William Dunlop: the price of honesty

When William Dunlop died of cancer on Oct. 20, 2005, at age 69, the local media scarcely blinked. The English expat, Queen Anne resident and former University of Washington professor surely deserved better.

Passing mention was made in Seattle Weekly, where Dunlop, lover of classical music and Venice, served as opera critic and soccer correspondent for two decades. More to the point, Dunlop was a poet with "a coterie reputation as one of the finest of his generation," as fellow Brit and Queen Anner Jonathan Raban, an author of international repute, once wrote.

Besides the Weekly's quick take, a short, paid obituary appeared in the Seattle P-I.

And that was it.

However, a two-column obituary, with photo, ran in Great Britain's estimable Independent; it was penned by Dunlop's old Cambridge classmate, acclaimed writer Margaret Drabble.

Dunlop's posthumous neglect in Seattle seems oddly apt. Friends say Dunlop, in the City of Nice, didn't always suffer nicely those he considered fools.

And his poetry, strictly rhymed and metered, upheld the English tradition in the vein of Philip Larkin and Thomas Hardy, placing him at odds with the prevailing, West Coast, poetic winds compounded of Bay Area Zen and bear scat epiphanies.

Dunlop's bleak poetic vision often squared off at the sort of pious cant and official hypocrisy that should have been killed off by the trenches of Flanders and Picardy but still goes on. There's a peculiarly British heartbreak in this.

And much of modern life itself came into his crosshairs. You know: The world is going to hell and certain standards must be upheld as a stay against the rising tide of mediocrity. It's a stance we in process-obsessed, populist Seattle find difficult to grasp.

And so, "breathing/remains a lonely art," Dunlop wrote in one of his poems.

David Brewster, former publisher of Seattle Weekly, said Dunlop, while in the English department at the UW, was "certainly not one to play politics. He paid a price for that." Brewster also said his friend made for wonderful company-theatrically witty, passionate about music and literature, keenly independent.

"He was massively knowledgeable about opera," Brewster recalled. "He was always coming up with things I ought to listen to."

Dunlop was born in Southampton in 1936. His parents died when he was 17. In his Cambridge years he edited the respected literary magazine Granta and inspired great expectations of future literary fame.

Dunlop arrived in Seattle in 1962 in order to teach at the UW alongside Theodore Roethke. Roethke died the next year. Dunlop stayed anyway.

At some point Dunlop, whose poems had appeared in such journals as TLS and London Magazine, stopped writing poetry. He taught. He took students on trips to his beloved Venice. He wrote for the Weekly.

In 1997, after a long siege by former student and book publisher David Horowitz, a slender volume of Dunlop's work appeared under Horowitz's Rose Alley Press imprint: "Caruso for the Children & Other Poems."

Dunlop, according to Horowitz, had been reluctant to let his typed sheets of poetry moldering in the basement reach the light of day. "It was an injustice and I was going to rectify it," Horowitz said of Dunlop's poetic slumber.

Raban wrote of "Caruso": "Now, at last, we can read the poems that have so long been a matter of rumor among his friends and students."

"Caruso" exhibits wit and craft and attitude. Here, art is artifice, like Venice itself.

In "Dim View" Dunlop writes, in part:

They may whistle for tribute soon:

the last Master will be dead.

We shall see no-one

notably striding ahead.

That should make the going easy -

With Mozart and Handel and the great English writers part of one's lonely breathing, the rest of the word can be a disappointing place.

"Art never responds to the wish to make it democratic; it is not for everybody; it is only for those who are willing to undergo the effort to understand it," Flannery O'Connor wrote.

Dunlop might have given the great Southern writer a high five on that one, but it is not the kind of attitude that plays well in Seattle, where even a middling performance is bound to trigger a standing ovation.

After his retirement from the UW Dunlop returned to writing poetry.

Roger Sale, retired UW professor, writer and author of the best history of Seattle, was Dunlop's close friend.

"They are awfully good," Sale said of the unpublished poems. "We met once a month after he retired. He would pass me a poem."

After the relative neglect ("Caruso" has sold 753 copies by recent count) and the long poetic drought, did he feel a failure as a poet?

"He knew these were good," Sale said. "I don't think he thought so (of being a failure) at the end."

Dunlop's widow, Revelle, says there are about 30 late, unpublished poems. The couple, who had a daughter, moved to Queen Anne's south slope in the 1970s. Dunlop left behind two children from a previous marriage.

"He would never compromise himself to get himself published," Revelle said, who noted that her husband often thought music was the superior art. She keeps an e-mail from British poet Peter Porter: "I hugely deplore a future, whatever the season, which will not include one of William's annual visits. There had better be good music wherever he is."

Toward the end of his life this fierce agnostic was taken up with "the idea of God. He kept returning to it, discussing it," Revelle said.

Nevertheless, she added, her husband remained agnostic.

On Jan. 30, more than 100 people assembled at the UW Faculty Club to remember William Dunlop. There were poetry readings, recorded music from Caruso to John McCormack and personal tributes.

Jonathan Raban read "Downpour," one of Dunlop's late poems. Here's the first stanza:

Sleep will not come. He that keeps his eyes

trained on the ceiling that he cannot see

and pays heed to the darkness. On the roof

the rain is typing his biography.

"When will it ever end:" the poet goes on to ask. "What chance of rounding -"

off a tale so sodden, soggy, so banal?

All wasted energy, diffuse, damp incomplete...

He wants it just to stop. His best hope is

rain too must have a deadline it must meet.

The local press didn't notice the memorial service, either. Certain brands of honesty don't make the news.[[In-content Ad]]