past January. I probably would still not know of his passing if it had not been for a comment made in a recent email from Doren Robbins, who now lives in Northern California but was a prominent poet in the Los Angeles scene of the 1970s and 1980s. Among other things, he was co-founder of THIRD RAIL magazine with Uri Hertz. Robbins eventually moved to Iowa City, where he received a MFA from the University of Iowa, and then on to Portland and Santa Cruz.

In Los Angeles, he was the organizer of a major poetry reading against the U.S. support for the government of El Salvador in its vicious repression of any dissent about the impoverished conditions of its workers and indigenous population. He asked other poets such as Clayton Eshleman and Denise Levertov to join him in a reading at the Church in Ocean Park, which remains an under appreciated cultural center in Los Angeles in that period.

Before I post Doren’s observations on Mr. Eshleman’s passing, however, I would like to post a few links to commentaries that appeared after Mr. Eshleman’s death.

Clayton Eshleman, 1935-2021

Steve Krause’s article provides glimpses of Clayton Eshleman’s life both in and out of the academy. It ends with a summation that probably sums up how many people feel about him: “You were a difficult, interesting, sometimes angry, eccentric, brilliant, and often a surprisingly kind friend.”

Eshleman and I were never friends. We were, at best, occasionally capable of being publicly polite to each other. I did (and still do) admire him immensely as a translator and honor his work on a pair of magazines that enabled American poetry to arrive at a heterogenous definition of postmodernity. I never understood why he felt so much disdain for me, but on this occasion I will leave my stories about Clayton for another outlet. In the meantime, I do want to say that I find it unacceptable — in fact, disgraceful — that he was not honored with a substantial obituary in any major newspaper of record. “Appalling ignorance” is all I have to say to those who deliberately refused to take notice of his passing. I am abashed that it took so long for me to learn of his death, but I am not exactly a writer who has a daily or even weekly connection with many other working poets for whom his passing would have been a stumble in their routine.

Other articles and notices include Ron Silliman’s blog as well as an appreciation by Pierre Joris in RAIN TAXI.

Remembering Clayton Eshleman

I will now let my comrade Doren Robbins offer his insights.

“Clayton Eshleman was an original poet and editor. I knew him for a while in LA, early 1980’s. While he had a reputation for being temperamental, I found him engaging, even brotherly. And impatient. But also astute in his opinions, and very cooperative and helpful when we engaged in a reading project protesting the civil war in El Salvador. I knew him first and foremost as Vallejo’s translator, discovered before Hirschman’s Artaud Anthology. Two seminal works for me. As an intense, unusual, and not always convincing poet (no one is), his work is worth further exploration. SULFUR was the memorable poetry, criticism, arts and commentary magazine of our time. There is a diverse scope, even generosity, in the community of poets included in its run of 50 issues. Eshleman took risks, but he knew what he was doing; he understood precisely what was at stake and he intellectually, imaginatively, and ethically comprehended the high stakes involved.” — Doren Robbins

Rest In Peace, Clayton. You were a lion of poetry who for some reason regarded me as a hyena.
Even so, I hope that future literary historians will honor your extraordinary contributions as a poet-editor-translator in a manner befitting the pleasure they gave your comrades.

My condolences.too, to your widow, Caryl, whose work alongside you certainly deserves recognition.

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