The Poetry Project

“in tune with earth”

In Memoriam for Gary Lenhart by Greg Masters

Gary was a quiet guy, not big on self-promotion or commandeering a dinner party. But in his written work and presence, his calm and steadfastness—seemingly an enlightened assuredness—has had an enormous and positive effect on a great many lives.

For a decade or so beginning in 1975 Gary and I spent a lot of time together. It was comfortable to be in his company, even in our bohemian subsistence. We worked together in The Poetry Project office; along with Michael Scholnick, over eight years we edited 14 issues of a poetry magazine; over two years we worked with comrades on a poetry reading series for public access TV; we attended hundreds of readings and music events; we were go-to guys for friends’ moves; and we hung out many a languid afternoon in his apartment (he had a Mr. Coffee machine that seemed to declare his digs the meeting spot for the poet friends in our building on East 12th Street). Never a glint of anything but acceptance and agreement. Even when there was a difference of opinion on some weighty matter (one time he said a Grateful Dead track was boring), the conflict resolved in the general convivial ambience, a flow in which I inherently trusted there would be no reckoning.

He was diligent and disciplined about his craft in those years. He was always working on his poems and reading widely. He absorbed texts not only by the Lower East Side neighbors whose work we were discovering and prioritizing, but the full range of world literature. He always had a paperback in the back pocket of his jeans. Later, when we were less in contact, I know he continued in that vein. Just take a look at his two collections of literary criticism: The Stamp of Class, essays profiling a disparate cast of poets throughout the 20th century considering class impositions; and Another Look, which gathers a selection of poetry book reviews he wrote for a number of literary journals, including regular contributions to this publication as well as to the American Book Review and Exquisite Corpse. And these two volumes collect but a small fraction of the critical writing he contributed to various journals (the majority with no, or meager, payment). Much remains uncollected.

His beneficence to the poetry community shone too as an administrator for The Poetry Project. It was Gary who toiled over spreadsheets to lead its board of directors out of a dire fiscal crisis in the early 80s. He then worked a decade at the Teachers and Writers Collaborative while picking up some teaching positions at local colleges. For the past three decades he taught literature and writing classes to graduate and undergraduate students at Dartmouth until retiring in 2019. Further bio is available here.

It’s tricky, perhaps a truly underground aesthetic, to shrug off the peripheral show-biz gloss requisite for an artist’s career. To me, Gary was always the idealized cowboy hero, alone on the range. But he didn’t need to dominate any animals or proclaim his dominion over the landscape or the cowpokes fortunate in his presence. He led by living life, jotting down his thoughts to share a lucid and finely crafted vision of what was available to us and why we could enjoy and find delight the way he did. It’s enormously pleasing to me the way his poems—and later, short prose pieces—are structured within a shell of order and form. One may barely notice the rigor shaping his expressions but it’s there, a rhythmic eloquence that accumulates and registers.

After he met artist Louise Hamlin in 1980, his poems improved: less abstract and obscure—the better to describe the bliss he was experiencing settling into domesticity. (“We got hitched,” he announced on a postcard.)

In his poems, he wears the dust of his working class background as a given. The poems could be emanating from a union hall—where sometimes truck drivers are gifted with the eloquence of philosophers—or reach out from a more rarified Arcadia to share ruminations of an educated working stiff.

Always articulating the splendor of the ordinary while a champion of values askew from the mainstream, I believe Gary achieves what, in one of his poems from Light Heart, a dying buddy asks of him, “to bring the marginal into consciousness.”

Many readers of this newsletter were beneficiaries of his respect, sometimes indulgence. We could rely on it from him. His dignity was infectious. It’s not one of those intangibles we could expect from most places, but it was an unquestioned standard with Gary. And, I suspect, it made a lot of people besides me adore him, even if he was immune to adoration.

When I got word in January that he’d received an ominous diagnosis, I emailed well-wishes with a quote from Dante (Allen Mandelbaum’s translation):

   The soul, which is created quick to love,
responds to everything that pleases, just
as soon as beauty wakens it to act.

You’ve always been beauty for me, I wrote. He responded by pointing me to other translations.

#265 — Summer 2021