On the first day of his introduction to poetry class, Philip Dacey often had his students shout “POETRY SUCKS!” Over and over again they would yell it, perhaps to get it out of their system, but also to make a larger point. Dacey’s daughter, Fay, said that when the students finished, her father would go on to tell the students that they just actually created a poem.
“My dad took the craft seriously,” said his son, Emmett. “But he didn’t take himself seriously. He wanted to emphasize the fun in poetry and imagination that drove his poetry.”
When people asked Dacey what he did, he would often reply, “Just working at the feed store.” But before he died July 7, at age 77, Dacey had taught poetry for 34 years at Southwest Minnesota State University in Marshall and authored 13 poetry books, with another coming out in the fall.
He published so many poems in journals and magazines that printing out the title and date of each ran to 56 pages, said another son, Austin. An anthology he coedited in 1986, “Strong Measures,” is still taught at universities today.
“He didn’t believe in writer’s block,” Emmett said. “He said you may not like what you’re writing, but you can always write.”
His poems, a critic once wrote, “are delightfully devourable, like popcorn.” He was known for his wide range in subjects and themes and ability to write in all forms of poetry.
They could be serious and somber meditations on atrocities and death. After the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C., opened, Dacey stood listening to the visitors speak and turned what he heard into “Found Sonnet: Remarks Overheard at the Wall,” one of Emmett’s favorites.
There it is. You mean all those people died?
We’re underground. The war we didn’t win.
They could also be funny, satirical and biting, sometimes in the same poem, like “Taking a shower with Daniel Ellsberg,” written about the man best known for leaking the Pentagon Papers.
He could riff on Dr. Seuss, like in his poem “Doozy,” which Emmett said was a staple of Dacey to perform at live readings. Dacey memorized his poems then recited them with an excitement and flair that worked to engage his audience.
It’s doozy any way you spell it,
but dicey if you try to sell it,
doozy any way you slice it,
with doozy you don’t have to spice it up.
Two years ago, he and his partner, Alixa Doom, said they were asleep in their apartment near Lake Calhoun in Minneapolis when a police officer banged on their door at around 1 a.m.
Dacey’s doctor had been desperately trying to reach him, the officer told them. A blood test taken earlier in the morning showed he had a disease that if not treated immediately could cause him to bleed to death. He needed to go to the emergency room.
“He said, ‘No, I need a good night’s sleep. I’ll be there in the morning,’ ” Doom said.
Doom said toward the end, leukemia stole the energy of a man who had been an avid runner into his 70s, rendering him barely able to get out of bed. And yet he kept writing, Doom said, up until about six weeks before his death — and only then because he started editing a manuscript.
A few of his final poems were about leukemia and death, including “Epigrammatic” published in June in the Minneapolis Southwest Journal:
My sister winked at me before she died.
“Don’t take this death of mine so seriously,”
she seemed to say as I sat by her side.
Or maybe, “We have our secret, you and I.”
Her wink a final gift, a link, what made
a siblings’ inside joke out of goodbye.
I want to make these lines wink as she did.
My new aesthetic now is to wink and die.
Brandon Stahl 612 673-4626