Friday, April 29, 2005

In One Prison

The New York Times > National > In One Prison, Murder, Betrayal and High Prose

This article reminded me of one of my earliest (and few) mentors: Tom Utley, my freshman writing professor in Athens. He read voraciously and kindly introduced my flaccid mind to such great thinkers as Arthur Rimbaud (A Season in Hell) and Susan Sontag (Illness as Metaphor) and Andrei Codrescu (The Disappearance of the Outside) when I would visit his office or home. He was one of the few people I kept in contact with after moving, and until the cancer ate away his lungs, we wrote fairly often or talked on the phone across a handful of years.

To my undergraduate sensibilities, he seemed a giant despite his small frame and not-un-frog-like features. He smoked a pipe (which is, after all, just a pipe) and wrote poetry (which is--or at least was--nourishment if not the lifeblood itself). Even when he hated what I had written, he was positive and kind in his criticism. He seemed so learned and scholarly that I was shocked to find out he taught literature at the nearby prison. I couldn't see how an intellectual would want to even be in the same room with criminals.

And now I know that only an intellectual would have something to give to as well as be able to take lessons from them. Everything else is mere pedantry and dilettantism.

The last time I saw him, his body was hooked to so many tubes and wires lying in the hospital bed. But he still kept talking about poetry and literature and life until visitation was over.

I still have a handful of his poems printed out on a dot-matrix printer from the late '80s. And a few books: some he gave me, some I never had the opportunity to return.

When he died "it was like a whole library had burned down."

1 comment:

  1. Frankie, this is a beautiful tribute to Tom without being overly sentimental. I think he would like it. And I think he would be impressed and proud of how far you've come and where you're going. I'm glad to have met him.