The Poetry Project

Homage to a Most Generous Man – Farewell Lewis Warsh

Patricia Spears Jones

In an essay entitled “The Summer of 1975” that will be published next year, I look back at my first year at The Poetry Project and the workshops I took and why I found myself in the one led by Lewis Warsh:

He had a way of focusing on a word, phrase or line and sort of teasing out what should or should not be there. This could be blunt or very subtle. I don’t remember him ever saying something was crap (I did hear that in other workshops), but the weaker writers slowly left the workshop leaving a band of very smart, imaginative people in their wake.

Lewis looked my lyrics and well . . . the adolescence in my writing departed. In a way, what was happening in the workshop was what happening to me. I would bring in these long shifting pieces. Lewis would look at them and say, “what’s really going on?” And then I would have seen what was really going on.

When I look at that description, I realize that Lewis’ greatest asset was his generosity. He was generous with knowledge. Generous of spirit. Generous with praise. Generous with encouragement. Maybe that’s why he was so skinny. I don’t know. I just know that he had a way of finding the poem, the person, the tune and tone of the moment. He could be sharp if something did not work, he’d let you know—but that sting was never hurtful. I think he worked very hard to not be cruel. I think he worked very hard to express love and friendship. I think he worked hard to honor his ideas of poetry, poets, the writing life. Sometimes he was rewarded for this, often, much too often, overlooked.

I sublet Lewis’ apartment when he went away for a few weeks in the summer of 1975—there were many books and objects and fabrics (he had a Russian girlfriend, an opera diva) very lush and piles of pillows and cheap furniture. It was oh so Bohemian and yes in all that clutter, you knew that this was the home, even if temporary, of a poet. Words in the books, the texture of rugs, cushions, pillows; the hard back of cheap chairs, was the floor painted—can't recall that. But all those things that surrounded him mattered., made their way into his poems and stories and teaching.

Lewis could seem somewhat dour and distracted, but oddly I think of him as having a very droll sense of humor. He could arch those considerable brows when needed. He gave me some of the tools I needed to become a really strong poet and he did that for so many others because in so many different ways he knew what was really going on.

Patricia Spears Jones
November 16, 2020

In Memoriam: Lewis Warsh (1944–2020)