Wednesday, September 15, 2010

George Hitchcock, 1914–2010

The news has only now reached me that George Hitchcock has died at the age of ninety-five after a long illness (h/t: Mark Athitakis).

George started teaching at Santa Cruz in 1970, the year I enrolled there as a freshman. He was, I believe, the very first faculty member I met. I knew him by sight, of course. As Jim Hair’s eye-catching photograph from 1973 testifies, George was a striking physical presence, six foot four with a gray mane falling away from a receding hairline, hard to miss. One evening during freshman orientation I was eating in the College V dining hall with my roommate, and went to fetch a glass of milk. George was ahead of me. He lifted the lever on the milk dispenser; nothing came out. He turned to me. “The cows are running dry,” he said in his basso profundo voice. “All over the world, the cows are running dry.” It was my first lesson in surrealism.

George edited kayak, a one-man poetry magazine (hence the name), for twenty years between 1964 and 1984. According to Elaine Woo’s obituary in the Los Angeles Times, the magazine’s name “reflected the manage­ment philosophy of an editor who had come to despair the committee approach to choosing literary submissions.” While at Santa Cruz, I co-founded a little magazine (along with Raymond Carver, John Kucich, and Paul Skenazy) called Quarry. It operated by committee, although the rest of us would have been wiser to defer more often to Carver.

Despite our literary differences, George was extremely generous to me. After I had helped him with something—I can’t even remember what it was now—he sent me a thank-you gift: a signed edition of Philip Levine’s Red Dust, published by Kayak Books in 1971. Perhaps he was trying to tell me something about my taste in poetry. I wrote clotted imitations of Robert Lowell’s early Catholic verse in those days. My poems quoted from the Jewish liturgy in the original Hebrew and required pedantic expli­cation to make any sense. George’s favorite poets made no sense either, but they had a lot more fun doing so.

Two pieces of literary arcana from those years. I interviewed George for the campus television station. (“What do you think of the concept of the poète maudit?” I asked at one point. “Tell me what you mean,” he replied. I launched into a learned disquisition, weaving in references to Baudelaire and Rimbaud, wasting precious air time. “Well,” I concluded, “what do you think?” “Not much,” he said.) I also reviewed his delightful surrealistic novel Another Shore for the student-edited City on a Hill Press. I wish I could find a clipping of the review, but I can’t. The now defunct Story Line Press reprinted the novel in 1988. Copies of it can still be had for a reasonable price. Although the novel is utter nonsense, it is a merry read.

Indeed, that is my dominant memory of George. Although he could be formidable in literary warfare, and though his literary loyalties were as unforgiving as his commitment to the political Left (perhaps even to the Communist Party), he was fundamentally a happy man, who wanted other people to share the poetry that made him happy.