Wednesday, January 3, 2007

KU Poet Victor Contoski Retires

My first college teacher of poetry, in 1978, was Victor Contoski, a professor at the University of Kansas. He encouraged his students almost unconditionally; he instructed; he insisted we purchase copies of literary magazines and imagine ourselves in their pages; and he encouraged us to learn how to write reviews. He was a Santa Claus figure, and he was a happy Taurus with a small orchard around his house. When the poetry class met at his house, we passed around a screwtop jug of wine. Stephen Bunch writes of Contoski that he remembers: “His laughter, good nature, encouragement, the big jug of wine that would circulate around the room (boy, you couldn't do that with students anymore, I imagine).

Among his students in the 1970s were Stephen Bunch, Donald Levering, Diane Hueter Warner, Kim Weldon, David Weed, and many others.

I read Contoski’s work then, in the late 1970s, and it was a contrast to his classroom geniality. His deep imagist poetry took me into a place of post-World War II dark ironies. He was greatly influenced by his Polish wife’s experiences during the war and his own experiences teaching in Poland during the Cold War. He heard first-hand stories during his return trips. A gallows humor underlay the outlook of survivors, and this humor seeps out from Contoski’s works. I recall his poem “Teeth,” which was one of my favorites of his early verse:

1.Kiss the one you love.

Behind the lips

teeth are waiting

Like a man with a weapon

Waits in a dark alley.

2. They are not knives

but clubs.

They come down on meat

like a lead pipe

on the head of a woman.

3. Sometimes in dreams

they wither and turn soft

like rotten cactus.

They curl up and fall out

like men refusing to fight

an unpopular war.

4.If you are beaten long enough and hard enough

your teeth will be knocked out.

Then you can use them as chessmen:

Front teeth, pawns;

Back teeth, pieces.

5. They line up in the mouth

like soldiers for inspection.

Ever since I can remember

they have surrounded the tongue,

reminding what is soft

of what is hard.

(© 1973 by Victor Contoski. Reprinted with permission.)

At the time, Contoski told me that he knew the beaten men from section 4, from the Cold War days in Poland when dissidents went to prison.

This poet’s opus includes an historic perspective, such as his poem “The Sack,” which has sections dedicated to Troy, Rome, the Middle Ages, the Inquisition, Lucretia Borgia, Benedict Arnold, Hitler, and Nixon. He has written in the style of long poems divided into sections (after Wallace Stevens’ “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”), and these are weighty, important pieces of writing. He taught me to consider a book of poetry not as a file of poems to date, but rather as shaped around larger themes.

Contoski also taught me to look at Midwestern writers closely, especially William Stafford, Robert Bly, and Ted Kooser. He imparted a sense of excitement about creating a literature for a part of the country that was most often overlooked by outsiders—and also misunderstood as flyover country. He scorned East Coast elitist poets who were writing about their dinner parties. He himself wrote haunting, vivid and unsettling poems about rain, stars, frontier history, and snow, like “Sunset”:

Since long before the white man

rode out onto the prairies

the sun has been going down.

A towering cottonwood sways in the breeze

Rocking rocking the cradle in its branches.

The hero’s eyes turn glassy.

His hand waves vaguely

toward something in his breast

as his knees buckle.

The giant coming down the beanstalk

feels it start to sway beneath him.

He looks down and sees Jack

with a silly grin and a hatchet

looming suddenly larger and larger

as the sun over

goes down and down and out.

(© 2000 by Victor Contoski. Reprinted with permission.)

In this poem the European folklore figure Jack enters into the grasslands landscape, reincarnated as a Wild Man figure, and now at home in a cottonwood tree as well as a beanstalk.

As a teacher, Contoski had strong opinions, ones that most often stood up to my tests, and also he had the right avuncular touch with those who did not agree with him. This gave students a chance to find clear boundaries among the chaos of first poems. There was also flexibility and acceptance. He began workshop critiques with the phrase “If this were my poem, and I wish it were, I would change this—” I owe him much for his kind guidance.

Contoski, at 70, has retired from teaching. He continues to explore potentials of the subconscious and conscious mind. He tells me he has begun to write poetry again. I look forward to seeing it.

His books of original poetry are Astronomers, Madonnas, and Prophesies (Northeast/Juniper Books, 1972); Broken Treaties (New Rivers Press, 1973); Names (New Rivers Press, 1973); A Kansas Sequence (Tellus / Cottonwood Review Press, 1983); Midwestern Buildings: A Collection of Poems (Cottonwood Press, 1997); and Homecoming (New Rivers Press, 2000). He has also edited and translated Polish-related writings.