Ever since I found out about Pablo Neruda’s disabled daughter…

Stephen Kuusisto wearing a fedora and trench coat, standing beside a dragon in Kyoto, Japan

Ever since I learned about Pablo Neruda’s disabled daughter and how he abandoned her I’ve felt revulsion toward the man. Then I saw his admission of rape in his memoir and felt more revulsion. Then I revisited his praise of Stalin…and so on as Kurt Vonnegut Jr. would say.

Poets are infantile, self-absorbed, charming, and generally not upstanding citizens. That and a buck gets you a cup of Joe. Didn’t we resolve this with Pound? Poets are lousy neighbors but still we want them around.

Of course the solution was to put them in the academy that old flophouse for deviants.


So anyway, last night I dreamt I was young once more. I was taking a class at the University of Iowa’s “Writer’s Workshop” with the late Donald Justice, a poet of distinction who was my teacher in the late 1970’s. Don was flinty, how does one say it–he’d fillet his students. He saw himself as the bulwark of literary decency. He was often mean.

He made young students who deigned to study poetry writing flee his classroom in tears.

Then the “visiting poets” would come to town to read their poems and attend boozy parties in their honor. They too were mean.


The only kind poet I ever met during those years was Gary Snyder who showed genuine kindness to his audience and at the requisite party “leaned in” as they say, listening to what the silly but yearning graduate students had to say.


Some poets are like playground bullies. They declare their patch of sand and dare you to enter their imaginary sacred space.

In my dream I was again in a classroom with Donald Justice. Daylight was turning de Chirico green which meant a tornado was coming.

Suddenly Justice had a conductor’s baton and was waving it about. He said it was a poet’s job to conduct the storm.

Even in my dream I knew this was exquisite bullshit.

Thank God I woke up.


Don was a good poet, a Pulitzer Prize winner. He didn’t like young people.

I admire poets who take a genuine interest in young people.

I read poets who were never nice.

I don’t have to like an artist to know her or his merit.

Once, again, years ago I saw the poet May Sarton humiliate a young woman who dared to say she was interested in the connections between poetry and dance. Sarton looked the poor girl in the eye and said, “you my dear are a fake.”

So, heck, she didn’t like young people.

But she sure could write about being old.


Auden said famously: “Poetry might be defined as the clear expression of mixed feelings.”

Do you understand? Kindness is a mixed feeling.

And it’s what’s required if you want to live among people.

Author: skuusisto

Poet, Essayist, Blogger, Journalist, Memoirist, Disability Rights Advocate, Public Speaker, Professor, Syracuse University

2 thoughts on “Ever since I found out about Pablo Neruda’s disabled daughter…”

  1. Justice “caught” me reading a copy of Koch’s Wishes, Lies, and Dreams in the workshop lounge one day. He said “Don’t read that!” and seemed truly angry. I said “Why not? It’s delightful.” He smiled that thin-lipped smile and said, “It’ll ruin you. They really get it and we should leave it to them.” I think he was pretty much always afraid any one of us was better than him.


  2. Apropos of poets and kindness, I met Auden when I was a young girl and he and his companion were supremely caring and protective of me, saying that a young girl shouldn’t be alone in Ischia and offering me a place to stay with them. They clearly had only the kindest motives as they were devoted to eachother and not in the least interested in me in any but the most paternal way.

    Varda Ducovny


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