Arts & Events

Robin Blaser, 1925-2009

By Ken Bullock Special to the Planet
Thursday May 21, 2009 - 10:17:00 AM

Robin Blaser—poet, teacher, editor, librarian—died May 7 in Vancouver, British Columbia. 

With Oakland native Robert Duncan and Jack Spicer, Blaser started the gatherings, readings and discussions in the late 1940s called the Berkeley Renaissance. Later, all three would become an integral part of the poetry scene in San Francisco during the ’50s and early ’60s, having developed the form Spicer dubbed the Serial Poem, an “unmapped-out” sequence of lyric poems, becoming a kind of narrative when read together. Their work appeared in Donald Allen’s special issue of Evergreen Magazine on San Francisco poetry and in Allen’s anthology, The New American Poetry (Grove Press).  

In a memorial poem for Duncan, Blaser recollected his early days in Berkeley, the friendships and poetry that began there as part of an ongoing process:  

“[F]or the soul is a thing among many/ Berkeley shimmers and shakes/ in my mind most lost the absence preceded the place/ and the friendships ... as your faces/ move beyond me ... the language/ now become larger, sharper, more a gathering than the lingo/ wherein Berkeley began the movement” 

Other Berkeley occupations and encounters he enumerated in “Robin Blaser: Curriculum Vitae” as “Soda Jerk (nineteen)—everyone knows a beginner by his/her eagerness ... when they wouldn’t pay for my concoctions, I quit.” And “Library Page (twenty-five)—in the Berkeley Library, where I first met Hannah Arendt while trying to help her through a turnstile, the turning tubes of which she hadn’t seen before—thin, wondrous scholar/philosopher, who would seem to be one of my muses, wound up sitting on top of it, one of its spokes between her legs.” 

Blaser was born May 18, 1925, in Denver. Raised Catholic in Blaser, Idaho, a railroad whistlestop, his grandmother had been secretary to Brigham Young. He came as a student to UC Berkeley in 1944, studying with teachers such as medievalist Ernst Kantorowicz and poet Josephine Miles. 

Blaser, who worked at Harvard’s Widener Library and was involved in the development of the Poetry Center at San Francisco State, moved to Vancouver in 1966, teaching at Simon Fraser University until the mid-1980s. His 70th birthday was celebrated by a conference in Vancouver, his 75th and 80th by readings there and for the Poetry Center in San Francisco. He last appeared in Berkeley in 2008.  

Blaser edited Richard Brautigan’s In Watermelon Sugar and The Collected Books of Jack Spicer, issued by Black Sparrow almost 10 years to the day after Spicer’s death in August 1965. His efforts to win recognition for his old friend were furthered by the Wesleyan University Press publication of My Vocabulary Did This To Me [Spicer’s last words to Blaser], collected poems, edited by Peter Gizzi and Kevin Killian, late last year. 

Blaser’s own work, erudite, conversational and witty, is collected in The Holy Forest (poetry), including translations of Pindar and Nerval, and The Fire (prose), including his essay on Spicer, “The Practice of Outside.” (Both volumes, UC Press, 2006.) A great performer of his own poems, readings by Blaser can be found online at PennSound and other sites, and at the Poetry Center, San Francisco State University. He also wrote the libretto for The Last Supper, an opera by Harrison Birtwhistle. 

Blaser wrote in 1994: “If I had been able to see through and beyond the large arena writing throws me into, I might well have preferred to be safer. But I learned as a young man reading Melville that to say ‘I would prefer not to’ would not bring me into a safer place, though it would be an honest admission of my destiny.” 

He is survived by David Farwell, his companion of over 30 years, and many friends, former students and fellow poets; among the most widely known, Michael Ondaatje.