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Poet, part of Berkeley Renaissance, made a comeback decades later

Times Staff Writer

Landis Everson, a member of the Berkeley Renaissance poets of the 1940s and ‘50s who later gave up poetry for four decades but made a strong comeback in his old age, has died. He was 81.

Everson died Nov. 17 in Mill Valley, north of San Francisco, of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head, according to Denise Wilson of the Marin County coroner’s office. His body was found on a public path and taken to Marin General Hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

He had been in failing health in recent years after suffering several strokes.

Everson came of age as a poet with his friends Jack Spicer, Robin Blaser and Robert Duncan, the core members of the Berkeley Renaissance poets.

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They aimed to write “erudite poetry -- classical and biblical allusions were the norm,” wrote Rachel Aviv in an essay about Everson and his colleagues that is posted on the Poetry Foundation website.

In “Lemon Tree,” Everson refers to “a tree that grew in the Garden of Eden” and suggests that the fruit turned bitter after Adam and Eve were cast out of the garden. In other poems he used Surrealist images -- of deer grazing in his bed, for example.

“Landis had a very contemporary-style surrealism,” said poet Kevin Clark, chairman of the creative writing program at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. “He connected the imagery to our lives, more accessibly than many Surrealists do.”

When the Berkeley Renaissance poets drifted apart in the early 1960s, Everson gave up poetry. He stopped because “for him poetry is a communication between friends, not a commercial enterprise,” according to a 2005 New York Times article about Everson. “I wasn’t seeing my friends,” Everson said to explain his decision.

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He settled in San Luis Obispo and worked in construction, renovating houses. He returned to poetry in his 70s, after he retired.

He was encouraged by poet and editor Ben Mazer, who discovered Everson’s work while he was researching the Berkeley Renaissance poets several years ago.

After meeting Mazer, Everson wrote some 300 poems in three years.

In 2005, he received the Emily Dickinson Award, given by the Poetry Foundation to poets over age 50 who have never published a book. The following year Everson’s first book, “Everything Preserved: Poems 1955-2005,” was published by Graywolf Press.

“Landis never thought of publishing a book as an end result,” said John Barr, president of the Poetry Foundation. “He wrote poetry to share with his immediate circle of friends and was far less interested in writing to publish.”

Everson was born in Coronado, Calif., on Oct. 5, 1926. He graduated from UC Berkeley in the early 1950s and went on to earn a master’s degree in English from Columbia University in New York.

After returning to poetry in 2003, he often traveled to give readings of his work. He was in Boston for a reading last year when he suffered his first stroke.

“Landis was a gentle, sweet guy,” said Kevin Patrick Sullivan, co-director of the annual San Luis Obispo Poetry Festival, where Everson was featured in 2006. “He was a little astounded by the fuss over his work after all these years.”

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Everson has no known survivors.

mary.rourke@latimes.com


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