Distinguished Poet Mourned
May 27, 2014
Vern Rutsala, professor emeritus of English, died April 2, 2014, at age 80, just two weeks after the Oregon Book Awards honored him with the Charles Erskine Scott Wood Distinguished Writer Award in recognition of his “enduring, substantial literary career.”
Rutsala was a prolific and distinguished poet whose public honors and renown were in stark contrast to his quiet demeanor. “Writing poetry or practicing any of the arts is an individualizing process,” he once said. “Those parts of yourself that the larger world has little use for, your inner life, that’s where poems come from.”
As a teacher, he fostered conditions for students to explore those realms of self. “I can’t teach someone to be creative. That impulse must come from within,” he explained. “I simply react, point out what’s strong, and help students evolve.”
Born in McCall, Idaho, Rutsala moved to Portland with his family in the wake of the Depression. He graduated from Milwaukie High School and then went on to earn his bachelor’s degree from Reed College in 1956 and an M.F.A. from the University of Iowa in 1960. He came to Lewis & Clark in 1961 and continued to teach in the English department until his retirement in 2004.
Over his lifetime, Rutsala published more than 700 poems in such venues as the Atlantic Monthly, the Times Literary Supplement, the New Yorker, Midland, Poetry, Harper’s, American Poetry Review, Chicago Review, Mississippi Review, Nebraska Review, Seneca Review, and New Letters. He was the author of 16 books of poetry and his work has appeared in many anthologies.
Rutsala received a Guggenheim Fellowship, two National Endowment for the Arts grants, the Carolyn Kizer Poetry Prize (which he won twice), a Pushcart Prize, a Masters Fellowship from the Oregon Arts Commission, the Oregon Book Award, and many other significant honors and recognitions. In 2005, he was a finalist for the National Book Award for his volume The Moment’s Equation.
Illness prevented Rutsala from attending the recent Oregon Book Awards ceremony. In presenting his award at the Gerding Theater, President Barry Glassner hailed him as “a proud laborer in the fields of literature and academia” and for “his extraordinary body of work, generosity of heart, commitment to truth, and clarity of voice.” Chronicle-Spg 14: Special Obit – Rutsala Word Count: 395 As of 4.15.14 Rutsala’s literary archives are housed in Special Collections in Watzek Library. Survivors include his wife, Joan, and their three children.