Remembering Professor Stanley Koehler (1920-2010)
by John R. Nelson, Jr.
More than any other colleague I’ve known at UMass, Stan Koehler lived and loved life more broadly, deeply, and passionately with a constantly evolving, attentive, warm, joyful and demonstrated love of his students, his scholarship, his colleagues -- and most of all, his preternatural love of the miracle of poetry knitting everything together. The man and his presence in our faculty and his presence among our students and his emeritus presence for an incredible 25 years in our building were all one.
In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare wrote,
The lunatic, the lover and the poet
Are of imagination all compact:
The poet’s eye, in fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name…
His poetry, always passed under the careful and creative gaze of his incomparable wife Gene, was the crucible in which he, with the fires of intellect, imagination and passion, perfected the expression of his beliefs, sending them out in his books of poetry, critical articles, and poems attached to thousands of letters, cards and notes.
In sampling his work and development, we might begin in 1942 with the hell of WWII raging about him, where Stan served in the U.S. Navy as Communications Officer on the Destroyer USS Southerland. In The Landing at Casablanca, Stan wrote,
When sun has warmed the bay
They rise up
Floating by the gangway
Faces, bodies, so that from the seawall to the landing
There is nothing else but this.
His poems in The Perfect Destroyers tell us in exquisite and monstrous miniatures what the war is like – the callous, horrific, impersonal nature of modern military engagement –the ship with engine trouble about to be torpedoed by a German U-Boat, or a man overboard, all so understated and recursive they could be by Emily Dickinson.
Following the war and its attendant brutality and loss, and after having known the years-long daily reports of wreckage and Pyrrhic victory and death: Pearl Harbor, Guadalcanal, Iwo Jima, Okinawa, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it is as though Stan asked himself and his muse, What are the sources of human joy? His answer is to compose a life-long paean to human joy, celebrating poetry in his creative life, his criticism and his classes.
Stan floats out a radical notion to his students from William Carlos Williams:
It is difficult
To get the news from poems,
Yet men die miserably every day
Of what is found there.
And so, why not live a life informed by the best poetry, a constant, rich, accessible, critical and creative nourishment for the moral and intellectual imagination? For Stan poetry became a way of knowing, an epistemology not to rival, but to exist in parallel with science. And the poem must never be crude or vulgar or misogynist or cheaply derivative but crafted and polished and mysterious and wild at the same time to nurture and delight. It announces nothing less than the truth of human perception, the best that has been known and thought in the world.
In spreading this vision, no teacher was ever more kind and patient with his students, more attentive to their questions, even when they were UMass sophomores taking a required class. In reviewing their creative work Stan would look through the hesitant draft of a poem to find the one line or one metaphor or perhaps the single word he could build on.
No one was happier in reaching out to students. To have his head completely clear and full of fresh air before teaching or holding office hours, he’d walk in from Hills Road to Bartlett Hall, even at age 94, in a blizzard. One winter morning last year I drove to work surrounded by a warm Volvo. A solitary person was progressing steadily south on the East Pleasant Street sidewalk, leaning into the wind, barely visible in the thick snow. Of course it was Stan. (Students, 75 years his junior, merely waited in a shelter for the bus.) I pulled over, rolled down a window and shouted to this lone inspector of snowstorms -- did he want a ride in? Peering out of the flakes he replied, “Oh, no thanks, John. It’s a good snowstorm.”
For years we shared lunch in the Whitmore snack bar. It was always the same. He’d be seated in a chair and I’d come up behind him and put my arms around his shoulders. He’d say, “So, John!” Nothing about himself – no, it was wanting to know about you. Always, from his jacket pocket would appear a peanut butter and jelly sandwich to be washed down with chocolate milk. And for years we’d put poems together where he’d know some lines and I’d know a few and several lunches and much laughter later two old men would have the whole thing memorized. This one is one of our last joint efforts; the poem is Frost’s, whose craft he adored, and it is in miniature the story of his life.
The Road not Taken
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I--
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
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