Allen Frost: “Robert Huff in Bellingham”
Birds carried fifteen years away
Like an abandoned nest, put them
To rest somewhere I couldn’t see
—Robert Huff, from “Traditional Red.”
Twenty years is a lot of birds passing overhead and almost enough time to wear away the memory of one who watched below. There is scant mention of Robert Huff in Contemporary Authors which is also out of date. It doesn’t even mention his death two decades ago. The four books published during his life are long out of print. It’s as if he’s been left in a state of limbo.
For weeks, I’ve tried to track down information on him, writing to artists, professors and students who knew him here in Bellingham, Washington. There are people who helped immeasurably in the making of this. Filling in the rest of the details I had to rely on my own detective work.
In the summer of 1964, Robert Huff arrived in Bellingham, hired by then-Western Washington State College as an associate professor of English. He filled out a mimeograph Thumbnail Sketch form for recent faculty. Though new to Bellingham, under ‘What part of the country do you call home?’ he answered: “Pacific Northwest & (Lake Michigan)” For ‘Fields of specialization,’ he put: “Poetry & Art & Art History.” Lastly, to ‘Some new faculty members have asked how they might most efficiently find who else shares their special interests’ he replied: “I should prefer the time established tendency to attract my friends as the feathers fall. X (Cock Robin).”
Knute Skinner, who began working for the English department two years earlier, told me: “At the time Bob was hired, I was teaching only three months a year at Western—as a visiting lecturer, teaching poetry writing, so I had no part in hiring him. I was told by the department chair that they had been looking for a fiction writer but, not having found one, hired a poet instead. And for some time my acquaintance with Bob was limited to my three-month residence—and some correspondence—but we did become friends quickly.”
Their friendship can be seen in a short film which was broadcast locally as a television special on Thursday, January 21, 1965 at 10:30 PM on Channel 12. First, the existence of this film is in itself another story of rescue from oblivion. Last summer Bellingham’s TV station KVOS sold and gutted its studio property. Fortunately the Center for Pacific Northwest Studies was able to acquire and store much of their vast collection of tapes and film reels, including this program called “The Natural World of Poetry.”
As the black and white film begins, Robert and Knute are waiting in the living room of someone’s house, in front of a fireplace preparing to read. Huff, wearing a suit coat with sweater and tie, with one foot casually up on the bricks, holds a paperback copy of Modern Verse. He coughs, and waits for the camera to track in on him. Then he reads, “Beginning My Studies.”
Afterwards, Knute Skinner introduces the show, “You’ve just heard a poem, read by Robert Huff, written by Walt Whitman that states an important principal for the composition of poetry. And that is, although the poet deals with abstract ideas, he must because of the nature of his craft use concrete imagery. He must use the natural world in his poems, ‘the least insect or animal,’ as Whitman says.”
Now seated at the fireplace, after Knute’s reading of Yeats, Robert continues, “The contemporary poet, John Crowe Ransom’s poem ‘Bells for John Whiteside’s Daughter’ is especially moving because he is able to infuse the poem with a new life. Although in actuality it presents the typical cliché reaction of most people to the death of a very young child. Particular attention, I think in this poem ought to be paid to the middle section.” He reads the poem.
“Bob’s written a poem on the same subject, the subject of death,” Knute tells us. This poem, “Their Suicide,” presents the subject through two points of view. The speakers in the poem are two bachelors who have rescued a man who has attempted to kill himself. While waiting for the doctor to arrive, they find internal difference where the meanings are.” Before the smoking fire, Huff and Skinner read the poem together, dramatically, back and forth. The camera dissolves on the log in the fire then opens again on a fern planted next to the fireplace as Knute reads his poem, “The Park” and a few others.
From the sun shaped clock on the wall, the camera pans down to Huff who holds his first book, Colonel Johnson’s Ride. Opening it, he reads, “Rainbow,” a poem that begins:
After the shot the driven feathers rock
In the air and are by sunlight trapped.
Their moment of descent is eloquent.
It is the rainbow echo of a bird
Huff stands and continues, “The poem ‘Rainbow’ is one of mine, as are the next three that I shall read. The following poem was written in memory of Theodore Roethke, one of the finest poets in the Northwest, who died in August, 1963.” He reads “On the Death of Theodore Roethke” which ends with:
In water and in air
Recall the spirit spare,
Listening as I go
To down of green-winged teal
When the blue martens steal,
By moonlight, speckled snow,
For any afternote
Natural to your throat
That finds me in its flow
Or happens to the stones
Under my falling bones,
Because the earth is so.
Leafing through the book, he continues with “The Dying Dentist” then he turns the pages, pulls out a bookmark and says, “This last poem, as is perhaps very obvious, was written at a rodeo,” and he reads, “Brahman.”
After a cut, we return to Skinner who announces, “The last poem that we are going to read is another dialogue. This is a well-known poem by A.E Housman entitled ‘Is My Team Ploughing.’ In this poem one speaker, a dead man, questions his best friend to inquire whether life still goes on.” Huff begins, “Is my team ploughing, that I was used to drive and hear the harness jingle when I was man alive?” and so they take turns until the short film ends.
Although Huff had landed in Bellingham, it was only for a short time. In 1966, he left to be Writer-In-Residence at University of Arkansas. Knute Skinner continues, “Bob was very helpful to me at times, especially in finding accommodation for my family and me. During the year he spent in Arkansas we rented Bob and Sally’s house in Bellingham. I was asked by the department to teach two quarters that year, to help fill in for his absence.” I asked Knute about a poem he had written specifically for Robert Huff. “I believe I wrote ‘Nothing Ever Lost’ during that time. My memory is that I mailed it to him in Arkansas. The poem does address concerns he had, which I shared, chiefly those of confronting memories that may be unpleasant but which are useful to poetry. Anyway the reference to the dead friend is to an actual dead friend that Bob mentioned quite a few times. The easy promise refers to a fear he shared that he wasn’t living up to his potential as a poet.” Simply put, Skinner concludes the poem to his friend with words that define my writing this tribute to Robert Huff as well:
And if nothing comes of it,
you have your life story.
like it or not
is ever lost.
With a second published book of poetry, The Course, Huff returned to Bellingham in 1967. This would be the end of a long migration. Born in 1924, in Illinois, his teaching experience took him to Wayne State University in Michigan, University of Oregon, Fresno State College, Oregon State University, University of Delaware, University of Arkansas, as well as service in the sky over World War Two Europe. Though he had settled in Bellingham, the City Directory provides a record of his restlessness. Beginning with the 1965 listing: “Huff, Robert E (Sally A) prof WWSC h2820 Eldridge,” Huff would live in at least six other places over the years until his retirement in 1989.
The 1974 entry is the first time his wife Sally is not mentioned, so it would appear their divorce was around this time. For information on these family years it would have been very useful to speak with his wife. I tried. The owner of a bookstore downtown told me she likes to come in occasionally to shop for buttons. I wrote a letter of introduction, and left it there but I never heard back. The closest I would come to her would be finding out the numbered street she lives on. I’m not daring enough to be the sort of detective who would end up parked at the curb, staring at her sidewalk all day, waiting for her with a dashboard full of bent paper coffee cups and a row of yellow tickets tucked under the windshield wiper.
Huff’s third book is dedicated to his wife and children. Much of Huff’s poetry is about father and son relationships, and mindful of one poem in particular, “The Runaways,” I found his son’s name in the phonebook. I called a few times one Sunday before he answered. It wasn’t the smoothest conversation; I guess I was tongue-tied and a little surprised. I tried to explain that I wished to write about his father and his work. I told him there were people I was waiting to interview, poets and students and people his father knew. It wasn’t going well though; over the phone I could feel the shadow grow, especially when he replied, “He was probably a better friend than a father.”
This story is still too alive to many of the people closest to Robert Huff, perhaps because of the nature of his life and death. And in fairness and deference to their quiet, I can only write of the public face of Huff, mostly as it concerns his work as a teacher and poet.
Samuel Green, who would become Washington State’s Poet Laureate in 2007, came to Western in 1970, hoping to work with Huff. In a 2009 interview, he explained, “…there was a teacher I’d heard about, Robert Huff, who was a poet. He was not that well known outside of poetry circles, it seemed to me, but I’d heard that he was wonderful…And Bob Huff was just exactly what I thought he would be. He was the man who knew about poetry in ways I needed to know…Bob taught me about true passionate commitment. He was a man who was deeply in trouble in his own life; one of his marriages was ending when I got here. He was drinking heavily; that was a problem for him, always. But, about poetry there was no bargaining. Poetry had the presumption of importance. It was a central part of his life. It wasn’t a pose. It wasn’t that he couldn’t be melodramatic about it—he could—but it was serious business. Poetry was something you gave yourself to, and you didn’t give yourself partly; you gave yourself wholly to it. I hadn’t seen that before with people who loved poetry…For Bob it was; it defined him.”
Another Huff student and poet, Gaylord Hart wrote to me: “I studied at WWU from 1976-78 getting an MA in English with a creative writing concentration. At the time, there were two poets in the department, Bob Huff and Knute Skinner. I spent most of my time working with Knute since he taught the writing workshops. Bob tended to teach poetry classes, undergraduate, not graduate. I did take at least one poetry class from Bob. This was an undergraduate class for seniors, a 400 level course, but graduate students could get credit for a certain number of these…I remember in Bob’s better moments how sensitive he was to the poetry and the writers, how he could latch onto a detail in a poem and make it fresh, bring it alive. While both critics and poets revere the poem, and no doubt appreciate it equally, they don’t necessarily appreciate it the same way. Poets see the poem differently, and Bob was a poet. It was this that I admired. And sometimes when he talked about a poem, you could see Bob as a tender man, insightful about the poem, but placing it in a larger context, making connections that seemed obvious once stated, but that were in fact elusive to most readers.”
Steven Dolmatz, now a teacher himself, was also a student of Huff’s at this same time. He recalls how in class, “he would drift in and out, go on tangents then reel it back in and have great things to say.” At these times, Huff was “incisive about criticism, with an unnerving taste and sense of how to create voice out of a poem, how to tighten the writing, get the image and lead the poem. He would close his eyes and go right to it, ‘that’s the poem.’”
From Robert Huff’s first book, Colonel Johnson’s Ride (1959) his poem “Professor Emeritus” pictures the teacher as an old hunting bird, “huddled in his chair”:
And teaching is a kind of poetry,
A way of shaping knowledge on the lee
Side of the world effectively.
I used to dream of shanghaiing
All young minds for the sea
By rolling at them riddles of the kind
Which have no answers, save the ones we find
In travelogues big as the Odyssey,
When I was apt at illustrating tales
With movements like the motion of great whales.
Sam Green found a mentor in Huff, when “as a student, I had no idea what I was doing, I was fumbling and stumbling and Bob just—he would just push me. But, mostly he pulled me; he just set a pace and an example, and then he watched. He was one of those kinds of teachers, he was brilliant at it…Bob made it very clear that there was a lot to know, and that you had to know it. All of it. There were no shortcuts. If you were going to do this—commit to poetry—then you had a long journey ahead of you, and you might as well get started. And you might as well have the right attitude going in, meaning: you’re an apprentice and you’re going to stay an apprentice for a long, long while, because there are giants before you and you need to look at those giants.”
Huff certainly made them a part of his life. D.H Lawrence, W. B. Yeats, Robert Frost, E. E. Cummings, Wordsworth, Emily Dickinson, Robert Lowell, Carl Sandburg, James Wright, Theodore Roethke were all central to his teaching. And Dylan Thomas, whom Huff describes in a poem as “the bouyantly doomed Welsh bard” must have been a huge influence. Like a burning meteor, his ride is well described in John Brinnin’s Dylan Thomas in America. Knute Skinner confirmed this, “Dylan Thomas was a big influence. As you probably know already, Bob and Sally named their son after Dylan. Bob was also much influenced by Yeats and Frost and would sometimes get maudlin if he heard either quoted in public—although he liked to quote them himself. They were an ideal he felt he could never live up to.”
At the 1961 Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference, Lew Turco befriended Huff: “The recently deceased Welsh poet Dylan Thomas was one of the fabled people of our generation, and Bob Huff and I used to have Dylan Thomas sound-a-like contests.” And in a 1982 interview, Huff recalled, “I used to be very much influenced by reading mannerisms, trying to present poems say the way Dylan Thomas would have. Thank God I got out of that.” But he did have trouble with another well-known influence on Dylan Thomas.
Huff’s late-night carousing in town became legendary. A former student told me, “If you lived in Bellingham and enjoyed visiting the taverns, Bob was frequently nearby. Bob was always enjoyable to drink with in the bars.”
Unfortunately, this could carry on into Huff’s work. Sam Green said, “I remember a particular time he came in [to class], and he’d been drinking all afternoon…Yet when Bob came in that day, everyone was silent. He was clearly emotional. He sat down, and he looked at us, and for a minute he didn’t even register, I think, that we were there. Finally he looked around at us as though we couldn’t possibly understand. He locked eyes with me, because he knew that I was at least trying, I think. He said, ‘I’ve been drinking whiskey all day and reading E. E. Cummings. I’m going to read him to you.’ And he did, for the entire class period. He read so well, even under the influence. This was serious. Each word found its place in his mouth. I wept hearing him do that. Partly I think it was because I could see the problem (his drinking), but partly because I loved poetry, too, and it was so wonderful to find someone who loved it the way I loved it and more. He read Robert Lowell right after that; he actually recited ‘Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket,’ and after the end of it he broke into tears.”
Gaylord Hart shared a similar memory with me. “He lived the poetry, but he also frequently showed up for class inebriated, and was prone to breaking out in tears in class. When Bob was sober, you could talk poetry with him, have discussions about art and life. He was a kind man, with an infectious smile, and when sober, a quick wit…Bob was unpredictable as a teacher, and for this reason, I think most students stayed away after one course with him. I honestly can’t say that Bob’s lucid, perceptive moments as a teacher outweighed his inebriated moments. The latter were more frequent, but the former had more weight.”
Huff knew well-enough what was happening to address it in his poetry, like “September 1966” which begins and ends with a heron passing above the misty school:
And fogging in this week September’s back.
My students, always quick to find me out,
Cannot forgive bad news. I am old hat.
I lock the door, pretend the window’s black,
Feel round the bottom drawer and reach my flask…
Perhaps that cloudy heron was a stork,
A nuisance around any chimney top.
All old birds ought to be against the law.
Birds fly from all of Huff’s books. Sometimes they are totems, sometimes they are projections of himself, like the hawk in “Early Snow” a cold, gothic poem of a marriage falling apart. There are also bird hunters. Such a poem for his daughter, titled “Rainbow,” becomes a hard life lesson.
“Times are economically bad,” he typed in a 1975 departmental bibliographic record, “My third book MS has been accepted by two presses which are experiencing financial needs, The Swallow Press and The University of Virginia Press. Because these presses are financially hard put, my MS is also now in the hands of Alfred Knopf, where it is under final consideration this month.”
Then on October 28, 1976, the Public Information Office issued an announcement from the English Department regarding his third book. “This year’s winning selection for The Virginia University Poetry Series is ‘The Ventriloquist: New and Selected Poems’ by Robert Huff, a member of the Department of English at Western Washington State College. ‘The Ventriloquist’ was selected from hundreds of manuscripts submitted to distinguished writers throughout the country who acted as primary judges. The final judge was Richard Eberhart, who has written an introduction to the volume. The work will be published by The University Press of Virginia next spring.” Receiving the Associated Writer’s Poetry Series Prize, the book was published in 1977. The book-flap actually sums up all three of Huff’s books: “Many of the poems speak with compassion for the individual and praise the outsider; others continue in the best poetic tradition of honoring the dead. There are songs, jokes, simple direct lyrics, satires on fashionable attitudes, and poems that pay homage to writers whose work influenced the poetry of our time and the author’s own style.” The book also comes with praise from Huff’s coworker, poet Annie Dillard, “Robert Huff writes with a kind of special, pained exultation that makes his poems distinctively fine. His caring for people so dominates his poems that his world is a series of heart’s landscapes, moving and mental and real. Huff’s is an excellent, controlled voice. He wears well. And, on top of all this, he swears well.”
Between 1977-1979, Paul Lindholdt organized weekly readings at Fast Eddies, a bar on State Street in Bellingham. “Huff would come in and sit by himself the couple times I remember best, kind of sullen and drinking.” As the night wore on, he could be counted on to recite Dylan Thomas, or a “Dream Song” of John Berryman’s. Lindholdt continued, “On one occasion my then-wife joined him and they chatted for a while, until he took off his glasses, folded them carefully while regarding her, and then threw them with great force on the opposite wall and said, ‘Goddamn, you’re beautiful!’”
In 1980, Lynda Schor, was hired as Writer-in-Residence to teach two fiction writing workshops for a quarter at WWU. She brought her three kids by train from New York City to Seattle, then by bus to Bellingham. With no car of their own, “Bob used to drive us around, which given how much he drank was kind of crazy…Bob was totally friendly and helpful. He was also a major alcoholic. He had a cute crew cut, and a little paunch. I got the feeling he liked kids. I think he’d recently been divorced. He visited us nearly every evening, brought his own booze, and talked for hours. He never noticed if we had to take our baths and go to sleep. He was not allowed to drive (probably had a few DUIs) so he painted his car so the cops wouldn’t notice it, and he kept driving.”
When I asked Knute Skinner about this, he replied, “I do recall his car. ‘Twas quite a sight. Whether it was meant for camouflage or not I don’t recall. Bob did have a charmed life when it came to police. He consistently drove while quite drunk. He raced up to stop lights, braking abruptly at the last moment. It used to scare the life out of me, but it didn’t stop me from going about with him. I recall one night a cop did stop him. Then, looking in the window, he said, ‘Oh it’s you, Bob.’ And he let him off with a warning! When Huff finally did serve a short time in jail, it was for shoplifting not for speeding. When I visited him in jail, he seemed quite cheerful & told me he was doing the cooking for himself and his fellow inmates.”
Poet Kelly Cherry, who was hired after Schor’s term, wrote:
“I knew him only for the spring semester of 1981. When sober, he was a delight to talk with. He could be kind, supportive, and helpful. When my little dog ate part of the carpet in my office—while I was teaching a class—and I worried that the university would send both me and my dog packing, he simply moved a file cabinet over the section my dog had eaten…We certainly did talk about poetry, but I don’t remember what either of us said. I believe I probably did show him poems I was working on and he published something of mine. But he could also be very mean, usually when drunk. He was enough of a drinker that one didn’t always realize he was drunk: one of those drinkers who can seem for the duration of a conversation to be sober enough but then might collapse into a full-on, sloppy drunk. I had experience with that, but I didn’t then understand anything about alcoholism…Somehow—maybe there had been a previous accident he’d mentioned to me—I had a foreboding about him and fire…”
This is not surprising. As well as snow, fire is a reappearing, overpowering image in Huff’s poetry. Beginning with his first book, there are haunting poems like “The Smoker” and “Firefighter” and “Blue: A bombing mission over Germany April 30, 1943.”
Cherry continued, “I badgered him for information about Annie Dillard, who had taught there, though the fiction writer Lynda Schor was my immediate predecessor. During most of our conversations, which took place at the office, he was gentlemanly and interesting.” Cherry also added, “I learned from him, not only about poetry but about the poet’s obligation to remain free of jealousy and favor. About, in other words, the extent to which the poet must remember she is one of many (the long line of people, and not just literarily inclined people) and not somehow special or apart from them.”
As the 1980s progressed, Huff balanced on a blade.
Knute Skinner had “a further recollection about Bob and the law. A memory has come back that suggests that the law did in fact finally catch up with him and his drunken driving. For a year he was under a court order not to drink; he was to turn up every morning (at a hospital or a clinic?) where a nurse was to administer to him a dose of Anabuse to give him a severe reaction to alcohol. Anyway he didn’t drink for a year even though he made a deal with the nurse involved. He promised her he wouldn’t drink and she let him off without actually taking the drug. No doubt she was risking her job, but somehow he convinced her.”
A feature article on Huff in The Western Front, from February 12, 1980 touched on this:
But it was a dream that eventually was to lead him to a detoxification center 12 months ago.
Huff lights another Lucky Strike. “All that’s in the past now,” Huff explains. “I’ve embraced the contradictions and found a cure for my own time being.”
“Today I’ve got a drawer full of newly written poems, some of them are children’s poems. And I’ve got new students to teach each quarter.”
Skinner continues, “For that year we knew a sober Huff we hadn’t known before. It was, in fact, the talk of his friends and acquaintances how much nicer he’d become. Not argumentative, not given to unpleasant insults, not given to moods of depression. At the end of the year, however, he began drinking again. He had, in fact, told me he’d been counting the days till he could get drunk again. It was a pity he didn’t like himself sober.”
The 1975 edition of Contemporary Authors had a short sidelight composed by Huff saying that for his poetical training, he was grateful “to the shores of Lake Michigan near Saugatuck, Michigan, and to the forests of the Northwest.” As for his interests, he listed them as hunting and fishing, “both of which are rapidly becoming sitting by the sea.” In 1982, he updated his entry considerably. “I believe that place (not regionalism) is important to poetry. I am often stimulated by specific reactions to individual detail to recall similarities of appearance from an earlier experience in a different place. I’m frequently moved to make a poem out of comparing this past memory to immediate occurrences. Once in a while I’m led by my natural environment to think about what I have read by gifted writers whose response to the natural world I feel I share. At one time, after losing a big salmon, I sat down on a river bank and began a poem by talking to a wild flower about animals, fish, myself, and D.H. Lawrence. When it was completed I called it, fairly, ‘To a Violet.’ But it was about time and place, something very important to writers like Flannery O’Connor and Eudora Welty, whose short stories I find far more poetical than most contemporary poems I run across in magazines these days. Prosaic poetry seems to be in fashion. With rock music and its lyrics in mind, pray that fashions are always temporary. Amen.” Under Avocational Interests, he again put hunting and fishing, “both of which seem to be turning into bird watching and sitting by the sea.”
Throughout the decade, Huff regularly shepherded poetry for the annual Leslie Hunt Poetry Award. This award of $100 was granted to the student with the best previously unpublished poem or group of poems.
Following its debut in 1965, Huff served as advisor for Western’s literary magazine, Jeopardy. “The editors make all the decisions; I advise. If something is in questionable taste, they might come to me to see if we could get away with it.”
He gave a campus reading February 4, 1982, from his three collections and also read poems from two unpublished manuscripts, Taking Her Sides on Immortality and Shore Guide to Flocking Names. He promised, “The poems will be both light and serious so the audience won’t get bored.” The accompanying newspaper article also included some insights to his writing. Huff claimed to be “not disciplined enough for a morning schedule,” usually writing at night. When confronted by writer’s block, “I just stay there until it goes away.” Also, “My essential inspiration for writing has been my reaction to the non-human environment and the reactions of others to the natural world around them.” Claiming that poets are “economic victims of the times,” Huff concludes, “The kind of specialized mentality, aptitude, which leads one to be interested enough in poetry to want to study the craft at the university level very frequently leaves one in situations in which there’s little other employment after graduation except doing the same things that teachers do.”
He spoke more about writing poetry in a Bellingham Herald feature article from the same year, comparing writing to bird-watching: “It begins by learning how to record in detail the appearance of things. It involves the development of a capacity to present at once the actualities of life and suggest the writer’s interpretation of things…You can depend on birds. You can depend on their habits, their coloration, their migration patterns—they’re so consistent.”
He continued, “The importance of reading poetry for young college students is to gain an understanding of vivid, concrete language. Student readers and writers of poetry learn very early that emotional states of being and strongly held ideas of liberty, love, fear, hatred, democracy or totalitarianism cannot be communicated in pleasant-sounding combinations of abstractions and generalities. Communication demands an appeal to the senses.”
Summer quarter of 1982 found Huff on the panel discussion for the Book of the Quarter. (He had served on a panel previously in 1965 for Theodore Roethke’s book, Words for the Wind.) The title chosen was The Collected Poems of Sylvia Plath. The panel met at Wilson Library.
Huff also had other words for the library. A May 1, 1983 memo from Wilson Library and Corridor Information Services asked the university’s faculty and staff to provide a list of publications the library should purchase. Here is Huff’s response:
“Attached is a list of my publications. Regarding the three volumes of poetry, the first COLONEL JOHNSON’S RIDE, is out of print; of the second, THE COURSE, there are only a few copies left. I would appreciate it if Wilson Library would purchase two copies of THE COURSE from WSU Press, so that stolen copies might be replaced. I fear also that COLONEL JOHNSON’S RIDE is missing from our library. If it is possible through the help of some highly-in-the-know book dealer we might be able to buy a copy or more of COLONEL JOHNSON’S RIDE from some private library sale. I would be happy to purchase any copies of that book that Wilson Library may find available beyond the library needs. Robert Huff.”
His troubles took a different turn later that year with charges of sexual harassment, brought by one of his female students. The details are hazy, but the event prompted him to take leave from teaching and again seek hospital treatment for alcoholism.
Perhaps this event wasn’t such a surprise. Poet and Professor Paul Lindholdt, a student of Huff’s and a longtime friend, explained to me, “He didn’t pull any punches in the classroom. He just told people exactly what he thought and some would call it blunt and abrasive and even abusive but that’s who he was. If I were to choose a single adjective to describe him, it would be ‘bluster,’ which has more negative connotations today than it does positive, but he managed to bluster in ways that were positive and inspiring as well as overbearing at times.”
Although the English Department doesn’t keep records of past course descriptions, luckily one survived, making its way to the library Special Collections. The 14 stapled pages include Huff’s personal description of three classes he taught for the Winter Quarter of 1983:
ENGLISH 353. 4 cr. MTWR-12.
INTRODUCTION TO POETRY WRITING.
CONTENT: Opportunity for disciplined expressing in writing poetry. Reading of modern poems as models for various approaches to the individual composition of poetry. Original poems by class members presented orally by the writers and discussed and evaluated by the instructor and the class as a whole in weekly workshop sessions.
WRITING ASSIGNMENTS: Approximately nine poems in which you attempt to avoid excessive reliance on abstractions, generalizations, the jargon of politics and popularized sociology—such as “life style,” “involvement,” “Awareness,” “sensitivity,” “viable,” “relate to,” “alternatives,” etc.—and in which you especially try to omit sentimentality (the expression of unwarranted unmotivated emotion) and focus attention on concrete detail.
EVALUATION: Based on improvement and quality of completed assignments.
ENGLISH 421. 4 cr. MTWR-1.
STUDIES IN MAJOR AMERICAN WRITERS: W.C. Williams, Robt. Lowell, Theodore Roethke
CONTENT: Selected readings in Williams, Lowell, and Roethke which focus attention on the influence of the modern movement on each writer. Particular attention will be paid to similarities and differences regarding subject matter, basic intentions, characteristic points of view, imagery, personal idiom, and the development of individualistic styles.
ASSIGNMENTS: Short oral reports. A written summary of major project.
Major Project: An analytical essay dealing with one or two of the three poets.
EVALUATION: Final evaluation based on class participation, reports, project summary, and the major essay.
ENGLISH 504a. 5 cr. W-7-10 p.m. + 1 hr/wk arr.
SEMINAR IN THE WRITING OF POETRY
CONTENT: Individual projects in poetry will be submitted for group discussion. Several recently published volumes of poetry will be studies for examination of originality of styles.
Texts: Philip Larkin—High Windows
James Tate—The Lost Pilot
Donald Hall—Kicking the Leaves
Theodore Roethke—The Far Field
1. Is there a particular choice of subject matter and approach to it? Does the subject matter and attitude seem fashionable? original? individualistic?
2. Are any specific elements of poetry emphasized?
3. Is there a definable tone which dominates the book?
4. Is there a reliance of any kind on the work of a writer who is better known, a contemporary or otherwise?
5. Generally speaking, what would you say characterizes the book?
6. Do you feel that your own work is in any way similar?
SUGGESTIONS FOR THOSE WHO ARE TEMPORARILY OUT OF TOUCH WITH THE DELPHIC ORACLE:
1. A childhood memory presented from an adult point of view (retrospective) which relies on dramatic narration and/or several approaches to a single motivating image (either purely descriptive or figurative) or incorporates a series of related images. The effect, frequently of loss, nostalgia, disillusionment, is achieved in part by the contrast between the time of the incident and the time of the telling, the relative innocence of the recalled event as it was initially understood and the sophisticated and insightful vocabulary of the speaker. For examples, see Joyce’s highly poetic story “Araby” (Dubliners) and Dylan Thomas’ “Fern Hill.”
2. A poem which relies for its effect on an occasion, the death of a relative or friend, a marriage, a divorce, a birthday, a first love, a meeting, a parting, perhaps a strong reaction to an event of personal or national or international importance. The field is open. It may be an account of an immediate reaction or a poem of contrasts between appearances, feelings, evaluations of the occasion as first experienced and as first recalled. If the latter, the approach is similar to suggestion 1.
3. A poem which opens with purely descriptive detail and develops into a piece in which, as Theodore Roethke put it, “detail deepens into symbol.”
4. A poem which relies heavily on sound effects. See Sitwell, Cummings, Thomas.
5. A poem which excludes any kind of figurative image and depends on the “pure,” non-figurative, descriptive image. This is a currently fashionable approach very
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Huff’s last published book Shore Guide to Flocking Names plays off an actual, popular birdwatcher’s field manual title. Comprising ten poems with beautiful illustrations, Huff described it as “a book of poems about birds designed for young people and all readers with a sense of humor.”
The manuscript took some years to finally find a publisher. I found first mention of it in an Annual Activity Report dated May 24, 1979, where he writes, “Presently at work on a new book of poems and a bird book for children consisting of a series of poems about shore birds.”
The Bellingham Herald from September 24, 1982 devoted it’s Friday section cover photo to Huff with the feature article, “Robert Huff: His best birdwatching is done with a pen.” His Shore Guide manuscript is mentioned as “still in search of a publisher.”
In 1984, a student at WWU named Steve Colello took Huff’s bird manuscript to local publisher and artist Michael Oppenheimer, owner of Fanferon Press. Formerly located on the corner of Dupont and F Street, Fanferon used a monotype press. Handcrafting each page, each poem set one letter at a time, it was a labor of love.
“Robert came to the press a few times,” Michael Oppenheimer recalled. “He loved the place. He was totally on board, he loved the idea. I immediately liked him. I liked that he appreciated what was happening, what I was all about and what the press was all about. Steve was learning a lot and Robert was getting the book published. He provided us a great deal of trust and let us do the book. I don’t remember any issues with him, he was very appreciative. We actually sold some books. The agreement was he would sell the books and I would get my expenses paid and then he would take the rest.”
On September 28, 1985, Huff sent a memo to Western’s Public Information office. The Subject Line was “Another Poetry Reading (hopeless attempt to sell SHORE GUIDE TO FLOCKING NAMES).” He announced the forthcoming reading of his new book, adding, “Enclosed you’ll find an inscribed, signed, beat-up copy of SHORE GUIDE all for you, a bribe for delivering your press release by hand to Western Front and begging them to give the reading some kind of notice with photo. Last spring they gave me diddly on announcement, then sent a reporter and photographer to Fairhaven for the reading and printed ZERO of the results. So let’s give this one a new whirl.”
The Western Front did announce the local reading of Huff’s latest book at Village Books on Sunday, 7 PM, October 20, 1985. The same article also included a few words from Huff extolling bird-watching, finding migratory ones the most attractive for him and adding: “I was fortunate as a child, raised in a rural area outside Chicago. I started to write quite young, mostly abstract work. My idol was Carl Sandburg. He still is…I spend about three days a week at nearby lakes and get a lot of my inspiration from nature…There is always the danger of sentimentalizing, but birds just do the things they were born to do and exist and perpetuate themselves.”
I asked Village Books owner, Chuck Robinson, if he had any memories of Huff. More than memory, he had a video recording from this time. “It hasn’t been played in years,” Chuck warned me, “so I hope it is still viewable.” Amazingly, it was. It’s a twenty minute segment of a locally produced 1985 cable TV program called The Reading Room, hosted by Greg Cornia. Huff sits heavy as an old owl in a chair beside a table, coffee cups and a white lamp, a cut-out blue city silhouette in the background.
Greg Cornia: “Let’s move on to your poetry. There’s one poem that we talked about that I felt captured quite a bit of what you do in one line and that’s ‘The Dying Dentist.’ Could we start right off with a reading? It’s an early poem that you did many years ago, more than we’ll admit.”
Robert Huff: “Yeah, well we needn’t worry about that. It’s hopeless, I’ve tried. This poem was written with my father in mind.” (RH reads “The Dying Dentist.”)
GC: “There’s one line in there that I had you read that for because it says ‘man, beast, and bird are after all all one,’ and I think that typifies so much of your poetry. If there’s a theme to your poetry, that’s it, but that’s not necessarily your line. I think that’s something you said comes from—”
RH: “It’s one of the few things I share with D.H Lawrence.”
GC: “Okay. And that’s very autobiographical?”
RH: “Yes in a way it is. My father was determined to have an office on the 33rd floor of the Pittsfield Building in Chicago. And he did. But in a way he paid the price for that elevation.”
GC: “It was first published in Colonel Johnson’s Ride. There’s another poem in here that I’d like you to read because we’ll make a circle that comes back to it. That’s ‘Cormorants’ and in your latest publication we have ‘Cormorant.’”
(RH reads “Cormorants.”)
GC: “A lot of your work has animal images or birds or animals in it. Where do those images come from? What is the inspiration for this?”
RH: “Oh, one really is hard put to be sure about things like that but I was in a way fortunate when I was very young. My parents lived part of the year in Chicago and part of the year on Lake Michigan in a little town called Saugatuck, so I would transfer from one school to another every year. It gives a growing up person a chance to make certain decisions. And I chose the rural side.”
GC: “Is that what brought you to the Northwest?”
RH: “Yes, actually it is. I turned down a job at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio to come to the University of Oregon. I was so eager to get a hold of one of those big salmon.”
GC: “Where did your original impetus to write poetry come from?”
RH: “I think that people who write poetry began writing from one of two impetuses. If they’re fortunate they began writing because of an inherent need to praise certain aspects of the world in which they’re born. And the other part of it is making the most of adversity as time passes. And perhaps the most gifted and most fortunate poets are able to do both of those things as they age. The poem I had in mind is a poem by William Butler Yeats. This is one of Yeats’ later poems and as he aged, as he began to feel his physical strength waning, he was making the most of adversity by rejecting the world that he had led in his youth and embracing the abstract, the spiritual and this poem is his way of creating in his own mind a heaven for artists.”
(RH reads W.B Yeats’ “Sailing to Byzantium.”)
GC: “I’d like to move on a little in your own life. You ended up being in the service for a little while and you came back and out of that came a poem that I found as powerful as any I’d read of yours.”
(RH reads “Hen” from The Course.)
RH: “Perhaps I’d been reading Wordsworth, although I’m not sure.”
GC: “Was that a pretty personal poem coming out of the service?”
RH: “Yes, that poem was written a considerable number of years afterward. I changed the towns around. I had a lot of experience working for the General Motors Acceptance Corporation attempting to collect bills. I was called a Field Representative. I was scared to death. I had to bolster myself up with a little Dutch courage and a very large cigar when I would visit some of the establishments where my unpaid bill people were working. And for some reason many of them worked in these poultry killing shops. That’s where it came from.”
GC: “Real quickly, before we go on a break, you’re doing something very few modern poets are doing. You’re writing rhyming verse. What prompts that?”
RH: “Well, I don’t know. Perhaps it’s the influence of writers like W.B Yeats, Henry Reed, some of Theodore Roethke. I’ve always liked to rhyme. I realize it can be a crutch because it’s enjoyable to hear musically pleasant things even if the foolish old poet has nothing to say.”
GC: (After a recital of ‘Cormorant,’ GC holds up Shore Guide to Flocking Names) “This is a great little volume of poems and they’re all about birds. What prompted that?”
RH: “I can’t remember actually. I wanted to write a poem which I hoped would have appeal for both young and old readers. I suppose it’s because I’m somewhat of an ardent bird watcher and I had been using Roger Tory Peterson for so many years, I decided to write a series of poems based upon some of the birds that I enjoy watching, and I manipulated that title around too. I picked out some of these birds that I thought had humorous names.”
GC: “It becomes a humorous volume. The limerick cadences add to the humor. It becomes very fun to read, kind of an updated Mother Goose. Could you read from a poem in progress?”
RH: “Well, I think it might be appropriate since I seem to be the Birdman of the Area to read a poem from this new manuscript.” (He picks up Taking Her Sides on Immortality, bound in a black folder stuffed with bookmarks) “It’s about a bird but it’s completely different from the way I handled the subject matter in Shore Guide to Flocking Names. I had come across a bird by one of the nearby lakes. It was afflicted with something. I think it was more than lead poisoning. Since I’ve hunted for so many years, I thought I would try to write the poem from the bird’s point of view. (RH reads “Mallard Dying” to end the show.)
It’s so fortunate to be able to watch Robert Huff. This long-hidden video, taken with the earlier 1965 TV program, shows that Huff never lost his power of presence and poetry.
Another reading from his new book occurred at Western, on February 13, 1986. The announcement in the school paper reads: “Robert Huff, of the English Department, will give a presentation titled ‘Shore Guide to Flocking Names: Time Yet for a Hundred Indecisions,’ at noon Thursday, in the library presentation room. The presentation is part of the Bureau of Faculty Research’s lecture series.” What wouldn’t have escaped Huff’s notice had he read the paper is the adjacent large illustrated ad of W.C. Fields hawking sandwiches. Huff had praised Fields in his poem, “The Poet as W.C. Fields Observes a New Face in the Audience May 14, 1970” which he set at a poetry reading in a platinum aviary.
In fact, the publication of his fourth book gave Huff the steam for a number of readings beginning with a May 23, 1985 reading at Fairhaven College. Later, from an announcement on April 22, 1986 comes “‘Poetic Metaphor: The Joy of Making the Most of Adversity’ is the title of a talk tonight by Robert Huff 7-9 pm. in the Wilson Library Presentation Room.” The next month, the Public Information Office gave notice of: “A free reading for 7 pm. Wednesday May 21 at Fairhaven College,” adding, “He will be on leave from WWU next year to travel and work on a sixth collection of poems at the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire.” His final performance on campus was “A free reading at the Wilson Library Presentation Room at 8 pm. Thursday May 25, 1989, reading poems from The Course, Colonel Johnson’s Ride, The Ventriloquist, Shore Guide to Flocking Names, and Taking Her Side on Immortality.”
From the beginning, readings had always been an integral part of Huff’s poetry experience. In a 1966 article in Western’s college paper, Huff explained the importance: “In one way or another all poetry is primitive; it is involved with sound which must be heard and doesn’t always have to be understood as we know informational prose. Poetry has to be read aloud if we want the whole of it. When we hear the poem, the experience which generated the poem is born again. Much good poetry is a combination of controlled ranting and rhythmically balanced meditation.”
He recited poetry all over America and made it a big part of his life in Bellingham and locally too. Just down the road from Bellingham, the Mt. Vernon newspaper, The Skagit Argus Marquee, printed an interview with him on Tuesday, March 19, 1985:
Since many are confused by what modern poetry is or isn’t Huff paused when asked for a definition of poetry.
It had apparently been a while since anybody had asked him such a basic question.
In a thoughtfully slow reply, Huff said, “Poetry is an artistic form of verbal expression which emphasizes patterns of sound and imagery so that at its best it is capable of communicating thematic content and functions as an art object in itself.”
Those of us without a masters degree in literature might interpret that as ‘poetry is a painting in words,’ a work of moving and somehow musical art.
Huff said the best way to begin appreciating this more modernistic and highbrow form of poetry might be to listen to ‘spoken word’ recordings that are available in most libraries.
Two paperback books Huff suggests to those who want to start their journey into this sometimes confusing art form are “Major British Poets” and “Major American Poets.”
Reciting the opening lines of “Rainbow” from memory, Paul Lindholdt told me of a day with Huff in the fall of 1987. “He invited me to go hunting with him and he said I’m so old and feeble you’ll probably have to hold me up.” They took a trip north of Bellingham to Lake Terrell to go water-fowling. “Not pleasant to remember, but he got careless with a shotgun as though he was testing my trust and swung it right across my midsection at one point. The way I grew up with guns and hunting that was just absolutely forbidden, but I knew him well enough that it was like he was testing me. Nothing came of it, we continued on.”
A local high school teacher who was a student of Huff’s in the late 1980s shared this vision: “I had Huff for two classes: a modern American poetry class and a poetry writing class. I broke stride with standard opinion and thought he was an outstanding professor. He didn’t realize it, but he was a gifted teacher. He talked about how much he hated teaching, how he was already long retired but the administration didn’t know, and how he wasn’t a good teacher. He said the only thing teaching did for him was to keep him from being homeless. He had an amazingly broad swath of knowledge for American poetry. He knew what was going on currently too—introduced me to Mary Oliver, Komunyakaa, Miller Williams, Donald Hall…He could pick up a piece of cold copy and you’d think he read it a dozen times, what a talented reader. At that time (at least for those two classes) many students thought of him as a sexist, misogynist. Hard to disagree and hard to defend some of the things that happened in his classes. Yet, I thought he was great—I just wanted to bring popcorn and watch. Often he was noticeably tipsy—or well beyond tipsy. Sometimes clearly shitfaced. He’d read a beautiful poem and cry. I heard him read something once by Amy Lowell, cried afterword, pounded a table, and said I defy you to find any son of a bitch today who can write a poem like that. Don’t get me wrong—he wasn’t drunk all the time. But much more so during the poetry writing class—that was at night. And it was often the case during that class. I certainly learned much more about poetry from those two classes than from eight or ten others I’ve taken over the years. And discounting the alcohol, I can only think of one teacher who had influenced and impacted my teaching more than Huff. Right before he retired, he gave a reading at Western. I recall that he followed the protocol that is today much ignored: he started and finished his reading with poems by other poets. That used to be the standard.”
Poet Jason Graham has a vivid memory from 1988: “I met Huff back when I was a freshman at WWU. I was trying to get into his poetry class. He only addressed me from a lateral view, with grunts. ‘Class is full.’ I said, ‘You knew my dad, Mike Graham, around 65’—he said you’re a great poet.’ Another askance look. And that was all. I should add, Huff was heavily seated in his office when the aforementioned, 1-sided conversation took place. He was wearing some soiled beige-whites, a la George C. Scott’s portrayal of Ernest Hemingway in the film ‘Islands in the Stream’ which was a weird adaptation of The Old Man and the Sea. Huff was an amazing poet. One of my favorite Huff poems appeared in Jeopardy magazine, ‘Will Rogers to Wiley Post.’ It’s a beauty.”
On his recommendation, I tracked down this poem, which appeared in the Spring 1990 issue, along with another yet-to-be compiled poem, “Documentary: In Memory of James Wright.” In the Contributor’s Notes at the end, following a list of Huff’s publications and accolades, comes, “He is also one of our poets in residence at WWU, is newly retired, and missed by many.”
Huff retired in June, 1989. His final years were lived with his wife Jane in Sandy Point, just north of Bellingham, on a turn of land visited by shorebirds.
So this night ends a visionary day
Between the bait and an abandoned nest
a great horned owl by starlight, signaling,
approaches, and I learn to realize
the wisdom of my own sharp, wintry thorn.
from “December 21, 1970”
On Friday, August 13, 1993, the headline of The Bellingham Herald reported a robbery shooting at Fountain Hardware. The next day, that news was still headlining—‘It seems like a nightmare’—but directly beneath that story is ‘Former WWU professor dies in fire at Sandy Point.’ It’s an awful thing to read. While sitting deep in his chair on Friday night, Robert Huff’s cigarette lit him on fire and the inferno took his life. Three days later the obituary gave notice that “At his request, no services will be held. His body will be cremated,” and “Memorials may be made to the Audubon Society.”
No wake, please,
at all cost
are to be
hands of near
who shall (if
need be) bribe
was so loud
toward its still
patch of deep
a stream in
of the green
or two clumps
which ought to
fern that thrives
light will do
the trick at
least as well
I first became aware of Robert Huff without even knowing it.
Working at the library one day, I saved an LP from the Discard Shelves. The title of the album was The Sounds of Pacific Northwest Poetry and without realizing it yet, tracks 8-10 on Side Two held the voice of the man who would urge me on in the writing of this. After reading Huff’s poetry, I went looking for a biography beyond the brief words written on his bookcover flaps. So I went back to that long row of Discard Shelves at the library. The entire run of Contemporary Authors awaits its doom there. Western’s library is in the process of ridding itself of books, of paper, and as physical evidence disappears from the shelves, this story of Robert Huff feels closely related. Specifically, it is the story of loss.
Why haven’t his books been reprinted? There are several mentions of two manuscripts Taking Her Sides on Immortality and Beginning in Winter which have yet to be published. The first one I tracked down to a special collections library in New Hampshire. The curator there told me, “Taking Her Sides on Immortality is an 86 page typescript with a very positive blurb at the beginning by Annie Dillard but no contents page…We don’t own the copyright on Huff’s work, I’m afraid, and I don’t know who does. In a horrible coincidence, we were writing the note for the collection and about to contact him for information the very same week that he died in the house fire.”
Reflecting on Huff’s legacy, Sam Green said, “One of the things I love about Bob Huff is that he left us a lot of poems…I love the fact that he left this body of work behind for us. And I would want to make sure that more people read it.” For me his presence is felt strongly. He is still a part of this place—the mountains, rain-blown ocean air, forest and all those birds. Finally, I can’t think of any better way to finish this, than how Robert Huff himself said farewell to many an evening or poetry reading, with a recital of one of his favorite poems. “Mr. Flood’s Party” by Edwin Arlington Robinson begins:
Old Eben Flood, climbing alone one night
Over the hill between the town below
And the forsaken upland hermitage
That held as much as he should ever know
It’s easy to see why Huff would identify with this poem, set on a path like the one he took many times himself, going up the hill from the lights of Bellingham to the university in the trees. And even after twenty years it isn’t hard to hear that voice of Robert Huff, climbing with old Eben Flood, stopping to praise the bird above a moonlit town, enduring adversity to the very end:
“For auld lang syne.” The weary throat gave out,
The last word wavered; and the song being done,
He raised again the jug regretfully
And shook his head, and was again alone.
There was not much that was ahead of him,
And there was nothing in the town below—
Where strangers would have shut the many doors
That many friends had opened long ago.
The Western Front online collection
The Bellingham Herald
Sam Green interview with Tamara Belts, WWU Oral History Program, conducted February 5, 2009.
Lew Turco’s online site, Poetics and Ruminations, “A Memoir of Robert Huff,” April 20, 2011.
Wilson Library Special Collections, WWU
The Center for Pacific Northwest Studies, WWU
Knute Skinner, Dylan Huff, Sam Green, Gaylord Hart, Steven Dolmatz, Lew Turco, Paul Lindholdt, Lynda Schor, Kelly Cherry, Michael Oppenheimer, Chuck Robinson, Jason Graham, Roland Goodbody.
Also thanks to Robert Bussard, Tamara Belts, Peter Smith, Eric Mastor, Tony Kurtz, Rob Cheesman, Larry Smith.
Allen Frost works in the library at Western Washington University which is where he first discovered Robert Huff’s poetry. He has recently published his sixth book, a collection of short stories entitled The Wonderful Stupid Man (Bird Dog Publishing, 2012).
photo credits: angela7dreams, Bill Liao, nio_nl & aussiegall via photopin cc