James Longenbach ‘has made a rich and central place for poetry’ in Rochester: NewsCenter

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August 16, 2022


Professor, poet and critic James Longenbach “has left an extraordinary body of work that rewards careful and repeated reading,” says Jennifer Grotz. (Photo University of Rochester/J. Adam Fenster)


The acclaimed English teacher and poet has devoted his life’s work to studying, teaching and writing poetry.

James Longenbach, Joseph H. Gilmore Professor of English at the University of Rochester, his colleagues and former students are remembered not only as a master poet and critic, but also as a devoted teacher and mentor.

He died of cancer on July 29 in Stonington, Connecticut, at the age of 62.

“In his intelligence and generosity of spirit, his breadth of understanding, and the vital beauty of his writing, he intensified the conversations among poets, critics, and ordinary readers of poetry in America in a way hard to match,” says Kenneth GrossAlan F. Hilfiker Emeritus Professor of English in Rochester.

A Guggenheim Fellow whose work has been recognized by the American Academy of Arts and Letters and other literary and scholarly organizations, Longenbach has published six books of poetry and an equal number of works of literary and scholarly criticism. His fifth book of poems, earthling (2017), was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award.

As a poet-critic, Longenbach “had an amazing way of talking about the work of poetry and its wonder, from within,” adds Gross. “Jim wrote his review not only for his academic colleagues, but as much for ordinary readers of poetry and for other poets, established and developing – although he would have asked: are there ever ordinary readers of poetry?”

Black and white image by James Longenbach.

James Longenbach.

The professor and poet-critic

Longenbach was born in Plainfield, New Jersey, to Alda and Burton Longenbach and grew up near Westfield.

After earning a bachelor’s degree in English from Trinity College in Connecticut and a doctorate in English literature from Princeton University, he joined the faculty of the Rochester Department of English in 1985 as an assistant professor. Within three years, he was promoted to full associate professor. In 1992, he was appointed to the post of appointed professor which he would hold for the rest of his academic career.

Longenbach’s early critical works—Modernist poetics of history: Pound, Eliot and the meaning of the past(1987)Stone Cottage: Pound, Yeats and Modernism (1988)Wallace Stevens: The Ordinary Meaning of Things(1991)Modern poetry after modernism (1997) – set out to tell new stories about the lives, work and collaborations of modern and contemporary poets.

Throughout his career, he has published scholarly articles and literary reviews in various journals and periodicals, including the New York Times book review and Poetry. His work has also appeared in The nationwhere John Palattella ’92 (PhD) – one of Longenbach’s graduate students – was the magazine’s literary editor from 2007 to 2016.

In his essays, Longenbach combined the breadth and depth of his knowledge with clear, elegant prose. According to Palattella, “Jim wrote almost exclusively about poetry, returning with fresh eyes to poets he knew well, such as Eliot, Yeats, Stevens and Dickinson, while approaching certain writers and subjects for the first time and offering exhilarating and flexible perspectives, including George Oppen, Marianne Moore, DH Lawrence, 20th Century Italian Poetry in Translation, Patti Smith and Virgil Thomson.

Make an art form accessible

In addition to his six collected volumes, his poetry has appeared in publications such as Atlantic, The nation, The New Republic, the new yorker, The Paris review, Slateand The Yale Review.

“Jim the critic knew what he was talking about. Of Thresholdhis first book of poems, Stillhis latest volume, his poetry blends elegance and simplicity in a way that is neither complacent nor straightforward,” says Palatella.

He has also written extensively on the language and craft of poetry in resistance to poetry (2004), The art of the poetic line (2008), The virtues of poetry (2013), how poems are made (2018), and The lyric now (2020).

Diptych of Forever and How Poems Get Made by James Longenbach.

James Longenbach has published six collections of poetry—Stillpublished in 2021, being the most recent – ​​and an equal number of works of literary and scholarly criticism, including that of 2018 how poems are made. (Photos University of Rochester / J. Adam Fenster)

‘One of the most legendary workshop managers’

During his tenure at Rochester, Longenbach taught courses in Modern and Contemporary American Poetry, British and American Modernism, James Joyce, Shakespeare, and Creative Writing.

“As a teacher, James Longenbach was an incredibly open, open-minded, generous and caring mentor. He met me one-on-one to review my poems even though I was just a freshman in the first semester – a young boy who came from the USSR four years earlier and spoke and wrote with an accent,” recalls Ilya Kaminsky, a deaf Ukrainian-American poet and former Rochester undergrad. “His attention to both the craft and the human in front of him was unparalleled.”

This attention also left an impression on other former students. “Just in the last week I have received or read many testimonials from former students, talking about Jim’s dedication and inspiring presence as a teacher, his sense of humor as well and his a constant desire to help students find their own spirits and strengths,” says Gross. “He has made a central and rich place for poetry here.”

There was no better person to correspond with about poems.

In addition to teaching at Rochester, Longenbach has served on the faculty of the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers and the Middlebury Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. It was at Bread Loaf in 1995 that author and English teacher Jennifer Grotz first met Longenbach, who was lecturing on the poetry of Jorie Graham. “I vividly remember being struck by the profound clarity and elegance of his spirit,” she says. “His reflection on many poets, from Ezra Pound to CD Wright, as well as on most formal aspects of poetry, has constantly astonished.”

Grotz came to work regularly with Longenbach after joining the Rochester faculty in 2009.

“There was no better person to correspond with about poems,” she says. “His editing suggestions were always in the service of making the poem sound more like you – or like himself – than like him. Not only was he one of the most legendary workshop leaders in American letters , but he had established himself there without ever having been a student in a workshop.

An accomplished pianist, Longenbach brought the skill of a musician to his poetry. But he also brought a lyrical poet’s ear to the study of music. Matthew BaileyShea, associate professor of music theory at the University, highlighted Longenbach’s contributions to his recent book examining the relationship between poetry, lyrics and music: “He gave me great advice on lyric poetry in general, and I ended up taking one of his poetry classes, which was particularly eye-opening. It really changed the way I think about poetry and song.

adds Kaminsky, author of republic of the deaf“He was a brilliant poet who wrote with nuance and a love of lyrical detail, lyrical mode, lyrical cadences and tonalities. Imagery and music go hand in hand in his work – he paints the world and that world between in our ears through music.

James Longenbach and Joanna Scott seated together.

James Longenbach and Joanna Scott (photo by University of Rochester)

Partners in life and in literary activities

Longenbach was married to Joanna Scottfamous novelist and professor of English Roswell Smith Burrows in Rochester.

The couple met while studying abroad in Rome in 1981, before getting married and raising their two daughters in Rochester. The family spent several semesters abroad, living in England and Italy. In recent years, Longenbach and Scott have split their time between Rochester and their home in Connecticut.

During a partnership that spanned more than four decades, the pair were close collaborators and readers of each other’s work.

Their most recent books, Longenbach’s lyric poems in Still and Scott’s short stories in Excuse me while I disappear, both published in 2021 – periodically echo each other, especially when referring to Venice and other Italian locations. (“The Italian landscape and language have been part of our lives – the lives of our whole family – for decades,” Longenbach said in 2017.) The two works also share a concern for themes of permanence and transience. .

“As anyone who has read Still knows, his sense of discovery is different,” says Palattella. “The poet who since his college days had devoted himself to exploring lyrical time has been diagnosed with cancer and feels his own time is coming to an end.”

“He left an extraordinary body of work that rewards careful and repeated reading,” notes Grotz. “I will read and teach his work – poems and prose – for the rest of my life.”


Read more

plans with a pencil illustrate how to make a poem.How do you make a poem?

Words are the means of creation of poets. In How poems are made, James Longenbach wonders how poets turn naked expression into art.

Key words: Arts and Sciences, English Department, James Longenbach, literature, obituary

Category: University News

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