Donald Hall’s “Remembering Joe Salerno”

Originally published as the forward to Only Here:

It was a lively time for poetry at the University of Michigan in the early seventies.  My friend Bert Hornback set up regular Tuesday afternoon readings, which were well-attended — a hundred at the worst, four hundred on good days.  Robert Bly and Galway Kinnell came every year; Wendell Berry, John Logan, Denise Levertov, Adrienne Rich.  Joe was always there — with David Tucker and other Ann Arbor Poets.  There were readings at coffee houses, bookstores and bars.  Poetry was lively and ordinary.

Joe loved the “ordinary” — a favorite word in his poems — but he was not ordinary.  He was outstanding in his talent and his passionate love for the art of poetry.  There were two ways to watch a poetry reading: one was to watch the reader; the other was to watch Joe’s countenance, where the poems played themselves out.  After the readings, Ann Arbor poets gathered to talk with the visitor.  I remember Joe – intense and serious and tender – talking with John Logan.  I remember Joe with James Wright.

Joe Salerno’s devotion to poetry – to the art, not to himself as a practitioner – set a standard for everybody.  When he and I saw each other, I felt renewed by Joe.  If any cynicism or professionalism had stuck to me, Joe rubbed it away by his clear and radiant passion for the art itself.  It is wretched that he died young, like his friend my late wife, Jane Kenyon.

The greatest characteristic of Joe Salerno’s own poetry is love for the world of things, of flesh, and of language. His sensibility is amative and erotic.  He wrote with the appetite of the body, expressed by the poet’s joy in diction and cadence.  Joe’s poems collected here are better than the poems I saw in 1974, but he was already good then — and he was already reticent, shy about putting his own work forward.  I wish he had been bolder.  Remembering young Joe from twenty-five years ago, reading the mature work after his death, I need to list my favorite poems.  If readers want to check Joe Salerno out, they must not miss “In the Heaven of Obscurity” —

In summer, try listening to the inaudible
tick of sunlight on the old wood
of the house, or the occasional late shower
in the afternoons.  And, at night,
when it’s windy, there’s the weeds that bend
and rustle and do not whisper your name

– or “The Bull God,” “Moose Love,” “Anima Mundi,” and “Reading Basho’s Travel Sketches” — where the final lines make me think of Joe himself”

“Eternity,” he always seemed to be saying, “is just
Being somewhere with all your heart.”

Read “The Bombs of Spring,” “At the End of the Day.” and “Only Here.”  Read Salerno passim, but be sure you don’t miss “Raining with the Sun Out,” “Old Old Man in Cold Weather,Poetry Is the Art of Not Succeeding,” “The Good Morning,” “Nobody Knows the Answer to this Poem,” or the last poem here that ends:

“Whatever it is you want, you will never have.
Don’t be afraid. Give up. Give up.”

By giving up, by his art of “not succeeding,” Joe has left behind a triumphant, sweet, and astounding book.  Reading his poems we will continue remembering Joe Salerno.

– Donald Hall


Joe Salerno during his Ann Arbor days

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