In his youth, David Clewell did not enjoy the art of poetry. Now, almost 50 years later, he accepted the Webster Groves Lifetime Achievement in the Arts Award for his work as a poet.
“When people I know get these cumulative achievements, I always get a little concerned,” Clewell said. “Lifetime achievement…does this usually mean that the lifetime is almost over? Or the achievements are? It’s a little daunting in that way.”
Though neither Clewell’s lifetime nor his achievements are coming to an end, the occasion marked his career of poetic accomplishments. A poetry professor at Webster University, Clewell has written seven poetry collections and is working on his eighth.
The awards ceremony took place on Oct. 13 at Webster Groves City Hall. During this event, Webster student Ben Clewell spoke about how his father shaped the way he perceives the arts and the world in general.
“I was really proud of my dad and really honored to be his son,” Ben Clewell said. “I was doing the best I could to show that through my speech. He’s my life mentor and has shown me amazing things about the world, be it in cultural arts or the natural world around us. He’s also great company, whether it be his lightning-fast wit or his varied, esoteric knowledge about our culture. [I] couldn’t ask for a better guy to be my father.”
Due to David Clewell’s passion for writing, poetry was a large part of Ben Clewell’s childhood. Growing up, he learned a variety of poems, memorizing his first (William Carlos’ “This is Just to Say”) in third grade. Upon hearing his son’s remarks, David Clewell’s emotions got the best of him.
“I kind of teared up,” David Clewell said. “I’m really a softie, despite what people think, at least in [Ben’s] regard.”
This award was not David Clewell’s first — he was the Poet Laureate of Missouri from 2010-2012. However, his attitude toward events such as this remains humble.
“In real life, I’m quieter,” David Clewell said. “These things that tend to shine a public light on me are not necessarily my favorite. I don’t mean that I’m not flattered, it’s just not my style. I’d rather do the work instead of having it talked about.”
According to Stefene Russell, Culture Editor of the St. Louis Magazine, David Clewell has never been a self-promoter, but rather a representative of the kind of poet one should aspire to be.
Referring to him as a “master poet,” Russell noted Clewell’s humility as a writer. Although his poems require extensive research and craftsmanship, the final products are always seamless, according to Russell.
“He hides all of that hard work and makes it all look so graceful and easy,” Russell said. “His goal is to connect with readers, including people who think they hate poetry. So, it’s about making a good poem — one that will connect with humans, rather than show off how smart he is, or how beautifully he can turn a line.”
Growing up in New Brunswick, NJ, David Clewell’s relationship with poetry was far from intimate.
“Poetry seemed to have so little to do with anything that I knew about in my life,” David Clewell said. “Little flowers cracking up through the ground, winged horses in the sky, all these images I go back to — I wasn’t particularly a little flowers type of guy.”
Gradually, David Clewell honed his pragmatic view of the world into language, rather than focusing on the abstract ideas he read in the works of other poets.
“Once it dawned on me that the world was a little bigger than your gaze from your eyeball to your own navel, I started paying attention more closely,” David Clewell said. “I found out [poetry] could really have something to do with my life, and I don’t mean about me, Clewell, but about real lives. It wasn’t just on mountaintops and in thinning atmospheres of cerebral thought. That was probably my biggest breakthrough.”
Russell complemented David Clewell’s ability to transform monotonous happenings of daily life into insightful experiences.
“He’s known for writing about strange things, but really it’s that he’s able to write about the arcane in the most human terms — and by the same token, write about things we consider mundane in our day-to-day lives, and show us how profound they really are,” Russell said.
Ben Clewell agreed, praising his father’s capability to draw readers into whatever subject matter he chooses to tackle.
“He has the ability to turn mundanity into something grand and special through his work,” Ben Clewell said. “Sort of like Seinfeld: ‘it’s about nothing, and it’s about everything.’”
David Clewell paints the world in black-and-white, inviting his readers to fill in the gaps with the colors prompted in his language. He writes in hopes that readers might “see something in a way that they maybe haven’t thought of it before.”
In “Not to Mention Love: A Heart for Patricia,” David Clewell uses this inventive concept when writing about his wife.
The piece focuses on the literal heart, a heart whose purpose lies solely in “sustaining a blood supply that’s got to go around a lifetime.” In his last stanza, David Clewell gives his heart to Patricia, finally indicating a figurative element of the heart.
“We don’t need more mush, but we could always use more feeling,” David Clewell said. “I’m a mush-heart in my real life, but my job is not to have it be some sentimental Hallmark card, and that’s the hard part. The closer you are to certain people or material, the harder it is to write a poem that works on its own terms, and not I like it or other people like it just because it’s so endearing with the subject matter.”
Patricia Clewell has been featured in a number of poems, though not as many as one might expect, according to David Clewell. But, outside of his poetry, David Clewell relies heavily on his wife.
“She’s my best reader, she is all kinds of things,” David Clewell said. “She’s been, depending on who you ask — her or me — the target or the subject of some rather odd praises and appreciations.”
In addition to Patricia, David Clewell regularly spends time with Ben — namely at the Belleville Flea Market.
“On two hands I can count the number [of flea markets] we’ve missed since probably when he was four of five,” David Clewell said. “The Belleville Flea Market is my version of church, except I don’t have to go every week.”
Russell appreciated David Clewell’s well-rounded lifestyle and carefree demeanor.
“He is living proof that great artists can be the opposite of tortured,” Russell said. “That they can live happy, well-balanced lives. That they don’t have to cause themselves great bodily harm by drinking or drugging. That they don’t have to move through the world in a Tasmanian devil whirlwind, leaving behind a trail of damage.”
As part of his “well-balanced life,” David Clewell writes every day. With the help of his best teachers, “Papa Walt [Walt Whitman] and Mama Emily D. [Emily Dickinson],” he continues to share his way of seeing the world through poetry.
“You will not find a single person in his orbit who will not tell you how grateful they are to know him,” Russell said. “He is always honest, but never unkind. He’s funny as hell. He’s always reading or thinking about something interesting, but always asking after the interesting thing you happen to be reading or thinking about… We all hope we can aspire to do things half as well, and as generously, as David does them, both in our lives and in our poems.”