A celebration of the lives and legacy of Donald Finkel, poet-in-residence emeritus of English in Arts & Sciences at Washington University, who died Nov. 15, 2008, and his wife, poet and novelist Constance Urdang, who died in 1996, will be held at 11:30 a.m. Dec. 12 in the Women’s Building Formal Lounge.
Finkel and Urdang, who joined the WUSTL community in 1960, helped found Washington University’s Graduate Writing Program in the mid-1970s. The Writing Program is hosting the event, which begins with coffee and pastries at 11 a.m.; a reception will follow.
Among the speakers will be Finkel’s brother, David Finkel of Manhattan; Chancellor Emeritus William H. Danforth; Wayne Fields, Ph.D., WUSTL’s Lynne Cooper Harvey Distinguished Chair in English; novelist Mary Costantin; family friend Robert Goo; and former students: Jane Birdsall-Lander, poet and visual artist; David Clewell, professor and director of Creative Writing at Webster University; Robert Duffy, associate editor of the St. Louis Beacon and former reporter, columnist and editor at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch; and Howard Schwartz, professor of English at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.
As part of what an observer tagged as “one of the largest informal writers’ colonies on an American campus,” Finkel and Urdang, along with Stanley Elkin, John Morris, Howard Nemerov, Mona Van Duyn, Jarvis Thurston and William Gass, gathered at Gass’ home one summer evening in 1975 to hammer out the establishment of a writers’ program at the University.
Fields referred to Finkel and Urdang not only as members of the remarkable community of writers at Washington University who started the Writing Program, but also as the ones who “virtually held that fledgling enterprise together during its early years.
“They served as academic advisers but went well beyond the effort most of us put into this responsibility; they created an intellectual home for a generation of student writers, visiting colleagues and younger faculty in the English department,” he said.
Finkel was the author of 14 books of poetry. He died of complications from Alzheimer’s disease at the age of 79.
A portrait of Finkel, who retired from the University in December 1991, was installed on Level 4 of Washington University’s Olin Library in October 1998 as part of the library’s visible testimony to the efforts of those gifted writers who created what is today a prestigious master of fine arts writing program.
“Don was both artist and teacher, vocations — each with its special demands — he combined with grace and generosity,” Fields said.
Among Finkel’s books of poetry are “The Clothing’s New Emperor” (1959); “Simeon” (1964); “A Joyful Noise” (1966); “The Garbage Wars” (1970), which was nominated for a National Book Award; “A Mote in Heaven’s Eye” (1975), nominated for a National Book Critics Award; “What Manner of Beast” (1981); “The Wake of the Electron” (1987); and “Not So the Chairs: Selected and New Poems” (2003).
In 1969, Finkel was the first poet to go to Antarctica. He wrote “Adequate Earth,” a book-length poem about his month-long stay at McMurdo Station. He won the prestigious Theodore Roethke Memorial Foundation Prize in 1974 for “Adequate Earth,” which was later set to music by WUSTL Professor Robert Wykes and performed at Powell Symphony Hall.
Other awards include a National Endowment for the Arts Award in 1969 and a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1967. In 1980, the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters gave him the Morton Dauwen Zabel Award for being a “poet of progressive, original and experimental tendencies.”
A Phi Beta Kappa, Finkel earned a bachelor’s degree in philosophy, graduating magna cum laude, in 1952 and a master’s degree in English in 1953, both from Columbia University. He did postgraduate work at the University of Illinois and at the University of Iowa.
He taught at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and Bard College before joining Washington University’s faculty.
Urdang, a nationally recognized poet and novelist, died of complications from lung cancer on Oct. 8, 1996. She was 73.
She served as an instructor in advanced exposition in University College in Arts & Sciences and in the Writing Workshops for Women program in the School of Continuing Education in the early 1970s.
She coordinated the Writers’ Program from its inception in 1977 until 1989. From 1989-1990, Urdang was a lecturer in English, and in 1991, she taught in University College.
Urdang’s earliest published work was a Christmas poem that appeared in a national children’s magazine when she was eight years old.
Among her books are the short novels “Lucha” (1986), “American Earthquakes” (1988), “The Woman Who Read Novels” (1990) and “Peacetime” (1990) and the books of poetry “Charades and Celebrations” (1965), “The Lone Woman and Others” (1980), “Only the World” (1983) and “Alternative Lives” (1990).
Urdang found the building stones for her work close at hand. She reported, for example, of an evening at Frank ‘n’ Helen’s restaurant and an arrival at the airport. She studied gray cats and ghost-pale moons.
Poet-anthologist Edward Field said of her work: “Impressive, passionate and perceptive, tough and tender. It’s lovely to watch her working at her art, at the craft of it, letting out all the emotional stops.”
Although Urdang fretted at times that she had no readers, her work received serious attention. She received the Oscar Williams and Gene Derwood Award, a $15,000 prize given to poets and artists for the past 25 years.
She also received such prestigious prizes as the Delmore Schwartz Memorial Poetry Award and the Carleton Centennial Award for Prose. In 1976, she was the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellowship.
The couple, who had been married for 40 years, are survived by son Tom Finkel of St. Louis; daughters Liza Finkel of Portland, Ore., and Amy Finkel of St. Louis; and Tom’s two children, Annabel Rae Finkel and Jacob Elijah Finkel, both of St. Louis.
For more information about the celebration of their lives, call 935-7130.