Richard Eberhart

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(HOST) Recently New England lost a remarkable poet. Commentator Jay Parini offers this affectionate remembrance.

(PARINI) The poet Richard Eberhart died in Hanover a few weeks ago, at 101. He had been a professor at Dartmouth for many dec- ades and was revered on both sides of the Atlantic as a poet of visionary intensity. He won every major prize that a poet can win, including the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.

I met Dick over 30 years ago, when I took my first teaching job at Dartmouth. I hadn’t occupied my new office for more than a few weeks when a knock came to the door, and it was Dick. I’d read and admired his work since college and still remember a dramatic reading of his harrowing poem, “The Cancer Cells”, by one of my undergraduate teachers.

Dick came into my office like a burst of light, a short chubby man with the face of a baby, an angelic nature and a wildly energetic manner. He smoked a pipe almost continuously. He invited me to dinner that night, and I went. In fact, I kept going for decades.

Often I would visit Dick and his wife Betty at their summer house in Maine, where Dick had a 40-foot cruiser, the Reve, which he piloted with considerable skill and a certain mad audacity, taking me on trips to distant islands. Even in his late 80s, Dick was rushing to Maine in the summer, to Florida in the winter, often teaching seminars in poetry at far-flung places. But Dartmouth, his undergraduate college, remained home.

His friendship was among the great lucky things in my life, and I often reread his best poems, which include “The Fury of Aerial Bombardment”, composed while serving in the Second World War as a bombing instructor. The poem begins:

You would think the fury of aerial bombardment
Would rouse God to relent; the infinite spaces
Are still silent. He looks on shock-pried faces.
History, even, does not know what is meant.

About a month ago, I went to see Dick for the last time at a nurs- ing home in Hanover. He was sitting at his desk when I came in, in jacket and tie, writing. A pipe lay beside him.

He seemed delighted to have a visitor, and we had a warm conver- sation, though his mind was not as sharp as it had once been, and I had to supply a lot of memory for him. When we talked about his poems, though, he lit up, remembering and reciting several of them at my request.

At the end of the visit, he asked me to help him into bed. Just before I left the room, he closed his eyes and recited a poem he wrote at the age of 15. These were the last words I heard from him:

Cover me over, clover;
Cover me over, grass.
The mellow day is over.
And there is night to pass.

Green arms about my head,
Green fingers on my hands.
Earth has no quieter bed
In all her quiet lands.

This is Jay Parini, in Weybridge.

Jay Parini, a poet, novelist and biographer, teaches at Middlebury College.

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