Longtime dream come true is an ode to a working poet

April 27, 1993|By Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES -- For 58 years, poetry ran like a silver thread through the center of Kingsley and Kate Tufts' love affair.

The accountant married the Hollywood doctor's daughter in 1933, and from the start they shared a passion for verse. They filled their home with Byron, Browning, Wordsworth and Whitman. And Kingsley Tufts wrote couplets of his own -- odes to the coyotes that howled in the Hollywood Hills, rhymes for Santa Monica's fishermen and always, always, love poems for Kate.

For all the pleasure they took from poetry, the Tufts dreamed of giving something back. It was an idea they talked about often: Whoever outlived the other would try to endow an annual prize -- enough, they hoped, to put bread on a worthy poet's table for at least a year, to free a working artist to think and write.

Yesterday, 82-year-old Kate Tufts saw to it that their dream came true. Just 16 months after her husband's death, she awarded $50,000 to a Florida poet named Susan Mitchell -- the first recipient of the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, one of the world's largest poetry prizes.

No matter, Kate Tufts said, that to create the award she had to sell the house she was born in, a 14-room Craftsman at the base of the Hollywood Hills. No matter that she now lives in a condominium the size of her former living room. Kingsley Tufts was the love of her life, she said, and this was his fondest wish.

"Poetry is of being. Not sight alone. But seeing," Kate Tufts said at the afternoon award ceremony at the Claremont Graduate School, her soft voice wavering only slightly as she read from one of her husband's poems. "Poetry is this: Not kiss alone. But bliss."

Ms. Mitchell received the Tufts award for her book "Rapture," which was selected from among 545 books or unpublished book-length works by American poets. The author of one other book of poetry, "The Water Inside the Water," Ms. Mitchell teaches creative writing at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton and is a member of the faculty at Vermont College.

The new prize is the second significant poetry award to be established in Southern California in recent years. Since 1989, the Los Angeles-based Lannan Foundation has granted prizes to authors of fiction, nonfiction and poetry -- awards that this year will pay 10 writers $40,000 each. But such largess is not the norm, particularly for poets midway through their careers.

Last week, in a move that prevented the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award from calling itself the biggest in the United States, the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize -- which had been $25,000 since its creation in 1986 -- tripled its offering, to $75,000. But the Lilly prize traditionally rewards lifetime achievement.

Rare is the poet who feeds his family with words. Wallace Stevens was a full-time insurance executive, William Carlos Williams a full-time doctor. And Kingsley Tufts, an Indiana farm boy who made California his home, was no different.

Throughout his life, between stints as a certified public accountant and an executive in Los Angeles' shipyards, Mr. Tufts wrote short stories and poetry that appeared in such publications as the New Yorker, Esquire and the Saturday Evening Post. He loved writing, and he considered himself lucky to know a lucrative skill that bought him the time to do it.

"Most poets don't have his advantage of being able to make money," Kate said the other day, holding up a handsome black book with gold lettering -- one of several collections of her husband's poetry that he had privately printed. "They can't put out a book like this, so their poetry goes down the drain."

It was 1966 when Kate and Kingsley Tufts hit upon the idea of creating a prize to help save talented poets from such an anonymous fate. Kate's father, a physician, had just died, leaving behind 10 1/2 acres in the Hollywood Hills and a big rambling house. They moved back into the house in which Kate had been born, and remained there as it rapidly increased in value.

On Christmas Day, 1991, Kingsley was sitting in his favorite armchair, smoking a pipe and reading one of his newest poems to some friends. Suddenly, he turned to his wife. "I feel dizzy," Kate remembers him saying as a massive heart attack seized him, knocking the pipe from his hand.

Kate was devastated, although now she sees Kingsley's death as "perfect, elegant -- quite in keeping with his life." Almost immediately, she set about creating a lasting legacy to the man she had loved for nearly six decades.

"I knew what I had to do," she said.

And late last year, having sold her house and most everything in it, she made good on her promise, creating a $1.25 million endowment that will fund the award in perpetuity.

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