Remembering Jack

Up at dawn for some musical multi-tasking: listening to white-throated sparrows through the open window while playing a Leadbelly cassette and flipping through a sheaf of poems by Jack McManis.

Jack was my mentor in poetry, someone who taught largely through silence – he only ever commented on things he liked. He led writing workshops for 25 years at Penn State, but I never actually took a class from him. Instead, we met regularly in his office to exchange poems, starting with once-a-week visits in 1978 when I was in eighth grade, and continuing (with somewhat declining frequency) until Jack’s death in 1989.

Jack McManis was one of the first generation of post-war college poetry teachers. He placed poems often enough in magazines and anthologies, but – much to the distress of his numerous friends and supportive colleagues – never got around to finishing a book-length collection. This omission stemmed partly from the alcoholism that consumed the first half of his life and partly from the altruistic energy that consumed much of the second half. (I didn’t realize until well after his death just how active he had been in Alcoholics Anonymous, helping set up chapters all over the country.)

Jack grew up in southern California, fought in the Pacific in World War II, and was an excellent tennis player – at one time he was the tenth-ranked amateur player in the country. He helped found the poetry magazine Pivot, which still survives, though he was always content to remain Associate Editor. His former students include Diane Ackerman and the late Agha Shahid Ali.

Even after achieving sobriety and becoming a “born-again Anglican,” Jack was no saint in the conventional sense of the term. He office reeked of the snuff he dipped from a silver box, and he loved to try and get others hooked on the stuff. (I always refused it – I’ve never been big on the idea of nasal ingestion.) Although his satires and parodies grew a little less biting after his recovery, he never stopped writing them. Nor were bawdy subjects off-limits: a poem about his neighbor’s wife’s ass was one of his standards at poetry readings.

Jack’s favorite poet was Hart Crane; other favorites included William Carlos Williams, Melvin B. Tolson and Theodore Roethke (who also taught briefly at Penn State). He believed that a poet should be “drenched in words,” as he once wrote me, quoting Hart Crane. He was haunted by Crane’s death – he committed suicide in April 1932 by leaping off a boat in the Caribbean and feeding himself to the sharks. This more than anything seemed to symbolize the end of innocence for Jack, who grew up in the Roaring Twenties. In one satire, he imagined the Statue of Liberty being buried at sea: “slide her down / to the oil shark / republic.” Sharks seemed to possess a kind of limit-value for Jack, as in the following elegy.


by the breakwater after the funeral,
Corona del Mar, California

My father, John, a gentle dusty man,
loved the country earth and what it grows.
He most loved lowly and neglected things
we glance at or gaze past but rarely see:
hawberries, snaky wildgrape, wormed crabapples,
swamp shade pools under willow oaks that home
nightsinging whippoorwills and clacking treetoads.
What reliquary for my father’s love
of earth? Wind-driven leaves and locust shells?
Earth crumbled over him, put out his stars
and hushed the cardinal’s clear water-fife
back in his boyhood Indiana woods
still whistling in the now, now lost to him.
My father’s Baptist testimony praised
all these as God’s. He praised the blind fin.

Love as your father loved, the preacher said.
I hear his hands wash now in slap and seethe
of wave on rock and wonder how to love
all this, my father, you its lover gone:
this sky of tearless blue, it’s dead-man’s-float
of the day moon and that lone firefly ghosting
hope, last night flown where in the too-bright noon?
O these feed the blind fin’s tidal appetite –
the sharkfin there by the quay carving its track
straight out, out into the afterbirth grey-green
Pacific and maybe on to infinity
shredding our mirages, love and time,
that fin’s synoptic arrow tugging sun
– to drown the sun? All worship the blind fin.

Like many of us, Jack hated to let a poem go. There are no definitive versions, just endless rewrites. The above poem seems to have been his last revision, although I admit I did substitute one line from an earlier version that I liked better – I don’t think Jack would have minded. Now, as I continue to leaf through my folders of his poems, I’m finding so much more that I can’t pass up! How about if I just put a few things down, assemble a brief, fairly random collection of McManis fragments, a la the Greek Anthology?

Tin can sacristan,
cling clang buoy!
. . .
I dream and look over
the rail at flaking
light churning,
pouring out
electric tears
as I lose self
in the jewelry
of water.

I was born
in a heat wave:
South Chicago.
Headfirst I popped out
crying for a drink . . .

And what about sweetsinging Bobby Jones gone paralytic,
Big Bill Tilden humbled in prison and Paavo Nurmi, Finn
ironman, loping off into Arctic twilight, last marathon
against a ghostly polar bear tireless as time?

(“Child of the Twenties in the Eighties”)

So the twenties, time of the great gestures! And whose
were greater than yours, St. Slapstick? You who spun truth
in crazy pantomime, though it’s half-past mayhem, time for me
to return to the missing persons bureau of the eighties, before
the onrushing manifest planet spill me in the whistlestop dark,
my keepsakes scattered in cinders, let me spin off the rods
not in mourning but laughing far down in my bones, tickled
by you, old holy pie thrower!


Let Satch blast out for you, Gabe,
that trumpet note
we’re just dying to hear.

(“Conceit for a Cloudy Halloween ’82”)

The Puerto Rican
counterman comes
and pries
the pair of clowns
out of that
glass coffin.

(“Daily Circus at the Automat / New York City”)

A long time ago
(but not so long)
when we pilgrimaged
down to Avenue C
in the cell-block
Lower East Side
to see Leadbelly,
America’s great folk
poet and musicman
(before the polio
things ate his spine),
sitting straight
in a chair in
his walk-up flat
he told us how when
he heard JS Bach
he couldn’t keep
still, but thumped
with his hands
and his feet and
from time to time
broke out into
half-chant and
“The beat and the
repeat and the
jubilee,” he said,
“shake the lyrics
out of me like
a hound dog
being gristed
and ground around
in a song mill!”

(“Kin: Remembering Leadbelly,” Prairie Schooner, Summer 1971)

I’ll prop the saint erect again come spring
but now his milky eyes feed on the grosbeaks.

(“Letter to a Friend Before the February Thaw”)

Inside the crinkled ghost-transparent tent
she’s stretched out gaunt, a green sarcophagus
suspended in seawater, head stuck out
of the bedsheet envelope and pillow-propped,
hawk nose thrust up a wedge to split the air,
to reach, to strain up to the source of it –
that dense life juice she mouths and gums and gulps.
Pinched nostrils labor hard ringed faint with blue-
fadeblue of robin eggshells on cement,
the cheeks caved in to make the forehead loom . . .
All birdmouth gaping she sucks air so hard
I listen for the wind-work hiss of lung,
but stillness hangs a curtain round her mouth
that quivers in and out and seems a stranger
to the frozen skull, the sheeted body mound –
the last sign visible of life the twist
of thin lips flexing their beseeching O.

If I woke where she is in a cloud of green,
what thoughts would consciousness, a broken wing,
flap fluttering against the swoongreen cage?
Or if eyes opened, tried to weave a way
through blear, what make of all the blurring ghosts
beyond the cave and gliding by like fish?
These the loved dead that slip my hands in dreams?

(“Life Mask”)

Finally, here’s a Jack McManis poem I couldn’t resist including in its entirety.


–Sir, some sacrilegious clown
has gone and dotted
that Tintoretto sunset
with tiny fly specks.
–There, there, and there.
–Don’t touch the painting
you fool! Those
aren’t fly specks,
they’re birds.
Tempo giasco
with the Old Master.
The birds
on background of pink sky
are humorous.
–Yes, the birds are fun.
–Yes, loads of fun.
–Oh, I see what you mean.
Just a minute, Sir.
Let me write that down.
The birds are fun.

Last fall my friend Jo, who is in the process of moving very gradually to Arizona, prevailed upon me to take what she calls the Jack McManis tree. This is a handsome, four-foot-tall Norfolk pine that used to belong to Jack. It doesn’t travel very well – the slight bruising and bending necessary to transport it home in the car caused extensive needle loss in the upper branches. But with plenty of light and water it’s growing vigorously now, and if anything has become more attractive as a result of this partial damage to its symmetry. Most of my house is too dark for plants; the only place I could put it was right at the opposite end of the table from where I write.

Thus it happens that when I look up from the screen I find myself staring absent-mindedly into the foliage of the Jack McManis tree. And sometimes then I am transported back to Jack’s “bartelby den of an office,” as he once described it, sitting companionably with sheaves of each other’s recent poems in our laps. I hear Old Main tolling the quarter hour. Then the rattle of a page, and an appreciative grunt gives way to a chuckle, the blowing of a nose. “What a great line,” he enthuses, and I crane my neck, staring with pretended comprehension at another pure accident, learning slowly and without realizing it how to value those moments when the words come mostly on their own.

5 Replies to “Remembering Jack”

  1. I met Professor Jack in 1971. this is when I got sober at White Deer Run in Allenwood PA. I made many trips to see him at Penn State- 1972 after I was discharged until 1977 when I graduated from Lycming College. I used to sit in his poetry seminars. I sad to here he has passed on. I will always have fond memories of him. Jack greatly infuenced me. I used to hang with him and Donald Newlove. what ever haved to Donald Newlove.

    1. Hi Bobby – Thanks for commenting. It’s interesting to hear this. It would’ve been just a couple years later, in the late 70s, when i first began to meet with Jack as a youngster interested in poetry. I never met Mr. Newlove so I’m afraid I don’t know what happened to him. He was in New York City, wasn’t he?

  2. I was a fortunate student of Jack’s in his 1969 trimester course at Penn State. PSU ran 3 10 week semesters which allowed us to comfortably earn 36 credits a year. It also allowed us to finish with profs we were not in synch with in 10 weeks rather than 15.

    WD Snodgrass would journey to PSU from Syracuse frequently since he had such camaraderie with our poets. I met WD at a convention in Philly on August 13, 2004, we LUCKY Friday the 13th. We talked about his time there. He knew John Barth and Ted Roethke. (I can still recite “My Papa,’s Waltz” 55 years later.)

    WD ordered away the large, angry crowd trying to push me away from the line. He invited me to his home near Syracuse he lived with his 4th wife, who was about half his age or less. I suspect he had been taken with my girlfriend’s auburn hair, hair down to her waist, and hazel eyes about his wife’s age, so he invited us specifically as a couple. By the time I was able to plan my visit, JD had died – one of my life’s most bitter regrets to not contacting him later in 2004…

    Jack McManis and John Haag were by far my 2 favorite poetry profs. I got up the courage to ask Jack to look at my work. He told me when he would PROBABLY be in his office and I won on Round 2. His office was an adventure ! Informal is a good description. We plunked ourselves down and he leafed away at my staples pile. Leaf after leaf. an occasional grunt, then he bent the pages and landed on one of the short ones I called “Idyll Dusk”.

    It is a poem of childhood baseball games forcibly being ended by the setting of the sun. Jack yelled at me “That is it ! You found it. It is all in the image.” The line I wrote was
    “Never was night so resented/ as silver clouds tickled the stolid chin of God:”

    He said focus on images, they create poetry ! He never commented on the rest. I was relieved he found one good line in one of them !!!

    His comment changed my entire life as to writing poetry. As I got older, the sheer rock solid advice from Jack became more and more crucial to my writing. He was quite excited by the poem. I loved him and his class.

    Penn State had a powerhouse English department in the ’60’s. Philip Young was the Hemingway friend allowed by his widow to organize his entire collection left behind, including “Islands in the Stream.” I took his course and by random fate, his grad assistant for me was David Morrell, creator of Rambo and probably more wealthy now than Hemingway ever was.

    Morrell’s scribbling was all over my final exam paper. Incoherent condemnation of every paragraph was followed by a LARGE “D”. My crime was I explained why I did not like reading Hemingway and explicit reasons I felt that way. In those days, students let it all hang out as did our profs.

    I felt it was an unfair grade, so I marched off to Prof Young’s office. He had a huge outer office with jungle themed decor. I explained my concern to her and she took my Morrell “D” paper into Prof. Young. A good ten minutes passed. He knocked inside his office door, which slowly opened a few inches and the paper handed back to her sight unseen. She folded it flat and gave it back to me.

    There were red lines stroking through some of the black ink Morrell used. On the very top, Morrell’s “D” was lined through in red and a circled large “A” replaced in red.

    Ah, the age of student/prof pure intellectual soliloquy was a precious taste of what college SHOULD BE teaching. I fear those days are gone. How can a mere poet earn an income to off college loans ?

    Taxpayers valued Penn State and THREE trimesters cost $390 total tuition in 1966. By 1970, it was up to $540 total for in state students. Now, my generation hectors the airwaves complaining about Biden’s attempts to help with student loans.

    I am ashamed to be a “Boomer”, frequently thinking what a messed up world we leave to our progeny. Boomer greed is endless and amnesia of our youth rampant.

    RIP Jack McManis, I was lucky to spend hours in your classes. You have spent 55 years in my mind.

    I have copyrighted a book of 55 poems at my age 55 year. It is entitled “Love is Lust First”. David A. Panckeri and available Amazon, Barnes and Noble. It is overpriced at $19 most of the time. I did not write to sell primarily, I wrote it to explain my love of several women.

    Bless Jack McManis…

    1. Hi David. Thanks so much for sharing these reminiscences. The university system has changed utterly since our days, no doubt about it. I paid almost nothing for tuition since my dad was faculty, so education was much more of a lark – as, I would argue, it should be! And thanks to Jack’s willingness to meet people wherever they were, I never even had to take a poetry class, LOL. Cheers.

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