My friend Paul Violi died the Sunday before last. I knew that he was deathly ill, with cancer of the pancreas and liver, but only heard last night. Paul’s illness was diagnosed just three months ago and he kept it quiet until near the end, but at least there was time to write and say goodbye. I first met Paul eighteen years ago, when he was on tour here with Kenneth Koch. Martin Stannard was organising the tour and set up a Radio Nottingham reading for Paul, which is where we met. As I recall, they came to dinner afterwards. Later, Paul and his wife, Ann, stayed with us in our new home in Sherwood. Paul visited the UK solo once or twice as well. We were both politics nuts. I remember getting up early with him one morning to hear Clinton give the TV speech where he more or less admitted that Monica Lewinski had given him a blow job.
Sue and I stayed with Paul and Ann at their home in Putnam Valley, New York State in 1999. Lots of long, free-wheeling conversations in and around their lovely home. He took us out on the nearby lake in his little boat. Last time I saw him was when I was in New York for a conference three years ago. We met for a meal near Columbia, where Paul taught a poetry class. Two hours of great conversation about writing, teaching, mutual friends and the literary life. He insisted on paying, then set off for the ninety minute drive home.
The following morning I met Billy Collins, and told him how Paul had introduced Sue and I to his poetry several years earlier. We talked about what a great poet Paul was and how it was a pity that he wasn’t better known outside the US. And he wasn’t, although Martin and I both had a go at getting him some attention by writing pieces in UK magazines (check out Martin’s fascinating 2004 interview with Paul here). In the US, he got all sorts of awards and featured in all the major anthologies, wearing these achievements gracefully and modestly. Paul’s poems were like the man: witty, laconic, erudite in a very self deprecating way, formally inventive, wise and unashamedly entertaining. Indeed, a Violi reading was often laugh out loud funny, as the excellent video (made last year by his wife, Ann) above demonstrates. You also get to hear his rich, utterly American voice. There’s a terrific, long profile of Paul here. Below is one of my favourite poems of Paul’s, from 1999’s Fracas. There are dozens of others I could have chosen. I pasted this from the memorial blog to Paul that has been set up here. The tributes there demonstrate what I could only assume, that Paul was a great teacher as well as a great poet, always an encourager of genuine talent. He was also a warm, generous, funny man, who died far too young and will be greatly missed. Condolences to Ann and their two children.
On an Acura Integra
Please think of this as not merely a piece
Of writing that anyone would fully
Appreciate, but as plain and simple
Words that attempt to arouse whatever
Appetencies you, especially, depend
Upon language to fulfill; that drench you
In several levels of meaning at once,
Rendering my presence superfluous.
In other words, welcome this as a poem,
Not merely a missive I’ve slowly composed
And tucked under your windshield wiper
So that these onlookers who saw me bash
In your fender will think I’m jotting down
The usual information and go away.