A Life remembered 

Leonard Wallace Robinson’s Now and Zen

After her husband, Leonard Wallace Robinson, passed away in the spring of 1999, poet and University of Montana professor Patricia Goedicke sent a sheaf of his most recent poems, a collection of haikus, to their friend, poet Robert Lax. Lax, famous for his solitary life on a small island in the Aegean, wrote back: “Oh, thank you and Leonard…! Wish you could be on hand as I read and re-read it. One shout of ‘Oh, yes, yes!’ right after another.” Toward the end, Lax suggested the quickest way to get the collection published, but just in case, he wrote: “…let’s find our own way of doing it. The world has to share in this wonder.” Although Lax, who died a year later, would never see the haikus in print, the public will.

As part of this year’s sixth annual Festival of the Book, Goedicke will read from the posthumous collection of haikus, Now and Zen: A Life, by her late husband. The Festival is a time in Missoula when younger writers cheer on their mentors and when established authors gather to read from new or favorite works, and Goedicke’s reading offers a rare opportunity for both audiences.

While many may remember Robinson as a renowned literary figure, those newer to the area or less in touch with Missoula’s literary foundations may have heard his name only in passing—perhaps in reference to his wife or to something he said at his regular poker game or perhaps to something he did for an aspiring writer. Local writer and UM professor Deirdre McNamer, for instance, says, “He was particularly important to me as an aspiring writer. He was able to combine a certain enthusiasm with perceptive comments.”

Goedicke, in a tradition she and Robinson established together, has also fostered a strong relationship with her students. She continues to be a generous mentor to many in the writing community, sharing her own poetry and her savvy about the publishing market, and recently she even officiated at the wedding of one of her former students. Though recently retired, Goedicke continues to teach a class from her living room. At this year’s festival, while some will have an opportunity to remember Robinson, Goedicke’s reading will allow others a second chance to get to know him for the first time.

“He cared about people, he worried about them, and he knew they worried about themselves, which is why he wanted to help them all,” says Goedicke. “I think people loved to talk with him because he wanted to talk about the inner world all of us carry within us.”

Before Goedicke and Robinson met at the MacDowell Colony, an artists’ retreat in New Hampshire (where she played a mean game of ping-pong and the two shared the same favorite line of poetry), Robinson had already made a name for himself in the literary world. In the 1930s he attended the New School for Social Research and Columbia University, where he was editor of The Columbia Review. Soon afterward, New Yorker magazine hired him as a staff writer, which served as the tipping point for an editorial career spent at Esquire and Collier’s, and later as executive editor at Holt, Rinehart publishing company. Although he took a leave from the publishing world in the 1950s, the reason why became just as important to his writing as anything he’d previously done. It was during this mid-career period that Robinson apprenticed himself to a prominent psychiatrist as a lay practitioner. To the people who knew him, his talent for unraveling and respecting the mysteries of the human self was evident in every moment of his life and writing.

In his story called “The Ruin of Soul,” from the 1950 collection of O. Henry Prize Stories, a young priest leads a disturbing inner life that eventually overwhelms him to the point of sickness. Fifty-five years later, a reader, leaning on the most recent news of disgraced priests, might suspect one specific subject for the young priest’s disturbing inner life. That reader, at least in this case, would be incorrect. “The Ruin of Soul” explores, with neither judgment nor irony, how a fragile young man struggles with deep insecurities. Though Robinson touches only lightly upon the impetuses, his depiction of the priest’s struggle with them runs deep. The story, simply put, is one of incredible compassion and wisdom.

In a recent e-mail, Goedicke wrote: “[Leonard] once told me he was ‘the most insecure person’ he’d ever known. He was constantly analyzing himself and the world. He worried about himself, and at the same time he worried about others. He wanted to know what was the right way for us to behave, to understand and to learn to control or at least live with our passions, our good instincts and our bad instincts.” In his obituary, McNamer wrote that Robinson was a writer who “walked conversation[s] into deeper waters: love, literature, what it feels like to know you are old when you don’t feel that way.” The story of the priest illustrates Robinson’s ability to magnify the most common of emotions and, in effect, to deepen our understanding of insecurity itself.

In his haiku, “Old Poet,” Robinson observed that the old poet “Removed all old snaps/from his study. They stirred up/feelings beyond words.” Robinson’s Now and Zen: A Life is a collection the novelist, journalist, poet, and teacher worked on during the years before his death. Though a deeply serious man and writer, his friends in and around Missoula knew him as a tender and hilarious wit, and those traits come through in his last published work. One haiku, entitled “Song,” reads, “Were I Hindu, I’d/free that fly trapped by the screen./I will anyhow.” Another, “Cost of Therapy,” reads, “Though insight lights the/dark emotion up, it tends/ to kill all the joy.”

In her own words, Goedicke sees the haikus as “the distillations of a long and complex life, a life filled with wisdom, struggle, sorrow, and great joy. That’s why some of them are so funny. That’s why it took him a lifetime to write them. They’re acorns fallen from a rather short, but truly giant oak tree. I know, because I have the privilege of living in its shade.”

Patricia Goedicke will read from Now and Zen: A Life at the Festival of the Book Friday, Sept. 23, at 1 PM in the Holiday Inn Parkside’s Ballroom II. She’ll be joined by Christopher Howell, senior editor of Eastern Washington University Press.

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