Godfather of Baltimore Poetry

September 07, 1994|By DANIEL MARK EPSTEIN

When I came to live in Baltimore in 1971 I did not know any of the writers in the city. But one writer soon became known to me, as I introduced myself to strangers in the old Peabody Book Store and O'Henry's Bar, telling people I was a poet. As soon as I called myself a poet I would get a reflex response that was inevitable no matter whom I talked to.

''Do you know Joe Cardarelli?''

I did not know Joe Cardarelli, but after hearing his name two or tTC three times it began to ring a bell. I had seen his poems in a popular anthology called ''Quickly Aging Here,'' a book by writers who were in their 20s in the late 60s. Now the title resonates with irony. I liked Cardarelli's intimate poems, which I read with special interest because he was from my home town, Washington.

''Do you know Joe Cardarelli?''

Whenever I confessed that I did not know Cardarelli I lost all credibility. It was as if no man or woman could claim to be a poet who did not know this extraordinary person. He taught at the Maryland Institute of Art, and had studied with Elliot Coleman at the Johns Hopkins University, and he, Cardarelli, was a real poet.

Very soon I met the man himself, a handsome hearty-voiced fellow with thick dark hair, a beard and ponytail and kind, mild eyes. He looked like a benevolent wolf. We had many good laughs over the invocation of his name. It became a running gag between us, Joe pretending that everyone he had met for years had been asking if he knew me, as if we were Stanley and Dr. Livingstone in the jungle.

I got to know him better as we worked together in a loosely organized group of writers called the Baltimore Poet's Theatre, which staged poetry readings in theaters, bars and churches.

As the audience for these readings grew in the late '70s, Joe and I found ourselves in a whirlwind, the literary phenomenon now remembered nostalgically as the Baltimore Renaissance.

This was social as well as artistic. Not only did these poets hear each other's performances and publish each other's work. We danced and drank and wrangled, ate Thanksgiving turkey together, attended each other's weddings and birthday parties and looked after each other's children.

Now I am looking at the color cover of the Sun Magazine of November 22, 1981. Eight of us young poets are standing around Poe's grave at Westminster Church. The title of the article is ''Dreaming In Verse, Talking In Images, And Living On A Shoestring.'' In the center of this group portrait, solid as the main mast of a ship, stands Joe Cardarelli in a leather jacket. He is looking hard at the photographer, protective of his artistic brood.

By 1981 Joe had earned his unofficial title ''Godfather of Baltimore poetry,'' as a consequence of his tireless efforts as a promoter of poetry readings, his enormous generosity of spirit as a teacher and sponsor of young poets, and his strict integrity as a writer.

It is hard to rise above the rivalries and jealousies of the literary world. Joe managed it gracefully. It is unspeakably difficult to teach young poets the art of poetry because the real ones by nature are anarchists, glorious lions and tigers. Joe led them gently, by the force of his own example. For he was himself a brave artist, who preferred the excitements of the studio to the fleeting pleasures of public acclaim.

Joe Cardarelli died August 25 of a heart attack. He was 50 years old.

During the past several years Joe and I became better friends. I attended several of his recent poetry readings. He had made an artistic breakthrough that was remarkable in a middle-aged poet, and was writing more naturally and powerfully than he ever had in his life. It was an inspiration to me. I am happy to have heard him read his new poems, and to have told him how fine they were, because it was the best way I knew to tell him how much I cared for him.

Joe was wise -- rare among poets. He had his priorities straight sooner than any of us who were struggling to make sense out of life and language. He loved his family, his poetry, his friends, his students, somehow keeping all his passions in balance. He was proud and he was humble in the right measure. He was scrupulously honest and invariably kind. Now I am sad and happy to say I knew Joe Cardarelli.

Daniel Mark Epstein is a Baltimore poet.

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