Remembering Rachel Wetzsteon (1967—2009)by Eric McHenry
Rachel Wetzsteon ’99GSAS, whom Richard Howard called “the most variously gifted of our young poets,” took her own life in late December, at the age of 42. A professor of English at William Paterson University, she had just succeeded C. K. Williams as poetry editor of The New Republic.
A full listing of her prizes and plaudits would be long, impressive, and radically insufficient as a record of her real achievements. These include a featherlight critical touch (see her posthumously published essay on “Philip Larkin and Happiness” in the Contemporary Poetry Review), and a wise, searching, unfailingly lovely poetic line. Over and over again in her books, one encounters the chaos of daily urban life made coherent through the pressures of poetic form. For Wetzsteon, writing poetry was a quest for perspective, which she gained by assembling word structures solid enough to stand on.
Nothing Columbia writes about Wetzsteon can approach the beauty of the things she wrote about Columbia. Indeed, with her death, the Upper West Side may have lost its fondest and most faithful describer. “Wetzsteon’s poems manage to turn Morningside Heights . . . into a theater of romance, an intellectual haven, a flaneur’s paradise,” the poet-critic Adam Kirsch wrote of her third book, Sakura Park. “Her poems evoke the kind of life that generations of young people have come to New York to live — earnest, glamorous, and passionate, full of sex and articulate suffering.”
Along with a critical study of Auden, Wetzsteon published three collections of poems. A fourth, Silver Roses, from which "Ruins" is taken, will appear later this year from Persea Books.
|Ruins||Short Ode to Morningside Heights|
I sat on the subway sipping latte,
Then, boarding the bus at Ninety-Sixth Street,
Then home to my journal and ordering in.
There are times when one feels oneself
There are times when one feels a frightful cliché.
And yet the coffee tasted good,
To every cliché, a germ of truth.
a gentle not yet: this caffeine high,
(from Silver Roses, Persea Books, 2010)
Convergence of worlds, old stomping ground,
The pastry shop’s abuzz
Things are and are not solid.
Ranters, racers, help me remember
(from Sakura Park, Persea Books, 2006)