Obituary: Poet Donald Finkel, founding member of Writing Program, 79

Donald Finkel, poet-in-residence emeritus of English in Arts & Sciences, author of 14 books of poetry and a memorable teacher, died Nov. 15, 2008, of complications from Alzheimer’s disease at the Schuetz Manor, an assisted-living facility in St. Louis County. He was 79.

Finkel joined the University community in 1960 with his wife, the late poet and novelist Constance Urdang. Finkel and Urdang were founding members of the University’s graduate Writing Program in the mid-1970s.


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.

“Not only was Don a member of the remarkable community of writers at Washington University who started the Writing Program, he and his wife, Constance Urdang, virtually held that fledgling enterprise together during its early years,” said Wayne Fields, Ph.D., the Lynne Cooper Harvey Distinguished Chair in English.

“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. “Don was both artist and teacher, vocations — each with its special demands — he combined with grace and generosity.”

A portrait of Finkel, who retired from the University in December 1991, was installed on Level 4 of 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.

Among Finkel’s books of poetry are “The Clothing’s New Emperor” (1959); “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); 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, his wife of 40 years, died in 1996. He is survived by a son, Tom Finkel of St. Louis; two daughters, Liza Finkel of Portland, Ore., and Amy Finkel of St. Louis; a half-brother, David Finkel of Manhattan; and two grandchildren, Annabel Rae Finkel and Jacob Elijah Finkel, both of St. Louis.

The Writing Program in the English department will hold a memorial service in celebration of the lives and legacy of both Finkel and Urdang at 11:30 a.m. Dec. 12 in the Women’s Building Formal Lounge.

For more information, call 935-5190.