At 92, he's a man of the word

  • Article by: MARY JANE SMETANKA , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 3, 2011 - 11:24 PM

Retired from a career that included leading the American Bar Association, David Brink now finds joy in his 'poetry in progress.'

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David Brink, 92, will be interacting with 15 students in his “Exploring Poetry” class, offered through the St. Louis Park Senior Program.

Photo: Kyndell Harkness, Star Tribune

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When David Brink was in fourth grade, he had to memorize a poem for school. He asked his mother for a suggestion.

How about some Wordsworth? she said.

More than 80 years later, Brink still remembers the verse.

"My heart leaps up when I behold / A rainbow in the sky," he recites. "So was it when my life began; so is it now I am a man."

In a class of 10-year-olds, "I don't think anyone else recited Wordsworth," Brink said with a smile.

At 92, Brink has returned to the words he learned to love as a boy. In the intervening years came law school, cracking codes for the U.S. Navy during World War II, four kids and a busy law career that peaked with the presidency of the American Bar Association.

During that time, Brink sometimes wrote what he now calls "doggerel" for people on their birthdays. But, he said, poetry was "essentially a foreign language I had no need to learn."

It's not foreign anymore. Starting this week, Brink will be sharing what he knows with 15 students who are taking his class, "Exploring Poetry," through the St. Louis Park Senior Program.

Brink had hoped the class would have just a few students so they could talk about poetry and experiment with their own verse. But so many people signed up -- some had to be turned away -- that he felt compelled to take a more traditional approach. He has been absorbed in preparing lectures for the class.

He said he loves poetry "because there is so much compressed wisdom and beauty and opening up of the soul and spirit to new perceptions."

Brink learned to appreciate words growing up in University Grove, the faculty neighborhood near the University of Minnesota where "you couldn't spit out the window without hitting a Ph.D." His mother was Carol Ryrie Brink, author of the beloved children's novel "Caddie Woodlawn." His dad was Raymond W. Brink, a U of M math professor who wrote bestselling math textbooks and loved language as much as he did numbers.

Dinner at the Brink house was a formal event, with conversations often focusing on spelling and grammar. Discussions between his parents would go on and on "until someone would get the dictionary to see if it was right or not," Brink said.

Carol Ryrie Brink was an accomplished artist as well as a writer, and Raymond Brink was a wunderkind who had entered college at 14 and was teaching in college by the time he was 19. Their son entered the U of M convinced that he had only two career choices: law or medicine.

"My parents were so remarkable that I wasn't going to compete with either one of them," Brink said. "Since I had a morbid fear of dead bodies, I thought I better find out what happens in law school."

Though he says that he doesn't feel he lived up to either one of his parents, he did pretty well in his chosen career. He joined the law firm that is now Dorsey & Whitney and rose to become president of the Hennepin County Bar Association, the state bar and finally the American Bar Association. He kept his hand in the arts, painting and fashioning modernist wall sculptures from wood and Styrofoam and collecting Asian art. But he didn't touch poetry again until about five years ago.

"My mother wrote poetry, though she didn't publish," he said. "Like every other kid at Pratt School I got my dose of poetry there. 'The boy stood on the burning deck'.... 'I galloped, Dirck galloped, we galloped all three' ... 'The Song of Hiawatha.' "

A few years ago he was lured into a "write a verse, win a prize" scam aimed at getting people to buy books filled with their mostly very bad poetry. "I wrote them a very nasty letter," Brink said, but the poetry seed had been planted.

"I thought, this is pretty interesting."

Sometimes his poems come to him in a rush, as one did three days after his wife died. Others percolate for a while, bouncing around his brain and lingering on scraps of paper and scribbles on the backs of receipts he stuffs in a bulging file labeled "P.I.P" -- Poetry in Progress. He writes on yellow legal pads at the dining room table of his downtown Minneapolis condo, picking the pads up again to insert words with carets and balloons, scratching out lines and agonizing over punctuation.

Some of Brink's poems rhyme, others rely simply on rhythm and imagery. They are funny and thoughtful, and some ache with lingering grief for his wife, who died more than three years ago.

He puts Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman at the top of his list of American poets, but he said perhaps his favorite poem is Tennyson's "Ulysses."

"The language is grand," he said. "It appeals to me because it's about an old guy. Life isn't over yet for him, and he's off to find new worlds."

Mary Jane Smetanka • 612-673-7380 Twitter: @smetan

  • THE HOUSE

    In travel to my summer lodge

    I pass a tiny town,

    A crossroad of antiquity

    Its houses gray and brown.

    One house, once elegant, stands out,

    For want of paint and care,

    Its roof askew, its fences down,

    For animals a lair.

    And when I met, and wed, my love,

    At once she felt the charm.

    She wanted that deserted house

    And saw no hint of harm.

    She said it was her "haunted house,"

    She longed to meet its ghosts,

    To dwell and walk there a delight

    And entertain as hosts.

    Said she, "The price should not be high.

    I'd gladly give my purse.

    Back taxes might suffice". . . Said I:

    "There's no investment worse."

    And so we lived without her house,

    That single wish denied.

    Until the unexpected day

    When, suddenly, she died.

    And now her house is falling down.

    It's haunted now at last.

    And my investment in that house

    Has grown to something vast.

    DAVID R. BRINK
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