Donald Finkel was a student of sculpture and philosophy in his youth, before turning his full attention to poetry, and both interests left their mark in his work. Finkel became a poet on equally intimate terms with metaphysics and the earthy palpability of shapes and things. Of the two, his sculptural background is perhaps the more significant in assessing Finkel's major contribution to American poetry. He has created a new kind of long form poetry which is not a developed narrative, like the traditional epic or epic-derived poem. Finkel's book-length poems are an impressionistic accretion of lyrics, built in the way a sculptor builds with clay, or with found objects: sensual attention to each part, but always an awareness that the whole is of paramount importance. The analogy to found objects is also apt in relation to Finkel's other significant contribution to the vocabulary of poetry: the careful and imaginative use of found language as an ingredient in the building of a poem. In a sense, The Waste Land is the antecedent to this technique, but Finkel's sensibility in no way derives from T. S. Eliot; he has cited Robert Frost as his most powerful influence.
Finkel was born 21 October 1929 in the Bronx, New York, "a few blocks from Yankee Stadium," by his own account. His school record was checkered, and his first attempt at college, at the University of Chicago, culminated in his "being booted out for atrocious behavior." A year studying sculpture at the Art Students' League in New York helped focus his creative and academic energies, and he ultimately took a Bachelor's degree in Philosophy and a Master's in English from Columbia University, then entered the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop. Finkel spent his working life in academia, teaching first at Iowa, then at Bard College in New York State, and, for most of his career, at Washington University in St. Louis, where he was hired by Jarvis Thurston, then chairman of the English Department. Thurston and his wife, the poet Mona Van Duyn, had conceived the unusual idea of creating a community of writers within the English Department when there was no actual creative writing program. They recruited Finkel and his wife, the poet Constance Urdang, as well as Stanley Elkin, William Gass, and other writers, to teach whatever was available. The creative writing program came later, and became justly renowned. Finkel retired as head of Washington's poetry workshop in 1991, though he continued to teach part time there and at the University of Missouri/St. Louis. Urdang died in 1996. Finkel was bundled with two other poets in the John Hall Wheelock-edited Poets of Today in 1959. His first solo collection, Simeon (1964), published by Atheneum as were his subsequent books through The Wake of the Electron in 1987, won the Helen Bullis prize. He was nominated for a National Book Award in 1970 for The Garbage Wars, and received nominations for the National Book Critics Circle Award for A Mote in Heaven's Eye (1975) and What Manner of Beast (1981). Adequate Earth received the Theodore Roethke Memorial Award in 1974, and Endurance: an Arctic Idyll/Going Under received the Morton Dauwen Zabel Award (1980). This last dual title represented an innovation for poetry publishing, though not for readers of Ace or Avon science fiction novels: two book-length poems, printed in the same volume but upside down to each other, so that each poem was the first one in the book, depending on which way one picked it up. Other important titles include A Joyful Noise (1966), The Detachable Man (1984), The Wake of the Electron and Selected Shorter Poems (1987), Beyond Despair (1994), and Not So the Chairs (2003). He has also translated contemporary Chinese dissidents in A Splintered Mirror: Chinese Poetry from the Democracy Movement (1991). Apart from an early verse play, The Jar, produced by the Poets' Theater in 1961, which left him disillusioned with the theater and or any other sort of collaborative effort, all of Finkel's work has been poetry.
Finkel's work is noted for its range of subject matter and tonality, from philosophy to Rabelaisian humor, but all delivered in the voice of a tough New Yorker whose edge is only whetted by his unceasing appetite for the knowledge that comes from books and the experience that comes from living.
Finkel's earthy metaphysics have produced a number of striking poems on poetry, from his early declaration that ".... One sings, / not what was, but that it was" ("An Esthetic of Imitation," from The Clothing's New Emperor) to a late poem, "Burden" (Not So the Chairs). which turns a daring and disturbing paean to Alzheimer's ("as the last syllable crept away/he felt a certain lightness") into a ringing tribute to the very words the poem's "old bard" is losing. Verbs, among the last to go, hang on like almost-feral animals, "pacing the halls or curled on the living room soda," sinking "their claws into his thigh" if not fed. In an earlier poem, "Concerning the Transmission" (The Detachable Man), the edgy, high-maintenance physicality of words are compared to the an old car that "you've sunk too much into." In "Hands" (A Joyful Noise) he begins with a surprising but potentially just clever comparison of a poem to a bra, lifting, shaping and holding out the truth, but then takes it beyond concept to vivid sensual immediacy: "the poem is calculated to arouse./Lean back and let its hands play freely on you."
Finkel is equally capable of playing this game in reverse, refusing to settle for mere sensuality. In "At Roxy's Topless" (A Question of Seeing), a patron of a topless bar allows himself to fantasize the naked girl in front of in an even more intimate setting--fully clothed and shopping in a grocery store.
Finkel's exploration of long forms began with the title sequence in Simeon, about a 5th century hermit who achieved his sainthood by sitting on a pillar in the desert.
Answer Back, however, was his real breakthrough. Beginning with the theme of cave exploration, Finkel's vision broadened to include contemporary issues such as Vietnam, and his continuing concerns with sex, religion, myth and art. The poem represented his first serious engagement with collage, folding snippets from the I Ching, the Kama Sutra, Playboy, the Kama Kala, various newspapers, the journals of cave explorers, assorted writers from Walt Whitman to Lenny Bruce to John Gardner to James Baldwin, and Cleveland Burrell, a convict in the Missouri State Penitentiary, whose letter to Finkel provided the title phrase, into his own lapidary vernacular. Finkel acknowledged his sources in a foreword to the poem. He described himself as "reluctant to dignify" his poem with anything so formal as citations and epigraphs, but actually, the rhythm of the poem is the key factor in his choice. Discordant and harmonious, the quotes create dialog and counterpoint.
In 1968, Finkel spent several months as what he has described as "poet in residence at the South Pole," under a grant from the National Science Foundation's Antarctic Artists & Writers Program, designed to "enable serious writings and the arts that increase understanding of the Antarctic and help document America's antarctic heritage." Finkel was the furst poet to be chosen. This experience provided the source material for two books. Adequate Earth, which grew directly out of the mission, has also been set to music by composer Robert Wykes. Endurance: an Arctic Idyll. Endurance, which was published together with Finkel's second cave exploration poem, Going Under, was based on the 1914 Antarctic expedition by Sir Ernest Shackleton, which culminated in the wreck of his ship and his heroic and ultimately successful efforts to save his crew. Bringing his collaging techniques to a single story, using journals from the actual expedition, Finkel created his most successful dramatic unity, while continuing to develop his technique of building a story through a lyric mosaic. Finkel found particular resonance in the story of Pierce Blackboro, an 18-year-old stowaway, who became a symbol of the artist.
The other-than-human have always played an important role in Finkel's work. He finds, in the otherness of plants animals, significant insights into the limitations of humanness. He revels in weeds ("Surrounded by windflower, speedwell, sweet yellow clover,/we can let the angels enter one at a time," from "In the Clearing," an uncollected poem) more than cultivated plants, which he describes in the same poem as "docile. self-deprecating,/hushed and trusting," but he's not so unobservant as to miss the power of even the domesticated: in "Love Song for an Avocado Plant," he sees that "still she deigns to blossom in this province / of variable weather, fall, and dust." Animals share space with humans, like the cat and the man who keep a wary distance in "Distances" (from A Mote in Heaven's Eye), which ultimately collapses as the man "opens the door/and/thrusting against his leg/as if after all/two bodies might/inhabit the same space/at the same time/the cat comes in." Or they exist independently, like the dogs in "At Three A.M. the Dogs" (from The Detachable Man): "To each his own appropriate refrain,/one trenchant epigram to see him through the night/like thief! or don't! or mine! mine! mine! "
In What Manner of Beast, he found an animal subject worth developing throughout a book: the hubris of humans devising ways to communicate with animals. His main focus was on the various experiments with teaching human language to chimpanzees. At one time he considered writing a whole sequence of poems in words actually used by chimps, but ultimately his choice was to collage the desperate poetry of the language of chimps into the wider, but perhaps no more eloquent, language of humans, as in "The Negative Participle," where he considers the difficulty chimps had with the idea of a negative. Starting with the epigraph, "Though Sarah found the negative an aversive word, she even asked 'What is an apple not?' and replied, 'Bread,'" Finkel develops the idea: "What is an apple Sarah?/spill it, is it please fruit/is it sweet want on the branch/trilling red cadenzas/or goodbye Sarah in the hand/what Dr. P. calls a contingent event?" After informing us that chimps were taught the negative word by restraining their hands, Finkel zeroes in on the nature of communication as corruption: "In a garden of bolts and padlocks/Lucy mastered early/the mysteries of hook and key/the signs for dirty and sorry/Washoe signed a litany of sorry" -- followed by the litany, "frequently gestured 'please sorry,' 'sorry dirty,' 'sorry hurt,' 'please sorry good,' and 'come hug sorry sorry.'"
In A Mote in Heaven's Eye, Finkel created another alter ego, Lame Angel, a supernatural creature of almost infinitely circumscribed power, the patron of alleycats and suicides. His wings are no more than "downy shoulderblades" which "throb like a deer's first horns," but will never fully sprout. He is afraid of his shadow, not from nervousness but from understanding of the responsibility one incurs in blocking out light: "if he looks now it will never go away/...it will lie at his feet forever/licking his wretched shoes/with its soft grey tongue". Again using the mosaic of individual lyrics rather than narrative, Finkel builds a tragicomic portrait of humanity seen from the perspective of the other.
In The Wake of the Electron, Finkel found another character-as-metaphor he could explore in a book-length poem: the strange story of Donald Crowhurst, an adventurer who entered a round-the-world sailing race, and who regularly sent in false bulletins which indicated that he was winning the race, whereas actually he had been sailing in a small circle in the south Atlantic. Two logs -- the invented one and the real one -- were found on Crowhurst's boat, abandoned in the Sargasso Sea. Crowhurst was never found, presumed a suicide. Crowhurst's double life presents Finkel with a symbol for the artist, living simultaneously in real and imagined worlds, only tenuously connected to each.
Finkel devoted considerable time and effort to translations of contemporary Chinese dissident poets, including the highly regarded Bei Dao, for A Splintered Mirror. He collaborated with Carolyn Kizer on the book, with Finkel translating seven of the eight poets represented (Finkel took the men, Kizer the one woman). He returned to the book-length poem for Beyond Despair, which drew on local history of his adopted home town of St. Louis to create a world bleaker than that of his earlier work, but still rich in humanity. His late poems, along with a retrospective of early ones, were collected in Not So the Chairs.
In his later years, after retiring from teaching, Finkel returned to his first love, sculpture, working with found objects to create pieces that he called "dreckollages." These have been exhibited in St. Louis.