Steve Kowit (1938-2015)

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Laurel Ann Bogen called me this evening and said that San Diego-based poet Steve Kowit has died. The last time I saw Steve was at the Long Beach Poetry Festival in 2011, at which he was the featured reader in the evening program. The festival was in a gallery space on Atlantic Blvd., the kind of venue that Steve was most comfortable in. He did not read any new poems, but the old ones seemed as lively as ever. Kowit was a performer who knew how to convey that his themes were chosen out of profound necessity. One could see how he might have made a very interesting character actor, but for one drawback. He was far too literate to remove himself from a life devoted to the written word and too blunt to tolerate those who had no such need.

As editor of THE MAVERICK POETS, an anthology that included several of the poets who came to be associated with the Stand Up School, Kowit showed that it was possible to integrate non-academic West Coast poetry with the work being done elsewhere in the country. Furthermore, he was one of the few editors I have ever met who had more than a partial grasp of the common poetics that linked those working in Southern California with those based in Northern California. He cared about the poem, not the poet’s reputation. He spoke up for poets, such as Kim Addonizio, long before they had achieved their current popularity. His ability to appreciate the poets living in Northern and Southern California may well be an outgrowth of the time he spent as a young poet in San Francisco, when he was a graduate student at San Francisco State, before moving to San Diego.

Kowit was that rare cultural worker, an individual who could truly appreciate the work of others without worrying unduly about whether others appreciated his work. In part, his confidence in his poems came from years of giving poetry readings in which he didn’t have to wonder afterwards about the sincerity of the audience’s pleasure. It’s fashionable to mock sincerity as a virtue worth retaining in a postmodern culture; Kowit mocked the self-indulgent, whether they were poets who read too long or simply people unable to savor the transitory privilege of playfulness. His sincerity had the genius of never seeming didactic. His poems taught you to laugh at yourself. “I died & went to hell & it was nothing like L.A.” begins one of his poems. For those of us who live here, the poem is worth posting on the door of one’s workroom.

Along with many other poets, I will miss his ever-fermenting amusement at the foolishness of contemporary civilization. We’ve been given a paradise to celebrate the possession of consciousness within and we cannot resist the temptation to despoil it. Steve, may you rest well on the long journey home, and reemerge in an enduring garden of the ever-ripening.

An obituary has been published in the Los Angeles Times since my posting of the above commentary. You can find that article at:

http://www.latimes.com/local/obituaries/la-me-steve-kowit-20150413-story.html