Robert Sward throws his voice, and fetches it
By Stephen Kessler
When Robert Sward arrived in Santa Cruz in 1985, he instantly became the area’s most nationally famous resident poet. Thanks to his much-anthologized poem “Uncle Dog: The Poet at 9,” the first he ever published and one that remains a classic 50 years later, local writers knew Sward’s name and welcomed him as a borderline celebrity. Ever since then he has thrived here as a prolific poet, novelist, journalist, teacher and, in recent years, poetry editor of the Santa Cruz Weekly.
“Uncle Dog,” with its fractured syntax, deadpan wit, acute observation and wry poignancy, proved a prophetic overture for Sward’s career, now totaling some two dozen books and culminating in the appearance of his New and Selected Poems 1957-2011 (Red Hen Press), to be launched officially Tuesday at the Capitola Book Café.
Born in Chicago in 1933, Sward served in the US Navy, where he began writing, and in the late 50s was admitted into the elite Iowa Writers Workshop. “Iowa showed me the importance of a community of writers,” he says, the kind of community he later found in Santa Cruz. In Iowa, at the time, a formalist poetics prevailed. “People were writing rhymes, couplets, sonnets, villanelles; and I was writing free verse.” What inspired him was the collective enthusiasm for poetry, a spirit of “cross-fertilization. I was somewhat annoyed at feeling an outsider, but I was an outsider in a community of outsiders.”
After Iowa, he became a “roving academic nomad” until 1969 when “a half-hour poetry reading in Toronto turned into a 14-year stay.” In Canada he worked as a newspaper journalist and as a radio interviewer for the CBC, sharpening his skills as a listener. “For me,” says Sward, “journalism fed my poetry as much as anything else—doing profiles, doing interviews with people.” Since then, “I feel very comfortable including dialogue, as in the father poems, with the father speaking—I think I got his voice. I got the dog speaking—I don’t know if I got his voice, but it’s a voice that works for me.”
The father poems and the dog poems dominate Sward’s later work in extraordinary acts of poetic ventriloquism, the dramatic monologue serving as an extremely effective vehicle for exploration of the poet’s touchingly comical uncertainties and insecurities. The father, a Jewish podiatrist turned Rosicrucian after the death of his wife (the poet’s mother), is a straight-talking, no-nonsense, up-from-the-bootstraps (or soles-of-the-feet) philosopher who speaks from the beyond with astonishing eloquence and insight.
Sward cites Saul Bellow as a major influence. “The Adventures of Augie March was like a rocket going off,” he says. “And the Chicago background, I could relate to that, the kind of energy, the way he used language. That would be one of the forefathers of the father poems—the voice and the Jewishness, and the toughness, the tough-mindedness.”
As for the dogs, who play a similar role in his most recent poems, serving as sure-footed philosophical foils to the author’s doubtful strivings, “The voice is everything,” Sward says. “The persona thing really fascinates me. I had many dogs as a kid. We’d go down to the Chicago pound and see these poor miserable creatures, shelter dogs, and we’d bring one home, and it never quite seemed to work out. Outsider dogs.”
He continues: “There’s something about the dog presence, he’s always in the moment, and left to their own devices they’re pretty joyful creatures.”
Sward channels the father and the dog as a way of objectifying and ironizing the emotion that drives his poems. “I’ve been married five times”—for the last 25 years to the painter Gloria Alford, who provided the cover image for New and Selected Poems—“I have five kids, five grandkids…as a writer I feel I haven’t been as fully in the world of family and children…so there’s a certain amount of melancholy associated with that,” a melancholy converted to comic wisdom in the writing.
Sward’s New and Selected, a trim 200 pages selected from thousands previously published, has the coherence of a single sustained composition. “Putting together this book in a way was like writing a poem,” he says. “It is like one poem; it’s a life.”
Causes Robert Sward Supports
Audubon Society, National Geographic, "Green," the Environment, SPCA...