“Remembering Wayne,” Keith Harrison

12 June 2015
Wayne Carver


By Keith Harrison, Emeritus Professor

(written April 12, 2015)

With luck, each of us meets a great human being once in a lifetime. Those of us who had Wayne Carver as a colleague, friend or teacher are among that company. I’ve been trying for some time to find words that come somewhere near describing the qualities of Wayne’s greatness. There was something so elusive and, often, so surprising about so much that he said or did that it’s no easy task. But there was one thing that remained constant: his commitment to literature – or, better, to the art of making things with words. Yet even that commitment took on a characteristic and unusual aspect. One of Wayne’s favorite poets, W.B. Yeats, once said: ‘The intellect of man is forced to choose/ Perfection of the life or of the work.’ For most of us who work with our grey matter that dictum bears a disturbing truth. Yet Wayne – fairly early on, I think – found a way of proving Yeats wrong. This is not to say that Wayne imagined books and people to be the same thing. I think we could better put it this way: although he enjoyed reading books in solitude all his life Wayne seemed to be at his best when he was teasing out the deeper meanings of one of his chosen authors, or poems, or novels in the company of other people. It was in that activity that both books and people became fully alive. For him, that double activity was a continuing quest. Many of us can give examples of Wayne’s unique way of exploring a literary work. In the kindest way possible when you really engaged with him in a discussion of Stevens, or Hopkins or Conrad, he could make you feel like a sprinter jogging alongside a veteran of the marathon who would continue running long after you’d dropped away. He had ideas that endured.

This is Wayne’s legacy: the fact that we will carry him with us as long as we ourselves go on breathing. That’s the note that’s struck, time and gain, by all those who have made, and will make their testimonies.

I first met Wayne in the company of Phil Sheridan when I went for a job interview in Chicago. The first thing that came to me, after I’d gotten used to the fact that Wayne was not an academic in any of the usual molds, was that he embodied something I ‘d read in Eliot: He seemed to care, and not to care. That may need a little parsing, but I’m going to forgo that and leave it hanging there for you to consider. Anyway, after that first meeting, I got to know Wayne in many ways over the best part of fifty years – as colleague, as a department chairman, as a writer, and as an editor who bequeathed his position to me, and most of all as one who in all his activities was an astute judge of what made good writing. He spent hours and hours corresponding with contributors to the Miscellany making shrewd suggestions in which he was able to maintain a delicate balance between a personal warmth and respect, and a very tough commitment to the craft.

That, I believe, brings us a little closer to the secret of Wayne’s stature, a secret which all of us felt immediately and instinctively: Wayne was a kind man – and I mean that in both the common and the etymological sense. We remember that the word kind is closely related to the word kin. Wayne conveyed, with such ease and grace, the fact that whatever we’re all involved in down here, whether it’s literature, or all our other joys, and horrors , we are all of the same kin, and sharing that kinship is an unavoidable part of our destiny. In that sense Wayne was a central person: he somehow defined us. He was, like all of us, ordinary, but he had a very special way of being so. Life in his presence was deeper and more various, and more surprising than we had suspected.

That centrality is what we will all miss. Wayne was fully there, he was authentic. As another of his favorite poets said:

Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:

Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;

Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,

Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came.

Wayne was always himself: for that he came. Now with Cindy and Patch and all the family, and all his friends, we mourn his passing.  And yet our mourning is charged with gratitude.

Thank you, Wayne, for being yourself, and for the amazing difference you made to our lives.

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