The Poetry Project

Lewis Memorial

Tony Iantosca

I first met Lewis in 2009, when I was visiting Long Island University’s MFA program. I had already been accepted but was not quite sure what I was getting into. I hadn’t applied to that many programs, and was only interested in LIU because I loved Lewis’s poetry so much, thanks to a book of his poems Dan Owen had given me a few years earlier. After a little over an hour talking with Lewis in his office, I decided that this was the program for me, that Lewis would be a caring and compassionate guide. We didn’t know each other at all at that point, but he was so patient with me, listening to me describe the books I’d been reading, what I was interested in writing, talking about my time teaching in Mexico.

That fall, and throughout the rest of my time in the MFA, I would visit Lewis in his office a few times a week. He would give me books he had published, some of them rare and valuable. For him, the market value of these books didn’t matter as much as knowing that the poetry they contained was continuing to be read and continuing to leave its mark on the poetry of the future. We would also talk about anything at all—teaching, music, his children, the poetry of others in the cohort, the future of the MFA program, politics, and much else. It was a friendship that would last well beyond my time in the program.

Lewis taught me a great deal about poetry and poetics and introduced me to poetry not only from the NY school, but from all around the world. But he also taught me something broader about life as a poet. The first of these lessons was that one should never work too much, as work takes a toll on the body and mind’s energies that could otherwise be used for poetry. Often struggling to pay rent and bills, I always felt like this was too easy for him to say, coming up as he did in a time when rent, and life in general, was much cheaper. But as time has passed, I’ve come to see this anti-work wisdom as invaluable.

The other lesson is one I’ve mentioned already, but that cannot be overemphasized: be generous with others. Lewis’s generosity was not charity. He was interested in how the circulation of gifts—in the form of books, but also as listening, as presence and patience—could imbue a community with a collective artistic and poetic energy. It was gifting that sustained the poetry world he came from, as far as he was concerned, and it has certainly become such a common practice among my friends and classmates from the program that we don’t even think about not doing it.

It will be hard to think of this world, and this community, without Lewis’s kindness and support. The best way to honor him will be to live the ethos, to embody the spirit, that he gave to others.

In Memoriam: Lewis Warsh (1944–2020)